ET on Horseback

SYNOPSIS:  About the last day of sightseeing in Tibet.  About royal tombs and a royal fortress-palace.  And about the final monastery; a real old one with a unique treasure. 

This was the last evening of our almost month-long trip together.  I invited both Pootse and Tenzin out for a goodbye dinner.  And we celebrated — over noodles with yak meat… I guess, they either did not want to, or really could not come up with any other idea.   I have seen a lot and yet, almost nothing.  The real Tibet is still hiding from me, behind the walls of houses of families that I am not allowed to visit,  in little villages that I am not allowed to roam, and inside the minds of people who will not speak openly, for fear of repercussions.  But I have seen a lot, and even a few new things on this last day of exploration.

Today, our destinations were not just monasteries or holy lakes; they included the necropolis of ancient Tibetan kings, and a fortress, yeah!  I have to admit that I am quite monastery-worn, especially since I am not allowed to photograph any of the interiors.  After a while, all the assembly halls, protector chapels, and images start to blur into one big jungle of butter-lamp glowing, gilded, and brocaded, bulging eye, scull-and vajra wielding, or benignly smiling heads.  Without photographs, I have no visual aids to sort them out.  What is a shame from an art-historical perspective is that nobody can with certainty, date any of these images.  Are you looking at a medieval masterpiece or a make-up of yesterday?  Unless the images could be seen without the glass cases and without the heavy paraphernalia draped over them, it’s all a guess.  And the information provided by the guides (and even the local monks at times), is not reliable; it can’t be.

Chongye is not Giza, but  the valley of the tombs of the Tibetan kings is beautiful, if underwhelming, in its own way.  Tenzin claimed that none of the tombs had been excavated and that nobody knows what’s inside any of them.   That is hard to believe.  For sure, the British raided a few of them and could probably tell another story.  But who knows?  A later monastery tops the most important tomb, believed to house Songtsen Gampo, the big unifier of Tibet.  That would date these tombs to the 7th century and provide some rare pre-Buddhist evidence.  At times you can’t help but wonder about the Tibet before Buddhism.  What was it like?  Buddhism, for better or worse, swallowed it all up and put an everlasting mark on this country.

Yumbulagang  is perhaps the oldest palace-fortress in Tibet.  It towers above a valley only 120 some kilometers from Lhasa.  The land that was barren a month ago  now is filled with greenery.  Everything sprouts.  What a site!   But how to get up there?   Somebody else must have had that thought and turned it into a good business idea:  Horses for the lazy ones!   That was just what I needed.   The palace was surprisingly spartan.  The king only had a few bedrooms and an assembly hall.  Nothing like Versailles, crusader castles, or the Shogun castles in Japan.  But Tenzin assured me that this was a live-in castle, not just a retreat in war times. 

Aside from the ancient legends that talk about the origin of this castle, Tenzin had a contemporary one to add: When I wanted to purchase some amulets up there, Tenzin stirred me away.  There is a monk up here, who practices black magic!  According to Tenzin, if I were to buy anything here, I might be in grave danger!  To humor him, I followed his advice.  Remember the Kongpo people?   This country is full of magic, ghosts, spirits, black and white magic after all.

Trandruk was our very last monastery.  Just like the tombs and the castle, it is believed to be among the oldest in Tibet.  People come from far to see the most precious object of the place:  a tangkha made up entirely of pearls; tiny pearls.  If I got the story right, it was a princess in need to erase some bad karma who made this piece.  I guess, that is the more fitting thing to do for a person of her standing, and it beats prostrating all the way to and around Kailash! 

We drove through some pristine (and by that I mean untouched by Chinese development) Tibetan villages.  How would I have loved to walk around and photograph.  But … I am not allowed.  Really, what would happen if I would be walking around in a tiny remote Tibetan village?  Would I be arrested if caught?   Tenzin is not the daring type.  And for his sake more than anything, I behaved on this very final day in Tibet, and photographed only what I could, out of the driving car. 

By 6 AM we will be on the road tomorrow morning, driving to Lhasa Airport.  If I could have, I would have taken the land route to Nepal.  But since the 2015 earthquake the border crossing between these two countries has been closed to tourists, indefinitely.

See you over there!