Journey to Mount Everest
The journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu feels much more like a physical challenge than a relaxing holiday. The Tibetan plateau is perched 3000 metres above sea level and home to some of the highest mountains in the world. It is deserving of the name ‘The Rooftop of the World’. However, the price you pay to experience this land of giant peaks, bright blue skies and mystical culture is altitude sickness, freezing temperatures and rudimentary toilet facilities.
One of the most taxing days of the trip was our attempt to reach Mount Everest. A pretty tough ordeal in itself – I wondered how anyone went about climbing it once they got there! However, it gives a taste of the pains and pleasures you can expect on a journey in Tibet.
After a night in Shigatse, We rejoined the Friendship Highway at about 9am. We trundled along deserted landscape of rocks and rubble. Every now and then we spied a Tibetan house – bright white and earthy red blocky buildings covered in prayer flags. Our first stop was the highest toilet in the world (5248m above sea level). 'Toilet' is a bit of an exaggeration as there was no plumbing, just holes in the ground.
We pulled up at an isolated Tibetan village for lunch and at about 2.30pm we set off for Mount Everest – or Chomolungma as the Tibetans call it. The vaguely paved road usually used was impassable due to ice but our trusty driver reassured us it was easy enough to do off road. At times it wasn’t even possible to see a track and we were just bumping along the rocky plateau floor in our rickety minibus.
There was nothing moving or making any sound, just rocks, snow and a piercing chill. The only sign of life was some pilgrims walking all the way to Lhasa along a distant ridge, and some villagers collecting Yak dung for fuel. Luckily, after fiddling with the engine, the driver got us on our way again.
Eventually we rejoined the official Everest track and soon came to Rongbuk monastery – about 8 miles from Everest Base Camp. In more mild times of year you can stay at the monastery, with rooms boasting a beautiful view of Everest. The road ahead was completely covered in ice and therefore impassable. We all stepped out of the minibus to revel in the closest we would probably ever be to the largest mountain on earth. Plagued with altitude sickness (a feeling halfway between being drunk and hungover) and the obscene cold, this was no small task. It was, however, serenely beautiful. As the sun went down Everest was still brightly lit whilst the mountains around it, and us, were in shadow.
We were to pay the price for such beauty on the way home. The sky turned pitch black within an hour and the minibus’s headlights struggled to light up a metre or so of rocks and rubble in front of us. With headaches and sickness, sore bottoms and the temperature dropping to -30 degrees we were thoroughly looking forward to our beds at the ‘Snowland Hotel’ – expecting relative luxury as it was the first hotel actually featured in the guide book. We were wrong.
The bedding options were to join the locals on the floor of a Yak-dung stove heated front room or draughty ‘bedrooms’ off the courtyard. Since the mattresses were frozen solid in the bedrooms – we chose the floor and got ourselves comfortable with three to four blankets on top of the thermals, jumpers, coats and balaclavas we had been wearing all day.
At around 11pm, the generator was switched off, leaving just the stove and a candle for light. Within half an hour we were rudely awoken by a succession of women talking loudly on the room’s phone – the only one in the village. As they eventually left, a scrawny Tibetan cat entered and kept climbing on us as we tried to sleep. Everything got a bit crazy as we scrabbled about in the dark to find out where it was or who it would attack next.
Eventually, I grabbed it and put it out of the front door. My guilt as to whether it would survive the subzero temperatures outside did not keep me awake for long.