Long way home - Part V - Lhasa to Siliguri: Homecoming across the high mountains

Tripoto
10th May 2016
Photo of Long way home - Part V - Lhasa to Siliguri: Homecoming across the high mountains 1/1 by Yubanaswa Chakraborty
The Potala Palace, Lhasa

In April-May 2016, My wife Beena and I, traveled from London to Siliguri (India), mainly by trains. We crossed ten countries, 17,500 km, crossed under the English Channel, crossed the Aral mountains, the great Siberian plains, lake Baikal, the Gobi desert, the great wall of China and lastly the Himalayas to reach home. This is the concluding part of our travel.

To read from the beginning - start reading here.

Day 1

Map for this part of the journey

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

After our 42 hour train ride from Beijing, we arrived at the ultra modern train station at Lhasa at about 4 pm local time. Read about that part of our journey here.

Lhasa Railway station

Photo of Long way home - Part V - Lhasa to Siliguri: Homecoming across the high mountains by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We, the foreigners, were soon escorted into a police control room, and all details were noted down. There were in all four foreigners on this train. Outside the station, we were received by our guide, and a warm welcome was in place. After making us feel very comfortable, he dropped each one of us in our hotels. On the way he explained the dos and don'ts of Tibet. There are many don'ts and a few do's.

Lhasa city in the evening

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Lhasa city in the evening

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The new part of Lhasa is a gleaming modern city. Towering skyscrapers dwarf the tall mountains at the horizon. In the night, they shine like the New York skyline. This may dishearten a lot of people. But for me, it was expected. The old part of Lhasa, had partly retained its old buildings and fabric.

Lhasa city in the evening

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Lhasa city in the evening

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We were not feeling breathless at all, so we decided to walk down the alleys on the very first evening. The first meal of MOMOs accompanied with a Hindi chatter with the locals gathered in the tiny shop. A lot of Tibetans have studied in India, and they are fluent in the language.

MOMOs - what we actually came to Tibet for!

Photo of Long way home - Part V - Lhasa to Siliguri: Homecoming across the high mountains by Yubanaswa Chakraborty
Day 2

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The first two days were spent in Lhasa. Acclimatizing to the roof of the world. Wandering around the ancient alleyways. Much of Lhasa has changed in past one decade, since the train arrived. Influx of mainland Chinese, setting up of large businesses - changed the city forever. A new center of power has now been set up in front of the Potala palace - the people's parliament of the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region). The palace itself is now called a relic zone, and has been converted into a museum.

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Central to Lhasa, also central to the life of the Tibetans - lies the Jokhang Temple. This temple is almost 1500 years old now. Founded by the legendary King Songtsen Gampo, it has stood through bloody history and devastating earthquakes. In the twenty first century it still takes the center stage. Thousands of devotees come every day. The lie face down on the dirt in front of their lord, Buddha.

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Inside of the temple, fascinating idols decorate the chambers. Photography is strictly prohibited here. The central hall has two gigantic idols - one of the present Buddha Shakyamuni and one of the future Buddha - Maitreya. Around the central hall there are manu chambers - ranging from Bodhisattva to Avalokitesewara, from Manjushree to Atisa.

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The chamber of Atisa is a sure-shot goosebumps inducer for anyone from Bengal. Remembered as Dipankar Shrignyan - the ancient scholar from the Pala dynasty, we find him only in history books back home. But in the Jokhang temple, he still lives in the heart and soul of the devotees, in the faraway land across the mountains.

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa (Potala Palace in the backdrop)

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Outside, in the square, incense burns in colossal containers. Towering prayer flags flutter in the air. Beyond the fumes of the incense we could see the majestic Potala palace. The alleys have a fabric unique to Lhasa, but similarities with old Indian towns is evident. Small shops, roadside food stalls, music playing on boom boxes, Lhasa alleys are always busy and noisy.

Streets of Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

In the evening, the square can be seen a different colour. Thousands of devotees crawl on prone position and circle the temple in clockwise direction. As neon lights come up, and the dusk sets beyond the mountains, a magical light falls upon Lhasa every evening.

Day 3

Monks in Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Religion has played a big role in everyday life in Tibet for thousands of years. Neither the cultural revolution, nor the communist prohibition on religion could get rid of that. The crowd that gathers at the temple every day and every night is the evidence! Ever since the Indian teacher Padma Sambhava crossed the Himalayas and brought Buddhism here, Tibet has been the epicenter of Buddhism. Faraway places like Russia and Mongolia have been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism for more than a thousand years. On this journey, we have finally arrived at the epicenter of what we started witnessing after crossing lake Baikal.

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

At peace, Jokhang Square, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The next stop for anyone visiting Lhasa has to be the Potala Palace. This requires a special arrangement for the foreigners, and everyone is given a fixed time to go inside. Another architectural marvel of the old world, covered in this trip. The palace is a breathtaking feat of engineering, along with the rich history associated with it.

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The cultural revolution killed its spirit though. I stood near a window, high up, and imagined how the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled this very palace, hidden in a caravan, headed towards India. Somehow I felt this event completed a cycle that started from Padma Sambhava crossing the Himalayas from down south. When Tenzin Gyatso crossed the mountains back to India, the cycle completed, leaving a void in Tibet.

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

And right now, most Tibetans are living their everyday life in that void. Potala palace sits atop a hilltop looking over all that. A palace without the king. A school without a teacher. Aptly called a relic from the past.

Local people though, keeps their faith running. They paint the palace once every year, with white, golden, and maroon colours that they create from the natural rocks of the mountains.

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

They go around the palace, spinning the prayer wheels. A sprawling big city spreads across the valley, complete with all modern aspects - an airport, railroad, busy streets, cinema, supermarkets and huge shopping malls.

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

There was bad news waiting for us. We were told that we will not be able to cross into Nepal through the Friendship highway. We were told to arrange for alternative arrangements to proceed - that would mean either to fly to Nepal, or go back to mainland China and proceed through Myanmar. We didn't have time to go through Myanmar. So, we bought flight tickets to Kathmandu, but carried on along the highway. A slim hope of crossing the border into Nepal was still lingering in the corner of my mind.

Day 4

Along the Sino-Nepal friendship highway

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Along the Sino-Nepal friendship highway

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

By the river Bramhaputra

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

By the river Bramhaputra

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Soon we crossed the Jade blue Bramhaputra (called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan language) and then we were cruising on the Friendship highway that runs along the banks of the river. The highway starts in Shanghai and ends in Kathmandu - crossing over 5500 k.m. In this part of Tibet, the highway is a two lane windy road crisscrossing the mountains, reaching towards the high passes near the high ranges of the Himalayas.

The river Bramhaputra

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty
Day 5

Traditional way of cultivating

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The highest point on the Sino-Nepal friendship highway

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The highway passed through some exquisite landscape. Far-spread mountains and high lands, cut across by rivers and dotted with turquoise lakes, we feasted our eyes. Among them the tiny hamlets of peasants, villages, shops and roadside eateries kept emerging. As in most parts of China, in Tibet use of domesticated animals for land cultivation is a widespread practice.

Yamdrok Tso

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Yamdrok Tso

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Yamdrok Tso

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We spent our night in a hotel in Xigaze city. It is a rather large settlement, with the notable Tashi Lhunpo Monastery located at one corner of the city. Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, who is backed by the Govt of China. Interestingly this monastery was destroyed by the revolutionaries during the cultural revolution. But most of the relics survived as they were successfully hidden under tonnes of crops!

A woman from Xigaze

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Humans of Xigaze

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We also got to visit Gyanze, another historical town close by. Gyanze boasts of a fort and the famous Palcho (Palkhor monastery). Gyanze is a much smaller town than Xigaze and has a more 'Tibetan' feel than Xigaze.

An old lady in Gyangze

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Two pious ladies in Gyangze

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

A Rickshaw puller, Gyangze

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The train line is now progressing beyond Lhasa. Goods train is already running till Xigaze. In two years this will be connected by the passenger train from Lhasa, and in turn, with Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. The people landscape change completely when the train arrives. As we noticed, all the settlements along the friendship highway, were predominantly inhabited by Tibetans. Lhasa is a more diverse city now, with people coming in from all over China.

The Gyangze palace

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The Gyangze palace

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Inside the Palcho Monastery, Gyangze

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Palcho Monastery, Gyangze

Photo of Gyangze, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We were in very high altitude. Beena was coping quite well, despite being prone to AMS. We were all grouped in a minibus. The foreigners included us, one Sri Lankan, a few Canadians, Poles, French, Germans and Americans. We were kept under strict vigil. At night we had to submit our passport to the hotels. In the bus, we were accompanied by a policeman. He even slept in our tent in the Everest base camp.

A high pass near Yamdrok Lake

Photo of Yamzho Yumco, Shannan, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest)

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The next evening we reached the Quomolngma /Sagarmata (in English: Mount Everest) base camp. At 5400m, this was literally the 'high point' of our journey. We stood in awe, looking at the mighty 'Ocean Goddess'! It was one of the clearest days possible, with not even an inch of sky covered by clouds. We froze ourselves and stayed out through the sunset. After it got dark, we got cozy in the tents. We woke up again at 3 AM to see the mountains in moonlight. The milky-way was clear on that night. We were standing in front of the highest mountain that night. The moon shining above it. And, behind it all lay the spiraling galaxy that we live in. I have never felt so small in my life. We live a life that is a mere blip. But some men live longer in myths, and they become legends.

Sunset on Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest)

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty
Day 6

Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest)

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

One such legend is an ancient sage from India - Guru Padma Sambhava. He is known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibet. Right beside the base camp, lies the small but incredibly historic Rongbuk monastery. Inside the monastery is a cave, in which Padma Sambhava used to live and meditate when he reached Tibet. The monk who lives there now, told us the legendary stories of the guru.

"He had a wife in India, and when he wanted to go and meet her, Guru Rinpoche used to take the form of a pigeon, and fly through a secret tunnel that connects this cave to India" he told us. "When guru Rinpoche left this monastery, he wanted to leave a mark for his followers. He left imprints of his hand on the rocks" - The monk shone his flashlight on a boulder in the dark. He showed us a clear deep imprint of a hand, on the solid rocks!

Photo of Long way home - Part V - Lhasa to Siliguri: Homecoming across the high mountains by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

With a Yak herder near Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest) base camp

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Around the monastery, we met some local shepherds. We met the yaks. They carry the baggage for the Everest climbers from the base camp. We were not allowed to walk any further from this point. Every place in Tibet requires a different permit.

Yaks chilling near Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest) base camp

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Yaks returning from the Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest) base camp

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The road to Quomolngma /Sagarmata - (Mount Everest) base camp

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We tool the winding road back to Tingri. There were checkpoints every 100 km or so. It was quite obvious that we had to return to Lhasa. There was no way of proceeding to Nepal on this road. The border was shut and was not likely to open up any time in May.

Prayer flags with Everest / Nanda Devi range in the backdrop.

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The high(est) point of our trip

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The writing on the wall

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

It was another two days of journey back the friendship highway. With another night halt in Xigaze, and passing through some amazing lakes, glaciers, picturesque villages, we were back in Lhasa.

A tiny village close to the Everest base camp

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Along the Friendship highway, New Tingri, Tibet

Photo of Tingri, Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty
Day 7

Along the Friendship highway, New Tingri, Tibet

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Along the Friendship highway, New Tingri, Tibet

Photo of Xigaze, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

With a very heavy heart we entered the Lhasa airport. Actually we were escorted in, and seen off at the airline check-in counter of Air China.

Day 8

Lhasa Airport

Photo of Lhasa, Tibet, China by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

We were almost home. We almost speak the same language, we use the same script, we follow the same customs. And we did not need a visa (or a passport) to get in. The immigration official was not expecting Indians on this flight, he gave a broad smile and said – “Aap ko to immigration ka jaroorat nahi hai!

This was my first time in Nepal since the revolution. The last time I had come it was a Hindu Kingdom. Now it was a communist country. It seemed in a shambles after the earthquake. My heart was broken to see my favourite Durbar square lying in absolute ruins from last year’s earthquake. More shattering was the state of lives. Last year I helped my friends from Lucknow raise some funds. It made very little impact as I could see, many folds more was actually needed.

We are still living in broken houses. No one has done anything. The money people donated have been stolen.” – again more stories of misery.

Day 9

Partying at Thamel - Kathmandu

Photo of Kathmandu, Central Development Region, Nepal by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Our trip was nearing its end, and we went to a Rock concert in the local joint "Purple Haze" to celebrate.

Beena and Pappoo, in our hotel in Kathmandu

Photo of Kathmandu, Central Development Region, Nepal by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Next morning's newspaper carried the news of the China-Nepal train cum road link. Both the countries - India and China keep playing political games, a major battle seems to be brewing over the control of the Himalayan nation. More reasons for the common man to suffer.

Newspaper on that morning

Photo of Kathmandu, Central Development Region, Nepal by Yubanaswa Chakraborty
Day 10

Last meal in Nepal - last meal outside India.

Photo of Bhadrapur, Eastern Region, Nepal by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The last day of our journey had come. We bid goodbye to our friends in Kathmandu and set off for the border of Kakarbhitta. We left the mountains behind, and drove past the troubled plains of Nepal. The sun was setting as we sipped on a cup of tea by the River Koshi. Our plan to reach India before dusk had blown. When we finally reached the bridge over river Mechi, it was pitch dark. Our taxi was allowed to enter India to drop us off (and asked to return quickly). As we crossed the bridge, an emotional Beena took her handy-cam to shoot the board that screamed WELCOME TO INDIA.

Home sweet home, on the roads near Siliguri

Photo of Siliguri, West Bengal, India by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

Idhar photo lena allowed nahi hai!” – a calm and assertive customs officer stepped up to us. The first person we met in homeland. After briefly checking our luggage, they decided that we were harmless enough to be let back to our country. By then, the last bus had gone, and no taxi was in sight.

Keep an eye on the luggage” I told Beena and set out to look for our next transport. There was hardly any time to feel ecstatic. Eventually, we hired a 7-seater auto just for ourselves, and headed towards our hotel in Bagdogra. The road was being widened to convert it to a six-lane international Highway that would link India with Thailand. Tipper trucks and earth movers were seen working hard even in the dark. We wished such projects had re-shaped this region long time back. A more united Asia is a strong need of the hour.

*******************************************

Exactly thirty-two days ago we had set out from London, on a superfast train that travelled through an under-sea Tunnel. We then travelled on one of the fastest trains, one of the slowest, one of the longest running, and the highest trains on the world.

A fiddler in Moscow had played “Mera Joota hai Japani” for us. We had met a diamond miner cum black marketer there, offering to sell diamonds for cheap. We had a face off with some crooks posing as taxi drivers in the Siberian town of Irkutsk. We sat on the frozen shores of Lake Baikal, drove through the grasslands of Mongolia, crossed the Gobi desert, walked on the great wall of China and stood in awe in front of Mt Everest.

All on our way back home.

Bridge over the river Teesta - the homecoming pic

Photo of Siliguri, West Bengal, India by Yubanaswa Chakraborty

The next day was spent with friends. And we went back to our favourite spot - the railway bridge over Teesta River, on the southern edge of the Himalayas. The road from here goes straight to Lhasa. And it is not far.

Our message is imprinted on the red T-shirt. It is not about removal of control of one country, it is about basic freedom of all the people of all the countries. Since we have built the roads across the mountains, they should be left open for people to travel. We had great travellers crossing these mountains over thousands of years, and only with such great travellers, great ideas crossed the natural borders of the mountains. In the ancient times, this was called the Silk Route, and a thriving economy existed right here. Driven by animosity, we are now creating hindrance for people and their ideas crossing over. Our message is clear, we need to re-open the relationship we have shared for centuries. We need to get rid of the artificial barriers created by various governments. It took a lot of courage and will for the great men of the past who crossed the natural borders. Let us not allow all of that go to waste!

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