Mt Everest - the world's highest mountain and one of the World's 7 Natural Wonders.
Sunday 20th September - Travel from Shigatse to Samye.
Today's drive was a relatively short three hours on a sealed road. More farmers all out harvesting.
We checked into the Sakya Hotel, the only one in town licenced to host aliens. Yes. China is still so xenophobic that we aren't tourists or visitors, we're aliens and often get second rate treatment because of it. More on that at Everest.
I was surprised to find a China Daily newspaper, China's English language paper, in reception. Shame it was only 3 weeks old.
After being warned that this hotel had no hot water and maybe no power, I was pleasantly surprised to find both.
We all met for lunch in the hotel restaurant. The shared table for the group was filthy and our requests for it to be wiped were answered with a dirty cloth. After getting a raw-on-the-inside tandoori chicken maryland, it was no surprise it went straight through me. I've not actually been sick on this trip, which has been a blessing, because some of the places we've eaten at have done their best to make us sick.
Sakya. If Samye was a two cow town, Sakya at 4280m ASL is a dusty two tractor town consisting of about three streets. When the wind blows, which is often, it whips up a dust storm. I went for a quick walk to explore Sakya and that's all it was, a quick walk. There's not much to see here, save a few fly-covered sheep carcasses hanging under an umbrella for sale on the street corner, tractors with trailers chugging past, and people relieving themselves in the street. I visit some unusual places in my wanderings and this is one of the ones that you feel like you'll be happy not to come back to. Getting stuck here would be a fate worse than death.
We met up at 3pm to visit the monastery. This one's superlative is that it has the largest library in Tibet. It didn't open until 3:30 after lunch, so we walked a full lap of the large wall that surrounds the monastery. There isn't much to see, even from a height. A group of school children played soccer on a dusty pitch but I'm not sure whether their lack of enthusiasm was not wanting to fall over in the dust, or the fact that we're now at nearly 4300m above sea level. Back at the entrance, we waited and waited until someone came and took our entrance tickets. Then we waited and waited. Apparently the monk with the key had gone walkabouts and no one knew where he was. No! They wouldn't give us a refund. Eventually he showed up and we walked through another monastery. They are all beginning to look and smell the same. Some Buddah statues showered with banknotes, yak butter candles, other random deities and hangers-on for their bit of the worship action. I noticed some giant timber columns in the monastery. Made from large trees by any measure, I enquired where they came from because there are no trees of ANY size anywhere near here. Was there once a forest here that's long since been cut down? The answer? The sandalwood trees brought from Nepal and China by tigers and elephants. I never knew tigers were so useful.
Unexpectedly, I did find internet in this town, but when it lost power, and my typing until then, it showed up why plugging 20 computers and peripherals into one circuit is a recipe for overload.
Dinner tonight was at a cosy little upstairs restaurant across from the hotel. Good Taste Farmers restaurant served good vegie noodles. At this altitude I was happy for a plain meal and no beer. A few of us played cards before returning to the hotel.
I went onto the rooftop and took some great photos of the monastery and a sky full of stars. There's not much light pollution in such a small town, though I did have to time my exposures around dust clouds that would obscure my subject like smoke.
Monday - Let's go to Everest.
It seemed like all the dogs in town spent the night barking. They'd egg each other on and it all blended into a chorus of different barks. Maybe carcophany of noise is a better phrase than chorus.
Sitting in the restaurant for breakfast the table still had last nights scraps on the table. We folded back the cloth and were served what was an 'interesting' breakfast. It seems like food in Tibet is either really good, or really bad. The bread is sometimes SO FRESH but today I think it was brough from Lhasa by yak. Looking out the window with a view of the street, I watched a man open up his shop, walk a few metres up the street and urinate against the wall in full view of everyone. Not having toilets in the houses is one thing, but then not using the communal toilets is another. Admittedly I didn't inspect them and maybe the street is a more pleasant option. I guess when your towns are litterally piles of rubbish everywhere, what's a bit of urine smell and turds lying around. Tibet hasn't lived up to the romantic notions I had.
Today was a 7.5 hour drive in the Landcruisers. I had my book - Michael Palin Himalaya - but didn't read it. The scenery was ever-changing and around every bend in the road was a mountain of a different colour or shape or both. We went over two mountain passes over 5200m and at each was a thin layer of snow and the obligatory prayer flags that adorn every high point in Tibet. Tibetan Buddists believe that as the wind blows, the prayers written on them are sent to heaven so the closer the better.
Multiple checkpoints and passport control points later, we arrived at the Everest tent city at around 4pm and what a sight! Up the valley, in full view with not a cloud on her was Mt Everest, or Qomolangma as the Tibetans call her. One of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World what they all have in common is their breathtaking effect when you first lay eyes on them. (Everest is the 5th of the 7 that I've seen. Only 2 to go.) Just to stand there and gaze at such beauty leaves you speechless. There's nothing to say. It's incredible that such beauty can hold such danger and risk of death to those that choose to attempt to climb Mt Everest. There have been two times on this trip I've had tears in my eyes. This was one of them. It's a special place to be. (The other time was at the blind school in Lhasa to see what they are achieving and their spirit amongst adversity. See my Lhasa blog for that one.)
Recent snowfall had covered the mountain to a much lower level than the last time our guide was here and of the 4 times she's been here, she said this is the clearest. YAY!
We had planned to hike to the 'basecamp' tomorrow morning, but took the chance this afternoon with it so clear. 4 of the group and the guide were not so 'intrepid' and took the bus, whilst 7 of us walked. The road switchbacked, so we began taking obvious shortcut paths, meeting up with the road each time, until all of a sudden we were on a windswept flag strewn viewpoint with a magic view of Everest. We'd not seen the road for awhile but we could now see it, and the Chinese military checkpoint and official viewpoint far below us. It was at 5200m ASL and we were 200m higher so I now have a new PB for highest point reached of 5400m ASL, surpassing my mountain pass in Pakistan by 250m. Photos of a clear mountain followed. The wind came straight off Everest and her glaciers and even here it was freezing. Waving to our buddies and the guide far below, we didn't see the soldier until he was nearby. Soldier? I've warned you that China is xenophobic and this is just one example. Aliens like us, are only allowed to go to the 'official viewpoint' and to do that even, you must pass multiple passport checks and do it under the close watch of armed soldiers and only for one hour. Chinese are allowed to wander but we're not. Can you imagine visiting the Grand Canyon but being stopped short of the edge and best view by an armed soldier who tells you that only Americans can get closer view. That's China for you and whilst the locals don't know any better, or aren't able to voice their frustrations, we're all getting bit sick of being controlled.
The soldier was waving for the 7 of us to follow him down a steep slope of loose rocks. On seeing this, the last thing Amanda heard me say was "Bullshit!" and I absconded in the opposite direction, intending to return the way I'd come up. Ian did too, though I didn't see him on the walk back and spent the whole hike expecting to be intercepted by soldiers sent to catch me. Alone, I spotted wildlife including a grouse-like bird, some deer-like animals and some yaks, of course. Meanwhile, Amanda and the others and our guide, whom they held responsible for our illegal behaviour, were detained in the military post while Mr Jobsworth decided to wait and see what his boss wanted to do with them. An hour later, they were free to go back by bus. They weren't to be trusted walking. I made it back to camp and all was forgiven. Our guide hadn't been told us NOT to leave the road when hiking, something I'm sure she won't forget next time.
Tonight we're sleeping at 5000m ASL in big tents with a yak dung fire in the middle. Our half sleeps six in comfort and the kitchen and sleeping quarters belonging to the host family make up the other half.
I had vegetable noodle soup containing just one vegetable, lots of noodles and a flavourless stock. It was warming though, as was the jasmine tea we drank.
Still clear after dinner, I rugged up and went outside armed with a tripod and camera. Stars galore.
With the yak poo fire still burning, I went to sleep in a warm, but smokey tent. I awoke a few hours later with it clear and cold. Glad to have thermals to put on, I returned to bed and slept well with only a mild headache.
Tuesday - Waking up at 5000m.
It was as cold as expected and frost covered most things outside. I was up before dawn and got some magic photos of the first rays of golden sunlight striking the summit of the still-clear Everest before lower parts progressively lit up. no sooner had it happened than the fog came up the valley and over us on its way toward Everest. A reward for the early bird.
Chinese rip-off. The tent owner has a Chinese made Japanese rip-off motorbike called not a Yamaha, but a YNMWHA.
My omelette in flatbread rolled as a wrap and taken with tea was a perfect breakfast.
Our hosts were very hospitable and it wasn't camping as I know it.
We left in the Landcruisers at 10am and didn't go far down the track before turning left over a small bridge and headed off in a different direction. This was a beautiful 4WD track through rolling hills and wide plains. Today's drive was the kind of drive I'd love to do in my Landie. Not too technical, unlike Pakistan's crazy mountain tracks, but somewhere just magic to be.
China tells the world they've created a massive nature reserve around Everest, but we saw hunters, nomads, domestic animals, cultivated crops and clusters of houses, so one can assume again that there's a difference between their propaganda and the reality. Most countries do none of the above in their National Parks.
It's harvest up here on the Tibetan plateau and everyone helps. In the field, men load the bundled straw onto carts behind a horse whilst women thresh and winnow grain by hand. Others make up yak dung and straw patties and whack them to the house walls until needed for fuel during the long cold winter. There is no wood up here.
We stopped in Tingri for lunch. This is a one street town and after short walk post lunch, we'd seen it all. The one redeeming feature is the panoramic view of a string of Himalayan high peaks.
We had a long drive this afternoon and with dusty dry plains all around, it really feels like a plateau now. We passed many temple ruins with nothing much left save a few mud walls. According to the Tibetans, China sacked and destroyed over 6000 monasteries in Tibet in their efforts to destroy Tibetan culture. These efforts continue today, just much less overtly. If they want to get up to anything, they just close off areas of Tibet whilst they do. This is the case now, with our itinerary altered before even beginning because of 'closed areas'.
Today was my favourite driving day and we crossed not one, but two mountain passes over 5000m, one of which had a panoramic view that stretched across the horizon and included 4 of the world's 14 8000m peaks. Awesome!
Driving on, we suddenly entered a lush green canyon and proceded to follow the precipitous road along along the sides of it. Dodgy engineering, rockfalls, waterfalls and intermittent safety barriers made for and interesting white knuckle ride of switchbacks and blind corners. This is the crazy road through Zangmu Gorge to, you guessed it, Zangmu, the Tibetan town on the Nepalese border.
If we thought the road was crazy, the town had even more surprises. Details in my next blog.