Until the latter half of the 1980’s it had been difficult to gain access to Tibet and only the fairly hardy attempted it. Photographer and adventurer Galen Rowell was one of those. The stunning photograph he captured in 1981 of a rainbow emanating from the Potala Palace is the kind of amazing thing that could happen in a special place like Tibet. And no doubt to a special person. No Photoshop back then. This was real. A moment in time.
We spent most of November 15th on the road between Gyantse and Lhasa. The road took us once more along the Kyi Chu river and up over the Karo La Pass at 16,500 feet and past the Karo La glacier.
We came then to the sacred, turquoise coloured Yamdrok Lake at 14,570 feet. As far as the eye could see, there was hardly ever a single person in sight. It was a very dry and desolated part of the world. The sky was an impossible blue.
Passing over the Kamba La Pass at 15,9150 feet, we finally began our long descent into the Lhasa Valley, still following the river, here called the Lhasa River.
We had been dozing as the warm afternoon sun heated the bus, but suddenly the group began to stir and we craned our necks for a good hour, hoping to be the first to spot the Potala Palace that we had journeyed so far to see.
And then, there is was!
At 11,995 ft, I was high, literally and figuratively.
The fiasco which ensued over our hotel accommodation could not have mattered less to Tim and I, although Neil, our tireless leader was exasperated when the Holiday Inn rejected us.
After much discussion back and forth, we were taken to the Tibet Guest House which seemed palatial after our two previous experiences.
At first we raved about the cleanliness of our room, the efficiency of the heating and the luxury of hot water. Then we discovered hot water was only intermittent. Well, no problem. The heating, however, became so overpowering, we were obliged to open our window.
Whereupon we were invaded by large, obnoxious flies that got into everything. Tim proceeded to murder some 25 of the beasts as I sat hoping they were not somebodies’ reincarnations. But I imagine they would have been happy to start again as something more auspicious than a fly.
We went out for a walk, passing by the hotel which had rejected us on the basis that they were full up and there found that it was in fact empty. These were the early days of tourism and leading a group obviously had its challenges. Neil always kept his cool.
But we had arrived intact, which we learned was fortunate, as our group seemed to be the last that had made it through all the landslides. The road was now closed indefinitely.
The Sera Monastery, which we visited next day, is located beneath a tall cliff where, in the old days sky-burials were conducted.
This involved bodies being dissected by a priest who then left the remains on the cliffs for vultures.
Very early on, tourists had actually gone to witness sky-burials (would you believe!) but this turned out not to be a good idea when a priest became upset and chased a tourist off, brandishing a severed limb! (Story was related in the tourist guide book)
Outside we were fascinated to meet real Tibetan pilgrims. The only way we could communicate was in smiles.
The afternoon was spent exploring the dry, dusty streets of the city. We did not get to visit a traditional Lhasa home. It would have been so interesting to do so but it would also have been a great invasion of their privacy. I was satisfied to see the windows all bedecked with flowers and to make a couple of purchases in the market.
We went to bed happy that night, looking forward to our visit, next day, to the amazing and mysterious Potala Palace.