Over The Tro-La Pass, Twice

We got up before sunrise to find a minibus to our next destination, a monastery town across the provincial border, into Northwestern Sichuan. At some point in the early morning, we realised that we had seriously miscalculated travel times. Most of the towns on our route were linked by at most one public bus a day, some were only linked by private transport (if there were enough customers to make the trip). We made the last minute decision to race to the bus station, where we had inquired about tickets the day before. We knew there was a bus heading to Manigango, a small Tibetan village where we planned to stop for the night. When we arrived at the bus station, we found it completely deserted, the ticket counter closed up and not a single passenger in sight. We were nervous, sitting around on an empty sidewalk, while the other options out of town, the minibuses, were filling up and leaving from the other end of town.

After about 15 minutes a taxi pulled up and we were joined by another passenger. We were able to confirm that there was in fact a bus scheduled for that day. Our delight at seeing another passenger quickly faded as more and more of them started arriving and lining up on the sidewalk alongside us. Eventually the bus and driver pulled up and it became clear that there were far more passengers than seats on the bus. Being the first people to have arrived, we felt that if there were any seats available, they should be ours, but that wasn't going to happen without work. If only we had known how to say "we got here first" in Chinese or Tibetan, instead I roamed around pointing at myself then raising my index finger, as in "I'm number one". My fiercest competition was a gigantic monk who had no problems elbowing me out as we chased the already besieged driver around. I finally got the driver's attention by shoving 200 yuan into his hands, he then pointed at two seats in the very back of the bus and I nodded in agreement.

Ticket purchase madness continued for a while, with about twenty people fighting for the five remaining seats in the bus. To get two of those five seats, I had agreed to paying the fare all the way to the last stop, even though we weren't going there. The bus eventually pulled away, I was squeezed beside the giant monk, who had also managed to secure himself a seat (although he was not one of the first to arrive at the station). We had assumed our 200 yuan was gone, with the extra money in the driver's pocket, but as we pulled off, the attendant delivered our two tickets and our change.

We travelled through barren, high-altitude, seemingly uninhabitable landscape for most of the day. We passed a large colourful monastery in Sershu, where hundreds of nomads and pilgrims had gathered for a festival. Over the course of the day we crossed four mountain passes. Every time we did, the monk next to me would begin to mumble his prayers, most of the Tibetan passengers would belt out "Yeeeeeee (slow, high pitched) so so so so so (fast, low-pitched)" while throwing prayer papers out the bus windows. Yann and I contributed the pack of prayer papers handed to us by the giant monk. Our bus seemed to be a particularly rowdy one, which helped the eight hours in the back of the bus go by. We arrived in Manigango at dusk, found a room in a small hotel and dinner in the town's largest (if only) restaurant. Like Yushu, Manigango remains almost entirely Tibetan. Dusty and run-down but atmospheric and friendly. We only spent the night there, using it as a transport hub for our trip over the nearby Tro La Mountains. We would be taking one of the less traveled highways into Tibet (but stopping short of it), the Northern Sichuan-Tibet Highway, crossing the mountains at the Tro La Pass, 5050m.

We woke up early to organise transportation, and sat for a long time as the only two passengers in a minivan until Sean and Fanny, a Chinese couple signed on. Sean and Fanny negotiated a discounted price for the extra empty seats, and we left right away. This turned out to be a sound investment, as Sean is a professional photographer, Fanny a keen amateur, and they requested frequent photo stops. Our poor driver ended up with a five our drive instead of the usual three. The scenery was truly spectacular; the snow-capped Tro La Mountains, Yihun Lhatso, a turquoise alpine holy lake, hundreds of yaks dotting the scenery and the occasional small wooden Tibetan home. The most impressive sight however, had to be the all female group of pilgrims, lugging giant packs, making their way to Lhasa, on foot. We had taken a photo break when they caught up to us on the highway. The old women and the young nuns dropped their packs and rested on the side of the road. Two of the pilgrims made their way to a home, whose owner spotted them and came out to fill their alms bags with rice. The women would be making the journey fueled mostly by rice and bread. Some of them were clearly well over 60 years old, hunched over, under the weight of their supplies. We couldn't help but admire them, especially as we chugged up the multiple switchbacks leading to the Tro La Pass in our hired minivan. At the top of the pass we stopped for photos while our driver threw the customary pack of prayer papers into the wind. Descending from the pass, we entered an alpine valley, the road sandwiched between cliff walls and a clear blue river. We saw more trees than we had seen in weeks.
We arrived in Dege in the afternoon, where we checked into a dorm room with Sean and Fanny and were treated to a Sichuan lunch (Fanny is Sichuanese). We had made the trip to Dege, even though it was somewhat of a dead end (as we didn't have permits to enter Tibet) to see what is marketed to tourists as "The Heart of Tibetan Culture", the Bakong Scripture Lamasery. It is a 300 year-old lamasery, responsible for the production of over 2500 prints of Buddhist scripture a day. The three floors of the lamasery are lined with shelved of hand carved wooden printing blocks (there are almost 300,000 of them). Using only natural sunlight (to reduce the risk of fire), dozens of workers bind scriptures, mix glue and paints, hang prints to dry and stack the hundreds of prints for delivery. The printers themselves work in pairs, one using a roller to apply red paint to the printing block the other flattening a blank sheet of paper onto the fresh paint. They work incredibly quickly, hardly taking breaks as they lay the scriptures on their legs so that they can flip them and print the other side. In a small room we found a group of old men looking over the newly printed scriptures, discarding any poorly printed ones. Outside the lamasery, pilgrims circumambulate it for hours on end. Behind the scripture lamasery, there is an even older monastery. Although slightly less important, it is beautiful and has a large number of resident monks. When we visited, the prayer hall was packed to the brim with monks, in prayer session. We decided to camp out on the balcony overlooking the courtyard (and the only exit from the prayer hall), to get photos of the monks crowding into the courtyard after prayers (we got the idea from the handful of photographers already waiting on the balcony). We gave up waiting fairly early, but returned later only to find the photographers still waiting, and the monks still praying. The stand-off didn't last much longer, with the photographers packing it in first, then Yann and I. When we left, the monks had been praying for over three hours and there was no end in sight. Dege is of understandable interest to tourists, but owing to its isolation, receives less of them than it probably should. When we were there, pilgrims far outnumbered foreign tourists. For dinner, we passed on the Tibetan food again, and had Sichuan cuisine with Sean and Fanny as well as a fifth traveller from Beijing. Sean shared photo tips with Yann for most of the evening and promised to take him to a used camera market when we visited them in Guangzhou later on in our trip. The next morning Yann and I were headed back over the mountains to Manigango and further, while Sean and Fanny were continuing into Tibet, unhindered by permit requirements. We bought our pack of Tibetan prayer papers (from the Han Chinese shopkeeper) and were ready for one more trip over the Tro La Pass.


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