Tibet Part 3: Everest Base Camp

I’m sitting here back at home, paging through my notebook that I avidly scribbled in throughout the Tibet trip in order to give as much of an accurate recount as possible. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since we headed out for our 10 days in Tibet. A lot has happened since then but I’m glad to finally be sharing this last leg of the journey. If you’d like to see the preceding sections of the story, go ahead and read through Part 1 and Part 2 of this trilogy. Otherwise, enjoy the final instalment below, followed by the short travel documentary we made of our time there.

Thanks must be given to Tibet Vista, the tour group that was responsible for organizing our trip during our time there, our wonderful co-travelers as well as our excellent guide Dhargyel.

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It was 7.45am and our tour group was gathered in the bustling lobby of our hotel with all our luggage, ready to board our van and get on the road to the mountain. We would be leaving our suitcases behind in storage and departing for our 4 day trek with a small backpack each. The logistics of checking out, handing over our suitcases and readying ourselves in our seats in the van took some time but by 8.30am we were ready and rearing to go. We had an 8-10 hour drive ahead of us, traversing Tibet on the Friendship Highway that runs from Shanghai, China to Kathmandu, Nepal. Everyone settled into the car and stared out the window as we drove out of Lhasa. The Potala palace and Drepung monastery were visible in the distance as we departed before disappearing into the darkness of the first tunnel that took us through a mountain and out into the countryside. It had hardly been an hour when the tour bus pulled to the side of the road and our guide encouraged us to get out and walk to the waterside of the river we were driving alongside. Dhargyel informed us that this is the holy Brahmaputra River that runs from Tibet into India. It was beautifully lit in the early morning light, with mountains, trees and mountain-top monasteries encircling it in all directions. There were various rock piles left along the rest stop, undoubtable markers of the presence of various travellers who had stopped there over the years. We barely had 10 minutes there – enough time for some landscape photos for some and selfies for others – and then we were called back into the van to continue on our journey.

With headphones in ears and podcasts playing, the time passed pleasantly. There was always something to enjoy looking at out of the window as the landscape was ever changing, constantly offering new views and environments. We went from lowland fields and began to move through passes that were climbing up the sides of the mountains that we were beginning to move into. Going ever higher, the mountains were cold and barren but spotted with grasses, small plants and yaks. The winding roads were sometimes enclosed and we could only see vertical mountain faces up either side of the car, but at times we would turn a corner and would be given a view of the descent into the valleys below that we had now left behind. There were massive billowing clouds floating through the blue skies and it was as if we were nearing them with each moment that passed. After about 45 minutes of ascent, we went around a bend and pulled off into a viewing point with various other tour vans parked and many people milling around. This was the Kambala pass, a 4800 meter high mountain pass that we had just reached the summit of. The viewing point had a number of tourist attractions such as market stalls, goats and Tibetan mastiffs you could pay to be photographed with. If you made your way through all the busyness and bustling though you reached a viewing point which offered an extraordinary insight into how high up we had made it over the last two hours. The sight was spectacular, the air fresh, the people happy and this was only our first nature stop and attraction for the day.

We intersected every hour or two with a disembarkment from the van to see some of the wonders that the Tibetan landscape had to offer. Following the Kambala pass we stopped at the Karola Glacier, a towering 5,5km mountain of ice with two beautiful cottages at the base. Yaks dotted the land between the ice and rivers that were reaching like fingers down from the mountain itself. We walked out along the wooden promenade, spotting birds and marvelling at the brisk beauty that this location had to offer.  Following this we stopped at the Yamdrok Lake, a turquoise blue salt water body that was shaped like a scorpion. Its banks stretched for miles and miles, with the lake totalling 72km in length and 638 km² of mesmerizing surface area. The viewing point of the lake was high up on the mountain and was once again scattered with travellers’ rock piles, prayer flags and local mastiffs – although these were wild and stray, rather than on display for photographs at this stop. As we were getting higher in altitude, the temperature was certainly dropping and each hop off the bus had us donning a few extra layers. Each place had those similar features of a visitor’s presence but each was its unique kind of spectacular moment. In the distance across the lake we could see small farms with fields and between 2 and 8 houses around the shades of green and yellow that marked their food and harvests for the year.  As we continued driving I would spot prayer flags high up on peaks and mountains that passed the van and it had me curiously wondering who had climbed these slopes and placed them as an offering. Certain sections of rock would also have ladders painted onto them in white, with writing in Tibetan. When I inquired, Dhargyel explained that these were all offerings made by locals who would climb or paint the mountains in pilgrimage and that the white ladders were symbols of climbing to nirvana. This, in combination with the crumbling ruins high up on peaks that I could not fathom a way of reaching, had me daydreaming about the motivations and methods of worship and buddhist practice in daily life in Tibet.

After another hour or two in the car we stopped at the highest point of a mountain pass and walked to a lookout spot to marvel at the Mandrak Dam sprawling out below. It’s water was a colour I had never seen in nature before and after asking a few questions, I found out that it was a salt-water body of water at one of the highest altitudes of it’s kind in the world. This triggered a new series of daydreams as we boarded our small tour bus once again, thinking of what types of creatures evolved in that water and what kind of life evolved up here at these altitudes and weather extremes at all. Whilst driving I spotted a huge building at the top of a hill (more of a small mountain?) with a tiny road winding up around it and inquired with Dhargyel about what it may be. He replied that it was a sky burial site and after chatting I had learned that sky burials are the most common type of burials in which family members carry the bodies up the mountain before a monk blesses it and then disperses the body to be consumed by wild vultures. Religious men are cremated, and the very poor who cannot afford a sky burial bless their dead and send them down the river. This, it turns out, is why Tibetans do not eat fish, out of respect for the dead. So, it seems, the interesting ideas connected to waterways in Tibet will continue, following centuries of cultures whose lives, beliefs and rituals were tied to water and its patterns. A few musings and a podcast later, we arrived in Shigatse and had checked into yet another hotel. The search for food at that time of night turned out to be long and near fruitless, as the food we ended up finding was not the tastiest thing we’d ever experienced (little did we know that we would meet other tourists on the road who made a restaurant recommendation we’d try out in Shigatse on our way back to Lhasa that would be some of the best food we’d ever tasted!). I settled into my hotel bed that night with images flashing before my eyes and wishing that I had 15 days at each place rather than 15 minutes, but infinitely overjoyed for what I had been able to experience and itching to continue the journey to Mount Everest the following day.

The next day started with another early morning set-off, early mornings being a more regular feature of this tour than it was of my everyday working life in China! We had been driving along the Friendship highway again, stopping occasionally for bathroom breaks and viewpoints, but not as often as on the previous days because today we all had a goal in mind: get to Mount Everest Base camp as early as we possibly could. We were running ahead of time until (obviously there is an ‘until’) we hit a section of the highway that was closed for construction. And not just any section, but a 200km section that sent us off on a 3 hour dirt-road detour through the desert. Now, I don’t know when last you drove through a soft sand desert in a heavy minibus designed for highways, but it was bumpy. The scenery was beautiful, but our joints were shaken to pieces for what seemed like an eternity. The driving noise was so loud that listening to something through headphones was impossible, and everyone in the bus had just settled down into a tense silence, willing themselves to just breathe and get through it. Now, it was not nearly as serious as I’m making it sound, but it was a gruelling three hour detour that could have certainly been done without! Eventually, tar appeared ahead and we jolted our way back onto the road and we all breathed a sigh of relief, immediately beginning to pester Dhargyel about when we were going to stop for a lunch break. After a lunch accompanied by some delicious tea, we set off on the road that soon morphed from the long flat highway into tight, winding inclines that took us to rapidly higher altitudes by the minute. Eventually we reached our first 5km altitude reading, at a lookout point that majestically showed off the Himalayan mountain range, giving us our first peek of Everest! Cloud was covering the tip of the mountain whilst we were there, but there was a huge burst of energy and smiles from all members of the tour group not succumbing to the early signs of altitude sickness.

Soon thereafter we went through yet another border control point. As we had driven across Tibet for the last few days we had gone through these checks many times, having Chinese military check our 3 visas and 4 permits to enter China, then Tibet, then be certified as part of a tour group and permits to enter the various parts of Tibet including the national park we were currently in. This checkpoint was much busier though, with various people queuing on foot (rather than the usual process of being counted in the van whilst Dhargyel ran off with our piles of paperwork to the office), in order to be allowed into the Everest Base Camp itself. We got stamped and drove through, winding down a small road past a temple and then parked at the Everest Base Camp. We dropped our things and got settled into our tent. Dull looking on the outside, but fascinating and cozy on the inside. Our tent held 8 beds, all positioned around a central furnace. Colourful fabric spreads were laid out and everyone had one or two blankets on their bed. The hot furnace in the middle was topped up with fuel in the form of goat dung every half hour or so by a local who stayed in a tent adjacent to the back of ours. He and his co-worker were the ones who cooked us our warm, soupy noodle dinner that night. This was a perfect meal for the night, having spent the past 2 or so hours ambling around the base of Everest, with the sun setting around us. On that walk, goats were herded past us and a crumbling temple just left of our path turned out the be the space in which Rinpoche meditated, an extremely sacred space in Tibet and, as it turns out, the highest elevation for a spiritual shrine in the world. The enjoyable walk, delicious dinner and the dropping temperatures we were facing up in the crisp air of a 5km valley sent many of our co-travellers to bed around 9pm. Des and I had decided though that we only had about 17 hours up here and that we were going to make the most of it by going out to try our hand at long exposure photography.

We set out from our warm and homely tent, after realizing we had forgotten our gloves in Hangzhou, and had therefore clad our hands in a pair of hiking socks each. We walked beyond the perimeter of the camp and into the jutted and rocky landscape, our eyes soon adjusting to the night light being shone by the bright moon. For anyone who hasn’t done night photography, a bright moon sure is beautiful but is not the best condition to try get photos of stars or the Milky Way. We therefore turned our eyes to the landscape instead and decided to make a time lapse that consisted of photos with 20 second exposure times. We were out there until about 2.30am that morning, when the moon started to set and some more photographers began to amble out and brave the cold, torches shining in the distance as people walked along the pathway to the base of the mountain that lay ahead. Soon after that we decided to go to bed and slunk back into our room, trying really hard to find warmth as the fire that warmed the tent had died whilst we were outside, with nobody else awake to tend to it. We therefore climbed under our two blankets each, still fully clothed with beanies on our heads and socks on our hands and tried to bunker down and generate enough warmth to comfortably fall asleep so that we could get a few hours rest before heading off again early the next morning. After a breakfast, before which we slipped off to film some of the sunrise over the peak, we did just that – climbing back onto our bus and heading off on the road back to Lhasa. Our final three days in Tibet then comprised of two days of driving back, with a stop off at the Tashi Lhunpo Temple in the middle, and a day in the Lhasa markets before heading back to Hangzhou.

During this time I thought a lot about the prevalence of the Chinese military in Tibet, who were seen everywhere, along with the Chinese flag that was flown on the top of many buildings that lined the Friendship Highway. When I had asked Dhargyel about them, he had told me that the Chinese government had been trying to find ways to economise Tibet more and had been moving people off their farms and into roadside housing where they could work in the factories that China was building there. They were often offered once-off financial incentives to make the move from the mountain into these houses and it was suggested that even if these incentives were denied, people would be strongly encouraged (by armed personal) to move off their farming lands. Armed military units also marched around the markets in Lhasa, in an anti-clockwise direction, which contradicts the movement of all other people who adhere to the tradition of walking around the market and temples in a clockwise direction. Whilst I only got a brief and limited glimpse into this and therefore only have a limited understanding of the true reality of it, I left Tibet with a sense of being glad to still have seen it when I did. This digression aside, this trip was an incredible one. I don’t think I ever imagined that I would go see Everest in my lifetime, let alone before the age of 25 and there were so many other unexpected gems that we experienced on the road there. Even the time spent driving wasn’t wasted time, but rather time to simply sit and take in the incredible landscapes outside the window. This trip didn’t put a stamp in our passport but it certainly added another perspective to our worldview, pictures to our album and new experiences to our memories. So… Thanks Tibet, you’re pretty great!

A Vista: 10 Days in Tibet