Formed by Everest’s Rongphu Glacier (絨布冰川), the Rongphu Valley offers us a designated natural approach to the majestic Mount Everest from its north side. The valley stretches from Rongphu Monastery (རྫ་རོང་ཕུ་དགོན་ 絨布寺) in the north to Mount Everest in the south. In front of Rongphu Glacier sits the base camp for professional climbers. Somewhere between the climber’s base camp and Rongphu Monastery lies the Tent Village catered for the rest of the visitors. At the terminus of Zhufeng Road (Mount Everest Road), the Tent Village is the closest spot to Mount Everest accessible by vehicle.
Thanks to Google Maps, we can now obtain a clear three dimensional birdeye’s view of the Tent City of Everest Base Camp and Mount Everest.
Slightly after 6pm, we had finally entered the Tent Village of Everest Base Camp. The first impression was like arriving at a busy parking lot in a valley.
Crafted by the Rongphu Glacier (絨布冰川), the base camp is flanked by peculiar rock cliffs towering up the sky.
Our driver Sangzhu parked the car and led us into Tent 21. Apparently all tents were pretty much identical with similar price per bed.
Inside Tent 21, there were about 8 bed spaces in a common dorm setting, a shelf of food and drinks, a stove, a few tables and a counter selling tourist souvenir. The owner also stayed with us in the tent.
In the middle of the Tent Village, there was the world’s highest post office where a few tourists were waiting for the postman’s return. Apparently the post office doesn’t sell postal stamps there but can mail out postcards if a postal stamp is already attached.
Behind the Tent City, we could see Mount Everest emerging from the fast moving clouds. Perhaps the time was too late, the environmental friendly shuttle bus between the Tent Village and the climber’s base camp was not running when we were there. We followed other tourists to walk along the rocky path towards the mountain, and reach a stone plaque after 15 minute’s walk.
The rewarding moment had finally arrived as the clouds began to thin out. The tallest mountain on Earth was right in front of us. At 8848m the summit of Mount Everest was still over 3600m above us, despite we had reached 5200m above sea level.
Our rewarding minutes ticked by as the sun began to set. Everywhere was getting dark quickly except the snow-capped Everest that was tall enough to receive the day’s last bit of sunlight.
At 8pm just before sunset, Mount Everest stood silently under the yellow spotlight of the setting sun. Looking at the shear beauty of the snow-capped summit, recalling all the past expedition stories and absorbing the legendary aura and spiritual power of the Everest, it was truly magical.
It was time for us to retreat into the tent and shook off the cold. We had a simple meal of instant cup noodles and canned sardines.
At 9pm, the boy of the owner was already sleeping soundly in bed under thick comfortable blankets.
Referred by Tibetans as “Goddess Mother of Mountains,” Chomolungma (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ 珠穆朗瑪峰) which commonly known as the Mount Everest, towers beyond the rest of the Himalayan peaks along the border between China and Nepal. From the north, tourists can come close to admire Everest’s majestic north face from the Tent Village (珠穆朗瑪峰大本營), where a cluster of tent structures were set up to serve tourists, while the real base camp for climbers at 5200m is off limit to normal tourists. At 5150m above sea level, the Tent Village of Everest Base Camp was the highest point in our entire journey. Arrived in Tibet for a week’s time and we were well acclimatized for the high altitude. Our plan was to stay the night at the Tent Village to boost our chance to see the world’s highest peak. Weather was of course the biggest unknown. It was not uncommon for tourists to be let down by poor weather and find the snow-capped Everest well concealed in the clouds.
At about 8:30am we left Shigatse for Tibet’s Everest Base Camp. In the car, we were excited and kept our fingers crossed to hope for a moment of clear sky when we arrived at the base camp. We spent most of the day to cover the 350km distance from Shigatse to the base camp. The route was mainly well paved along the China-Nepal Friendship Highway, except the last 100km of gravel road before reaching the Tent Village.
Shigatse is known as the “fertile land”. Along the journey, we often passed by golden fields of Highland Barley (青稞).
Political slogan such as “strengthen ethnic unity, create a beautiful Tibet” could be seen everywhere in Tibet, even on remote mountain slope.
As we headed west on the National Highway 318 (China-Nepal Friendship Highway), we passed by a number of roadside shrines and mountain passes with colourful prayer flags.
Despite Tibet is mainly arid in climate, its river valleys are fertile and heavily cultivated.
The National Highway 318, known as the China-Nepal Friendship Highway, is a nicely paved road that connects Shigatse with the Zhangmu border town.
Some parts of the valley seems like a semi-desert, covered with sand, gravel, salt and moss.
At around 2:30pm, we stopped by a restaurant at the intersection of National Highway 318 (China-Nepal Friendship Highway) and Country Road 216 near Shelkar/ New Tingri (ཤེལ་དཀར། 協格爾鎮) for lunch.
After lunch, we journey continued southwest towards the Everest Base Camp. Before our car left the National Highway 318, we passed by some highland pastures.
In less than an hour, we finally left the highway and arrived at the gateway of Everest National Park. Sangzhu dropped us at the admission office to get our admission tickets.
We continued to drive on Zhufeng Road (Mount Everest Road) for another 2 hours. The sun was moving west as we get closer to our destination. We were a little nervous because of the unpredictable weather, but also full of anticipation. At 5:20pm, we were just minutes away from Rongbuk Monastery. Beyond the clouds in front of us we could barely make out the profile and tip of Chomolungma or Mount Everest (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ 珠穆朗瑪峰).
At 4980m above sea level, Rongbuk Monastery (རྫ་རོང་ཕུ་དགོན་ 絨布寺) is the highest monastery in the world. It offers tourists simple accommodation.
If the sky was clear, we could see the Mount Everest from the stuba at Rongbuk Monastery (རྫ་རོང་ཕུ་དགོན་ 絨布寺). Yet, luck was not on our side. All we could see was a thick layer of clouds.
We knew Chomolungma or Mount Everest (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ 珠穆朗瑪峰) was right in front of us, but we just couldn’t see it with our own eyes. The Tent Village of Everest Base Camp (珠穆朗瑪峰大本營) was just minutes away. All we could hope for was a moment of clear sky before sunset.
Shigatse (གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར། 日喀則), also named Xigatse, is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, and an important base for travelers to visit the Mount Everest Base Camp and the nearby Sakya Monastery. Lying in the middle of the Friendship Highway between Nepal and China, Shigatse is Tibet’s second largest city. We arrived at Shigatse at around 8pm. After checking in at Sakya Lhundup Palace Hotel, we went for a walk in the area to look for a place to eat. The area was not particularly lively, despite we were just 300m from the Summer Palace of Panchen Lama and 500m from Tashilhunpo Monastery (བཀྲ་ཤིས་ལྷུན་པོ་ 扎什倫布寺), the largest monastery in the city. On the upper level of a two-storey building across the street from our hotel, we saw the soft lighting and lively ambience of what looked like a decent restaurant.
We followed a passageway at the end of the building into a tranquil courtyard with colourful flags, lush green plant pots and patio tables. We headed up a stair beside a large kitchen and arrived at a large dining area known as Wordo Courtyard.
A small group of musicians were performing traditional music while staff were busy bringing out all kinds of interesting dishes to the tables.
The restaurant was decently decorated in traditional Tibetan style.
We ordered three dishes and yogi berry tea.
At Wordo Courtyard, we enjoyed a relaxing night of fine Tibetan food. After dinner, we returned to the hotel for an early rest. The next day would be another long day on the road, taking us to the highest point of our Tibetan journey, the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Back in 2008 when we were living in London, we watched a five-episode documentary on BBC Four called “A Year in Tibet.” Director Sun Shuyun followed and filmed the lives of a shaman and his family, monks at Gyantse Monastery, a rickshaw driver, a Communist party worker, a builder, a doctor, and a hotel manager in the city of Gyantse for a year. In the film, Tibet’s third largest city appears to be peaceful and spiritual, while her inhabitants lead relatively simple, religious and traditional lives. Director Sun spent a year to understand individual lives in and around Gyantse. We, on the other hand, had only two hours to stop by Gyantse to see its iconic Kumbum (multi-level chorten with stacked Buddhist chapels) of Palcho Monastery.
The sleepy Gyantse had its heyday between 14th and 15th century, when the city was an important stop in the trade route between India and Tibet. The striking Kumbum was also completed in the 15th century. Being the largest chorten in Tibet, the Kumbum is 32m high, consisted of 9 tiers (5 square and 4 circular) with 108 small chapels, and approximately 100,000 Buddhist figures in murals and statues. The Kumbum belongs to Palcho Monastery, which also includes other monastery buildings, such as the Tsulaklakang Monastery main assembly hall.
After a long day of car journey, we finally arrived in Gyantse 15 minutes before 5pm. We came just in time to have a quick tour of the magnificent Kumdum..
Inside the complex of Palcho Monastery, we first walk by the main assembly hall of Tsulaklakang Monastery. Since the time was late, we skipped the main assembly hall and went straight to the Kumbum.
The first look of the Kumbum was stunning.
Five tiers of square layout and four circular, the Kumbumis a three dimensional representation of the Buddhist mandala.
In clockwise direction, we circled the building veranda and checked out the small chapels on each level.
Despite many statues were damaged during the Cultural Revolution, fortunately many murals survived to the present day.
Each chapel is dark and small, similar to a small cave, with an altar on one end and Buddhist murals on all walls.
Sitting on a lotus platform, Achala or Chandamaharoshana is a wrathful deity that helps a person to turn negative aspects into compassion and wisdom.
Like most Tibetan monastery, there is a tall pole of prayer flags in front of the Kumbum.
At the back side, we could see other monastery buildings as well as the red monastery wall on the rocky ridge.
To the south lies the prominent Gyantse Dzong (江孜宗山城堡) and the old city of Gyantse.
Built in the 14th century, the Gyantse Dzong (江孜宗山城堡) is celebrated today for the heroic history of the Tibetans who fought to the last breathe against the British invasion in 1903-1904.
After reaching the 5th floor (Bumpa), we checked out the four last chapels. The way up to the roof was locked. After we returned to the ground level, it was time to bid farewell to this wonderful piece of architecture.
A final look at the detail of the circular top, including the level with the eyes painted on the walls.
Most tourists were gone as we exited the monastery complex. We returned to where Sangzhu dropped us off and continued our last 90 minutes of journey to Shigatse.
At 4441m above sea level, Yamdrok Lake is one of the three sacred lakes in Tibet. This was where Tibetans came to search for the reincarnated soul of the Dalai Lama through chatting, praying, and throwing holy items into the water to get a reflecting hint on the location of Dalai Lama’s soul. Devoted Tibetans come to do the kora around the lake to pray for good luck and happiness in the following year. For tourists, Yamdrok is famous for its stunning scenery with its coiling scorpion shape, pristine turquoise water and surrounding snow-capped mountains. Located in Shannan along Road S307, between Lhasa and Shigatse, Yamdrok Lake is pretty much on everyone’s travel itinerary who ventures beyond Lhasa.
We knew this would be a long day on the road. We needed to travel for about 380km from Samye Town to Shigatse via Yamdrok and Gyantse.
We left Samye at about 9am and reached Yamdrok Lake slightly after noontime. We first stopped by a lookout along Road S307 to enjoy the overview of Yamdrok Lake from a high level.
Some travelers would just stop by the road to take in the scenery.
If the sky was clear, we would see the distant snow-capped mountains.
Along the balustrade visitors crowded at the best spots to photograph the turquoise lake.
Eateries and souvenir vendors surrounded the parking lot.
Dozens unfortunate Tibetan mastiffs dressed in funny outfits or had their hair dyed in vivid colours stood by the balustrade for everyone who was willing to spend 10 yuan for a souvenir photo.
Partly due to the strong and chilly wind at the 4441m altitude, and partly due to the noisy and overly energetic tourist crowds, we didn’t stay for long at the upper lookout.
Next Sangzhu drove us down to another lookout by the water, where we final got a close encounter with the sacred turquoise water of Yamdrok. Souvenir vendors set up their stalls along the steps down to the shore. By the waterfront, Tibetan mastiffs were replaced with Tibetan yaks posing for souvenir photos.
By the time we reached the water, the sky seemed to a little clearer than when we were on the upper lookout.
Local tourists gathered at the signage that said “Yamdrok, Three Great Sacred Lakes, 4441m.”
After Yamdrok, our journey continued to head west. The blue sky was well hidden.
Soon we saw an open area along the highway with a lookout to the Korola Glacier (卡若拉冰川). The sky was grey and we were a little behind schedule, so we chose to stay in the car and take photos of the glacier from the road.
Before sunset, we walked out Samye Monastery to the main plaza of Samye Town. Listed as one of China’s special villages, the home of the splendid Samye Monastery aims to further develop its tourism industry. Simple guesthouses, convenient stores and eateries mushroomed around the monastery and along the main street. Despite Samye Monastery is on the itinerary of many tourists, most travelers prefer to stay at a bigger city or town such as Tsedang or even Lhasa. As a result, Samye remains a quiet community after all day-trippers left. We stayed the night at Samye Monastery Guesthouse, probably the biggest accommodation establishment in town. For dinner and breakfast, we chose Friendship Snowland Restaurant at the main street just outside Samye Monastery. The plaza and main street outside Samye Monastery turned out to be a great place for people watching: balloon vendor interacting with a local family, laundry powder vendor giving away plastic wash basins to customers, a flock of sheep passing by… our memories of sleepy Samye Town.
Outside the main gate of Samye Monastery, the plaza and main street was a great place for people watching.
After the tourists and pilgrims left, the Samye Monastery returned to tranquility.
We wandered a bit on the main street to pick a restaurant for dinner.
Locals gathered at the vendor selling all kinds of household goods. The vendor gave away plastic wash basins to customers who bought her laundry powder.
Vendor selling colourful balloons at his auto rickshaw captured much attention in front of the monastery.
Local eateries dotted along the main street, but most of them were empty as we looked for a place for dinner.
To us, Samye was pretty laid back, including its sleepy dogs.
We finally chose the guidebook-recommended Friendship Snowland Restaurant for supper.
At the restaurant, we were greeted by friendly staff and two cute puppies.
We were the only customers at the restaurant. The interior was decorated in traditional Tibetan style.
Like the monasteries, the interior of Tibetan restaurants are also filled with vivid colours.
Samye Monastery and Yungbulakang Palace are probably the most important landmark in Shannan Prefecture.
Any meal in Tibet should start with Tibetan sweet tea.
The food was surprisingly good. We enjoyed a taste of Tibetan family cuisine with three local dishes and a bowl of vegetable soup.
Outside the restaurant, a flock of sheep walked by the main street.
After dinner, we picked up a few bottles of water and followed the enclosure wall of Samye Monastery back to our hotel.
After lunch, Sangzhu drove us to Samye village where we would visit the famous Samye Monastery and stay the night. We took a short break at Samye Monastery Hotel before heading over to the monastery. We followed its enclosure wall to reach the main entrance of the monastery complex. Beyond the enclosure, we arrived at a large open space with buildings spread out here and there. At first glance, we couldn’t comprehend the building arrangement within the enormous monastery ground. Not until we reached the higher levels of the main building and looked down, then we came to realize the concentric layout of this famous monastery. First constructed in the 8th century, Samye Monastery is known as the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.
We walked over to the main building’s forecourt, which was dominated by three tall prayer flag poles and incense burners, and started our monastery tour at the main building. The monastery is laid out in shape of a giant mandala with buildings positioned according to the Buddhist cosmology.
Situated at the very centre of the site, the main building is the tallest building in the complex, representing the mythical Mount Meru, the sacred cosmological mountain at the centre of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain universe.
Before entering the main building, there was an interesting sign about the risk of fire.
We entered the inner courtyard of the main building through a beautifully decorated gateway.
At the gateway, we bought our admission tickets from an old man.
The inner courtyard was actually a cloister surrounded by colonnades and prayer wheels.
Behind the row of prayer wheels, there were Buddhist murals on the walls.
Unfortunately many murals were vandalized during the Cultural Revolution.
At the far corner of the cloister, we found the famous white rooster. According to legends, once upon a time there was a fire broke out during midnight. Luckily all monks escaped unharmed because a white rooster woke them up just in time.
We headed up to the upper level via a steep wooden stair.
We reached the highest level of the main building after climbing several flights of steps. On the highest levels, we could admire the scenery at all four directions.
Many pilgrims left behind offerings at different parts of building, such as leaving money at the joint of wall panels.
Looking out from the top level of the main building, we could see the distant mountains and the spectacular chortens at the four directions. The scattered buildings in the monastery ground actually symbolize the four continents at the cardinal directions, and also the sun and moon.
Walking down the main building, we reached the lower roof terrace, which offered us another look at the magnificent main building of Samye Monastery.
At the monastery ground, there were minor restoration work going on here and there.
We spent the second half of the visit wandering in the open spaces, and climbed up one of the four chortens.
On the red chorten, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the main building under the late afternoon sun.
Before sunset, we walked to the enclosure wall of Samye Monastery.
We walked part of the kora route, following pilgrims who turned every single prayer wheel in the clockwise direction.