Kong and my first day in Tibet was spent driving through progressively higher (and more beautiful) passes to Everest Base Camp (EBC). The sky was so blue, the air so fresh… in the morning walking through the dark corridors of our hotel into the fresh, thin mountain air sent me all the way back to my first days in Madrigal. It felt like returning home. I can’t describe the feeling I get in the mountains, but it’s unmatched by any other. You can keep your Taj Mahals, Eiffel Towers, and South Pacific beaches. This is it. Jeonghee is a coastal, beach-loving girl through and through, so this feeling will probably be a sporadic one for me, but then again she’s never seen proper mountain country, so perhaps one day she’ll fall in love with it as I have.
Tibetan people even look similar to Peruvians, with their weather-beaten, high-cheekboned men wearing wide-brimmed hats and long-worn sweaters and their forever raven black-haired women and children with permanently pink cheeks. The food, though, is plenty different. My first meal was fried mushrooms with an interesting pink hue and thukpa, a popular, thick Tibetan noodle and vegetable soup with little chunks of incredibly savory fried yak meat, which tasted a bit like beef with a hint of wild, venison-like flavor. It was an excellent meal, especially accompanied by sweet, hot chilli sauce and Lhasa beer, another ordinary but far from bad lager.
The first pass we went through was Tong La Pass, which was absolutely stunning. it’s situated on a treeless rocky plain that again reminded me of Peru, but with stark, snow-capped mountains that outclass anything in the Andes. We were lucky to have a pure blue, almost cloudless sky giving us a perfect vista- something our Tibetan guide Phuntsok said he’d never seen before due to cloud cover.
After eating an lunch of bobby (a sort of yak meat/paratha burrito) and ginger soup in Old Tingri, we broke off the paved road to bump 90 slow kilometers to EBC.
Extreme altitude and jouncing are not a good combo, and I had a pretty decent headache the rest of the day. EBC is a bit of a disappointment, as any romantic notions of a tent city of colorfully clad and bearded climbers swapping stories and preparing for ascent soon dissipate (reading Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams all day didn’t help). The reality is it’s a camp of yak blanket tents fueled by yak chip stoves set up expressly for tourists of our ilk, and you need to backpack further in towards the mountain to see the real climber’s base camp (not that there are any climbers there this late in the year anyway). However, you can’t stay disappointed for long with that incredible view, with Mt. Everest rising high and mighty in the distance over the colorful tangle of prayer flags and brand name parka-clad Chinese tourists.
The night was no fun at all, as the combination of cold, altitude, and a stomach still nauseous from the 3 hour bumpfest coming up provided for a mostly sleepless night. It could have been much worse, though, because if we had come in even a night later, we would have joined the 86 tourists who were snowed in for three days before being evacuated. I couldn’t imagine how horrible that would have been.
The next morning, though, Everest simply sparkled in the young daylight without a cloud to be seen. Snow blowing off the peak attested to what hell that windswept point must be, but all was pleasant and clear below. The next day was all driving to Shigatse, with our progress hampered by periodic stops apparently due to speed check points. For each one, you must pull over and hand over the timeslip you received from the previous one. If you arrive x minutes early, you pay x fine. Some of the terrain looked more like desert than alpine, while other parts, with terraced fields and adobe brick houses once more bringing Peru to mind.
We went through two more passes after that, both festooned with prayer flags. The first, Yo-la, was utterly gorgeous, at 5100 m with a clear view of Everest and its entire range. The second, Gya Tso-la, at 5248 m, wasn’t nearly as pretty, but had snow (so of course a small snowball fight ensued).
After arriving at Shigatse we ate dinner of tashi dundup at a local Tibetan favorite. The meal includes cold yak meat in hot chilli sauce, gelatinous potato rice cakes in sweet yak meat sauce, fried rice with (you guessed it) yak chunks, fried potato strings, and ever present spiced milk tea.
The night was unfortunately capped by an hour at an internet cafe run by a constipated old mainland Chinese bastard who cheated me to my face and got angry when I had the temerity to ask for my proper change. Guess as a old racist Han in Tibet, he’s used to getting away with that crap. The internet itself, being Chinese, blocked Facebook and Skype, but Kong couldn’t even find a place to make an international phone call to his family. There’s not a lot of Chinese interest in its Tibetan citizens communicating with the outside world.