On the Roads of the Tibetan Plateau

By Susan Spano

Los Angeles Times

LHASA, Tibet ~ Once travelers reach this ancient city, the options for sightseeing on the Tibetan Plateau are as dizzying as the altitude.

Agencies in seemingly every hotel offer road trips to formerly isolated places, such as sacred Mount Kailash and Samye, Tibet’s first monastery. A Land Cruiser is the preferred mode of transport on the plateau.

The highways are a gift from the Chinese government, which began building roads almost immediately after it occupied the region in 1950.

I recently followed concrete mixers on a road trip to Shigatse (also spelled Xigaze), about 130 miles west of Lhasa. My goal was to see Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lamas , second only to the Dalai Lama.

The first day of the two-day, 300-mile trip – with a driver and guide, who brought along his teenage daughter – would retrace part of the route taken by the British when they stormed the sealed gates of Tibet in 1903.

We drove west out of Lhasa across the long, wide Kyichu Valley, rimmed by barren, metallic-colored mountains, then south, following an intrepid group of cyclists on the switch back road to 15,728-foot Gampala Pass . A tent encampment with wind-battered prayer flags, tea stalls and a pool table served as a rest stop where Chinese tourists were having their pictures taken with decorated yaks.

There, I caught my first sight of Yamdrok Tso Lake to the south of the pass. Sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, the lake covers about 260 square miles and is dreamy blue and desolate, surrounded by sky and short dry grass.

We ate lunch at a restaurant in Nangartse, a dusty town on an arm of the lake about an hour west of the pass: guides downstairs, tourists upstairs, all eating the same Chinese mushrooms with pork.

After lunch, we turned west to 23,700-foot Nojin Gangsang , the first snow-capped Himalayan peak I’d seen in Tibet, rising above the treeless no-man’s land of the valley. From there on, the landscape was like Utah with Alaska on top.

Then the pavement gave way to the rubble of road construction. For the next 50 miles, we crunched along on gravel, winding above and below the main route on even more treacherous diversions, crossing a bridgeless river in water that came up to the vehicle’s windows. Road crews – as many women as men – were clearing landslides, blasting out cliffs, building retaining walls and living in grim camps alongside. There were no towns, only the occasional mine and a vast reservoir (too new to appear on my map) that impounded the Nyangchu River. When it started to hail, the driver stopped and consulted with a worker, who said the road was closing the next day so construction could be finished by the end of the year.

Finally, we reached pavement at 16,437-foot Karola Pass. There, travelers scramble around a white Buddhist shrine at the foot of Karola Glacier. I paused to inspect the the site of what is thought to be the highest-altitude battle ever fought, a 1903 clash between British soldiers with machine guns and Tibetans with matchlocks.

As in all the engagements during the expedition – undertaken by the British to make sure Russia didn’t reach Lhasa first – Tibetan casualties were appalling.

“It was sheer slaughter,” a disgusted English soldier wrote home to his mother as recounted in Trespassers on the Roof of the World by Peter Hopkirk.

Beyond the pass, the terrain smoothed out so that even from a distance it was easy to pick out the massive hilltop fortress at Gyantse, scaled by a handful of English and colonial troops while Tibetans pelted them with rocks.

Before settling down for the night at the Gyantse Hotel, we climbed to the top of the six-story pagoda-style temple at Palchoi Monastery to watch the sun set and the town slide into pale pink shadows.

The next morning, on the 50-mile drive from Gyantse to Shigatse, I saw a strikingly different countryside. The highway follows the Nyangchu River, which waters the most fertile valley in Tibet. Farmers behind yak teams plowed well-irrigated fields of rape (related to broccoli) , garlic and barley. Sheep blundered onto the road, and housewives wielded brooms in front of homesteads surrounded by walls.

Around noon we reached Shigatse, where we toured Tashilhunpo, the largest active and perhaps best-preserved monastery in Tibet. In front of Tashilhunpo’s huge gilded statue of the Future Buddha, I tossed the white silk scarf I’d been saving for a special occasion, as a token of reverence. Then it was back to Lhasa along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, also known as State Road 318 , following the glorious Tsang-po River.

Along the route, we caught sight of a traditional, dish-shaped Tibetan boat, tossed like a leaf in the current, then crossed and re-crossed the gorge on gleaming bridges.

Chinese development has brought mixed blessings to Tibet, but I thank the Buddhas, present, past and future, that I got to cross Karola Pass on one of the new roads.



On the Rails: Between meals the dining car on the Beijing-Lhasa Express doubles as an observation lounge.

Los Angeles Times photo by Susan Spano

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