Time to leave Qomolongma, but the Himalayas remained our companion to the left of us for many days. Sometimes for hours on end the snow capped peaks shouldered our route northwestward toward Kashgar, where we have a few days planned.
The landscape was constantly changing. The valleys became wider and slopes softer. Harvest season was nearly completed and the hay which had been drying in paddocks for several weeks, was now being brought in to be thrashed.
Nomad dwellings provided by the government lay blocked in strips in small communities along the roadsides. Autumn mutton hung on display to be sold as the seasonal source of protein. Nomads and their children gathered in groups to skin and butcher the sheep. Dung was being gathered and stockpiled to use as fuel for heating and cooking in the harsh cold winters.
Construction, concrete, construction. New power lines were being constructed alongside a regional road to join the 219 to Kashgar; and regardless of the terrain, the large silver stands had to be installed. Huge flying foxes are used to transport some of the materials to the sides of the mountains, and sometimes donkeys are used to carry materials… even buckets of concrete to construct the footings for the waiting sticks of steel.
Sometimes the construction is of a less technical nature, and poles of wood are used for scaffolding – a sight we’ve seen so much of through our travels.
The stream of trucks is never ending. Gravel. Coal. Cement. Fuel. Food. Commodities. Red. Gold. Red. Empty. Laden. Overloaded. Broken down.
We’ve encountered some new roads and we were excited to see the new black until we realised that all is not as it seems sometimes. There was a 70km stretch which was hideous. We bounced and bobbed the whole way. … and I think ‘they’ realised what a botch it was because the speed limit on it was 20km/hr…. which was regularly indicated after the initial huge sign at the beginning of the section. It seemed to me the signage was a mistake at first. I mean who builds a new wide section relatively straight section of tarmac to only have a 20km/h limit on it??? – Wasn’t a mistake!
This development is juxtaposed alongside the past. Remnants of the past stood eroded, as a consequence of changes in political power and philosophy over the millennia. Tibet has such an interesting history, which I am not able to go in to here… but to see all these ruins and remains nestled in the landscape makes me ponder how the present history of Tibet and China will unfold.
The Himalayas seemed to press closer for a while, revealing high altitude glaciers and rugged peaks; and as we headed further west, the Himalayas seemed to retreat; expanding the valleys with blue lakes replacing the dry earth.
The sky was blue. A blue, blue. Clear and open.
The higher in elevation we went the days became colder. Thermals; hand knitted woollen jumper and leggings; down coat; ski pants and ski jacket; two neck buffs; and a head scarf became my staple garb each day.
Our was destination to Mt Kailash, a Sacred site for no less than four religions or philosophies – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and the pre-Bhuddist Bon religion.
The landscape became drier and the valleys started to be softened by shifting sands. Sheep and goats grazed the sparse and random pick. The clear blue skies started to become painted with white streaks that gradually merged into vast sheets of grey.
The Himalayas reappeared with the white snow capped peaks. For some reason I felt a sense of comfort in their companionship as we drove along.
We visited Lake Manasarovar and saw a monastery nestled on the side of the rocky hill. I often wonder who first had the idea to build in these wonderful locations and the efforts it must take to construct and complete them. I also often wonder what it would be like to live there. Quiet. No power. No water. Difficulty sourcing food. hmmmmm
It was late in the afternoon and although we had a peek of Kailash the clouds enveloped the peak as we drove closer. The afternoon light illuminated the sharp edges of some of the faces, but the distinctive outline was to remain a secret. I was reflecting on the various legends and beliefs of this most sacred and famous mountain; and wondered what I would feel or experience as we slept in a small town at it’s base.
We arrived at Darchen and it was bitterly cold. Max and I decided to walk up the street; yes… it was a ‘touristy’ street, but raw just the same. It was more a ‘pilgrim’ type touristy… rather than a tacky, blingy touristy. Hard to explain. Translations to English made me smile… as the goats in the street and the intersection. We laughed as every few steps we had to stop and gather our breath. We had come to recognise over the past weeks that even brushing teeth was an exertion that made us get puffed… and we would only carry the absolute minimum to our hotel room at night. Just walking up the steps without anything was such an effort.
Maybeeee we should have opted for the not-so-budget option for our night’s accommodation because it was pretty grim. The generator went off at midnight and the -6 temp filled our concrete room. I foolishly left my down sleeping bag in Penny (being told that our room had electric blankets) and there was no way I was going to brave going outside to get it. It wasn’t a great night… but was memorable.
Darchen was at 4628mts in elevation and was above my threshold for being able to sleep and breathe at the same time…LOL…. Especially in the cold. I encountered High Altitude Periodic breathing which is NOT related to altitude sickness, but is where the trigger to breathe is affected by Co2 levels and Oxygen levels. It is more troublesome than dangerous; and for me troublesome meant not being able to sleep – AT ALL. Every time I drifted off to sleep I felt myself stop breathing and then gasp…. So the whole night I spent breathing deeply and ensuring I didn’t let myself slip into a panic attack which often occurs to climbers who also experience this. I was fine. I was so proud of myself for not losing it! Lots of time to ponder Mt Kailash… and hope the sun would rise quickly!
Off further west to Zanda and once again the landscape changed. The dry mountains were like muted watercolour paintings. The road started out well but we soon realized that construction was once again on the agenda and the roads were pretty rugged … and narrow in places! We are such a curiosity one road machine operator stopped his machine in the middle of the road to get out and look at us, blocking all the traffic!. Winter was coming and the streams are starting to freeze. Around every curve there is a new landscape.
The ‘Earth Forest’ was at first such a surprise. Huge ‘dribble castle’ pillars; hand made mountain Stupa’s… for miles – 2464 sq kms!! Such an expanse of the most beautiful and extraordinary landscape. The sandstone and clay has been weathered by water, creating the erosion and these spectacular geological formations.
The formation of caves provided dwellings for people over the millennia. We visited GuGe Kingdom, a preserved relic site inhabited around the 10th to 17th centuries; which was fascinating to imagine living here. Walking up just a few clay worn steps at a time was a bit of a challenge – (and we didn’t make it to the top) … but totally worth the effort to where our lungs managed. Our guide explained the Buddhist history and we were fortunate to be shown inside some of the temples that had not been destroyed over time. It was incredible to see the original paintings in the temple rooms.
Our eco-bus returned us to Penny, where as usual there was a hoard gathering curiously. It was time to service Penny and she had a few rattles. I did a bit of inspection and the guard in front of the alternator had cracked and the washer was holding it on over the crack.
As soon as I dismantled it and pulled it out, it was in the hands of one of the curious onlookers and on its way to be welded. It was back in no time and our curious new helpers were soon on their way again to do a bit of parts shopping. It was so wonderful to receive such generosity of Spirit when no words between us were understood. Max and I did a big overhaul on the lights and Penny was bright again!
Fascinating, ever-changing landscape. The air is clear and thin in Tibet. The elevation is tough on bodies. The Tibetans are such a warm and friendly people whose existence in the main is governed by the seasons and the sun. Electricity is only for very few but is traversing the landscape further each day. The climate is extreme. Change is happening rapidly here. I’m so glad we are making this journey.
…A few more days in Tibet…. then on to Kashgar, so watch for the next update soon.