Day 3 - Draksum-Tso & Kongpo Gyamda on G318 to Lhasa

by - 20:50

Highway G318 Nyingchi > Lhasa G318国道 林芝 > 拉萨

Our second day in Tibet was expected to be the most gruelling of the entire trip with a distance of 486km through mountainous terrain to cover between Nyingchi and the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. The itinerary would also include a detour off the G318 Highway to visit the scenic Draksum-Tso Lake which is regarded as one of the most important alpine lakes in the region.

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We had an early morning call and assembled at 7am in the hotel lobby for breakfast at the hotel's restaurant, but our tour group's special arrangement for the early breakfast were apparently not passed from the front desk to the restaurant staff. After a fair amount of delay and terse exchanges between the tour guide and the hotel staff, a simple buffet breakfast was made available to us in the restaurant. Due to the remoteness of the region, we did not have high hopes for the hotel breakfast which could be described as simple pleasures at best. A selection of bland porridge, whole sweet potatoes and some vegetable dishes were offered, with hardboiled eggs being the sole highlight of the spread for some of the tour group members.

Despite the delay and basic breakfast, it did not dampen our spirits as the cloudless blue skies were a far cry from the dreary weather that we had experienced when we arrived from Chengdu yesterday. The bright morning sun brought the rugged terrain sharply into focus and remnants of snow dusted several nearby mountain peaks. We were also relieved that our first day in Tibet brought no ill effects to any members of the group as several members from another Hong Kong tour group had to rely on bottled oxygen to alleviate effects from altitude sickness.

After leaving the town of Bayi, we swung west to rejoin the main G318 Highway in the direction of Lhasa. The wide open valley soon gave way to the picturesque and fertile Niyang River valley. After setting off for 20 minutes, we reached the first of several police checkpoints for the day where the tour guide sternly reminded us to keep our cameras out of view to avoid potential complications with the local authorities. A queue of trucks and tour buses soon formed as the tour guide or drivers took their turn to present the documents to the authorities. These checkpoints also help to regulate traffic along the busy but dangerous highway where vehicles are given a fixed block time to travel through a section before reaching the next checkpoint. Although the main purpose is to limit the speed as drivers are prohibited from checking in at the next checkpoint before the allocated time, many drivers in reality drive at breakneck speed through the treacherous curves and taking an extended rest along the way instead of crawling along at an unrealistically slow speed for the entire journey.

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An hour of driving soon brought us to our first toilet stop at the grounds of Shuba Ancient Fort 秀巴古堡. Due to the remoteness of the region, most of the toilet stops during our journey often coincided with places of interest although they were not in our original itinerary. Fluttering in the stiff morning breeze, colourful Tibetan prayer flags stretch across the vast courtyard from the central bell tower towards the main temple complex and the fort.
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Although yaks had historically formed part of the staple diet in mountainous Tibet, the influx of Han Chinese into the region had introduced other livestock into the region. It is a surprisingly common sight to see free roaming pigs in the outlying areas of Tibet, and we almost always had a pork dish for our meals during our trip. This particular pig was certainly no stranger to visitors and posed for photos from our tour group.
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Believed to be built during the reign of the Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo, the Shuba ancient fort comprised of 5 magnificent half ruined stone towers that stand on the slopes behind the temple. A prominent road sign along Highway G318 indicate that we are currently 3,150m above sea level.
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The exact reason for the construction of this ancient fort remains unclear and we were unable to explore the attraction further due to the short period of time we had at this rest stop. The rugged stone main building had stood the test of time well and remained a good example of ancient Tibetan architecture.
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Alpine scenery with snow capped mountain tops and lush forested slopes. Our tour guide was quick to point out that as these peaks are below the snow line of 6,200m, they are not classified as snow mountains but as the result of a heavy storm that had drenched the region for the past few days.
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The ubiquitous People's Republic of China flag could be seen even in the remotest corners of the vast Tibet autonomous region.
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Draksum-Tso 巴松错

We branched off Highway G318 and continued along a narrow single lane road after negotiating a busy weekend market at Bahel town 巴河镇. The road runs along a tributary of the Niyang River and we passed by a small hydroelectric power plant along the way. With its steep valleys and abundant water resources, hydroelectric power had proven to be the ideal green form of power generation in this ecologically fragile region.
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Late spring in end May each year heralds in mild temperatures across eastern Tibet, but still sufficiently cold at higher elevations to preserve the snow cap on the mountains.
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An elaborate entrance gate decorated with traditional Tibetan motifs mark the entrance to Draksum-Tso national park, which is gazetted as an AAAA national park by the Chinese authorities.
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(From top left, clockwise) - An elaborate wooden plaque in the ticketing hall indicates that the national park is under the administration of the national authorities.
- Admission to the national park costs RMB120 (S$24) per adult, and it can be a surprisingly laborious process to obtain the tickets. Current security regulations require park workers to manually verify that the relevant travel permits are in order and manually verify them against the travel documents of each visitor.
- Added almost as an afterthought, visitors have to scan their individual ticket at the turnstiles to gain access to the shuttle bus waiting area. However, tour groups simply have their tickets manually checked and validated due to the unreliability of the integrated barcode reader!
- Street lamps in the national park use a combination of wind and solar power to generate electricity which is stored in batteries during the day to light up the park at night.
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After waiting for about 15 minutes for the admission tickets to be granted to us, we took our turn through the ticket barriers and boarded an "environmentally-friendly" shuttle bus operated by the park authorities to the lake. Jointly issued by the local postal bureau, the admission tickets double as postcards for visitors to send back to their loved ones or themselves as a momento of the visit.
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A fleet of Yutong ZK6852HG buses was purchased by the park authorities in 2010 and is powered by a 132kW Yuchai YC4G180-30 diesel engine coupled to a five speed manual transmission.
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Interior of a Yutong ZK6852HG operated by the Draksum-Tso park authorities. 21 factory standard plastic seats are fitted and the shuttle bus service is not accessible to passengers in wheelchair.
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The bus waited for another Hong Kong tour group to board the bus before moving off for the short 10 minute long ride along a single lane paved road through the valley.
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An onboard commentary provided information of the lake in Chinese and functioned as a bus stop announcement system, and we stopped briefly at a village en route to pick up a Tibetan family headed for the temple festivities by the lake.


We descended through a series of steps from the visitor's centre to the lakeside and spent more than a few moments taking in the postcard view of Draksum-Tso. Set within jagged snow capped mountain peaks, Draksum-Tso is a high altitude alpine lake which is situated at an elevation of 3,470m above sea level and covers an area of 25.9 square kilometres with a width of 12km at its widest point. Complementing the brilliant turquoise waters, visitors are immediately drawn to the mystical allure of a small monastery which was built on a photogenic island set in the middle of lake.
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Draksum-Tso is a sacred lake of spiritual importance to the Nyingmapa Order of Tibetan Buddhism. Often recognised by the distinctive red hats worn by the practising lamas in the order, the order is largely based upon the teachings of an Indian sage Guru Rinpoche and was believed to have originated in the 8th or 9th century. Guru Rinpoche and the semi-mythical ruler of Eastern Tibet, Gesar of Ling, were also believed to have resided at the lake and the site is thus worshipped by practitioners of the order.
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A pair of floating bridges lead from the southern banks of the lake to Tashi Island 扎西岛 where the Nyingmapa Tsodzong Gongba 错宗工巴寺 Monastery is located. The lake is named after the stunning turquoise-green waters - Phasongtso means green waters in Tibetan. Visitors can further indulge in feeding the fishes in the crystal clear waters with food sold at stands along the bridge.
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Visitors are guided through a small pilgrimage circuit known as a kora after setting foot on the island on its western end. Observation decks on the western end of the island offer stunning vistas of the surrounding snow capped mountains, and Draksum-Tso had often been described as a photographer's dream due to the complementing combination of both natural and manmade features.
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Framed against verdant mountain slopes and clear blue skies, colourful Tibetan prayer flags criss-cross the island and flutter in the stiff morning breeze.
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The small and narrow kora leads around the back of the monastery in a clockwise direction and we struggle to follow our tour guide with the ever-growing crowd of worshippers.
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From printed prayer texts clipped onto tree branches (top left), to traditional multi-coloured Tibetan prayer flags (风马旗) (top right) and silk scarves known as hada (哈达) draped onto trees to seek blessings for themselves and their loved ones (bottom left), a visit to a Tibetan temple is always a colourful affair and a peek into the myriad of prayer objects offered by the devotees. Apart from such symbolic articles, numerous crisp 10 cent (S$0.02) notes are also pierced onto jagged branches as offerings.
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The kora leads visitors back to the central courtyard of the temple grounds, which was teeming with devotees as our visited coincided with the Tibetan Vesak Day. Tibetan Buddhism commemorates Vesak Day one day after the day observed by other forms of Buddhism such as Mahayana. The monastery was founded in the 14th century by Sungye Lingpa and houses three statues within its main building - Avalokiteshvara, Guru Rinpoche and Buddha Shakyamuni. The entrance to the main building is also flanked by an ancient pair of male & female fertility representations.
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The richly decorated roof beams and walls had been painstakingly restored after the monastery was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution. However, we did not enter the dimly lit main temple building due to the large number of visitors as a result of the festival.
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As we descended down a flight of stairs on the eastern end of the island, the snow mountains in the distance beckoned over the seductively still lake waters.
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After making our way across on the floating bridge, we took a long, final look at Tashi Island & Tsodzong Gongpa Monastery from the southern bank of the lake.
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Vesak Day is one of the most important days in the Buddhist calendar and is often observed across the country with major temple fairs. However, it is certainly hard to beat one being staged at Draksum-Tso with the spectacular scenery and lush green lawns.
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The Tibetans are known to be exceptionally hospitable and a cheerful family picnicking tried to offer us traditional bread and the quintessential Tibetan beverage, yak butter tea.
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Appearing straight out of a fable, three black piglets foraged in the lawn looking for food scraps and food donations from generous families to satisfy their hunger pangs.
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The simple Vesak Day celebrations at Tsodzong Gongpa Monastery & Draksum-Tso might certainly pale in contrast to the colourful & noisy celebrations elsewhere, but being able to share in this moment with other Tibetans in such a magical and stunning location definitely made this my most memorable Vesak Day yet.
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After touring Draksum-Tso, we backtracked along the feeder road for the 45 minute ride to Bahel Town for lunch. One of the several schools which we passed by along the journey includes the Tso-Gao Village Peasant Cultural & Technical School 错高乡农牧民文化技术培训学校 which was set up by the authorities to educate the farmers on new agricultural techniques to improve their yield.
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One of the many tributaries that feed to the Niyang River with pure, fresh meltwater from the mountaintops and glaciers. Tibet is probably the only region in China where tap water is potable.
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A lone horse grazes near a typical Tibetan dwelling. With growing affluence and availability of new building techniques, many of the traditional Tibetan houses had been replaced by stronger concrete houses. However, the windows and roof eaves are still decorated with elaborate Tibetan designs that had been passed down from centuries ago to give it a distinct identity. The ceremonial pole erected to the right of the building also signifies that a Tibetan family resides in it instead of Han Chinese immigrants from other parts of China.
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Sheep nibbling at the first stalks of grass that had broken through the frozen earth in late spring. Surprisingly, we only had isolated sightings of mountain goats and ibexes throughout our journey in Tibet.
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May - June is generally regarded as the best time to visit Tibet with its mild temperatures, relatively low chance of rain and exceptionally clear skies. Visitors are also often treated to swathes of landscape being covered in bright yellow rapeseed flowers which herald the onset of the hot summer season.
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An elaborate display of Tibetan prayer flags radiating from a ceremonial pole. Influenced by Bön culture, Tibetan Buddhism is highly steeped in superstition and beliefs where astrology and numerology play an equally important role in everyday decisions alongside religious principles and advise from living Buddhas. This however, gives rise to a fascinating and often colourful culture which is unique to the region.
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3 solitary 12-sided stone towers stand in a grass field approximately 12km from Bahel town and the junction with Highway G318. While the exact purpose and origin of these mysterious entry-less structures are unclear, locals believe that they are demon houses (dud-khang) and are related to the semi-mythical ruler of Eastern Tibet, Gesar of Ling.
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Tibet is famed for its natural beauty and we were never left bored staring out of the window as every turn brought about a different perspective of the ever-changing rugged mountainous terrain. The extra effort to clean the exterior of the window at rest stops had certainly paid off!
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As we approach the junction with Highway G318, the trickle of a mountain stream upstream had swelled to that of a fast flowing tributary before it joins the Niyang River.
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We had a brief 35 minute lunch break at Kai Ge Fish Restaurant 凯歌鱼庄 in Bahel town 八河镇 before continuing on our journey west along Highway G318. As a designated restaurant which caters to visiting tour groups, the food was decent but unspectacular as we were presented with an array of pork and chicken dishes with a generous helping of white rice. Hot tea was provided along with the obligatory bottle of local Lhasa beer, but our tour leader had ordered bottles of soft drinks as well to cater to the younger age profile of our group.

Kongpo Gyamda 工布江达

We continued west along Highway G318 through the heart of the remote Kongpo Gyamda region. The single lane asphalt highway snakes alongside the Niyang River and gradually gain in altitude as we headed upstream towards Mila Pass which divides the lush eastern Tibetan plateau from the comparatively arid Lhasa region in the west.

Popularly known as "骑行者" in Chinese, it is an emerging trend for groups of like minded cyclists to tour the region by bike while conquering the gruesome route along Highway G318 from Sichuan province to Lhasa. However, the strict travel visa requirements in Tibet do not allow foreign travellers to do likewise.
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A monument dedicated to the yak at a village square along Highway G318. The yak is an indispensable livestock in the Tibetan plateau as it is used for transport, food, heating and other uses essential for survival in the harsh environment.
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Bright yellow rapeseed flower plots offer a delightful contrast to the verdant fields and slopes in Kongpo Gyamda.
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The narrow, twisting gorges of the Niyang River offer one of the best sights in the Kongpo Gyamda region with its numerous rapids and varied topology.
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Literally translated into "Midstream Pillar", 中流砥柱 is a large rock formation situated in the middle of the fast flowing Niyang River. Local legends describe the rock formation as being a meditation seat for one of the revered local guardian deities, 工尊德姆 (approximate translation: Kongzhun Demu).
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Taizhao Ancient Town 太昭古城 had functioned as an important trading settlement and rest station for travellers heading into the depths of the Tibet since the Tang Dynasty. Originally known as Gyamda 江达, the town gain in statute when it was reportedly used by Princess Wencheng as an intermediate stop on her long journey to Tibet. The town gained its current name during the Qing Dynasty by shortening a local proverb. The well preserved town is merely a shadow of its illustrious past today and contain several small guesthouses that predominantly cater to local visitors.
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The raging torrent of the rapids tapered down to a steady stream as we head further upstream into the mountainous terrain. The stark and dramatic cliffs transition to gentle, rounded headlands and vast open valley plains, and is not unlike the picturesque Bernina & Albula regions in Switzerland.
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Tibetan yaks grazing on the fertile valley floor. Yaks are often reared together with pigs and chickens as livestock by rural households in the region.
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At an elevation of above 4000m, the lush vegetation thins out leaving only the occasional bushes that dot the largely barren slopes.
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After almost three continuous hours of driving, we pulled into a rest stop along the highway outside Songduo Sancun village. The village sits at an elevation of 4,415m above sea level and in such desolation, it was certainly no wonder that the taps do not work in the toilet. Instead, villagers have to transport a container of water for visitors to use at the toilet. A nominal charge of RMB 1 (~S$0.20) is levied per use of the toilet.
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The empty highway stretches into the horizon in both directions, with the silence of the thin mountain air only punctuated by the occasional sputter of a passing motorcycle. At this altitude, most of us started to experience mild effects of the thin & frigid air.
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We continued west after the short 10 minute toilet break and crossed the Niyang River shortly after. The mighty Niyang River which we had seen just yesterday had withered to a slow flowing stream as it transports fresh glacier meltwater from the mountains to the valleys below. The classical combination of snow capped mountain peaks and a water feature framed in a picturesque valley topped with blue skies and fluffy clouds never fail to attract numerous camera shutters and clicks from mobile phone cameras in the tour coach as passengers attempt to frame a decent photo through the sealed windows on a moving coach.
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The Eastern Frontier of Lhasa - Mila Pass 米拉山口

It was almost an anticlimax when our bus rounded a bend decorated with numerous strings of Tibetan prayer flags and pulled into a purpose built memorial by the side of the road that we had reached Mila Pass 米拉山口. Anticipating the wave of tour coaches making their way into Lhasa, a small crowd of vendors had already swooped in on their first target for the evening and offered to put up a string of colourful prayer flags for RMB50 (~S$10).
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At an elevation of 5,013m, Mila Pass is the final mountain pass that one has to pass through when travelling from the east to the provincial capital of Lhasa. It also serves as a the border of Kongpo Gyamda County 工布江达县 and Maizhokunggar County 墨竹工卡县, with the latter being administered by the city of Lhasa. From this pass, it is only a day's ride away to Lhasa for those on bicycles or 3 hours by car or coach.
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The hardy Tibetan yak is venerated at a memorial with a prose carved below the sculpture to describe the unique qualities of the beast which had allowed it to survive and thrive in such environments.
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Freshly uncovered from the blanket of snow that had smothered the pass just days earlier, gentle grassy slopes stretched towards a row of snow dusted mountains in the background.
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Lit by the even glow of the late afternoon sun, the snow covered steppes that surround the pass beckon to visitors to reach out and explore. Though looking deceptively accessible, the surrounding peaks at the pass are well over 7,000m.
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At 5,000m above sea level, the concentration of oxygen at this altitude is only half of that at sea level and most of the tour group had started to experience mild effects of oxygen starvation after just ten minutes of strolling around the memorial to obtain photos of the rugged scenery. With temperatures dropping to below 10 degrees Celsius, our tour guide started to herd everyone onboard for the onward journey to Lhasa. One certainly wonders how the Tibetan prayer flag sellers could sprint around the lookout point when most of us struggle to move faster than a slow walk!

The descent down from the mountain pass was quick as our coach zipped down the largely empty highway with most of the cyclists having retired for the day at a rest stop before their final day of cycling to their destination. Unlike Kongpo Gyamda county where the highway is characterised by sharp turns due to the narrowing Niyang River valley, Maizhokunggar county offered a less punishing terrain and generally better road quality as we approach the provincial capital.
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We pulled in at a major police checkpoint after half an hour on the coach and were once again given stern warnings by our 2 guides not to attempt any photographs. It was by far the most stringent of the checkpoints that we had encountered thus far as police officers scrutinized our travel documents and physically counted the number of occupants in the vehicle.

An hour's ride brought us to our final toilet stop on the journey which also happened to be a gazetted tourist attraction - the birthplace of Songtsan Gampo 松赞干布出身地. Songtsan Gampo's 松赞干布(629-649 AD) reign as the King of the newly consolidated Tibetan empire represented the finest moments of the empire as its influence extended as far as India & the Tang Dynasty court in China.
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While some of the tour group members answered an urgent call from nature, the rest of us were drawn to the natural beauty of the grassland which was dotted with yaks grazing and soaking up the final rays of the setting evening sun.
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The yaks have an amazing sense of hearing and in the still, quiet air; an inquisitive yak took a break from its meal and looked up towards the source of camera shutter sounds above.
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Solar reflectors are put to good use to harness the intense solar energy at high altitudes to boil water required to make hot tea to keep warm as the night approaches.
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Merging with Provincial Road S302, we were soon able to admire the view of the Lhasa River as it snaked west across the plateau beside Highway G318. With its flow broken up in parts by alluvial & sand deposits upstream, the calm surface of the trapped pools mirrored the deep blue of the almost cloudless evening sky.
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Framed by the bare mountain slopes in the background, the fast moving main channel of the Lhasa River took on a deeper shade of blue while the isolated pools of water reflected the crisp shade of blue of the sky. With the sun setting at only 2030hrs in late Spring, there was still ample light at 1945hrs when this photograph was taken.
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Even after sunset, the whitewashed walls of the imposing Potala Palace stood in stark contrast to the brown hills in the background and towers over the city. Though everyone had seen numerous photos and miniatures of the Potala Palace, there was an indescribable feeling when setting one's eyes on the actual structure for the very first time. We had indeed arrived at the roof of the world.
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Liuwu Bridge 柳梧大桥 was opened to traffic in 2007 as a common carriageway that connects the southern bank of Lhasa River to the city centre on the northern banks. Lit by colourful lights after dark, the 1.66km bridge was constructed as an integral part of the only expressway in Tibet which links the city with the railway station and the airport to the south.
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Our tour coach pulled into the foyer of Jardin Secret Hotel 雅汀舍丽花园酒店 in Lhasa slightly past 9pm in the evening after 13 hours and 486km since we had set off from Nyingchi. However, most members of our tour group were exhausted from the long bus ride and elected to stay in the hotel to rest and skip dinner. Due to the late hour of our arrival, the restaurant at our hotel was closed and arrangements were made by the tour agency for us to have dinner at Fuxingyuan Hotel 福鑫源大酒店 which was a short ride down the road on our coach.
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Although we had requested for fewer dishes to be served, the restaurant had unfortunately prepared the dishes for our entire tour group in advance and our tour guide was only able to cancel a small portion of it. As such, we eventually ended up with a sumptuous feast of both meat & vegetable dishes for a small number of us! One of the more notable dishes included pan fried buns which was stuffed with a savoury stewed pork filling with dried chilli and capsicum.
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