China > Tibet
Tuesday, 05 October 2010
Some 300km west of Lhasa, Shigatse (also spelt Xigaze) is Tibet’s 2nd largest city, with only 80,000 people living at an altitude of 3,800m (12,500ft). It hosts the official residence of the Panchen Lama (the #2 holiest person in Tibetan Buddhism, behind the Dalai Lama) which looks resplendent from the roof of my hotel this morning. But the Panchen is not here; the previous one died in 1989, and when his 6-year-old reincarnated replacement was identified by the Dalai Lama, the holy kid and his family were whisked away by the Chinese govt in 1995, never to be seen.
Today we are heading southwest towards Mt Everest, and our permit to enter the area arrives a bit late, hence delaying our departure from Shigatse. It’s less than 400km to Everest Base Camp, but it’s gonna be a 10-hour drive via mountain passes and some rough roads.
Oxygen tank ready in our super-tough Chinese minibus, and we are ready to roll.
It’s noon as we cruise past extensive pastoral area west of Shigatse, along the Lhasa-Kathmandu Friendship Highway.
It’s so dry that only barley, their staple food, can be grown here. The monsoon coming from the south is blocked by the huge Himalayas, that it’s virtually semi-desert on the Tibetan Plateau.
Desolate hamlets provide pockets of activities along an otherwise uneventful highway.
The occasional aggregations of fluttering prayer flags mark sacred sites along the way. The flags have prayers written on them, and it’s thought the constant winds would carry the prayers far and wide.
Milestone along the highway is measured by km from downtown Shanghai. I thought it would have been Beijing.
150km west of Shigatse, and 3 hours later, we stop at the town of Lhatse for a late lunch. This is rush hour.
The #2 restaurant is our destination, not sure why it’s called #2 though. Anyway I notice kids hanging around the entrance. Turns out they are collecting food leftovers from patrons who packed them into little plastic bags as gifts. Yes, before you leave your table, ask for the plastic bags from the waiters and empty your plates into them for the kids.
After a rather bland lunch (not helped by the incessant headache, thanks to altitude sickness), we push westwards into yak territory. This is a critter the Tibetans make full use of. Every bit of it is either food or raw material to make something else. Hairy and intimidating, the yak is ill-tempered and said to be unable to live below 3000m. What an evolved organism.
The Friendship Highway enters another pass and starts to ascend along narrow gorges.
In winter this place would have been white with thick snow, the road probably closed.
At last, the highest part of the Gyatsola Pass, a very sacred site obviously, …
… and we officially enter Mt Everest (Qomolangma) Nature Reserve.
It’s a whopping 5,250m (17,200ft) at this point. This spot is just slightly higher than Everest Base Camp itself. In contrast, the peak of Mt Kinabalu is only 4095m.
And here also we finally get a sight of the mighty Himalayas in the far distant, our destination.
Our man Tashi is a cautious driver, and full of stamina too. Today he’s driving more than 10 hrs over two mountain passes with bad roads, and bad drivers.
Yes, this is typical of the highway soon after, a sudden break in tar, with just rocks and stones to tread on. Sometimes guide Lotse has to get out of the minibus to inspect the ‘road’, and maybe to do ‘spot repairs’ too.
Our first checkpoint (out of four before reaching Everest), just outside the village of Tingri. Later, at two army checkpoints, we have to enter a building and present the passports ourselves for identification. The Chinese govt does take security very seriously in this region.
A typical sight: sheep crossing. Sometimes we have yaks too.
An hour after Tingri, we leave the Lhasa-Kathmandu Friendship Highway and enter a gravel and rocky road which heads southwards towards Everest. Thus starts 102km of bone-rattling, thrilling ride to Everest Base Camp, which eventually takes us 4 hrs to traverse.
Another mountain pass, and at the top, a majestic sight of the Himalayas, with mighty Everest (8844m) hidden behind the clouds in the middle. The Sun is setting soon and it’s getting very chilly, but a photo opportunity is a photo opportunity!
It’s a very scenic mountain pass, and from this vantage point, one can spot all the huge mountains (Everest & the other 8000m+) on the horizon.
Certain parts of the pass can be harrowing, with steep drop on either side. And as darkness falls, it’s even more nerve-racking due to limited visibility, but driver Tashi is a very experienced man. At night, he can spot the path even on a valley floor littered with similar-looking rocks and stones in all directions.
Some 10 hrs after leaving the comfort of Shigatse, we arrive at our Everest Base Camp tent at 10.30pm. It is pitch black outside, the sky full of bright stars, as I hungrily slurp on my noodle soup and am soon asleep under a couple of thick blankets, incessant headache no-thanks to altitude sickness notwithstanding. The tent is mercifully warmed to -1C by the stove in the middle, fueled by dried yak poo, as the temperature outside plunges to -12C!
> TO BE CONTINUED