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Roof of the World

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Exploring a destination as mysterious as Tibet, while on a motorcycle, was without a doubt one of the best decisions I could have ever made. Out of the comfort zone that a car would offer you, the motorcycle lets you experience the best, and as we learnt, the worst of nature. The journey within Tibet begins the moment you cross the halfway mark on the militarized Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge which spans across the Bhote Kosi River. Inside Tibet, the terrain suddenly changes as you escape the chaos of the trade towns on the border and are soon surrounded by the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas that border the vast Tibetan Plateau. Within a matter of 60 kms, the weather and the terrain changed dramatically from a pleasant sunny border at 2300m, to our first stop in the freezing town of Nyalam at 3750m. We realized that this was no ordinary journey in the Lower Himalayan Range; we were now in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, aptly named the ‘roof of the world’.

In Nyalam, time seems to have come to a standstill. Although the sun had just begun its descent behind the mountain ranges, the town had already gone back to sleep. Barring a selected few provision and electronics shops, a cyber-café with teenagers lost in the world of online gaming and a dimly-lit restaurant, everyone else had retired to the comfort of their homes. Life here is dictated by the daylight hours and keeps changing each season. Often dubbed as the ‘Third Pole’, temperatures fall below -35 degrees Celsius with certain parts of the region facing freezing conditions for as many as 320 days in a year. In such inhospitable conditions, people are restricted to finishing their daily outdoor chores as Above: Yamdrok Lake long as the sun keeps them warm enough with no regard to the clock.

The influx of Chinese immigrants and their preference for their own cuisine has left very few of the traditional Tibetan restaurants still in business. But the ones that are still in business have a certain charm about them. The wood crackles in the fireplace as we make ourselves comfortable in the warmth of the restaurant. Massive circular tables with cosy sofas, accompanied by embroidered blankets and pillows welcome us. Tradition demands that all meals, be it for a family or a group affair, must have copious quantity of thukpa, mutton, Yak meat and momo’s served in humongous bowls.

The smaller bowl for vegetarians was brought to the table on request. Tibet is not too inviting a region for vegetarians, since it is high up in the Himalayas where not a blade of grass grows, except for barley. Yak meat dominates the supper with everything from the tongue to testicles on offer. As I help myself to a generous serving of thukpa, I cannot help but complain about the absolute absence of spices. This extends to every other dish on the table and since every traditional restaurant has the same cuisine to offer, the monotony in flavour is spread across the country. By the third day, we had sold our souls to the devil and moved to the Chinese joints. Back in Nyalam, as we wrapped up our dinner, the silence of the restaurant was broken by loud shouts of ‘shyabdak’ (the local word for ‘cheers’) in a quaint little room the next door. The drinking had begun as Tenzing, our guide, caught up with a few locals over a traditional, albeit difficult board game of Sho, which is played with shells, coins and dice. The rounds are usually accompanied by barrels of beer.

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