Category Archives: Nepal and Tibet ’09

Avoiding the Swine, and Treading a Fine Line in Tibet

These days, the only way to get into Tibet (or more accurately the Tibet Autonomous Region) is on a Group Visa. It was therefore as one of a merry band of twelve (rapidly assembled by a small tour company in Kathmandu) that I approached the Nepali-Tibet border earlier this week.

In sharp contrast to the gentle transition from India to Nepal, the shift from Nepal to Tibet (China) was abrupt, and full of incident.

The lackadaisacal Nepali approach to life is reflected in its border controls; friendly officials made the necessary stamps in our twelve passports, smiled sweetly, wished us well, and waved us across the river that marks the border at Kodari.

And… welcome to China. Immaculate shiny white walls embossed with Golden chinese characters. Officials looking, well, official, in smart olive-green uniforms. Brand new electronic scanning machines lined up ready to gobble up and spit out the odds and sods of our luggage. Heat sensitive body scanners at the customs point.

This was, of course, all to be expected. Less predictable were the white-coated face-masked medical staff hustling us into lines and preparing for a series of Swine Flu tests. Body temperature was the chosen method of testing; an imposing nurse with a blacksmith’s forearms thrust a thermometers at each of us, commanding us to despatch them under armpits. A couple of us mused on the fact that the prospect of failure was enough to raise the temperature of the hardiest traveler.

Two of our group (Italian girls) did, in fact, fail at the first hurdle. Three painful hours later, they were let through, much to our collective relief. It had been a nervy period.

We later found out that we were exceptionally lucky. The previous group that had come from Kathmandu had been in quarantine for three days after one of their group had been a solitary centigrade above normal body temperature and had confessed to having a bit of a snuffle. As we drove off into the heart of Tibet, we passed the hotel where the quarantined group were being held, complete with officials in full head-to-toe white bodysuits loitering outside.

At that point, the group were only halfway through their ordeal – they were eventually released after six days when it was established that Italy did not, in fact, share a border with Mexico. They caught up with us in Lhasa, bemused but in excellent spirits, and full of amusing tales. The official story can be read here; a less official (but harmless) story will, I am told, be contained in a rap on youtube (recorded while under quarantine) by the end of this week. (14.07 – Now available).

Through Tibet on a shoestring

The Friendship Highway is the name for the remarkable road that connects Nepal to Lhasa across the Tibetan plateau, above 3500m for most of the way and rising to over 5200m over half a dozen passes. Long stretches are either still under construction (or suffering from rapid and near-perpetual disintegration); beleagured Tibetan workers line the road day and night marshalled into action by military-clad officials.

The landscape is unforgettable. There is a tangible sense of being on the roof of the world. We gained altitude rapidly, tumbling over farmtrack-standard roads in three 4x4s, skirting round below the Tibetan base camp for Northern approaches to Mount Everest.

I was relieved that I had effectively acclimatised during my trek; others were less lucky. Our first night was spent dangerously high for the uunacclimatised at 4300m, leading to five of our party feeling thoroughly rotten for days.

Over the next four days, we saw many faces of Tibet. We visited magnificent Buddhist monasteries, marvelled at views south to the Himalayas across barren steppes, and stayed in depressing high altitude ghost-towns whose streets were filled with alcohol-sodden Tibetans. The contrasts and contradictions here are many.

We arrived in Lhasa yesterday, sweeping along the broad boulevards that have been constructed as the city shifts to being a de facto part of China. Nothing, though, can detract from the splendour of the Potala Palace and the amazing sight of pilgrims from across the region prostrating in front of the Jorkhang temple. But as Lhasa starts to sprawl Westwards it is very definitely becoming a modern Chinese city. The majority of the population are now Chinese, and a walk through the commercial district today revealed branded western shops like Nike, Kappa and Adidas jostling with emerging Chinese brands, even a luxury watch shop offering Rolexes. Perhaps the supreme irony (in a city initially constructed around the Buddhist philosophy that desire is at the root of all suffering) is the existence of a Playboy store in the heart of this ancient city.

It will take a while to assimilate all the impressions from the past week, which is probably a Good Thing. The cast of characters in our group have been tremendous fun and ensured a positive attitude; and with nine countries represented (DE, SWE, AUS, CZ, SLO, US, UK, BRA, ITA), certain national characteristics have been flamboyantly and most amusingly flaunted.

Much as I would love to stay here longer, it appears that this is impossible so I will leave in a couple of days for Golmud in Qinghai province, an “incredibly isolated city, even by the standards of Northwest China” that, so my guidebook tells me, is “definitely worth a look, if only for sociological reasons”.

(“Technical problems” in China mean that it is hard enough to post anything at the moment, let alone pictures – but some will follow in due course when/if things ease up.)


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Base Camp, Bad Booze, and Bad News

[Continued from the previous post]

It is a short 90-minute saunter up the side of the glacier to get to Everest Base Camp, the jumble of tents at the bottom of the infamous Khumbu Icefall apparent from some distance.

Given the uncertain nature of glacial terrain, the path doubles back and forth past crevasses before suddenly entering the compact area of tents. This year, it is home for over 600 climbers, supporting sherpas and porters, their tents perched improbably on the ice on stone-built platforms.

The risks are ever-present. A couple of days before my visit, an avalanche had swept down the Khumbu Icefall, killing one Sherpa climber and injuring two others, the snow-dust cloud reaching well into Base Camp itself. The Icefall, which moves about a metre down the hill each day, is always dangerous – and particularly unpredictable this year. The snow piled up on the forbidding slopes to North have made it more treacherous than usual – to the extent that at least one expedition leader has put a time limit on climbers getting through. If you can’t make it in time, tough – you’re back down, no climb.

But I had work to do – 8 days earlier, across a couple of mountain ranges ot the West, I had been given a letter to deliver from a Sherpa whose son was at Base Camp. I started asking around to locate his expedition. “Alpine Ascents?” I enquired. The familiar answer – “Go straight” with a vague wave of the arm in the direction of the main camp – wasn’t particularly helpful.

In fact, somewhat predictably, Alpine Ascents was the furthest possible set of expedition tents right at the top of the temporary village by the foot of the icefall. Knowing that expeditions were not always that keen on the distraction of visitors, I entered gingerly.

“Errrr… I’m the postman – anyone know Nima Nuru Sherpa?” A few shouts and grunts later, and the 19-year-old Nima wandered out, toothbrush in hand.

It was a great moment – in an age of instantaneous communication across continents, there’s something deeply satisfying about delivering a letter by hand over 30 miles and eight days. After he had devoured the letter, I sat quietly drinking tea with Nima for half an hour. He must have offered me more tea about very 30 seconds. I will stay in touch with him.

I spent a further couple of hours at Base camp, chatting with the leader of the Jagged Globe expedition (Adele, pictured in front of the Icefall, with the ominous hanging ice on the slopes to the left/North) and one of the climbers, Doug (Everest will complete the “Seven Summits” for him). I did a climbing course with Jagged Globe in the Alps in 2006. Adele was, amusingly, recovering from a massive party put on my the Kazakhstani Expedition the night before.

I also managed to enjoy the incredible apple pie in the Base Camp Bakery (set up by a climber-Sherpa Steven Dawa Sherpa – all the profits go towards an initiative to remove plastic waste from Base Camp) before eventually dragging myself away from this fascinating human drama.

The challenges of Everest 2009…

As I returned to Gorak Shep, heavy snow started to close in. It would snow for the next three days. Summit attempts this year have already been postponed once (orignally May 10th), and the snows are threatening to do so again. As I write, many expeditions have set off with the aim of summitting on or around the 20th. You can read about their progress here. With so many expeditions, the chances of queues for the top along the final stages is high.

After a quick wander up the 5600m peak Kala Pittar, I reluctantly started heading back down the Khumbu valley. 4 days of sickness (plus the deteriorating weather) put paid to my plans to walk over a third pass to the fifth valley.

As I descended, a series of strange incidences occurred which only made sense later. A Sherpa complaining of severe kidney pain in Gorak Shep; an expedition leader passed me running down from Base Camp to the medical camp at Pheriche and back (2 hours round trip); a higher-than-usual number of helicopters buzzing up and down the valley.

The full story is quite remarkable, and very sad. Essentially a bad batch of moonshine booze from Kathmandu (methanol masquerading as whisky) killed one Sherpa cook and severely injured another. The activity I had witnessed was an amazing (successful) 48-hour battle to save the second Sherpa. It is recorded, by the climber whose cook he was, in a compelling blog here. The doctors had to innovate above and beyond normal practice, eventually (bizarrely) putting him on an alcohol drip, to combat the methanol. Incredible.

Return to Namche and beyond

Within two hard days of walking through the snow, I was back in Namche Bazaar. I returned to the hut that I had started from. I was happily explaining my route to the owner and casually mentioned the Japanese climbers that I had bonded with over the local rice-beer Chang 15 days earlier. I was shocked to hear that 2 of them had been killed in their attempt to climb Kawande, their rope being cut by a falling rock as they ascended a ridge. It was a final reminder of how dangerous proper climbing in this region can be.

I returned, bearded, to Kathmandu for the inevitable night out in Thamel, and reflected on a rewarding, fascinating and sobering 20 days. Taking the path less trodden across the passes) had given me a broader sense of the region and it’s culture than I could have hoped for; and travelling without a guide or a porter (I carried all my own gear) increased the physical challenge, and gave me a very liberating sense of freedom.

Finally, the trek served as Phase 2 of my unintentional weight loss programme (Phase 1 being qualifying as a Yoga Teacher). Getting ill at altitude is a fine way to shed the pounds (though probably not medically recommended). While not quite a rake yet, I definitely am erring on the slender side for the first time in a few years.

I leave for Tibet, overland, on Tuesday; with only a 15-day one-man “group” visa for Tibet, I then have the challenge of entering China via the Lhasa-Qinghai railway, and trying to extend my visa – apparently not as easy as it sounds.

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Getting to Everest Base Camp – the long way round

[I got back to Kathmandu yesterday – this is the first of 2 posts about the last 20 days in the Everest region. The second will appear tomorrow]

After spending two days rattling around in the small Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar, I was eager to get going, and to get some real altitude.

From Namche, five glacial valleys spread out like the thumb and fingers of a hand, separated by towering snow-clad peaks. Most people tramp up to Everest Base Camp along the Khumbu valley which stretches like the ring finger to the North-East; given my lack of time constraints (and my relative fitness following Sikkim), my intention was to visit them all over 20 days, travelling West to East across high passes where possible.

A barren landscape (in more ways than one)

The small village of Thame was my first stop, to allow for nosing around the less-explored valleys in the West and starting the slow process of acclimatisation.

As an introduction to just how ingrained climbing is in this region, you can’t beat Thame – it is hard to find a villager who hasn’t summitted Everest. The owner of the small lodge I stayed in, Ang Phurba Sherpa, had summitted a couple of times; Ang Rita Sherpa, who as summitted 10 times without Oxygen, is also from this tiny village.

I shared the lodge with a team of four Japanese climbers who were planning an assault on Kawande, a notoriously difficult peak. Climbing/walking days here tend to start at dawn, and finish by early afternoon, leaving plenty of time for reading, thinking and chatting, so I was glad to have a chunky Dickens novel (Martin Chuzzlewit) to while away the hours. Time somehow also passed more swiftly when my new-found Japanese friends and I discovered a shared taste for the local homebrew “Chang“, which had the added benefit of lowering the language barrier significantly.

I left Thame to walk up the second valley, heading North towards the Nangpa La pass to Tibet, This is truly bleak, barren wilderness – you can get to the Tibetan border in two long days with a tent, but not many pass this way. I walked as far North as I could without a tent, rewarded with spectacular views of the massive Cho Oyo on the Nepalese border. This is also a great place to see the raw grittiness of Sherpa life, and to sense the strength of the Buddhist influence here. You can walk for miles without seeing much sign of cultivation, and then suddenly come across a glacial boulder intricately carved with Mani inscriptions, or a water-powered prayer wheel whirring away.

I stopped in the last hut before Tibet, spending two nights with Pemba Nuru Sherpa. His Chang, brewed in December, was exceptional, and as we chatted in stilted English, it became clear that he had been on Everest 6 times too, with Alpine Ascents International. It became clear that the risks of a life on Everest also had obvious benefits – he had four children at boarding school in Kathmandu.

One evening, when Pemba realised I was eventually heading to Everest Base Camp, he became quite animated. His eldest son, 19, was at Base Camp. Would I carry a letter to him? I said I would be delighted to.

By now I was well-acclimatised; with the letter in my pocket, I headed East over the spectacular 5400m Renjo La pass, a tough six-hour day, dropping down to Gokyo, a village set by one of a series of 6 glacial lakes. Gokyo is relatively popular as a trekking destination due to stunning views of Everest from a 5400m peak nearby.

After 3 days of wonderful solitude, the relative bustle of Gokyo took a little mental adjustment. I started chatting to some of the others in the lodge, and was reminded that the economic landscape away from Nepal was just as bleak as some of the areas I had been walking through. In one hut of twelve people, there were two Spanish girls, a British couple, one American and even one Chinese all made redundant in the last 6 months. In a telling and amusing role reversal, the British couple (both in their fifties) had shocked their children by announcing to their children at Christmas that they were off travelling for half a year.

I spent three fun nights in Gokyo, getting up early to see the sun rise over Everest, and exploring some of the higher lakes. (Everest is, funnily enough, the big one in the photo).

Down and Out in Dzongla and Gorak Shep

I teamed up with four others to cross the glaciered 5450m Tsho La pass over into the Khumbu Valley. We were across the hard stuff by mid-morning and had started to drop down the other side when it started.

Rumble. Rumble. Rumble. Thankfully this was the start of an intestinal avalanche rather than the more dangerous snow-laden type; I made for the first hut I could find in the small summer Yak herding station Dzongla, and hunkered down in a sleeping bag, feeling truly rotten, sickness being accentuated by the altitude of 4800 metres.

In an inevitable twist of fate, this was one of the huts with only an outside toilet. For two nights, I pulled my boots on and off with monotonous regularity to make the 50 yard dash to the rough shed with a hole in the ground that passed for a toilet, the only compensation being the most incredible views of Ama Dablam by moonlight. I even managed to remain compos mentis enough to take a snap in my reduced state.

On the third day I struggled for four hours up to the highest hut in the Khumbu valley, the last village before Base Camp, Gorak Shep at 5140m. This proved to be somewhat premature, and I spent another day laid low and miserable.

With time now marching on, and Base Camp tantalisingly out of reach, I got busy reminding myself that, in the best Buddhist fashion, pain is temporary. Then suddenly two pretty Brazilian girls came to my aid. Apart from lighting up the lodge, they also pushed some of the drug Diamox (for reducing the effects of altitude) my way, which gave my body time to recover from what had been a gut-wrenching bug.

I was slowly returning to some sort of form… as I fell into a drug-induced sleep on my second night at over 5000m, I resolved to get to Base Camp the following day come what may. After all, I had a letter to deliver…

[Click for follow up post: “Base Camp, Bad booze, and Bad news“]


Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Nepal and Tibet '09