Tibet: On the Road to Shigatse

Everest to Shenzhen

An overland journey from one side of China to the other

Part II: The Road to Shigatse

Prayer flags across the Lhasa River outside of Lhasa, Tibet

There is more than one road to Shigatse from Lhasa.  The G318 Highway is by far the fastest. It remains in the low lands following the river and bypassing the mountains and their time-consuming climbs.

Most visitors to Tibet, however, don’t want to take the easy road.  They want to travel the slow way along the S307.  This road skirts sacred lakes and crosses two high mountain passes – one shadowed by glacier-clad peaks.  It takes more than two hours longer than the G318, but the travel time is well worth the views!

Nyangchu

The Road to Shigatse
The Lhasa River provides water to the subsistence farms in the Nyangchu Valley

We traveled westward through the Nyangchu Valley following the Lhasa river .  Low stone houses and small subsistence farms formed a green skirt for the barren mountains that were never far away. Sky-dappled clouds formed a ceiling of whites and grays and blues over the green landscape.

After nearly two hours in the valley, we turned off of the G318 and began the climb into the mountains. Steep sections of hairpin turns and switchbacks stacked up on one another carried us higher and higher. The sight of an occasional yak busily grazing on dryland grass sparked cries of “YAK!” as we all looked around hoping for a sight of this uniquely Tibetan long-haired cow.

Tibet
The beginning of our climb into the mountains

We reached a scenic lookout and pulled over for a short bathroom break and some pictures.

Do-Khyi

On a Yak“Be careful, do not take pictures of the animals or the rocks because you must pay for this,” our guide warned us as we climbed out of the van and into the brisk mountain air.

Do-Khyi, Tibetan Mastiff dogs with lion-like manes accentuated by red collars sat passively on large stone platforms. Their owners asked each passing tourist if they would like a photo with the giant animals. In the parking lot, yaks stood patiently as tourists climbed on, donned a traditional hat and scarf, and posed for photos in front of the brown, mountainous backdrop.

I bypassed the animals and headed for the overlook. From this rocky outcropping I could see back down into the valley where a straight section of the road we’d just driven cut diagonally up the mountain.  The thin mountain air whipped around the overlook playing with my hair and sending a chill through my fleece.

The view from the scenic overlook on the way up to Kampala Pass (Tibet)
The view from the scenic overlook on the way up to Kampala Pass (Tibet)

The Sacred Lake Yamdrok Yumtso

The Kampala pass is 4,794 meters (15,728 feet) above sea level. It overlooks the sacred lake Yamdrok Yumtso. Just as at the overlook, vendors with dogs, yaks, and cheap souvenirs lined the the parking area at the pass.  We quickly descended to another viewing area next to the lake. Along the water, a miniature mountain range of piled rocks hint at the lake’s spiritual significance. Tibetan Bhudists believe that the placid waters of the lake show the location of the each new incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

The Road to Shigatse

2016-China-TibetRoadtoShigatse-29The road followed the edge of the lake, rounding the end and continuing on the other side before turning away from and climbing, once more, into the mountains. We still passed the occasional village, tiny collections of rock homes with elaborately painted eves built up against mountain slopes.

As we left the lake shore, the rocky hills changed into dirty, clay-like mountains with gashes cut into the side. These mountains almost looked as though a giant rake had been drug across the hill-tops by some celestial plow.

What’s for Lunch? – YAK!

We rounded a hill and found ourselves in a tiny village of low stone buildings where we stopped at what appeared to be the only restaurant in town.

“The specialty in this restaurant is Curry Yak. If you order this one, it will be a short time. If you order from the menu, it will take a long time,” Our guide told us. Needless to say, we all ordered the Curry Yak – a dish of lightly curried Yak meat. We had been warned that the food in Tibet was on the bland side, but I had yet to try a Yak dish I didn’t like.

Road to Shigatse, Tibet
Many remote places in Tibet still use Yak waste fashioned into bricks and dried in the sun for heating fuel.

Karo-la Glacier

We continued along a maze of  valley floors, climbing back up into the mountains so gradually that the climb was almost imperceptible. The valley began to narrow and the mountain around us grew taller.  Then, as we rounded a bend, we saw them: the glacier topped peaks of the high Himalayas. These diamond tipped pinnacles rose above the beige and copper hills around them like white kings over a kingdom of copper and emerald.

Glacier capped peaks on the road to Shigatse
The road to Shigatse climbs toward the Karo-La pass – 5,035 meters (16,622 feet) above sea level
Karo-La Glacier, Tibet
Karo La Glacier in Tibet

These were not my first glaciers. I’ve seen the unreal turquoise glaciers of Alaska and the towering shelf of rock in of the Tuyuk Su Glacier in the Tien Shan mountains outside of Almaty, Kazakstan. Somehow, though, the sight of this powerful natural force never gets old.

These particular glaciers clung to the rocks of the steep mountain peaks in a manner that almost felt audacious.  How dare a powerful mass of dense ice balance so precariously, and yet so unmovably on these peaks!

We crossed the Karo-La pass (5,035 meters – 16,622 feet) and stopped at a scenic area where a wooden pathway allowed a closer look at the Karo-La glacier. Colorful prayer flags formed pyramids at the glacier’s base and a group of young women, in traditional costume played circle games and charged tourists money for photographs.

As we returned to the van, a loud crack, and a rumble betrayed an ice-avalanche breaking off of the glacier and pouring a river of ice and snow onto the rocks of the mountain at its bass.

Karo-La Glacier in Tibet
A small avalanche of snow and ice pours over the rocks of the Karo-La Glacier

 

A New Lake

TibetWe made our way down the river valley from the heights of the Karo-La pass until we came to a man-made reservoir created by the Simi dam. Hydro-electric power is a key player in China’s energy plan and the result is a proliferation of reservoirs and the new cities created by the inevitable relocation of displaced people.

We continued down the road and into the Nyang Chu valley and the city of Gyantse as a dull ache at the back of my head betrayed my body’s protest to the time spent at high altitude. I took some ibuprofen and closed my eyes. Worth it.

Prayer Flags on a mountain in Tibet
Strong winds coming through the mountains whip the prayer flags above Simi Reservoir into a frenzy

 

Read More: 

Everest to Shenzhen – An overland journey from one side of China to the other

Everest to Shenzhen Part 1: Welcome to Lhasa (Tibet)

Everest To Shenzhen Part 2: On the Road to Shigatse (Tibet) – You are Here

Everest To Shenzhen Part 3: The Ancient Majesty of Gyantse (Tibet)

Everest to Shenzhen Part 4: The Road to Everest Chomolungma (Tibet)

Everest to Shenzhen Part 5: A night in Shigatse (Tibet)

 

 

Skip to toolbar