My travel itinerary – a recap

A general view of my travel route, Summer 2010 [click to view larger]

 

A detailed view of the Lhasa-Kathmandu “Himalayan Journey” route with SnowLion Tours [click to view larger]

My itinerary:

TIBET:
Chengdu to Lhasa (by plane)
Lhasa-Yamdrok Lake – Gyantse – Shigatse – Everest Base Camp – Tingri – Zhangmu (by 4WD Land Rover)

NEPAL:
Zhangmu – Kathmandu (by car)
Kathmandu – Sunauli (by bus)

INDIA:
Sunauli – Gorakhpur – Varanasi (by bus)
Varanasi – Delhi (by train)
Delhi – Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) – Manali – Chandigarh – Delhi (by bus)

Delhi – Singapore – Chengdu, China (by plane)

TRAVEL TIME:  6 weeks

WEATHER / CLIMATE:  high altitude, blinding sun, heat, humidity, monsoon rains, mud, dust, pollution, clean mountain air

The scenic route, then goodbye to Tibet

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North from Everest, and off the beaten track: cloudy skies and vibrant colors after the rain

 

 

Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet, in his sequel Return to Tibet, describes the Tibetan landscape perfectly:

We were driving to Shigatse via Gyangtse.  Under a blinding sun, in a brilliant pure light, the full glory of the Tibetan plateau was spread out before us.  This landscape seems to be tailor-made for the Tibetan religion.  Or is it that the Tibetan form of Buddhism could only have arisen in this landscape?  It is amazing how peaceful this scenery seems to the viewer, even though it contains all the elements of wildness….

Henrich Harrer, Return to Tibet, Great Britain, Phoenix, 2000, p.134

We had experienced the blinding sun; now after a night of rain at Everest, we had bypassed Rongbuk Monastery (the world’s highest) and headed out of Everest Base Camp.

Instead of following the dusty road by which we had come, now turned into a mixture of mud and rocks, the driver veered off to the left, onto a barely-visible track. We would follow this lonely trail, which shifted from rough and bumpy to smooth and sandy at a whim, for about the next two hours.

The landscape had changed overnight from dull rocky brown to green and gray due to the rain.   As soon as we turned off the main road, I was amazed by the clumps of foliage and grasses which glowed with a deep and vibrant gray-green. The colors were so deep and clear in the rarified newly-washed air, that I almost couldn’t stand them. Even the dead stalks and the earth were beautiful in this crystal-clear yet dim light; it was as if the whole earth glowed.

I didn’t get a shot of this deep gray-green – the car was bouncing too much, but I got some photos when we stopped later. The terrain changed dramatically, almost with every turn.  We passed lonely farms, flocks of goats, and occasional children who ran toward us waving.  Apart from our convoy of two off-road vehicles, we didn’t see another vehicle, nor another tourist. I decided that this ride was the greatest adventure of this trip, our first time off the beaten tourist path (or so it seemed).

 

 

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Lone sentinel: a cairn or devotional pile of stones, with prayer flags

 

 

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The road less traveled, barely a track among the stones

 

 

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Our convoy takes a rest stop; the second vehicle carried two Chinese women from Beijing, who had traveled all over Tibet.

 

 

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Resting our weary bones at a Tibetan teahouse, after re-joining the main (paved) road. Tashi, our guide, is on the right.

 

 

We eventually rejoined the asphalt highway, in time to stop for a rest at a teahouse in a small town (it might have been Tingri, but I think our guide said a different town). We left the town to continue into the desert wastes that pile up north of the Himalaya, rising to the last high pass in Tibet as we made our way south to the descent through the Himalaya and to the border.

We stopped for lunch at a town whose name escapes me. Immediately after pulling out, the vegetation changed to lush greenery and pine trees; we must have crossed the dividing line beyond which the wet weather couldn’t reach the Tibetan plateau. We went down, down to Zhangmu, which seemed to me a typical border town – ugly, depressing, neither one culture nor the other. After a night there, and a farewell dinner, we proceeded 10 more kilometers to the twin checkpoints, China and Nepal.

Believe it or not, it was harder to leave China than it had been to enter – multiple travel permit and passport checks, baggage search, and waiting in lines. Then, the Friendship Bridge.  I think “Friendship” was tongue-in-cheek; by this point I wasn’t feeling too friendly. The Nepal entry point was just ahead.

 

 

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Much of Tibet is actually high desert, blocked by the Himalaya from receiving the annual monsoon rains.  In the distance the road climbs up toward the final pass.

 

 

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The last mountain pass before reaching the Himalaya, traveling south toward the China-Nepal border. Note the “windmill” prayer wheels – the cups catch the wind and twirl om mani padme hum into the universe.

 

 

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Himalaya sunrise: view from my hotel in Zhangmu, the Chinese border town that literally clings to the mountain side.  One side of the valley is China, the other is Nepal.

 

 

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Dividing line: the China-Nepal Friendship Bridge. When you’re in the middle you’re nowhere, man – neither one country nor the other.

 

 

END OF TIBET ADVENTURE

Next chapter: NEPAL

To Everest, and beyond

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On the road again: we leave Shigatse in the morning, bound for Qomolongma (Everest)

 

This is a fast tour. In better circumstances (less expense, fewer Chinese government restrictions), this itinerary could be stretched into two weeks or more.  However, that’s what it is: an itinerary.  that means being shepherded from sight to sight, ticket booth to ticket booth, paying special “tourist” prices to see monuments, and traveling a well-worn path during which we saw the same people over and over again.  Call it the Tibetan conveyor belt. Not to say it detracted from the magnificence of what we were seeing, but I couldn’t help feeling that Tibet is being commodified, prettied up, and selected portions Disneyfied, with the same manufactured trinkets for sale wherever we went.

But I digress. The Big Event was coming up. Qomolongma (Mount Everest), would challenge our altitude tolerance still further, as Everest Base Camp would be at 5,200 meters. By comparison, Lhasa had been 3,700 meters.

The day, as usual, was cloudy, with spotty sunlight as we drove through earth-brown, rocky terrain. At length we arrived at a mountain pass bedecked with prayer flags, and a huge sign announcing that we were entering Qomolongma National Nature Preserve.

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Entering Qomolangma Nature Preserve

 

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Typical mountain pass decoration – snapping in the wind and carrying mantras and prayers to the four corners of the earth

 

Then, in the distance, there they were: the snowy peaks of the highest mountain range in the world, raised to the heavens millions of years ago by the sliding of the Indian subcontinent under the Asian plate. Behind the rushing wind were the sounds of camera shutters and the hawking of the trinket sellers.

I didn’t know quite what to do – stare in open-mouthed awe, get on my knees, go into quiet contemplation, snap photos, or, as a jaded tourist confronted with another major sight, simply say “OK, there it is.” Actually, there isn’t much you can do other than think “At long last.”

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From the pass, a first sight of the Himalaya, The Abode of Snows

 

After descending from the height, the mountains disappeared. We passed through farm and grazing land, temples and ruins on hills, and eventually arrived at the checkpoint for Everest Base Camp. Our passports, travel permits, and entrance tickets were scrutinized. Each of us had paid about 360 RMB, including individual entrance tickets, the charge for the vehicle, and the entry for our tour guide and driver. Our guide asked us if we knew the different names for the mountain. Of course we recognized Everest and Qomolongma (the traditional Tibetan name), but he added that the mountain is also called “The Bank of China,” because of the high entrance fees.  If you want to scale the slopes, you must pay $12,000 American. Jeez.

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Study in greenish-brown, gray, and reflected blue: a water and grazing area by the roadside

 


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And – there it is, in all its whiteness, on a rare day of summer visibility

 

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Unimaginably vast, defying you to see it all at once, constantly shifting its mantle of white cloud

 

 

We say Everest only by a fluke: our guide changed our tour schedule, taking us directly from Shigatse to Everest in one day. The original plan had been to spend a night at a god-forsaken sinkhole call Sheger. We stopped in the town for lunch, then continued. If not for this change, we would never had had the clear weather for viewing that we did.

After passing the Everest checkpoint, the road became rock and dust. The sunlight was brutal, but the driver kept the windows closed, saying the dust was worse than the heat. We panted like dogs in the un-air conditioned car.

After an encounter with an evil troll at a final checkpoint – somehow, the guide had misplaced one of the tickets – we were allowed to proceed to the Tent City where we would spend the night under the monstrous shadow of the god-mountain.

 

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One of the “tent hotels,”made of yak hair. They were quite cozy, with about 6-8 peopl sleeping around the sides of the interior on large Tibetan couches.

 

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Above the tent city, ominous clouds create spectacular lighting effects on surrounding ridges.

 

Call it good karma (somewhere in my youth or childhood….) or just luck, we had spectaculary clear viewing weather, the clouds around Everst constantly shifting to reveal different ridges of the mountain. I couldn’t help thinking: how many tiny ant-like people were at this very moment making their way up its flanks? Ourguide, Tashi, had actually climbed as high at Base Camp 3, needing oxygen to make it to that level.

Just hours after taking our photos of the peak, rain descended, and Everest was gone, back into its mysterious hiding place. Through the night it rained; the sound was pleasant on the tent roof, and the drip drip drip of water on the back cushion of my bed was just a minor annoyance.

Side note: Mount Everest – also called Qomolangma Peak (Mount Sagarmāthā (Napali: सगरमाथा); Chinese Zhumulangma Peak: 珠穆朗玛峰;  Chajamlangma (Limbu), or Mount Chomolangma – is the world’s highest mountain abovesea level at 8,848 metres (29,029 ft). In Tibetan the name means “sacred mother.” – Wikipedia

Colonel Sir George Everest, former Surveyor General of India, did not name the mountain, nor did he want his name associate with it (he wanted geographic sites to retain their native names). His successor, Andrew Waugh, suggested the name,  and in 1865, the Royal Geographical Society officially adopted Mount Everest as the name for the highest mountain in the world.

The next day would be our final full day in Tibet.