The Himalayas Beckoned…

We’d had nothing but cloudless “Carolina-blue” skies in Lhasa so it was a bit of a shock to awaken to poor visibility, but the raindrops and fog did nothing to dampen our spirits as we set out in a 32 seat coach – which could have been quicker and arguably more comfortable in a convoy of 4×4 vehicles, but we wanted to be altogether. Our destination was Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet and which is situated at 14,000 ft. We knew it would be a long drive, through several passes, and we were well prepared for the journey with a large cooler full of bottled water and soft drinks. Everyone had brought snacks (which I strongly recommend) like granola bars, M&M’s, trail mix etc. and there was an ominously large tank of O2 lying across the entire back row of seats for “just in case.”

The first photo-op was the Yamdrok Yumtso Pass – down jackets were donned and we got out amidst gale force winds to see the glacial lake below us which gleamed a milky blue as the sun came and went behind the clouds. A highlight though, was a stop at the Gampala Pass (16,000 ft) where we first encountered the Tibetan Mastiff. It is a rare breed of dog – possibly the largest canine variety I have seen, but at first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking it is part lion with its thick and luxuriant mane of fur.  Although it is a bit of a tourist attraction, with the dogs on leashes on platforms, they were magnificent specimens, and surprisingly friendly given their menacing appearance and each of us could hardly wait to sidle up to one of them – partly for warmth – but beware, sloppy, wet kisses are the norm. There were also baby goats available for a cuddle which were much less scary than the dogs. For these experiences, you need a supply of small denomination money – like one dollar bills –or the Yuan equivalent. This is also handy for buying toilet paper at comfort stops or tipping bathroom attendants, souvenirs, etc.

We continued onward and found a lovely picnic site in a field where we feasted on gorgeous fresh tomatoes, homemade bread, some tinned tuna and a delightful bleu cheese which Tshiring had brought from Kathmandu. We stopped at Gyantse—this is where the Younghusband expedition was defeated in 1904. We visited the 15th century Phalkor Monastery and basically had it all to ourselves – a stark contrast to Lhasa! At last, we arrive in Shigatse, exhausted but having had a rich and full day. The blue sky and sunshine had reappeared and our hotel was better than expected in terms of creature comforts although English barely comprehended. We were hosted tonight for dinner by a local businessman who apparently has the largest PVC pipe factory in China – I’m still trying to work out what his connection was to our little tribe of travelers. I felt like it was something that could have transpired at the UN, with every toast translated in a delegation type of setting. Course after course (many of the fish and crustaceans – never mind we were thousands of miles from the sea) was set on for sure, the largest, Lazy Susan I’ve ever seen which actually had electronic controls so you could make it go backward & forward).

The room was fine and the water was hot. The breakfast, however, the next morning was possibly the most uninspiring ever, comparable to Murmansk, Russia in the early 90’s. Coffee was simply not on offer – it’s a tea-based society after all and with the help of a translation app on my phone, I taught the chef on the buffet line how to scramble an egg! We were up early in order to do a kora (walk around) the Tashillunpo Monastery before we got back on the road – but it was so worth it and turned out to be one of the most unexpected and authentic pleasures of the trip. I swear, there was not another tourist within 100 miles – we joined the swell of locals making the journey around the monastery. The crisp air mixed with the smoke from juniper boughs placed on little fires as spiritual offerings at altars along the way. Rows of cylindrical prayer wheels spun freely and of course, I was huffing and puffing to keep pace with local elders who obviously did this every day. Some of our best photos of the trip came from this early morning outing!

Back at the hotel, with a quick turnaround, Abby and I were fairly desperate for a caffeine fix and went to the top floor of the hotel to a so-called “western” restaurant that might have coffee. We were seated in a booth, ordered four coffees to go and waited for what seemed like an eternity in the otherwise empty restaurant. Eventually, the coffee arrived, as did the bill – cost was astronomical at 410 Yuan which is $65 for four (small) coffees… I tried to argue to no avail – of course, no one understood a word I was saying. I’m still trying to work out the lesson learned here – especially as I am not a fan of powdered instant coffee.

Caffeine needs met, we set off for the outpost village of Xegar which was one step closer to Mt. Everest. We stopped at the Gyatsola Pass (17,093 feet) where prayer flags fluttered as far as the eye could see and there were yaks in ceremonial costume for photos.

Our Xegar hotel, situated at 14,206 feet, was more humble, but I’d trade these simple comforts against the electric shock of the bed lights in Lhasa any day. It too had an Oxygen room, which more resembled a clinic than a lounge and was obviously more for emergency than recreation. The O2 cans (that look like hairspray) which had been $35 in the St. Regis minibar were $5 here (which is amazing given the logistics of getting them there) and I bought four of them as a preventative measure. Abby’s friend was feeling poorly with a bad cold compounded by the elevation and she retired for the evening. We dined, lazy susan-style, on chicken wings and fried rice and fell into horse-hair mattresses.

The pre-dawn wake-up call came earlier than I would have liked, and sadly no hot water (we’d been pre-warned), but we were quick responders and ready to jump into our warmest gear. Again, no coffee in these distant outposts, but it was imperative that we set off by 6:00 a.m., so that we were sure to see the sun rise over the Himalayan peaks as we crossed the Pangla Pass. Breakfast was grim and this is when the granola bars were key! Temperatures were frosty – certainly below freezing when we set off but the full moon and twinkling night skies belied a clear day ahead– this was the final step to Everest Base Camp (EBC). We had to pass through a security checkpoint – out of the bus in a single file line with passports in hand, still in the cover of darkness – the closest thing I’ve ever come to “check-point-Charlie!” We gained elevation through the switchbacks, still on amazingly good paved roads, and at last arrived at the top of the Pangla Pass, just as the first peachy hues of morning sunshine were marking the horizon. We all disembarked from the bus, cameras in tow and we paused just to take in the majesty of it all. Before us was the entire Himalayan range with the sun coming up on the left and the full moon setting on the right – a genuine feast for the eyes, and all that I came for! Everest beckoned and we followed her queue.

We clicked away and waited for the light to change which it eventually did and could have happily spent all day from this lofty vantage point but we had to press on. We descended down a series of switchbacks, which viewed from above, resembled a child’s “hot wheels” dream track system. We passed through rural Tibetan villages – some amazingly authentic and some brand new, built for people being relocated from other parts of China – imagine their disorientation?

Arriving at EBC, some four plus hours later was the crescendo of our trip – ticking the bucket list for all of us. There was a large stone marking the place, Mt. Qomolangma, at 5,200 meters in Chinese (the mountain we call Mt. Everest which straddles Nepal and Tibet). It was a gorgeous day and snow-covered Everest filled our senses! We passed through the various vendors’ stalls selling trinkets, glistening in the sun, which were encased in a light frost —as if a baker had come by and sprinkled everything with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. That led onto the rocky plain where the mountain majestically revealed herself, together with her consorts, Lhotse, Malaku and countless others.

Everyone got their photo ops and we gathered for tea in one of the many numbered tented compounds. Sadly, there were no expedition teams en route while we were there – it was not the season to climb – I’d pictured myself interviewing them, like Christiane Amanpour for CNN, but alas, that was not to be. It was hard to imagine that the snowy peak of Mt Everest which we could so clearly see was yet another 12,000 ft higher than where we stood! Hindsight being 20/20, I wish we’d had more time just to “be” at EBC, but it all felt like a bit of a rush and was soon time to go. The plan had changed and instead of just getting back to Xegar, we’d decided to push onto Shigatse in favor of a more comfortable hotel and lower elevation (it’s all relative!) That meant a lot of time on the road on the heels of what had already felt like a long day, given our early start! It was a good idea, and we’d all bought in, but no one could have imagined that the Chinese would close the pass in the middle of the afternoon for road construction. Besides the obvious inconvenience of a three-hour delay, some members of our party were beginning to experience symptoms of AMS and being stuck at a standstill at 16,000- plus feet was a precarious predicament.

A variety of negotiation strategies were tried (charm, wit, compassion and bribes) but to no avail. Finally, someone in the long caravan of vehicles worked out a way to “off-road it” around the construction and so we abandoned our bus and commandeered 4×4’s to take us to Shigatse. We arrived just before midnight, road weary and ready for bed and were reunited with our luggage in the morning. We unanimously opted for a high-speed train to return to Lhasa, thus sparing the last leg of the drive, although having dismissed the bus (and driver for much needed sleep) we almost missed the train as taxis are few and far between! For the second time on the trip, we hijacked any possible means of transport, arriving at the station in the back of a tractor wagon! Talk about “riding like a local…”

Lhasa looked pretty civilized compared to the “back-country” and the St. Regis was instantly forgiven any of its service deficiencies. A festive farewell dinner ensued – and it was hard to believe that our week-long adventure drew to a close. Tomorrow, we would retrace our steps, back to Kathmandu, spend the day at our beloved Dwarika’s and commence the long journey home.

Primer For Travel to Tibet:

  • English is not widely spoken nor comprehended – compared to other parts of China, it is noticeably absent.
  • American Express is not widely accepted (especially outside of Lhasa). Bring your Visa or Mastercard!
  • Have small denominations of Chinese currency, called Yuan, for camera fees at monuments, photo ops of local people, use of public toilets and overweight charges at airports.
  • Coffee is often difficult to obtain – something our Starbucks-addicted culture takes for granted!
  • Prevalent use of “squattie-potties” in women’s restrooms – have encountered this in many other countries but not in China – so come prepared with tissues and hand sanitizer.
  • Layered clothing is essential. In spite of the abundant sunshine, temperatures drop at night and it can be chilly in the shade.
  • Do not expect your guide to opine about politics, the Chinese influence, the Dalai Lama or any other even remotely controversial topic as they are clearly prohibited from doing so.
  • Do take the extra days to get beyond Lhasa and pay homage to the mountains; it’s not an easy trip – but, oh, so worth it!
  • Be sure to pack your sense of humor. Not everything runs like clockwork!NextGEN gallery is not installed/inactive!

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