We arrived at Namtso National Reserve in the late afternoon, whizzing by Damzhung, a dull and dirty little town that was busy paving their roads and sidewalks with cement, towards the green mountain ranges and the Lhachen La pass (5,150m). The scenery changed dramatically after crossing the "checkpoint" cum ticket booth with a billiard table placed at the side of the road, presumably a favourite pastime for the locals. From flat green pastures and farmlands, we drove into the grassland valley dotted with black yak tents pitched by nomads with herds of yaks and sheep grazing peacefully, perched at an insane angle on the side of the mountains. At the peak of Lhachen La pass, we stopped for a panoramic view of the second largest saltwater lake on the Tibetan plateau, Namtso Lake (4,718m), which is 70km long and 30km wide. Here, pilgrims endured the constant merciless wind to hang prayer flags and some even performed prostration. The wind was so strong; I now knew the meaning of windswept. A word of caution: avoid standing near the edge of the cliff or you just might be blown over.
The descent to Tashidor took another half an hour. This is a small encampment where visitors can rent a bed for as little as 15 RMB in either longhouses or in Tibetan-style tents near the hermitage caves. There are minimal facilities, as tents do not have heat and the only hot water is in a large thermos flask provided by the staff running the camp. The tent we were sharing was meant for six people. It looked fairly comfortable, and it would have been comfortable but for the lack of heat. We were ill-prepared for this day and rushed to put on as many layers as possible. The day had been a wet and cold one, and we suspect, the night might be worse. The wind chilled us right into our bones, and none wanted to venture any farther than the warm main tent, where guests were received with hot tea/yak milk boiled over a stove fuelled by dried yak dung. Our mummies were planning to sleep here instead of our cold, dark tent.
We did venture out eventually, all wrapped up like Chinese dumplings, down the path leading towards the lake. We were waylaid enroute by locals offering horse rides along the edge of the lake. We were too cold to accept, not even tempted to when one cheekily offered to put me in his wool coat. In fact, we were too cold to even walk down to the edge of the lake. We took in the breathtaking view of this sacred lake surrounded by the snow-capped mountain ranges of Nyanchen Tahglha with ominous clouds hanging low, obscuring the peaks. We circled around the sentinels of Tarshidor, two tall rock towers decorated with prayer flags the nunnery and headed back to the warmth of the main tent. We met the mummies on the way back; the grandfather of the camp was leading them to the ladies, a modern brick building sticking quite sorely out of the rocks. It was clean, but like all other toilets we encountered, it was basically holes built over a cesspool, with no plumbing so to speak.
Dinner was a simple affair of fried rice and Chinese tea. Our guide and driver were enjoying their tsampa with yoghurt and butter milk. After-dinner entertainment was the usual chat and, later, karaoke (yes, this wonderous Japanese pasttime has reached far flung places). We slipped back to our cold tent early and burrowed into thick, heavy blankets that smelled of butter milk. The sound of the generator kept us awake initially till lights-out at around 12am. This was replaced by the sound of thunder and rain soon after. We felt the full force of Mother Nature upon our sturdy tent (thank God it was sturdy!). Towards morning, we woke to the sound of dogs barking; it seemed as if the camp was being attacked by a pack of wild dogs. None of us moved. Certainly, I was at my grumpiest, having not really slept at all the night before (couldn’t even toss and turn, as the blankets were too heavy).
The rain did not let up at all, and none of us wanted to stay to explore the lake region in this miserable weather. The only other living creature in sight besides man, horse, and yak was a lone eagle flying overhead searching for prey. A pity. Our driver informed us that on a good day, the lake would be a wonderous blue. *sigh*
Kudos to the deeply devouted pilgrims who circle the lake, some on an annual basis (18 days to complete the circuit on foot) and to the workers hard at work repairing the roads leading to the lake.