The Lake at the Top of the World

My head hung low as I trudged along, ascending the steep hill. But no. I looked up to see that the land was still flat as a pancake. If it wasn't for the giant, turquoise lake, and the ring of mountains in the distance, I could have been hiking across the bald prairies of Saskatchewan.

This was Lake Nam-tso in Tibet, and at an elevation of 4700 metres, the lack of oxygen made any exertion difficult. Even lying in bed, there were times when I suddenly stopped breathing. I started gasping, and then I would have to stop, take a deep breath, and consciously think about breathing.

Tibet has been called the roof of the world. That would make Nam-tso the rooftop pool. And though you wouldn't know it to taste it, it's the second largest salt lake in China.

My traveling companion was Yves Smith, an Australian who I had hooked up with in Kathmandu. We caught a cramped, local bus in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, disembarking at Damxung, the closest town on the highway to Nam-tso. As we set out from town, every local we met pointed off in the distance, and said, "Nam-tso." We obviously weren't the first foreigners to travel this route.

After an hour's hike across the dry, dusty plain, we reached the base of the mountains that separated us from Nam-tso. We followed a dirt road, which gradually began to climb as it wound it's way through the hills. The road paralleled a stream, flowing down to the plains below. As we climbed the river became less and less well defined. While there was a main channel, rivulets poured down most of the hillside.

We decided to camp for the night, just as it began to snow. I was escaping Canada's winter on this trip, but here it was snowing in June. I might as well have been back in Saskatchewan.

The ground everywhere was soggy. The wet seeped through the floor of the tent, so I threw down my space age emergency blanket.

Just then a jeep drove up - the first vehicle we'd seen on the road since setting out. We negotiated a ride, and quickly struck camp. The road immediately deteriorated into a muddy mess. There were huge potholes and ruts to be avoided, and every time we came to a steep section, the jeep stalled, and the driver had to get out and crank it, like a Model T.

Finally we topped the 5150 metre Lhachen-la Pass. An immense plain spread out below, with Lake Nam-tso a jewel gleaming in the setting sun.

We bounced our way down to the tiny village of Namtso Qu, where we got a room in a drafty little guesthouse. In the morning we awoke to find the ground dusted in snow.

The owner of the guesthouse spoke no English, and we spoke no Tibetan. Still, we found we could communicate using the universal language - hand gestures. Our ultimate destination was Tashi Dor Monastery. By pretending to gallop, our host indicated that he would rent us horses to take us there for 50 yuan a day (about $8 Canadian).

Meanwhile, we decided to check out the lake, which lay right beside the town. Or so we thought. We soon discovered that the flatness of the landscape wreaked havoc with our sense of perspective. What we thought to be a five minute walk to the lake turned out to be two hours.

As we rested by the shores of the lake, we were joined by some children of the local yak herders. They sat down and stared at us, not uttering a word. The youngest, a boy of about four with a snot encrusted face, was decked out in Chicago Bulls paraphernalia. Eventually they got bored and wandered away without a word.

Yves and I discussed it, and even though neither of us had any horseback riding experience, the next morning we decided to take the guesthouse owner up on his offer. However, he had changed his mind, and now gestured that we should walk to the monastery. We argued back and forth to no avail. Yves and I donned out packs, and set out across the plains.

I've heard cyclists say that the worst part of cycling across Canada is the prairies, because nothing ever changes. Hiking across the plains at Nam-tso was much like that. There were only two small hills beside the lake - where we assumed the monastery to be - to break up the landscape. We walked for hours, without seeming to get any closer.

On the other hand we would see a truck in the distance, only to discover, as we got closer, that it was, in fact, a yak.

Twice we saw funnel clouds form in the distance, but luckily they dissipated before they could suck us up.

Late in the afternoon, storm clouds formed in the distance, moving quickly towards us. We decided to set up camp before they hit. However, they moved much faster than we realized, and were on us in minutes. The wind howled as we tried to set up the tent. It was all we could do the keep the tent from blowing away. Poles snapped. Our hands turned numb. Finally we got it erected enough to throw our gear in and get out of the snow.

As quickly as it came, the storm passed. We unzipped the door to find the world covered in a fresh blanket of snow, while two yak herders stared at us.

Everywhere we went the Tibetan stared at us without uttering a word. For hours on end. Even at the guesthouses they stood in the doorway, or at the window, staring in on us. It became quite unnerving.

We fired up the stove, and cooked up tsampa for dinner. It's a barley flour, which you mix with boiling water to make a kind of paste. It's not very tasty, but it's supposed to be nutritious.

Since the road seemed to be taking the long way around, the next morning we set out cross country, in a more direct route to the monastery. But the large tufts of grass made walking much more difficult. And when we reached the lake a couple of hours later, we discovered why the road went where it went. There was an arm of the lake blocking our way. Following the shore eventually brought us back to the road.

Finally, the hills of our destination began to grow perceptibly closer. A couple of hours later we passed between the hills and a huge rock, jutting out of the earth, and arrived at Tashi Dor.

The monastery consisted of a small temple, housing several Buddhas, built in a cave in the side of the hill. There were several other cave temples which were now crumbling ruins. There was only a single monk stationed there, along with a few hangers on. We joined them in the monk's quarters for butter tea. It's tea into which large amounts of yak butter have been melted. It has a strong, sickly smell, and is really an acquired taste.

We stayed in a small building with a dorm room, consisting of eleven dirty, old mattresses thrown on the floor. They didn't sell food, but they did sell beer, as the pile of empty bottles stacked against the dorm building attested.

We circumnavigated the big hill, marveling at the way it jutted straight up at points, while filled with interested nooks and crannies. It also doubled as a bird sanctuary, and many birds were nesting on its cliff faces.

That evening some people arrived on horseback. They were two young Chinese women, Lily and Che Hong, and Angelo, an Italian who spoke Mandarin. The guesthouse owner had rented them the horses for only 30 yuan.

We spent the next couple of days relaxing at the monastery, hiking around the hills, bird watching, and drinking in the sight of the immense lake. Lily taught us a Chinese card game, called Big Old Two.

We headed back to Namtso Qu, Yves and I on foot, and the others on horseback. Once again storm clouds formed in the distance. This time we got the tent up more quickly, and once again the storm blew past in fifteen minutes. We struck the tent, and made it back to the village in one day.

Angelo said that one of the benefits of traveling with Lily and Che Hong was that they could get the Chinese price for things. They negotiated with a truck driver to take us back to Damxung for 50 yuan. When the driver looked into our room, and discovered that we were Westerners, he immediately jacked the price to 100 yuan. Che Hong hated to be taken, so she found another driver to take us for 40 yuan.

As we left the placid lake behind, we climbed back over the mountain pass, bumping along in the back of a large truck, playing cards while sitting on bags of dried yak dung.


Pictures and Text Copyright 1999 Paul Stockton. All rights reserved.

Last updated: November 2, 1999