The wet season had made the road to Mt Everest base camp impassable. Visiting Drigung Thel monastery (4,280m) and the Charnel ground (Drigung Durtro), the most famed site for sky burial was the alternative offered. Drigung Thel monastery was built precariously at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the valley and dates back to the early 12th century. The journey there was most perilously as we turned off from the highway into a dirt road. We jostled and bounced through the valley for about an hour, grabbing hard onto our seats to avoid being bumped on the head and sustaining serious head injuries, passed a narrow bridge that was obviously built for lighter and smaller vehicles, and slowly climbed the narrow and winding cliffs that overlooked the green valley (you bet we prayed hard!). The landscape that unfolded before us was spectacular. On the distant horizon, the snow-capped mountain ranges were half shrouded in mist, and before us were ploughed fields and wild flowers in vivid blues, purple, and yellow. As we approached the monastery, we awed at the magnificence of the monastery that seemed to be carved out of the cliffs. The journey from Lhasa to Drigung Thel monastery took 5 hours in all.
The monastery was under repair at the time of our visit. Apart from a few German tourists, we were the only other visitors. The morning was wet and grey again. As if reflecting this, the atmosphere at the monastery was dark and dank. We were told that two bodies were being brought to the Drigung Charnel ground for a sky burial. We were not allowed to view this ritual by order of the law. We could, however, view the site later when the ritual is completed. Once reserved for kings and nobles, a sky burial is considered the highest and cleanest form of burial. The body is dismembered and the bones crushed and mixed with tsampa before being fed to vultures and crows.
We followed the mint-lined path that would lead us to the burial site. Under normal conditions, the hike is suppose to take approximately 15 minutes, but we took almost an hour as we stopped often, either to hide under some shrub to wait out a heavy downpour or to take pictures of the different alpine flora that littered both sides of the path. The rain had brought out the scent of mint; it was an invigorating hike that brought us another 200m above sea level. We halt just before the actual site and waited for the ritual to end. Two donkeys grazed peacefully farther up the slope and large vultures were seen standing immobile with their wings spread wide-open. This, according to our driver, was to dry their wet wings. A large black dog with bloody eyes came down from the site and stood quietly before us as if to make sure we did not approach the site before the proper time. Our driver went ahead of us, and, after waiting about 30 minutes, we were finally signalled to climb the final steep slope. The view of the surrounds from the site was simply incredible. I felt like Julie Andrews in the opening scene from the "Sound of Music" and would have burst into song but for the inappropriateness of the occasion. As we circled the perimeter of the burial ground, we saw vultures and crows still feeding on the remains. A pit used for cremation still held fragments of bones and lining the slope were prayer wheels encased in windmill-like poles.
We left Drigung Thel monastery for Nyingchi, our next destination, our disappointment over not being able to see Mt Everest somewhat assuaged.