Our Driver Pootse

SYNOPSIS:  1200 KM.  From Lhasa to Gyantse to Shigatse, to Sera to Darchen.  Tales from the road.  Lots of images are embedded.  Keep scrolling down.

Shigatse felt like the last of everything:  the last warm shower, the last wonderful breakfast buffet, the last time I would put on clean clothes.  We were delayed by two hours because of the trouble with the permit office.  Every minute of delay felt a bit of a relief.  From here on out, it would be rough.  For eight days we would be on the road, covering the 2400 km between Lhasa and Mount Kailash and back.   On the winding roads around here, that means often 8 hours a day in the car.  For the first three days we were in the car, covering distances, and seeing some of the sites that I described in my previous blogs.  The culmination would be the three days spent on the most sacred pilgrimage path for Buddhists, Hindus, and Bon alike:  doing the 56 km kora (circumambulation) of Mount Kailash on foot.  And then we would have two full days retour before reaching civilized Shikatse, and a day later, eventually Lhasa again.

It is hard for me to describe scenery of all those days, but what we saw ranged from wild herds of ponies, deer and gazelles, to domesticated flocks of mountain-sheep and yak.  We saw turquoise-colored sacred lakes nestled within rocky mountains or floating next to yellow sand dunes, sacred springs gushing down from the rocks and small streams meandering through the dry lands.

We passed ancient mountain villages far away from anything, and newly constructed “reparation” towns set up by the Chinese government for the nomads in winter time lined with solar-powered street lines topped with Chinese flags.  We spotted the nomads in their tents, no longer made of yak wool, but canvas and often with a big truck parked next to it. 

We made it through numerous police check points.  Some officers were too busy on their cell phones and barely bothered to look up.  Others spent a seemingly endless time sifting through every piece of paper in the stack of permits Tenzin carried for the both of us.   We also passed a lot of fake police cars, solar-powered decoys and police mannequins presumably placed along the road to keep people in check and to prevent speeding.

 We marveled at rows and rows of snow-capped mountains and glaciers.  And we could hardly comprehend the variety of hills we passed:  some yellow, sandy ones; gray, blue, and reddish colored stone formations, heaps of gravel with sparse grass bushels; or stretches of land filled with gleaming white, smooth rocks that would make any landscaper’s heart beat faster. 

We had blue skies with white fluffy clouds, experienced, rain, snow, and sunshine.   Seasons around here change within minutes and at times you can observe multiple weather zones from one location:   rain behind you, snow to the side, sunshine ahead.

We passed the low stables set up by loose rocks for the herds out there, and we spotted numerous mysterious tall-towered ruins.  Tenzin when asked, called them “transfer villages” by which he meant that these were abandoned villages which had been rebuilt elsewhere.  But the more I paid attention to the prominent locations of these ruins and the unusually high and stable tower formations, the likelihood that these were villages, was slim.  My guess is that these are some of the thousands of monasteries that were pillaged during the Cultural Revolution.  Those monasteries were stripped of all of their riches, their monks killed, or imprisoned, or displaced.  Leave any of those adobe constructions to the elements and in a few years time, the rainy season will have washed away the colors.  Only monasteries have tall temple structures and tangkha walls…  I have no proof, just saying.

We serpentined up enormous hills on brand-new asphalted roads.  We bumped along roads that could use some TLC, and our guts were wrenched on some of the gravel paths that were probably in the next five or ten year master plan of Chinese road construction.  One of the worst roads we survived could have entirely been avoided, but our lovely and lively driver Pootse had it in his mind that he was going for a short-cut.

In order to save 50 km, he embarked on a dirt road that took us through virgin lands but almost cost us an axle…  At one of our photo stops, Pootse threw his arms up and exclaimed:  This is what all of Tibet was like, 30 years ago.  And he turned to me:  And you were 30 years younger then!  That statement came in the context of declaring that he liked me on the first day of our trip and would like to marry me.  When I pointed out that I was way too old for him, he is 37, he pointed to his heart and said that all that matters was the heart and not the age.  So I showed him my little family album and explained, that my heart was with my husband, my son, his wife, and my two grand-children.  He gave me two thumbs up but put me on a mission:  find him a wife in America.  Well, I am passing on his request.

But back to our short cut.  For once, there was no trace of Chinese presence or interference.  There were no electric poles, no river embankments, no concrete rain channels.  There were ancient iron bridges that made you wonder if even a motorbike would reach the other side, not to mention a car.  But when you saw an even rougher make-shift road swirling off to one or the other side just before a bridge, you knew you would be better served going that way, than taking a chance with one of those bridges. We were in an area of those beautiful white rocks; big and small.  As picturesque as they are, they are deadly for a car to try to go over as they serve as road blocks more than anything.  All out!  The men were moving rocks, I was photographing.  The men were pushing, I was identifying obstacle rocks.  After 10 minutes of hard work, a precariously inward bent back tire, we got loose and back of the detour of the shortcut.  That was a close call!  For the two of us, Sergej and me, the breathtaking scenery was all worth it.  What Pootse had in mind, saving 50 km, adding an hour to the trip and putting his truck in harms way is beyond me.  But I am not here to question.  I am here to enjoy.

Many places in the Tibetans’ minds are inhabited by local spirits and you are never short of prayer flag poles, kerns or small stupas, marking and honoring the spirits’ abodes.  And indeed, the vastness of the scenery of Western Tibet is nothing short of awesome and endless; infinite and mysterious, and no doubt filled with spirits and gods. 

Way to go!

And just for fun, here is what happened at one of our rest stops when I minded my business, munching on some cookies:  I got company!

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  1. This was so much fun to read for you certainly filled the day with everything from fake policemen to glaciers,weather, short cuts, yak herds, prayer flags, a marriage proposal and even sharing cookies with a goat. One could not make up a story filled with so many things going on.