"You climbed the Everest?" asked Ileana's mother, when we called to say good morning. How could we? Only very few people do that and we are not even trekking for a couple of hours. But as I thought about this question, I realized that there is a different meaning, we didn't reach the top, we didn't even go up much, but we did climb a bit of the Everest. We were at the 5200 meters mark, on the highest mountain in the world, we had our katas with our names, flying high in the wind at the Everest base camp. It is by far the hardest thing we did in our travels, it is a very long and difficult journey. It's no small thing to reach Lhasa, and from there it is still a lot more to go.
|Yamdrock Lake panorama|
We left on Saturday morning, on a new highway, the road that goes to Lhasa airport. After an hour, it became just a regular sealed road. The first day it was mostly driving, first through the Kamba-la pass at 4794 meters, by the Yamdrock Lake, down at 4488 meters. It is one of the four holy lakes of Tibet and we saw how the lake retreated after some Chinese chose to disregard the Tibetan beliefs and swam and fished in it. It is a magnificent lake, a beauty, unfortunately in the cold weather it is just a very quick stop. We stopped for a minute to see our first glacier of this trip, the Kharola Glacier, at 5560 meters.
We got to Gyantse, visited the Pelkor Chöde monastery (Baiju Temple) and took a tour of the Gyantse Kumbum, the largest stupa in Tibet, a spiral of many chapels. We didn't visit the fort, high above the city but we took pictures of it, and learned with surprise that the Tibetans are sorry that they were not conquered by the British. If they would have done that, "we might be independent now, other countries conquered by them got their independence, but with the Chinese there is no chance."
We ended the first day of travel in Shigatse, at a brand new four star hotel, Tashi Choe Ta. Unfortunately, the heat didn't work, but we slept in freezing luxury. The second day was a quick visit to the phenomenal Ta Shi Lhun Po monastery, without our guide, she went to get the Everest pass. Then we drove for a few hours, we lunched in Lhatse, the music capital of Tibet, and kept going. Toward the end of the day we got the first glimpse of the Everest:
We spent the night in Qomo Lagma Hotel in New Tingri (Shegar). This was a two star hotel, they had electric heat, but no water and the electricity stopped at some point during the night. We were up at six, getting ready in the dark, it was a great chance to use our head-lamps. The guide was also ready but she couldn't get out of her room, the key wouldn't work, she jumped out of the window. Nobody was awake at that hour, it was really cold and really dark. What? Nobody awake at 7 am? These Tibetans must be really lazy! I don't think they are, this is another chinese gift, having to follow the Beijing time. The sunrise was around 8.30 am! We saw it in another pass, it was so cold that only three of us got out of the car. We could see the five ranges of the Himalayas, including the Everest, it was a phenomenal view and worth the early wake up time, passing through checkpoints and all the rest.
At around 10 we had some breakfast in the best quarter star restaurant anybody could imagine. The girls liked it so much, they didn't want to leave.
Again, getting to the Everest base camp is no small feat. It is a 102 km ride on a decent unsealed, bumpy road. Occasionally the driver would get off, on some sections of the older road, to catch a break from all the bumps. It was exhausting and it seemed it had no end. At the 94 km we arrived at Rongphu, the highest monastery in the world. A few nuns were preparing and later eating their lunch. There was nobody else around. Usually, from there, the cars can go no further and there is an ecological bus or trekking. We went with our car, past the empty tent city, up to the last barrier. The chinese military was not there. We walked past the barrier, up on a little bump. The whole top of the Everest was ahead of us, unobstructed view. It was awesome. With the expert help of our driver, we linked the katas that we got on our arrival in Lhasa and put them along to many prayer flags. The kata is a white piece of cloth, maybe similar to what people might get as a welcome to Hawaii. The wind was blowing, it was a little cold, but the sun was shining and the sky was perfectly clean. We only saw one little cloud in our 12 days in Tibet. It was by design, I chose this time of the year because of the perfect views. Other people might come in the summer months, it's warm and pleasant, but frequently cloudy, sometimes the rain would wash out the roads. I think that we were the last tourists of the year to make it to the Everest Base Cap. There was a small group of Chinese that got there an hour before us. Our guide has no more clients for the rest of the season. Most hotels and restaurants had no other customers. We spent maybe an hour around the base camp, I made two phone calls, leaving a message for my mother and having a short conversation with Ileana's mother. The signal was spotty, but in the right place it was enough. Again, she asked us if we climbed the Everest, our misunderstanding, then my reconsideration. Maybe we did climb a little of the Everest. We got as far as mere mortals do and we are proud of ourselves. Most of all we had an amazing experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.
Returning, we took the "better" road. Hard to understand this statement. We went for many hours on some vague pass over the mountains, between valleys, sometimes on short patches on ice, sometimes through water, and all the time over bumps and bumps and bumps. We all took it well, the children laughing in the back every time they were sent up jumping to hit the ceiling.
When we almost got to the real road we saw a tractor turned on the side in the ditch. Ileana and the driver rushed to help, there were so many people there, two infants, a miracle that nobody got hurt. Getting to Old Tingri, we were supposed to sleep in the best hotel and watch the sunset over the Everest. The hotel had no heat and no water, the people who knew how to make some electricity were gone to some meeting. The alternative was to sleep in the common room of a guest house, that would have had some fire made in the evening, but still no heat overnight. We made a tough decision to push it further. Next hotel, in Nyalam, would have heat and, of course, rooms. It was a four hour ride, most of it in the dark, after getting some nice shots of the sunset over the Everest.
Arrived in Nyalam, at Snowland hotel, we got heat, communal bathrooms, and two decent three-bed rooms. By the heater, the temperature got up to 17C. Probably in the bed it was more like 12C. We slept until 9 am. Our guide came to take us for breakfast at 10, but we decided to have a brunch at the border. And so we got to Zhangmu, or in Tibetan, Dram, the little border town. Amazing, how this little town exists, one road with hundreds of trucks, houses built on the mountain, they call it the road to hell, prone to earthquakes and land slides, if something happens they are stuck without any exit. The guide and the driver made no secret that they would like to get out of there as soon as possible, but we were early for our van to Kathmandu.
We had another decent lunch, and then passed the border by foot. The first walking border, getting through several Chinese check points, saying good bye to our driver and our guide, crossing the Friendship bridge and we were in Nepal. It was hard to say good bye to her, she was like a little part of our family, the first eight days in Lhasa but especially the next four days on the road we got to love her. We cannot thank her enough, she made our Tibet trip so special. I cannot even think how terrible it could have been with a bad guide. She was fantastic, she got really close to the children and they got close to her. Hopefully we would meet again, sometime in the future, somewhere in this world. Maybe in this life.