travelogue – Ganden to Samye – Tibet

Flying into Tibet the mountains loomed like icebergs above the clouds. In the intense morning sunlight I couldn’t tell where the clouds ended and the snow began.

Yes I flew, ensuring that the PRC, the liberators of Tibet, got a good chunk of my cash. Blast!

I should have tried to make it overland.

Julio from Spain made it. Men delivering a new jeep to Lhasa knocked on his hotel door at midnight offering to bring him along. No problem. Only 20 hours. Another guy hired a taxi! Two others managed to find an illegal local bus — but they waited 1 1/2 days to depart. Local buses in China only leave when they are full.

As advised, I went immediately to bed on arrival in Lhasa. You need time to accommodate to the altitude gain. I awoke to the snapping of prayer flags and hotel laundry.

Dusk is my favourite time of day. I waited to see the Potala Palace in this light.

It is magnificent; rising sheer and vast, sloping walls, trapezoid windows and doors, solid, imposing, of massive proportions, white, ochre, and gold.

The Potala is an inspiring fortress — enduring, like Tibetan Buddhism. Certainly one of the greatest works of man.

At a rooftop full moon party later, drunk backpackers asserted the superiority of Lhasa over Kathmandu. It is natural to compare two of the world’s most mythic cities.

Lhasa is much less developed, less polluted, and does not yet suffer a plague tourist population like Nepal. This is the end of the high season in Tibet. Four jets arrive every day. Yet you don’t see many tourists. Most are German, French, American suitcasers who move in overweight tour buses from one quick photo-op to the next. They are whisked back out of sight to Hotels in the more expensive Chinese section of town.

The government loves fat tour groups paying US$100+ / day. Tours are all booked through the despised CITS (China International Travel Service).

Backpackers are nothing but trouble for the authorities here. They dwell only in Tibetan hotels, eat only at Tibetan restaurants. They stay longer, try to learn the language, and are vocal advocates for Tibetan independence. They do everything they can to thwart the system. (Bhutan, by the way, won’t even allow individual travellers into the country.)

Tourism in Tibet consists of travel from one impressive, damaged monastery to the next. It is a confusion of sights, smells, and sounds. Tibetan pilgrims in traditional colourful costume push purposefully through corridors, candle-lit galleries, halls and chapels. They drag prayer beads along closed rooms, press their heads against dragon-shaped door knockers. They make offerings of scarves, money, and chang (foul beer).

They mumble mantras, circumambulate, and prostrate. There are different strange and unique traditions at each shrine. The smell is rancid butter and fragrant burning juniper. They also burn small prayer papers, sending the prayer and smoke up into the wind. (It must work. I had one flutter by me while I was on top of a mountain far from any temple.)

Most impressive are the devout rural women who make religious pilgrimage for weeks or months during the winter. They are beautiful; walking with their prayer wheels, weather-beaten faces, butter-oiled hair plaited into colourful ornaments.


Tourists traipse along behind, befuddled, peering at the banners of faded silk, tankas, & mandelas. Trying to recall if the next statue is King Songtsen Gampo or Padmasambhana. To me this cluttered religion is much more Hindu than Buddhist.

Tourists love to watch the monks playing out their rituals. A highlight is the religious music, all drums, bells, and trumpets (some carved from human thigh bones).

Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery Trek

  • Ganden — 4500 metres
  • Shuga La — 5240 metres
  • Chitu La — 5040 metres
  • Samye — 3600 metres

We spent 6 nights on this hike crossing a number of high passes. Altitude is the critical factor. Fortunately we had perfect weather. This is the end of the best trekking season in Tibet — clear and sunny — you can see to the horizon in every direction. This is really BIG SKY country! But early winter storms can blow in any time now, closing the passes.

Like many of the great walks of the world, this second most popular trek in Tibet offers rich variety; high snowy peaks, lush alpine meadows, and desert-like environs.

monastery in Ganden
monastery in Ganden

The sprawling ruins of Ganden remain a stunning sight. This is my favourite monastery so far, built high on a cliff in a natural amphitheatre. The location is remote, but not too remote for the Red Guard who bombed it to rubble in 1959. Later the idiotic Cultural Revolution, little more than vandalism and looting, finished the job.

Monks were turned out, or sent for re-education, or thrown in jail. We met an 83-year-old monk who had been imprisoned for 22 years for not renouncing the Dalai Lama. (He had been one of those responsible for bringing the young boy King his food.) The old monk implored us to take the message back to our countries, to pressure the Chinese government.

Ganden, after 2:30 PM when the tour buses depart, was wonderful. We 3 backpackers were all who remained, staying at the monastery guesthouse.

Fantastic views from the ridge, and a platform where sky burials are performed. The skull is crushed, the corpse chopped into pieces and then mixed with tsampa flour before being fed to the eagles. Scattered are bits of bone and skull, dragged off by the mangy dogs who fight and die around every monastery. Buddhists, of course, won’t destroy them. (Many believe dogs are reincarnations of fallen monks.)

Tibet is one of the few places I can recall which is getting better and not worse for tourists. The embarrassed Chinese government is making slow but steady restoration of the great monasteries. Indeed, in some the construction workers seem to out-number the monks, the work songs drown out the chanting.

For the 2 high passes we hired a Yak to carry our packs. The Tibetan guide appeared finally with a small horse instead. This proved to be a big mistake as the horse was unable to handle the tough terrain. We insisted on carrying our packs at the worst section, fearing for the life of our pony.

We managed the passes better than our horse, suffering only altitude headaches. (Early warning sign that your brain is not getting enough oxygen.)

This late in the Fall even the Yaks had abandoned the high grazing. We saw no Western faces for 5 days. A few tough lady Tibetan pilgrims headed for Samye passed by without tents, with bad shoes, subsisting only on tsampa and butter tea. Unbelievable. They asked us for directions as they have no maps.

At Chitu La we had a boil-up lunch at the headwaters of a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra river. The change in scenery as we descended was amazing. In summer it is out of the Garden of Eden (as described in our guide book), but we thought it even prettier in the Fall. The leaves were changing colour.

On a whim we trudged up to Yamalung Hermitage, a tiny meditation retreat on top of a mountain. It is manned by an old monk, a young nun, and the birds and picas they feed. This is a holy pilgrimage site — the revered Indian tantric sorcerer/magician Guru Rimpoche meditated here. He was invited in the 8th century to subdue demons plaguing the country.

I had a chance to emulate him, to meditate the night in a cave. But, fearing bats, I instead slept on the roof of the Hermitage, toasty, buried in blankets and a huge Tibetan coat, watching the sky wheel. At this altitude the nights are frigid, though the the sun is scorching mid-day.

In Samye my favourite memory was scrambling in the beautiful river flood plain sand dunes in the late afternoon. The light! I might have been in the shifting Sahara. The only human footprints were my own.

Camping, hiking is, I think, the best retreat. Life is elemental. Perhaps being this close to nature is being close to God.


We eluded the disinterested police (our Trek was completely illegal) and celebrated well on our return to Lhasa!

monastery in Samye
monastery in Samye


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