A Tibetan KyiApso; Mt. Kailash is in the background The Search for the Tibetan KyiApso
Our Search Began in Lhasa, Tibet's largest city. But perhaps calling it a city is too generous; this ancient capital is only beginning to show a few signs of modern civilization. Lhasa is, in effect, a large town. Most of the roads are paved, and public bus rides cost only a few pennies. The Holiday Inn accepts credit cards, its elevators work nearly half the time, and tired travelers can order spaghetti, peanut butter sandwiches and, yes, even yakburgers.

A view of the square from atop the Jokhang TempleLhasa remains a medieval town.
Pilgrims travel hundreds of miles
to worship at the holy Jokhang Temple. Many walk the dusty, crowded circuit around the ancient gold-roofed temple several times before entering, chanting their mantra, Om Mani Pani Om, and twirling their prayer wheels. Tradition and religion dictate that the circuit be taken clockwise. Some go very slowly, ending up full length on the ground in prayer.

They pray on mats from dawn to dusk at the great wooden temple doors, pausing long enough to receive a bit of food or sip of tea from a red-robed monk. Inside, monks sit on large pillows in the huge prayer hall. Rows of candles and silver urns containing smoking yak butter burn at the altar, providing what little light there is. Lucky visitors may stumble onto a special ceremony at which the monks sing and play Tibetan instruments: six-foot-long curved brass horns, giant white conch shells, and drums made of yak hide. Huge silk paintings called thangkas hang from giant beams, and dusty life-size idols hold court in mysterious, shadowy alcoves.
The unforgettable, acrid smell of burning yak butter permeates everything -- including the temple walls, made of ancient timber, and worn smooth from thousands of hands. Years of the dense smoke have turned the once-colorful murals depicting Tibet's mythology and history into dingy, grey patterns. However, in one corner, a few young monks,working under a single, bare light bulb, are restoring the ancient paintings into splashes of bright color.
The pilgrims bring offerings of incense, jars of yak butter and white silk scarves. Some attach small coins to the walls with wax. Women wear long, dark skirts covered by colorful striped aprons. Their long, black hair is braided with colored yarn in two strands, sometimes wrapped around their heads, and studded with turquoise and coral beads. The men also braid their long hair with red yarn.Some wear Stetson hats. Most wear knives on their belts, under heavy coats with extra-long sleeves. These tunics are worn with one sleeve wrapped around the waist, and are filled with a family's valuables.
Seven of us were going on the Search for the Tibetan KyiApso: Dr. Daniel Taylor-Ide, an environmentalist who visits Tibet many times each year; his 10-year-old daughter, Tara; Sal Werner, an adventurer who came along to study flora and fauna; myself and our three Tibetan drivers. The four westerners rode in a Toyota Landcruiser with the head driver, Lobsang; the others rode in an old, powder blue Chinese truck, with a big red star over the cab, and a canvas awning covering the back. In this modern day Conestoga wagon we carried the eight barrels of gasoline we'd need for the trip, our tents, baggage and food. Once outside of Lhasa and the town of Shigatse, we weren't going to find many western comforts. Not much besides barley grows in the harsh climate and high altitude. The main food is called tsampa, roasted barley flower mixed with yak butter tea into a thick paste. Yak butter tea is just that; blocks of Chinese tea, boiled with water, and then churned with yak butter. The result is a rich, salty, buttery, not altogether-pleasant concoction. For our beverages, we chose to pack instant breakfasts and some bottled water.


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