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Everest: Closer to the Sky. And spending the night with the Tibetans

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 25, 2009 with No Comments

I awoke abruptly in the middle of the night, feeling as if I was suffocating. I tried to breath, but I couldn’t get air into my lungs. I tried to calm down until I began to breathe normally. My heart pounded fast and hard. I wondered if it was a nightmare or an effect of the high altitude . . .

I was leaving for the Everest Region early in the morning, which was over 1,000 meters higher than where I was now. I was afraid I would get ill on the way to Everest, but I had to stay positive. I would be okay. I would reach the Everest Base Camp . . .



By 10 am, we were ready to go. Desolate mountains surrounded us. An hour later, we began our ascent into higher altitude. The brownish mountains turned white, covered with snow. We reached Shegar, a small Tibetan town at the entrance of “Mt. Qomolangma National Nature Reserve”—as Everest is known to the Chinese and Tibetans—where we would get our permits to go to the Everest Base Camp.
“Come with us,” Nima instructed. I accompanied him and Lu—as I now called the driver—to the police office.

Inside the complex, we showed our permits to the officer. As I waited for the officer to check our permits and IDs, I felt dizzy and nauseous. We were 4,050 meters high. It could be the altitude, but maybe it was something I had eaten? I was already on my way to the Base Camp, and I had to make it. I started drinking tons of water, hoping the dizziness, heavy head, and odd feeling in my body would go away.
A zigzagging road bordering the mountains took us to a viewpoint. As we reached the top, the Himalayas unfolded.

Suddenly, I felt awesome. The sky was bright blue and cloudless, as if the Himalayas wanted to show me their best face.

“Good weather. Usually cloudy. Good karma,” said Nima.

I sat on a rock and stared at the snow-capped peaks. The mountains hypnotized me, arousing an intoxicating sense of freedom and connection with nature. This panoramic view showed all the peaks: Mt. Makalu at 8,463 meters, Everest at 8,850 meters, and Mt. Cho Oyu at 8,201 meters.

“Time to go!” shouted Nima from the car.

We descended through another zigzagging road. I couldn’t stop looking at the Himalayas. My eyes watered, and I tried to hide the tears from Nima and Lu. I was afraid they would think I didn’t feel well, but I was just so happy. The Himalayas slowly vanished into the horizon.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas

We left the Friendship Highway and took a dirty road past some small Tibetan villages. I saw more Tibetans on the road to Everest than I had seen in the past two days in Gyangtse or Shigatse. Their dark faces, their jeweled hair with red and colored tassels, and their traditional garments set them apart. I finally felt that I was in purely Tibetan land—except for the sporadic Chinese military or police personnel at the security points on the road.

I looked through the window, riveted by the Tibetans’ smiling, exotic faces. They looked so different from the Chinese, the Nepalese, and every other ethnic Asian group I’d seen. Legend says the Tibetans were born of the union of a monkey—the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion—and an ogress. The pair gave birth to six kids, which later split the region into six main tribes.

Everest Base Camp

Everest Base Camp

I checked my watch. It was past 5 pm, and the sun was starting to fade. I was afraid we were going to arrive too late at the Base Camp. But thanks to Lu speeding like a madman, we made it to the Base Camp before sunset. It looked different from what I had imagined. I was told that the Everest Base Camp was clustered with tents and had a heavy police presence. The camp was first used by a British expedition in 1924; every year since then, people trying to reach the summit or higher camps fill it. But today, the Base Camp was deserted.

“You can go to the hill,” said Nima.

At Everest Base Camp

At Everest Base Camp

I was already planning to climb the small hill for a better view of the
north face of Everest. Prayer flags festooned the top. I was alone with the tallest mountain on earth. I cried again. The sun pointed exactly at the north face of Everest’s peak, making it glisten. The summit looked so close, as if it was a short hike away. But the Roof of the World was actually over 3,000 meters above me. I sat down, enjoying the view and breathing deeply. I felt great, but the air was light here. I had to make an extra effort to get oxygen into my lungs.

I wondered if I would ever go higher than this. I fell in love with Everest in 2006 when I visited Nepal and tried my first (unsuccessful) attempt to reach the Base Camp on the Nepali side due to the high altitude sickness. I finally made it to the Base Camp on the Chinese side. Although the views were supposed to be better from here than from Nepal, I wanted more of Everest. Suddenly, being in the Base Camp didn’t feel close enough.

It was getting dark. It was time to say good-bye.

I walked down the hill for the photo “must.” The marker proclaimed that I was 5,200 meters above sea level, but the word “Everest” was nowhere on the sign. Instead, it read the Tibetan and Chinese name for the peak: “Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp”— which means “the Goddess Mother of the Universe.”



On the way back, we stopped at the Rongphu Monastery, where we could see more stunning views of Everest disappearing into the dark. Some Tibetan nomads camped outside the monastery, and the children ran toward me. I feared they wanted money, but they wanted to see the pictures I had taken of “Qomolangma.” I was suddenly surrounded by smiling Tibetan nomads who wanted to know where I was from. I returned to the car with a crowd of Tibetans behind me.

“You’ve got an army with you,” said Nima. As we drove away, the nomads were still waving at us.

“We stay tonight at the village, with a Tibetan family, okay?” Nima said.
“Perfect!” I responded. A hotel was booked in my itinerary, but I preferred to stay with a local family.

“Welcome to Everest Pabar Guest House and Restaurant” read a sign outside a Tibetan house. A chubby, warm Tibetan woman named Siti ran it.

She invited us into the dining room, where a Hollywood movie hypnotized about 15 Tibetans of all ages. The star? Jackie Chan! We joined the crowd, who offered us tea and popcorn. Nima explained that this house was the only one with a TV and DVD player in the village, so people came here every night to watch movies. So Siti’s home was sort of the town’s “movie theater.” The Tibetans laughed and screamed as they watched the film. A movie with Jackie Chan would never have been so entertaining to me except under these circumstances!
A toddler with a runny nose approached me, wanting to see my blackberry. I showed her the main screen, where there was a photo of my niece.

“Bebe!” the two-year-old girl said, smiling. She seemed fascinated by my phone and the photos that were on it. Siti and her daughters came to see the photo, too. They were thrilled to see photos of my family.
“More tea?” Siti asked. Before I could respond, she was already pouring more tea into my cup. It was so full, the cup couldn’t hold any more! Yet, every five minutes—even if my cup was still full—Siti poured more tea. By the end of the night, I drank about two liters of tea!

“Cold?” Siti asked. She touched my leg to see if the fire was keeping me warm. I was boiling, but I didn’t want to be rude and move away from the honored seat they had given me. She wanted to see how many layers of clothes I had. I showed her three on top and two on the bottom.

“No good!” she declared. She then showed me the seven layers of clothes she wore! Underneath six layers of different-colored sheep wool, she wore a bright pink silk blouse, of which I could only see the sleeves. Like most Tibetan women, she also wore turquoise and coral earrings. Pink and green tassels decorated her hair, which she let down to show me.

“Hungry?” she asked.

I checked the menu and ordered “Potato Fried Vegetables.” I’d had an overdose of rice in the past days. Another girl with a runny nose took my order and picked her nose before going to the kitchen. Although I ordered potatoes, she came back with fried rice and chopped green veggies. I didn’t want to think about how my meal was made; I just ate it. It tasted good.

With Tibetan nomads

With Tibetan nomads

It was time to sleep. Siti took me to a tiny, dark room with three wooden beds. Each had a hard mattress and a pile of blankets on it. “Take.” Siti gave me a candle. There was no electricity. I put the blankets from all three beds on me. I could hardly move, but I was warm. Lying on the bed, I could see the clear sky through the window. The shining stars looked so close. At this height, I felt as if I could touch the sky.

The next morning, we left for Zangmu, which is on the Chinese-Nepali border. We had a long way ahead of us on desolate roads. About two hours later, we stopped for lunch in Old Tingri, a small Tibetan town bordered by the Himalayan peaks. The town wasn’t particularly charming, but the view was stunning.

We continued our drive on the Friendship Highway.

“Pass is coming, ” said Nima.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas

Just when I thought I had seen the most extraordinary views of the Himalayas, the next view had me in awe. At a pass near Nyalam, a ring of glaciers and peaks, including the massive Cho Oyu, appeared in front of me. I left Nima and Lu in the car, savoring the feeling of being in the Himalayas. I felt so happy I couldn’t get rid of the big smile on my face. I wanted to jump, so I did. I did my happy dance even though the air was light and I was totally out of breath. The guys probably thought I was suddenly possessed, but I was just thrilled to have made it this far—I was afraid my body wouldn’t accept the high altitudes, as happened three years ago in Nepal. But this time, I was ready for the Himalayas, and they were ready for me!

As we continued our journey to the border, we drove through glaciers and sheer mountains.

Suddenly, the road dropped. We started our descent, and the landscape changed. The barren scenery became green! Cascades, waterfalls, rivers, pine trees, and mountains covered by green moss surrounded us. The curving road was narrow, and we drove so close to the edge that any wrong movement could send us down the precipice.
“Need to stop here. Construction on the road. About one hour wait,” warned Nima.

The road was blocked. We thought that it was construction, but it turned out to have been an explosion at the construction site.
“It may be open at 8 pm. But there are some Chinese officials coming; maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll open now,” said Nima.

I crossed my fingers that the Chinese officials would show up. The workers wouldn’t open the road for a tourist, but they would open it for the authorities. They would even fix it somehow. Sure enough—when the Land Cruisers of the Chinese authorities appeared, the road was opened. I understood why the workers were hesitant to open it. Part of the road had fallen, leaving only a tiny path covered with rocks. It looked dangerous.

We made it through and continued to Zangmu. This border town isn’t attractive. Hundreds of trucks were parked on each side of the road.
The only street was clustered with shops and cheap hotels.

I was craving a hot shower and a warm room, but my hotel didn’t have hot water or a heater. I shivered for another night.

I woke up at 8 am, and it was still very dark outside. I was supposed to meet Nima and Lu at 9 am. When I went out, the streets were still deserted.

Soon, Nima and Lu came out of the hotel.

“Ready? No breakfast?” asked Nima.

“No, it is okay, Nima. Let’s go to the border,” I said. I wanted to get to the Friendship Bridge as early as possible to make sure I had time to find transportation to Kathmandu.

But no one was at the bridge when we arrived.

“You need to fill this out for the agency.” Nima gave me a customer satisfaction form to evaluate both the driver and the guide. I wanted to write what I had experienced, but Nima stood over my shoulder telling me what to write. I was very pleased with the driver; Lu was a nice man and a great driver with a good attitude. I couldn’t say the same about Nima, but I felt I had to evaluate him positively while he was standing right there.

“Okay, here it is.” I gave the form back to him. He seemed pleased.

Although I wrote a positive review for Nima in the form, I was definitely going to contact Tashi in the agency to let him know what happened.
Other travelers arrived minutes later. Robert, Alisa, and Yanker were from Germany. They were in their early twenties and were traveling for a couple of months around Asia. They were going to Kathmandu as well.
The Chinese customs finally opened, and we were able to pass.

The Friendship Bridge connects China and Nepal. Nepali and Chinese soldiers stood on it, and a line in the middle of the bridge divided the two countries. On our right, the Chinese military was training. We heard gunshots.

“Free Tibet!” yelled Yanker as we crossed the line.

The Chinese soldiers were really close, and I hoped they hadn’t heard him. I didn’t know if they could take us back!

We walked to the Nepali side. It was only meters away from the Chinese side, but it looked and felt different. The Nepali customs officers smiled more. Women in colorful saris walked down the street.
A man approached us to offer us a jeep to Kathmandu.

“Bus leaves at 11 am. We take you in jeep now for 700 rupees,” he said.

“No, thank you. We can wait. We’ll take the bus,” Yanker said.

Another Nepali man came to try to convince us to take the jeep.

Going by bus cost 300 rupees, and we had to transfer to another bus on the way and pay an extra 50 rupees. I thought I could convince the driver to take us for 400 rupees each. It was worth it to pay the extra 50 rupees to go in the jeep straight to Kathmandu.

“Okay, 500 rupees,” the driver said.

“No, sorry. If you can’t take us for 400, then we take the bus,” I said.

Yanker, Robert, Alisa, and Rebecca—a backpacker from Norway who had joined us—seemed skeptical that the driver would take us for 400 rupees each, which was about five U.S. dollars. But it was low season, and there were only a few tourists around, so I knew they would accept my offer.

We put the backpacks on top of the jeep and went inside. The driver wanted two more passengers.

“Chinese tourists coming,” the driver said. But the Chinese tourists left with someone else.

We waited in the car for about 30 minutes. I doubted that more tourists would come soon. I didn’t want to waste more time. I offered to pay for the extra two seats—it would only be $15 total.
It seemed a lot of rupees, and it probably was a lot for my fellow backpackers who were traveling for several months and who had to make each dollar count. But I wasn’t traveling for that long, and I could take care of the extra cost just to travel more comfortably and save time.

“I will pay for the two seats, but we leave now, and you take us to Thamel,” I said to the driver.

“Okay, we leave now,” the driver said.

“Guys, when you are 32 like me, you’ll be willing to pay a bit more for extra comfort,” I said, smiling. “When I was your age, I stayed in mixed hostels, and I hardly spent 15 bucks a day. I didn’t care. Now, I still travel cheap, but I do pay a bit more when I need to be comfortable. An older traveler I met when I was younger told me that with age I would change the way I travel, and I didn’t believe him. And now, look at me! I am a ‘fancy’ backpacker.” I laughed, and so did they.

I wished I could be in my early twenties again, when I was more carefree. I wished I could take off for three to six months the way these backpackers did and see the world. That has always been my dream, but I still haven’t been able to do it.

The road was precarious and bumpy. The farther we drove, the happier I was to have paid the extra rupees. It would have taken forever to get to Kathmandu by bus. The scenery was beautiful, and a big contrast to Tibet. The weather was almost tropical, and we were driving along a green river. Rice paddies lined the side of the road. Behind the lush hills, the Himalayan range was still visible in the distance. The white peaks seemed to soar from the sky.
We stopped to eat at a small restaurant on the side of the road.

“Always come here to eat. Breakfast very good,” said the driver.

They served us rice with some spicy vegetables. We hadn’t yet finished when they put more food on our plates.

A Nepali passenger -who was in the jeep with us since our departure from Zangmu- asked me where I was from. From that moment on, he didn’t stop speaking “English”—or what he thought was English. He seemed confident, and I paid close enough attention to follow the conversation. After traveling to so many places, I’ve become an expert at interpreting body language and deciphering what the locals are trying to say.

I had told the Nepali passenger and the driver that I had visited Nepal three years ago and that I loved it. They were giving me advice on where to go and what to do. I understood part of it. They laughed with me, and I laughed with them as we tried to communicate.

We ate together like a big family. Busses packed with people—including passengers and goats on the roofs!—drove by. Women wearing gold jewelry and brightly colored saris looked at us with curiosity as they passed.

I enjoyed the food, but I was enjoying the warm Nepalese welcome even more, and the feeling of freedom that came from being a backpacker without a tour.

Soon, we were back on the road. The city seems to have grown tremendously since the last time I was here. It took us almost one hour to get to the center of the city. The pollution also seems to have worsened.

As we approached Thamel, I recognized its busy and narrow streets where you can find almost anything. This is a backpacker’s Mecca! There are shops, supermarkets, Internet cafes, hotels, hostels, tourist agencies, trekking companies, and camera stores. It is a lively place, and I love to wander around it, so I am spending my last hours in Kathmandu enjoying the vibe of colorful Thamel.

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