Fulfilling a lifelong dream, TV traveller Michael Wood treks deep into western Tibet, to mystical Mt Kailash and the fabled lost city of Tsaparang
Years ago, back in his corner shop in rainy Manchester, my father used to dream of Tibet, of lamas and monasteries, of snow leopards and real-life Shangri-Las.
Among the books on his shelf was Lama Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds – a last glimpse of the ‘lost’ city of Tsaparang before the Chinese invasion brought an end to the old world of Tibet. Capital of the Guge kingdom, Tsaparang was founded in the far west of Tibet in the ninth century. It was sacked and largely abandoned in 1685, but only finally destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
What Govinda described in 1949 has the power of a vision: ‘When we set eyes on the lofty castles of the ancient city of Tsaparang, which seemed to be carved out of the solid rock of an isolated monolithic mountain peak, we gasped with wonder and could hardly believe our eyes… In the great solitude and stillness of the abandoned city and in the mysterious semi-darkness of its temple-halls, the spiritual experiences and achievements of countless generations seemed to be projected into the magic forms of images. The temples seemed to be lifted out of the stream of time…’
If ever a description of a place made me want to go there, that was it. It took me half a lifetime to get there but, as the Tibetan lamas say: ‘The best journeys come in their own time’.
I went to Tsaparang in search of the ancient Tibetan legend of Shambala, the lost kingdom of enlightened Buddhism that inspired James Hilton’s modern tale of Shangri-La, Lost Horizon. Both are stories of a secret valley behind the Himalaya, where the wisdom of humanity is saved for the future of the planet. Behind both ideas, it seemed to me, was Tsaparang.
My journey started 400km north-west of Kathmandu in the Nepalese town of Simikot, from where we set out on foot up the Limi Valley. The pristine landscape of Limi is an adventure in its own right. In the valley’s small towns of Jhang, Halji and Til, Tibetan monastic culture is still intact, untouched by the tragedies experienced over the mountains in China.
In Jhang we met the lama, a big burly man with a fine old red-silk coat. His daughter made us butter tea while he took us to the prayer room of his house, filled with silk hangings, books and bronzes saved from the wholesale destruction over in Tibet.
“We always used to be part of Tibet,” he said, “and we are pure Tibetan in our culture. It was the accident of drawing up the border that put us in Nepal. The old culture has been destroyed on the other side, but here it’s still alive.”
Standing in the lama’s house it struck me how much Limi resembled the legends: a hidden valley; a monastery saving the wisdom of the ancients after catastrophe and handing it on to future generations. I told the lama about the tale of Shangri-La.
“It still exists!” he said.
After five days’ hard hiking we crossed into Tibet at Hilsa, where we made our rendezvous with friends from Lhasa and two jeeps. We loaded our bags and drank hot jasmine tea with the young Chinese border soldiers in their baggy green fatigues.
As we left, Tsewang, our guide, turned to me: “The People’s Army are strange human beings – a funny thing has happened to them. When you look into their eyes it is as if something has been cut away. Some of them seem to be human beings with no soul.”
We headed for Purang, a wild west-style border town with a few shops, a nightclub and a karaoke-bar-cum-brothel for the Chinese troops: a typical gruesome colonial outpost of Beijing’s empire.
Quickly continuing north-west, the Indian Himalaya opened up before us. The great whaleback of Gurla Mandata rose on our right, its peak streaming long tails of snow. Then, at Gurla Pass by a cairn of mani (prayer) stones heaped with prayer flags, we had our first view of the holy mountain.
Mount Kailash was still 60km away but, in the dazzling November light, its white summit gleamed like a beacon. I felt a sudden rush of emotion: I’d dreamt of this moment for so long.
For centuries the strange shape of Mount Kailash, quite isolated from the rest of the Himalayan chain, has exerted a powerful hold on the imagination. To the Bon Po, Jains, Buddhists and Hindus, this is the central place, represented in art and legend for millennia. Everest may be higher but, in the myth stakes, Kailash takes all the prizes.
As we drove on we began to see the dark sheen of Lake Manasarovar. The highest sizeable freshwater lake in the world, Manasarovar was long viewed by pilgrims as the source of four of the great rivers of Asia: the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Sutlej. In fact, only the Sutlej rises here, although the others start nearby. Not surprisingly in a culture where rivers are sacred, it’s an axial point that has drawn Indian pilgrims for thousands of years – and still does.
Sitting at the lakeside by Chiu Gompa, I felt elated to have finally made it. But I also became rather melancholy about the suffering of the Tibetans. As if reading my thoughts, Tsewang reprimanded me.
“In Western countries, death is seen as an accident,” he explained as we cupped our hands round steaming mugs of yak tea to keep warm. “You are so ambitious, working so hard, gathering possessions, you don’t know how or when death will come – you live in fear of it. In Buddhist lands, death is practised from the beginning. Don’t be so ambitious, help other people, be compassionate, share your wealth and accept death from the beginning.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “In London we seem to live our lives in a permanent state of stress.”
He pursed his lips sympathetically: “We have no word for stress in Tibetan.”
Darchen was the next stop, a shabby frontier town hemmed in by an ugly military camp with half-finished concrete walls. The street stalls are run by Khampa traders: long knives dangling in silver scabbards, they patrol outside their tented shops selling Lhasa beer, chocolate, batteries and baseball caps. The one hotel is owned by the local police who have woken up to the fact that there is money to be made out of the magic mountain.
The province of Ngari has only opened up in the past 20 years and travellers still need a special permit to be here. But as more and more Himalayan lands become problematical – al-Qaeda in Pakistan, separatists in Kashmir, Maoists in Nepal – Tibet’s once-forbidden land now beckons invitingly. An airport is being constructed in the west, and a new road is being laid past Kailash to Purang. The most demanding pilgrimage on earth will soon be within reach of package tours – but not yet.
We drove west on dirt roads along the back of the Himalaya, stopping to dip in the hot springs at Tirthapuri before continuing over the wide, wintry grasslands, where only gazelle and wild ass roam. We crossed rivers of ice and traversed hills of brown, orange, rust-red and cuprous green – it was as if the landscape was made of decaying metals.
Climbing still, we mounted a 5,000m-high escarpment that afforded a truly vast Himalayan panorama. Directly in front of us stood Nanda Devi and the holy peaks around Joshimath, with the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau reaching right up to the foot of the glaciers. Staring at the narrow belt of snowy peaks, I had the uncanny feeling that I was looking down on the Himalaya.
It was dark before we reached Zanda. Now an army base, police post and radio station, it was originally the site of the great Tholing monastery, founded in 996. Tholing was one of the saddest victims of the wanton devastation of the 1960s. At the centre of this great complex was the Yeshe O Chapel, a three dimensional mandala (circular meditation device) and 18 subsidiary chapels, making it one of the most splendid buildings in Asia. Now this memory room of Tibetan culture is largely ruined, an empty paradise.
We slept that night in the town’s freezing hotel. I had too much Lhasa beer in the Happy Returns bar and woke in the early hours suffering from altitude sickness and dehydration. Stumbling to the tap outside I gulped icy water under a starry sky while a long-distance truck driver tried to start his wheezing engine. Only 25km away, Tsaparang was within reach.
Next day we set out early, and at last Govinda’s fairy castle came into view: a giant beehive towering on a crag of sandstone and alluvial mud.
The place is pock-marked with hundreds of caves and, in the valley below, the remains of the city – crumbled walls and broken stupas – spill down the slopes. Among the few buildings that have been preserved is the royal palace of the Guge kings, perched on top of the citadel. The magnificent temples have survived, too, though many of their images were irretrievably damaged during the Cultural Revolution.
The interior walls of the shrines were once lined with huge plaster figures of Buddhist deities, painted and gilded with metal aureoles. All of these were smashed save one exquisite, three-faced female deity, so lovely that one wonders whether some Red Guard couldn’t bring himself to wield the hammer.
The wall paintings did survive reasonably intact – it seems the Guard feared the three-dimensional images much more and spared the intricate murals. The walls were covered with meditational deities, scenes from the Buddha’s life and images of the royal family of Guge with their children, servants and musicians: poignant snapshots from the enchanted life of the kingdom in the 15th century – a world stopped in time.
Our guide, Gyurme, was visibly moved by the place. A lifetime engaging with the story of Tibet doesn’t lessen the feeling of desolation when faced with the reality of the loss. He sat impassive on a temple bench.
At an outlying cave-shrine in the hills, the guardian refused to undo the padlock and let us see the desecrated remains. “It was smashed in Mao’s day,” he said. “The local people were forced to do it by the Red Guards.” Our driver from Lhasa, already smouldering at the spectacle of his destroyed heritage, exploded and swore angrily at the man: “You bastards! You’d have done better to have kept the door locked back then.”
Tsaparang survived into the 17th century. In 1624, when the first Europeans arrived, the king and queen were open-minded enough to allow them to build a church. The Jesuit Andrade had high hopes for his Tibet mission – the Tibetans, he wrote, were ‘good, honest, open-hearted people’ who were ripe for conversion. But the mission was doomed to failure. It staggered on until the 1640s but then disappears from records. The last trace, the wooden cross of Andrade’s little church, was seen by a traveller in 1912.
For Tsaparang the arrival of the first Westerners was the beginning of the end. Within a few years the Buddhist king of neighbouring Ladakh opened hostilities against them. The city survived a siege in the 1640s before the fateful final assault of 1685. A giant rubble siege tower, still visible today, was constructed to reach the citadel.
The cause was hopeless and the King of Guge surrendered, believing he had been promised safe conduct. However, the king and queen – along with their children and ministers – were beheaded in front of their people, their heads stuck on poles at the palace gates. Even today, in a cave down a lonely gulley below the city walls, the headless bodies of the royal family remain, mummified in the dry climate – a macabre and tragic end to the magic kingdom.
The memory of this lost city still captivates; it seems especially poignant now, given the fate of Tibet’s culture in the later 20th century. I feel sure Tsaparang and the great mother monastery of Tholing are what James Hilton had in mind when he created the fictional land of Shangri-La. But the Guge kingdom may also have been one of the historical models for the mythical land of Shambala, the Tibetan paradise myth that first appeared in India in the 960s.
You might think it an unlikely nirvana – austere, freezing and breathless – but in its unearthly equilibrium of landscape, sky, human landmarks and mythic tales, it certainly is a paradise. It’s a reminder that, even in our age, when every landscape seems to have been trodden, every mystery solved, it is still possible – as the Tibetans say – to cross over into another world.
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