Posts Tagged With: Himalayas

Tibet Days 7-9: Finishing the journey

Day 7

We weren’t at all sad to leave New Tingri, despite another mouthwatering dry chapati and fried egg combo. We got back on the road and our first port of call for the day was Sakya Monastery, which is between New Tingri and Shigatse. I was definitely getting a bit templed out by this point but Sakya offered something a bit different to what we had seen before. In the courtyard outside the monastery, a bunch of locals were parading some seriously mean looking effigies up and down, in preparation for an event that would apparently take place a couple of days later. This was accompanied by the sound of some young monks blowing long, deep horn type instruments. We must have watched them for about half an hour, temporarily forgetting the cold to take in a surreal but memorable experience.

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That afternoon we drove back to Shigatse and a hotel that actually had running water and one of the most welcome showers I’ve ever had. It felt like returning from the wild, which was essentially what we were doing. That night, we were able to get a decent meal and have a belated celebration of the New Year.

Day 8

We had an extremely early start to our final full day in Tibet, as there were still a few things to see and a lot of miles to travel before we got back to Lhasa. First of all, we went to a carpet factory in Shigatse, where we were able to interact with some local Tibetan people and see the results of their labours. Janey and I still had a couple of weeks left on the road at this point though so there was no way that we were buying a carpet to lug around with us though. The factory was an interesting place to visit. However, I do have to question why, in a country as poor as Tibet, 44% of the profits of the factory go to the monastery, and only 28% go to the workers.

After leaving the factory, we had a very long drive back to Lhasa, along the Northern Friendship Highway. This is a misnomer if ever there was one, as it’s not a very friendly road at all. Damdul got into a ridiculous game of tit-for-tat overtaking with a massive bus, that went on for at least half an hour. He then made up for it though by, with very little ceremony or announcement, turning off the main highway and driving into a small village. It turned out that he was taking us to his family house, where we met his wife, grandparents and children. The family seemed delighted to have us there as they insisted on pouring us copious amounts of butter tea, and even posed for a family photo for Tyrone. He later printed this and sent it to them, via Snow Lion Tours. I like to think that it still takes pride of place in their simple but beautiful home.

Later that day, we arrived back in Lhasa and went souvenir shopping round the Barkor. This was one of the least enjoyable experiences of the whole trip. The vendors set ludicrous prices and bargained very aggressively. I appreciate that a lot of these vendors are very poor but by being a bit more courteous and not thinking that all Westerners have bottomless pits of money, they’d have probably made a lot more sales.  Not too long later though, we went to an incredibly hospitable family restaurant where I ate the best meal that I had all trip, which completely overshadowed the unfriendly vendors. That’s the thing with Tibet. It wasn’t always the easiest place to travel but in the end, something always proved that it was worth all the effort.

Day 9

I woke up on Day 9, our final day in Tibet, with no headache. My body had finally got accustomed to the altitude! I had to laugh at this. That morning, we said our goodbyes to Tyrone and Virginia and went our separate ways. They sensibly headed to Lhasa airport, where they boarded a plane to Chengdu and then travelled on to Bangkok. Janey and I had made the decision that, rather than flying, we were going to take the 33 hour train journey from Lhasa to Xi’an. When we were planning it, this seemed like it could be one of the highlights of our seven week trip. In hindsight, what on earth were we thinking?! The best adjective I can use to describe that journey is “character-building.” A day and a half later, with character sufficiently built, we stepped off the train and headed into the city at the end of the Silk Road. Our Tibetan odyssey was at an end.

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Tibet Day 6: Everest Base Camp

The story of our trip to Everest Base Camp really has to begin with where we stayed the night before. There was no running water and no heating. The temperature inside the room was around ten degrees below zero. When we awoke from what little slumbers we had managed, we were “treated” to a truly dreadful breakfast of two dry chapatis sandwiching a fried egg which looked like it had been through a nuclear explosion. The amusing thing was though, this was almost certainly the best hotel in town.

The cold and lack of sleep meant that I wasn’t feeling in the best of shape at the start of what was supposed to be the most auspicious day of the trip. We got into the van and started climbing up the most incredible mountain road. I’m not a fan of the Chinese government’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet but this road is a truly incredible feat of engineering. The switchbacks were insane. When we reached the top of the pass, we were presented with the magnificent sight of Everest, along with four other 8000 metre peaks. All of them are megalithic in their own right but Everest towered over the rest of them. I was struck by how windy it was at only 5000 metres. I looked at the spindrift coming off the top of the great peak and imagined just how brutal it would be at the top. It was about this moment that I made a solemn resolution to never attempt to climb it.

After a couple of hours of driving through some incredibly beautiful scenery we arrived at Rongbuk Monastery. At an altitude of 5200 metres, this is the highest monastery anywhere in the world. We’d been travelling all morning and it was seriously cold so I asked Kalsang where we could eat some lunch. Sheepishly Kalsang said “actually there isn’t anything to eat.” I was incredulous. Pure hanger started flowing through me. What on earth did he mean, there wasn’t anything to eat?!  Possibly out of self-preservation, Kalsang then played a blinder. He managed to wangle us an invite to go and eat with the monks. This was a truly surreal experience. We were in the highest monastery in the world, sitting by a roaring fire, whilst saffron clad monks sat round chanting mantras. To make it even more bizarre, we were served butter tea (this was the only time that I found it palatable) and spicy pot noodles. That unusual combination would come back and haunt me later but it was still an utterly unforgettable experience.

After lunch, we were given the choice to walk from the monastery to base camp but were told it would take around four hours. None of us were feeling fit enough for this so instead we elected to go halfway down the road and walk from there. Finally, this was an opportunity to walk in the Himalaya. I started slowly and got very short of breath. This was easily the highest I’d ever been in my life and it felt like it. Janey, on the other hand, was powering ahead. She’d had an obsession with Everest since the age of seven and was definitely putting mind over matter. The walk took just under two hours. The highlight of it was walking across a completely frozen river, with Everest rearing up in front of us. Just after that, we climbed up a hill to a completely deserted base camp. Clearly, there weren’t many people mad enough to be there on 31st December. Our timing was impeccable because two minutes after we got back into the van, shaking with cold, the clouds moved in and the top of the mountain was hidden from us. We had been incredibly lucky to have had clear views for so long.

Unsurprisingly the rest of the day was a bit of an anti-climax. I felt pretty dreadful on the way back down the winding mountain roads (the aforementioned butter tea and spicy noodles combo may have had something to do with that) and all four of us were far too knackered to see midnight and ring in the new year. However, I can still say, without any doubt, that it was definitely the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had.

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Tibet Days 4-5: The Road to Everest

Day 4

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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