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Published: July 29th 2009
I have finally visited Tibet and I am happy to report that the lag-time in posting a blog update is due to me being busy as opposed to any problems that I ran into with the Chinese authorities. As many of you know, I had been long looking forward to an opportunity to visit Tibet, and while the scenery/country was worth the wait, the journey was the toughest bit of traveling I've done so far. Originally, I was torn as to whether to take a trip to Lhasa, the country's capital, or to Mount Kailash, a mountain located in the countryside that holds religious significance to both Buddhists and Hindus. Both religions believe that walking around the mountain is an auspicious undertaking. While there are tours that combine both Lhasa and the mountain, such trips are long, as the areas are in different directions, and more expensive. (At least when entering Tibet from Nepal, permits are issued only to visitors organized into groups of two or more so travel with a agency is really the only feasible way of visiting. I've heard that some people separate from their travel groups after crossing the border into Tibet, but, given the number of checkpoints that I saw throughout the country, and lack of public transportation, etc., I think that independent travel would be extremely difficult and the likelihood of getting caught pretty high.) Anyhow, I elected to take a two week trip to Mount Kailash that included a chance to walk around the mountain, going as high as 5,700 meters, higher than anything I had done to date.
I was originally scheduled to leave Kathmandu on June 22nd, shortly after returning from the Everest Base Camp trek, with a group of Indian pilgrims. (Particularly in the summer, there are many large groups of Indians making pilgrimages via vehicles to Mount Kailash. Up to 1,000 people a year obtain permits, via an Indian lottery, to make the trip by foot - an approximately month trek for the round trip.) Unfortunately, this first tour was cancelled due, I think, to insufficient, participants. Obtaining information was a little difficult given that my contact at the travel agency was out of town for several days because he had to travel to pick up the body of a tourist who had died on an earlier trip. I was told that such deaths were not particularly uncommon, in part because the pilgrimage trips were often undertaken by older, and sometimes sick, tourists who were seeking the spiritual benefits of the voyage when not in the best of health/conditions. (Even with this quite rational explanation, it was hard to feel a lot of confidence in the agency knowing that my tour organizer recently "lost" a guest, in the most permanent sense of the word.) Nonetheless, I agreed to sign up for the rescheduled tour leaving July 3rd. This group included approximately 65 Indian tourists and 13 other foreigners, primarily from Germany and England. The staff traveling with the group would prepare only Indian food, which was fine with me, particularly as I'm now quite good at loading my bag with granola bars, instant noodles, oatmeal, etc.
The day before departing, I travelled to the hotel in Thamel where the rest of the group was staying for a pre-trip "briefing;" originally scheduled for 4:00 p.m., it finally kicked off just after 6. (As I would come to learn, such delays/confusion would be a defining aspect of the trip.) The meeting consisted of an almost two hour lecture to describe the type of conditions we would be encountering on the journey. According to the agency representative, the hotels/guest houses in which we would stay in Tibet are all owned by the Chinese government and the level of amenities/service would likely be stark. He also presented additional information about travel conditions, the hike, the culture, etc., but I was tempted to discount most of what he said after his advice on high altitude. He explained that altitude sickness was caused solely by "negative attitudes," therefore, so as long as we thought positively, there would be no problems. I'm not pretending to be the world's greatest optimistic, but I'm pretty sure that my lack of appetite at high altitude, and resulting decrease in energy levels, isn't caused solely by my "attitude;" after all, I brought Snickers bars on my last trip and found even those hard to eat despite having a very positive attitude towards candy! The debriefer also told a group of Indians, who lived in either very warm Mumbai or even hotter Dubai, that there was no need to bring warm clothing. Seeing as we were traveling to over 18,800 where temperatures tend to drop pretty dramatically especially at night, I did advice them after our session that gloves and a hat might be useful.
I went home that night and packed the agency-assigned duffel bag. Per the agency's instructions, I was to report back to the hotel the next day by 5:15 in the morning for departure sometime between 5:30-6:00 (the time kept shifting). That morning Thupten was kind enough to wake up at 5 a.m. and take me over to the hotel on the motorcycle. For me, it was a tough ride as I balanced the duffel bag on the seat between us as were were driving. At my request, and sensing my discomfort, Thupten went nice and slowly, which is normally great for me, but by the end I was praying for us to get there fast before I slid off the back of the bike. We got to the hotel at the prescribed time to be met by an unexpected site - nothing. No bus, no tourists, no baggage, no anything. After waiting until 5:30, we called the travel agency, which informed us that the departure date had been bumped up until the next day. Apparently, the visas for the non-Indian tourists had not come in yet, i.e., are passports were still at the Chinese embassy. This meant that if we left, there was a chance we would have to spend the night at the Nepal/Tibet border as we waited for someone to bring our passports to us. However, there were reportedly many tourists at the border and it was unclear if we would be able to get enough rooms. Therefore, we would leave the next day, with passports in hand. It would have been nice to know that before waking up at 4 in the morning, but the travel agency had forgotten to call. To compensate, they gave me a room at the hotel for the night. Unfortunately, it was the night of the Wimbledon semi-finals and the hotel's TVs didn't have the channel showing the event, but, ces't la vie.
The next morning, after another painful early wake-up, the fourteen of us finally departed at 5:30 in the morning. We travelled first by bus for about four hours to the Nepal/Tibet border, where we stopped for lunch. The area leading up to the border was incredibly lush, green and hilly, with only scattered development; very beautiful. We stopped for lunch on the Nepali side of the border in Kodari, a crowded and busy town that had virtually no "touristy" attraction but lots of people carrying goods between the countries. There were many locals who went into Tibet to deliver or pick-up goods from trucks and bring them to vehicles on the other side of the border. Many women also acted as porters for the large tourist groups, carrying 2-3 duffel bags each; one woman with an infant strapped to her back as well.
At lunch I learned that the 13 people with whom I would be traveling, mainly from England and Germany, were also on a pilgrimage, as opposed to simply a sight-seeing expedition. They are all devotees of a Swami from India, and most have spent time living in his Ashram there. The people in the group had pretty diverse backgrounds, but happily for me, one was a homeopathic doctor from England who had brought lots of remedies with her and very generously shared them as needed throughout the trip, and as you'll see if you keep reading, they were in great demand! The Swami had organized this trip and was traveling with the group as well, although he was at first a day ahead with the rest of the Indian pilgrims, several of whom were his devotees and the rest of whom followed different spiritual leaders, at least one of whom was also on the trip. For the pilgrims, there were two main objectives for the trip: rounding Mount Kailash and also visiting Lake Mansarovar, the home of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. We were scheduled to visit the lake on July 7th, which was supposed to be a particularly auspicious day in part because it was a full moon day.
After lunch we walked across a bridge to the Chinese customs building. As were were walking in single file across the bridge (lined up in the order that our names were listed on the group permit, which meant I was always last and hoping that the group didn't forget to wait for me), I noticed a man on the Nepal side taking pictures of the border crossing. Immediately about 4 people, one in uniform and three in plain cloths, approached him to either make him erase the pictures or confiscate the camera. In a less than intelligent move, the man tried to walk/jog away, at which point the handcuffs and batons came out. In the end, he was smart enough to stop walking; I'm not sure what the outcome was, but I'm pretty sure he didn't make it into Tibet that day. Anyway, our group made it through the immigration process, with a few delays, and the only thing confiscated was someone's Tibetan guidebook, which had an introduction by the Dali Lama (somehow, the officials missed my guidebook). Once in Tibet, we met our local guide and piled into jeeps and drove to Zhangmu, where we waited until close to 10 p.m. to complete our custom requirements (I think we were waiting for the special permit needed to visit the Mount Kailash region). This meant that we reached Nyalam, our first night's destination, just after midnight, at which point they served us soup and popcorn for dinner; it had been a long day, almost long enough for me not to mind the spiders crawling all over the walls.
Unhappily, because of road construction schedules, we had to leave the next day at 5 a.m., which meant less than four hours of sleep before setting out (plus, I tried to wake up early given that there was only one bathroom for the whole group and with limited plumbing/indoor water, its good to go first). Normally, the agenda was supposed to include a rest/acclimatization day in Nyalam, which is already at 3,750 meters, but the agency decided to forego this so that we could catch up with the Indians, which was necessary since there was only one staff (i.e., cooks, porters, etc.) for the group - i.e., if we wanted to eat, we had to catch up. At that point, however, there were several people who probably would have been willing to forego the food as we already had about four people unable to keep down any food. So we left at 5 and arrived at our next stop, Saga at around 2:30 in the afternoon; with no food provided along the way. (By now, everyone had already stopped mocking me for carrying so many snacks.)
When we arrived in Saga one of the group organizers proudly announced that there were three rooms available for us with 12 beds. Well great, but there were fourteen of us. On the men's side, they pulled a few extra mats into a room to create an extra bed, and on the women's side, I shared a bed with Monica, a woman from Germany. She has done an incredible amount of world traveling and appreciates the concept that a bed, even if shared, is often a luxury. Despite having only met two days previously, I felt like I had known her for quite some time, in part because we were in the same jeep (the group travelled in four jeeps, with the same people allotted to each jeep for the whole journey - probably to make it easier for the drivers to find us each day) and also because we seemed to have identical symptoms/reactions to the trip. When we first were splitting up into rooms, I had to beg out of joining the "sick room," where there were 3 people who had been vomiting off and on all day, because I have a tendency to get sympathy sickness when hearing people vomit. Turns out, I needn't have worried; by early evening I had an incredibly bad headache and was very nauseous. Because I was sharing a room with 4 other people, I didn't want to get sick in the room, it somehow seemed rude to disturb them, but the bathroom was flooded (plus, had no working water), so I took a garbage can and camped out in the hallway. Between that night and the next morning, I have now been sick more times on this trip then in the last ten years. On the plus side, before getting sick I had a chance to take a short walk around Saga to see the town and practice my very limited Tibetan (i.e., mainly saying hello), and belatedly realizing that Chinese military members probably should not be greeted in Tibetan. I also discovered what is meant by an "open toilet," a term I had not heard before. From hereon out, most of the bathrooms were this style - several stalls next to each other but with no doors, and often, when outdoors, designed with low walls and entrances angled so that users are quite visible from the street and surrounding areas. I can't say that I understand the development of the this design - once you've bothered to build three walls, why not a fourth that happens to open and shut? Its not as if there are no hinges on other parts of buildings.
By the next morning, I think at least 75% of the group had been sick, either from the altitude, we had gone from approximately 1,700 meters in Kathmandu to 4,460 meters in Saga in two days (obviously a much quicker elevation gain than anything I had done when walking), the very windy/bumpy roads, the irregular eating schedule or some combination of the above. Early that morning I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep going, but getting sick relieved the massive headaches so I decided to continue (plus, I'm not really sure the agency would have provided a ride back to lower altitude even if I had asked. In fact, the agency's attitude towards medical issues in general made me start to understand why it was common to "lose" guests on these trips. Even on our first night, they would dispense unlabeled and unpackaged pills left and right and hand out canisters of oxygen to anyone who asked, even though sucking extra oxygen really isn't necessary, or helpful, until you have breathing problems or a very serious emergency, and it doesn't do a whole lot for nausea or upset stomachs, which was the most common ailment of the oxygen users.)
The third day was about an eight hour drive to Paryang, where we stayed four to a room. Dinner was again late and not very good; I know its difficult to cook for 80+ people, but the food was exceptionally difficult to eat (and this was the perspective of many of the Indians as well, not just those less accustomed to Indian food). At this point, I was still telling myself that things might be better the next day, in fact, I kept up this optimism until the last few days, when I realized that there was no hope that organized, efficient or comfortable were adjectives that would ever be associated with this trip. Often during the trip some of the other Germans/Brits would try to accept the difficulties, such as missed meals, by saying, "we are on a pilgrimage, this is a valuable test of our spirits, we can separate our minds from our bodies." My responding thought was, I'm not on a pilgrimage, I paid a bloody ton of money for this trip, my mind is very much still connected to my body and I'm hungry - feed me! (Perhaps my spirituality needs some honing.)
Before dinner in Paryang most of the pilgrims gathered in one large room, where about 30 of the Indian tourists were sleeping, for a session of singing mantras. In these, one person would lead the song, usually singing one line, and the rest would join in on alternating lines. After a few people randomly jumped in to lead a chant, one of the Swamis indicated that we would go around the room, with everyone taking a turn. I had thought I was just sitting in as an observer, but I prepared a song just in case. While I don't know any Hindu mantras, I figured that the song "Tis a Gift to be Simple" is about as unoffensive and neutral as you can get, so I ran through it in my head and was ready should the need arise. However, it turned out that the decision to lead a mantra was a voluntary one, so I was off the hook. The process took quite a while because not everyone fully understood the concept of waiting their turn, or only taking one turn, but the singing was enjoyable for the first hour.
The drive the next day took us to Lake Mansarovar. As on the previous days, the landscape that we drove through was stunning and majestic while at the same time barren and desolate. Unlike the first two days, we could now see snow-capped mountains beyond the first several rings of mountains. In some areas there was barely any green at all, just dusty roads surrounded by large expanses on which it seemed impossible for any animals to graze or any crops to be raised. Often villages, sometimes as few as six houses, sometimes small towns, were several hours drive apart, with no sign of habitation in between except for occasional tents, which presumably were used by herdsmen in the summer months. I have never seen such large expanses of open space, perhaps areas in the United States such as Wyoming have it, but nothing I'd seen in Alaska or Colorado compared. Tibet is 1/8th of the total Chinese landmass, but much of it seems like a very difficult place to live. (Despite the large size of China, the country only utilizes a single time zone, so the sun didn't start setting until about 10 p.m. most days.) The roads on which we travelled were almost entirely unpaved and in some spots very sandy and occasionally crossed streams several inches deep. The drivers were amazing, in addition to being able to navigate the roads, they all seemed to be excellent mechanics - I saw them replace tires, shock absorbers, lights and horns on the side of the roads. They really have to be this good given that dwellings are so spread out; usually the vehicles seemed to travel in the "buddy" system, so that no single car was ever alone for too long in case problems arose. (The only downside of this was that going to the bathroom during breaks behind the car was often slightly risky if you weren't the last vehicle in the caravan. Of course, first choice was to look for a secluded/covered spot on the side of the road, but given the almost complete lack of vegetation beyond scrub, and large flat areas, that wasn't always an option.)
Hindus believe that completely immersing yourself in Lake Mansarovar will wash away the sins of a lifetime. You proceed through several government checkpoints to reach the lake and stop on the way at a great viewpoint overlooking the lake and surrounding mountains, which include a beautiful range of snow-covered mountains on one side and a view of the snow-covered top of Mount Kailash on the other side. The center of this viewpoint is a collection of Buddhist prayer flags that should be circled three times; a task that our driver took care of for us by racing around it three times accompanied by great laughter. Although the sun was still shining when we reached the lake just after 4 in the afternoon, the water was still very cold and the rocks on the bottom quite sharp and slippery. I elected to simply roll up my pants and wade in to just above my knees. I figured that because about a quarter of me got wet, that should cover 25% of my sins, so I decided to apply the sin forgiveness to years 22-30 of my life, figuring I can't have committed too many sins before that point. We spent that night near the lake and had a great view of the full moon over the lake. (It was fortunate that there was a full moon, not just because it made our visit to the lake auspicious, but also because it made finding the restroom, which was about a 3 minute walk from the room, feasible at night. This was one time I was happy to have a bathroom with no roof so that the moonlight could illuminate the area; this was important as the wholes in the ground were quite large with a rather significant risk of partial submersion if you slipped or stepped wrong.)
On the fifth day of our trip, we drove just a few hours to Darchen. Driving in the morning was best, when the weather was still cold outside - enough to require wearing a full jacket in the car. As the sun came up, and became stronger, it would get very warm in the car, which had no a/c, but you had to keep the windows closed because of the extreme dust from the road. By midday the cards were like mini-saunas, but full of people who hadn't had access to bathing water or laundry facilities since the second day of the trip. (Often for bathing, the agency would place a large barrel of luke-warm water in the middle of the parking lot area, and everyone could share that for washing up.) When in Darchen, we were given the opportunity for an afternoon outing (at extra cost of course) to a nearby viewpoint of Mount Kailash that involved a mini-walk up. I had to pass as I had practically no energy, it literally took me about five minutes to get myself to stand up and walk across a room. I think this was from sleeping less than 2 hours a night for the last several days as opposed to the altitude itself. (The night before, three people from my group shared a room with two Indian men, one of whom had panic attacks in his sleep and the other of whom had laughing fits in his - oddly, the latter coming shortly after the first.) Even if I'd been up to it, walking around the towns in which we stayed was less interesting than I had supposed it might be. While I enjoyed visiting local stores, it was difficult to interact with the people and the buildings are much more utilitarian than interesting. The few locals that I saw in more than passing were several young children who hung around the guest houses. Although these kids were usually asking for candy or money, or sneaking into people's rooms and taking things while they were empty, I was able to play with a couple of them for a while - introducing the concept of paper airplanes.
That afternoon, the swami came and told the group that the next day's departure for Mount Kailash, and the three day trek, was not going to happen for a combination of reasons: the drivers might be demanding additional money to take us to the mountain, there were not enough horses available for everyone who wanted to ride, as opposed to walk, around the mountain and the swami did not feel that the kora around the mountain was necessary to complete the purpose of the journey. The swami instead proposed that the group head back to Nepal immediately, in two days driving instead of four, and do some sight-seeing there before heading home early. I was in a difficult position. Most of the group was willing to follow whatever decision the swami made, and didn't want to do anything that involved spending time away from him, while my primary purpose of coming on the trip was to do the trek. However, because the fourteen of us were on a single permit, I was not really in a position to say anything, for if I was the only person who went to the mountain, the entire rest of the group would have to wait for me before returning to Nepal. Happily for me, two other members of the group spoke up, noting that they really wanted to go to the mountain. After several hours of debate, which all took place in the room I was sharing with four others despite the fact that I was trying to sleep in it, three people decided that they would do the trek while the rest of the group would go back with the swami. Later that night, (while I was still trying to sleep), one of the group members came in to tell us that, because we were going to the mountain, the swami couldn't go back to Nepal or even travel within Tibet as he desired, but would have to wait for us at the lake because the group permit would not allow part of the group to move beyond the checkpoint at the lake until we were all together again. This seeming guilt trip (blatant from my point of view) made the other three who had decided to go on the trek start to reevaluate their decision because they didn't want to inconvenience the swami. At this point I sat up and pointed out that the swami was on the Indian's group permit, being Indian himself, so had to wait for the approximately 30 Indians who were going on the hike, not us, so his delay was not in our control at all. Finally, the discussion ended and I was able to go to sleep; 6 hours later than I intended, but still before dinner was served.
So the next morning the whole group headed off to the start of the Mount Kailash kora where the four of us doing the hike were left to do the walk with about half of the Indian group. (It turned out once we reached the start that there were some horses available so many of the Indians used these for much of the walk; although several people fell off their horses, and one woman was dragged several yards, so I wouldn't say that riding was necessarily easier than walking.) Before we took off, the swami wished us all well and told us not to blame him if there was bad weather. Fortunately, I heard this second hand, because upon hearing these words, I thought it was a joke and started laughing. But the others explained to me that the swami really can control, or at least influence, the weather. In fact, part of the reason he wanted to get back to Nepal, and then India, was because there was flooding, from too much rain, near his ashram, and he wanted to go there to pray to make the rain stop. The cynical part of me wondered why the effectiveness of prayers was impacted by the physical location in which they were made, but I kept this and other questions to myself.
The first day of the walk was only several hours (about 4-5, with a tea tent in the middle) on relatively flat ground, with some ascent especially towards the end. (Although we would do the walk in 3 days, the locals usually do it in one long day.) About halfway through the first day it started raining, working its way up from a drizzle to a pretty steady rain; enough to get everything and everyone soaked through. (I guess the swami wasn't so pleased with our decision to split off from the group for the hike.) We spent the first night at an area with two guest houses, where most of the Indians stayed, with a group of tents spread out between them. Although we arrived around 5 p.m., the yak carrying our tent didn't arrive until closer to 8; somehow it must have gotten lost on the way as no one was sure where it was or why it was so far behind the others. We were able to wait inside a large tent which had tables and seats and was lined with beds. I went through over a liter of hot water trying to warm up, although maybe I should have poured it directly into my boots to be effective, and as an attempt to sooth my sore throat, which hurt each time I swallowed. (Happily, there was no Chinese health post here as I was suffering from either a very bad cold or mild flu at this point and would have failed the fever test.) Our tent finally arrived and was set up with 4 almost dry groundmats and 2 sleeping bags. We asked about the sleeping bags and were told that, "if we really wanted two more," the staff would try to dry two more out for us to use. Given that there were four of us staying in the tent, we did indeed want the extra sleeping bags. (The bags we used were the agency's sleeping bags, not our own, and the one I had on the second night had such a strong odor that I could barely bring myself to pull it up at night and my tent-mates kept trying to roll away from me, hard since there was only a few inches between us.) Rather than wait for the 10 p.m. dinner, I ate crackers and peanut butter for dinner and went to bed around 9, freezing and miserable.
I awoke the next day when it was still dark. We were told that today's walk would take about a dozen hours, which ended up being a fairly accurate estimate. After half a cup of oatmeal, we set off in the early light for another hourish of flatish walking before the real ascent began. We spent the next several hours walking up - often in fairly steep sections, to reach the pass at 5,700 meters, fueled by a snickers bar, lots of homeopathic remedies and mutual pep talks with Richard, the person with whom I was walking. Although it was hailing a bit on the way up, which is still much better than rain, we had fairly decent views, including of some beautiful surrounding mountain ranges that were topped with rather craggy rocks that made interesting viewscapes. The high point was covered with prayer flags and had nice views down towards the valley we had walked through the day before. However, we only spent about 10 minutes on the top, as Monica had a strong ringing in her ears (generally a sign that one might pass out shortly) and I was feeling a little light-headed, so we all agreed that starting the descent was a good idea; we would be sleeping approximately 900 meters lower, which we hoped would relieve any altitude-related symptoms. There was a very steep descent, paralleling what we had just come up, that took two to three hours. (For us, this included many stops on the way down. As Richard had noted, the guides had warned against stopping while climbing up, as it is hard in the high altitudes to get your breath when you start moving again, but they said nothing against breaks on the way down.) This was the type of descent where people sit at the end in an attempt to get their legs to stop shaking. One member of our group made it down quite quickly, about an hour before the remaining three of us. When we three reached the resting spot, we sat down for a snack - within two minutes the fourth asked us if we were ready to move on. This is where it helped being the "outsider" of the group; I was able to quite emphatically say no, that we wanted at least five minutes to rest before proceeding!
The rest of the day's walk was much gentler, with the remaining descent in very manageable grades. For most of the afternoon it was a sunny, relatively warm day. It rained for about an hour and a half near the end of the afternoon, but there was enough sun, and distance, left afterwards for our cloths to dry out before we reached that night's campground. The last several hours of walking were quite long; they just seemed to take forever. It probably didn't help that Richard and I caved in a bit too frequently to the desire to take rest breaks. At one point, we stopped and sat to let a group of yaks pass us. Once they had passed, I suggested that we start walking again but Richard said we should continue to rest as more yaks were coming. I looked but couldn't see any, but he explained that, at some point, on some day, there would be more yaks, and that was all he needed for a reason to keep sitting. We eventually kept walking, on a path that spent much time alongside a river, lined on both sides by "lower" mountains with the larger ones visible behind them. Again we were travelling mainly through a valley like area. There were some beautiful camping spots, where smaller groups could stop, but because of the size of our group, we continued to where there were more guesthouses (although again, the four of us shared a tent). Happily, Richard has done lots of camping and recognized that one of the tents was at a diagonal, which meant we would have all ended up in a pile in one corner, and was able to get us the best positioned of the tents for the night. We arrived at the campsite around 7 that evening and, after eating cup-of-noodles bought from the proprietors of the guest house, called it a night and went to bed; ignoring the later dinner calls from the agency staff.
The final day of the walk, which was the fifth month anniversary of my departure from home, was a beautiful day: sunny, almost warm and very little wind. Again the path continued, mainly flat, along the river, with a fair bit of low greenery along the way and, near the end, views of additional snow-capped mountain ranges in the distance. The walk was only a few hours, but we tried to go as slowly as possible to delay its end. Given the difficulty of the ascent on the second day, I think doing the entire kora in a day would be very difficult, probably doable, but very painful. As it was, I would have been hard pressed to keep going on the second day if I had been asked. When we did finally reach the end, we had some time to wait for the rest of the group to finish before we would all pile into jeeps to meet the non-hikers back at the lake. At one point, Richard, Monica and I were sitting on some rocks close to where a group of yaks was brought to have their packs unloaded. As we were watching, one of the yaks managed to throw off half of its load and began bucking and running around, tyring to get the rest off. As it started to move too close to us, still having fits, the three of us jumped up and less than elegantly scrambled back up the parking area, away from the yaks. I'm sure we were a funny sight for the locals, all of whom were smart enough to stay away from the yaks. This particular animals ended up running away and down the riverbank, when pursued, it crossed the river and was still uncaught when we left.
The rest of the journey can be recapped rather quickly; we spent the rest of that day, and the next two, retracing our steps back to Nepal, driving from early in the morning (usually around 5:30 or 6 a.m. departures) to night (arrivals at 8 p.m. or later). On the day we finished the hike, we arrived so late at the guest house that they didn't bother distributing our duffel bags, which meant we had no cloths other than what we had brought on the mountain to change into. Fortunately, 3 of the 4 people in my jeep had been on the hike so we didn't offend many people with the fact that we were still wearing the cloths we'd hiked in for 3 days. I had by now completely given up on the food prepared by the agency, (one night the dinner was rice soup and rice), and ate meals at local restaurants. On one day's drive we saw a beautiful sunset over the last of the high mountains that we would see on the trip and on the last day in Tibet, we drove along a paved road, only the second we had encountered, for several hours. Along this new road there had obviously been a lot of work put into the irrigation systems, for the area went from being dry and brown to lush and green, with vibrant rice paddies and other crop fields. This stretch of road was also surrounded by a greater density of development than we had seen elsewhere in Tibet, with a majority of the buildings looking relatively new.
By the time we returned to Nepal, I was quite happy to be out of a jeep and be able to stretch my legs again. Overall, I'd say that the trip was the most difficult piece of travelling that I have done. If I were to repeat the experience, I would look for a way to break up the driving, or to at least have more days in the mountains. While I am extremely grateful that I had an opportunity to visit Tibet, and Mount Kailash, I'm not sure that I would recommend this particular version of the trip. At the very least, I think that travel in a smaller group, i.e., less than 80 people, would be preferable. On the plus side, thanks to having done several treks before this trip, I was the only one in the group who didn't seem to care that there was no chance for a shower after the second day of the trip. So the silver-lining I take away from this is that at least I haven't had to purchase much shampoo yet!
p.s. to those of you who have asked, after Tibet I spent about another week in Kathmandu and then travelled to Geneva, where I am currently staying. I'll write more soon about that trip and Switzerland.
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