May 28 – 30, 2014
Photo set on Flickr
Like it, hate it, or whatever the feeling might be, everyone visiting Tibet will stop by Lhasa at one point or another. If nothing else, it is the logical place to get acclimatized to the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau. Each person reacts differently to low partial pressure of oxygen in high altitude, define as 2,400 m above sea level. The best remedy is to take it slowly the first few days. If rest alone is not enough consider taking the high altitude medicine Diamox – I have seen with my own eyes the positive effect it has on my bedridden friend.
After some initial scare, everyone in our group has fortunately all recovered and ready to embark onward to the high point (literally and figuratively) of this trip – Mount Everest. Yes, you can see the world’s tallest mountain in Nepal, but it is generally agreed the view from the north is superior. As with all natural attractions, visiting during the right season is important. May is supposedly one of the better months for Everest – precedes the monsoon season while not unbearably cold.
The second critical decision is finding a good driver. My friend Pan, a Han Chinese tour guide born and bred in Lhasa, refers us to Luoni (洛尼), a Lhasa-born Tibetan in his forties. He has been a long distance driver for almost two decades and is highly skilled at navigating through Tibet’s less than ideal roads. He drives for a Han Chinese tour company with a crew of five Toyota 4500 Land Cruisers and a dozen drivers. Our vehicle is visibly worn, with over five hundred-thousand km on its odometer and no A/C. Our arrangement is fairly typical: ¥6,000 for a five-day round trip to Everest. The only caveat is we have substituted the popular Nam Tso (Tso means lake in Tibetan) with the unheralded Jilonggou, a place highly recommended by Pan but Luoni feels lukewarm about.
- Day 1) Lhasa – Shigatse via Yamdrok Tso (350 km)
- Day 2) Shigatse to Everest Base Camp (380 km total, 100 km unpaved)
- Day 3) Base Camp to Jilonggou (360 km total, 70 km unpaved)
- Day 4) Jilonggou to Shigatse (580 km)
- Day 5) Shigatse to Lhasa (270 km)
- Total – 1950 km
Day 1 (May 28)
After three sunny days in Lhasa, we begin our road trip under an impenetrable layer of cloud. Couple the poor weather with some truly uninspiring scenery, this turns out to be nothing more than a day of transit. This day’s main attraction, Yamdrok Tso (羊卓雍錯), looks terribly dull. I am sure this Tibetan holy lake, blessed with a surface area of 638 km² (8x the size of Hong Kong Island), looks awesome from the air, yet the vantage points offer to us land-bound mortals are obstructed by the surrounding barren mountains. Regardless, its fame guarantees this unattractive pool of water will always draw a fair share of day trippers from Lhasa and travelers heading west to Shigatse (日喀則).
Observation on the road
You can learn so much about Tibet by leaving the holy city. Lhasa has a definite boomtown feel, attracting a massive influx of people and capital. Outside of a few areas like Potala Palace and Barkhor, Lhasa doesn’t appear too different from the typical Mainland Chinese city.
The countryside is altogether another story. There is only so much human can do to reshape this hostile terrain. Sure we are driving along a perfectly fine paved road, and occasionally we pass along villages of brick houses funded by public money, but life in this land has stayed constant for hundred of years. Outside of a few river valleys where farming is possible, many Tibetans retain a nomadic lifestyle of herding. Time and time again our car speed past herders and their cattle at the most desolate places just because there happens to be a water source. Many of these herders live in tent without running water and electricity. They have, unfortunately, picked up on the habit of consuming products and food items packaged in non-biodegradable material like glass and plastic. Without any means to dispose or recycle these foreign materials, the ground and even waterways are full of garbage.
Herding and farming are hard work. Tourism has grown rapidly in the past decade, enticing many Tibetans to join the service sector in search of better money. Most, like Luoni, hold legitimate jobs. Some choose to earn a quick buck by bringing their livestock to tourist sites like Yamdrok Tso as photo background for tourists. Perhaps because of high level of competition, most of these touts are not content to let prospective customers to come to them. They pursue their targets aggressively and often resort to grabbing and taunting upon rejection. I do understand their position; they are poor, uneducated and probably don’t care for tourists, the majority of which comes from Mainland China.
These abrasive behaviors undoubtedly taint a little of my otherwise very favorable impression of Tibetans as a whole. The notion of holding a grudge as a visitor against any Tibetan, however, is rather preposterous. These people, after all, are captives in their own land. Numerous police checkpoints are set up across the region to restrict movement. For us it is a matter of inconvenience of getting out of the car and presenting our travel documents. Tibetans on the other hand have to acquire a permit that includes the following information: name, gender, identity card number, destination in Tibet, reason behind travel, intended place of residence at destination, days of travel, whether the person has a criminal record, a guarantee that the person does not engage in criminal activity, the public security institution issuing the certificate, a contact person and mode of contact. During sensitive periods such as Tibetan Uprising Day almost all non-essential travel is forbidden.
There are also the nontrivial matters of eating and relieving oneself. The former is rather straightforward – you will be eating Sichuanese food. Unless you are really into chili food forego the hot dishes and stick with the stirred fried options like egg with tomato. On average a meal costs around 40 RMB pp.
As for finding a washroom – it won’t be anything you are accustomed to. What you will find is a small room with a hole in the ground filled with excrement with flies buzzing around. Someone should pay you for having the audacity to go inside, but no, you will have to pay 1 – 2 RMB for such privilege. As a guy I have it easy since I can choose to do my business outdoor, which is much cleaner anyway. Girls unfortunately have to suck it up and brave the swarm of shit-laden flies.
Day 2 (May 29)
Qomolangma National Park
When I set my gaze outside for the first time and can barely open my eyes under the piercing sunlight, I am pumped up like one of those housewives who had just received a car from Oprah. Without cooperative weather, we might very well be spending four days on the road with nothing to show for our effort.
Soon I realize a clear day is essential beyond improving our prospect of seeing Mt Everest – our safety also completely depends on nature’s mercy. After spending yesterday on the relatively well-maintained Provincial Roads 307 and 204 between Lhasa and Shigatse, I have taken good road condition as granted. Today we get a look at the difficulty of infrastructure maintenance in this remote land. Numerous sections of National Highway 318, also known as the Friendship Highway because it runs to the Nepalese border, are washed away by landslides during the previous rainy season. Drivers have to be creative and blaze their own trails across these quagmires as proper alternative routes are nonexistent. This 300 km drive takes almost six hours to cover.
The bad only gets worse after we enter Qomolangma National Park, established in 1999 to
rake in the tourist dollars protect this natural wonder. Charging a whopping 180 RMB per person plus 400 RMB per car, one would naturally wonder where all this money has gone. Ostensibly much of this sum goes to the nomads who live in the area, though given China’s rampant corruption that’s rather unlikely. The safer bet is the money will go into the pocket of local officials or some well connected businesspeople.
What’s abundantly clear is none of the money has been reinvested back into the park. There is no infrastructure to speak of. No paved road, no signage, no rest stop. The dirt roads are poorly maintained. Often we have to drive along the mountain slope to avoid loose boulders and other debris. The metal box with wheels that is our car insulates us from dust and wind. What it cannot do is relieved us from the heat of the fiery afternoon sun.
How hot can it be, you might ask, when we are surrounded by tundra, glacier and snow-capped peaks? At least 30°C, inside the car, probably several degrees more. The heat I can tolerate, but the lack of fresh air is insufferable. This is my biggest gripe about traveling in Tibet. I can survive high altitude, poor hygienic condition, challenging road condition – Bring it all on! – but as a human I need oxygen to survive. I hang on, barely, by rotating between air full of either dust or carbon dioxide.
What has so far been a clear day has turned increasingly cloudy. By the time we reach Rongbuk Monastery (絨布寺), the world’s highest monastery and a prime lookout point to Everest, much of the Himalayas to the south is covered by a dense layer of mist. The temperature drops dramatically at this altitude (4,980 m), especially in the absence of the sun’s warmth. The thermometer reads single digit. Snow refuses to melt.
The final half hour drive is particularly precarious. We are surrounded by numerous tall peaks, any of them towers over any we have ever encountered. The road is littered with rocks and meter-tall boulders. Steadily we move along, until the final hurdle arrives in the form of – what else? – a check point. Everyone has to bring their papers inside a smoke-filled military tent and patiently wait for their turns.
Everest Base Camp
At 7 pm and a 10 hour ride from Shigatse, we finally arrive at the base camp. Just to be clear, this place where we will be spending the night is set up for tourists like us. This tourist base camp is composed of dozens of individual tents and, at 5,100 m above sea level, a China Post that holds the record as the highest post office in the world. Garbage is everywhere. A choking smoke of burnt coal and plastic permeates the entire compound. Washroom is the by now all-too-familiar hole in the ground.
How to choose from so many lookalike tents? None of the visitors has any choice as each driver will steer his customers to an associated tent. What’s the price for the privilege of spending a night at one of the world’s most inhospitable places? The answer is surprisingly not that much – 60 RMB per person, 1/3 the cost of the park’s admission ticket. Each tent can fit up to eight people. In our case we will have the tent to ourselves plus Luoni.
The base camp for climbers lies a further 5 km southwest. It is possible to trek there, which takes about 30 mins, though almost everyone opts to take the 25 RMB round trip shuttle bus.
There is some confusion upon getting off the bus. Amid cattle and shepherds a trail of tourists are steadily climbing up and down a small hill to the right. The lookout to Everest is atop this hill, and it is not an easy climb along the icy slope. Again, all these entrance fees and not even a flight of stairs?
Once at the top I find myself gazing at a panorama of the Himalayas, including Everest. The issue is, for all its fame, I can’t pick it out from the pack. I know its height by heart, 8,849 m, but inexplicably not its appearance. After a round of deductive reasoning I figure none of these peaks is Everest since they are all about the same height – the world’s tallest peak must be hidden behind the thick fog.
My mind keeps popping up the same question – what if I never get to see Everest despite all this effort? Probably no big deal. Everest simply serves as the MacGuffin of this trip. But the lack of oxygen in the air is not conducive to rational thinking. I need to see Everest with my own eyes as justification for the past two days. This is my certificate of having been to Tibet.
The sky does gradually clear up a little, just barely enough to acknowledge the existence of a much taller mountain than the rest. This opening closes almost as soon as it opens, leaving me a rush of adrenaline and a palpably bitter taste of disappointment.
Day 3 (May 30)
One last chance
Sometimes, when you wake up on the road, it takes a second or two for your brain to reboot and figure out where the hell you are. But not this day. My brain has stayed on alert mode all night. Between Luoni’s jet engine-like snoring, security patrol asking for our papers at 2 am, my friend succumbing to high altitude sickness and my own pounding headache, I can recall all the reasons why I barely had any sleep.
The time is half past six. I get out of bed feeling slightly wobbly – one part headache and one part poor blood circulation to my feet. A ray of light is shinning through from the door gap. My attempt to not wake up the others fails when I try to open the squeaky door.
The air outside is rejuvenating – none of the chimneys is emitting the choking smoke at this early hour. The sky is marvelously clear and getting brighter by the minute, probably just another ten or so minutes until sunrise. A small crowd has gathered on the open field to the south of the campsite. Mindful of stepping on yak dung, I stagger my way through the icy field to set up my gear a further 200 ft to the south to avoid people getting into my frame.
There it is, Mt Everest, no longer concealing itself behind fog and cloud. Strangely the distance between the world’s tallest peak and me doesn’t feel that immense. It is tall, but it doesn’t seem the tallest. That’s the privilege of being at the base camp, situated higher than even Mont Blanc, the tallest point in Europe. At this altitude, dreams of reaching the world’s summit become slightly less ludicrous. Never will I stand atop Everest, but seeing it in plain sight gives my imagination that much more to work with.
There is always a little anxiety when shooting sunrise and sunset. You always expect your effort will be rewarded by getting the perfect shots, but everything again is up to nature. The sun rises up from a slightly different angle each day of the year, which might give you the perfect light or completely screws up your shot. The light shines from the southeast on this day, an less than ideal angle which illuminates Changtse, the peak directly north of Everest. Only a narrow strip of Everest’s east face receive any light at all.
That’s why we travel instead of browsing for photos online. My entire focus is on this superlative peak, seeming within grasp. Everything else is of secondary concern. This is one of travel’s greatest thrills – standing at the base of Everest to marvel at the highest point on Earth. Not everyone who comes all the way here is blessed by such cooperative weather.
I am sure my wife and friends are somewhere behind me. I hope they find this experience as rewarding as I do.
Click here for the second part of my road trip from Mt Everest to Nam Tso