After a short time in Lhasa, we traveled over the Friendship Highway to Gyantse and Shigatse on the way to Everest Base Camp, our southernmost destination in China. We were unable to continue along the highway into Nepal because the earthquake damage had rendered the road impassable, so instead, we would loop back up to Lhasa for an expensive flight (US$500 each!) into Kathmandu. With the multitude of switchbacks and crumbling asphalt, high up through the mountain range, I would not have been eager to try to make it over the highway. The scenery was stunning. It was mind-boggling to me to daily life through subsistence farming happening at 4000 to 5000 meters (average 4500 meters), the highest plateau in the world. Sadly, we also saw evidence of Chinese mining; in fact, one night we slept near a mine with trucks passing at all hours. HH Dalai Lama cautions against the environmental impact of the Chinese mines; rivers from the Tibetan Plateau provide water to most of southern Asia.
Gyantse turned out to be a high highlight for Fran and I. The British invaded Tibet and took the fort there at the turn of the century; they have a museum there formerly known as the "Anti-British Museum" documenting anti-imperialist sentiment. A cartoon in the museum highlighted the European land-grab in Asia; Tom (our Chinese guide) told us this was required reading in his history books in school. Fascinating to see the Asian view of Westerners. We then headed over to see the Gyantse Kumbum, literally "100,000 images stupa," the largest stupa in Tibet. They were working on the structure, no doubt damaged in the earthquake, so that we were only able to see the bottom level, a handful of the 108 total chapels. Each chapel contained carved images, some out of metal and others of stone, as well as detailed colorful murals. While the chapels in the stupa were fascinating, the best part of the day was a well-preserved ancient street leading down a side road. Here, artisans carried out their crafts, carving wood, painting, dying wool, working with metal, and gathering thatch for the sides of their home. Carefully restored houses not only showed traditional Tibetan life, but also had the added bonus of being inhabited by people still carrying out their daily duties, including maintaining livestock and putting cow dung on their houses to dry for fuel (and perhaps, insulation). I absolutely loved the time spent on that street.
Shigatse also turned out to be a treat. It had a very impressive monastery housing the biggest gilded statue in the world, a 27 meter high Buddha, and the detailing in the temples were gorgeous. The best part, however, was walking the kora around the temple, high up on a hill, while a festival was in full swing. Fran and I headed into the festival grounds twice. The show was difficult to see, particularly when a large chicken appeared on the stage and everyone stood up to get a better look. It was also absolutely filthy; the attendees were not too worried about finding a trashcan for their picnic leftovers or a restroom, for that matter. But watching all the pilgrims, young and old, dressed in their traditional clothes, was just fabulous. The kora had multiple levels, many differently decorated prayer wheels, and the day was so beautiful that the walk up the hill was a delight. At the top, we sat on a sunny rock overlooking the festival and were visiting by a bleating goat. What wonderful memories (and photos!) I have of that day.