From a 2007 land cruiser trip from Lhasa to Everest by YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon, shared with two South Koreans, Hong and Choi, along with our Tibetan driver, Tenzin, and guide Tashi. At this point in the story, we had traveled from Lhasa to Gyantse via the Kamba la pass (4794 meters / 15,700 feet, and lovely Yamdrok-tso lake. We had slipped around the ancient lovely stones of Tashilumpo monastery in Shigatse in a downpour, clumped around heavy Sakya in a gray rain, and hunkered down in Lhatse for a night, before setting off for Everest Base Camp in intermittent showers.
From the tent city at Everest Base Camp, 17,000 some odd feet
Unbelievably, I don’t have an altitude headache or feel sick to my stomach, surely due to the Diamox I’ve been taking. Though somewhere on the long, brutal road here, I did think I was going to pass out, gasping, from walking 50 meters back up a gentle slope I’d gone down for a slight amount of privacy to pee, a herd of men just over the rise.
Tibet, like certain other places in the world, shifts your level of modesty dramatically. Like when, shortly on arriving at the rainy, cloudy Base Camp, me and two young Tibetan girls squatted amiably, side by side, in one of the foulest latrines I’ve ever experienced. At least the yaks didn’t try to come in, which I read somewhere sometimes happens. Now that would suck.
Challenges to my modesty or toilet sensibilities were the least of the worries getting here today, which was a small test of faith. I’m embarrassed to even say so, since we were driven here, and I think of the INSANE, but very, very brave and hardy, bicycle riders we passed on the way, or the folks who climb the mountain, or even the people who hike here from Tingri.
But our experience was our experience, and it was a test in its own way. At least one driver turned back because of the shocking road conditions, caused by days of rain, and we had endless convocations with other drivers and land cruiser passengers, and ourselves all along the way.
We were doing good on our journey from Lhasa until we got to the fork of the turn off the new “main” road to Everest Base Camp (EBC), and the old, shitty, road. We had already resigned ourselves to the Shitty since the new one is under construction still for the 2008 Olympic tourist push, but at the fork we met a couple of cruisers returning from EBC on the main road, completely covered in mud and with a sad tale of driving in on the Shitty, but in conditions so outrageously bad that the drivers refused to return that way, and risked instead the fine for taking the unopened main road. Worse, it had rained for days and the travelers coming out said they never saw Everest, not even a tiny glimpse. Shit.
We hemmed and hawed and decided for some crazy reason to try the Shitty anyway — I think because it hadn’t rained all day that day, so far. Though the track — not even close to a road — was mudville, we went bumping and sliding along pretty happily, until we ground to a halt at the foot of a small rise, where we met someone who was turning back, and they said another car was stuck up somewhere ahead.
Then, wouldn’t you know it, at that very moment, a huge driving, hailing rain came up and we all slumped dejected in the stopped car, very nearly defeated. I myself did not fancy navigating the very slick, narrow, wind up the small cliff edge in the near distance so was pretty ready to return to Lhatse and try again the next day, but Choi, god bless him, wanted to keep going. After endless discussion, we all agreed to wait and see:
- if the rain stopped
- if anymore cars got spit back out of the Shitty
Unbelievably, 20 or 30 minutes later, the rain lightened and no more cars came back, and we determined to head on in. I couldn’t look at the road for the first 15 minutes — slightly steep, very narrow, hugging the small mountainside, deeply rutted with fresh oozing mud, with a drop off on one side — maybe 100-200 feet, not that much, but plenty enough to do irrevocable harm. It was actually more bearable to look at the little valley below than the horrible, horrible road.
Then that was behind us, the sun came out and it was if the bad part never happened — we were bumping and grinding gears along a vast, vast, vast grassy plain with nomad huts and yaks and a bucolic little stream. The road conditions flip-flopped over the next hours (4 hours? 6 hours? who knows when you are driving in Tibet) from extremely pleasant to horrid, with more than one occasion of twisting sickly through mud pits, but by that time, we were pretty much traveling on a high, flat plain and had formed a caravan with other Tibetan drivers so I felt safe and happy.
I reckon the communal journey to EBC is like TV for the local Tibetan road crews, who squat by the mud slicks or road/streams and watched us lurch, or spin, or flail, or blow a tire, or most entertainingly, slide backwards down a mud hill.
One spot was good fun for all of us — a very small hill — a sort of intersection for a couple of the mud tracks we were traveling.
As we approached, we saw a couple or 3 cruisers stopped up the hill a ways, with the Chinese drivers and tourists, all out of the cars, standing on the hill, keenly observing the progress of 2 or 3 Tibetan cruisers trying to make it up this little hill.
Compared to other spots, this seemed a breeze, but somehow it was extremely challenging. A cruiser would make a little run at it, all of us willing it on — and start sliding in slow motion back down until somene would gunk over in the mud and throw a big rock under one of the wheels. When our turn came, master driver Tenzin pulled it off with only the merest of wiggles and off we sailed, hooting over our shoulders, to the next challenge.
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By Lobsang Wangdu