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A Sacred Lake, and a Tibetan Wedding

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on November 20, 2009 with No Comments

“Did you bring gloves? Weather in Nam-tso is not like Lhasa. The young guy at the agency knows nothing. You will see bad weather,” Nima warned me as we walked to the Land Cruiser.

It was 8 am, and we were heading to Nam-tso Lake, 240 km from Lhasa.

Nima didn’t seem happy with my decision to add one more day to the trip’s itinerary. I suspected that he also wasn’t happy that I had paid the agency instead of him directly for that extra day.

But before I talked to the agency, I had asked him if it was possible to do a day trip to Nam-tso Lake. Nima gave me various excuses: the weather was bad, it would take too long, etc.

But I’d seen photos of this holy lake, and I was blown away. I was willing to stay an extra day in Lhasa and pay the extra expense just to visit it.

View of Nam-tso Lake

View of Nam-tso Lake

When I met Tashi in Lhasa, I told him about my desire to stay an extra day in Tibet to visit the lake. He had to check the extension of the permit, and how much it would cost.

The extra day was pricey: 1,800 Yuan ($264). I knew it was a rip-off. If I could have paid a driver, a guide, and an extra night at a budget hotel independently, I probably would have spent no more than $100-150, but I had no options but to use an agency.

“You should have told me! How much are they charging you?” asked Nima as we walked to the car.

“I told you I wanted to go to Nam-tso, and you said it was no good. But Tashi said it was okay. Unfortunately, I had to pay what the agency asked me for.”

“New driver! Lupong sold his Land Cruiser,” said Nima as we got inside the car. He introduced the new driver.

I had become fond of Lupong. He was always smiling, and I had learned how to pronounce his name! The new driver was just as kind, but his name was also impossible to pronounce.

Nam-tso Lake

Nam-tso Lake

We left Lhasa. The roads impressed me; they seemed new and had no potholes.

Equally impressive were the pilgrims crawling on the side of the road and doing prostrations on their way to Lhasa. According to Nima, they came from very far away. Sometimes they spent up to six months traveling from their towns to the city. Tashi later explained that by doing the prostrations, the pilgrims cleansed themselves of their sins and earned merit. Trucks and cars passed so close to them that I thought they were going to get killed, but the devotees were in such a deep spiritual trance that they didn’t seem to notice the danger. As we drove farther—and as the weather got colder and the ground became covered with snow—we saw more pilgrims. This was truly devotion.
Security in and outside of Lhasa was tight. We had to stop at many security points and show our permits. In fact, there were more security points here than on the road to Termez, Uzbekistan—right on the border of Afghanistan!

But the ride to Nam-tso Lake was spectacular, filled with snow-covered mountains reaching into the clouds. Half-frozen lakes wove through the landscape, appearing and disappearing. Herds of yaks fed on the dry, low grass. The sky was bright blue, and the sun was shining, making the snow sparkle. The temperature was below zero.

Nam-tso Lake

Nam-tso Lake

“You see, I told you. Snow. Bad weather. Lake probably frozen,” complained Nima.

“It is okay, Nima. I don’t have mountains back home. I love this landscape, and I don’t mind the cold weather.”

I was more afraid of the high altitude than the weather. I had read in the guidebook that one should stay in Lhasa for at least a week before going to Nam-tso because the sudden altitude gain of 1,100 meters could be dangerous. But I didn’t want to leave Lhasa and regret not going to the lake.

It took us about three hours to get to the entrance of the lake—if there weren’t so many checkpoints, we could have done it in less.
We took a zigzagging road through the mountain. At one point, we reached 5,510 meters in elevation. It was snowing. The path was covered with snow and a heavy fog. I feared the lake wouldn’t be turquoise as in the photos, but frozen as Nima predicted.

After 20 minutes of driving through the mountain, a long, deep blue line appeared on the horizon. It was the Nam-tso Lake, and it was just as stunning as in the photos!

We started our descent. The huge blue lake rested in a barren plain at the bottom of the mountain.

Although the road to the viewpoint was covered with ice and snow, we finally made it. It was sort of a small island in the middle of the lake with some tents and restaurants on it.

Nam-tso Lake

Nam-tso Lake


“You go ahead. We wait for you here.” Nima pointed at one side of the lake.

“Nima, I am actually going to the top of the hill for a better view,” I said. After coming this far and paying so much money, I wasn’t going to just walk to the shore!

“Not possible. Dangerous!” said Nima.

“Nima, the book said it is okay. Don’t worry. I’ll see you in 40 minutes.”

Climbing the hill was neither impossible nor dangerous. Although it wasn’t a high hill, the altitude factor made it a strenuous hike. I felt as if my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I was out of breath, and my face and hands were numb with cold. But what awaited me at the top of that hill was worth the effort.

With an elevation of 4,718 meters above sea level, the Nam-tso Lake has the highest altitude of any salt lake in the world. It extends for 70 km, and it is one of the three most sacred lakes in Tibet. Some people believe coming to the lake will grant good health and a happy life.
Finally at the summit, I enjoyed the striking panoramic view of Nam-tso’s glistening turquoise waters. On one side of the lake, it was sunny with a clear sky, and on the other side, it was cloudy and dark.

Thousands of prayer flags dangled in the breeze from the rocks atop the hill. The lake’s color ranged from clear to very dark blue. And snowy peaks of more than 7,000 meters served as the lake’s background. I sat on a rock covered with flags and took in the view. There was no one around. Supposedly hundreds of tourists flock here in the summer, but today, I had the lake to myself.

I went down to visit a stupa. I also wanted to have a closer look at two rare, wedge-shaped rocks at the foot of the hill. Between them, I found a monastery that looked like a temple built into the face of a rock, along with a couple of small chapels in caves. Two lines of golden prayer wheels stood near the shore of the lake, waiting for pilgrims to spin them; but their only companions today were the famished, dirty dogs roaming around.

It was time to return to Lhasa. I had a Tibetan wedding to attend!
I was expecting to be back in Lhasa around 4 pm. But because of the security points, I didn’t make it back until 5:30!

I had to run. I was supposed to be at the wedding at 6 pm. I didn’t have time to buy a gift or proper clothes for the special occasion. I arrived at the hotel, took a quick shower, and took a taxi to the restaurant where the reception was taking place.

Tashi was waiting for me on the street. I almost didn’t recognize him. He wore the traditional Tibetan garment: a long-sleeved smock with a golden stripe down the side, a sash around his waist, and high black boots.

“You are just in time for dinner!” said Tashi, beaming.

“Thank you, Tashi. I am thrilled to be here. I’m Sorry that I didn’t bring a gift and that I am dressed like this. It took forever to arrive in Lhasa. I just got here,” I said.

Tibetan Wedding

Tibetan Wedding

“It is okay. I will tell you about the Tibetan wedding.” He led me inside the restaurant, which had a large garden in the middle. In the center of the garden was a shrine with a bag of incense and a bag of dried cow excrement, which was supposed to bring good luck and prosperity to the bride and groom.

“My brother was crying this morning. Now, he is moving out of the family’s house to live with his wife. We live close, but still it is sad,” Tashi said.

The wedding had started at 8 am with only the families of the groom and the bride present, but the preparations for the ceremony had begun at 4 am. Later that day, the couple made some offerings at the altar. Then, the parents and the couple went inside a room, where guests brought a white scarf to each of them. At the end of the night, there was a huge pile of white scarves in the room. Now, people were enjoying dinner and playing chess and other games.

We went straight to the buffet. As we were eating, the glowing bride approached us. She wore a bright red dress and a long, black, sleeveless cape with golden stripes and a flower print. She had a gold and silver belt around her waist, and a fox-fur hat on her head. She wore gold earrings inlaid with turquoise and coral. Her makeup was so heavy that it made her look very white. She smiled at all times.

“When she came out, she covered her face because she was embarrassed,” explained Tashi. She wasn’t used to wearing so much makeup.

The groom wore a simple garment, similar to Tashi’s.

“Come here; now all the guests need to drink a special Tibetan wine.

The girls will sing and dance in each room before they give the drinks to the guests.” Tashi pointed at some young, beautiful girls. They also wore traditional garments. But they wore dark-colored dresses instead of red underneath their embroidered black capes. They also had black, rounded caps with golden and flowery stripes. Like the bride, they wore heavy jewelry of coral, turquoise, and gold on their necks and ears.
The girls walked into the room with two men who wore fox-fur hats; one of them held a huge silver jar with a golden dragon on the top, which carried the Tibetan wine.

With Tashi

With Tashi

The other held a large, elaborate bowl made of silver and gold. The two men and the girls started singing to the guests. The bride watched and smiled while the groom took photos—he was actually the photographer at his own wedding! The bride’s mother was a sweet old lady who never stopped smiling. She also wore a fur hat and a heavy necklace, which was made of amber, coral, turquoise and another stone that—according to Tashi—was rare and really expensive; we couldn’t figure out the name of the stone in English. The men opened their mouths wide to sing, and the girls sang and laughed. Then, it was time for the dance. The girls and the men held hands and moved their arms and bodies up and down as they continued to sing. Then, it was time for the guests to drink the Tibetan wine in the name of the couple. Our cups were filled to the top, and we had to drink it all at once, but some people seemed hesitant. They made odd faces, scrunching their mouths up when they drank from their cups. There was a lot of laughter.
Newlyweds

Newlyweds

Tashi explained that his family was in one room, the bride’s family in another room, her brother’s friends in another room, and so on. This ritual would continue in each room.

Everyone was very kind and welcoming to me. At first, I felt like an intruder, but soon it was as if I were part of the family.

“Thank you, Tashi. I cannot imagine a better way to end my trip to Lhasa. This was very special,” I told Tashi when he introduced me to his mom. She placed a white scarf around my neck before I left, wishing me a safe trip back home.

Tomorrow, I will continue my journey, heading to Everest Base Camp.

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