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Taking the High Road

The culture of the Himalayas unfurls on a bumpy ride to the top of the world

October 03, 1999|MARSHALL S. BERDAN

ALONG THE FRIENDSHIP HIGHWAY, Tibet — The red, white, orange and blue prayer flags fluttering from the pole atop the Kamba-la Pass (16,314 feet) only enhanced the spectacular scenery. To the north lay the stubbly green valley of the muddy Brahmaputra River, out of which we had just climbed via an arduous series of switchbacks (and in the process, seen our first grazing yaks); to the south, glistening in the morning sunlight, were the turquoise waters of Yamdrok-tso, one of Tibet's four sacred lakes.

While our group of nine Western tourists took in the view, our two native drivers performed an age-old travelers' ritual to appease the local lha, the spirit of the pass. First they added a stone to the cairn; then they contributed strings of cloth prayer flags they had bought in the predawn mist in front of the sacred Potala in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to the weather-worn assemblage.

Did they know something we didn't? Would we need divine assistance as we traversed the Tibetan Plateau along the Friendship Highway for the next five days?

As veterans of the 570-mile road that connects Lhasa with the Nepalese capital of Katmandu, they certainly knew it isn't much of a highway. Only on the valley floors near the few small cities is it even surfaced. The rest is unpaved and deteriorating, the inevitable result of the caravans of Chinese cargo trucks and Toyota Land Cruisers, the vehicle of choice--if not necessity--of the lucrative May-to-October tourist trade.

Nor is it particularly friendly, at least not to your backside, by virtue of the constant jouncing, or your nose, by virtue of the slightly less constant dust churned up by the vehicle ahead of yours. It is, however, the highest roadway in the world and arguably the most spectacular, offering not only exposure to rural Tibet but a view of Mt. Everest itself. All of which explains how my wife, Stacie, and I found ourselves in the company of a veterinarian and his wife from Ithaca, N.Y., an Italian couple, two Australian women and a female scuba instructor from Tokyo on the eight-day "fly in, drive out" package tour.

But the spectacular scenery would not come for three long, rough-and-tumble days. Despite its billing as the Roof of the World, the Tibetan Plateau consists mostly of rocky, dun-colored valleys through which snowmelt rivers nurture human existence via small but surprisingly luxuriant fields of green vegetables and golden barley. With hardly majestic peaks rising but a few thousand feet above barren hills of broken rock, this region more resembles northern Nevada than Shangri-La.

When booking our tour we had opted to journey overland to Lhasa and then fly out. Retracing the route of the first 19th century European explorers would allow a crescendo of anticipation culminating in the holy city. Two weeks before departure, however, the truly inscrutable CITS (China International Travel Service), the government operator of all tours, reversed our course.

We would happily discover, though, the advantage of wading into "real" Tibet after the disheartening Sino-fication of Lhasa. The fly-first scenario also reduced the threat of altitude sickness, as three days in the capital (11,800 feet) gives most flatlanders enough time to adjust to the thin air. At Kamba-la Pass, the adjustment time proved ideal as we stood blithely snapping photos fore and aft from a spot higher than California's Mt. Whitney.

From the Kamba-la, we bounced for two hours to a small village along the lake's northern shore and stopped for what would be the first of dozens of P&P (potty and picture) breaks. It would also be our introduction to the rural strain of contemporary Tibetan capitalism: A peasant, clad in the standard dark chuba (gown), insisted that we look inside her traditional stone house. It was worth the five yuan she "requested" to see how spacious and well furnished these shelters are. After all, the entire family will spend five straight months here. Like most, hers had a giant scorpion etched in the sooty black wall, a talisman to ward off evil spirits.

After a lunch of chewy steamed momos (dumplings) served in canvas tents set up for the season outside a primitive truck stop, we pushed on to Gyantse, a 14th century fortress town in the Nyang Chu Valley. We would be eating lots of momos and thukpa (barley noodle soup) over the next four days, with the menus at our government-run hotels featuring more extensive but less delectable fare.

As we and our dust-covered luggage joined the swelling crowd in the lobby of the Gyantse Hotel, we realized our group of nine was merely a pea in a traveling pod of nearly 100. The reward for re-hitting the road first each morning, we soon learned, was enjoying the sights in relative solitude.

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