Trekking Day Four

The morning of day four dashed any hopes of any green valleys. Our tents were under 2 inches of fresh snow! (see photo) Most surprisingly all our yaks had disappeared. It took me a while in the murky light of the morning to figure out that the big snowy mounds around were not big boulders, but our yaks covered in snow. These animals are incredible - so oblivious to the elements.

We started the long march down, again through mushy snow. Spring was in the air, but the catkins on willow trees had icy armour attached to them. Had the trek been two weeks later we'd probably see the rhododendrons in full bloom. I hear the organisers moved the 2006 event two weeks into June.

Eventually green rhododendrons and willow bushes started emerging and we shed our outer layers. After several hours of marching we reached the first village - Chanda, still miles from civilization. We were allowed to visit the house of one of the villagers for a small fee. The house was built from mud and stones and had a little atrium with high walls protecting from the elements (and the ubiquitous prayer flags protecting from evil spirits). In this middle of nowhere I was quite surprised to see a small solar panel on the wall. Precious electricity from this modern wonder fed only one appliance - a TV set.

After the first village we met more pilgrims going to the holy caves above, and lots of local children. There was no end to sharing sweets, pens and photographs. Those at whom no lens was pointing were disappointed and loudly demanded to be photographed. Tiny screens of our digital cameras provided an endless source of giggles among the models. It was here where we said goodbye to our 45 yaks and their 16 drivers, who looked after us so well over the last 4 days. We had to restrain ourselves so as not to give them a round of applause, as clapping your hands in Tibet means the same as booing in England. Sticking the tongue out is a more appropriate way of saying 'thank you'. Gifts of money, clothing and hiking boots were grossly appreciated.

We were advised by our great trek leader - Theo Peeters, that it is better if for the last leg of our journey we take a 'tractorish vehicle' available locally, as it would give us more time for the Samye monastery and help the local economy. A 'hellish vehicle' would be a more appropriate name. The contraption consisted of a single cylinder diesel engine with a flywheel mounted on two wheels, two long steel rods for steering and a trailer. The latter had no suspension or padding of any description - just raw, welded steel. The 'road' consisted mainly of boulders and ditches and the tractor operators must have been reincarnated Ferrari racing drivers. Those of us who survived the trek intact had a chance to acquire a decent injury now. The next day we added attractive purple streaks to our suntanned bodies. The 'fun ride' lasted 1 and a half hours and brought us (on 5 or 6 tractors) straight to the courtyard of Samye monastery.

Samye is a special place - it was here in 755 CE, after a two-year scholars’ debate, that Buddhism was made the state religion of Tibet. A stone pillar with inscriptions dating back to those days still stands in the courtyard. Hundreds of prayer flags crisscross the main square (main picture above) and 4-metre high incense burners work at full steam. It is a remote place - we'll need to travel another 25 km crossing a sandy semi-desert and spend 1 and a half hours on a ferry to be anywhere near civilization. And yet, by some miracle, we found a heaven sent gift: a cold Coca Cola!

The prayer wheel circuit and all the other spaces were beautifully decorated with delicate floral motifs, and you could tell that they were very old and many were in urgent need of renovation.

Eventually we packed into two last public busses to head for a ferry crossing over the Brahmaputra, which is locally known as Yarlung. The 25 km dirt track lead through a true sandy desert with real sand dunes created by millions of years of the river changing its run. When they said 'ferry' I thought along the lines of Dover-to-Calais P&O service, particularly if it was to take up to two hours. What we saw on arrival didn't quite meet my expectations - a large, open wooden boat with benches for up to 100 people (see the photo below). Much more pleasurable than a buzz-cruise across the Channel!

The journey was very peaceful and lasted 1 and a half hours. The 'captain' had to zigzag all the time to avoid the sandbanks, the river at this time of the year is not in its full flow yet. Somebody passed around small squares of paper with some Tibetan scripture on them. We were supposed to make a wish, tear them into pieces and offer them to wind and water.

On the other shore we were reunited with those who had to be evacuated at the beginning of the trek (four of them) and eventually arrived in the evening to a modern hotel in Tstethang - the second largest city in Tibet. There was no end to congratulatory hugs and kisses. The next morning, after a two-hour journey to Gongkar (Lhasa) airport we flew back to Beijing. The great adventure was over.

The unspoiled and rugged nature touched us all. So did the Tibetan people we met. As a tribute to them I created a special Portrait Gallery devoted to them. For more practical advise visit the Tips page. I hope you enjoyed this virtual journey as much as I did the real one. If you did, please drop me a line. And do not forget to visit the Donations page before you leave - I'm still short of my fundraising target.

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