The Blog

A Short Journey to the Roof of the World

In Nepal I'd spent a lot of time sat by the mirrored lake in Pokhara consulting pebbles and reading Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet

In Nepal I'd spent a lot of time sat by the mirrored lake in Pokhara consulting pebbles and reading Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet. As an evocation of one setting from Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game, it served as further provocation to my plan to fill pages with lively descriptions of massive vistas and the motif of solitude in the wilderness, a sort of mountain variety of the German waldeinsamkeit.

The immaculate quality attached to the Himalayan region must be ascribed as much on account of its propinquity to the gods as its remoteness. It was certainly what Harrer was trying to convey as he described a sky burial of crushed bones carried off by the wily vulture and noble eagle and returned to the elements in one complete and transcendental funeral.

The journey into Tibet began early one February morning as the wind whipped around the still dark streets of Kathmandu. It took only two hours for the bus to drive to the Friendship Bridge at the Chinese border - bridges between uneasy neighbours always have euphemistic epithets like this. This one spanned the torrid Bhote Koshi River. A dour Chinese lady with red epaulettes and an absurd hat looked at me for a while as though I were a species of plague, before stamping my permit and waving me on.

Up a steep, dusty road on the other side of the bridge trucks were parked in a long queue, the legs of their dozing drivers dangling from the cabs. Here also were the jeep taxis, required by Beijing to go directly to Lhasa, not hither and thither over the Plateau. On the first day's drive we climbed from 1000 to over 5000 meters. We drove in convoy with the usual sense of being on a mission, the objective not very important.

I was in the last car and watched the ones ahead, tracing their dust clouds as they sped along, hugging the inside of the tight heel and toe road as it wound round the mountain, unpaved and without barriers between them and the cadet blue abyss below. In the sections where the road cut deepest into the rock, there overhung swollen icicles, meters long, that the drivers tried to avoid passing under.

The road was wide enough for two lanes but navigating between Scylla and Charybdis had produced a system where traffic went in one direction during the day and the other by night, hence the waiting drivers at the bridge.

After two hours we were in the mountains proper. At the bridge the temperature had been close to 25 degrees. Now it was snowing, a sibilant wind blowing with abandon and smarting my eyes. Over the next few days the landscape took on a barren steppe consistency as we crept over the 5220m Gatso-La Pass and onto the Tibetan Plateau, almost all of it above 4000m. The tableau was brown-grey rock, pock marked with snow drifts. The sky was gunmetal, shot through with shards of corn yellow light. The air was thin and the blood thick.

On the third day we reached Shigatse, the second city of Tibet, with the greatest concentration of Tibetans and few Han Chinese. Well, the people might have been Tibetan, but the city was looking decidedly Chinese, with long, straight streets laid out in a grid and contrived Tibetan housing, twigs and prayer flags at the four corners and greasy curtains in the doorways, but obviously built recently with government subsidies.

As with all imperial history, the story of Tibet's colonisation is a complex discourse not readily divisible into black and white versions. Harrer acknowledged the cruelty of the feudal priests' refusal to allow the peasantry use of the wheel in its mammoth tasks of raising the Potala Palace and the epic monasteries. It is also difficult to gainsay the benefits of universal education and medicinal care brought in 1951 by the invading Communists. However, the eclipsing of the Buddhist state, even if only really an idyll in the totemic Western vision, was clearly a tragic process of aggressive assimilation.

On the fourth day we reached Gyantse and climbed to the dzong (fortress), scene of the highest artillery battle in history, part of Sir Francis Younghusband's brilliant but paranoid Great Game campaign to thwart Russian intrigue in Lhasa. Younghusband was in many ways a human extrapolation of the region - tough and remote, the embodiment of the Victorian ideal - yet also a proto-hippie, preaching free love and a congress of the faiths.

The final day in bright sun and blue skies we drove along a snow-dusted road with several 8000m peaks ahead of us, white clouds of blown powder drifting off their eastern faces, a glimpse of Everest way off in the distance. In the afternoon we finally reached Lhasa, the crimson and cream walls of the Potala rising up on the left to scorn the flyovers, sports shops and faux marble facades of the hotels.

Jokhang Square still formed the natural centre and here you could join the pilgrims parading and prostrating themselves clockwise round the temple from sepia morning to indigo night. Further out at the Drepung monastery I sat in the wan light of candle orbs as hundreds of entranced, carmine-clad monks hummed and chanted, rocking to and fro, amongst the incense plumes. At the Sera monastery I watched the whirling and clapping of the daily debating sessions in the courtyard as child monks ran about refilling butter urns.

Lhasa certainly seemed compromised when I was there, and even Harrer's account is sensible of a twilight existence. Yet half the mystique of the Forbidden City is the journey to it, and at least that is still possible after an expedited fashion, which is hardly a problem when the land it covers is almost incapable of reduction of spoiling.