by Dr. Christian van ORDEN, Department of Nature Protection, Zuidholland (Netherlands),
Natania PAKLINA, junior researcher, RAS Institute of Problems of Ecology and Evolution (named after A. Severtsov)
While travelling across Tibet, we often heard from the ocals about an unusual and even magic lake located in the eastern part of the Transhimalayan Mountains. The legend of the lake attracts to its banks people in all walks of life - ordinary folk, monks and even high-ranking priests. When a Dalai Lama (the spiritual head of Mongolian Lamaism) dies, the priests - lamas - travel to Lamola Tso and ask where to look for his successor-the reincarnation of the departed. After the traditional ritual-including several hours of prayerful supplications and the burning of dzamba (roasted egg powder), branches of rhododendron and juniper - the majic lake should change its color three times. This is followed by a prophetic vision appearing at a certain spot. And that is how the present, 14th Dalai Lama was identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor.
When our party returned to the Tibet capital of Lhasa from an expedition across Southwestern Tibet and started making inquiries about a journey to the sacred lake, it was already early November. All travel agencies we turned to told us not to try our luck this time of the year. But then one small tourist firm offered its services and a car for the trip.
Our driver turned out to be a former monk, Tserin by name, who had been expelled from the monastery because of his "obstinate" character. And he was happy to visit again the lake where he had been before on more than one occasion. Preparations for our departure dragged out until noon and by the evening we traveled only as far as the town of Tsetang, some 150 km away from where we started. Tsetang is famous for its historic Jambu Lagang Palace - the first such royal residence in Tibet to have been built on top of a mountain.
We resumed our journey in the morning and all we saw around us through the clouds of dust (oh, that omnipresent Tibetan road dust!) was the already familiar barren mountainous landscape with prevailing grayish and brownish hues of the autumn. At the start of our journey the landscape was livened up by the blue valley of the Brahmapoutra, but after the road turned from the river and into the mountains we could simply pack away our cameras.
The road went up and then descended into valleys, but we were still going higher and higher into the mountains. And the air became cooler with every passing mile.
Around 4 p.m. we reached the Potrang La pass located 4,950 m above sea level. We made a stop at the summit and were rewarded with a breath-taking panorama of snowcapped mountains. We all climbed out of the car, eager to stretch our limbs and take pictures of the rare sight. But just a minute later we rushed back to our heated seats under the pressure of ice-cold wind.
Descending from the pass, we plunged into an entirely different landscape. The slopes of the mountains were covered with thick groves of trees and shrubbery and we could also see white-painted houses surrounded with garden which looked really comfortable and inviting. Was this still the same Tibet? As it was, by crossing the mountain pass we also crossed the border between Central and Eastern Tibet. And like the Himalayan ridge, separating India from Tibet, Potrang La serves as a border between the local climatic and vegetation zones.
We drove on into the valley until we reached the village of Giatse Sian. Entering it at dawn, we finally found shelter, and a warm meal, in some half-dark eating place called "the restaurant". And although we had been riding all day long practically nonstop, we covered a distance of less than 200 km. And we were told we were only 60 km away from the Chokorhui Monastery where the road ended and from where one had to continue the journey on foot. But it was dark already and our exhausted driver refused to continue the trip. We had no choice but to stay for the night in the village inn which had no heating.
We set out next morning at sunrise. The road turned to the north and into the Gayal Metoktang Valley with the village of Giatse Kiu. That is the most picturesque site in the whole of Tibet with crystal-clear streams running down its streets, and houses flanked with orchards and gardens growing apples, apricots, peaches, almonds, walnuts and plenty of other delights.
The locals usually build their homes from the available local materials which must be the reason why these dwellings blend so well with the surrounding nature. If there are plenty of stones around they build their houses of boulders, and if not - they make treir own bricks, dried in the hot sun. The walls, coated with clay, are mostly whitewashed (with horse tails instead of brushes) and the windows marked off with black paint. Flat roofs of the houses are made of thick branches, coated with clay and adorned with "prayer" flags, or pennants, of many colors. The roofs are used as storages of hay and firewood. The natives do their building work at a leisurely pace, as if prolonging the pleasure, and exchange jokes. And they are building the roads at the same pace, rolling in and splitting heavy boulders, covered with dirt and dust, and do so in any kind of weather. And they smile and wave at the passing trucks and cars.
Beyond Giatse Kiu the road turned quite bad, nearly impassable. One could hardly see the tracks on the gravel which had been covered with snow during the night. And there were plenty of mountain streams to be crossed, and every time we had to get out of the car and balance on foot from stone to stone or a tree chunk to make it easier for our driver to roar over the ditch. Now and then we had to walk for quite a while and this offered us a chance to better see the valley It was really wonderful! And there could really be no doubt we were really close on our way to the magic lake. We found ourselves in the midst of some winter legend, with snow-clad forests on mountain slopes, with glimpses of green pines and junipers, and yellow birches, red berries of cornel and berberry shining through the branches of alder and elms.
The Valley of Gayal Metoktang begins at an altitude of about 2,400 m above sea level and gradually rises up to 4,000 m - the altitude of the central part of the plateau of Tibet. This change of altitudes is reflected in the distribution of the zones of climate and vegetation, with greenery of one kind being
replaced with other species whose numbers and variety dwindle with altitude. At the mouth of the valley we saw many plants typical of the southern slopes of the Himalayas. Tree branches were festooned, together with moths and ferns, with all kinds of orchids-saprophytes. Prior to the Ice Age, orchids had been growing much more to the south, while today they keep moving more and more to the north. In Sikkim there are 453 species of these wonderful plants and there are 314 of them in Nepal and 122 in Eastern Tibet.
In Gayal Metoktang we saw at least three varieties of rhododendrons. At the mouth of the valley we saw the tree-like Rhododendron arboreum which is especially beautiful spring when it is all covered with big red blooms. In the middle of the valley trees give way to thick groves of stunted plants - Rh. anthopogon and Rh. nivale. The former is used all over Tibet as incense in temples, monasteries and other sacred sites. The natives store large quantities of this herb, cutting it down like hay, at the very root. Luckily, this causes no ill effect, and the plant springs back to life in the next season.
Unlike orchids, many rhododendron varieties have found the last refuge on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. But before the Ice Age they grew much farther north. There are no less than 32 of rhododendrons today in Nepal, as compared with only 8 in Eastern Tibet.
At the turn of the 20th century there appeared in Europe a new "pursuit" - what we would now call a "hobby" - hunters after rare plants. In the Himalayas the most eager hunters were the British who described and brought to Europe hundreds of local plant species. They were studied and cultivated in botanical gardens, and many of them ended up in private collections. In the beginning botanists and horticulturists trying to cultivate Himalayan plant species run into formidable problems. One big disappoint-
ment, for example, was the fact that the seeds of many such plants were capable of germinating but within a very limited span of time. The multiplication, or cultivation of the Himalayan varieties of the rhododendron remains an unresolved problem to this day. But, finally, horticulturists have learned to preserve and breed on a somewhat bigger scale hybrids of the Himalaya varieties with their American kin.
As one enters the Gayal Metoktang valley, one is struck by an abundance of these capricious plants. Blooming with violet flowers until the first snow here are the Aconitum bookeri which are matched by bright-blue Gentiana depressa blossoms. Proliferating in oligotrophic lakes is Primula sikkimensis with small yellow buds on thin and long stems. And on the barren slopes one often finds the small Delfinium brunonianum, like a fugitive from some country garden, cohabitating with a two-meter tall athlete - the Aconitum spicatum.
But why is it so difficult to cultivate these plants outside their usual habitat? The Gayal Metoktang valley represents a mixture of what we call mini-biotypes, each requiring a special temperature regime, soil and a system of water supply And it is really quite a problem trying to reproduce all of these features of the environment not only in an ordinary, but even in a botanical garden.
And the valley is of interest not only to botanists, but also to lovers of birds since the typically Tibetan varieties, like plants, are cohabiting here with birds more typical of the southern slopes of the Himalayas. Some are nesting in the valley, while others make only brief stopovers before or after a "jump" over the Himalayas. Fluttering among the branches of shrubbery, entwined with Clematis barbellata, we saw the pink-feathered redstarts, members of the family Phoenicums erythrogaster, and heard the noises produced by
their neighbors - the beautiful Heterophasia pulchella nigroaurita looking for food under dry peony stems. Circling up above were representatives of the Faico cherrug family and lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) was flying so low we could see its "antennas" without binoculars.
But a really fantastic sight was the monal (Lophophorus impejanus). Shining with all the colors of the rainbow, it was nesting amidst the bright-pink leaves of mountain ash (Sorbus cashmiriana) and fed on its white berries. It was really like the legendary Firebird nesting on a magic tree. Monals belong to the most beautiful and rare representatives of the Gallinaceae in the Himalayas. And they owe their tragic fate of near extinction to their fantastic feathers. The long feathers on the head of the male are honored as a symbol of good hunters both in the Kashmir and in North Pakistan (Karokarum).
In other regions, predominantly Buddhist or Hinduist, monals are honored as a sacred bird protected by a hunting ban. But even there the populations are dwindling with every passing year. It turns out that, like other Himalayan pheasants, Sorbus cashmiriana is very sensitive to all kinds of disturbance during its breeding period, and once the bird is scared off its nest it will never return there again.
We continued our ascent along the road until we reached the ruins of the Chokorhui Monastery at the end of the Gayal Metoktang valley. The monastery was built several centuries ago by order of the second Dalai Lama and it used to be one of the biggest in Tibet, accommodating more than 500 monks. A palace for the visiting dalai lamas and other ranking persons was erected on a mountain slope nearby. During the Chinese "cultural revolution" both the cloister and the residence were reduced to ruins which look as if it happened only yesterday. Today the number of brethren is less than ten, and they have only been able to restore a fraction of the main temple.
There happened to be a vacant room in the ruins where we could spend the night before proceeding to the lake on foot at daybreak.
That evening the monastery "inn" also accommodated three Tibetan monks who were on their way back from the sacred lake. They readily engaged in conversation, being all too eager to share with us their impressions. And, believe it or not, but each of them had received from the majic lake its own prophetic "token". One was rewarded with a clear vision of Potala - the central palace of Tibet, another saw his dead father who gave him his instructions, and the third monk saw people working on the restoration of the demolished stupa - a hemispherical mound serving as a Buddhist shrine (chkhorten). Each of the monks was trying to comprehend the hidden "message" of his vision as a guide for the future.
It was snowing all through that night and the path leading to the lake was buried in snow. But our guide knew the way from his previous visits and led us on with confidence. Nomad tents could be seen right after the ruins of the monastery, and resting on the snow next to the tents were yaks. Nomad cattle-breeders, who partly follow the
Buddhist traditions but think nothing of hunting wild animals and selling their hides and skins to rare foreign visitors, can easily live side by side with the devout monks. What is more, they even seem to be in need of each other with the herdsmen providing the monks with meat and milk, and the monks healing the sick and praying for the souls of the departed.
The local fauna-wild goats and sheep, snow leopards and other game - are really lucky to have but a limited number of nomad hunters around. And the local hunters spare the birds, which makes it possible even for rare species to make their nests right near the monastery ruins and even between nomad tents. And the birds of pray soar up above without fear and come down to feast on any edible refuse.
It took us seven hours to climb to the lake up a slippery stony path. And we had to stop now and then to catch our breath in the cold and rarified mountain air. The path was climbing up, ending with a short, but very steep ascent. We approached the lake from the south and we caught no sight of its banks until the very last moment when we finally reached the summit. And then we saw the whole lake at once and the sight was really stunning. We were standing on top of a mountain and Lamola-Tso was down below, surrounded by mountains on all sides, as if lying in a crater. And although we knew no prayers or invocations, and could hardly expect to see some majic "sign", we kept staring at the surface of the sacred lake. The color of its water was really changing-from blue to green and then, suddenly, to almost black. For us, however, these were but optical effects, reflecting the movements of the clouds.
The giant throne of the Dalai Lama was located right near. It is made of huge boulders and festooned with pennants of supplication. And it is there where the visiting faithful see their prophetic visions and also leave their sacrificial gifts to the deities. The site is a favorite with the local birds of feather, big and small.
Captured with the breath-taking panorama, we saw but only later a solitary tent near the path with an elderly monk nearby. Trying to convey to him our delight, we told him through our guide that all of these wonders stood no comparison with any wonders of modem science and technology "You believe in science?" - replied the monk and laughed. For him science was a synonym for the poverty of the spirit. He had spent in his solitary tent more than three weeks, living on a meager diet of dzampa (roasted egg powder) and several bottles of water. The temperature dropped down to -20 0 C at night, there was plenty of snow around, and the tent was exposed to the bitter winds.
But then it was time for us to go back, and we took leave of the hermit. When we reached the ruins of the monastery after dark, none of us could say with confidence whether or not we really saw that hermit, or was it just a vision-a freak of our tired imagination.