The Drive Across Tibet

yaks grazing on the Tibetan Plateau

We headed west from Lhasa to Shigatse, and then out across the great Tibetan High Plateau. The paved road soon became two indistinct ruts. We drove across the dusty plains for days, surrounded by distant mountains, under an intense sun and bright blue sky. We imagined that we were on another planet, or reliving Earth's first few million years. We passed towering piles of rock, huge bolders, and hillsides sliced to reveal multi-colored layers. We drove across sand dunes, rockbeds, rivers and through mud. The Chinese truck would often get stuck, and our drivers would use two telephone poles they kept inside for traction, in order to free it. We would have to plan our trip carefully, and leave Tibet before the monsoon season got into full swing, or we might be stranded.
Huge, lumbering yak dotted the hillsides covered with juniper and blue-pea shrubs, and we would pass groups of tents belonging to nomads, pitched in their summer locations. Flocks of goats and sheep stayed close to the tents, and wild-looking dogs kept guard, barking when we got too close.
Tibetan KyiApsos guarding a nomad family's tent and goats The first two days outside Lhasa, we stayed in family-run establishments in small villages where a traveler could spend the night. We could usually rely on a bed, a thermos of hot, boiled water, and a white metal basin. We spent our first night at the Happy Hotel of Lhaza. There was plenty of hot water, and fairly clean blankets on the beds. We later came to think of it as our Tibetan "luxury hotel."
The second night, after crossing eight passes, we arrived in Zhongba, "the place of the wild yak." We slept in a barracks-style room, containing seven single iron beds and one dirty, broken window. The sheets looked as if they had never been washed, so we slept in our sleeping bags on the beds. The floors were made of dirt, and dingy, filthy pieces of flowered cloth were tacked to the ceilings and walls. We used melted wax to attach candles to the wall, Tibetan style. Still, we had plenty of boiled water brought to us in large thermoses, and we felt lucky.
When we stopped in a village, we could usually rely on a crowd to instantly surround us. Children would follow us, giggling. In my pidgin Tibetan, I would sometimes try to tell them that we were from America, and would always receive a blank look. Where or what is America? I would pull out my Polaroid and take a picture. Everyone would crowd around me as the picture materialized, not quite sure what was happening. Once they realized what it was, the photo would be put inside a hat, or under clothes, near the heart, for it was now a cherished family heirloom.
Our destination was Mt. Kailash (pronounced KYE-lash), one of the holiest places on earth for Hindus and Buddhists, and home to the Tibetan KyiApso. For Hindus, the mountain is the home of the god Shiva and his consort, Devi. For Tibetans, it is the home of the god Demchog and his consort Dorje Phangmo. The sources of four major Asian rivers are located in this region. And, although a more spectacular mountain vista lies to the west, the blunt, snow-capped Mt. Kailash rises alone on its horizon. Two huge, bright blue lakes lie near the mountain's southern foot. Tibetan pilgrims travel hundreds of miles to reach and circumambulate Mt. Kailash, believing that whoever completes the circuit 108 times will achieve nirvana. It usually takes two or three days to circle the mountain once.
We started looking for KyiApsos a full day before reaching Mt. Kailash. We would drive up to a tent, and become surrounded with curious nomads. Our driver, Lobsang, would ask if they had or knew of any long-haired bearded pups with curled tails. After the initial outburst of laughter and looks of astonishment, the answer was usually, "Mindu," which means, "There aren't any," or, "It doesn't exist." "Have you seen any KyiApsos?" Lobsang would ask. The chorus would answer, "Mindu, Mindu!" We would sometimes be directed to a tent a mile or so away, and would dutifully drive there. We saw more than a dozen KyiApsos during our trip, but they were either older adults, too big and mean-tempered to take home, or of very poor quality, sometimes beardless, with eyes set too close together, or a skinny, straight tail. None was suitable for breeding.
Daniel remembered a beautiful village in a lush valley nearby, where he had seen a KyiApso four years earlier. We made our way over the desolate, treacherous terrain, around boulders and over mounds of rocks, entered the valley and arrived at the village. It was mid-afternoon, and very quiet. Two-story houses, with flat roofs, and painted with Tibetan symbols on the doors and windows lined the dirt road. As we neared the house where Daniel remembered the dog had been, we met a grizzled old woman, sitting on the ground, chanting and twirling her prayer wheel. Lobsang knocked on the gate, and we entered a small courtyard. A monster of a KyiApso lunged at us, barking furiously. His grey hair was filthy and hung in great mats. Beneath the fur, all we could see was an enormous set of teeth. Luckily for us, he was chained to a huge boulder, and couldn't quite reach us. His owner, a farmer, told us that the dog was so ferocious that he had never been let off the three-foot-long chain. As far as the farmer knew, there were no other KyiApsos in the area. We headed back toward Mt. Kailash, relentless in our search. We HAD to find a KyiApso puppy!
An old woman, her white hair in two neat braids, and wearing a huge belt made of seashells, told us that she knew of a KyiApso puppy a few miles away. We drove there at once, rolling up to the tent in a cloud of dust. A little girl in a red sweater ran out to greet us. Her parents followed, both wearing long braids, and smiling broadly. Yes, they had a beautiful male KyiApso puppy that they had bought only about a month earlier from a pilgrim passing by. About two dozen goats watched as we negotiated the price. We ended up paying 92 yuan, the equivalent of nine American dollars. Nine dollars is a great deal of money for a nomad family, and it made our new friends very happy.
The little girl gave the puppy a hug, and the father petted him before handing him over. Dogs are treated better than anywhere else in Asia. In Tibet, it is said that dogs are the souls of monks who have unsuccessfully transcended to the next level of being, and so are treated with respect. Although they are not mistreated, we saw more hungry dogs routinely kept on short chains than we'd like to remember.
Before we left our new friends, we stopped to take some photographs. The father looked at the Polaroids, grinned, and promptly placed them in his hat before saying goodby. We named the puppy Kang Rinpoche, which is another name for Mt. Kailash. His new home, for the time being, would be a giant tire in the back of the Chinese truck.

Next:The Last Chapter

Go back to Diana