High

 Shigatse and Mt. Everest, Tibet, China  གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་གྲོང

As if 3600m Lhasa wasn’t enough to leave me breathless, why not head to the highest place in the world? (This, in a year where I headed somewhere close to the opposite already!)

It may be the most touristy thing to do in Tibet, but it’s worth it. (It’s also much easier and cheaper as a Chinese national; access to Tibet is restricted to guided tours only if otherwise.) I joined a four-day tour to the Chinese base camp of Mount Everest — known as Qomolangma in Tibetan (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ) and Chinese (珠穆朗玛峰), or just Zhufeng 珠峰 for short. (Being the demarcation of the Nepalese border, it’s known as Sagarmatha there.) We crossed some of the highest roads in the world, passing by countless stretches of stunning scenery: fields of wildflowers, Tibetan villages, impossibly blue lakes (oxygen-deprived, due to the altitude) like Yamdrok-tso, monasteries, and even the Kharola glacier above 7000m with the viewpoint leaving me heaving at 5560m! I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

The journey, while looking like a short distance as the crow flies, is pretty arduous, with switchback after switchback after switchback making me dizzy pretty quickly. I mean…

Well, it was worth it in the end. We were very fortunate with the weather, and arrived at the 5200m base camp in time to see the clouds clear right off the northern face of 8848m Mount Everest! Even in July, it’s still completely covered in snow. Gasping from the altitude (which some people brought cans of compressed oxygen for) and freezing as the sun went down, we all stuck it out for a few extra minutes and a few more and a few more, staring in awe as the sun lit the peak in orange. Then we all woke up in the dark, freezing again in the morning, just to see the sunrise — not a single complainer in the group.

While the trip was dominated by scenery, we did get some interesting cultural exposure around Shigatse (Tibetan: Xigazê; Chinese: Rikaze 日喀则). Tucked away from the garish new Chinese-style part of town is the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, beautifully inclined upon a hill. Not fully able to understand the Mandarin explanation, I wandered off on my own, ducking into ornately decorated temples displaying photos of the 9th, 10th, and Chinese-sanctioned 11th Panchen Lamas — the latter of whom presides over the complex and lives roughly a kilometre away. (While many Tibetans don’t support this “fake” Panchen Lama, as I mentioned in my last entry, there are many in Shigatse that do.) My reward for wandering off a little too long and a little too far was witnessing three monks in the process of making a sand mandala inside a temple — extremely detailed and vibrant artwork made of coloured sand.

Also on my own time in the evening, I wandered around Shigatse’s old town, where residents still live in traditional whitewashed homes, in the shadow of the city’s dzong fortress and a winding line of prayer wheels on the hillside leading up to it. Alongside the Tibetan market, it’s a stark contrast to the rest of Shigatse, but a sign that tradition can live on despite Chinese modernisation.

On our last day, we visited a government-sponsored village next to Shigatse airport. While the whole “government promoting minorities” thing gets a little tiring as it did in Guilin, with the endless music and dancing, it was still an insight into rural Tibetan culture. In this village, the government provided houses, fridges, doctors, roads, and tourists who visit and then feel compelled to donate clothing, and they’re understandably appreciative, to the point of our local guide proudly displaying her poster of Mao as if a “household god”.

Like the Zhuang women in Guangxi, the locals swear by silver jewellery and its medicinal factors and applications (and also use it as an opportunity to sell silver to visiting tourists). It also plays a part in their diet, which is heavy on starch (barley) and meat (yak). With few green vegetables, digestive problems arise, which they solve by drinking a mixture of vinegar, salt, and water that’s had some silver jewellery put in there for awhile.

Poverty is a thing — somewhat willfully. With Tibetan Buddhism being so central in their lives, there’s not much of a culture of saving money. Whatever extra they have, they buy jewellery with, which they later give to the temple anyway. But wealth, or lack of it, also plays a role in building families: in rural areas, polyandry is common — meaning one woman takes many husbands. Polygyny (one man with multiple wives) is uncommon though it happens too, but polyandry tends to happen when a family with multiple sons can’t afford multiple dowries, and so marry off some or all of their sons to the same woman. A woman with two to four husband-brothers is considered pretty normal. The eldest husband gains all the prestige and an equivalent title of “father” when children are born, while all other husbands are called “uncle”; nonetheless, a child might not know which of the husband-brothers is their actual father, and will treat all of them as if they were their father. As for…well, sleeping arrangements, they take turns. Everyone usually sleeps in the common room, where flat couches also serve as beds, but a couple does have a private room to themselves. But everyone lives under the same roof, and any dissatisfied party can divorce and leave.

While the family is important, again, Buddhism tends to take a more extreme importance in Tibet. I’ve seen people walk the koras around the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, prostrating themselves after every step. Our guide told us that people will walk hundreds of kilometres from their homes all the way to Lhasa’s sacred sites, prostrating the whole way! A journey like that can take anywhere from months to several years, often alone and with no chance to see or reach family, and pilgrims who do so often have scarred foreheads from all of the kowtowing — not to mention extremely dark complexions from the high-altitude sun, along with being bruised and battered by all sorts of extreme weather, which they will walk through regardless. They depend on alms for food and survival, since they can’t possibly carry all that they need along the way. Those who don’t make it along the way ask other pilgrims to bring a tooth of theirs to the Jokhang Temple.

Yeesh. And our bus full of Everest visitors thought sitting in a car for four days was hard!

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