ultramarinus – beyond the sea

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DAY 1: INTRODUCTION OF A SHORT BURMESE CHRISTMAS VACATION, Yangon, Myanmar

In Christmas 2017, we made a 4-day short trip to Myanmar for a brief getaway.  For almost half a century, Myanmar was under military rule and few foreigners would visit the US sanctioned country.  Myanmar saw a gradual increase of foreign tourists since the military junta was replaced by a civilian government in 2011.  Despite recent improvements on the political situations, including the 2015 general election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy winning a majority in the parliament, the tourism industry has yet reached its full potentials, given the country’s rich sights and fascinating culture.  Traveling in this Southeast Asian country that has yet been exploited by mass tourism and global commercialism was a charming experience.

Compared to Siem Reap in Cambodia where vibrant pubs and massage parlors mushroom near the sacred sites of Angkor, Myanmar’s Bagan still remains a sleepy village surrounded by 3000+ ancient Buddhist temples and stupas.  Compared to many Asian cities where the urban skyline changes every year, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital Yangon remains an energetic city with the Asia’s largest collection of colonial architecture from its British era.  Due to its years of international isolation, up until recent years Myanmar was a pristine destination devoid of international influences like Mac Donald’s or Starbucks.   Although short, our 3.5 day of travel experience was absolutely inspiring, particularly for the magical moments at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda and the stunning scenery of Old Bagan under the golden glow of the sunrise.

IMG_4410Our mileage rewarded flight took us for a 8-hour layover at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport.  We walked over to the Novotel Hotel for a late dinner and a few hours of rest.

IMG_4408The Christmas tree and ginger bread houses at the atrium of Novotel Hotel reminded us Christmas was just three days away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe returned to Bangkok Airport early in the morning.  The first thing we saw after entering the secure zone was the Samudra manthan sculpture.

02The Samudra Manthan sculpture depicted the Thai version of the Hindu mythology of cosmos creation.

03We found our way to the boarding gate at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe boarded a Thai Airways flight designated for Yangon of Myanmar.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe flight took roughly 1.5 hour.  By the time we saw the Gulf of Martaban of Andaman Sea, the plane gradually descended towards Yangon International Airport.

06From the airport, we took an official taxi to Loft Hotel, our accommodation in Central Yangon.

07The lobby of Loft Hotel was causal and smart.  We were greeted with fresh juice and lots of smile.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the lobby, there were interesting handicraft on display.  They were by Pomelo, a local fairtrade shop selling high-quality crafts made by disadvantaged people in Myanmar.

10Part of the corridor of Loft Hotel served like a gallery space for paintings.

11Through a corridor of paintings, we found our way to our room.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur room was a neat loft unit, with a small living area and bathroom at the lower level.

14With exposed structure, white washed walls, eye-catching pendant lights, charcoal paint, and brick cladding, the room interior design at Loft Hotel was sleek and comfortable.

15The sleeping area was located on the upper mezzanine.

16The Loft Hotel came as a little surprise for us.  We anticipated more pleasant surprises as we ventured out to explore Yangon.

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EPILOGUE: FACES OF LHASA (ལྷ་ས་ 拉薩), Tibet (བོད་ 西藏)

Other than the spiritual monasteries, wonderful mountainous scenery and marvelous night sky, one thing we miss from our Tibetan trip is undoubtedly the faces of the Tibetan people.  Their devotion to Buddhism, friendliness to foreigners, connection to their Himalayan homeland, and colourful clothing contribute to a unique and beautiful culture that we would always remember.

DSC_8835One face we would certain miss is the cute dog that always lingers at the entrance of Trichang Labrang Hotel (赤江拉讓藏式賓館).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite the presence of tourism, there is still a community atmosphere in Barkhor Old Town near our hotel, especially in the morning when locals comes out to get breakfast and grocery.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANear our hotel, delightful kids often run around the narrow alleyways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd so as Buddhist monks who found their way towards Jokhang Monastery.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVivid colours is everywhere to represent the unique Tibetan culture.

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DSC_9779Large flag poles are pilgrim magnets along the kora route around the Jokhang Monastery.

DSC_8829The forecourt of Jokhang Monastery is always a great place for people watching.

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DSC_9819Pilgrims on the kora route of Jokhang Monastery in traditional clothing and accessories.

DSC_9787Prostrating pilgrims express their devotion to Buddhism through their physical actions.

DSC_2281Pilgrim and prayer wheels along the kora of Jokhang Monastery.

DSC_9630Pilgrim and prayer wheels at Sera Monastery.

DSC_9598Pilgrim at the kora route of the Potala Palace.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that concludes the posts on our Tibetan trip 2017.

 

 

 

DAY 10: LAST DAY IN LHASA (ལྷ་ས་ 拉薩), Tibet (བོད་ 西藏)

Our driver Sangzhu dropped us near our hotel Trichang Labrang (赤江拉讓藏式賓館) in Barkhor Old Town.  After dropping off our bags, we stopped by the eatery beside the hotel for a quick bite.  The friendly eatery owners, a talkative young couple, were excited to welcome us and chatted with us.  We ordered a Nepali platter, fried momo and two cans of local beer to celebrate the completion of our road trip.  The momos were quite delicious, and went well with the beer made with Highland Barley.  It was the last full day of the trip.  After filling our stomach, we didn’t want to visit any attractions, but spent time wandering in Barkhor Old Town, checking out souvenirs, watching people, and photographing anything that interested us, until the dinner time.  For dinner, we decided to try the Tibetan hotpot at “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆).

01After returning to Lhasa, we stopped by the small local eatery next door from Trichang Labrang Hotel.  The young owners were friendly and talkative.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo celebrate the completion of our 6-day road trip, we ordered some local beer and highland barley wine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe most delicious snack we ordered was the fried momo (Tibetan dumplings).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor dinner, we revisited the “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆), the atmospheric courtyard restaurant nearby.

03Again we ordered the highland barley wine (青稞酒).  The wine came in an interesting bird-like pottery jar.

04The main dish of the meal was the Tibetan hotpot.  It came with vegetables, melons, beef, ham and yak meat.

05We wanted to linger around Barkhor Old Town for a little longer after dinner.

09In front of Jokhang Monastery (གཙུག་ལག་ཁང༌། 大昭寺), pilgrims, worshiped on the stone pavers as usual. 

08Other than pilgrims, tourists also gathered at the Jokhang forecourt.

10In front of Jokhang main entrance, more pilgrims gathered to worship, including some Buddhist monks.

11The sky was getting dark but the Jokhang forecourt was getting even more crowded.

12Some pilgrims preferred to stay near the large flag pole in front of the Jokhang.

13Around Jokhang, groups after groups of pilgrims and tourists walked the kora in clockwise direction around Lhasa’s most sacred site.

14The kora route was flanked one side by souvenir shops and the other by the majestic facade of the Jokhang.

17Along the kora route, many pilgrims were performing prostration the entire way.

16Some tourists treated the pilgrimage forecourt as a public plaza and sat on the pavers to chill out among the pilgrims.

18Among pilgrims and tourists, chilling out in the Jokhang forecourt included this large and gorgeous husky.

15We would certainly miss the spiritual atmosphere of the Jokhang forecourt.

20On our way back to Trichang Labrang Hotel, we passed by one last time the store where we bought our bottled water everyday of our Lhasa stay.  The next morning, we would take the airport shuttle bus near the Potala and fly back to Hong Kong via Chengdu.  Although short, it was a delightful experience for the three of us on the unique Tibetan culture and magnificent Himalayan landscape.  Hopefully next time we could have more time and travel further to the western corner of Tibet.

DAY 10: SUNRISE AT NAMTSO LAKE (གནམ་མཚོ་ 納木錯), Tibet (西藏)

At 4718m, staying the night at Namtso was cold, but metal cabin at Sacred Sheep Guesthouse (當雄神羊賓館) allowed us some decent rest.  We woke up at 6:30am, quickly get ourselves ready and headed up the hill at the tip of Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島).  Like many visitors to Namtso, we get up early just for the sunrise over the placid water.  At 7:15, we found ourselves standing among several dozens of tourists standing at the north side of Tashi Dor Peninsula, awaiting for the first beam of sunlight from the east.

DSC_1970Facing northeast, we stood on the slope overlooking the placid water of Namtso Lake.  At 7:20am, the horizon began to brighten up.

DSC_1995At 7:35am, a tint of orange signifying the arrival of the sunrise.

DSC_2005It felt like all visitors at Namtso were standing on the northern slope of Tashi Dor Peninsula to watch the sunrise.

DSC_2031Over at the southern side of Tashi Dor Peninsula, sunlight cast a orange glow on the highest peaks of Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ 念青唐古拉山).

DSC_2047Sunlight slowly swallowed the darkness on the hills of Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島).

DSC_2048Looking north to where we saw the Milky Way the night before, the focus of the morning scenery was shifted to the placid water of Namtso Lake and Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains.

DSC_2057The campsites and tourist facilities at the waterfront were blanketed in the shadow of the Tashi Dor Peninsula.

DSC_2064Finally the sun rose above the Tashi Dor Peninsula.

DSC_2090While most tourists watched the rising sun, I preferred the scenery of the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains and the lakefront lagoons.

DSC_2107At 8:50am, the sun was already high up.  Namtso Lake returned to its famous deep blue colour under the pristine mountain air.

DSC_2120At 9am, we walked down the hill and returned to Sacred Sheep Guesthouse.

DSC_2123We took one last look at the Namtso Lake on our way down.

DSC_2127We passed by the trailhead one last time before entering the area of Sacred Sheep Guesthouse.

DSC_2130For a brief moment, I walked off to the lakefront near Tashi Dor Temple (扎西島寺).

DSC_2138Looking back up the cliff I could see the lookout where we photographed the Milky Way the night before.

DSC_2136On the otherwise bare landscape near the shore, simple structures and metal cabins were erected catered for tourism.  It is actually a good idea to restrict all tourist activities of Namtso Lake only at Tashi Dor Peninsula and minimize tourist access to the rest of the lake for natural conservation purpose.

DSC_2131Before leaving Namtso Lake for Lhasa, I quietly bid farewell to the beautiful lake, and soon the Tibetan Plateau all together.  In less than 24 hours we would be on the plane on our way back to Hong Kong via Chengdu.

DAY 9: EVENING AT NAMTSO LAKE (གནམ་མཚོ་ 納木錯), Tibet (西藏)

Often considered as one of the most beautiful lakes in China, Namtso Lake ((གནམ་མཚོ་ 納木錯) failed to disappoint us.  Sangzhu dropped us at Sacred Sheep Guesthouse (當雄神羊賓館) where we stayed the night.  Probably the most established guesthouse in Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島) of Namtso, Sacred Sheep Guesthouse is in fact a simple building lined with metal cabins as guestrooms.  We dropped off our bags in our room and stepped out right away hopefully to catch a glimpse of the scenery before sunset.  Behind our guesthouse, there was a trail leading up the hill at the northwestern tip of Tashi Dor Peninsula.  Several motorcyclists gathered at the trail-head.  They offered to take us up the hill for a small fee.  We preferred to walk despite the sky was getting dark.  Before twilight, we reached a lookout overlooking the southern shore of Namtso Lake and the beautiful Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ 念青唐古拉山) beyond.  The last twilight was soon replaced by myriad of stars in the indigo sky, then came the moon and the Milky Way rising above the tranquil Namtso.  It was a different starry night than two nights ago at the Everest Base Camp, but the wind was equally chilly and the scenery revealed the same magic of the Himalayan night sky.

DSC_1869The tip of the Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島) is the only spot around Namtso where tourist facilities are allowed to establish.

DSC_1873As we reached the lookout on the hill, the sun was setting fast behind the mountains.

DSC_1877The southern shore of Namtso Lake and the snow-capped Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ 念青唐古拉山) defined the horizon ahead of us.

DSC_1882Slightly after 8pm, the sunlight began the fade away beyond the horizon.

DSC_1919At around 8:45, the Milky Way emerged from the indigo sky over Namtso Lake.

DSC_1925At around 9pm, the sky was dark enough for us to count the shooting stars.

DSC_1938Once again we were fortunate to admire the beautiful Milky Way in the clear sky.

DSC_1940Tourist cars kept on arriving at the Tashi Dor Peninsula.

DSC_1943Despite the chilly wind and our hungry stomachs, the magnificent night sky made us to stay for longer and longer.  There were three other visitors, two from China and one from Hong Kong, taking photos of the starry night with their tripods alongside us.

DSC_1957I set up the tripod and camera on a rock to capture the night sky, and we just sat on the rocks behind to enjoy the scene.

DSC_1959Appeared as bright as the white cliffs of Dover, the majority of the Tashi Dor Peninsula was actually made of limestone.

DSC_1961At about 9:45pm, we decided to call it a day and return to Sacred Sheep Guesthouse for a late dinner.  If not the cold temperature we could have perhaps stay a little longer at the lookout.  No matter what, it was another magical night for the three of us.

DAY 9: ROAD TO NAMTSO LAKE (གནམ་མཚོ་ 納木錯), Tibet (西藏)

Before noontime, we left Shigatse behind and headed northeast towards the sacred Namtso Lake (གནམ་མཚོ་ 納木錯).  It would be another long day on the road.  We would not reach our destination until 8pm in the evening.  It was a journey of mixed feelings: being excited about seeing the famous sacred lake and troubled by the fact that Namtso would be our road journey’s final stop before returning to Lhasa for the last day of our trip.  Unlike the past, the road conditions had significantly improved throughout Tibet, but the distances between sights are enormous.  In 2005, a paved road had been constructed to the Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島) at Namtso Lake, where most tourists including us would stay the night right by the lake.  This would offer us the opportunity to enjoy the night sky and sunrise by the sacred lake.

“Namtso” in Tibetan literally means “Heavenly Lake”, so as the Mongolian name “Tenger nuur”.  Given its high altitude, sublime scenery, and pristine deep blue water, there was little surprise why the ancient Tibetans and Mongolians would consider Namtso “heavenly.”  With an area of 1920 sq.km, Namtso Lake is the largest lake in the Tibet Autonomous Region.  The famous salt lake is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, notably the magnificent range of Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ 念青唐古拉山).  At an altitude of 4712m, the lake surface is frozen for over six months in the year.  During summer, the lakeside lush green plains offer great pastures for cattle and sheep.

DSC_1782The first part of the road journey passed along the valley of Yarlung Tsangpo River (ཡར་ཀླུངས་གཙང་པོ་ 雅魯藏布江).

DSC_1785The railroad along Yarlung Tsangpo River (ཡར་ཀླུངས་གཙང་པོ་ 雅魯藏布江) stood out from the landscape.  It was probably Tibet’s only rail service between Shigatse-to-Lhasa.

DSC_1788We also passed by many narrow strips of Highland Barley fields on the steep slope above the river.

DSC_1821At 4pm, we were approaching the lush green valley plains of Yangbajain (羊八井).

DSC_1834At the green valley plains of Yangbajain (羊八井), yaks and sheep grazing in front of the 700km Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ 念青唐古拉山).

DSC_1838Yangbajain (羊八井) is also famous for the geothermal fields and hot spring resort.  We stopped by the hot spring resort but decided not to take a dip.

DSC_185015 minutes before 7pm, we reached Lakenla (那根拉山口) at 5190m.

DSC_1847At 5190m, the Lakenla Mountain Pass (那根拉山口) offered us a glimpse of the Namtso Lake from a distance.

DSC_1857Time was getting late.  Under the late afternoon sun, the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains welcomed us at the gateway into the Namtso Lake area.

DSC_1862After over eight hours on the road, we finally reached the Namtso Lake.

DSC_1867With Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains (གཉན་ཆེན་ཐང་ལྷ 念青唐古拉山) to the southwest, our car headed over to the tourist accommodation and restaurant area on the Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島) in full speed.

 

DAY 9: TASHI LHUNPO MONASTERY (བཀྲ་ཤིས་ལྷུན་པོ་ 扎什倫布寺), Shigatse (日喀則), Tibet (西藏)

Before leaving Shigatse for Namtso Lake, we spent the morning at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery (བཀྲ་ཤིས་ལྷུན་པོ་ 扎什倫布寺).  Probably the most influential monastery in the Shigatse area, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is very popular with local pilgrims.  Founded by the 1st Dalai Lama in 1447, the 70,000 sq.m monastery remains as the largest functioning monastery in Tibet.  In the past five centuries, Tashi Lhunpo has been the traditional seat of Panchen Lama (པན་ཆེན་བླ་མ 班禪喇嘛), the second highest tulku (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ 活佛) in the Gelug school, just after the Dalai Lama.  During the turbulence years of the Cultural Revolution, buildings and relics of the monastery had been damaged.  Fortunately, damages of the Tashi Lhunpo was relatively small compared to most other monasteries in Tibet.

Walking in the labyrinth of cobblestone lanes of the enormous monastery ground, visitors can absorb the spiritual air and wander through prayer halls, chapels, chortens and courtyards, admire beautiful Buddhist artworks including the 26m statue of Jampa (Maitreya) Future Buddha, and pay respect to the tombs of the past Panchen Lamas.  Other than the gold gilded statues and architectural features, what interested us during our visit of Tashi Lhunpo were the pilgrims who came from all over Tibet and China.  From teenagers to elderly, the pilgrims’ gratifying expression and devoted prayers demonstrated to us how Buddhist traditions still remained strong in today’s Tibet.

01All visitors to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery would pass through the  lingkhor (sacred path) along the external enclosure wall.

02The 70,000 sq.m Tashi Lhunpo Monastery sits on the mountain slope west of Shigatse city.

03Inside the monastery ground, a network of flagstone paths led us to a village of chapels, chortens and prayer wheels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first objects captured our eyes as we entered to the core area of the monastery were the three large chortens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt 9:30am the sun of the highland was already scorching hot.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPilgrims and monks in the vivid setting of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery provided us the best subject for photos.

08Many lamas we saw at Tashi Lhunpo were actually visitors from other areas of Tibet.

09Jamba Chyenmu or Maitreya Temple (强巴佛殿) is the tallest building in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.  Erected in 1914 by the ninth Panchen Lama, it houses the 26.2m statue of Maitreya Buddha.  The enormous statue contains 279kg of gold and 150,000kg of copper and brass.

10The chorten of the Tenth Panchen Lama is one of the most popular pilgrimage spot in the monastery.  The three-tiered chorten is decorated with large amount of gold, silver and gemstones.

11Semi-precious stones were used to decorated the entrance vestibule of chapels (in this case the Buddhist swastika was created on the floor).  Many pilgrims would knee down and touch the decoration before entering the building.

12Other than statues and chortens, a number of architectural features such as a building column could also become a subject of worship for worshipers.

13Outside of the monastery, we could see the beautiful mountains across the city of Shigatse.

14After visiting a number of the chorten halls (chapels housing the tombs of Panchen Lamas), we arrived at the upper court of the Gyeni Chanting Hall.  The gilded roofs and turrets of the Gyeni Chanting Hall can be seen from far away.

15As we walked down the ramp near the Gyeni Chanting Hall, we could see right behind us the Thangka Wall used for unfolding the gigantic thangka during festivals.

16Below the Gyeni Chanting Hall, we arrived at the Chuajing Duogang, the great courtyard paved with flagstones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Chuajing Duogang was another popular spot for pilgrims.

18.JPGSurrounding the cloister of Chuajing Duogang, we could admire the fresco depicting over 1000 images of Sakyamuni (Buddha).

19The Sakyamuni were drawn with hands gesturing the five symbolic poses (mudras).

20Looking up from the colonnade of Chuajing Duogang, the splendid Gyeni Chanting Hall looked grand and magnificent.

21Beautiful fresco could be seen all over Tashi Lhunpo, including the wall at the lower exit of Chuajing Duogang.

22After a 2.5 hour visit of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, it was time for us to find our way to the exit and departed from Shigatse.