The rooftop of the world

Today we walked to the most beautiful view I have ever seen. Yesterday from the hilltop we had spotted a high mountain pass, and could see peaks poking beyond, so we knew from there we would be able to see Tibet autonomous region. I have desperately wanted to go since sharing a room with Tsering in Norway, but it’s so much trouble with visas. I had toyed with the idea of going to the border which is just 20km from Dege (though actually the region is much closer, it’s just that the road skirts the mountains) but there isn’t much point since everyone we talked to said we’d get turned away. So we walked to the view instead.

After an hour and a half of sweating almost straight uphill, we came to a village we’d spotted from the watchtowers. It turns out it’s called Ge Ge Long, and has about 30 families. We were immediately invited for tea by four local sisters, who live in a house which looks muddy and plain from the outside, but is an absolute treasure trove on the inside. The two rooms are crammed full of posters and metalware and kitsch and photographs of lamas and decorated carpets and comfy sofas and a huge TV constantly showing Tibetan music videos.

One of the girls spoke really good Mandarin, and they gave us homemade yoghurt, which was as slimy as mucus but really delicious, tea, and something called sampan. I had no idea how to eat it, which they found hilarious. You have to sort of mould the brown flour and yak butter together into lumps using your hands and then eat it with sugar. Afterwards they wanted photos with us, which we promised to send them, though unfortunately they didn’t know how to write their address.

200m onwards we met another girl who not only gave us the address of the town, but spoke excellent English since she studies at university in Chengdu. I asked her the same question I’d been trying to ask everyone – how close is the border to the autonomous region. Every time we ask, we are told – Tibet is 3-4 days away (obviously they mean Lhasa). When I asked her where Tibet was, she looked at me strangely, “This IS Tibet, you’re here now”.

I had to explain, in embarrassment, that I meant the government region, and she smiled, as though it had no meaning at all. “Oh that. Climb the pass and you’ll see a river. That’s the border. Tibet autonomous region is on the other side. But you’re in Tibet already.”

It seemed to be a special day because the children were in their best clothes and the local guys sat on a grassy ledge drinking beer. In a temply building sat at least a dozen monks, chanting and playing music on huge long horns. We didn’t want to disturb but peeked in the doorway. They were humming from the same books we saw printed the day before! The music followed us all the way up the valley as we headed onwards towards the pass. It was a long way away, and Sylvia (the English-speaking girl) was unsure if we’d make it and back before dark. But if we did, we were invited for dinner at her place. 

Another hour uphill and as our bodies grew tired our eyes were amazed at the view. As we climbed, the hills on either side unfolded to a whole rooftop world of mountains. So we’ve been in three different areas of Tibetan countryside now – the wild plains of Tagong, the fertile valleys of Ganzi, and now the mountains.

We stopped for a view on a remote cluster of rocks, where we met an old lady with her baby grandchild. They seemed just to be sitting there, enjoying the scenery as people at home take their babies to the park. She wanted us to take a photo of her and the baby and kept saying “Can you give it tomorrow?”, not understanding our explanation that it would take weeks to send the photo as we’d first have to get to Xining and get it printed. She only spoke a few words of Mandarin so finally we phoned Sylvia who translated for her in Tibetan. Then she gave us a huge, beautiful smile. All Tibetans are so beautiful it seems, old people, babies, men, women and children. 

Another few hours uphill, and we were starting to feel the altitude. Legs ached and lungs flapped. As the ground finally flattened out, we reached herdspeople and some yaks, wandering around over 4000m above sea level. And at the pass were flags and a fantastic view, with rows of Tibetan peaks rolling westwards under a clear blue blue blue blue sky.                                                                                                                                                   

But still not enough. There was a high stony hill to the left, and I knew that from there, we’d be able to see 360 degrees. Not only that, but we’d be able to see the river border, and the glaciers and snowy mountains to the east. Miriam agreed to go with me. The walk turned out to be harder than expected, and we wouldn’t have attempted it if it wasn’t excellent weather and safe though steep ground.

Up and up and up. Hands grabbing onto stubbly undergrowth. Lungs like paper bags. We had to stop every 20m to catch our breath, then every 10. Every uphill effort was a tremendous exertion, heart racing and legs jelloid. But after resting for a few minutes, we felt OK to continue. We could see the others all the time, hundreds of metres below. The last stretch was the hardest of all, and I felt like my mind was going a bit high and silly, talking to myself out loud, “You can do it, you can do it.”

 And then I collapsed onto the biggest pile of prayer flags I have seen in my life. It was like lying in a huge, soft, flappy cake. Blue and white and red and yellow and green, and soft and soft and deep and thousands and thousands of metres above the sea level where I belong. Like being transplanted secretly to a glimpse of a borrowed world.

When I looked up, it was truly the most amazing view I have seen in my life. Down to the west, the Jinsha river snaked deep and brown, with green land rising up behind it to hills of brown houses, herds, mountains beyond that, mountains beyond, more mountains, more mountains, and hundreds of miles of Tibet roasting in the thin sharp sun. To the other side were black peaks and a huge chain of icy, forbidding, Lord-of-the-Rings-esque mountains. Dege town was completely obscured, and the round top where we climbed yesterday was far below.

My heart soared and leaped. I wanted to shout and sing but the air was too thin. I lay there feeling unbelievably happy, feeling I’d never been so happy in my entire life. I thought fleetingly about taking a flag as a souvenir of this moment (what a touristy, collectiony thought), but instead unhooked from my rucksack the little bead man which Ruth gave me as a present when I came to China. I attached him to a string at the highest point of the peak, and left him gazing over Tibet, before we headed back down.

We were totally exhausted when we finally made it back to Dege as darkness began to skim the sky. We passed a courtyard of Chinese soldiers practising dancing together – dancing! A police car drove past with a map of China stuck to the back. It had torn in a rather unfortunate place, making it look almost as though someone had tried to rip off a large chunk from the southwest.

We ate a delicious meal in a restaurant run by a lady who had emigrated from Shandong province, and packed our stuff to hit the road again at 7 the next morning. I was very sad to leave behind the town with the most amazing building I have seen in China (the printing press) and the most fantastic view.

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One Response to “The rooftop of the world”

  1. Annabel Says:

    Wow Ellie! Sounds amazing. Really really amazing. I hope Miriam and Joanne are taking pictures too 🙂

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