Tibet 2014 - Yamdruk Tso to Samye

Gyantse 24 September.

I wake up with Neil Young’s song “Sugar Mountain” going round my head. Rather puzzling, I haven’t thought of it in years. Then I realise it has the refrain “I’m leaving here too soon”. I feel like I’m leaving Gyantse too soon, I’d like to spend more time at the Kumbum and just strolling around the town. And, like 2002, we didn’t get to see the Dzong. Next time I’ll build 2 nights into the itinerary but today we have a very long drive and must leave early. But I do have time for a quick early morning walk: women in hi vis jackets sweeping the streets, views of the Dzong in the early light, butchers shop with half yaks and skinned heads, at a shop that sells sacks and webbing I buy some small lung pa, wind horses, pieces of paper printed with prayers, to throw in the air at auspicious places. Two Yuan.

We set off just after 9. Fresh snow on the mountains. Fields in harvest. Poplar trees of autumn gold.

By the souvenir stalls at a hydro electric dam, a cheeky young girl called Dolma hits me on backside with roll of prayer flags. Deep turquoise water,  ruined monastery visible on an island. Prayer flags cover the hillside. More altitude. Scattered hamlets. Fertile golden valleys. A man making mud bricks, nearby a man spinning wool. Girl by the road selling sweet tasting fresh yak cheese. Getting near the snow line and scattered cloud base.

On the approach to Karu La we stop to see the retreating glacier and decline to buy the purple crystals offered by Mongolian looking men clad in brocade jackets. A mototocycle gathering fills a small village preceeding a 5000m pass.

At a comfort stop the hillside rings with the sound of bells, a herd of sheep is moving slowly downhill, almost invisible among the rocks. A handsome man with an open face, wearing army fatigues, is making shoes from handspun wool. The hardness of life is facing us, we don't want to buy his shoes but Lakshang gives him a packet of crisps and we add a carton of juice. High above us the snow capped mountain is lost in cloud, fine ridges flute down from the briefly revealed summit.

The road descends to the new Chinese town of Nakartse on the edge of Yamdruk Tso, the Scorpion Lake. Buffet lunch at the Lhasa restaurant, busy with Chinese and Europeans. Chilli tofu, cold chili cucumber, potato, squash, cold noodles and rice.

Scorpion Lake is huge but shrinking, twelve years ago we were told that it was being used to feed the dam further downstream and since no rivers feed into the lake the levels would fall. Now it's shrunk to the extent that we can take a rough causeway to cut a corner just after Nakartse. The lake is an astonishing deep turquoise. The road follows the lake with inevitable stopping points for photos where you can buy beads and trinkets or pay 10 yuan to photograph an extremely large white fluffy dog. Finally the road starts to climb to the Kampa La. More stopping points and aerial views of the lake and opportunities to sit on a decorated yak. Two Air Force jets arc across the sky at high speed and I realise these are the first planes we've seen in 3 weeks.

We drop steeply down green hillsides in a series of hairpin bends to the Yarlung Tsampo valley. Lower down the flat terraces are dressed with conical sheeves of wheat, the harvest is already in. The Yarlung Tsampo is slow and wide, broken up with mud flats half covered with poplar and willow. We follow the river and head east towards Tsetang. Trees stand a foot deep in the river. At 5pm we still have 100 km to Samye. A new housing estate of white breeze block houses, with faux red pointing, inside individual walled compounds with faux traditional Tibetan doors, heralds a new low point in rehousing nomads in manageable compounds.

A stopping point built around a rock with a Chinese pavilion gives wonderful views across the full width of the river and a glimpse of the stupas near Samye. Further on the road widens to absurd proportions for another checkpoint, this time demanding our passports. The old ferry across the river to Samye which we took in 20012 is no longer in operation so we drive to the bridge at Tsetang and drive back in the opposite direction to Samye.

We reach Tsetang at 6. It's grown beyond recognition, a grid of oversized commercial avenues and office blocks that dwarf the individual. The PSP office where we have to present our passports has moved, by the time we've found the right place I'm completely disorientated. The Tibetans must need deep reserves of patience and reserve to survive.

On the opposite bank the drive back west to Samye is sublime in the low sun - sand dunes, herds of sheep on the road, masses of prayer flags and golden sunlit trees standing in the shallows. The tourist hotel at Samye is full but we manage to get basic rooms above an inn where we find a seat at a table with three very, very drunk locals, two men and a woman. An absurdist evening follows as our companions get drunker, songs are sung, leud comments are made and Bev dances with the old woman. Impossible to relate but unforgettable.



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