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My Tibetan Karma

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on November 21, 2009 with 2 Comments

“Please wait!” called Ussuf’s son as I was about to leave the hotel. Ussuf is the Tibetan Muslim who owns the hotel where I stayed in Lhasa, and who has been my companion for breakfast every morning in a large, empty dining room.

Since it is low season in Tibet, Ussuf doesn’t have many other visitors.

“Have a safe journey. Come back to Lhasa!” Ussuf’s son placed a white scarf around my neck. Soon, I would have enough white scarves to make a dress!

Ussaf wasn’t there today, so I asked his son to say goodbye on my behalf.

“It is going to be a long drive. Yesterday we took the Chinese-Tibet highway, but today we will take the Tibet-Nepal highway,” said Nima as we drove away from Lhasa.

Pilgrims were already pouring into the streets with their rosaries, prayer wheels, and mantras.

The road that connects Tibet with Nepal is known as the Friendship Highway. It extends for 865 km. It is supposed to be one the most spectacular land routes in the world because of the scenery along the way.

Tibetan Landscapes

Tibetan Landscapes


Although there were a couple checkpoints on the road, we didn’t have to show our permit.

We left the flat land and begun to go up, driving on a serpent-like road through the mountains. The curves were so severe that I slid from one side to the other in the back seat. Fortunately, I don’t suffer motion sickness. Perhaps my long land trips by bus and daredevil driving on precarious roads in Laos and India made me immune to it!

Despite feeling like I was inside a washing machine, the landscape riveted me. It was still cold, but there wasn’t snow on the mountains; they were dry, brown, and staggering.

“Soon, the pass. Yamdrok Lake next. You can take photos,” said Nima.

We arrived at the summit of the Kamba-la pass at 4,794 meters above sea level, from which there was a spectacular view of a coiling blue crystal lake surrounded by mountains. A massive glacier—over 7,000 meters in elevation—known as Mt. Nojin Kangtsang was visible in the distance. I was speechless.

Yamdrok Lake

Yamdrok Lake

Tibetans believe that the Yamdrok Lake is home to deities, so devotees come here and walk around the lake for seven days in pilgrimage.

As soon as I got out of the car, several locals approached to offer me jewelry or photos with a yak or a furry dog. I just wanted to be alone to enjoy the view.

An old man with a yak approached me. “Yak, yak photo!”

“No, thank you,” I said.

Then, Nima came up to me. “You take photo with the yak,” he said.
“Nima, I am not a souvenir person, and I am not the kind of tourist who takes photos on yaks or camels unless I am actually on a ride, but thanks,” I said.

“No yaks like this anywhere,” Nima insisted. “Take photo. Only 10 Yuan.”

If this was going to make them leave me alone, then it was worth it even if I didn’t care about a yak photo.

The old man helped me get on the unhappy yak, which was ornamented with colored tassels. I felt sorry for it.

After the photo was taken, the old man with his yak and Nima walked away.

Finally, I was alone. I stared at the endless blue sky and imposing landscape, the contrast of the turquoise waters and the desolate mountains.

I went back to the car. Nima would drive me down to the lake, and then to the glacier.

“This lake is unbelievable, Nima,” I said.

“Much better than yesterday, no? Too much money,” he replied.

Although I wasn’t happy with the cost of the extra day, I was thrilled that I had seen more of Tibet. Nam-tso was spectacular, and thanks to the extra day in Lhasa, I got to attend a Tibetan wedding. I hadn’t complained at all, so I didn’t know why Nima kept saying how “unworthy” Nam-tso was.

“Nima, maybe for you Nam-tso is not worth the trip, but I really liked it. I don’t have this kind of landscape back home, and I don’t come to Tibet often, so I am really happy I did it.” At that point, I was tired of his disapproving comments. It was my trip, and I should be able to do what I want to do.

Nima is a nice guy, but he is not a very knowledgeable guide, and his English is very basic. Maybe he was used to the type of tourist who loves to spend money on souvenirs, rushing from place to place and taking quick photos. I take hundreds of pictures, and I sometimes buy something, but I am more interested in understanding the cultures of the places I visit. And if I am in the outdoors, I may sit and enjoy the landscape for a while. Maybe even write. I don’t think he gets me, not yet.

We continued the ride and stopped at the glacier for a photo. Again, street vendors and beggars assaulted me. The “shopping” pressure was so great that I jumped back into the car quickly.

Will I be able to enjoy some quiet time in this incredible place? I wondered.

We descended from the glacier to drive through valleys with winding rivers and dry, wind-swept plains. We also passed a range of jagged mountains and hills covered with brown grass. We were driving through a valley when I saw a sort of fortress in the distance, soaring from a hill and encircled by winding walls.

We were approaching the small town of Gyantse, where we would spend the night.

A couple historical sites are located in the valley with Gyantse, the most important being the Gyantse Kumbum Monastery.

I dropped my backpack off at the hotel and went straight to the monastery.

The complex hid well-preserved temples inside. A local prince built it in the fifteenth century.

Monastery and walls

Monastery and walls

“I show you a couple of temples,” said Nima.

We were about to enter the main building when suddenly Nima started talking about changing the trip’s itinerary.

“Tomorrow, we don’t stay in Shigatse. We continue. You can finish earlier. Old people take time, young people can do it faster, you see. Do you understand?”

“Sorry, Nima. What you are saying? Why do we have to change the itinerary?” I asked.

“I know, the agency doesn’t know. Do you understand? No need a night in Shigatse. You can finish earlier,” Nima said.

I knew what this was about. If we finished the tour early, Nima could keep the money from that extra day. I’d had a similar experience with a guide in Mongolia, and I’d had to stay determined during the entire trip to make sure he took me to all the places I paid for. But Nima was giving orders to the wrong person. I can listen to suggestions and I can negotiate, but I don’t follow orders.

“Nima, I don’t need to arrive earlier in Kathmandu. I want to stay as long as I can in Tibet. We don’t have to stay in Shigatse tomorrow night, but let me look at my book tonight, so I can tell you where I would prefer to stay. It would be great if we could stay close to the base camp, so I can hike from the monastery to the camp and walk the valley. I don’t mind spending more time around there.”

“No possible. Base camp can’t walk in the valley. Military, you know. Do you understand?” he pressed.

What I understood was that he was lying to me, and I wasn’t going to allow it.

“You know, Nima, that is very strange. I went over this itinerary with the agency for a long time. They told me I couldn’t stay overnight at the base camp, but they assured me I could hike in the valley,” I said.
He insisted it was “impossible.” I had to make my point clearer to him.

“Well, Nima, let’s do this,” I said. “I am going to call the agency. As you know, I paid them a lot of money, so if they lied to me and they cannot take me where they promised to take me, then they need to give me my money back. So let me talk to Tashi about it.”

“No need agency. No problem. Itinerary the same,” he responded
quickly. He knew he would be in big trouble if I called the agency.

“Okay, great,” I said. “I will check tonight and let you know what I want to do.”

I wish Tashi had been my guide. Before he had an office job at the agency, he worked as a tour guide. He understood the kind of traveler I was. He wanted me to experience the Tibetan culture; that was why he invited me to his brother’s wedding. He took time to explain Tibetan traditions and their way of life. Nima, on the other hand, seemed only interested in money.

The guide can make such a big difference on a trip; I still remember Haukur, my guide in Iceland. He was an outdoorsy, adventurous, and proud man who went out of his way to show me the best of his country. Or my kind Sherpa Phurba in Nepal, who took care of me when I suffered from altitude sickness, but who also didn’t discourage me from doing what I wanted to do.

Now, I was stuck with Nima for the rest of the trip . . . my Tibetan karma!

But I wouldn’t allow a mediocre guide to ruin my trip. I had a stunning monastery waiting for me.

I started at the Assembly Hall, which had some spooky-looking protector statues at the entrance. Chapels decorated with gigantic golden Buddhas surrounded the hall, which contained hundreds of old scriptures and huge deities carved in wood. Exquisite, vividly colored frescos covered the walls.

Monks wandered around the shrines, while pilgrims walked clockwise around the chapels, putting their hands in prayer position when they reached the altars.

Stupa of the monastery

Stupa of the monastery


I walked to a gigantic stupa of several floors, each of them with small chapels dedicated to a different Buddha. I found some steep stairs and climbed to the top, which gave me an incredible panoramic view of the town, the whole monastery, and the walls that surrounded the complex. Until it was time to meet Nima, I wandered around the complex, watching and following the pilgrims.

I could have stayed longer, but I was feeling tired. The high altitude made long sightseeing days difficult.

Time to rest. Tomorrow may be an intense day . . .

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