Friendship Highway

“47…48…49…50…” With eyes clenched, and our large, greasy breakfast now being strongly re-evaluated, the tallies of whirling U-turns accumulated in our heads. “71…72…73…” We were driving along the Friendship Highway, an 800-kilometer stretch of road that runs from Lhasa to Nepal, and pirouetting our way down a particularly curvy stretch of the journey towards Mount Everest Base Camp.

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Friendship Highway mercilessly winding its way towards the Himalayas

By the time we were sailing along on straight roads again, the number of 180-degree turns we had taken to wind down the mountainside had numbered into the triple digits, 100 to be exact. Luckily, this would be the only part of our nearly 20-hour car ride that would test the will of our stomachs. The rest of the journey was surprisingly enjoyable, offering panoramas, as endless in their vastness as in their ability to captivate us, of the Tibetan plateau along the way. Some of favorite sites were:

Yamdrok Lake,

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We saw lots of avian wildlife along the lake including this duck…
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…and a hoopoe among others.

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Karola glacier,

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roaming animal herds,

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A yak meandering across the mossy terrain of Tibet

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Tashilhunpo Monastery,

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and, of course, plenty of mountains and prayer flags.

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The prayer flags are often hung in high, windy places so that the mantras written on them can be carried through the air by the wind.

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Castles were another common sight along the highway. We often found them in such a ruinous state that it was sometimes hard to discern between what was a castle and what was just a large, jagged rock.

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Our favorite stop we would make over the course of our two days on the Friendship Highway was Gyantse, a small town that housed the reclusive Palcho Monastery. A model of tolerance, the monastery not only incorporated different architectural styles into its construction – mainly Chinese, Tibetan, and Nepali influences – but also housed monks from three different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, which, despite its peaceful reputation, was known to have its fair share of skirmishes over the centuries, many of which turned violent.

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A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the religious sites we had been to in Lhasa, Palcho offered the experience we held in our minds of what a Tibetan monastery would be: secluded, quiet, and, as a byproduct of these first two elements, immensely peaceful. While few people amounted to a greater appreciation of the monastic complex to us, it spelt doom for the monastery’s coffers which were considerably less full than its Lhasan cousins due to the lack of visitors. Once again, this worked in our favor as, in order to compensate for its fewer donations, the monastery allowed visitors to take photos inside the temple’s halls for a small fee, an opportunity we wouldn’t come across in any other of the temples we visited in Tibet.

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Stacks of Tibetan scriptures could be found throughout the temple

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An image of the former Panchen Lama. If a former high lama had frequented a particular temple during his lifetime, they would dedicate a shrine to him in the place where the lama would sit while visiting.

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Another aspect that made the monastery unique from the others we had seen was the Kumbum Stupa, a nine-tier structure said to house 10,000 images of Buddha. As we wound up each tier of the Stupa, we began to wonder if the figure of 10,000 was an underestimation as the walls inside each of the stupa’s 76 shrines was plastered with Buddhist iconography. 

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We were surprised to find that all of the images of skeletons and, what to us looked like giant demons, throughout the temple were actually meant to drive away evil spirits.

After making it to the top tier, we were gifted with an unobstructed view of the monastery and its surroundings. Brown mountains sat like giant sand dunes across the horizon, the humble collection of buildings that was the town of Gyantse sitting at their feet. Across their ridges ran the protective fortress and walls of the ancient city which did little to protect its inhabitants from English and later, Chinese, invaders who would effectively destroy as much of Gyantse as their motivation allotted for. As we worked our way back down the stupa, we were glad it was mostly spared from the same destruction.

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The fortress overlooking Gyantse

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A doorway on the upper tier of the stupa

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After leaving Gyantse and taking a much needed break from the inside of the van for an overnight stay in the city of Shigatse, our journey along the Friendship Highway came to an end as we rolled up to Mt. Everest, a scenic end to a scenic journey.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

#SOS

We make a roadside pit stop
to glance at Karola glacier.
We are allotted five minutes
that we stretch to ten.
A time frame specifically set
to allow for just enough seconds to snap
a picture for haphazard scrollers.

However,
its time enough to hear
the rushing streams released from the ice,
to witness the ancient water gushing down and away,
converging together
to carve new rivers in stone,
carrying away nature’s SOS.