Samye – Yamdrok Lake – Gyangtse, Tibet
So I managed to actually get some sleep in what I decided was possibly the worst hotel I had ever stayed in. While the room was clean enough, on further inspection the bathroom was pretty rough. It was so bad that I opted out of a shower and instead used my shower on the go camping wipes. Anything was better than stepping into that shower.
Anyway, before I went off to bed the night before Hank had instructed the little restaurant next door to prepare some eggs and toast for me for 8:00 a.m. So I dutifully got up and headed over to the restaurant just before 8:00 a.m., found a seat and waited while the two gals completely ignored me. They served everyone else, but me. I finally got up and motioned that I wanted breakfast, the gal used 1 finger to me signifying one person and I nodded. I sat back down and. … nothing.
Finally after about 35 minutes, a very nice Chinese guide came over to my table and asked me if she could help. I explained my predicament and she immediately called the girls over, order me some tea and breakfast and I was in business. The breakfast came in about ten minutes and was a laugher. One hard boiled egg, four pieces of barley bread (this stuff is very dry and not particularly edible, but the Tibetans love it), a 1/3 of a banana and a 1/3 of an apple. So much for eggs and toast. In eating the breakfast, I found that it helped to take a bite of the barley bread with a bite of the fruit. Much more palatable.
With “breakfast” behind me I met up with Hank and my driver and we were off. Today was going to be a looooong 290 km drive to Gyangtse in south central Tibet. The drive would take us through the Kampa-la (prounounced Champala) Pass at 5050m (or 16,568 feet), Yamdrok Lake, Karo-la Pass at 5045m (or 16,552 feet), and Mount Nojin Kangtsen Glacier before descending to the valley where we would spend the night in Gyangtse.
So the first hour of the trip was rather boring as we retraced our steps from the prior day before we cut off towards the southern Friendship Highway. Now the word “highway” is used very loosely here as the highway was really just a two lane road passing through small villages with stone houses and small barley fields being harvested. It was about mid morning by the time we started climbing up through the desert hillside via a series of switchbacks past prayer flags and stones with white ladders painted on them (which is apparently done by locals to symbolize the “auspicious white ladder” – apparently a symbol of purity).
We made one quick stop along the way to grab some water and some noodles for my guide and driver before we set off again. As we climbed higher, my fingers started to tingle ever so slightly and my ears kept popping. The views however, were so spectacular that I think it actually helped me avoid any altitude issues.
We finally reached the top of Kampa-la Pass where we stopped at a heavily touristed sited. (Locals were pedaling jewelry and photos with goats and bull mastiffs – used to herd the yaks.). I ignored the noise and went straight for the pictures. I doubt the shots I took can do it justice, but what a view!
As I was leaving, I notice some guy chomping on french fries. I was in desperate need of a little salt to keep my body in balance due to the altitude so I wandered over to the row of stands that I thought was just jewelry saleswomen and low and behold there was a lady selling freshly made fries. She sprinkled the fries with this spicey salty seasoning, dropped them in a plastic bag, told me 10 RMB (about $1.40) and we had a deal. I munched on a couple and immediately felt a little more life kick into me.
Once I was back in the van, we drove over the crest of the pass to catch the first site of Yamdrok Lake. It was absolutely beautiful A brilliant tourqoise colour in the bright sunshine. The lake absolutely dazzled.
We made it to a tourist lookout point and I hopped out and took numerous pictures. With the sun was out I was fortunate that it was clear enough so that I could see Mount Nojin Kangtsen Glaceier in the distance. Spectacular!
As I stood there staring, Hank told me that Yamdrok Lake is considered one of four holy lakes in Tibet so it is not fished by the locals. Hank also pointed out that the lake is shaped like a “coiling scorpion”. It apparently doubles back on the other side of the land creating an island in the middle. Hank also told me that the brilliant tourquoise colour is from the myriad of minerals in the lake.
After taking far too many pictures, we were just leaving when Hank spotted two German fellows who had sat beside us at lunch the day before in Samye. I had a really lovely conversation wth them, but before I had a chance to roll down the window we were on the road headed to our next destination … which actually turned out to be another stop at Yamdrok Lake, but this time, right beside the lake.
I jumped out, wandered around, took a couple pictures, ignored the persistent vendors and requests for me to have my picture taken with the ridiculously made up yaks and called it good.
As we were pulling out of the parking lot, who should we pass but the Germans. And again, the driver did not give me a chance to roll down the window to say hi. Oh well. As it turns it, it would not be the last time I saw them.
So we made our way down from the high altitude through little villages where we finally stopped at one village that looked like it was entirely under construction. We bobbed and weaved around trucks and piles of gravel and dirt before I learned this was our lunch stop. Not particularly picturesque, but the restaurant turned out to be a little gem. I opted for some yak soup and some ginger honey tea which turned out to be a very good choice. As I was sitting eating, who should wander in but the Germans. Hey guys!
I ended up joining them for lunch. Dennis and Marcus are from northern Germany and love to travel. We had a rousing good time chatting about world affairs, the upcoming German election and the state of America. One of the great things about traveling is the absolutely wonderful humans you meet from all over the world. These two fellows were no exception.
With lunch done we said our goodbyes and thought maybe our paths would cross again since we are all headed to Gyangtse.
So after a lovely meal, we began our climb upwards against towards the Karo-la Pass and the Mount Nojin Kangtsen Glacier. Because we were still at a relatively high altitude the ascent was far less steep than the morning climb. However, the clouds had rolled in and it was COLD. As we drove, I could see peak-a-boo views of different glaciers on far mountains further away and as we pressed higher, the clouds got darker. I was absolutely convinced it was going to snow. Fortunately, I had come prepared with a heavy jacket if need be.
We finally reached the top of Karo-la Pass and I was so busy looking at the glaceiers on the distant mountains on my left hand side, I didn’t understand why we were stopping. Hank asked me if I wanted to get out and take pictures and when I turned to look at him … OH MY GOD. Mount Nojin Kangtsen Glacier was literally slapping me in the face. I started laughing and explained to Hank I had been so busy looking out the left side of the van that I had not even seen the approach to Mount Nojin Kangtsen Glacier as we rounded the turn.
Anyway, I put on my heavy coat, opened the door and was immediately hit with a very cold wind and sleet. As I stood there taking pictures a Tibetan woman approached me selling prayer flags. Now I really have no use for prayer flags, but she had a little one strapped to her back and I actually felt sorry for her standing out in this freezing cold trying to earn a buck. So I motioned for her to follow me to the van, I grabbed my wallet, asked Hank to translate, gave her the 20 RMB (around $3) she was asking for, took the prayer flags and snapped her photo.
By now my hands were freezing so I hopped back into the van and we literally drove two minutes down the road to an even better view point. And on the plus side … the area was better protected so very little wind.
I hopped out, snapped a couple photos and then wandered up a flight of steps to the back of this huge stupa like statute and who should I run smack dab into … Dennis and Marcus, the Germans dudes. Hi again boys. We all started laughing and immediately decided we needed a picture together in front of the Glacier. Unfortunately, my selfie skills were not the best, but the picture is a great reminder of two really lovely humans.
So not only was it a good call to go to the back side of the Stupa because I was able to see the Germans one more time, it also turned out that the back side of the Stupa gave you a much better view. I could see a series of water falls flowing from the glacier (although melting glaciers causing waterfalls is not a good thing) as well as a black yak hair tent, which could only mean one thing … nomads. I looked around, but did not see any nomads in sight so guessed that the were wth the yak herd somewhere nearby.
With all the pictures I would ever need of Mount Nojin Kangtsen Glacier, I said my goodbyes to the lovely Germans and we were off for the last portion of the trip. We immediately started descending down the mountains and soon passed a yak herd (the nomads). As we continued down the mountain a brilliant lake, or what I thought was a lake, came into view.
I asked Hank about it and it turned out to be a man made lake from the Manuk Hydro Electric Dam. The scenery with the brilliant lake was absolutely gorgeous. We eventually stopped at a vantage point and I was able to snap a couple pictures before we continued on our way.
Once the ground flattened out, we began to pass a myriad of barley fields being harvested by hand by locals. No machinery here. We also passed sheep herds (marked with red on their fur to deter theft), cows and of course the ever present yak herds.
We made one last quick stop where Hank registered me with the local police before we made it to my hotel in Gyangtse for the night: the Yeti Hotel. It had been a long day and I was worn out. The two main attractions in Gyangtse, the seven story tall Kumbum Stupa, the Pelkor Chode Monastery and the Gyantse Dzong (fort) would have to wait for the morning.