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.
Facing northeast, we stood on the slope overlooking the placid water of Namtso Lake. At 7:20am, the horizon began to brighten up.
At 7:35am, a tint of orange signifying the arrival of the sunrise.
It felt like all visitors at Namtso were standing on the northern slope of Tashi Dor Peninsula to watch the sunrise.
Over 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).
Sunlight slowly swallowed the darkness on the hills of Tashi Dor Peninsula (扎西半島).
Looking 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.
The campsites and tourist facilities at the waterfront were blanketed in the shadow of the Tashi Dor Peninsula.
Finally the sun rose above the Tashi Dor Peninsula.
While most tourists watched the rising sun, I preferred the scenery of the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains and the lakefront lagoons.
At 8:50am, the sun was already high up. Namtso Lake returned to its famous deep blue colour under the pristine mountain air.
At 9am, we walked down the hill and returned to Sacred Sheep Guesthouse.
We took one last look at the Namtso Lake on our way down.
We passed by the trailhead one last time before entering the area of Sacred Sheep Guesthouse.
For a brief moment, I walked off to the lakefront near Tashi Dor Temple (扎西島寺).
Looking back up the cliff I could see the lookout where we photographed the Milky Way the night before.
On 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.
Before 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.
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.
The first part of the road journey passed along the valley of Yarlung Tsangpo River (ཡར་ཀླུངས་གཙང་པོ་ 雅魯藏布江).
The 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.
We also passed by many narrow strips of Highland Barley fields on the steep slope above the river.
At 4pm, we were approaching the lush green valley plains of Yangbajain (羊八井).
At 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).
Yangbajain (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.
15 minutes before 7pm, we reached Lakenla (那根拉山口) at 5190m.
At 5190m, the Lakenla Mountain Pass (那根拉山口) offered us a glimpse of the Namtso Lake from a distance.
Time was getting late. Under the late afternoon sun, the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains welcomed us at the gateway into the Namtso Lake area.
After over eight hours on the road, we finally reached the Namtso Lake.
With 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.
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.
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.
The closest thing to Tibetan pilgrimage that we experienced in Lhasa was our visit to Ganden Monastery (དགའ་ལྡན་ 甘丹寺). Slightly after 5am, we left the hotel and walked to the street intersection of Yutuo Road and Duosenge Road near the Jokhang Monastery. Several locals had already gathered at the street corner waiting for the public buses designated for different monasteries around the city. The bus for Ganden Monastery soon arrived and we were told to get on with the pilgrims. Foreign tourists were not permitted to take these pilgrim buses. As visitors from Hong Kong we were allowed to join the locals. Before departure, a vendor get on the bus to sell prayer flags. We picked a five-coloured one that costed 50 RMB. Before leaving Lhasa, the bus stopped by a security checkpoint where all passengers were required to register with our identity cards, and a local bakery where the majority of the passengers including us went down to get some bread for breakfast. Soon our bus left Lhasa into the countryside northeast of the city. After a two-hour bus ride, our bus finally arrived at Ganden Monastery on Wangbur Mountain at about 8am.
Just like our Drepung visit, we decided to walk the kora pilgrim route around the monastery before visiting the actual buildings. From the parking lot, we followed a sloped path heading up the hill behind the monastery. After making a turn in front of a small security station, we soon arrived at the hilltop overlooking the monastery. A pilgrim stood by an incense burner surrounded by myriad of prayer flags. We took out our 5-colour prayer flags, tied it to the flag cluster, and made a wish for a smooth journey ahead of us. We continued onto the winding kora path along the slope. The path soon split into two: the upper and lower. We followed the upper path and passed by a number of small shrines. We took out the bread we bought and sat down beside the path for a brief rest. Beyond the scenic valley of Lhasa River, layers of mountains extended as far as the eye could see. Further down the slope there were more prayer flags, small shrines and probably a small platform for sky burials. We followed several local pilgrims to finish the latter half of the kora and arrived at the monastery at its far end.
We passed by the forecourt of Jokhang Monastery at around 5:30am. Pilgrims were burning some sort of plants at the incense burners.
After arriving at the parking lot Ganden Monastery, we walked uphill along a path heading to the trailhead of the kora pilgrim route.
At the hilltop, the view of Ganden Monastery was spectacular.
A local dog followed us from the parking lot all the way up to the hilltop.
At the hilltop, a local pilgrim was preparing offerings at the incense burner.
We tied our 5-coloured prayer flags at the hilltop overlooking Ganden Monastery.
The kora path continues beyond the prayer flags to the backside of the hill.
We soon reached the first shrines along the kora path.
Below the kora path, the Lhasa River passed through the valley behind the Ganden Monastery.
Also known as Kyi River, Lhasa River is a tributary of Yarlung Tsangpo River.
Farming terraces occupy a valley below the Ganden Monastery.
The kora path split into a few footpaths along the slope, connecting a series of pilgrim shrines.
The kora offered us a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains.
There were many violet wild flowers on the green slope along the path.
Some pilgrims took the lower kora route along the green slope.
Towards the end of the kora path, we once again passed under a series of prayer flags.
After the prayer flags, a few more Buddhist shrines came to sight, as we approached the Ganden Monastery at its far side.
At the incense burner near the end of the kora path, we could see the winding vehicular road that our bus first arrived.
The winding road where our bus zigzagged up earlier in the morning looked wonderful from a distance.
We entered the monastery compound from its far end.
The sky wasn’t as clear as the morning when we arrived at Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖). In our Nikko day trip from Tokyo, Lake Chuzenji was our last destination of the day. The scenery of Lake Chuzenji is dominated by the magnificent Mount Nantai (男体山 or 二荒山), an active stratovolcano that had erupted 7000 years ago. If visiting in the autumn, we can take the Tobu bus up to the lookout of Mount Hangetsuyama (半月山) to enjoy a fantastic view of the conical volcano and its perfection reflection in the lake. Since the bus only operates in the autumn months and we didn’t want to hire a car just for the lookout, we decided to enjoy Lake Chuzenji by doing a short walk along the southeastern shore to the former British and Italian Embassies.
From the bus station, it was only a five minute walk to the shore of Lake Chuzenji.
We walked along the southeastern shore of Lake Chuzenji and passed by many swan pedal boats.
Soon we reached the entrance of Chuzenji Temple (中禅寺), the Buddhist temple that gave the name to Lake Chuzenji.
Another short walk from Chuzenji Temple brought us to our destination of the afternoon, the former Italian Embassy. Designed by American architect Antonin Raymond, the villa was built in 1928 as the summer villa for the Italian Embassy in the past. Antonin Raymond cladded the entire building with Japanese cedar bark, a local material from the area.
Today, the building becomes a museum for the public.
The Viewing Hallway on the ground level allowed a magnificent panorama view of the lake.
There are three bedrooms on the upper floor. The decor is simple and elegant.
After touring the Italian Embassy Villa, we walked down to the landscaped area by the shore.
A timber jetty outside the Italian Embassy Villa brought us closer to the lake.
From the jetty, we could see the sacred Mount Nantai (男体山 or 二荒山). The lake was extremely peaceful with super clear water.
We walked back towards the starting point of our short walk. Soon, we reached the jetty of another old western villa, the former British Embassy Villa.
Similar to the Italian Embassy Villa, maximizing the panoramic views of the lake seemed to be the main concept of the house design.
The viewing hallway of the British Embassy Villa was equally impressive with the beautiful scenery of the lake.
After the embassy villas, we walked slowly back to the village of Chuzenji where we got off the bus.
We were way too early to see the fall colours, but instead we saw some beautiful flowers along the way.
We also saw several people recreational fishing in the lake.
Back to Nikko town, we still had about an hour’s time before our train departed for Tokyo. We dropped by Komekichi Kozushi, a small sushi restaurant just a stone throw from the train station, for a quick and decent dinner.
The father and son owners of Komekichi Kozushi were quite serious about the correct way to eat sushi. The food was very delicious and we highly recommend Komekichi Kozushi to any Nikko visitor.
After dinner, the sky was getting dark, and we could see the dramatic silhouette of Mount Nantai backed with vivid skies.
As we stepped into Nikko Tobu Railway Station, our one-day visit of Nikko was coming to an end. We hopped on the limited express train for Asakusa Tokyo.