Yak herd in the mountains

SYNOPSIS:  About traveling the world, about travels in Tibet, about “the agency”,  and about a disastrous excursion to Lake Namtso.

I was going to join a “tour” today to drive up North to visit the sacred Lake Namtso.   But only “scruffy Ben” from Denmark showed up.  I guess we are a group of two. 

Instead of Lobsang, the guide that had been promised to me for the whole trip, it was Tenzin who accompanied us.  What happened?  Information is never quite forthcoming around here.  And at this point, I am at the mercy of what is put in front of me by “the agency” as Great Tibet Tour is referred to by its employees.

The agency decides who is part of a group and for the next three weeks also decided what I will be doing every day.  I am on a “fixed tour”.   Both Lobsang and Tenzin promised to visit a nomad family on the way to the lake, an event I was most looking forward to. 

To make a 12 hours long story very short:  There were no nomads and there was no lake.   There was nothing but a waste of time.   So now, I have to make the best of it and figure out what was there?

First there was scruffy Ben from Denmark, an obviously experienced traveler.  In his 60’s now, he has visited 65 countries and is counting.  At 3-4 countries per year, he still hopes to visit every country in the world, someday.  I have given up that hope long ago as I like to do no more than 1-2 countries per year and have only hit the 40 country mark so far.  He is an environmental engineer with a consulting business which he can operate from his computer for much of the time, allowing him to be on the road for extended periods at a time.  That’s the kind of job you need if you are into traveling. 

I always make up descriptive titles for my travel companions, so I called him “scruffy”.   His pants had definitely seen better days and his hair had not been washed in ages.  He still had a lot of backpacker mentality in his blood, or perhaps, he was just a man.  I guess even on the road, I am a neat freak who thrives on frequent showers and I will go the extra mile for regular laundry sessions whether they happen in buckets or sinks.  But that is just me talking.  We had a good time chatting  and at the end of our fiasco day, headed out for a lovely dinner in town.  For Ben, this was his last day.  Tomorrow, he would be flying home.  Ben’s company ensured that time passed somewhat meaningfully today.  If I had been on my own, I really would have wondered why on earth I was made to do this as I had clearly specified cultural sites over natural ones as the focus for my visit.

We had to be on the road at 5 AM.  Dusk only lifts around 8 AM here.  Contrary to the US which is divided into four time zones, the even larger country of China operates on a single time zone based on Beijing time.  Some locals, just in opposition to that, hold on to their unofficial “local time”.  I encountered that very confusing phenomenon in Xinjiang.   

By noon we had reached the Namtso National Park entrance.  It was closed.  Cars had piled up for hours at a little rest spot waiting for the opening of the gate.  Common wisdom among the drivers was that there had been a snow storm and ice was on the road that had to be cleared.  Was it worth waiting?  We gave it an hour, tasting some of the local baked goods, photographing some of the dressed up mastiff dogs on display, and just watching the ever increasing chaos of population, cars, and trucks at the rest stop.  Finally, the gates opened and the scramble begun.  As a car with two Western tourists, we were waved to the front!

For as much as we could see, the snow-capped mountains were beautiful.  Soon we reached a peak with a viewing area.  There is the lake, our guide proclaimed.  There is a lake?  Where?  The snow had started to drizzle down again and there was no telling where the mountains ended, the clouds continued, the lake began.  It was all a milky soup of white.  There is no point in this, both Ben and I decided, and we urged our driver to turn around and head home.  We had been one of the first cars in and were one of the first that decided to get out, except…  that buses, private cars, and vans filled with tourists (mainly Chinese), had mixed with construction and road vehicles and completely blocked the steep serpentine road.  Cars coming in had tried to pass each other and were now stacked up two and three side by side, leaving zero room for a returning car such as ours to get out.  What a mess!    

We were the only car facing outward, soon circled in by other cars who were trying to still get up and others who attempted to turn around — but could no longer.  Blockage increased exponentially.  Nobody budged.  Three drivers finally organized a small loophole for us to squeeze out.  The larger vans or buses behind us had zero chance.  We got the hell out as soon as we could.  Obviously, the gates of the park had been closed again.  There was no oncoming traffic, nor was there any traffic following us.  Lucky us, we had clear sailing.

The Lake area was at about 4700 meters elevation.  It had gained its reputation as a sacred lake based on a myth that sounded to me like a stew of myths from other cultures. A little bit of Grimm Fairy Tales, immaculate conception, and prince in shiny armor rescuer.  A queen dreamed of a beautiful horseman descending from the nearby mountains.  Within days she realized that she was pregnant.  She bore a son whose strength enabled him to dam the nearby river, thereby creating Namtso Lake which since is considered sacred.

Further down in the valley, the weather was clear, sunny, and pleasant. Farmers were ploughing their fields with a pair of brightly colored yak.  Others were tending to the fields by hand.  Others were piling up yak dung.

Prayer flag poles marked significant geographical spots such as bridges, small cliffs, or cave areas.  The locals around here believe in self-created emanations of images along rock cliffs.  People “discover” these images and then paint them to make them more noticeable.  One of the most beautiful of these was of Padmasambhava, the lotus-born, and a favorite local deity. 

And so I have to say, there were a few things today:  A traffic jam, a snow storm, a few rock paintings, scenery, and a new acquaintance.    Who would call that a wasted day!

Good night.