One is supposed to circumbulate only clockwise, so Cat and I spent ages going round and round the Barkhor scouting for bargains or just looking for each other. I often hung out at the Makye Ame rooftop restaurant which has one of the best views of the Barkhor. Rumor has it that the dissolute 6th Dalai Lama used to slip out of the Potala to this place to meet up with a mysterious woman friend. The Summit café was also a favorite after hours hangout and had a fairly good Internet connection. I tried to see if one could access information about Tibetan politics, religion and leaders but surprise, all those sites were banned!
My friend Cat was fascinated by the devotion with which people do the Chaktsal (prostration) and watched all day while an old woman went through this series of steps over and over. I spent time with two wonderful people…both introduced to me through my Tibetophile friend Trish who had helped us plan our trip. Charming, hospitable Phurbu, who along with her husband makes and sells the most stunning Tibetan carpets, is also mother to a number of orphans in the Lucky Star orphanage. And Tseden Namgyal, master painter of Tibetan tankhas (paintings) who patiently answered my questions about Tibetan iconography and came with me while I selected fabrics to frame the White Tara I bought for my mom. I must state for the record that we did not discuss politics or religion and that the views expressed here are mine and mine alone.
We drove for 7-8 hours at a time, day after day, through the mostly arid, unchanging landscape. The towns bordering big cities were full of Chinese and were gray, drab places. Tibetan households everywhere were easy to spot from their brightly colored doors. There were other splashes of color for Tibet has many rivers and is greener than I have always imagined. As we ventured further out of Lhasa, the roads became increasingly more bone shattering and dizzying.
One of our first stops was Tridum, a nunnery famous for its therapeutic hot springs. To this place goes the dubious distinction of the worst public toilet I have ever had the misfortune to use. Our rooms were pretty basic and with the same indifferent standards of hygiene. To avoid spending time there, Cat and I decided to try the hot springs. Cat had sensibly carried a swimsuit but I had not. At first we headed to what looked like a small private hot spring but after we had inadvertently frightened and chased away the poor man who was soaking peacefully there, we discovered that the water was way too hot for us.
Then a bunch of ladies arrived with their pink cheeked snotty nosed offspring. The women wore some elaborate braids with turquoise and ribbons. Some had thick woolen capes and had obviously not bathed for quite a while. They all stripped down to basics too. Now Cat and I were overdressed! The mothers dunked their squalling kids in the water and scrubbed them mercilessly. It was increasingly merry. The nuns taught me the names of different polite body parts in Tibetan (I got over my blushes pretty quickly) and all the ladies were giggling and pointing at us. Occasionally some mother would blow her baby’s nose and a wad of snot would float by. The boys from the men’s section were really curious about the naked ladies and were trying to peek over the wall. I was worried about how the nuns would react to this, but they were blissfully unconcerned! We sat there in happy harmony until our skins started to wrinkle.
Our next stop was camping overnight in yurts at the NamTso lake. This massive salt water lake, the second largest in China, is ringed with snow capped mountains. Henreich Harrer crossed over some of these 7000m peaks when he made his journey to Tibet and spent 7 eventful years there. The water in NamTso has an ever changing color palette reflecting its mood that ranges from grays to blues to greens to purples.