Within an hour or so of leaving Lhasa’s bustling streets we’re already passing groups of pilgrims. Some are face down on the road, hands clasped above their heads. Others are in the process of throwing themselves down. Still more, particularly children, stand still and wave at us as we whiz by.
When I think back to Lhasa, which for all its ancient Tibetan heart, has the feel of a modern-day frontier city, I’m astonished how different things are once you’re past the city limits. It’s hard to believe, coming from a “developed” country, how easy it is to step from one world to another.
Cloud forest in Eastern Tibet
Whole families are on pilgrimages from whatever remote corner of Tibet they live to Lhasa’s holy sites. Fresh faced children as young as six or seven alongside weathered septuagenarians genuflecting the many, many kilometres away. We saw at least one group a day throughout the hundreds of kilometres we drove.
Travelling east of Lhasa, the road shadows the Yarlung Tsampo (which becomes the mighty Brahmaputra and then the Jamuna as it wends its way through India and Bangladesh), the climate is wetter, the countryside greener and weather not quite as numbingly cold as the Tibetan plateau.
A sacred stream and shrine
It does of course bring its own challenges. It is a mountainous and rugged area, the road often gets buried under snow or washed with rain as monsoon arrives. And it’s pretty damn remote. At points the road is a mere 25km or so from the Indian border, making it an extremely sensitive area for the Chinese government. We required at least five separate permits, and even then got turned away from some places and had to wing it at others. Having a guide or driver from the area is invaluable when it comes to this.
But the hassle is well worth it and you’re compensated with something quite different to the rest of Tibet. Turquiose lakes nestled among snow capped mountains with richly wooded slopes, secret river shrines, primeval cloud forests full of monkey, boar and deer, low-lying glaciers and ancient villages of great white stone houses.
A couple of days out of Lhasa, over two high passes and in the shadow of Namchi Barwa – one of Tibet’s holy mountains and very much off limits to foreigners – we stayed in Lulang. It was one of these ancient villages. Barn-sized white houses had stone walls a metre thick to withstand earthquakes, and gabled roofs tiled in wood and supported on stone pillars.
Inside, gathered in the upstairs living quarters where cuts of pork hung drying over the great wood fired stove, we listened to our host weave us tales of his exploits. Like time he rescued a group of a hundred starving pilgrims trudging through the sacred, leech infested forests of Metok with no food or water.
Our host in Lulang
While he was talking, tsampa was laid out in bowls for us to dip into along with pots of an eye-wateringly fierce local hot sauce made entirely from pounded chillies. I sweated away the tales as my tongue got progressively number.
For breakfast I got to eat some of that hanging pork. It was poached and served with freshly made flat breads. Pork from this area is famous throughout China because the pigs feed on medicinal roots. And as the pigs roam freely, their flesh is pretty damn fine, succulent with a slightly stronger flavour than most UK pork.
As you leave the few tilled fields you wander past Bon shrines – Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion remains strong in this isolated region – adorned with yak skulls and scented with burning juniper. The trees close in around you, mist hanging chill in the air. It is silent and everything feels very primeval.
These great misty forests, full of rhodadendrons and other colourful wild shrubs, sweep up the valley sides to either side of the village. Still further up, great snowy peaks in excess of 6000 and 7000m glower down. You are many days of hard walking away from any towns.
A Bon shrine
Striking out further east our small convoy travelled for two days to Rawu, the furthest east we got. It was the 60th anniversary of the “peceful liberation” of Tibet, and much of Eastern Tibet and Western Sichuan province had been locked down by the government. As it was we were one of the last tourist groups to get any sort of permit.
On the way to the pristine lake at Rawu, we stopped off at a low-lying glacier with traditional wooden houses clustered near the base. We were lucky as this particular glacier was not on our itinerary. But one of our drivers was a local and knew that the checkpoints wouldn’t be manned on that particular day.
The face of a an icy god?
The glacier came cascading down the side of the mountain in two great frozen flows. Rocky areas that broke up the ice gave the glacier the appearance of a face, looking begninly across its valley. As we came out of a short trek through woods to be faced with that, I could well imagine it was the visage of some great icy god.
Houses here were different again, single story intricately carved and brightly coloured wooden buildings. Vivid blues, reds and greens interove and twirled around one another, motion frozen in wood. We sat and broke some bread with one family, all the women, great grandmother, grandmother, mother and daughter looking at us curiously as we ate.
Intricately coloured wooden house
We left this tranquil and beautiful spot with some reluctance. But time was pressing and strictly speaking we weren’t meant to be there. An hour or two further along we reached Rawu. Nothing more than a few concrete houses and a hotel clustered on the shore of a placid and beautiful glacial lake.
When the wind dropped it was like looking over a mirror as the sun set. Snowy mountains refelcted perfectly in the water as an eagle circled slowly overhead. It was a magical moment until the wind came up again, the lake shivered and the spell was broken.
We travelled to Tibet with the superb Insight Himalaya. I would recommend them very highly indeed.