Monday, April 30, 2012

Getting high. Introducing Tibet

Tirdum hot spring, by Ying

Tibet's soaks
The area known as Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is a vast area covering the huge mountainous plains north of the Himalaya divide.

As one would expect, both the immenseness as well as the mountainous terrain give a huge potential for thermal activity. Mushroom expert Daniel Winkler mentions more than 1000 possible hot springs!
The Travel Guide to Tibet of China (see note 1) mentions
'... geologists have found over 630 geothermal spots'.
All noted, pinpointing the exact soaks is not an easy task. Tourism is limited, the local population mostly dispersed. That means that finding those thousand springs on the internet is most probably not going to be achieved.

Sites containing Tibet soak sites lists are near non-existent.
Probably the only website other than this site with notes on Tibetan hot springs is that by the aforementioned, though these are mostly references to soaks in the Ganzi Tibet, a prefecture of Sichuan province, not Tibet proper.

Elsewhere, the significance of Tibetan hot springs is highlighted as there are two mentions in China's Top 10 Most Popular Hot Spring Resorts, the same list as others refer to as China's Most Romantic hot springs, even though one of the two listed permits gender separate only bathing. Very romantic!

What is clear is that the aforementioned dearth of accessible info seems to contrast both with local penchant for soaking as well as increased popularity of soaking in China.
My impression from accessing hundreds of websites on the subject of Tibetan soaks, is that the Chinese favour an organized hot spring whereas the local population simply savour the opportunity and benefits a local (if somewhat rustic) soak may provide.

Somewhere in Tibet. By Songpinghan:
'Buddha monks taking a bath in hot spring water'. (not working)
Bathing experiences are on a whole quite diverse. Fox on the Run sums up his quest for a soak as follows:
'I have to admit I got a bit confused by the whole hot spring issue in Tibet. For me, the term hot spring conjures up images of bubbling pools, either natural or of the "cement pond" type, where you can lie back and let the hot water work on your aching muscles, preferably while you sip on a cocktail. We encountered several hot springs during this trip, none of which even came close to my mental image. For the most part they were like little streams coming out of the ground, sometimes creating puddles and usually just building interesting mineral formations. They were definitely not big enough to comfortably climb into. In some locations, industrious locals would build bath houses where the hot water was piped into stalls either through shower heads or directly into tubs. In these places you could at least get clean, but there was no lounging around with friends in your bathing suits enjoying a drink and a soak'.
That typified Tibetan soak however is not as typical.

These intrepid travellers savour the soak reluctantly, but though they may not be so positive, the experience is so much purer. Or so it seems:
'Finally we found what looked like a women’s pool. A bunch of ladies were just leaving, including one girl who spoke Hindi and had just returned from Bylekuppe, a massive Tibetan settlement near my home town in India! Conscious of offending local women but tempted by the water, I nervously stripped down to my undergarments and waded in. This water was just right (am beginning to sound like Goldilocks now!) Soon two nuns arrived on the scene. They told me that they had walked for two hours over the hills just to soak. They started to strip. I had never realized how many layers of clothing nuns wore…it went on and on…and then suddenly they were naked. I was traumatized…it was like seeing the Shankaracharya or Mother Teresa nude!
Then a bunch of ladies arrived with their pink cheeked snotty nosed offspring. The women wore some elaborate braids with turquoise and ribbons. Some had thick woolen capes and had obviously not bathed for quite a while. They all stripped down to basics too. Now Cat and I were overdressed! The mothers dunked their squalling kids in the water and scrubbed them mercilessly. It was increasingly merry. The nuns taught me the names of different polite body parts in Tibetan (I got over my blushes pretty quickly) and all the ladies were giggling and pointing at us. Occasionally some mother would blow her baby’s nose and a wad of snot would float by. The boys from the men’s section were really curious about the naked ladies and were trying to peek over the wall. I was worried about how the nuns would react to this, but they were blissfully unconcerned! We sat there in happy harmony until our skins started to wrinkle'.
This experience by Banjara concerns the hot springs of Tridum / Tidum, which elsewhere I discovered to be considered as:
'... one of the cleanest natural hot spring in Tibet'!
On an entirely different note, many Tibetan hot springs existing at high altitude have resulted in there being distinct micro-climates with bacteria, plant and wildlife not seen elsewhere (1).

To make the soak listings more accessible I've kept to listings of hot springs by prefecture.

More or less.

(1) refers to the anonymous publication entitled Travel Guide to Tibet of China, published in 2003 by China International Press.