Tibet 2014 - Nyalam to Saga

Nyalam, 6 September.

Up at 8 and set off at 10:15. Morning mist gives way to white clouds and blue sky. Roads are excellent, the Toyota cruiser is comfortable and holds the road well. We make good speed and soon start to get views of snow topped mountains. The road climbs steadily past villages and small cultivated round edged fields, like those of Zanskar, with potato, wheat, beans and barley.

We pass new houses built with traditional appearance but maybe new materials. Police checkpoints all day. The crew travel behind in a camouflaged oversized lorry, the drivers keep in touch with mobile phones. We keep stopping for photos and the lorry passes us, the crew seem in good spirits, glad to be on the road and away from the boredom of Nyalam.

The 5000m Thang La and Lalung La are without snow which is a disappointment but we have better views than 12 years ago. it's generally how I remember it but a huge gateway is being built that will totally dominate the pass and the landscape. Right now it's not much more than an outline of scaffolding. The road stays at about 5000 metres with magnificent views of mountains. We take a left turn west onto a lesser road to Saga and we soon descend to a lake, the Palku Tso. On the far side of the lake we stop and picnic - Tibetan bread, peanut butter and bananas. I set off to walk to the lake but the distance is deceptive, I make no impression and turn back.

Eventually we descend to Saga, a modern Chinese city with an older Tibetan quarter. We don't fancy camping here and search the main streets for a possible guesthouse. It’s not easy and we end up in ‘modern’ hotel on the corner of two of the main streets. it looks like a dated cinema from the outside, the interior is even worse with a huge reception with plastic chandeliers and stuffed chairs with leaking stuffing. A real mess. An old mattress stands askew at an angle behind the chairs and old-fashioned TV stands in front of a huge decommissioned washing machine next to our room. Three beds, squatty toilet, no hot water until later, in fact no water at all, we use buckets.

We’d stayed too long at 5000 metres and Bev has nausea and headache. Saga’s a charmless modern town with three wide, bleak main streets. A real wild West town, the men and women dress with style, men walk with a swagger, many Khampas (men from Kham in Eastern Tibet) with long hair plaited and gathered overhead with a red sash and large white bone earing, white teeth grins, attitude and a variety of cowboy hats. Women with floppy wide brimmed hats with outlandish fabrics, red and gold catch the eye.  Motorbikes decorated like horses with tassles and braiding.

Guy and I try hats in the general store, we get a cool photo but no hats. Some of the kids on the street with the thinner Tibetan faces look old already. A police car with rasping hooter drives slowly up and down, plainclothes cop low in the passenger seat, a couple of Khampas with carrier bags of beer are told they can't ride the back of a motorbike pick up, they dismount with a grin. Three girls in variations of pink pass by and turn to look back at us and laugh. A woman with a face covered by an elegant hat and scarf, short black trousers and fine cut jacket, collar turned up, brown stack heel boots, cuts a fine figure but I can't see her face to know what age she is. A large public building with wide steps seems to be a for organised Chinese style communal dancing. Saga seems like the town where people come to get provisions and get wild. The sun goes down, the temperature plummets and we beat it back to the hotel.

Lakchang produces a simple device that clips on your finger to measure your oxygen levels. Bev’s levels are low and we go down the street to the pharmacy to buy an oxygen pillow. Attached to the pharmacy is a small clinic with half a dozen beds and a helpful Chinese doctor. One man is in bed with an oxygen supply and drip. The 80 yuan pillow gets inflated from a cylinder, Bev has a go and her oxygen levels creep up to 70. Unfortunately she still misses out on the best meal yet - fried tubes of maize and soup, dal bhat, green veg, and custard.



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