Published: December 8th 2008October 30th 2008 Lhasa - Yamdrok-tso Lake - Gyantse - Shigaste - Shegar - Everest Base Camp - Old Tingri - Zhangmu This week Occasionally Bob's special guest is… Bob's Mum
I can only dream that Legoland is this good. I think I still have my Lego Club magnifying glass somewhere. No need for that at Everest though. The top of the world is right there infront of you in giant widescreen technicolour. Mum didn't even have to ask where her glasses were.
“Quickly! Quickly”, the carriage attendants said as they excitedly grabbed our unpacked belongings from our compartment and threw them out the carriage door onto the platform. It seemed we’d missed the wake-up call. The rest of the train was empty, the occupants having disembarked and dispersed en-mass so that we stepped from the train, bleary eyed and a little startled, to find an empty station. A few cleaners, some bored soldiers and, in the landscape framed between the clean grey platform and the concrete station roof, our first real sight of Tibet: a horizon of rocky hills being slowly coloured by a rising sun.
It was beautiful. I don’t mean the pink and orange hues of the sunrise nor the crispness of the clear, cold air that held our breaths before us or the quiet and stillness of the empty station first thing in the morning - all of which was lost on us in that moment - I mean the welcoming sight and feel of the grey, solid, unmoving
Everybody grab a bucket and overalls - it's painting time!
I'd love to see them painting this beast of a building. The whole population of Lhasa just grabs a bucket and they go mental. Everything goes snowy white. At least that's how I imagine it to be... it certainly looks like how they might do it...
concrete of the platform beneath our feet. Fifty-nine sometimes traumatic hours after leaving Chengdu on the apparently commonly delayed Lhasa ‘express’ we wanted nothing more than to feel stationary; to walk without bracing ourselves against walls and doors, to listen and not hear the rhythmic clatter of rails and to look at a fixed point on the landscaping without it sliding by.
More than anything though, I wanted the taste of vomit and the feeling of nausea to disappear. It had been a rough night. Our first experience of functioning at altitudes above 2700m (the point where Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) becomes a distinct possibility for the unacclimatised) had taken its toll on me and Mum, but it was an experience we’d all have the pleasure of sharing over the next nine days and beyond in various different forms as we roller-coasted across Tibetan passes and plateaus in a flurry of dizzying altitudes ranging from 2900m to 5300m.
If I’d thought we would have time to recoup from our cruel Tibetan initiation or even have time for breakfast at our hotel, I was sadly mistaken. Welcoming us with traditional white scarves pulled unceremoniously from a less than traditional
Living in a Black and White TV with Crap Reception
That's what it was like on the Gyatso-la Pass. Only colder and with lungs that felt like they'd been shrunk to the size of walnuts.
plastic bag, our guide Lhakdon (who would be called everything from 'Lactoon' to 'Lactic' by Mum for the remainder of the journey) explained that she and our driver Samten had been instructed by the agency to wait at the train station as there was uncertainty about when exactly our train would arrive. They’d waited from 5:30pm the previous day at the station, sleeping through the freezing night in the car in jackets, hats and gloves. But while she was as keen for a rest as we were, missing your time slot at the notoriously bureaucratic Potala Palace ticket office is like missing your own wedding: difficult and costly to rearrange with a hell of a lot of grovelling required.
Strict timetabling is the nature of guided tours - lethargy and rest take a backseat as you’re whisked from place to place like there’s no tomorrow. But thanks to the restrictions the post-Olympics Chinese government had placed on travel in Tibet and the prohibitive price of arranging mandatory tours and permits, the number of tomorrows we could afford in Tibet was frustratingly limited to single figures, forcing us to get out and explore where before we might just have spent
Lhasa... Can you spot the undercover Policeman?
Actually, it's a trick question because everyone in the picture is a Chinese agent. The red umbrella is a satelite dish and the mosque in the background is a missile silo. My years with Mi6, the CIA and a whole host of Bond movies taught me that.
the day in bed, on the internet or deciding what to eat: our usual time fillers. So, with the benefit of hindsight, for less motivated tourists like me and Vik, being on a tour wasn’t always such a terrible thing.
It helped that we had an excellent guide and a superb driver.
We are not good at being on set itineraries and guided tours and there were moments during the trip when we all wished Lhakdon and Samten would both just disappear so we could explore for ourselves, but when we did finally leave Tibet, our first morning without an itinerary felt a little odd - where was Lhakdon to tell us when and where to eat breakfast and how would we get anywhere without our ever-smiling, white-gloved driver, Samten? Lhakdon’s grasp of English may not have been great and she’d picked up the habit of saying “right?”
after explaining things in an unfortunate and unintentional sharp tone but her understanding of Buddhism, despite being a self-confessed “bad Buddhist”, was evident and if she didn’t know the answer to a question she’d always locate an unsuspecting monk who did. It was usually our failure to grasp Buddhist concepts
Aerobics for Buddhists
Stand Up, Lie Down, Stand Up, Lie Down. God can be pretty demanding.
and traditions rather than Lhakdon’s grasp of English that caused most confusion. Too many Bhudda’s and temples - not enough brain capacity.
I should also obviously highlight our lack of fluency in the Tibetan and Chinese languages, both of which - as well as English - Lhakdon was proficient in. Infact, we struggled with the most basic of pronunciations with Mum streaking ahead of us in the award for most ridiculous and persistent failure to grasp the simplest phrases. In China for example, her use of xie xie
(Chinese for 'Thank You' - pronounced 'shyeh-shyeh'
) ranged from shee-shee
. And her attempts to order a plain lassi (an Indian yoghurt based drink pronounced as it's written: like the name of the helpful mutt) caused waiters no end of confusion - "I'd like a plain lashi - lasho - lashaye please".
Whether it was just the joy of finally swapping the thick, stagnant, warm air of the carriage compartment for the invigorating cool air of early morning in Lhasa or the detoxifying effects of the complimentary green tea I knocked back in the hotel before we were whisked away I can’t be sure; but
The Chinese National Syncronised Wall Painting Team
The Chinese demonstrate the correct way to paint walls. None of that crazy Tibetan bucket throwing here. These guys are World Class wall painters. Check out that brush action...
by the time we reached the Potala Palace I was feeling like a new person. This was a good thing as the stability of our stomachs and the giddiness that lingered from the night before was about to be put to the test by dark claustrophobic rooms with air so thick with incense, the sweet smoke from yak butter candles and the stale, heavy scent of aged dust that a butter knife and oxygen tanks would have been useful to cut through what remained of the air. It’s as if the Buddhist monks who live within the walls of the palace have some sort of vendetta against oxygen and, as if the altitude wasn’t enough, they seem determined to smoke the last of it out of the building.
For a building with such close tomb like rooms, the Potala Palace’s exterior seems very much alive. It is exactly as it appears in all the postcards and on the Discovery channel, sitting as it does - icing white, maroon and black and gold under an azure blue sky - sturdy and defensive on a mound in the centre of Lhasa looking out across the city with unmistakeable presence and majesty.
Yaks in the Snow
Could I have found anything more Tibetan than Yaks in the snow? It's like photographing Highland cows in Scotland, Moose in Canada or Jesus in the Vatican. Gotta love them Yaks! Just stay away from their cheese. We were given some to suck on when we went up to altitude. It's hard, it's waxy, it's cheesy. It's like eating a cheesy candle. Not good. And it lasts for ever. It can't be killed - by stomach acids or nuclear bombs. Yak cheese, cockroaches and Oakley lenses are all that will survive a nuclear war. That's one messed up future our planet's got. Oh, and Yak meat? Chewy. Gamey. Stringy. I'll stick to badgers and squirrels thank you very much.
But what the postcards and documentaries fail to capture and that none of us had before appreciated is the sheer Moby Dick scale of the building which is as vast as it is white and, despite it’s size, the movement and life that the colourful rippling fabric skirting the uppermost windows gives the building as a whole. It was also amusing to note the less than scientific method used to keep the Palace as white as it was: once a year they literally throw the paint on. This may look good from a distance, but up close you realise that the ground at the foot of the walls is white, the steps are white, the benches are white and even the trees and vegetation is white.
As the currently unoccupied home of the Dalai Lama (absent since escaping in 1959), the Potala sees a constant stream of shuffling, mumbling pilgrims who come to stuff five Jiao (less than 5p) notes into every nook and cranny of the building (in the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace they even pile them into and on-top of the loo he once parked his holy bum on - a Holy latrine that is now a
From left to right...
Big Ass Mountain called Everest (after the glaziers), Vik, Mum, Santa's Lanky Helper.
part of the palace tour!) and pile apples and packets of biscuits at the feet of every heavily gilt statue (hey, a monk’s gotta eat!). It’s as you follow and squeeze past these devoted little family groups of pilgrims who’ve travelled from far and wide for this opportunity to hum and fiddle with beads within these sacred walls, that you begin to see why they limit the number of people allowed in the building at any one time and more awkwardly, you begin to feel like a bit of a fraud.
If we thought that squeezing past prostrating pilgrims into the little rooms of the Potala was awkward, visiting some of the other monasteries where numbers were not restricted felt entirely wrong. The Jokhang and Sera monasteries in Lhasa and the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse were packed when we visited with small numbers of gawping tourists frustrated that photography within the colourful, golden statue and candle filled buildings was not allowed, but mainly by lines of Tibetan pilgrims with far more spiritual intentions.
As Lhakdon shoved her way through the throng of patiently queuing, slowly shuffling lines of pilgrims with us apologetically in tow, I wondered how this
The Lhasa "Express".
Pictured here doing something it doesn't do a lot of: moving.
kind of tourism would go down in the Christian churches many of these tourists probably attended. Finally, at the head of the mumbling mass, in a tiny room with doorways the size of cat-flaps, with a golden Buddha before me and people chanting and throwing themselves onto whatever floor space they could find beside me, I just nodded my understanding in the hope that Lhakdon would keep her explanations of this particular shrine short and get us out of here so the people who really needed to be here could receive their blessings and make their offerings without an ignorant tourist blocking their view.
But there was one place in Tibet where I would be a pilgrim myself; where there was never any fear of me blocking someone else’s view and where the air was going to be as oxygen-less as inside the monasteries but as clear, fresh and breathtaking as the views.
Qomolangma (Mt Everest) had been up there with Legoland as one of those childhood places of intrigue and awe that I’ve never lost a fascination for and had always wanted to see for myself. Other mountains are more dramatic, others are harder to climb (so
The Lhasa "Express" 2
Pictured here doing what it does for most of the journey: standing still at stations in the middle of nowhere with the doors wide open so there's no hope of keeping the cabins pressurised to deal with altitude.
I’ve heard - I’m yet to put that to the test) and others are much more accessible, but no other mountain and few other places in the world command the legendary status that Everest does. For me, reaching the top is currently a physical impossibility due to a gammy knee, so a trip to the launch pad from which the great and good of the climbing world make their assault on Everest is the best I could hope for.
On the snow covered, white out that is the Gyatso-la Pass on the way to Everest base camp we’d reached 5220m and begun to appreciate just what the phrase ‘thin air’ actually meant. I’d got out of the car to take photographs and discovered, as I struggled to rise from a crouched position without my entire supply of blood rushing to my head all at once, that there’s a time and a place for being arty-farty, and that this wasn’t it. Vik meanwhile had decided that bursting from the car and surprising me with a snowball fight on the occasion of my 30th birthday might be a good idea. Only, by the time she made it to where I was
There weren't too many tourists about while we were in Lhasa. Lots of meat for sale though. And all the butchers looked well dressed and confident with a cleaver. It was dress-down Friday for this guy though.
still carefully trying to stand upright again - 20m from the car - she felt like she’d run a marathon and just about managed to limply launch a handful of snow at me before turning and stumbling quickly back to the car gasping for oxygen.
At 5280m above sea level, Everest base camp just eclipsed the heady heights we’d reached on the Gyatso-la Pass. Fortunately, the snow we’d breathlessly frolicked in at the Gyatso-la and that had obscured any view we might have had from there was nowhere to be seen. Not only that, but there were only two other tourists present. We virtually had Everest to ourselves. If it hadn’t been for the newly constructed toilet block, Samten casually smoking in that squatted position Asian men love to adopt and Lhakdon texting her friends (yes, they get mobile reception at Everest basecamp and all through rural Tibet - but not at my Mum and Dad’s house in Aberdeenshire!), we could have been Hillary and Tenzing… and possibly Tenzing’s Mum.
Even Vik, who was still in the clutches of an AMS induced fever and nausea and who hadn’t seemed moved by much in Tibet (other, perhaps, than by
a fruit salad which had her projectile vomiting pineapple chunks in Lhasa’s Barkhor Square) let slip the word ‘wow’ and seemed as captivated as me and Mum were by the three and a half kilometres of mountain that rose unopposed and unmatched before us. It was without doubt the highlight of the tour and, for me at least, certainly one of the highlights of our journey so far.
There are more photos below