UNO and Koras at Nam-tso with Kevin and Nate

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Arriving to the Yak Hotel in the rain, I went to room number eight and met Nate, who was already in bed but not yet asleep. He said Kevin was downstairs at the Dunya Bar, which was full of western tourists. It was almost culture shock as I hadn't seen many westerners, and it was good to see Kevin and Nate again and catch up.

Kevin and Nate are becoming regulars here as we've shared adventures in Hong Kong, Beijing, the Great Wall, Yungang Caves, and Wutaishan, and Vietnam together. Karen, Kevin's wife, couldn't make it because of work: someone has to be responsible, after all.

Although I missed dinner, apple pie and beer was satisfying enough as we chatted, joined by Paulo, another American who was unable to find a room because of the influx of 3,000 tourists per day from the new train from Qinghai to Lhasa, essentially making Tibet available to anyone in China within 48 hours. Likewise, Kevin and Nate had troubles finding a room and were unable to get tickets to the Potala Palace.

Lhasa was the new Hot Spot in China.

We tested the travel agencies the next day: "how much to Nam-tso," we asked? "Do we need permits?" Of course we found better deals outside the travel agencies and would never need a permit. Also, "tso" means lake in Tibetan so no need to be redundant and say Nam-tso Lake: "Nam Lake Lake."

Sparsely vegetated imposing mountains surround Lhasa, beckoning us for a climb, especially one covered in prayer flags. The wind was strong, very strong, whipping around the prayer flags and prayers printed on small pieces of paper. A man on a ridgetop lit incense above Lhasa, calling out to the gods with his arms raised, clouds swirling overhead. We continued up the steep ridge then relaxed at a good overlook, with views of the Potala Palace and all of Lhasa below us.

When we left for Nam-tso, we quickly learned that our Toyota Landcruiser was perhaps the slowest landcruiser in the world. Outside it looked like a landcruiser, Toyota logo and all. Inside was a lawnmower engine. Nevertheless, we plodded along, which was fine, as the snow mountains and clear skies passed by our windows. Nate listened to the Black-eyed Peas on his MP3 player--hip boy. As the time passed on our drive, it seemed like one of those days when, you wake up the next day and Nate's in high school becoming a grown man.

Soon the Lhasa-Qinghai train was passing us on the nearby tracks. "Is the train good or bad," I asked our Lhasa driver? "Bad, terrible. Chinese, terrible," he said as he figuratively slit his throat with his right hand.

A few hours later, after paying our entry fee and not needing to show a travel permit (big surprise), we crossed a 17,000 foot pass overlooking the dark blue waters of Namtso. Kevin and Nate were doing amazingly well, I thought, coming from sea level: just headaches, which is normal. Meanwhile, some Chinese tourists arriving directly from Beijing were breathing their oxygen tanks and looking a little green.

At Tashidor, situated on a peninsula, our tentsite for two nights, we relaxed in the big tourist camp. Much has changed in a few years, as my guidebook describes the road as dirt and the camp as not existing. Dozens of large tents arranged in a big rectangle formed the camp. Some tents sold oxygen, water, and batteries. Other tents were sleeping quarters or restaurants. Our tent was a black tak tweed tent called a ba, reminescent of nomadic tents. Inside were four rustic beds.

Soon we were settled, with SNOW beer cans chilling in a bag of lake water and the UNO cards out for a couple of games.

That still evening, Kevin and I walked to the top of the smaller hill around Tashidor for the sunset. We drank a couple of beers at the top, watching the sun disappear into the mountains behind rock cairns and the immense lake, supposedly the highest salt lake in the world and one of the biggest lakes in Tibet. Watching the sunset and drinking a couple of cold beers felt great, especially after the long trip back from western Tibet.

In the morning, we walked the small kora around the smaller hill or "island," exploring caves, passing mani stones and yak horns, and gawking at the nearby Mt. Nyenchen Tanglha, rising to 24,000 feet and immense Nam-tso. From the shoreline, we could not see the other side of the lake, giving it the feeling of an immense inland sea.

Mid-day was siesta time as Kevin and Nate dealt with mild headaches and I dealt with laziness, both of which were normal and ok. We were also resting to prepare for the big afternoon kora.

The other 'island' was much larger, hence the big kora. We passed Himalayan marmots, skipped stones, looked at the multi-colored lake stones, and walked for several hours. We looked at the peninsula; once these hills were truly islands. The water level would only have to be a little higher to isolate the jutting peninsula. Long ago, ancient pilgrims must have needed a boat to reach the koras.

In the morning, I hiked back to the yak horns and mani stones to say farewell to the lake: we were heading back to Lhasa. On the road, we rested in the roadside grass as the driver was tired and hung-over and walked on the Lhasa-Qinghai train tracks.

Do we need a permit to do that?

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