Everest Base Camp, Tibet | 30 October, 2006 | $5 (my portion of bill – shared with 3 others)
Despite what most people expect, there’s not much to see at the base camp on Mt. Everest’s north face, at least in late October. The large field of rocks below Everest stood bare, a small string of prayer flags waving against a group of boulders. Down a small road stood a small monastery and a single story hotel stood facing the mountain. The Nepalese side of Everest is much more popular to visit but requires a two week hike to reach. Leave it to China to build a road all the way to the base.
We weren’t given the option to share two to a room and I found myself sleeping beside the man I had fought with the previous day. The tiny unheated room had a broken window which we cleverly covered with cardboard and tape only to find that we had cut off the little air supply available. I slept like a baby (wearing all of the clothes in my bag, hat, gloves and covered in four quilts) but Sui woke up vomiting from altitude sickness.
As cold as it was in our room, it was much colder outside. I was lucky to get through the night without needing the bathroom—an overflowing outhouse on the other side of the complex with no door. The women’s toilet was so disgusting, the corners piled high with feces, that it came up in conversations with travelers I met months later. One woman told me that, when she needed the toilet in the middle of the night, she squatted in the courtyard instead of wandering through the darkness to the outhouse. The next morning she saw women scraping yellow ice off the ground.
I won’t lie, doing anything at 18,192 feet (5,545 meters) is tough, even after spending a week in Lhasa. We were all overcome with headaches and laziness but did manage to walk from the hotel to base camp the next day before heading on to Tingri.
If you would like to see more photos from Mt. Everest Base Camp take a look in the gallery.
Shekar, Tibet | 29 October, 2006 | $6.25 (my half of bill – shared with roommate)
After a long day of travel our driver pulled up to a hotel beside the main road and told us it was Shekar. We knew the main attraction in the area was Shekar Fort and when we pointed this out the driver very dramatically refused to take us any further.
Day four was a breaking point not only for our relationship with our driver but also my civility with our French travelmate. While Sui and Elad were negotiating with the driver I was trying to get away from the Frenchman, the 4th passenger. He had a lot of grating habits, but worse the the tapping and talking to himself was the smoking. I had asked him a few times not to smoke near me but this usually prompted him to move closer. Today he literally blew the smoke in my face on purpose and I had enough. The fight didn’t escalate to blows, but when I finished telling him my mind Elad turned to me with a look of shock on his face. He later admitted that he had never heard a woman use quite so colorful language.
After that fun scene we hopped back into the jeep and were taken to the small town where we wandered through a maze of buildings trying to find a path up the mountain. With more time we may have tried to explore the upper reaches of the complex but without directions or a guide we decided it was best to head back after reaching the top of the first level. I’m glad Sui was so insistent upon this stop. Shekar Fort was different than the other towns and monasteries we had seen and I had the chance to take one of my favorite photos from the trip.
You can see more photos from Shekar in the gallery.
Sakya, Tibet | 28 October, 2006 | $1.88 (my half of bill – shared with roommate)
Sakya was officially the cheapest hotel room I had in Tibet, tied with the hotel I stayed in on my last day in Tibet at Tingri. After exploring Gyantse and Shigaste, we drove into town after dark. There were few hotel options and our driver insisted on a location with a secure parking for his car. The building was bleak and there was nowhere to eat so we went to bed early. In the morning I was pleasently surpised to find the courtyard filled with futuristic-looking metal contraptions designed to heat water by reflecting sunlight. Not only was this an ingenious use of solar power, but it looked to be a descent job of recycling old metal as well.
Sakya and the surrounding countryside was notable for minor decorating changes I started to see on the buildings. Symbols and rock gardens decorated the front of houses and many of the buildings we painted dark gray with white and red stripes—much different than the white structures that seem to be the standard in the rest of the country.
You can see more images from Sakya in the gallery.
Gyantse, Tibet | 27 October, 2006 | $3.13 (my half of bill – shared with roommate)
The second night of my Tibetan road trip was spent in Gyantse. We covered a lot of ground on this trip, and often visited more than one town each day. Leaving from Tsetang in the morning and detouring by the gorgeous Yamdrok Lake, we didn’t arrive in Gyantse until late in the day. Although this room looks just as “nice” as the last few, it was less than half the price.
The next morning we had a short amount of time to visit the monastery, where we played with the local children and climbed up the large stupa to look out over the town. There was a good amount of well-dressed Tibetans (I love their sense of style), and an extraordinary amount of dogs wandering around.
View other images from Gyantse here in the gallery.
Tsetang, Tibet | 26 October, 2006 | $7.50 (my half of bill – shared with roommate)
My first day on the seven-day drive from Lhasa to the Nepalese border took me to a monastery named Samye, West of Lhasa and quite a bit out of the way. Most tours skip this location but I found it worthwhile. Inside the grounds were four large, color-coded stupas which you could climb up inside. We left the car behind and took a boat across the lake to the monastery, which had no accommodation. We caught the last ferry back and our driver took us to the nearest town, Tsetang, where we stayed in more “typical” Chinese rooms.
You can view more photos from Samye in the gallery. When looking for bed photos I came upon a few images I hadn’t originally included in the gallery. I’m usually pretty selective but I’m not sure why I left out this great shot.
Lhasa, Tibet | 25 October, 2006 | $6.88 (my half of bill – shared with roommate)
After my exhaustive journey from Tajikistan to Tibet I needed some time to rest and regroup. The high altitude (11,800 feet / 3,600 meters), made simple tasks like walking to dinner in Lhasa difficult and left most travelers around me with headaches and colds. My first five nights were spent in an 8-person dorm room. With so many people sick, there was always someone in the room and I never took a photo.
Luckily, I hit it off with one of my dorm roommates, Sui, whom I ended up traveling with off and on through Tibet, Nepal and India. The room above was our first of many shared rooms and where we planned our seven-day trip through Tibet to the Nepalese border.
All of my photos from Tibet are up in the gallery. Tajikistan is up there as well and I think they’re pretty interesting—maybe because you don’t see pictures of Tajikistan every day. My only regret is the Alichur gallery. You see, somehow I deleted an entire 512mb memory card full of images. Some of them I could have parted with, but I had photos of the local kids that were fun and a wonderful portrait of a farmer who invited me into his home for tea. Losing that one hurts.
After thirteen hours today spent between a landcruiser, minibus and bus Sui and I made it to Kathmandu. The past seven days have been an amazing set of highs (the temple art and Everest) and lows (everything about our French travelmate and the beggars).
We had dinner tonight that was not Chinese food and I just bought a diet coke and Toblerone. I’m going to go back to our hotel tonight, eat my chocolate, drink my coke and watch some Prison Break on my computer. We’re both excited to have single rooms after sharing for over two weeks, including the night at Everest Base Camp where all four of our group had to share one room. It was if there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room for all four of us. And it just got stranger when the French guy started eating cheese at 3am.
Let’s just say that the “twinkle” I noticed in Frenchie’s eye when we first met turned out to be the twinkle of insanity. Between dodging his ciggarette smoke, ignoring his incessant tapping and muttering and finally breaking down in a screaming match by day four, I was pretty busy.
Despite that, I spent a night near Everest Base Camp and watched the tallest mountain in the world glow in the afternoon, turn orange at sunset and cloud over in the morning. How did you spend your Halloween?
In Lhasa I’m surrounded by tourists, tour groups, travel agencies and Western restaurants. With so many backpacker amenities I figured it would be a snap to organize an overland trip to the Nepalese border. My first day here I met a Chinese-American woman in my dorm room named Sui who I immediately clicked with. We are both traveling for a long time and she’s also heading to Nepal on the same sort of schedule as me. When we asked around everyone was leaving much sooner than we wanted so we decided to wait, see the sights, and worry about organizing a group in a few days.
Most people heading to Nepal hire a 4×4 landcruiser with four or five people. Local transport is sparse, often requires special permits and doesn’t go to all of the sights so it’s the best option. With Sui I had a group of two and we answered many ads placed by other travelers but for some reason our plans always fell through.
More than half of the travelers didn’t answer our replies at all. The other half either had a totally different trip in mind or found someone else before we managed to commit to them. Finally we placed our own ad at a few of the guesthouses with our proposed itinerary. It’s possible to get to Nepal in two days but most people take a four day trip, stopping at a monastery or two and Everest Base Camp. We wanted to take a six or seven day trip including a monastery named Samye, which is not quite on the usual route.
Our posting generated a round of responses, mostly from people who didn’t want to drive the same route or wanted to leave earlier or later than we did. We were somewhat flexible, but needed at least a day to plan and get permits so we couldn’t leave early. By that point we’d been in Lhasa for almost week so we didn’t want to sit around waiting for new arrivals to get their taste of the town. One couple we met with told us that they would go with us if the other group, who they’d only contacted via email, declined.
One morning a flighty, timid older woman came into my dorm room holding our posting. My initial reaction was horror—why would she take down our posting? She then proceeded to ask me the basic facts that were written boldly on the posting. What day were we leaving (she wanted to leave earlier). how many days would we drive (she wanted four, not seven). Once we’d established that she should never have bothered answering our ad, let alone taken it down, I asked her to put it back up. She agreed.
The next day, after a few more failed grouping attempts, we found a note in our room asking to meet. It sounded good and Sui and I anxiously attended the proposed meeting. Who do I find sitting in the office? The ad stealer! I was surprised to see her because we had already determined that we had different plans. She had a group of three together and suggested a plan to us, almost the opposite of what she had initially wanted. While she was talking I looked over and saw a clear folder with her notes… and our ad! She had never put the ad back.
At that point Sui and I knew that it wasn’t going to work out. We still went down to check out the proposed Landcruiser and waited for over thirty minuted while the woman and her new friend went outside. We began to grow impatient and I assumed they were having a conference about us and our plans. When she came back up to the office she told us she wasn’t interested, she wanted to stay even longer in Lhasa, and asked to speak to the third member of their new group outside. Something was up and at that point we knew that we didn’t want to travel for any length of time with that group. We left them and our ad and began to look for new postings.
By now we were getting short on time if we wanted to leave by the 25th and started to worry that we wouldn’t find anyone else. We met so many people that already had groups—we even wondered if we shouldn’t have mentioned that we were American. While I was walking around town I noticed one guy looking at our posting and introduced myself. He agreed to meet to talk with us and a couple who’d answered our ad. Just before the meeting time we received an email saying they’d just made other plans. The single guy was in, but we needed at least four people to make the trip affordable.
Later that day another couple answered our ad and proposed a meeting. They turned out to be a nice middle-aged Dutch couple with a definite plan in mind. The only problem was that they only wanted four people and wouldn’t take the single guy we’d met before. We needed to look out for ourselves at this point but we decided to wait to make a decision and try for more open minded people. The couple agreed to wait until 10 that night to hear from us before making other plans.
We answered ads which didn’t work out. We left notes on people’s hotel doors and ran to hotels to find people who we’d “heard”were looking to leave on the 26th. Finally, we told the single guy that we would try again in the morning and meet at 12. If we found someone else we would go with him. If we didn’t we would go with the Dutch couple. In the meantime we’d left a note on the couple’s door, explaining our plans. They left a note agreeing.
Sui left early this morning to find the couple we’d heard about. she didn’t manage to find them, but found another single guy who was interested. We all met at 12, put a down payment on a tour and ironed out the itinerary. The dutch couple was out and I was set to drive to Nepal with a Californian, an Israeli and a Frenchman. Because we’re all single travelers it should be a good group. It’s set.
We’re heading for Samye, a monastery East of Lhasa before heading down to Nepal by way of a few monasteries, forts and, of course, Everest Base Camp. I’ll be in touch again in a week, please have a wonderful Halloween on my behalf.
Tibet isn’t the most obvious destination from Central Asia, but it’s where I wanted to go next. Although there is a road from Kashgar through Western Tibet it’s illegal for foreigners to travel and can be quite dangerous. While I was in Central Asia I tossed the idea of hitchhiking on a truck around but in the end I decided that it was getting too cold to be going over 5,000 meter passes in a truck that might break down, on a road that I might be turned around on by the police.
Because of the plateau and mountains the closest road to Lhasa started in Golmud, a few days away by train. Even with three day notice I wasn’t able to buy a hard sleeper train ticket so I ride in the hard seat car from Urumqi to Dunhuang—12 hours. The lights never turned off and every time I woke up from a brief nap I found someone new sitting across from me. Sometimes they were just staring at me and eating sunflower seeds. Others talked loudly to or listening to music (without headphones) on their mobile. I didn’t sleep much at all.
Because the train to Dunhuang doesn’t actually go to Dunhuang I grabbed a shared taxi for 1.5 hours to town. Unfortunately, the next bus leaving for Golmud wouldn’t be until 7:30pm so I had a day to kill in Dunhuang. In-between eating I spent a lot of time walking around town. I just wanted to sit and read but every time I sat down I fell asleep. And even though I hadn’t slept in a long time I had a hard time sleeping during the bumpy bus ride to Golmud.
When we arrived in town an hour earlier than expected I was overcome with confidence that I was going to make the 6:41am train to Lhasa. During phase 1 I was excited to go to Tibet because I would be beating this very train. At the time the railroad wasn’t finished and was projected to open in 2007. This railway line is very controversial because it’s built partially on permafrost through lands with rare wildlife and a delicate ecosystem. I felt a tinge of guilt taking it for that reason and because it will bring more Han Chinese tourists and businesses into Tibet, further decimating the local culture. My other option was a 30 hour bus ride with almost guaranteed break downs along the way.
A man approached me while I was getting my bag off the bus and told me he worked in Tibet. I suggested that we walk to the train station together and get some tickets. During the two block walk I explained that I had no ticket and that I wanted him to buy me one. He didn’t completely understand but when I refused to go inside the ticket office he came out and said “oh, I help you buy the ticket, okay!”
You see, I was trying my luck and hoping to get on the train without a Tibet Permit. Permits are required of all foreigners entering Tibet. It’s easier to enter Tibet from China than Nepal, but it still involves a lot of extra cost. There’s no official statement regarding the price of the permit, but it can range from $6 — $70 depending on where you get it. All flights to Lhasa include this “permit” which the foreign traveler will never see. Going by land, you’re required to buy a “tour” from an agency for around $200 before buying a bus or train ticket.
Because the permit rules are all over the place I thought that I might be able to get away with just getting on the train. I knew that I wouldn’t be sold a ticket without a permit, but my new Chinese friend easily bought two tickets for us. We were an hour early and I spent the time keeping my head down and avoiding the stares of the many policemen standing around the departure hall. I kept telling myself not to worry, at the most they would not let me on the train. And if I was turned back I would just have to suck it up and pay for the permit.
The announcement for the train came and we lined up. My Chinese friend took my ticket to the front to be punched by the attendant. The line started to move and no one stopped me. I made it onto the platform and through the ticket check at the carriage door. I was in. But we weren’t moving and I wasn’t going to gloat until we were heading up into Tibet. My seat partner was a Tibetan monk who sat barefoot and crosslegged, chanting in my ear for the first few hours. After the attendants and police had passed me many times I began to let my guard down, changed seats and settled in for the 14 hour trip, permit-less.
My compartment had all of the few Tibetans on the train and consequently smelled of sheep and yak butter. As I passed from car to car the difference in smell was noticeable. This railway is the highest in the world and uses many pioneering technologies. This is what the English announcements told me while we ascended to over 5,000 meters. I’m not as confidant in Chinese building methods and would rather the railroad had been a year late being built than over a year early. But the ride was smooth and I didn’t feel the altitude unless I tried to take a big breath. I tried out the disposable breathing tube I was given, which attached to an oxygen source under my seat. Despite announcements some passengers smoked inside the carriages while the oxygen was running. I do give them credit for not actually wearing the oxygen while smoking—that wouldn’t have surprised me in the least.
We passed by Namtso Lake, the highest fresh water lake in the world. Once we were at that height packs of antelope, horses and yaks ran alongside the train. Closer to Lhasa we started to see a few small towns and herders tending to their flocks. All of the Chinese tourists were straining to take photos of the wildlife while the Tibetans continued chanting and touching their prayer beads.
We sped through the last two hours in the dark at 94km an hour, racing toward Lhasa. When we arrived my Chinese friend took care of me, leading me onto the bus to to town and then onto another local bus. He didn’t do so hot getting me to the right area of town but I was able to shake him and find a taxi for the final leg. Now I’m in Lhasa, walking among the pilgrims while they twirl their prayer wheels and bow incessantly in front of the most sacred temples. It’s cold, but the sun is warm and the sight of The Potala Palace is more than enough to have made the long journey worth it.