1,000 km to Nam Tso

May 30 – 31, 2014
Photo set on Flickr

Click here for the first part of my road trip from Lhasa to Mt Everest

Day 3 (May 30)

What’s next after Everest?

Everyone is eerily quiet the entire morning; quite understandable, consider none of us had any sleep last night. Not a single word is spoken until 11 am when we arrive in Tingri (定日), a town 60 km northwest of Everest. Here Luoni asks us once again, “Are you sure you want to go to Jilongguo (吉隆溝)? That place is nothing special. You will for sure regret not visiting Nam Tso (納木錯).”

And this brags the question: Where on earth is Jilongguo? I couldn’t find a definite answer even after searching on Baidu (Chinese version of Google) and Mafengwo (Chinese version of Tripadvisor). A few pictures of a generic valley and a blog post about an “undiscovered paradise” and that’s it. In our current internet age where there is more information than you will ever need, this is a rarity.

So why are we ditching Nam Tso, the holy lake that is an integral part of the typical 5-day Everest road trip? Seeing how our two friends have succumbed to high altitude sickness, I am wary of asking them to spend another night at an altitude above 4,000 m. The pale faces of my friends tell me we should go for the 3,800 m-high Jilongguo. Nam Tso, at 4,718 m, might be pushing our luck too far. Besides, there is a tint of exoticism about visiting a place even the internet fails to provide much information on.

Jilongguo: So close yet so far

On the way to Jilongguo

To reach Jilongguo we first have to pass through Shishapangma Nature Reserve (希夏邦馬峰自然保護區), named after the world’s 14th tallest peak and the only eight-thousanders to reside completely within Chinese border. Obviously with an official designation comes admission fee, this time 80 RMB per person. At least some of the money is channeled into a well-maintained two-lane road.

The day has been a little rough thus far. We feel tired, hot, suffocated and starved. Tingri was the logical place to get lunch, but Luoni insisted us to cover ground first and eat later. Two hours later we are still on empty stomachs. Even a visitor like me knows there won’t be any eatery in the nature reserve. Luoni is a terrific driver and a kindred spirit. He is also a little stubborn and not the best communicator in Mandarin. No point to grumble about it at this point – we will just have to continue to subsist on snacks for a while.

Shishapangma
Peiku Tso

The scenery makes for good distraction. We pass by the majestic Shishapangma, numerous snow-capped peaks, several glaciers and the perfectly azure Peiku Tso. We reach Jilong town at 3 pm on high morale; we have covered 330 km already and food seems finally to be within sight.

At the entrance of the Jilong police checkpoint hangs a chalk board with a listing of the distances to various places in Tibet; Jilongguo is only 30 km away. Inside four policemen are playing cards and our presence has caught them off guard. “Where are you heading? Jilongguo? Don’t you know the road is closed off today? It will reopen tomorrow morning at 8.”

You must be freaking kidding me! Apparently the road is closed every other day for construction. So between Pan, Luoni and the guy who sold us the tickets to the nature reserve, none of them has the state of mind to inform us that the chance of getting to the valley is literally a coin toss. No, Luoni, you can’t come to me with a “I told you so” rant when the adjective you used should have been “inaccessible” instead of “unremarkable”.

Two abominable choices stand before us. The road to the valley only opens from 8 – 10 in the morning over the next two days. Which means, if we insist on going to the valley, having to spend a spirit-breaking night in Jilong Town, a drab two-street village that looks like the setting of a post-apocalypse movie, then two days later we will need to endure a 18-hr drive back to Lhasa in order to make our flight. Or we can choose to make a beeline for Shigatse right now. Luoni dejectedly estimates our arrival time to be around midnight. The latter choice is more pragmatic – we don’t want to risk missing our plane.

To make haste Luoni instructs us to forfeit our long-awaited meal until we make it back to National Highway 318. One of our friends, a thin gal with an enormous appetite, unleashes all her pent-up hunger rage on Luoni. It is not just the hunger; she has been miserable since leaving Lhasa. The rest of us do our best to comfort the two of them – this is not time to start bickering among ourselves.

All eyes on Luoni

The same mountains, glaciers and lakes that give us thrill not that long ago now serve a more tangible purpose; they clue us on how much distance we have covered. Peiku Tso, Shishapangma, park entrance… gradually we are back to square one. Yes, Tingri, the junction where had we headed northeast seven hours ago would find us chilling out at our hotel in Shigatse already. Alas, we are now 240 km away from Shigatse and facing the unnerving prospect of traveling on the poorly maintained National Highway 318 at night. To minimize our time in the dark, we will continue to postpone dinner and try to cover as much ground in daylight as possible.

Luoni is visibly tired and has been on the record about his reluctance on driving at night. He used to be a construction worker; he had a hand in the building of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Seven years ago he became a long-distance driver because of the allure of promising money in the tourism sector. It is by no means easy money though – a typical work cycle is five to seven consecutive days of ten-hour driving, one day back home, then follow immediately with another multi-day trip. Places we consider risky like Everest and Nam Tso are basically his second homes. For all this hard work he doesn’t even earn that much. After subtracting one grand of agency fee and two grand of gas, he only gets to pocket half of our tour fee.

His professionalism is admirable. Aside from a few brief rants, he just focuses on the road and not let the fact he has somehow driven an additional eight hours get to him. His demeanor doesn’t waver when he is slapped with a speed ticket; ostensibly the speed limit is 80 km/h but everyone ignores it. To him it is an expected road toll. The only emotion he shows is a smile upon hearing we will pay the ticket on his behalf.

Our friend, who will now be referred as the Dinner Crusader, is not relenting on her pursuit for food. Each passing town comes an inquiry on why aren’t we stopping for dinner. Hunger has completely hijacked her frontal lobe – abstract concepts like physical safety and respect of others are tuned out in favor of a complete focus on food. Frankly she isn’t the only one who is starving; when we finally stop for dinner at 8 pm in a nondescript town about 120 km from Shigatse, it is Luoni who is running on fumes and truly needs some food.

The sun has disappeared below the horizon when we resume our journey at 8:40. National Highway 318 is surprisingly busy after dark. This is prime time for truckers to commute to/from Nepal. Casualty is unfortunately common, mostly happens to self-assured drivers who are unfamiliar with the road condition. It is under such condition Luoni’s knowledge of the roads really shines, always knowing the right timing to navigate through the numerous potholes, construction sites and tight turns.

At 12:30 am we finally arrive at our hotel, concluding our day that begins with an incredible high of seeing Everest and follows by a life-draining 15-hour long ride west to Jilong then all the way back east to Shigatse. That’s all in the past now; Everest was incredible, but all I care about at this moment is to take a quick shower then immediately jump into bed.

Day 4 (May 31)

Onward to Nam Tso

Revised route

On a vote of 3-1 we have decided to go ahead to Nam Tso. Feeling overwhelmed, the Dinner Crusader wants to go back to Lhasa where comfortable accommodation is guaranteed. Seeing she has been alright since taking Diamox at the base camp (our other friend has taken the same drug in Lhasa), the rest of us reject her plan because, really, three days has been more than enough for Lhasa. It doesn’t make any sense to have a spare day and not go to Nam Tso. The lake’s high altitude still makes us a little uneasy – this is after all the reason why we had bypassed Nam Tso at the beginning – but we are starting to develop some confidence in Diamox’s effectiveness.

Another 9-hour drive is ahead of us. Sitting inside a cramped SUV is becoming our day job; a 9-6 routine we endure in order to get somewhere in life. And just like in real life we have to give up something in the process, which in this case is Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo Monastery (扎什倫布寺), the traditional seat of Panchen Lama and one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet.

On the way to Nam Tso, 304 Provincial Road
Kid along 304 Provincial Road

Compares to the yesterday’s imposing alpine scenery, the journey along 304 Provincial Road is subdued. The occasional snow-capped mountain aside, barren meadow that can barely support grazing dominates the landscape. A few kids, unattended and playing dangerously close to the road, catch our attention; we give them some pencils and play with them briefly. They speak no Mandarin and are obviously not receiving any formal education. Their lives are determined the moment they are born to this world, oblivious to the many rights and opportunities we take for granted. It is not easy, on holiday especially, to stare soul-crushing straight in the eyes.

Nam Tso

Zaxi Peninsula, Nam Tso

With a surface area totaling 1,920 sq. km (25x Hong Kong Island), we aren’t exactly going to accomplish much more than taking a glimpse at Nam Tso. Like almost everyone else, we are staying in Zhaxi Peninsula (札西半島), the only place that accommodates overnight visitors in the protected area. The designation of “protected area”, you’ve guessed it, is just an excuse to collect admission fee (120 RMB), as the sight and smell of garbage and burnt coal are just as prevalent as everywhere else across Tibet.

As our leader, I feverishly hope Nam Tso will deliver, seeing we have traveled more than 1,000 km over the past two days and held a mini referendum to get to this point. I can feel the weight off my shoulders when my wife, always dispassionate on all things travel related, declares, “Wow, I didn’t expect Nam Tso to be so beautiful!” Even the skeptical Dinner Crusader nods approvingly.

So what differentiates Nam Tso from numerous other lakes we have encountered along the way? Its color, the darkest navy blue imaginable, imitates not the relative shallow lake with an average depth of 33 m but the deepest of oceans, gives us the illusion of discovering a boundless body of water at the world’s highest plateau.

Star Trails

Star Trail in Nam Tso

11 pm. 3 °C. Mostly clear.

As the rest of the crew are taking shelter from the blistering cold in our makeshift lodging made with corrugated metal sheets (50 RMB pp), I am at the lakeshore again to photograph star trails, a task that’s only possible in these three conditions: clear sky, minimal light pollution, and ideally a lunar phase near the new moon. Check, check, and check. I find myself entirely engulfed in darkness under a 20% covered sky barely illuminated by a waxing crescent Moon. But the best condition can only go so far – the stars are disappointingly dim and the Milky Way is barely noticeable.

The shooting is rather tedious. First there is setting up the camera and lens, then locating the Big Dipper and trying various compositions, and when finally the setup is complete you have to stand guard for at least an hour while your camera shoots continuously at 30s a shot. I have no clue how it will turn out, but there is a first for everything.

My senses are gradually being submerged by the surrounding darkness; my eyes, ears, nose and skin are providing consistent signals of numbing nothingness. Any hobby, once you get hooked, is like falling into a sinkhole; you fall deeper and deeper until you find yourself alone at midnight accompanied by nothing but your ice-cold camera.

This is what being young is all about.

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