Friday, August 01, 2008

Tibet Trip, Part 3: Everest and Nepal

As I catch up on this blog, let me finish the trip report for last years trip through Tibet arranged through GAP Adventures. The remainder of the trip included a visit to the Everest base camp on the Chinese side, and drive through Nepal to Kathmandu.

- Tibet trip report, part 1 – Beijing to Lhasa
- Tibet trip report, part 2 – Gyantze, Shigatse, Sakya
- Photo Highlights

Day 12 - Sakya (4900M / 16,000ft) to Rombuk and Everest Base Camp (5000M-5200M / 16,400 - 17,060ft).
Drive over a high mountain pass (5150M) to lunch in town of Tingri, then drive to Rombuk bunk house. Option of afternoon hike or donkey cart ride to the Everest basecamp (Chinese side).

This day we left on the drive to see Everest. The drive took us through a mountain pass where our altimeters read over 17,000ft. I think this was Pang La pass. After descending a little, we stopped in a dusty town of Tingri for lunch. Out behind the restaurant were the typical local squat toilets. The toilet facilities in Tibet had become quite the conversation everywhere we went within our tour group, particularly with the women. Whenever we stopped, the first person to return from the facility had to describe to others what was in store for them, and then there was discussion comparing each facility to the previous toilets. This one was just a stall with a hole cut in the floor. The next level down where the deposit fell 6 or 8 feet to a room with one wall exposed leaving the space to air out, making this one one of the more pleasant of the facilities we encountered. A few months later I was watching a travel documentary that happened to discuss the differences in toilets in different cultures. They mentioned Tibet having one of the most primitive in the world, and I could swear the toilet they showed on TV was this one.

After lunch, we left the paved road for a few hours drive on the backroads that took us above the treeline to get to Rombuk. This included a lot of barren tundra. We passed a couple of nomadic looking settlements. We passed a couple of kids waving by the side of the road at one point, and they caught up to us 5 minutes later when we stopped for a break. We had one water crossing, without a bridge, but the land rovers were able to handle it. Upon reaching Rombuk, we checked into the dorm style guest house. It had not hit me yet that we were above 18,000ft.

We drove a few kilometers to the entrance to the base camp. There was a section of road here lined with tents. Some tents had signs indicating they were hotels or Restaurants. Even though climbing season was over, these camps must have served the trickle of tourists or other expeditions to the area. It was only a few kilometers hike from this entrance camp to the site of the actual base camp. Most of us chose to hike rather than hire a donkey cart to take us there. I was feeling pretty good, considering we were almost up to 17,000ft. Since I had not run enough on this trip, and I had the Tahoe Rim trail run coming up in a few weeks, I was very tempted to try and run, but I stayed close to the group instead. It was not particularly steep. Along the way we passed some yak’s and I took some picture of some of our group as we passed. Later while reviewing the pictures, one explained to me she remembered me taking the picture, but was surprised to realize from the picture that the yaks were nearby since they hadn’t noticed them during the hike. It might have been the altitude influence.

We reached the base camp site which had a plaque indicating the altitude was 5200M (17060ft). There was no-one actually camped here since it was the wrong time of year for expeditions, and signs posted explained there was a $30,000 fine for proceeding past the basecamp without a permit. There was a hill next to the basecamp area that we all climbed to get a better view. Before us was a large, dry, flat, empty riverbed and Everest (local name is Mt Qomulangma) just beyond to the south with its top hidden by clouds. It was half expected that we might not be able to see the mountain, and we had planned to come back the next morning when there was a better chance of clear skies. One member of our group, Pras, had brought a bunch of Tibetan prayer flag note cards which thrown as such locations. While I was taking pictures of another couple on the tour with their camera, our tour operator borrowed my camera and took this series of excellent shots. One of these ended up in the GAP Tour brochure. (if animated graphics are enabled on your computer, the image below should cycle through the series)

Photo by tour operator, Sam H, with my camera.

Pras also brought a kite that she had bought on the trip and we helped fly it from this point. Thanks, Pras, for these items which helped make this point more memorable. The clouds never cleared so we headed back. Coming up, the footpath had cut some switchbacks in the main road, so we tried to take the same shortcut going down. But we missed meeting up with the road and ended up hiking down the valley on a different route. Our destination was always visible so there was no worry of getting lost. The trail runner in me wanted to break into a downhill run through some of this terrain, but I refrained. I was seriously planning on jogging the route in the morning when we returned.

As soon as we got back to the guest house, we went into the common area where we could by some basic dinners of ramen noodles from the caretakers of the place. Here the altitude sickness suddenly hit me hard with a headache while waiting for dinner. I could barely stay conscious. It would have been worse if I had tried to run like I was so tempted to do a short time before. When the clouds that hid Everest cleared I crawled out long enough to take a couple of pictures, and then crawled into bed immediately after dinner. I had no problems sleeping that night.

Day 13 Everest base camp to Nylam (3750M / 12,300ft)
Morning visit to Everest Base camp again, and then drive back to Tingri for lunch, followed by a crossing of another two high passes, the Lalung La (5124m) and the Shung La (5200m) before leaving the Tibetan Plateau and arriving at the border town of Nylam.

We got up early and hiked up to the entrance to the trail to base camp. I was feeling much better than the night before, but skipped the plans to run and hired the donkey cart to take me the rest of the way to base camp with the rest of the group. Here we were rewarded with unobstructed views of Everest. It was further away than it looked and distances are deceptive. It was hard to believe its top at 8848M was 12,000ft in altitude above where we stood. Even though we had taken a ton of pictures the day before, now that we could see the mountain without cloud cover, we took a bunch more.

We returned to the guest house. I climbed up the hill a bit to get some pictures of the mountain with the monastery in the foreground. Then we got in the cars and took off. There was some slow moving vehicles blocking the road, and so the drivers tried to go around by taking a parallel road. We were pulled over by some guys in military uniforms who had an excited conversation with our Tibetan guide and driver, which I did not understand. Then one of the military guys got in the car and we gave him a ride for 5 minutes and dropped him off at the site of some road construction. Our guide wouldn’t tell us anymore what that was about except that the officer wanted a ride.

We drove out the same way we had come in back to the same dusty town. But seeing the scenery in the opposite direction I could hardly tell it was the same place. We had lunch in the same restaurant as the day before. This time instead of the Lhasa Beer I usually ordered, I got the premium Blue Ribbon beer. It was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. But the waiters never refer to it as “Pabst”, only as “Blue Ribbon” beer.

After lunch we drove on the highway towards the Nepal border. We passed through a high-mountain pass, and then began to descend towards the edge of the Tibetan plateau. At one point, we had to stop for a few hours while we waited for the road to open. It was under construction during the day, and only open to traffic in the evenings after 7pm. Once the road opened, we drove several miles on a narrow road through construction. As we left the Tibetan Plateau, we descended into a narrow, valley with steep walls and lots of switchbacks on the road. Our guide told us the opposite wall of this valley was in Nepal. We had to stop a couple of times when cars ahead got stuck. There were some waterfalls falling right on the road, and so our drivers took advantage of the car wash. We reached the border town of Nylam, which clung to the side of a ravine along the highway through a series of seven switchbacks. Our hotel was two blocks from the gate into the demilitarized zone between Nepal and China. This was a very basic dorm/hotel with double rooms and a shared bath but no shower. At a late supper in the restaurant across the street, we met 3 other American (well, one might have been Canadian) travelers who were sitting at the other end of the table, and our guide ended up letting them share a ride with us to Nepal the next day.

Day 14 – Nylam (3750M / 12,300ft) to Kathmandu (1300M / 4250ft)

The day started with a little drama when another traveler locked herself in the shared bathroom took her sweet time first thing in the morning. Some heated words were exchanged while others looked desperately for alternate place for their morning pee. Some of us got breakfast at the same restaurant across the street. Then we got our bags and walked 1 block to the Immigration gate. The spine of my passport is bent a little, so I got some extra attention while the immigration officials took the document into the back room to check it out. A little while later they brought it back and I made it through. On the other side of the checkpoint, our drivers met us for the 30 minute drive through the de-militarized zone to the Nepal border crossing.

We arrived at the town of Zhangmu (a.k.a Dram, or Khasa in Nepal) where we said good bye to our Tibetan guide and drivers, and carried our bags across the friendship bridge to Nepal. We stopped to get the Nepal visa. My roommate had filled up his passport, so he had to peel off another visa sticker to make room. Then we boarded the bus for the ride to Kathmandu. There was a dramatic change in landscape compared to the last week and a half in Tibet. First, after leaving the edge of Tibetan Plateau before the border, we had entered a region of lush green vegetation. Then in Nepal, the buildings were mostly painted bright colors. This was in strong contrast to the earth tones of Tibet. It reminded me of the Caribbean for some reason.

The drivers let us ride “Nepal style” which meant to climb on top of the bus with the luggage. There was room for 4 or 5 people, so we took turns on the top of the bus. Lunch was at a small restaurant and consisted of an appetizer of fish heads and then some other basic fair. The restaurant was along a river, and we watched people doing their laundry on the opposite bank. After lunch it was my turn to get on the top of the bus, and I was up there until the outskirts of Kathmandu. As we rode, some of the others took delight in waving at the cute kids along the way or riding on top of other busses. But then one of the cute little kids flicked us off, giving us a reminder they were not there for tourist amusement.

We had a decent hotel next to a central shopping district. In the afternoon we walked around for some last minute shopping. Compared to some of the places I had been the last few years, this was a fairly clean pleasant market area to walk through since the touts and shop keepers were not too pushy. In the evening we went for one final group dinner and later visited a couple of night clubs.

Day 15 depart Kathmandu (1300M / 4250ft)

Everyone had flights leaving at different times. I had a mid-day flight out with my friend Eileen. I should have gotten up like my roommate to have time for a quick morning visit to some of the other sites, but instead I slept in and used the morning to re-pack my bags. We got a taxi to the airport around 11. The streets were a bit crowded, but we got to the airport without much delay. I had a bit too much local cash that I could not exchange, so I tried to use it up in the airport gift shops. We were a little too early and were still waiting when the next batch of our tour group arrived for their flight. Finally we got on our Thai Airlines flight and took off.

Thai Air was great compared to the service on American airlines. Nice food (well, for airlines), and even in economy the attendants frequently walked the aisles pouring non-stop cognac, campaign and other drinks. We had about 6 hours in Bangkok before catching different flights, so we spent most of it hanging out at an airport restaurant and reviewing pictures from the trip. When it was time to go our separate ways, I left one wing and walked across the airport towards my gate. I was surprised to see that the whole airport was one big mall. There were tons of shops between the concourses. There were shopping carts everywhere to haul your take around the airport from store to store. It took me almost 15 minutes to walk without stopping to my concourse and the whole way was lined with stores, and I only walked half way across the airport. I had a stop-over in Tokyo and L.A. before returning home, some 36+ hours after entering the Kathmandu.

Up to 25% off GAP AdventuresLinks
- Tibet trip report, part 1 – Beijing to Lhasa
- Tibet trip report, part 2 – Gyantze, Shigatse, Sakya

- Photo Highlights
- Album #5 – Rombuk and Everest Base Camp
- Album #6 – Nepal and Kathmandu

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1 comment:

  1. Hi John,
    Your trip and phots brought back wonderful memories from two years ago visiting base camp Everest.
    The air was tingly to the skin when being outdoors to take photgraphs. My guide Yakboy will always be my fondest memory.
    he is so kind and friendly and caring.
    thank you.


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