Friday, November 2, 2007

Why Are We in This Handbasket?

Let me start by saying this: Tibet is an awesome experience. I have never seen such a country of extremes: impossibly harsh landscape, harsh environment, unending blue skies, impossibly large mountains, terrible food, horrendous toilets, friendly people.

We left Lhasa in two Land Cruisers bound for Everest Base Camp. Our first stop was Yamdrok-Tso, which is a lake high in the mountains. It took us over an hour to drive up the winding, twisting roads to get to this dusty, windblown place at 4900m where we could look down to see the turquoise waters of this sacred lake. Plus, we got to ride yaks! They're really, really big and hairy -- but at least my yak kept me warm for a little while, anyway. From there it was another hour and a half back down (zig-zagging across the mountain face...) to the Friendship Highway and then a detour into my first real desert experience -- real sand dunes and all. It was incredible and the pictures we took -- when I saw them, I actually said, "Did WE take these?" Driving through the desert into Gyantse was unforgettable, probably because we inhaled about 10 pounds of dust en route.

Over the next three days we drove from Gyantse to Shigatse to Sakya, where we got to experience a more Tibetan way of life (which is a nice way of saying that the toilets were inexcusably foul.) In Gyantse we visited the Palcho monastery and the famous Kumbum, which contains over 1000 murals painted on its interior walls. We also walked through the "Tibetan quarter" and watched the process of making tsampa, a flour made of roasted barley which is a staple food in Tibet, to the chagrin of many travellers. Shigatse is the second-largest city in Tibet after Lhasa, and here we ate yet more yak meat, eschewed yak butter, visited the massive Tashilhumpo monastery, and learned that there's way more to Tibetan Buddhism than we expected. In Sakya we visited -- guess what -- another monastery -- but also a nunnery. Actually, I have to admit that by Sakya I was monastery-ed out and feeing run down (altitude?) and opted out of the experience, but according to BG and the camera it was very nice, if similar to all of the other monasteries we had visited, at least to our untrained eyes.

The real pinnacle (no pun intended) of our trip was the visit to Everest Base Camp. The Tibetans call Mt. Everest Qomolangma, and the Nepalese call it Sagarmatha. Whatever you call it, Everest is the tallest mountain in the world at 8848m and we had to see it in person. The trip to Everest was an even rockier, bumpier, dustier experience than we'd imagined a motorized vehicle could manage. We were deposited at the "guest house" at the Rongphu Monastery, 7.8km from Everest Base Camp and 4900m above sea level. After a brief visit to the world's most disgusting toilets (five holes in the floor big enough for a person to fall into, resting atop massive piles of human excrement, no doors on the room or dividers between holes, used toilet paper and poo scattered everywhere), we trekked up to base camp. The 7.8km distance would be a breeze under normal human conditions, but at 4900m it took us two hours to make the walk and it was utterly exhausting, not to mention cold and windy. BG, the smart cookie that he is, decided to make the trip in the Land Cruiser, and was waiting at base camp for us when we arrived, toasty and warm. However, with typically clear blue Tibetan skies, the massive peak was perfectly appreciated for what it is -- a truly spectacular sight.

Our night in Rongphu, however, was not appreciated at all. The dining hall was filled with dark black stinking smoke from the yak dung that is used as fuel for the fire. Our dormitory room was cold and the windows rattled from the high winds; dogs barked outside nonstop and ponies wearing bells walked back and forth behind the building all night. Worst of all, we just could. not. breathe. We spent the majority of the long, long, LONG night struggling to breathe and fighting to sleep, but we seemed unable to do either of those things. To drift off to sleep was to wake up seconds later wheezing desperately; the minutes ticked by and it never seemed to get easier. I could breathe slightly better if I opened my mouth, but then my mouth and lips would dry out, and I'd have to drink water, which would lead to more visits to the "toilets"... when we extricated ourselves from our sleeping bags after daybreak, we were convinced we'd spent the night in the bowels of hell.

From there, it was all downhill, and not just in terms of altitude. The ride up to Rongphu was difficult; the ride down was absolutely hellacious. Once back on the Friendship Highway, things were better, but then, only 5 km from our destination, the road was suddenly and loudly blocked by a massive rockfall. Our Land Cruisers could not pass and the road would not be cleared anytime soon, so we had to take our luggage and walk across this 40m-long, 2m-high road block (mere inches from the side of a cliff) to get to the hotel. In the dark. And in the mud. You bet your ass I cried. After walking a couple of kilometres our tour guide managed to get us a ride in another Land Cruiser, but there were eight of us and luggage and only one truck, but we managed to make it work and we made it to the hotel in time for the hot water to turn on for much-needed showers.

The next day we made our border crossing -- sans guide, as she'd chosen to cut and run to get back to Lhasa as soon as she could. It involved a lot of waiting in line and another crazed downhill ride with seven of us in a hired minivan. The best part of that ride was when the driver stopped in a puddle, pulled an empty juice bottle out of the glove box, and then used the water from the puddle to wet down the overheated brake pads.

From the van it was a walk across the border into Nepal which, quite frankly, seemed heavenly at this point, with its lush green grass, trees, and moist, oxygen-rich air. However en route to Dhulikel, the resort town we were hoping to lounge about for a day, we were subject to yet another two-hour road blockage, this time caused by angry villagers who had set fire to tires and had physically pulled down light posts in protest after a car accident had left a local severely injured.

Anyway, we're here in Nepal again and all is well. For the past two days we've been making jokes like, "Tibet is an experience which must be borne, in between moments of awesomeness" or like one of our tour members said, "Everest is best seen on TV." Now that it's over I can look back and say that I am actually really glad that we went to Tibet, though right now I'm not sure I can say I would go back again.


Charms said...

Wow! You're going to have the best stories after this trip. It sounds like Tibet really was an adventure.

Shannon said...

Aghh. I remember reading about those soot-filled guesthouses in "Into Thin Air" (although they stayed in Lobuje). I thought at the time, "better them than me!" Still, I'm very envious of your trek to base camp!