Teetering through the valley of Manigango at dusk, our arrival to out to Yilhun Lah Tso is heralded by the soft orange glow from the mountain in front of us reflecting the setting sun. Up until now, we haven’t gotten many opportunities to camp, but we’ve headed here having been told it is the best place to do it. The air is dry and cold as we finally make it to the gate into the lake. Jie can barely walk, having slipped out his bike in the deep mud from a landslide on the road over (more on that in the next post), so I set out on my own in the twilight to find Brendan and Lucas who have taken a car here from Seda. When find them, it takes us three tries to get the bikes up the hill, a steep chute of beaten wet grass.
In the dark the lake seems ominous, there’s seemingly no one around as I sift through low-lying branches and webs of prayer flags. I find Brendan and Lucas by yelling out into the night in a game of marco polo on the plateau. They’ve put up their tent right next to the waterside, the best seats in an amphitheatre of gargantuan snow mountains. We set up camp and make dinner, finally getting a chance to use all the gear we’ve prepared. More importantly, finally getting a chance to sleep on a bed of grass and a blanket of stars punched deep in the sky.
The lake itself is at more than 13,000 ft and the mountains that surround us reach more than 20,000, stretching worn jagged tips out to brush the base of heaven. Legend has it that the lover of the famous Tibetan hero Gersar was so infatuated with Yilhun Lah Tso that she couldn’t take herself away from it. She decided instead to stay forever, sinking into its clouded pale blue depths. This is where the lake gets its name: “the holy lake for which my heart yearns.”
When we wake up the reason for this name resounds in the morning sky. The lake sits tranquil in the early dawn, crystalline and stoic against the strength of the mountains. The shore is lush and vibrant. The rocks and trees carved with mantras and doused in prayer flags are altered in a coherence that I have only experienced in Tibet, a sudden last stroke to man's vision of the sublime. As I look around though it’s clear we’re not the only ones who’ve come to bask in the morning sun. A herd of yaks wander through our campsite, contentedly gnawing at the early grass. I cant stop laughing as a watch them from my sleeping bag. They seem so focused.
The four of us get up and make a breakfast of black tea and porridge. More visitors start to come over to the lake, many of whom who have come to have picnics in celebration of the Dali Lama’s birthday. A couple of Tibetan families set up umbrellas and start fires with brush and yak dung to cook on. Groups of monks wander down the hills and pose for pictures as they jump around the rocks.
Brendan jokingly points out, “it’s like we’re at a Tibetan pool party.” But that's exactly what it feels like
The sun is radiant; this feels like it’s exactly where we should be.
We spend the day however we want. Brendan and I are eager for a hike and decide to head around the edge of the lake towards the valleys that form between the mountains. One of the monks at the lake with his family hears where we’re going and asks if he can come with us and help show the way. The hike leads us skirting around the edge of the water and across wetlands with rivers in all different hues and shades –red with iron, tan with sediment. Once at the foot of the mountain we ascend rapidly, trying to catch up with the monk who is seemingly unaffected by the dauntingly steep uphill. Finally we arrive at the most intense waterfall I’ve ever seen: a raw torrent of power throwing itself from the rock face. Resting on the hill underneath it, the spray alone hits with enough cold power to make these mountains seem malicious.
Back at the bottom there is a team of young men carving a mantra across a rock face led by the hermit monk who lives in a cave up the mountain. It takes them six days of working in the sun to finish one mural they say. One worker points to my sunglasses when I walk by, asking to try them on. After he gets them on his face, it's clear he wants to keep them. "Look" he says, pointing to the rock, "it's so bright out here. I need these."
The hermit monk asks us to stay for a meal, pushing back the dreads that sink long past his chest and over his once yellow robes. We say thank you but decline and instead collect firewood for back at the camp, a good idea at the time, but regrettable as we trudge through the forest on the other side of the lake to get back; the pack where we’ve shoved the sticks gets caught at every turn and digs deep into my shoulders as we slide down the hills on the lakes edge.
Jie and Lucas enjoy the day in a different way:
Back at camp, everything settles as the sun sets. The lake is quiet and the shores are calm.
We make dinner with two kinds of noodles and slowly watch the day fade away.
These will be the times I remember most from the plateau: the ones where you stare into beauty and it stares back in to you.