Thursday Xianhe and the Grassland

We woke early and completed what seems to have become our ‘constitution al’ – an early morning walk with the faithful around the Labrand Temple. It was dull and and there was a thick mist on the hill tops.

There had been talk over several days of ‘The Grasslands’ an area north and higher than Xianhe where we would stay overnight in a ‘home stay’ with local people. The big issue was whether the truck would get up there given what was described as a difficult road made worse by rain. The last trip had been unable to make it and there was serious doubt as to whether it would be possible for us. Emma and Simon (the crew) had undertaken a reconnaissance mission and decided it was ‘no go ‘ for Penelope, but they thought that it would be possible to get there independently by taxi for a return trip in a day. A final, final decision could only be made on the day, taking weather into account. Of course, we wanted to go. Once again we were not sure what would be involved, but like most condemned men, we ate a heart breakfast and waited for a verdict on the weather.

Despite rain being forecast, it was thought we could make it, so Jason the Chinese guide was despatch to find two taxis. Seven of us had decided on the excursion and we decided to take Jason along to educate him,as he had never been before, and for translation purposes.

So we piled in. Girls in one car with Jason and boys in the other, having taken the precaution of purchasing water. bread and tomatoes in case we got hungry. The cars were small people carriers and quite modern, but not four wheel drive, and we got very skippy when found seat belts. Our thoughts of safety with these were quickly dashed as we found that the natty black covers with red spots were aesthetically pleasing but successfully covered all the seatbelt anchor points. So much for that…….

So we set off. We had not got more than 2 kilometres out of town before we had run out of ‘tarmaced’ road and were bouncing around as the car swerved around potholes. It became apparent that the road was in the early stages of construction and that there was a considerable civil engineering project in progress. Initially there were large cement blocks or a low wall to ensure that the joggling vehicles did not fall over the edge, but these soon ran out. At this early stage the sky was still overcast which added drama to the situation when two large lorries (there were plenty of these in evidence and were probably the cause of the major mud churning that had taken place) had approached the same spot from different directions and it seemed had got locked together. It looked like two dinosaurs fighting! Add to this the fact that each lorry headed a phalanx of cars and motorcycles that had attached themselves behind them to charge their way through and dominate the right of way and it was a real mess. It took a considerable time and much hooting to sort it all out.

Eventually things got freed up again and we were moving forward. We passed major earthworks and big craters in what is obviously going to be fantastic when it’s finished. There was also lots of concrete involved and major stone shifting. All the time traffic weaved around it. We even occasionally saw a surveyor looking very important and completely impervious to the chaos going on around them. Just when we thought things could not get more busy, a herd of yaks appeared in front of us and sauntered across the road prior to mounting the steep hill on the other side of the road. Marvellous!

While the road continued to prove challenging, the scenery had begun to change dramatically. On either side a vast plateau was developing with hills in the far distance. There was not a tree to be seen but green grassland, as advertised. Some areas were being cultivated near to the road but only for a kilometre or so and then it was just meadowland as far as the eye could see with no fences or walls to break it up. Near the road we saw people working with scythes cutting their barley and gathering it up to dry. Occasionally there were houses. Single storey, with a walled compound around them. They often appeared in clusters as though they huddled together for comfort. What was pleasing was evidence of very efficient electricity wires running parallel to the road – much more promising than ours at home which have been known to fail on more than one occasion!

Another feature was bee hives. We saw a number of these often where there was a collection of buildings.

By now the sun had come out and we were thoroughly enjoying the scenery. We stopped the car frequently to take in the view. The uncultivated meadowland had lots of flowers and the whole area had an alpine feel. Whenever we stopped we saw the heads of marmots peering at us from the safety of a good distance away and birds soared overhead.

After about 30 Kilometres a high mud wall came into view. By now the road had dramatically improved and we rounded a corner to enter quite a sizeable village. There were shops and young children wandering about and the wall, though seriously damaged in places, had obviously once encircled the area and still stood proudly protecting its people. At what was obviously once one of the entrances to the town we stopped and got out. From nowhere a man arrived with very official tickets inviting us to climb onto the wall. The ticket usefully informed us we were in Gan jia Bajiiano City. It was built 2,000 years ago, originally with two outer walls and a moat around it to protect the people who lived there from their enemies. From the top of the wall you could look down into the village where the people were living almost medieval lives. Their mud brick, low dwellings had flat roofs and walls divided what looked to be family enclosures. There were low haystacks drying hay and we saw carts carrying water drawn from a communal well being pulled along by a young lad. The village yak was tied up close by. Outside of the wall the hills beyond the plain had become quite mountainous.

We continued along the road for a couple of kilometres and at the base of a craggy mountain pass found a small, but obviously at one time important, Buddhist Temple. We were told it was closed for a retreat but the notice outside informed us it was the Braker Monastery. Built in 1634 it had once housed ‘thousands’ of monks. Today it stands fairly isolated. We saw a couple of monks outside but little evidence of life within its walls. Retreating is obviously a fairly private business. A sign close to the entrance gate indicated the monastery hospital. Along the exterior walls the ubiquitous prayer wheels stood silent. They were without the patterning of the Labrang Monastery wheels but were gold coloured. The roof of the main buildings were also gold and they all twinkled in the sunlight. It would have been great to know more.

There was news of another monastery site close by, so the decision was made to head there and make it our picnic stop. Our route again provided amazing views and then we came to a small group of houses and a tent that was operating as the local shop. Shortly beyond that the monastery came into view. Three elderly men sat outside in the dust talking. There was no-one else around.

The Tsewey Monastery was very impressive, but there was not a person to be seen. A notice told us it was 900 years old and dedicated to the Yungdrung Bon religion which is the oldest in Tibet. Apparently there were thousands of Bon temples in its heyday and there are still 350 in Tibet. We wandered around the buildings which were very colourful and saw a couple of young monks but no-one else. A highlight occurred when an elderly lady and little girl appeared demonstrating what we had learnt – that here they walk in an anti-clockwise direction when they spin their prayer wheels. The opposite to every temple we have visited thus far!!

The monastery was the final stage of our trip and we headed back to Xianhe very pleased with our day.

The mud on the road had turned to dust for our return journey so we arrived back dusty but happy. A final meal in the Nomad and home, tomorrow we head off for our first night of camping.

What a day!

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