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Published: November 22nd 2007
It is now clear to me why they call the road between Tibet and Nepal the 'Friendship Highway'. When you spend a week or so in a jeep with each other, driving for most of the day through the dramatic, vast and empty landscapes, challenged by cold and altitude, you have two choices: you start hating each other's guts, or you become good friends. Luckily for us, the latter applied. The drive can become especially amusing if you discover that some of the people you are travelling with have the same childish sense of humour as you. Emilie and I discovered that we both have a great passion for music, and to pass the time, we entertained Pupu (our driver), Jampa (our guide), and fellow traveller Natalie with our huge repertoire of crooned songs, which included highlights from the 80's to Madonna, Queen and Edith Piaf, and when we got bored of that, we started singing along in phonetics to the tape of Tibetan singer Tsering Gyurmey, which Pupu played over and over again on our trip. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, but the Fellowship of the Freezeship Highway, as Natalie aptly named us, became crazier and happier every
day. We were laughing so much on that trip that Lama Emilie suggested that we had hogged the happiness monopoly amongst the travelling jeeps (there were a few of us, and most of them ended up arguing with their drivers, or ignoring them at best). Despite the reservations we initially had about Jampa, our guide, we grew quite fond of him after several days - especially when we realised that he was only 22 years old, had spent eleven years of his life studying in India and had therefore, not a clue about his native country - which explained his sometimes very original answers to our questions about sites in Tibet. Never mind, as I explained on the last evening to some fellow travellers, he may not have been the ideal guide, but he had other qualities. I eventually 'adopted' him as my son, upon which he started calling me Mom, carrying my handbag, pouring my tea, helping me over difficult passes, and generally being a real sweetheart. He took his role of adopted son very seriously indeed, and we have agreed that he will teach me Tibetan when I return to Tibet, and I will teach him German in
Pupu... well, Pupu the driver remained Pupu, gazing longingly at me in the mirror, blowing me kisses when he thought nobody was watching, but my chances were ruined when, upon a toilet stop, I jumped into the driver's seat of our jeep and drove the car for a few meters. Pupu looked at Jampa, shook his head and mumbled something. Jamba laughed and said to me: 'He said you're not like Tibetan women at all. You're just like a boy!' That evening, Pupu ignored me completely. Bereft, I poured my heart out to Lama Emilie, who oracled, 'The Goddess saw that you were becoming weak. You were about to succumb to the advances of our married driver. As this is not appropriate, She sent you the idea to drive the car, which made the driver realise that the fantasy is all in his head.' We also developed the French-German Friendship Highway vocabulary on the drive: it consisted of learning the names of all the animals we saw in both French and German, and Pupu added some atmosphere by imitating the animal's sounds. I told you there was an extreme lack of oxygen in the Himalayas!
place without hot water and heating (and, as we later found out, the best place for 'whoring'), became a distant mirage of luxury as we continued on the Freezeship Highway. The next evening, we arrived in the godforsaken village of New Tingri near Everest Base Camp, a long road that consists of 'hotels', 'shops' and 'restaurants' (full of leftovers from expiditions). To give you an idea, the place we staid in, called 'The Sunshine Hotel', consisted of the lovely Tibetan family's kitchen downstairs, and little rooms with cardboard walls upstairs (when I tried to close the door Emilie commented in hysterics that the whole wall moved - but not the door). The window was broken, so Emilie and I improvised by hanging emergency blankets over it to stop the icy draft coming in, lighting candles, and purifying the room (it was needed) with frankincense oil, sounds and incense. The blankets and pillow looked and smelled like they had not been washed for a year, so I was grateful for the thermal sleeping bag I had bought in Lhasa, and the toilet consisted of a latrine with view. On the upside, you could see the stars from the open toilet 'window'
and our room was south-facing. It's amazing what you can get used to when you travel, and how quickly you can lower your expectations. The family of the Sunshine Hotel was lovely, though. The granny of the family, touched by the fact that I was wearing Tibetan clothing, plaited my hair Tibetan style for me (completely with wooly streaks), and when the son fell and cut his hand, doctor Tiziana was called to disinfect his hand with tea tree oil and wrap with bandages.
Everest Base Camp put everything into perspective, though. We left early in the morning for the drive up to Base Camp (5150 m) and seeing the sunlight play on the mountains was spectacular. Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, (which Tibetans call Qomolangma, translated as 'Mother of the Universe' or 'Goddess Mother of the Snows'), is sacred to Tibetans - for them, it is the Sacred Mother Goddess mountain, the Mother Goddess of all Gods. Together with the other two mountains that surround her, they create the triple Goddess. To stand on the prayer-flag covered peak at Base Camp on a crystal-clear day, feeling the sharp winds in our bones, was the experience
of a lifetime.
Our next stop, after EBC, was a village called Old Tingri - which, in terms of luxury, was a step below New Tingri. This time, we excitedly spotted a seductive sign 'Bathroom: 10 yuan' near our tiny rooms. Could it be - was there really a shower? Our hopes were to be shattered. We found out, via Jampa, that the bathroom was closed.... for the season. 'Please come back in April', should have been the sign overwriting the 10 yuan sign. Instead, we had to contend with an extremely putrid earth hole toilet, and the roaring of a generator half-way through the night, because this village only gets a ration of electricity at 9 pm, for a couple of hours. Nevertheless, as I woke up in my thermal sleeping bag with blankets on top in our shabby little room, the windows frozen, with the prospect of splashing some cold water onto my face, I smiled to myself. Despite everything, or maybe because of everything, I don't think I have ever been so happy. Yes, we may not have had a bathroom or water or warmth, we were dusty and hadn't washed our hair in days, but we had everything else: magnificent scenery, nature, sunshine, good company, enough food, laughter. It was all perfect, and how it was meant to be.
Our last day on the Freezeship Highway started with a long sermon in Tibetan from Jampa to Pupu, because Pupu had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol the previous night with fellow drivers, which incited Jamba to lecture Pupu on the state of sinking Tibetan morals - for hours. The best thing was that Emilie and I, not particularly apt in Tibetan, entertained each other by translating this monologue (Pupu did not reply to most of the sermon) into English, without knowing what they were actually saying. 'You should not drink so much!' 'Yeah yeah', 'It's bad for your health!' 'Yeah, whatever!' 'What about your wife?' etc etc. When the sermon finally stopped and I asked Jampa what they had been discussing in such earnest, I was amazed to find out that we were not that far off the mark!
The most amazing and emotional sight of the whole Highway arrived in the form of the last 5000 m pass. I just can't put it into words, so the pictures will have to suffice. To see the snow-covered Himalayas spread out in front of us, with the vastest amount of prayer flags, offerings, stone pyramids.... it was a religious experience. Natalie started crying, and for a change, Emilie and I shut up and just looked and felt the pure perfection that was all around us.
After another mania-fuelled drive down serpentine roads, accentuated by such classics as Pupu (who doesn't speak English, remember) screaming 'Fukkkk youuuuuuuu!' at a passing truck, we arrived in the sorry town of Zanghmu on the Nepalese border in the evening. The town is one long serpentine road which spreads out for kilometers, lined with hundreds upon hundreds of parked trucks (presumably waiting for the border to open), which caused us to crawl through the little dark town in something like two hours. Another crappy room, but this time with a hot communal shower which was very much appreciated, a warmer climate - and the biggest spider (dinner-plate size) I have seen in my entire life sitting on the wall in our room. Luckily a heroic Tibetan removed it for us. We left Tibet with heavy hearts the next morning, via taxi (the Tibetan and Nepalese borders are 9 km apart) and by foot (you have to cross a bridge by foot), to welcome new adventures, new people, and an almost tropical climate.
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