Tibet 1986 and Beyond

Tibetan travel & study

Archive for the category “Locations Visited”

Tibetan Mountains བོད་རི་

Guess what, Tibet is almost entirely mountainous. Thus, it seems appropriate to do a post just on mountain pictures. Note that the eastern mountains are nearly as high as the central part of the country. Most valleys in the east are at around 10,000 feet and narrow. Central valleys are usually 12,000 feet and wider in general. The east also gets much more rainfall.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to go out west. I missed the chance to circumambulate Mount Kailash/Kang Rinpoche & Lake Manasarover/Tso Mapam, holy to three religion. This is kind of a merit trifecta as one never knows who is right. Also, I wanted to see Guge, Tsaparang, Dawa Dzong.

East Tibet 1986

These are barley fields early in the growing season. Barley is one of the few crops that thrive in the higher altitudes along with root vegetables. Note the glacier.

Looking down from Ma Kho རྨ་ཁོ་ 1986, East Tibet.

This is way up there, probably 16,000 feet, maybe higher. You can see where the trees thin. This is taken from the Lakang, pass house. See post on Derge to Drolma Lhakhang. To give you a sense of perspective, the white dots on the right are sheep.

Tibetan village on west bank of Dri Chu 1986

We crossed the river in yak skin boats, horses swam along side. It was also legally treacherous as this is the border between Tibet Autonomous Region (autonomous in name only). The boatmen did not want to take us without authorization. In broken Tibetan we indicated that it was OK as we showed them that the Chinese visas were good for all of China. It took a while but it worked.

Looking up a tributary of the Dri Chu (Yangtze) 1986

This was a wonderful diversion. It was a wrong turn but we saw some great scenery and met some folks in a very remote village. At this point, we were probably several days walk to the nearest tiny road.

Tashilumpo Monastary Central Tibet 1985

You can see the wider, drier, and higher valleys of Central Tibet. The Tashilumpo Monastery, seat of #2 Lama Panchen Lama, is largely intact thanks to Zhou Enlai. He is responsible to saving many important places all over China and Tibet from destruction during the Cultural Revolution.

Outside Gyantze 1985

Gyantze (central Tibet) is in a wide valley. This is a nearby monastery. Its condition is typical of just about every monastery regardless of how remote.

Chongye, Valley of the Kings Central Tibet 1985

This is an attempt to replicate the perspective of a photograph in Richardson & Snelgrove’s book “A Cultural History of Tibet”. These are the tombs of the pre-Buddhist Bon-po Tibetan kings. They date from the 700’s and before.

Chongye Valley 1985

This picture looks north up the valley. Primary crops here are barley and hemp (for rope, really).

Lhasa valley 1985

We were on pilgrimage called Sonegisa. One departs in the afternoon from Drepung Monastery, sleeps part way up the mountain, and completes the hike to the peak in the morning. This is a view of the Kyi Chu, Lhasa River, from a hermitage above Drepung. Note how the river wanders given the new geology of the Himalayas.

Hermatage above Drepung 1985

Same building as above from path.

Lhasa Valley 1985

Above is the last leg of Sonegesa. Unfortunately, this is as far as we got. Maybe we earned a bit of merit. As far as I know, we were the first westerners to participate in this pilgrimage.

Road to Samye Monastary 1985

Samye Monastery is set back from the Bramaputra River. The sand dunes are extensive and the river wanders a great deal at this point.

Pass to Nepal 1985

This picture was taken on the way to Nepal. It is a real border. In a very short time one goes from a barren 15-16,000 foot pass to a lush tropical rain forest.

East Tibet road. 1986

We traveled overland from Chengdu, Sichuan to Lhasa. This was a typical pass. The road is often carved into the mountain – one lane, sometimes plowed, traveled on Chinese made trucks that look like they were manufactured in the 1930s. If we were lucky, Frank and I rode in the cab. Fortunately, hitchhiking was not that hard given that this was a major “highway”.

That is it for the mountains. This post is longer than anticipated but the pictures seemed so attractive.

Derge to Drolma Lhakhang Trek E. Tibet 1, སྡེ་དགེ་-སྒྲོལ་མ་ལྷ་ཁང་ ཁམས་

Following are a few pictures of the trek Frank and I took through east Tibet in the spring/summer 1986. It now lies partially in Sichuan and the rest in Tibet Autonomous Region, divided by the Yangtze River. We basically followed the river from Derge Parkhang, one of the very few remaining print works in Tibet, to a somewhat obscure temple and town to the north and slightly west. The first blog post shows a detail of the area.

I had researched the area while in India the winter before but we really did not know for sure what was entailed. We departed Derge with some camping equipment, a US airforce map, and modest language skills although Frank’s Chinese was pretty good. We crossed the Yangtze twice (yak skin and wooden boats), traversed three passes (two just short of 18,000 feet), and constant conflicting directions from the local residents we met along the way. About 20 days later, we arrived in Drolma Lhakhang, a very unusual temple in that all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism shared the place. The Karmapa even had a residence there (completely destroyed).

Around four days into the trek. 1986

Frank and I are still pretty strong and relaxed as we walked up river and went over only one low pass out of Derge. The Yangtze is in the background. The valley is at around 10,000 feet.

First ascent to tall pass. Bonpo holy mountain. 1986

We arrived at the little farming village on the way up to our first big pass. We were told that the holy mountain had a Bonpo monastery on the other side. Bon is the pre-Buddhist ingenious religion. We walked most of a day to visit.

Frank and I also asked directions to Drolma Lhakhang to everyone we saw in the village. This yielded three sets of completely conflicting routes. The consensus narrowed it down to two, go right – one pass and two crossings of the Yangtze or go right – two big passes and one crossing. Ended up being the latter. The priest/monk kind of tipped the scale for that decision.

Bonpo Monk. 1986

This gentleman was kind enough to take us to the monastery.

View from Zhe Zhe Gompa ཞེ་ཞེ་དགོན་པ 1986

This is the view we were rewarded with for the nearly day long hike around and up the mountain, well try to imagine the picture without me in it. The monastery was destroyed and in the process of restoration. This was one of the most remote places visited yet it was affected by the cultural revolution.

Ma Kho

Ma Kho རྨ་ཁོ་ Pass house (lakhang ལ་ཁང་, quite different than a Lhakhang ལྷ་ཁང་, a house near a pass as opposed to a chapel).

Ma Kho was basically a pile of dung, literally. It was a huge pile. This “pass house” sits at over 16,000 feet, probably higher. It is just below our first big pass, just short of 18,000 feet. At the end of a day of up hill climbing, this spot looked pretty inviting. We spent the night and received a hot meal (yak butter tea, better than it sounds) before setting over the Chur la (¿ཆུར་ལ་?) pass early in the morning.

Below are some pictures of the spectacular scenery from Ma Kho to the Chur La.

Frank and Yak below Chur La. 1986

Frank is not herding yak, just seems we are going the same direction.

Just below the Chur La, a little over 17,000 feet. 1986

This amphitheater is just below the pass; it is amazing. At this point, the air is so scarce, we take 20 steps and rest. We did not have the foresight to get a horse to carry our 30 pound packs. The spring just below the pass is the source of the water. One could call it a tepid spring as it was not that warm.

It got a bit tricky here as we were not sure if the pass was to the left or the right. At this altitude, one really does not want uncertainty.

Looking down from the Chor La. 1986

The Chor La is somewhere between 17,500 and 18,000 feet. We are not that much lower than the peaks. We did not daudle to admire our accomplishments. Getting down the other side was the focus.

Asking Directions

We saw a merchant coming the opposite direction and asked directions (note Yak herd in background). We figured he would have an accurate description of the trail ahead. I would ask questions in Tibetan, he would answer in Chinese, Frank would translate to English then we would start again with the next question in Tibetan. This worked as the dialects changed quickly. The word for hello seemed to be different every other valley.

The trek is not done yet. More to come.

Mostly Portraits – Central Tibet

Below are mostly portraits. Enjoy.

Women probably doing their daily circuit around the Jokhang. 1985

Most evenings, the older residents of Lhasa enjoyed their daily circumambulation of the Jokhang.

Turnip vendor, Gyantse 1985

The valleys in Central Tibet are at about 12,000 feet above sea level, Eastern Tibet (Khams, ཁམས་) are 10,000 feet. The primary crops are root vegetable like turnips, potatoes, radishes, etc., barley, and rape flower for cooking oil.

Women at Sakya 1985

Sakya is south of the road going from Shigatse to Nepal. Before the Dali Lamas ruled, the Mongolians took over China and Tibet. The Sakya sect ruled Tibet under the Mongolians. Tibet did not put up a fight as defeat was certain. The Gelupas passed leadership through reincarnation. The Sakya was passed uncle to nephew.

Break time in Sakya 1985

The women are passing out yak butter tea. It is more of a broth and tastes better than it sounds.

Lhasa dentistry 1985

This was taken on a sidewalk of a major Lhasa thoroughfare. Makes going to the dentist in the US a breeze. Note the dentist’s tool.

Outside Gyantse 1985

Taking a breather by the road.

First Batch of Photos – Central Tibet

Finally, some of the Kodachromes from Tibet are scanned in. More pictures will go up as time allows. These are of medium to low quality to make viewing online convenient. There is a local outfit that scans slides and negatives at very high resolution. Naturally, the originals are sharper and have better color fidelity but the scans are pretty good.

So these slides are just a few of approximately 1,000 total. I hope you find them appealing.

These were taken in the summers of 1985 and 1986. 1985 was entirely in central Tibet. You will see pictures of Lhasa, Shigatse, Sakya, Chongye, Samyas, Gyantse, and other locations.

1986 pictures are from Central Tibet as well but dominantly Khams, east Tibet. A Swiss guy, Frank, and I traveled from Chengdu, Sichuan to Lhasa over land. He was a great travel companion and a good sport to put up with me for such a long trip. Neither of us had done any serious mountain hiking and this was in the days before Global Positioning Systems. However, we were young and confident we could do anything. Ended up, we did pretty well.

We took a month or two with lots of stops. On the way, we walked from Derge to sGrolma Lhakhang. It took almost three weeks and two 17,000-18,000 passes. It was a bit of an adventure as no Westerner had taken this route ever. Most of the villagers had never seen a gringo. The dialect seemed to change every couple of valleys. Despite a fair amount of research in the Dharamsala, India library and interviews with refugees from that area of Kham, we were not all that familiar with the route.

Often local directions conflicted. Was that one big pass and two river crossings or two big passes and one river crossing? It was pretty confusing at times but a very rewarding experience.

PotalaOK, so maybe this is another cheesy tourist picture of the Potala.


Olympic Prostration Team 1985

This guy was amazing. We called him and two others the Olympic Prostration Team. They were out on the Barkor (the holy circuit around the most sacred Tibetan Temple, the Jokhang). Some pilgrims measure the length of their body all the way around. These guys would do speed prostrations around. Literally the fastest on the block. Some days, they would measure the width of their body around the circuit, amazing.

A regular in 1985. Part of the Olympic Prostration Team.

Gyantze Dzong from the south. 1985

Gyantze is the third largest city. This picture is from 1985 while going from Lhasa to the Nepal border. I probably was in town for 5-6 days doing some day trips to the destroyed monasteries nearby. It was a great town.

View from Gyantze Dzong. 1985

Below the Dzong (fort or administrative center) is the old town and monastery. The straight street on the left was built by the Chinese government, the right side is the old street.

The monastery is mostly destroyed as the entire area inside the walls was covered with buildings. Those left are the originals. The stupa is one of the few remaining Kumbums (“thousand doors”). The art inside all the building is spectacular.  The wall in the upper right is where a huge thanka hangs once a year.

Small Addition to Kessler Derge Map

Below are some temples not on Dr. Peter Kessler’s maps of Khams. Dr. Kessler was a longtime scholar in Rikon Institute, Switzerland. In 1986, I hiked between Derge and Drolmalhakhang mostly along the Dri Chu. The blue circles represent temples my hiking companion (He happens to be Swiss) and I visited. One monastery is Sakya, two are Bonpo.

The latitude and longitude figures are not accurate. I am fairly certain of the locations of སྟག་ཞི་དགོན་པ་ and དབོན་སྟོད་. ཞེ་ཞེ་དགོན་པ་ not so much.

It was rather surprising to find that much of the area along the west bank of the Dri Chu south of Drolmalhakhang is Bon.

Additionally, I have other information about a couple towns and passes. I was also given the names of other monasteries along the DriChu by people along the way that we spoke to.

This is the area on the magnified Kessler map for perspective.

Asia map showing area of interest.

Asia map showing area of interest.

Below is Dr. Kessler’s map of Derge & Ling magnified (sorry for the poor resolution). I have added monasteries that we visited that are not on his maps. Dr. Kessler contacted me after I wrote him a letter in the late 1980’s. By the time he responded, all my notes were in storage so I never got back to him. For this, I feel rather guilty. Recently, I learned that he passed away a couple years ago so I was not able to make a modest contribution to his work. Below is a small attempt to atone for the lapse.

Confirmed monasteries

Filling in Dr. Kessler's maps.

Below is a sketch of additional monasteries that a local resident gave me at a town near Onto Gompa. I did not visit most of these places as we crossed the Dri Chu about half a day walk north of Onto Gompa. We stayed on the West side of the river until reaching Drolma Lhakhang.

Dri Chu Gompas 2

Additional monastery names provided by local folks. Most are not confirmed


Please pardon the lack of penmanship.

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