Snapshot: Trails of Tibet

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In May of this year, I had the chance to join the Roof of the World Trail Run, a cross-country race organized by olympian Dawa Sherpa and French travel company Tibet Roads. For two weeks, with a group of 30 runners and 20 hikers, we explored some beautiful trails around Lhasa, visited Yamdrok Lake, Sakya Monastery and ventured toward the world's tallest peak, Everest.

Lhasa and the Sera Monastery

We started in Lhasa with a short run on the trails above Sera Monastery. First made famous to the outside world by explorers like Joseph Chapman in the 1930s, the lamasery was founded almost exactly 600 years ago.

Sera Monastery sits on a mountain slope only a few kilometers north of Lhasa proper. From our vantage point there, we enjoyed commanding views over the city and the Potala Palace.

Drone shot of LhasaJokhang

The monastery remains one the most important training centers for Tibetan Buddhism, and at times hosts more than 3,000 monks at various stages of learning.

When we visited, a collection of elder monks and recent initiates held a debate — an activity for which the monastery is famous — wherein senior lamas discuss and question the doctrinal knowledge of their younger counterparts.

After witnessing the lamas' discussion it was time to get moving again. We spent a night back in Lhasa and then headed a few hours south the next day. We took advantage of the remaining daylight and got in another quick run (or short hike for some) to the first arranged camp. Darkness fell and anticipation for the next day grew as we headed to bed.

Up with the sun

Things got serious the next morning. We left early, before sunrise and under a cloudless sky. Our goal was a lofty mountain pass perched at 5,200 meters above sea level.

Unfortunately, the cold of the night remained, as the predawn, star-studded clarity quickly gave way to clouds that blocked out the rising sun and kept the heat away.

Our first camp, just next to a small remote village

The situation with the weather rendered our ten-kilometer uphill hike that much more difficult. Elevation and cold made the journey a fairly arduous one, but we hoped the effort would be worth it once we reached the day's destination.

The further up we went, the harder it got. Our steps got shorter and slower. After hours of sustained effort we made it to the pass where we were rewarded with gorgeous views over Yamdrok Lake.

Yamdrok Lake

The run featured two separate stages nearby Yamdrok, and we camped for two nights by the sparklingly blue waters of the lake.

The views were amazing on the first day — barren, almost desert-like hills, the deep azure color of the water and generously comfortable weather. The next day was a much, much colder affair. Needless to say, I have a lot more pictures from day one.

As with many places in Tibet, when the vistas stretch on seemingly forever — unbroken by man-made structures or even trees — distances were tricky to gauge.

Yamdrok is a place of extremes. The dry winters stretch on and on for months, but we arrived during a sweet spot in the weather, missing out on the brutal cold and also avoiding the intense rains that can arrive suddenly during the summer.

On toward Everest

From the lake we moved on to Gyantse. It was a five-hour drive west from Yamdrok. Once in town, there was no scheduled run. Instead we paid a visit of the Kumbum, a fantastically detailed stupa built in 1497.

The next run was in Sakya, a town built around an enormous, eponymously named monastery that resembles a sprawling geometrical stronghold more than a sacred temple.

From Sakya, we then drove a couple of hours to our next camp near the village of Tsogo. We were getting closer and closer to Everest, but were still unable to see it.

Stage 6: SakyaTsogo Camp

It would take us three more stages, two camps and one night in a lodge to get to the foot of the highest mountain in the world. Our anticipation was palpable.

The final stage of the organized run was at the bottom of Everest. The bleak terrain of the surrounding foothills contrasted beautifully with continuous views of the snow and ice-covered mountain.

We spent the night just to the north of the world's tallest mountain at a lodge beside Rongbuk Monastery — reputedly the highest elevation temple in the world, perched at 4,980 meters above sea level.

We went to sleep that night, extremely tired by the combination of exercise and elevation, but content and feeling lucky that our views of Everest had been so free of clouds and fog.

All images: Philippe Semanaz of Tibet Roads

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So many stunning pics! Great travelogue!

Great photos, incredible place, no?
The debate at Sera - this was a debate with a lot of traditional physical gestures, right? I was there in 2014 by myself on an ordinary day, but there were other tourists, and saw the same - impressive, but if it's every day I wonder whether tourism doesn't have something to do with it, Or maybe they do debates daily as part of monastic training?

Anyway, it really looks like it was a great trip!

Currently listening to an interesting audiobook called Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by award-winning journalist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Barbara Demick. Nice read/listen on a rainy Saturday with coffee.

Demick lived in China for seven years. One of the extraordinary (and controversial due to >100 monk immolation) places she visited was a remote Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture county 480km Northwest of Chengdu, Sichuan called Ngawa (aka Ngaba). Demick documents Ngawa people's cultural heritage from a historical context, and how the indigenous conformed to modern day China over the last half century.

Sample listening (part 1 of 11):[...]

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