7 days in Tibet (part 2)

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Flag of China  , Tibet Autonomous Region,
Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Chinese have really made their presence felt in Shigatse, Tibet's second city. They have torn down the old town and replaced it with drab, functional four storey concrete streets, which are themselves now falling apart. They have also shipped in their own people by the trainload, so the population here is noticeably more Chinese than anywhere else I have been in Tibet so far.

The drab buildings obscure the views of the immense fort that dominates the town, like a scaled down Potala Palace. This fort had been entirely dismantled by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, but reconstructed in 2007 thanks to private donations.

After arriving in the late afternoon, we went for a walk through the city, visiting a shabby market selling electronics and a mosque for the city’s small Muslim population. My impression of the city wasn’t helped by the amount of public defecation and urination on display, or by the packs of mangy stray dogs roaming the rubbish filled streets.

The main reason for visiting Shigatse was to see Tashilunpo monastery. This 15th century monastery is the base of the 'Yellow Hat’ Buddhist sect, and home of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s number 2. There are two Panchen Lamas – the Chinese approved version is 20 years old and is based in Tashilunpo, whereas the one approved by the Dalai Lama is 22 but has not been seen for 16 years after being detained by the Chinese at the age of 6.

Tashilunpo is the biggest and most interesting monastery visited so far. It used to be home to thousands of monks but now only a hundred or so remain. When we visited, they were busy making offerings made of yak butter and flour for a forthcoming ceremony. Most of them wore face masks due to the disgusting stench of these offerings.

The monks wear yellow robes and huge furry yellow crested hats. We were lucky enough to be able to witness one of their ceremonies, which was an otherworldly sight to behold. The temple was lit by hundreds of yak butter candles, and the atmosphere was thick with incense. The monks all sat cross legged on cushions, swaying as they recited a monotone dirge. Prayers were led by a few older monks who sat higher up, and higher still was the vacant seat of the Panchen Lama, who was away in China.

The monastery is a walled city with many chapels, homes and two main temples with lavish golden roofs. One of them contains a gargantuan 26m high Buddha statue, which wears a one tonne golden crown. In the other, the corpse of the 11th Panchen Lama, having been covered in gold plating and placed in the lotus position, watches over the pilgrims who come to worship and make their offerings.

After visiting the monastery, I climbed up the hill behind it, which was lined with literally thousands of prayer wheels. Locals walked past me spinning each and every wheel, and exchanging smiles and hellos. The views from the top were incredible, with the low sun illuminating the golden rooftops of the temple and the gleaming white fort.

During the drive south through Tibet, we had been gradually ascending from the 3,500m altitude of Lhasa up towards the 5,200m of Everest Base Camp. Our next stop, Sakya was at 4,500m and was the highest point we had been in Tibet so far.

Sakya is a fairly drab small town on a desolate, treeless plain.  It has yet another walled in monastery, and as with all the others visited so far, this one suffered great damage during the Cultural Revolution, when monastaries all over China were destroyed as they were considered hotbeds of bourgeois thought.

This monastery was distinctive for a few reasons – it was built in a different style to the others, and is home to the biggest library in Tibet. Some 84,000 scrolls were found sealed up in the walls here in 2003 after being untouched for hundreds of years. The main thing that stuck in my mind about this monastery though was one of the temples. Its doorway was framed by snarling stuffed wolves and inside was a blackened candlelit chamber, with grotesque man-sized demonic statues lining the walls like a miniature 'temple of doom’. These are so called ‘protector deities’, which supposedly scare away evil spirits and are a rather unnerving sight.

From the perimeter walls encircling the rooftops, there were views of the town, a hillside full of ruined temples (no prizes for guessing who ruined them) and someone taking a dump in the middle of the street.

That evening I went on a search of the deserted town for an internet café. I was struck at how quiet the streets were, with no bars or anywhere for young people to go. I soon found out where everyone was when I found the internet café. It was crammed full of young Tibetans playing video games, shouting "Die Muthafucka!" and other such exclamations as they pounded away on the keyboard – all the funnier given that most of them don’t speak English!

Sakya was the last town we would be visiting before setting off for the undoubted highlight of the trip - Everest base camp and views of the roof of the world!
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