Tibet 1987: Tibetan summer

 

 

People, bringing home burdens and sheep, are silhouetted against the surrounding desert, Shigatse, Tibet. Folk, der bringer byrder og får hjem, står som silhouetter mod den omgivende ørken, Shigatse, Tibet
Silhouetted against the bleak mountains near Shigatse, people bring home burdens and sheep. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Transhimalaya! – A word, which conjures up pictures of wind-blown mountain passes with stone cairns, adorned with hundreds of fluttering Buddhist prayer flags; of Tibetan wild asses (Equus kiang), grazing on a meadow among countless red primroses and yellow louseworts; or perhaps of Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952), who was the first European to explore the area around the sacred Mount Kailas in western Tibet – the physical manifestation of the mythical mountain Meru and an important pilgrimage destination for followers of three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Transhimalaya (which literally means ’on the other side of the Himalaya’) consists of two mountain ranges, Gangdise and Nyenchen Tanglha, stretching altogether c. 1,600 km across the southernmost part of the Tibetan Plateau, parallel to the Himalaya. In daily speech, though, the word includes the entire plateau.

For hundreds of years, Tibet was forbidden area for Western travellers. A harsh land with extreme climatic conditions, situated at an altitude between 3,000 and 6,000 m. Summers are usually hot, with a glaring and fierce sun – but an occasional snowstorm is not uncommon. Winters are severe, with temperatures often below -30o Centigrade.

An environment like this creates tough people – and Tibetans are tough. Many are nomads, herding huge flocks of goats, sheep, and yak. They live in black tents, made of felt. Others are farmers, growing barley, buckwheat, and vegetables in river valleys. Naturally, these people live in close contact with nature and natural forces.

 

Road washed away
In Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, my companion Jette Wistoft and I board a public bus to the town of Kodari, on the Tibetan border. It is late June – the beginning of the rainy season in this part of the Himalaya. It’s drizzling, and the mountains are hidden in clouds and mist. Due to heavy rainfall during the last couple of weeks, the condition of the road is very poor, so the going is slow, and the bus ride takes many hours. Consequently, we spend the night in Kodari.

The following morning, we learn that the road between the border and the first Tibetan town, Khasa (or Zhangmu, as the Chinese prefer to call it), has been washed away, and the bus service has been cancelled. We shall have to make a 9-km-detour on foot through the forest. In Kodari, a number of guides are willing to show us the way through the forest, and to hire porters to carry our luggage. We pass the ‘Friendship Bridge’ across the Bhote Khosi River, which constitutes the border, and begin our ascent. The faint trail through the forest is very slippery, and as it is still raining, we must walk with care to avoid causing new landslides. During the walk, we have a pleasant conversation with our guide, who is a friendly man. A crested serpent-eagle (Spilornis cheela) is soaring over the forest, screaming.

Early in the afternoon, we reach the customs office, just below Khasa. The staff here shows no interest whatsoever in our luggage, and we pass through customs without problems. Khasa is a depressing town with ugly concrete buildings, a couple of hotels, a police station, and a bank. The latter is a small building with a tiny sign: Bank of China – Zhangmu. The staff has a most unfriendly attitude while changing money for travellers, using old-fashioned, Chinese counting frames.

Following the introduction of tourism in China, the Yuan has two values. Everyday money is RMB (Renminbi), called ‘people’s money’. Tourists cannot buy RMB in the bank, but must buy FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates), called ‘tourist money’, which is 50% more expensive than RMB. In this way, the Chinese get more money out of the tourists, as the two currencies have equal value in the trade. The only advantage for the tourist is that using FEC he or she can buy ‘luxury goods’ in the so-called ‘foreign shops’, where RMB are not accepted. Therefore, these goods are out of reach for the common citizens of Chinese territories, paving the way for a most profitable black market: sometimes you can get twice the value of FEC in RMB. Naturally, this is highly illegal, but nobody seems to care.

(In the early 1990s, the dual currency system was abolished, and FEC was removed from the market.)

 

 

Monsoon clouds and forest, Zangmu, S Tibet. Monsunskyer og skov, Zangmu, sydlige Tibet
Mountains around Khasa, hidden in monsoon clouds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Men of the Tibetan Khampa tribe, Zhangmu, Tibet. Mænd af den tibetanske Khampa-stamme, Zhangmu, Tibet
Men of the Tibetan Khampa tribe, working as porters in Khasa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Introduction of Lamaism
In the 600s, when Buddhist monks began preaching their faith in Tibet, the Tibetans soon embraced these new thoughts. The local belief, prior to the introduction of Buddhism, was an animistic religion, called Bon, whose followers believe that all things in nature – animals, rocks, trees, etc. – contain a spirit, good or evil, and that these spirits control the actions of humans. Inevitably, the new religion, which was called Lamaism, contained many elements from the Bon belief. – Bon is further described elsewhere, see Religion: Animism.

An important issue of Lamaism is to preach that all things are connected. Man’s energy is a part of the energy of the Universe, and to increase your knowledge about these energies, thereby changing your mental level, you can meditate, or you can recite powerful words, mantras. The ultimate goal is to liberate your soul from the eternal series of re-incarnations. This goal is called nirvana. Only the selected few are able to obtain nirvana, while the vast majority must be reborn again and again. The shape, in which this takes place, depends on the number of good or bad deeds you have done in your lifetime. If you have done many bad deeds, you may be reborn as an animal, so it is quite natural that killing is a great sin to devout Tibetans.

The highest monks are called lamas, and most of their time is spent helping other people to practise a more efficient form of meditation. This takes place in monasteries, and over the years, thousands of such structures were erected throughout Tibet. Most families would send a son to a monastery to be enrolled as a monk, but this act was not at all compulsory. Anytime, a monk could choose to leave the monastery to return to his former life as a nomad or a peasant.

Over time, various branches of Lamaism evolved, often with rather subtle differences. The most well-known of these is Gelug-pa, ‘Yellow Hats’, named after their yellow headgear. Their highest lama is the Dalai Lama, meaning ‘Ocean of Wisdom’ in Mongolian. He is an incarnation of the eleven-headed Chenrezig (‘Buddha of Compassion’), which is again one of The Buddha’s incarnations. The Dalai Lama is also the secular leader of all Tibetans and Mongolians.

The present 14th Dalai Lama was born in Kham, eastern Tibet, in 1935, named Lhamo Döndrup. In 1939, he was brought to the capital, Lhasa, where his was to reside in the Potala Palace (‘The Palace of a Thousand Rooms’). From that day, he was called Tenzing Gyatso, Gyatso being the Tibetan word for the Dalai Lama.

You may read more about Lamaism and other branches of Buddhism on the page Religion: Buddhism.

 

Chinese ‘liberation’ army
In 1949, when the Chinese communist army had overrun the Guo-min-dang forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek, the communist leader Mao Zedong decided to ‘liberate’ all areas, which at some point though history had been a part of China. It didn’t occur to him to ask the populations of these areas, whether they were interested in this ‘liberation’. Communist troops poured into Sinkiang in 1949 and into Tibet in 1950.

Chairman Mao and the other communist leaders had informed their troops that the Tibetans had to be liberated from their life as slaves under a theocratic rule, which had gathered immense wealth, whereas the common people were living in poverty. These theocrats were influenced by imperialist Americans and Brits, who, in fact, had the real power in the country, the leaders told the soldiers. At this time, however, only six westerners were living in Lhasa, including two Austrians, Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, who, in 1943, had fled to Tibet from a British prisoner’s camp in India. (Harrer later wrote a book, Seven Years in Tibet, about their adventures).

The Chinese, who had expected to be received as liberators, were much surprised to encounter a stubborn resistance from the Tibetans. They were not aware that the theocrats were very popular among the population. The Dalai Lama was only fifteen years old, but was already a favourite with the people.

After the invasion, the Dalai Lama had a very difficult time negotiating the degree of self-government in Tibet. Conditions slowly got worse, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama, accompanied by several Tibetan nobles, fled to India, as rumours had it that the Chinese were planning to murder him.

 

The Cultural Revolution
The Chinese horror regime in Tibet started around 1953 in two eastern provinces, Amdo and Kham. Land, belonging to the monasteries, was confiscated, and monks were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Children of Tibetan nobles were abducted from their home and brainwashed to regard their parents as contra-revolutionary traitors. Every protest was subdued by violence. After the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, the rest of Tibet was equally suppressed.

When, in 1966, Mao Zedong instigated the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’, a mass destruction of cultural treasures began, not only in Tibet, but in all Chinese territories. Religious paintings were destroyed, icons were smashed, and monasteries were torn down by gangs of ravaging Red Guards. Violence and killings flourished as never before. Most of Tibet’s production of crops was carried off to China, resulting in the starvation of many Tibetans. One estimate says that about 1.2 million Tibetans died as a result of the Chinese occupation.

After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, followed by the arrest of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’, conditions changed. The Cultural Revolution came to a halt, and the restrictions on religious practice were somewhat eased. Jokhang, the largest religious sanctuary in Lhasa, which during the Cultural Revolution had functioned as a pig-pen, was re-opened. In many other monasteries, monks were allowed to carry out their duties, and Lamaism again began to flourish. Large groups of Tibetan pilgrims streamed to the monasteries and temples.

In the 1980s, the advantages of tourism dawned to the Chinese, as it would bring foreign currency into China. Prior to the 1980s, it was almost impossible to get permission to travel in Tibet, but from 1982 Lhasa could be visited by groups. By 1984, individual travel was allowed. Tourists poured into the country – finally the Promised Land was open to travel. Everything you had been reading about and dreamed to see was suddenly within reach. A large-scale restoration of temples began, but many cultural treasures were lost forever.

Read more about the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution on the page Folly of Man.

 

Into the Promised Land
The road through Khasa is a hopeless slush, and all means of transportation start some distance up the road, at the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, this is low season because of the rains, which means that very few busses are departing. The ticket price is up to the owner.

We are a small group of westerners, trying to negotiate the price with the owner of a minibus, who is willing to take us to Lhasa for 200 Yuan (c. 50 US$) per person, provided there are at least six travellers. All six of us are not going any further than Shigatse, but this has no effect on the price. The free market forces have arrived in China! We return to our hotel to fetch our luggage.

At first, our journey brings us through lush hardwood forest with many waterfalls, but the road soon becomes very steep, and the broad-leaved trees give way to conifers. Further up, the trees disappear, and the main vegetation is now scattered shrubs and prickly Tibetan globe-thistles (Echinops cornigerus). In the meadows, however, an abundance of flowers are blooming, including white-flowered anemones and a tall, yellow-flowered primrose, Primula sikkimensis. Eventually, also the shrubs disappear, and the landscape becomes barren and dry. We are now on the Tibetan Plateau. The sky is overcast, but only a few drops fall.

The bus makes a stop in Nyalam, a small and rather ugly town – merely a truck stop with a number of hotels and restaurants. In one of these restaurants (which looks rather like army staff quarters from the outside), we have a meal of rice and fried vegetables, served with green jasmine tea. A lot of Chinese are busy eating, and their eating habits are definitely worth a study. Using their chopsticks, they shovel rice into their mouth, not the least concerned that some of it is spilled on the table or on the floor. Smacking their lips and burping, they throw gnawed chicken bones over their shoulder. When a group has left, their table and its surroundings resemble a battlefield.

 

 

A species of primrose, Primula sikkimensis, Nyalam, Tibet. En art af kodriver, Primula sikkimensis, Nyalam, Tibet
In meadows along the road between Khasa and Nyalam, an abundance of flowers grew, such as the yellow Sikkim primrose (Primula sikkimensis), which can grow to almost 1 m tall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Landevejskro, Nyalam, Tibet
Lunch stop in Nyalam. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Acute Mountain Sickness
The highland plateau is barren, but nevertheless enchanting. Here and there, the ground is covered by a wonderful carpet of flowers – blue, white, yellow, red. Many of these plants are cushion-forming – an adaptation to diminish evaporation, caused by an ice-cold, dry wind.

South of us, splendid Himalayan mountains soar towards the sky, including Gauri Shankar (7145 m) and Shishapangma (8013 m), the latter called Gosainthan in Nepal. In Hinduism, Gauri-Shankar conveys the unification of the gods Shiva (also called Shankar) and his female aspect Devi (also known as Gauri) – a symbol of fertility. Gosain is also another name of Shiva. – These and other Hindu gods are dealt with in detail on the page Religion: Hinduism.

At an altitude of 5,000 m, we make a brief stop at a pass, marked by a number of stone cairns. Poles have been placed among the stones, and on ropes, tied between these poles, numerous colourful prayer flags are fluttering fiercely in the strong wind. On these prayer flags are printed Buddhist mantras, which are transmitted into the Universe by the wind.

The rocks around us come in all shades of colours: brown, grey, greenish, red, violet. Some of the rock layers are twisted and folded – proof that they were once the bottom of a huge sea, the Tethys Sea, which, aeons ago, covered this area. About 60 million years ago, the continental plate with the landmass that is today the Indian Subcontinent, drifted north to collide with the Asiatic continental plate, uplifting the hardened sediments on the sea bottom to form the Himalaya and surrounding mountain ranges.

Occasionally, our bus passes through small villages, built beneath a mountain or along a river. The houses are dirt-coloured, blending very well with their surroundings. People travel in carts, drawn by horses or donkeys. Tree sparrows (Passer montanus) twitter among the houses, and ravens (Corvus corax) fly over, screaming hoarsely. The river valleys are covered in dense vegetation of grass and shrubs, where thousands of sheep and many yak are grazing. Late in the afternoon, the landscape is bathed in a gorgeous yellowish light from the setting sun.

The hamlet of Tingri, also called Xegar, is a truck stop, situated at an altitude of more than 4,000 m. The local restaurant is not a very cosy place, looking more like a stable than a place to eat. Small groups of freezing tourists huddle around the tables. No food is served at this time, but our friendly German fellow travellers share their instant soup with us.

Not that I have any appetite. A splitting headache, nausea, and a galloping pulse are sure symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), a condition caused by lack of oxygen in your body. Today, we have ascended from 1,800 to over 4,000 m altitude, and the air here contains only about two thirds of the amount of oxygen as at sea level. The best cure is to descend, but this is not possible at present.

As if AMS was not enough, I also get diarrhoea. I almost crawl to the tiny toilet building, which has low walls and no roof. This means that during your business you can admire an incredibly starry sky. However, I am not able to appreciate stars or anything else. I swallow a couple of painkillers and creep into my sleeping bag. Throughout the night, I am extremely uncomfortable, my heart pounding. The night seems endless, as I am disturbed by other tourists, who discuss similar symptoms, and by speeding trucks.

 

 

Evening light in a high altitude desert, near Xegar, Tibet. Aftenlys i højlandsørken, nær Xegar, Tibet
Sun and shadows create ever changing patterns on rocks in the harsh Tibetan landscape around Tingri, where rain is scarce. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Munk ved stenvarder på pashøjde, mellem Nyalam og Xegar, Tibet
This pass, situated at an altitude of c. 5,000 m, is marked by stone cairns and numerous colourful prayer flags, fluttering fiercely in the strong wind. On the prayer flags are printed Buddhist mantras, transmitted into the Universe by the wind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Rancid butter and dried goats
We depart at dawn. The road is still ascending, until we reach a pass at 5,200 m. I’m feeling overwhelmingly sick. Finally, when we dive into the Tsangpo Valley (the river which in India becomes the Brahmaputra), near the small town of Lhatze, I feel relieved.

Our bus now heads east, bringing us through villages and along rows of poplar trees, bordering green fields of wheat. Our goal is the town of Shigatse, which is dominated by an impressive monastery, Tashilhunpo, situated on a slope and enclosed by a long wall. In former times, this huge monastery was the home of the Panchen Lama, whose religious status is second only to the Dalai Lama. The lineage of Panchen Lamas began with Lobsang Chökul Gyaltsen, tutor of the 5th Dalai Lama, who, in 1645, received the title Panchen Bogd, meaning ‘great holy teacher’.

For many years, the Tibetans regarded the 10th Panchen Lama, Gonpo Tseten, as a renegade, who co-operated with the Chinese authorities. In 1982, after 19 years of house arrest in Beijing, he was finally allowed to visit Lhasa. Here he made a public speech in Jokhang, the most sacred of all Tibetan temples, saying: “There is only one human being worthy of occupying this throne: His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” After these words, he once again rose to honour and dignity among the Tibetans, and in his hometown Shigatse thousands of people gathered to pay tribute to him. The Chinese authorities, however, were furious, and the Panchen Lama was severely punished for his ‘reactionary’ speech.

We stay at a small hotel, with a splendid view towards the great ruined fort of the town, Samdup-tse Dzong, which was destroyed by the Red Guards. On the fort wall, Chinese authorities have placed gigantic loudspeakers, every day blaring propaganda, harassing people. The central part of Shigatse has been bulldozed and replaced by broad streets and concrete houses with very little appeal.

At the market, a variety of interesting items are for sale, including rancid butter, packed in goat skin bags; entire dried goats, stiffened in grotesque positions; jewellery, consisting of large pieces of turquoise and coral; traditional medicine, made from herbs, pulverized horns of hornbills, dried lizards, musk from the belly gland of the musk deer (Moschus), and many other ingredients. We also observe three pelts of lynx (Lynx lynx) and two of leopard (Panthera pardus). In fact, it is illegal to sell pelts of wild cats in China, as they are protected by law, but nobody seems to care.

 

 

Tibet 1987
Samdup-tse Dzong, the fort in Shigatse, was formerly the seat of the local government. It was almost completely destroyed by local Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chinese propaganda: This huge poster in Shigatse, Tibet, depicting happy Tibetan herders, is a striking contrast to the harsh conditions, which Tibetans had to endure during The Cultural Revolution. – The text, in Chinese and Tibetan, announces the following: “Act together! Pay attention to hygiene! Prevent illness by raising your personal health level!”. - The Chinese treatment of Tibetans is still quite racistic. Kinesisk propaganda: Denne plakat i Shigatse, Tibet, viser to særdeles veltilfredse tibetanske hyrder – en grel kontrast til de usle forhold, som tibetanerne levede under, mens Kulturrevolutionens rødgardister hærgede. – Teksten har følgende ordlyd (på kinesisk og tibetansk): “Lad os arbejde sammen! Vær opmærksom på hygiejne! Undgå sygdom gennem højnelse af den personlige helbredstilstand!”. - Kinesernes behandling af tibetanerne er den dag i dag stadig temmelig racistisk
Chinese propaganda. This huge poster in Shigatse, depicting very happy Tibetan herders, is a striking contrast to the harsh conditions the Tibetans had to endure during The Cultural Revolution. – The text, in Chinese and Tibetan, announces the following: “Act together! Pay attention to hygiene! Prevent illness by raising your personal health level!” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Dogs resting in an alley, Shigatse, Tibet. Hunde hviler i en gyde, Shigatse, Tibet
Dogs are ubiquitous in Shigatse. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Donkey cart, Shigatse, Tibet. Æselkærre, Shigatse, Tibet
Donkey carts are a common means of transportation in Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Jewellery, knives, bells, and other items for sale in a market, Shigatse, Tibet. Smykker, knive, klokker og andre genstande sælges på et marked, Shigatse, Tibet
At the market in Shigatse, this man is selling jewellery, amulets, knives, pots, and many other items. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Old woman with her granddaughter, Shigatse, Tibet. She is holding a rosary in her hand. Note the thermos to the left. Gammel kvinde med sit barnebarn, Shigatse, Tibet. Hun holder en bedekrans i hånden. Bemærk termokanden t.v.
An elderly woman and her granddaughter enjoy a break. Note the Chinese thermos – Tibetans bring one, wherever they go. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Boy with grimy face, Shigatse, Tibet. Note his 'scarf' of dirt! Dreng, som ikke er blevet vasket fornylig, Shigatse, Tibet. Bemærk hans 'halstørklæde' af skidt!
Tibetan boy, wearing a natural ’scarf’ around his neck – dirt! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Sign outside a dentist's clinic, Shigatse, Tibet. Skilt uden for en tandlægeklinik, Shigatse, Tibet
Sign outside a dentist’s clinic, Shigatse. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Invited into a house
We often stroll in the Tibetan part of town at the outskirts of Shigatse, which is far more interesting than the new Chinese part. Tibetan houses are more primitive, but much prettier, constructed of wood and sun-dried bricks. Even though we are sometimes harassed by beggars, Tibetans are generally a sweet and captivating people. They are very inquisitive, but in a friendly and smiling way. You just cannot help liking them. When you consider their terrible fate, you have to admire this tough, resilient, and cheerful people.

An elderly man is standing in the doorway of his house. When I ask permission to take his photograph, he cracks down laughing and invites us in. In the courtyard, which is full of cows, chewing their cud, a young woman is suckling her baby, while an elderly woman – the man’s wife – stares at us, astonished to see us here. She is clearly uncomfortable because of our presence, as Tibetans are not supposed to mingle with ‘imperialist’ foreigners.

Her husband just laughs, and inside the house we are served several glasses of chang (beer, made from fermented barley), with a little tsampa (roasted barley flour) in it. A corner of the living room is occupied by a large bench, adorned with painted dragons, and a huge prayer wheel, which is turned by the heat from a lighted candle. Inside these prayer wheels are scrolls with written mantras, which are transmitted into the Universe by the turning wheel. Before we leave, the man asks us for a photograph of the Dalai Lama, and, naturally, we give him one.

 

 

Tibetan Khampa, standing at the entrance to his house, Shigatse, Tibet. Tibetansk Khampa-mand i sin døråbning, Shigatse, Tibet
When I photographed this elderly man, he cracked down laughing and invited us inside. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Cattle in a courtyard. In many traditional Tibetan houses, you enter a courtyard, before arriving at the living quarters. - Shigatse, Tibet. Kvæg i en forgård. I mange traditionelle tibetanske huse kommer man ind i en forgård, inden man ankommer til beboelseshuset. - Shigatse, Tibet
The courtyard was full of cows, chewing their cud. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Joining devout pilgrims
Tashilhunpo is a huge complex of temples with countless rooms, stairways, and balconies. Between the buildings are courtyards, connected by alleys. Outside the main entrance, a giant swastika, consisting of lapis lazuli, turquoise, amethyst, and other precious stones, has been laid out among the cobbled stones. Every room houses numerous statues of The Buddha, and of various bodhisattvas (monks that refrain from entering nirvana, instead choosing to guide other people towards the goal), demons, and guardians. In front of the Buddha statues, hundreds of yak butter lamps are burning, emitting a distinct smell of rancid butter. Monks, clad in red robes, are chanting, some beating large drums or cymbals, others blowing into large conches. The walls are decorated with paintings and tankas (large scrolls, made from cloth), depicting Buddhist items.

We follow a group of friendly pilgrims around the complex. Many have come from far away, travelling for days to reach Tashilhunpo. They are clad in thick woollen clothes and wear felt shoes, made from goat hair. The married women wear a thick apron around their waist, made from three pieces of woven cloth, sown together lengthwise, one above the other. In front of each Buddha statue, the pilgrims make small offerings of barley, tsampa, or money.

Before visiting the sanctum sanctorum, merit is gained by circumambulating the entire temple complex along a route, called kora, which is several kilometres long. Some pilgrims prostrate all the way, lying down and stretching their arms in front of them, as far as they can reach. On this spot, they place their rosary, after which they get up, walking the few steps to the rosary, and prostrate again – repeating this procedure countless times. Devout pilgrims travel in this way from their home village to a temple, often being on the road for years. During their pilgrimage, other pilgrims, or resident farmers, will feed them.

From a courtyard, we hear voices and clapping sounds. A group of monks are performing a lesson of ‘intellectual discussion’. Two by two, the monks are facing each other. One monk gives a speech, emphasizing his words by slapping one hand into the palm of the other hand, while his opponent makes comments, whenever he feels like it.

 

 

Tibetan women and a boy visiting the Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet. Tibetanske kvinder og en dreng besøger Tashilhunpo-klostret, Shigatse, Tibet
Tibetan pilgrims, wearing traditional dress and old-fashioned felt shoes, visit Tashilhunpo Gompa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The pilgrim route – the so-called kora – around the Tashilhunpo Gompa, Shigatse, Tibet, is several kilometres long. Some pilgrims prostrate all the way, lying down and stretching their arms in front of them, as far as they can reach. On this spot, they place their rosary, after which they get up, walking the few steps to the rosary, and prostrate again – repeating this procedure countless times. Pilgrimsruten – den såkaldte kora – rundt om Tashilhunpo-klostret, Shigatse, Tibet, er flere kilometer lang. Nogle pilgrimme laver bedefald, kaldt prostration, dvs. de lægger sig ned og strækker armene så langt frem, som de kan nå. Her placerer de deres bedekrans, går frem til den og gentager processen utallige gange
The pilgrim route – the so-called kora – around the Tashilhunpo Gompa, Shigatse, is several kilometres long. Some pilgrims prostrate all the way, lying down and stretching their arms in front of them, as far as they can reach. On this spot, they place their rosary, after which they get up, walk the few steps to the rosary, and prostrate again – repeating this procedure countless times. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Tibetan female pilgrim, carrying her grandchild on her back, visits the Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet. The child is adorned with a fine new Chinese hat. Tibetansk kvindelig pilgrim med sit barnebarn på ryggen besøger Tashilhunpo-klostret, Shigatse, Tibet. Barnet bærer en fin ny kinesisk hat
This little girl, wearing a fancy hat, has fallen asleep on her grandmother’s back. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Sky burial
One early morning, we hike to Shigatse’s ‘cemetery’, some distance out of town. Tibetans practise what is, quite poetically, called ‘sky burial’. Since time immemorial, it has been their custom to bring their deceased into the mountains and feed their flesh to the vultures, so that they become part of nature’s great circle. As many tourists over the last few years have been unable to show proper conduct regarding this ritual, the Chinese authorities have decided that tourists can no longer participate in sky burials. They are allowed to watch them, but only from a distance.

We take our seats in the grass on a nearby hill and wait. Clouds come and go, creating ever changing patterns of light and dark on the mountain slopes. Finally, a tractor arrives with two bundles. Two men proceed to carry these bundles twice around a large circle, in which several fires are burning. The bundles are placed on a nearby slanting rock, which is darkened by dried blood, whereupon the men take their seat inside the circle. A few minutes later, they get up, pick up some bowls of tsampa, and walk up the slope to the bundles. Facing the mountains, they throw some of the tsampa into the air, shouting, the sound reverberating between the hills. From the rocks, about fifty Himalayan griffon vultures (Gyps himalayensis) take off, soaring over the area.

The two men now begin to cut up the bodies. Arms and legs are dismembered, the meat cut into long strips, which is again divided into smaller strips. In this way, most of the body is divided into small pieces, the skull and the rib case being left intact. The men then return to the circle. The vultures drop from the sky, gorging on the meat, while ravens and Himalayan black kites (Milvus lineatus) make an effort to get a share. Occasionally, two birds fight over some tidbit, their heavy wing beats causing a cloud of dust to rise. When their stomach is full, they hop clumsily up the slope, where they begin digesting their meal.

A couple of Japanese tourists, who have approached too close, are chased away by the butchers, who shout angrily at them. They then return to the bodies, armed with large hammers, with which they crush the bones. The skulls are crushed by dropping a large stone on them. This is lengthy work, as the bone splinters must be very small, before the birds are able to swallow them. The broken bones and the brain are mixed with tsampa, which is strewn on the slope. Some of the vultures, which haven’t had their fill, return to the spot, and soon all that remains of the deceased is a couple of splintered bones and a little dried blood.

 

 

Himmelbegravelse, Shigatse, Tibet. Slagterne parterer ligene
In Shigatse, so-called ‘sky burials’ take place in a valley outside town. Numerous Himalayan griffon vultures (Gyps himalayensis) gather to feed on the dismembered body of the deceased. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

A giant fortress
We board a bus to the town of Gyantse, where we stay at a hotel with a marvellous view over a green valley with yellow mustard fields and endless rows of poplars. The valley is surrounded by barren, reddish-grey mountains, which cast fantastic shadows morning and evening, when the sun is low.

The town is tiny and very peaceful. Two rows of houses and shops line the main road, leading up to the huge Palcho Monastery, enclosed by a long wall. On the temple premises is a large, pagoda-like structure, a kumbum, which means ‘one hundred thousand holy images’. This building depicts a three-dimensional mandala, an image of the Buddhist cosmos.

In the main building of the monastery, the frescos on the walls have been restored, but in a smaller building behind the monastery we witness several examples of the destruction that was carried out by Red Guards during The Cultural Revolution. Using hammer and chisel, the faces of the depicted Buddhas and bodhisattvas were chipped away, and several rooms have been completely destroyed.

The giant fort of Gyantse looms above town, situated on a huge rock – a marvellous sight, especially at night, when it is faintly illuminated by a Full Moon. The fort dates back to the 1300s, but is now in ruins – partly as a result of cannon bombardment from British troops, led by Colonel Younghusband, who conquered Tibet in 1904. Tibetan soldiers, armed with obsolete guns, tried to withstand the British troops, but ultimately had to surrender.

Outside the gate, an old woman hands us a tattered note, informing us that there is an entry fee of 2 Yuan (50 US Cents) per person. An elderly man, clad in red and wearing a large, brown felt hat, gives a long talk, of which we understand absolutely nothing. A jeep then arrives with three Chinese and a few Tibetan tourists. We obtain tickets, whereupon the guide opens the large, squeaking gate. He talks Tibetan and a bit of English, but is somewhat reserved during our tour around the fort. He doesn’t mention anything about the destruction, which took place during The Cultural Revolution – no doubt because of the Chinese tourists.

When the tour has come to an end and the other tourists have left, the old man suddenly becomes much more informative. He gives a colourful description of the bombardment by the British troops, and the ravages, caused by Red Guards. The monastery inside the fort has many rooms, and the destruction of cultural treasures is obvious. One of the rooms once contained fine frescos, depicting the eleven-headed and thousand-armed Chenrezig, of whom the Dalai Lama is an incarnation. There also used to be three gilded bronze statues, but they were stolen, and the present ones are poorly crafted copies.

From the top of the fort, we have a splendid view over the valley, where women are on their way home through the fields, hoes slung on their shoulder. Beneath the rock lies the town, with its huge monastery and the kumbum. The guide points out several other monasteries, which were destroyed by the Chinese.

 

 

Mountains in morning light, Gyantse, Tibet. Bjerge i morgenlys, Gyantse, Tibet
Early in the morning, the landscape around Gyantse is bathed in a gorgeous yellowish light from the rising sun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Women and a boy in a mustard field, Gyantse, Tibet. Kvinder og en dreng i en sennepsmark, Gyantse, Tibet
This little boy is walking home through blooming mustard fields with his mother and sister, who are carrying fresh fodder for their cows. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The fort (which was also the local parliament), Gyantse, Tibet, illuminated by the Full Moon. The fort was partly destroyed by The Red Guards during The Cultural Revolution. Fortet (som samtidig var regeringssæde), Gyantse, Tibet, oplyst af fuldmånen. Bygningen blev delvis destrueret af rødgardister under Kulturrevolutionen
Situated on a huge rock, the giant fort of Gyantse looms above the town – a marvellous sight, especially when there is a Full Moon, as when this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The great kumbum, Gyantse, Tibet - a pagoda-shaped chorten, the Tibetan variety of a stupa. Den store kumbum, Gyantse, Tibet - en pagodeformet chorten, den tibetanske version af en stupa
The great Kumbum inside the Palcho Monastery, Gyantse. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Theft
We leave Gyantse by bus, climbing up towards a high pass, from where we have a fine view over a large plain, dominated by a lake. On the plain, large herds of yak and horses are grazing, and numerous gulls are soaring over the lake. This looks indeed inviting, and we decide to stay here a few days. However, there are no hotels in the village of Nagarze, but following some difficult negotiations, as our Chinese vocabulary is indeed limited, we are allowed to spend the night at a small army camp, in which there is a spare room. The rest of the day we relax to avoid getting acute mountain sickness, as the altitude is around 4,600 m. In the evening, a lot of children from the village visit us. The event of the day for them is being allowed to use my binoculars.

The lake side is lovely. Yellow long-tubed louseworts (Pedicularis longiflora var. tubiformis), red primroses (Primula), and yellow saxifrage (Saxifraga) grow in the meadows, where Tibetan larks (Melanocorypha maxima) and Tibetan snowfinches (Montifringilla adamsi) hop about.

Here and there are small dens, from which black-lipped pikas, or mouse-hares (Ochotona curzoniae), peep out. About 12 species of these small, rodent-like animals live in Central and East Asia, besides a few species in Siberia and North America. They may look like rodents, but are in reality related to rabbits and hares. During the summer months, they collect large amounts of grass and other plants to store as winter food, as they do not hibernate.

There is an abundance of birds in the lake. A goosander (Mergus merganser) swims along the shore with her five ducklings, redshanks (Tringa totanus) and mongolian plovers (Charadrius mongolicus) scold, and on the lake surface, large flocks of brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and Pallas’ gulls (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus) are resting.

Back at our room, we notice that a window pane has been removed. One of my cameras and all un-exposed film rolls are missing. Luckily, the thief has not taken my exposed rolls. The soldiers cannot (or will not) tell us what has happened, but one of them offers to join us to the police station in Nagarze to make a report. The officer in charge is not at all interested, but instructs us to go to the police station in Lhasa. The soldiers agree to give us a letter, which we have to bring to the police in Lhasa, after which we must return to Nagarze with an officer, but – for some reason or other – they demand that one of us stay in the army camp. This is out of the question, so we decide to go to Lhasa to make a police report there.

Part of the way, the road follows the shore of a great salt-lake, Yamdrok Tso, which appears far more barren than the small lake at Nagarze. The bus huffs and puffs up a steep gravel road towards a pass, only to zoom down through several hairpin bends at a tremendous speed. Finally, we reach a surfaced road, and the last 100 kilometres before Lhasa are fairly easy going. From a distance, we see a huge palace, looming over the town. This is Potala, former residence of the Dalai Lama.

 

 

Pallas’s Gulls, Larus ichthyaetus, in a high altitude lake, Nagarze, Tibet. Store Sorthovedede Måger, Larus ichthyaetus, i en højlandssø, Nagarze, Tibet
The high-altitude lake of Nagarze has a rich bird life, here a flock of Pallas’ gulls (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Black-lipped Pika, Ochotona curzoniae, outside its den, Nagarze, Tibet. Sortlæbet Pibehare, Ochotona curzoniae, uden for sin hule, Nagarze, Tibet
This black-lipped pika (Ochotona curzoniae) is sitting outside its den at Lake Nagarze. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, formerly the residence of the Dalai Lama (today a museum). Potala-paladset, Lhasa, Tibet, Dalai Lamas forhenværende residens (i dag museum)
The mighty Potala Palace in Lhasa, which was formerly the winter residence of the Dalai Lama, is now a museum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple
It is Saturday. At the police station in Lhasa, they send me back and forth between two offices.

“The staff is having lunch. Come back at 4 p.m.”

At 4 p.m., I get this message: “The officer, who is going to take care of your case, is at a meeting. Come back on Monday.”

Sunday morning, we make a visit to the impressive Jokhang Temple – the most important shrine in Tibet. In front of the entrance, two huge clay ovens emit a balsamic fragrance of burning juniper branches. The roof of the temple is dominated by a large golden Dharma Wheel, whose eight spokes symbolize the eight-fold path to nirvana. The wheel is flanked by two deer, symbolizing the deer park in Sarnath, near Varanasi, where The Buddha gave his first lecture after finding the way.

You may read more about the Dharma Wheel and other aspects of Buddhism at Religion: Buddhism.

Numerous pilgrims are gathered in front of the entrance. They are standing with their hands cupped, whereupon they kneel and finally prostrate, their hands stretched out in front of them. Hundreds of times they repeat this ritual, muttering their most important mantra: “Om! Mani padme! Hum!” (“Om! Jewel in the Lotus Flower! Hum!”) Om and Hum are powerful mantra words, the jewel is The Buddha, and the lotus flower symbolises purity. Some pilgrims have tied flip-flop sandals to their hands, to protect their skin from being scraped off on the rough slates. Others have brought mats to protect their knees. Through the centuries, most of the slates have been worn smooth by pilgrims’ hands and knees.

Inside, the temple is adorned with dozens of beautiful frescos and hundreds of Buddha statues, in front of which countless yak butter lamps are burning. Numerous pilgrims walk along rows of prayer wheels, rotating them with their right hand. Outside the building, monks are bent low over books, studying sacred texts. A happy and positive atmosphere prevails here.

 

 

Burning incence in the early morning in front of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet. Tidligt om morgenen brænder folk røgelse på pladsen foran Jokhang-templet, Lhasa, Tibet
Juniper branches are burned as incense in large clay ovens in front of Jokhang, Lhasa – the most important Buddhist temple in Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Tibetan monks studying, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet. Tibetanske munke studerer skrifter, Jokhang-templet, Lhasa, Tibet
Outside the Jokhang Temple, monks were busy reading sacred texts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

“There is no theft in China!”
On Monday morning, I return to the police station, where I am received by an extremely unfriendly Chinese officer. I inform him that my camera has been stolen in Nagarze.

“There is no theft in China!” he says.

“I beg your pardon? Well, anyway, I have lost my camera and some film rolls!”

“First you tell me that your camera has been stolen, then you say that you have lost it. We cannot make a report, when you cannot give us a clear account of what happened!”

Astonished, I ask: “You are not going to make a report?”

“No!” he answers, turning his back to me and ignoring me completely. Bubbling with rage, I leave the building.

Quite depressed, Jette and I stroll down the streets of Lhasa. Passing a camera shop, we notice some Kodak film rolls, displayed in the window.

“They are probably your film rolls!” says Jette jokingly. We enter the shop to enquire about the price. As it turns out, they are quite cheap, so I ask for more. The sales clerk leaves, returning a little later with more film rolls, wrapped in plastic, which I immediately recognize. They are my film rolls! With mixed feelings, I buy enough for the rest of our stay in Tibet and China.

 

 

Tibetan monks training in the art of discussion, Sera Buddhist monastery, Lhasa, Tibet. Tibetanske munke oplæres i kunsten at diskutere, buddhistklostret Sera, Lhasa, Tibet
In the Sera Monastery near Lhasa, two Tibetan monks are engaged in an ‘intellectual debate’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Rock painting of a demon killing a bull that is killing a human, Sera Buddhist monastery, Lhasa, Tibet. Klippemaleri af en dæmon, som dræber en tyr, der er ved at dræbe et menneske, buddhistklostret Sera, Lhasa, Tibet
Rock painting, depicting a demon killing a bull, which is killing a human, Sera Monastery, Lhasa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Yak meat for sale in a market, Lhasa, Tibet. Yakkød til salg på et marked, Lhasa, Tibet
Yak meat for sale, Lhasa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

References
Craig, M. 1992. Tears of Blood – A Cry for Tibet. HarperCollins
Harrer, H. 1953. Seven Years in Tibet. Rupert Hart-Davies

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Latest update March 2019)