Tibet 2014 - Chui to Tholing

Chui, 9 September.

We don't wake until tea arrives. No time for meditation. Our room faces west, is very dark and it's hard to get our bags packed until we borrow lights from the crew. Today we planned to stay at Tithapururi but there’s a problem with the permit for Tithapuri and Gurugem and the Garuda valley route we wanted to take to Tholing. We make a decision to drive directly from here to Tholing on a different route, it'll be a long day's drive. The crew will contact Lhasa and Kathmandu and see if we can get permits for Tithapuri on the return leg after Tholing.

We continue to drive along the flat plain between mountains north and south. We pass though small round hills covered with low green shrubs that we suspect surrepticiously move around at night. Opposite Tithapuri is a small town and we stop for provisions. There are more spectacular views of Mount Kailash and the town of Darchen, once described as a dirty hovel it now looks like a modern Chinese town.

The road has started to head north, we arrive at check point at Bauer army camp and the turnoff to Tholing. We’d wanted to take the southern route at Moinser but it’s close to the Indian border and currently not permitted. At Bauer we have lunch just after the checkpoint before climbing a switchback road to a pass through a huge cleft in the mountain range. The pass opens onto a landscape of spectacular deep red hills with traces of exploratory mining tracks; vibrant colours and a small pale turquoise lake.

The landscape starts to change as the rock become softer and more eroded, we get our first glimpse of the astonishing eroded canyons of the Upper Sutlej valley - far more extensive than we imagined. It's impossible to do justice to this landscape of pale sandstone coloured spires and turrets divided and subdivided by innumerable dried up canyons. Layers and layers of erosion, flat topped plains falling away abruptly into deep gullies. The road follows parallel to the valley then drops down and enters the labyrinth, organic columns of rocks towering above us like some post-apocalyptic city with shattered skyscrapers; bone dry until we reach the silvery river bed at Tholing.

We drive close to the river, cross a bridge into town and to the Monastery Hotel opposite Tholing Monastery. Tholing means “hovering in the air”. Names are getting changed to Chinese variations, Tholing has become Choling which sounds like a Chinese word for forest. Even this name is being replaced with another - Xada or Xanda. We’ll be here for three nights and the hotel is a delight, we take first floor rooms which open onto a wide corridor with tables and chairs, a social space. And we have relative comfort at last, the beds are covered with thick Tibetan rugs.

The toilets are down the corridor. They smell terrible, huge packets of incense are provided - and needed. Our lorry, which doubles as the kitchen, is parked on the gravel forecourt below.

We take a late afternoon walk across the road to the 10th Century Yeshe-O stupa which is magnificent in the late afternoon light - though the setting is rather incongruous for a magnificent thousand year old building - Chinese music squeaks from a community hall just yards away on the edge of the cliff facing into the river basin. Three pretty made up Chinese girls with cheap perfume keep walking around a dried up garden, I think they're hoping for custom.

The views across the river to the far side of the valley are astonishing - it's hard to tell what shapes are eroded mountain and what are ruined buildings. The land turns to red as the sun goes down - the snow covered mountains in the far background are probably those of Spiti and Ladakh. The walk out of town reveals more stupas and ruins of old monastery buildings, maybe a fort, on the hillside. In the back lanes a woman has set up a car wash service outside her house.

Mr Sarosh works his socks off bringing food. The light bulbs don't work over the table, someone comes to fix it but the light is so harsh we remove the lightbulb and prefer to eat by candlelight. In the morning the staff look at the lighbulb on the table and put it back in. The hotel seems to be managed by woman who has a limp and is sometimes pretty grumpy. The toilet buckets soon get empty and never seem to be refilled. A sink at the end of the corridor is constantly running. The following night a Chinese group arrive, one man is hawking constantly and empties his nose into the water in the sink. Charming.



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