A breathtaking Himalayan journey to ‘the rooftop of the world’

TIBET. Nepal. Bhutan. The names rolled off my tongue like a timeless Himalayan mantra.

I was itching to go, but after decades of solo rambling, I was done with handling tricky logistics. Let someone else – preferably an established tour company – arrange flights, guides, hotels, baggage and, most important, assorted visas and travel permits.

Globe-trotting friends suggested Road Scholar, a do-it-all company targetting travelers of baby-boomer age and older, which is how I spent 16 days last spring in and around the capital cities of Lhasa, Kathmandu and Thimphu.

There were 11 of us, in our mid-50s to late 70s, with fitness and congeniality levels that ranged from impressive to dubious.

Led by two guides per city, we padded though Buddhist and Hindu holy sites, trying to keep straight each faith’s main precepts and deities.

Near the Bhoudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, a monk stands still among the pigeons, begging bowl in hand, while another makes his way slowly and deliberately through the square
In Kathmandu, Nepal, many important temples and heritage sites in Durbar Square were badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake

We watched students practise, and thus preserve, the heritage arts of painting, carving, weaving, boot-making and sculpture.

We traversed museums and markets, and compared the dancing skills of monks, archers, folkloric troupes and ordinary folk.

We marvelled at the fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels everywhere we turned.

And we consumed a lot of yak: Meat that was grilled, stewed or ground and stuffed into dumplings called momo; yak milk and yak butter mixed into fermented tea; and yak cheese, eaten dried and crunchy, or cooked low, slow and oozy with spicy green chiles.

On balance, Road Scholar – founded in 1975 as Elderhostel and mercifully re-branded in 2010 – provided a fascinating look at what has been dubbed the Rooftop of the World.

The trip was not perfect, but then again all I had to do was show up.

Shortly after we landed in Lhasa, elevation 11,500 feet, my head began to pound and my heart started to race. Altitude sickness aside, (I stupidly opted not to take the prescription meds in my bag), I was eager to explore the capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

We’d been warned not to discuss politics during our four days in Lhasa, especially the current Dalai Lama who fled to India in 1959 amid Beijing’s bloody crackdown on Tibet.

Our focus was strictly Buddhism and culture. Before entering Tibet’s holiest site, the 7th-century Jokhang Temple, the devout prayed or prostrated themselves on the ground.

Inside, the scent of butter lamps and incense drifted over the crush of pilgrims who inched past dazzling relics, murals and the most sacred Jowo Shakyamuni, a gilded, bejewelled Buddha reportedly made when he was 12. The pilgrims’ faith was palpable.

More difficult to reach, up hundreds of switchback stairs, was Potala Palace, the soaring cliffside architectural icon that dominates Lhasa’s skyline. Built in 1645 by the fifth Dali Lama, Potala would be used by all nine of his successors as a winter palace, citadel and spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism.

Today, 20 of the 1,000 rooms are open as a museum. Displays include exquisite religious art and raiment as well as the narrow bed of the absent last occupant. Norbulingka, the richly embellished summer palace, is across town nestled within Tibet’s largest garden.

Yet nothing matched the set-piece drama at the Sera Monastery, where, in a shaded, white-gravelled courtyard, countless pairs of red-robed monks were locked in heated debate.

With voices raised and arms flailing, each standing senior monk argued moral doctrine to the disciple seated at his feet. The protege could only reply after the mentor clapped his hands.

We understood not a word, of course, but the emphatic speech and balletic movements were riveting.

Far calmer was Tse Wang Tan Pa, a physician at the Tibetan Traditional Hospital, who explained centuries-old anatomic and botanic thangka paintings depicting ailing patients and natural remedies before he checked our pulses – both wrists – and inspected a few tongues.

Get more exercise, he counselled one; eat less sugar, he told another before leaving to see patients, three of whom had interrupted his lecture with phone calls.

Our major field trip was a 75-mile bus ride from Lhasa to a settlement of semi-nomads, where yak butter tea (an acquired taste), dried cheese (a nice salt jolt) and sweet cakes (tasty) were served in a modest family compound.

Handmade tapestries covered doors and windows, and posters hailing Chinese Communist Party leaders leaned against a wall. In a nearby room, thangkas honoring ancestors shared space with a Mickey Mouse blanket.

Back in Lhasa, a young, costumed troupe intent on keeping its culture alive performed Tibetan opera and traditional dance, including the best two-man cavorting yak we would see.

My own terpsichorean moment came in Zongjiao Lukang Park in the shadow of Potala, where hundreds of locals dance to blaring recorded music. Some wore national dress – long robes called chubas, hiked up at the waist for men, ankle-length for women (who add a striped apron if married).

Others preferred Western dress.

I’d carefully studied the footwork before accepting the hand of a burly chap sporting mirrored shades, a black chuba and heavy Tibetan jewelery.

We clocked a goodly number of turns and two-steps until the altitude wiped me out. He bowed and burst out laughing. So did I.

Two events a half-century apart comprised what little I’d heard about Kathmandu: The late 1960s counterculture invasion fuelled by then-legal hashish and cannabis; and the 2015 earthquake and aftershocks that killed nearly 9,000 people, left about 500,000 homeless and destroyed or damaged many important Hindu and Buddhist temples, palaces and pagodas.

“Hippies put Kathmandu on the map in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Sanjay Nepal, our smart, irreverent chief guide and fixer. “After the earthquake, they sent in their photos of how things used to look, to help with restoration.”

Today, post-disaster construction is everywhere in the dusty, dirty, traffic-choked city of one million (closer to five million when counting the surrounding Kathmandu Valley) jammed with endless streams of diesel-belching vehicles).

In the town of Bhaktapur, once a major medieval city-state, and at central Kathmandu’s Durbar Square eight miles away and other heritage sites, great piles of rescued bricks, stone and timbers were being used to rebuild the distinctive red clay Newari-era structures that were built from the 12th to 15th centuries; they are known for intricately carved windows, eaves, cornices and doorways.

We joined a group of Nepalis inside the largely intact Kumari Ghar near Durbar Square, hoping to see Kathmandu’s Living Goddess. Chosen last year at age three by her local clan as the embodiment of divine female energy, she’ll be cloistered in the palace save for rare outings until reaching puberty, when another girl-child replaces her.

Finally, briefly, she appeared in an upstairs window, her scarlet dress matching her painted lips, her eyes outlined in black kohl.

From the Living Goddess, we transitioned to the newly departed at the Hindu cremation ghats (stone steps) on the banks of the city’s sacred Bagmati River.

Sitting on the opposite bank, we watched families carefully wash and grieve their shrouded loved ones, soon to be lit afire en route to the next life.

We were, in fact, on the grounds of Nepal’s holiest Hindu temple, Pashupatinath, which is closed to non-Hindus. Rather than visiting other major houses of worship there, I zoomed in on the sadhus, ascetics who renounce the world to embark on religious quests.

Some travel nearly naked, covered in grey dust or ash.

Others frequent tourist-thronged holy sites like this one. Dressed in layers of red, orange and yellow with elaborate face painting, they serenely posed for photos in return for alms. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post