We didn’t have the best start to our fourth day in Tibet. Firstly, our driver Damdul showed up an hour late and hadn’t even filled up the van. Next, I had to pick up mine and Janey’s train tickets (for our onward journey from Lhasa to Xi’an) from Lhasa station. This was a truly horrendous experience. Witnessing the way the Chinese officials treated Kalsang left me in no doubt about which country we were really in. Therefore, I wasn’t feeling too positive by the time we finally left the city. Thankfully, the bewitching lunar landscape quickly improved my mood. After a short time the road started climbing and winding it’s way around mountain passes. Janey and Tyrone were both bemoaning the roadside barriers for getting in the way of their photos. Virginia and I, on the other hand, were very thankful that the barriers were there, especially as Damdul wasn’t exactly the most cautious driver in the world. Finally, we reached the top of the Gamba Pass, at the giddy height of 4998 metres. The only thing more breathtaking than the altitude was the view of Yamdrok Lake and the snow-cappped mountains behind it.
Surprisingly none of us suffered from altitude sickness at the top. Drifting off to sleep for a while was a big mistake though. I woke with a truly skull-cracking headache. It felt like my brain was expanding and pushing against the sides of my skill, which of course it was. I used a combination of drugs, breathing techniques and large quantities of chocolate to try to combat it. I was still feeling rubbish though by the time we reached the top of the Karola Pass, at an even higher altitude of 5020 metres. We saw a very negative side of Tibet there. As soon as the van stopped, vendors ran up to and started banging on the windows and waving prayer flags in our faces, in an attempt to get us to buy. I did feel sorry for them but there was no way I was purchasing anything under that sort of pressure. The good news was that in terms of altitude, this was the high point of the day. As we descended the pass, I finally started to feel human again.
Our final stop of the day was one of the coolest places we visited in all of Tibet. The town of Gyantse was once a Silk Road trading post and you could feel the history there. The highlight was an incredible fortress on top of a hill that caused Virginia to remark “it’s like the opening credits from Game of Thrones.” At the Kumbum Stupa, we could climb to the top, look at views of the city walls and imagine the hardy silk road travellers several centuries ago.
Night was falling as we embarked on the final leg of our journey for the day; a two hour drive to Shigatse; Tibet’s second city. We went to a Chinese restaurant with no English menu and completely put our trust in Damdul, who played a blinder. The result was a truly delicious meal. For this reason, I decided to partially forgive him for using his phone whilst driving one-handed down the mountain passes.
Day 5 began with the now obligatory skull-splitter. An excellent breakfast of corned beef, eggs and chips, coupled with several ibuprofen made me able to face the day. Our first stop was the Teshilungpo Monastery, former home to the Panchen Lama. It was mostly destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (a misnomer if ever there was one) but has since been partially rebuilt. It was an impressive building but it didn’t have anything that particularly distinguished it in the way that Drepung and Sera did in Lhasa.
After lunch, we drove up the first high pass of the day, Tsola at a mere 4800 metres. At the top, prayer flags fluttered violently in the strong winds. We bought some paper prayer flags of our own and threw them to the wind. I’m not sure what spritual affect this had but it was quite a lot of fun. The next high pass, Gyatsda, was the highest so far, at 5200 metres. Thankfully, my body was finally starting to get accustomed to the altitude but it was the cold that got us up here. To use a meteorological term, it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. We didn’t hang around for too long.
On our way down from Gyatsda, we were treated to our first views of the sub-Himalayas. I had been waiting for a very long time for this moment and it didn’t disappoint. We had been driving for a few minutes after this when Virginia spotted some tall looking mountains and asked what they were. Kalsang casually declared “that tall pointy one is Everest.” Cue all four of us absolutely losing the plot. We hadn’t expected to see it until the next day. Kalsang knew all along and had kept quiet about it. He’d make a great poker player. Later, when we were taking photos at the viewpoint we asked him if he’d ever been on Everest. Just as nonchalantly as before, he told us that a few years ago he was a porter and had climbed to 7500 metres. On numerous occasions. With 30kg on his back and no bottled oxygen. It’s not hyperbolic to say he’s the toughest man I’ve ever met. Sadly, as he was a porter, rather than a Sherpa, he’d never been given permission to have a crack at the summit. It seemed desperately unjust. That night we checked into our hotel in New Tingri, which was so basic that we might as well have been camping in the -13 degree temperatures. It didn’t matter a bit. The next day we were going to Base Camp.