Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

I’m writing from Shigatse’s internet cafe/game centre – apart from having to swat flies away and find a space for my water bottle among the cigarette ash, it’s pretty comfortable. The seats are clearly designed with 12-hour computer sessions in mind…

So Lhasa has been left behind. Our first stop was Gyantse, Tibet’s third-largest town. The drive there was indescribably stunning – undulating green valleys turned into snow-peaked mountains that stared down at us from an impossible height. The highest stop we made was on a pass at 5050m, surrounded by glaciers and snow. The air and light had an unnerving clarity to them. I wandered away from my group, and with my back turned to them, for a minute everything was perfectly still and silent, save for the low hum made by the wind through the peaks. It felt briefly like I was the only person in the world – just me, the mountains, the snow and the sky. From there we came across two lakes set in valleys, both a fantastical colour, particularly the second one – an eerie shade of bright turquoise (http://www.indovacations.net/English/tibet-places-yamdrok-tso-Lake.htm – here are some pictures). Called the Yamdrok Tso, this is one of the holiest lakes in Tibet – and also the site of a recent hydroelectric dam project instigated by our People’s Republic. Just fancy that!

After 7 hours of superlative scenery and tortuous roads, we finally hit Gyantse. I found it quite charming – the buildings are mainly in the traditional Tibetan style (grey brick, squat, lots of windows with coloured frames and short curtains at the top on the outside, which constantly ripple in the breeze). The people were curious, but friendly. As I was writing in my diary in the hotel lobby last night an old Tibetan lady, carrying a yak butter flask, tapped on the window of the hotel to get my attention and pointed at me, smiling. After a second I realised she was pointing at the prayer beads wrapped round my wrist (purchased from the nunnery in Lhasa). I smiled and nodded, and she tapped again, pointed once more, and then seemed to clap, looking delighted. It’s been the third wordless (or nearly) but meaningful exchange I’ve had on this trip – I wonder when the next one will occur…

Our short stay in Gyantse ended with a trip to the Baiju monastery, which has been my favourite place so far. Built in the 15th century, it’s a monastery of the Gelug-pa (or Yellow Hat -http://www.traveladventures.org/continents/asia/images/sera-monastery10.jpg – an example of the headwear) sect, and somehow felt different from all the other monasteries we’ve visited. Everywhere I went, I could hear monks praying. In the chanting hall, they were performing throat-singing, and donned their hats midway through. It’s a sight I’ve been wanting to see for such a long time, and to come across it by chance felt like a blessing. It was also less busy than many of the other sites we’ve visited, lending it a more spiritual air. After the monastery we strolled through the old Tibetan part of the town, where we could have been in the 1950s. Cows lined the street, hay slid around underfoot and women sat outside their houses with their children, grinning and waving at us as we walked past. None of which prepared us for the challenge of climbing to the top of Gyantse’s fort – 130m up from the height we were already at (3950m). Only 7 of us were brave (stupid?) enough to have a crack, and sure enough, by the time I got to the top it felt like my lungs had turned into glass, which I risked shattering with every breath. Completely worth it though – the view was easily as breathtaking as the climb.

And now we’re in Shigatse, Tibet’s second-largest town, back down at 3900m. I’m not quite so enamoured with this place – it has an odd atmosphere, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The bazaar was interesting but felt rather hollow and soulless, and the Chinese side of town just looks like another Asia-anywhereville. But it’s my last point of contact with the outside world (through the internet, at least) until I get back to Kathmandu. Coming up – a night in a monastery, Everest base camp and what are, I have on good word, the most diabolical toilets known to man. Luckily, inspired by my history lessons on the Black Death, I’ve had the brainwave of buying surgical facemasks and spraying them with perfume before venturing into the outhouse. See, history isn’t just 10,000 years of human error.

So, time to click my heels together three times and disappear from this internet cafe – the more I look around the more it seems like I’m sitting in a giant ashtray. Plus in the corner of my eye I keep seeing small objects shooting across the floor, and I’m not sure if they’re insects or cigarette butts. Now I know we’re not in Kansas…

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