Wednesday 21 Jun
Into Thin Air
Lhasa sits at 3700m above sea level and is one of the lowest points on the Tibetan plateau. Walking too fast makes you dizzy and don't even think about drinking any alcohol (I made the mistake of having a few during the England v Paraguay game and had possibly the worst hangover of my life for the next few days). The city bussels with Buddhist pilgrims and monks who come to walk clockwise round the Potala palace, spinning their handheld prayer wheels and prostrating themselves on the pavement as they go. It is also now a very Chinese city with gleaming new buildings covered in futuristic neon lighting quickly making their mark on this once thought inaccessible domain.
We got together with a very international bunch and hired jeeps and drivers for a week long foray along the Friendship Highway, which links Tibet to Nepal, to Mount Everest Base Camp. Highway is a bit of an exaggeration as there is not much road and lots of potholes, boulders and river crossings at the moment. Very soon it will be different as much of the time our path was blocked by trucks, diggers and work crews which blew up huge clouds of suffocating dust. On our first day we reached a dizzy 5000m at a pass overlooking Yamdrok-Tso lake over 1000m below. The pass was busy with opportunist Tibetans who hastled us to take photos of their Yaks and lion-maned dogs for a fee or to use the toilets they had built out of the rubble.
If there is a reason to come to Tibet other than to see Everest it has to be the Monasteries. They are in very good condition considering the recent history (many got ransacked during the Cultural Revolution). Often set high on the hillsides, their beauty on the outside is equalled by the stunning gold Buddhas and Stupas inside. The air is thick with incense and burning Yak fat and the walls are decorated with intricate and colourful images of Buddhas and gods. Monks wonder around chatting and joking with each other and if you're lucky you might catch them debating - a ritual where they argue with each other and dramatically smack their hands together, challenging their opponent to respond.
We took a small detour off the highway to visit a town called Sakya which, so far, has not been too affected by all the changes. The hillside was packed with houses made out of mud which all had crenelated piles of horse dung on the roofs. The locals got around on donkeys and carts and, like most places we've been where rain is rare and predictable, the streets were lined with pool tables which were constantly in use.
After three days we got our first glimpse of Everest. Rounding a hillside it loomed up unmistakably in the distance. In the centre of a row of snow capped peaks it surged up into the atmosphere like a pyramid sat on top of the mountain range. Many things you see in photos are often slightly less impressive in the flesh but Everest certainly is not. It far exceeds any expectations you may have and is quite difficult to describe because of this. It really has to be seen. At the next pass we saw the range surrounding Everest in its full glory - five of the highest mountains in the world, all over 8000 metres with Everest in the centre, clearly much larger than the rest and classic triangular-mountain shaped. In your mind you could almost see climbers at the summit.
We all reached Base Camp in very high spirits, despite many of us suffering with headaches and nausea because of the 5200 metres of altitude. We hired a donkey and cart to take our bags and walked the final 8 km to the camp. It wasn't steep but was no easy walk and I was fighting a stabbing headache all the way. The path wound around the glacial moraine, tempting us to take short cuts through the middle. I persuaded Sara to follow a path marked with cairns which led us out of range of the road and up and down the hillside. After and hour we climbed a ridge to see that we had walked up and passed the campsite and were now looking down a steep scree hill to our destination at least 60 metres below us. Visions of Torres del Paine came flooding back as it was getting late in the day and our companions would be wondering what had happened. We scrambled down the hill to find that this was the case. Alan, Wikyet and Fido had gone back down looking for us armed with cans of oxygen. The supposed two hour walk had only taken them an hour and we got in another hour and a half later.
That night many of the group and other reckless travellers suffered badly from altitude sickness, brought on by this small walk. The cans of oxygen on sale proved a godsend to the sufferers. Sunset was incredible as Everest first turned pink and then shadow crawled up the 3800 metres from the base to the summit. You just have to see Everest, you must.
Our journey back to Lhasa was plagued be the inevitable deterioration of the coughing truck which was breaking down more and more frequently as our trip went on. Every half an hour we would come to a spluttering stop which meant the drivers had to start playing with the engine, revving it until it backfired whilst we stood in the searing sun which was directly above and cast absolutely no shadow. The one tape of Chinese pop songs the driver had began to grate significantly. By the time we reached Lhasa we were all destroyed and our well-bonded group disintegrated.