From an August 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 around August 21 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 somone 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.
Part 2 of the story of 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. At this point in the story, after a few days journey, we have arrived at Everest Base Camp, at 17,000+ feet.
A Room without a View at Base Camp
It was a gloomy and still rainy 7 pm or so when we finally dragged into the Everest Base Camp tent city, and there was nothing — at all — to be seen of the mountain, or anything else really. If we could see the mountain, I asked our guide Tashi, where would it be? He circled his arm high over a grayed-out area in front of us – “Oh.”
Choi and Hong, more hardy than me, decided to take a horse cart up the 4 kilometers to what is known as Base Camp, though Base Camp is clearly a fluid concept, with our tent city being called Base Camp, but that actually being only the place where tourists sleep. Further up 4 kilometers is a viewing area that is the farthest casual visitors can go, and the actual climbers have their tents a bit further up from there. Choi and Hong went up to the “viewing” area and came back in the dark, frozen and shattered, having seen a little sliver of the summit snow in a momentary cloud break. For this excursion, Choi, unbelievably, was wearing, as best I can tell
- a t-shirt
- an Oxford shirt
- light khakis
- a thickish wind/rain breaker thing
- hiker/runner shoes.
Back in the tent city, I was wearing:
- a tank top, *3* light fleece pullovers, a down ski jacket, and a rain jacket
- thermal underwear, jeans and rain pants
- fleece gloves and fleece hat
- 2 pair of thick socks and hiking boots
Choi did admit to feeling a touch chilly.
We offered clothing, but he didn’t take us up on it.
Our yak tent was comfy and fairly warm, with Tibetan style shelf-beds with cushions around the edge where we slept, and a fairly useless wood burning stove. With my Diamox altitude meds and a huge sleeping bag borrowed from a guide in Lhasa, plus a couple of heavy blankets, I slept okay, but was hazily aware at some point of someone standing by the stove for a long time, seeming to make a fire, but I wasn’t really sure, and it seemed like they were there for a long time, just scratching around.
It finally occured to me — as it sometimes occurs to me in the middle of the night — that this could be an ax murderer, so I finally called out, “Who IS that?”
It was Choi, who claimed to be okay and said I should sleep. I should have known better, since it turns out he had pretty bad AMS (altitude sickness), couldn’t sleep, and was cold enough to get out of bed and try to start or restart the fire, without either success or effect.
Much worse, he couldn’t breath very well. Hong, with a bad AMS headache, also couldn’t sleep much. At some point Choi took oxygen and was okay till morning; Hong just didn’t sleep much at all. I realized later this is how people get in trouble up there — the confusion of the night — not wanting to bother others. We were lucky they were both okay.
The Face of Chomolangma
I knew they’d had a real bad night when they both refrained from going again to Base Camp in the pre-dawn morning. Both those guys are pretty stoic, and they had said they wanted to go twice. With driver Tenzin eager to get back on what I privately called the Old Shitty road back to Lhasa, I grabbed our poor sleeping guide, Tashi, and a horse cart — there was literally not enough time for me to haul my molasses-slow butt up the 4 kilometers to the viewing spot at Base Camp.
Off we went, into the still cloudy pre-dawn, wildly hopeful that the rainless night and the shifting clouds would work some magic and let Chomolangma (the Tibetan name for Everest) show her face. It was not looking good — the horse cart driver said rain and clouds had obscured her for 3 solid days. It was immensely depressing to realize that we very well might be like the German tourists leaving as we were entering the Everest area, who had seen nothing at all.
In a scene for which I will be eternally grateful, over the next 45 minutes, the clouds brightened and lifted, like layers of veils, as we got closer and closer, until, there she was — Chomolangma in all her glory — almost all white from the storms, that distinctive sharp summit, and long vertical slants of cracked snow fields rising out of the mists. Me and Tashi laughed out loud and high fived. Ha ha! Look at that!
Having deeply doubted in the night if those damn low clouds would ever lift, it was an even more tremendous moment, and it just got better. After we returned to the tents, slammed down some breakfast and made to leave, I stepped outside to brush my teeth or something, and looked up to find her even more glorious — the clouds completely vanished — the sky bright aching blue, the mountain in pure, bright white relief, a moment like the appearance of the mother ship in Third Encounters.
I badly wanted to get closer, to approach the glaciers at the foot of the mountain, but there was no time. Me and Choi and Hong snapped photos like mad while Tenzin tried to herd us out of there — we were two hours late starting — and we headed, bouncing, back to the Old Shitty, grinning, grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime gift.
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