On top of the world (almost)!

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Flag of Nepal  , Himalayan Region,
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Chinese have built a road all the way up to Everest Base Camp, officially to ease the path of the Olympic Torch up to the top of the mountain, but also to cement their control over this remote part of Tibet. Tibetans regularly try to escape across the border to Nepal from here, so the military presence is high. Roadblocks repeatedly interrupted our progress as army personnel boarded the bus and inspected our passports and visas.

The new road gave out in a few places, and we had to leave the bus a few times whilst it was carefully manouvred through some immense potholes. We caught our first glimpses of Everest as we progressed – an immense triangle of white rock towering above the rolling hills.

The road zig zagged steeply up to a high mountain pass, and the views became increasingly breathtaking as we ascended. At the top of the pass it was freezing and blowing a gale, but there were spectacular views of Everest, flanked by Choyo, Makalu and Lhotse – four of the highest mountains in the world.

I was surprised at how green and lush the landscape was so near to Everest. There were fields full of farmers and villages of small, whitewashed Tibetan houses. As we continued, these gradually petered out and were replaced by a barren rocky wasteland, with the views of Everest becoming increasingly spectacular as it loomed around every corner.

Our destination 'Tent City', a ring of about 20 semi-permanent large tents, situated in a wide, desolate valley, at the end of which stood Everest. We were lucky enough to be there in crystal clear conditions, so had unobstructed views of the highest point on Earth. I had no idea that we would be so close to the mountain or have such amazing views of it!

After spending a few hours outside watching the mountain change colour from white to yellow and then pink in the sunset, I retired back to the group tent as temperatures started to plummet. Our accommodation for the night was a cramped yak hair tent, with 9 beds and a small stove that burned yak dung, giving off acrid fumes. Dinner was a small plate of egg fried rice, all that could be expected so far up here but nowhere near enough to satisy my hunger. I hadn’t eaten properly for days due to relentlessly awful food ever since leaving Shigatse.

The toilets at Tent City take the prize for being the worst I yet seen on my travels. A small hut, inside which was a wooden floor with two holes cut into it, placed above an overflowing cesspit. I quickly slammed the door after almost gagging. They were so disgusting that it seemed no-one used them, so the area outside was a minefield of shit. Luckily I was spared the need to use these facilities due to my low fibre diet here in Tibet!

Once I had had enough of standing in the cold looking at Everest or the incredibly vivid Milky Way, there wasn’t much to do other than unroll my sleeping bag and go to sleep. Temperatures continued to plummet as the night progressed. I have never been anywhere as cold in all my life, despite wearing every single garment I had with me, so slept very fitfully. As the tent was so cramped, any noise, snoring or movement by anyone had the whole tent awake.

I realized how hardy the people that climb Everest must be, sleeping in tiny tents at temperatures way lower than I was experiencing here, whilst dealing with severe altitude. Altitude was something that hadn’t really bothered me so far, mainly due to our long acclimatization since arriving in Lhasa. The main effects seemed to be sleeping problems and the need to pee in the night, which was the last thing I needed here!

I was up before sunrise, and went outside with my camera to see Everest slowly lighting up from beneath a blanket of stars. After sunrise, we took a bus up to base camp. I had envisioned a bustling hive of activity, with lots of tents and mountaineers preparing for their summit attempts. The reality was somewhat disappointing. October is not climbing season as the weather is so cold and changeable, so base camp was no more than a sign and yet another army checkpoint. It was utterly frigid there as it was still in shade and the howling wind quickly froze any exposed flesh. I didn’t stay long in this inhospitable place, and walked back to Tent City through the frozen rocky landscape, accompanied by a friendly dog.

Due to the freezing night time conditions, our bus wouldn’t start as the diesel had frozen. We waited anxiously, dreading another night of meagre rations in the freezing cold tent. After three hours, the bus finally got going, and we gratefully set off back up over the pass and down the zig-zagging road to the small town of Tingri, our stop for the night.

From Tingri we drove through more spectacular mountain scenery, over a 5,200m pass before a long descent down the side of a mountain into a forested gorge. At the bottom of the gorge was the border town of Zhang Mu. High rise ramshackle buildings clung to the side of the gorge here, and the streets bustled with brightly dressed Hindus and gaudily painted lorries.

We said goodbye to our driver, giving him a healthy tip, and after the first nice meal in days a group of us headed out to sample Zhang-Mu’s nightlife. We ended up at a nightclub with a few locals practicing dance moves to ‘Barbie Girl’ which was played repeatedly. The locals dragged us up to dance and after a few beers I was having a great time. The atmosphere soured when some menacing Chinese soldiers entered arm in arm with prostitutes and started behaving as if they owned the place.

We all left at that point, and on the way to our hotel we bumped into our driver, who was leaving what was evidently a brothel with a big grin on his face!

The following day we left Tibet, crossing the ‘Friendship bridge’ across the river into Nepal. We boarded another bus to the town of Dhulikhel where we had a day before heading off to Kathmandu.
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