High Altitude, High Expectations- Tibet Part 2

The prospect of washing away the sins of a lifetime immediately drew my attention. Although I’m not a Buddhist or a Hindu, when I read about Mt. Kailash, I instinctually knew I wanted to go there. Deemed as the holiest mountain in Asia, Mt. Kailash draws thousands of pilgrims from all over who make the trip with the hopes of acrewing good fortune and eliminating one’s sins. Although Buddhists and Hindus hold different beliefs when it comes to this holy mountain, it is highly revered by all. Unlike Mt. Everest, which is comparably easy to travel to from Lhasa, Mt. Kailash lies in the far western region of Tibet and would take us many days to get there. Of course, the journey was part of the adventure.

Mt. Kailash

Although we spent many long, and at times, uncomfortable hours driving in the van (i.e. no shocks), our roadtrip from Lhasa out to Mt. Kailash was unlike anything I had ever experienced. As we increased our distance from Lhasa, and in turn, increased our altitude, Tibet revealed an almost other-worldly landscape, both beautiful and harsh at the same time. There were ample opportunities to get out of the car, both for high passes demarcated with hundreds of prayer flags, and for “nature breaks” which quickly became our preferable way of relieving ourselves as we slipped further and further from the comforts of the city.

Our first stop along the road was at a high pass that overlooked a lake, where locals had set up touristy-like stands with the famous Lhasa dogs on display for tourists to take a picture with. Guilty as charged! While some of the “handlers” didn’t seem to care at all about their dogs, just luring in tourists, the one we chose to sit with was doting over his dog. Plus the dog seemed well fed and content.

…if not a little, bored.

From here, we drove until we came to the Yamdrok Lake, a beautiflul turquoise colored holy lake that boasts views of the snow capped Mt.Nyenchen Khangsar in the distance.

Flying over Yamdrok Lake

After a quick lunch break, where we met some other travel groups heading towards Mt. Everest, and I tried Yak meat, rice, potato curry for the first and last time, (it was hard to eat yak after seeing them more and more out West), we stopped off at Karo la, a 16,522 foot pass where we could glimpse the holy Nyenchen Kagnsar glacier.

Lunch Break with our guide

Around 5pm in the evening, we arrived in Gyantse, an old trading route town between India and Tibet. Here, we visited the Pelkhor Chode Monastery and the famous Gyantse Kumbum; the most important and larges stupa in Tibet. Unlike most of the other monasteries we visited, we were allowed to take pictures inside this one.

Pelkhor Chode Monastery
Yellow Hat Sect with the 9th Panchen Lama Picture
Gyantse Kumbum

About an hour and a half later, we finally arrived in Shigatse where we spent the night in one of our few decent hotels. Exhausted, we agreed to meet at 830 to drive into the old town for a quick dinner before heading to bed. After succumbing to another poorly made pizza (with suprisingly good sauce), we were tiredly waiting around to pay the bill, when out comes a cake, Michelle grabs my camera, and I realized it was a birthday suprise. As the day before was Galina’s birthday, and the following day would be mine, our tour company planned a surprise for us with paper crowns, a birthday cake decorated with sweets and tomatoes (yes, you read that right), and both our driver and our guide wished us a tashi dalek as they each placed a kota around our necks. The restuarant even threw in a plate of fried yogurt for the celebration!

Birthday Cake
Birthday Girls

I didn’t sleep much that night due to the excitement (and likely fear) of spending the next evening at Mt. Everest Base Camp. After a quick breakfast, we were on the road by 830 am, heading towards what I was hoping would be a memorable birthday. Along the way, we stopped off at a series of high passes, which offerred us our first faint glimpses of Mt. Everest and the Himalayan range.

Late in the afternoon, we pulled into the Rongbuk valley, home to Everest tent camp and the highest monastery in the world. After we were assigned to our tent, we headed out for a hike up to the Dza Rongphu, the original monastery that consists of a little room where there is a secret latch door to the medication cave that Padmasambhava (the man who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet) used. He is considered the second Buddha in Tibet. With the light rain begining to come down, we did not think we would be able to see Everest this evening, and thus spent some time at the monastery, just taking it all in.

Oliver in the Meditation Cave

When we came outside, it looked as if it might clear up, and so Michelle, Oliver, and myself decided to begin the hike up to base camp. As we were told that the Chinese police kick you out by 830pm, we were huffing and puffing our way through the thin air to get there in time. As my weezing ensued, and I looked down at my right hand which was beginning to swell due to the altitude, I was doubtful I would ever make it to the top in time. (I really wanted to see Everest on my birthday). Just then, the tourist shuttle that transports those from tent camp to base camp came creeping up the road and I decided to hail it with my flailing arms. Miraculously it stopped, I said goodbye to Michelle and Oliver (who were determined and physically able to make it to the top in time) and hopped on a little bus packed with staring Chinese tourists, to which I responded “Ni-hao!”….followed by giggles and I think a few iphone pics. It was worth it however, when I finally reached the top with 10 minutes to spare. I struggled my way up the last hill towards the prayer flags when I finally got my first glimpse of the magestic peak of perhaps the greatest known mountain in the world. Although there were still some clouds floating around, you could easily see the summit. Following the cue of the surrounding Chinese tourists, I began taking a ridiculous amount of selfies, then asked some of the folks around to snap my picture. I was pumped to be standing in front of Everest for my birthday!

Happy Birthday to Me!

Although the Chinese around me were quite friendly and willing to take my picture (and encouraged me to “change positions” repeatedly), I realized that I needed to share the excitement of seeing Everest with someone I knew. With a couple of minutes left before 8pm, I walked back towards the prayer flags and looked down onto the road to see if I could get a glimpse of Michelle or Oliver coming up. I asked some girls what time it was and they said it was a little past eight, and my stomach dropped in disappointment. But then someone else informed me my friends actually had until 8:30 to get there, and with that I looked down and saw a small silhouette of a person pounding away at the trail heading towards the summit. Although there was no trace of Oliver, I could tell from the determined stride that the silhouette was Michelle. Sure enough, about 5 minutes later, she came puffing up the final hill and I was able to celebrate the beauty and excitement of being at Everest with someone else.

I’m so excited to be here!!!

A few minutes later, Oliver joined us, and another photo shoot ensued.

Everest Dance Party

Eventually our guide and Galina showed up as well, and he informed us that sometimes the police let people stay up at the base camp past 8:30pm. We eventually left around 9pm and began what would become an adventerous walk back to tent camp in the the dark where we were followed by wild dogs the entire way. The tents provide very basic accommodations with a stove in the middle for heat and cooking. They are actually the temporary homes of local families who rent out beds and provide cheap and easy meals for visitors, but chances are you will be in a tent with at least 12 other people. When we arrived back where we had left our stuff, we realized we were lucky that we would be the only ones there, except for 4 Chinese tourists who were sleeping on the other side of the partition. Sleeping at this high of an altitude coupled with how cold it was made for a terrible night sleep for almost everyone, but again, totally worth it.

Tent Camp

In the morning, although no one really slept, it was extremely difficult to get out of bed at 5am when our guide’s alarm went off. We were told the previous night we had the option to hike during sunrise (there was no sun) or take the shuttle back up to basecamp at around 8am. I was not surprised when I heard the shuffling of the sleeping bag next to me and saw Michelle’s headlamp guiding her as she shoved essentials into her daypack for the sunrise hike. She would go alone. The rest of us, including our guide, grumbled out of bed around 7am and hopped on the shuttle an hour later. When we made it up to the top and met up with Michelle, clouds completely obstructed our view of the glorious Everest. Yet, the sun was just really starting to burn off some of the fog and we all agreed that we would stick it out for a bit to see what would happen. A little while later, the clouds began to move and the sky really opened up to treat us to the best view of Everest yet. When the mountain became completely visible, from bottom to summit, the whole base camp began to cheer.

Waiting for the clouds to clear
Our fellow travelers at base camp
Mt. Everest

After what might quite possibly be the best start to anyday, we packed up our belongings and shuffled back into the van for another long, long day of driving. Leaving the Everest region, we were heading toward Tingri and the real western wilderness of Tibet. Throughout the day, we were given little breaks to get out and stretch our legs, use the “natural” facilities, and take in the views of the surrounding peaks and lakes. In this way, we were able to “make time” as there are no patrols to enforce speed limits. Rather, at every checkpoint (and there are many) our driver would wait while our guide got out with all our permits and passports. He would return with a time-punched ticket that determined when we would be allowed to cross through the next checkpoint. If we arrived before the given time, it was considered speeding and they would be fined. There were many, many stops before we eventually arrived in our home for the night, Saga; a military-town/truck stop that has about as much charm as a garbage dumpster. We were all excited however, when our guide informed us that he was able to get us rooms in the only hotel in the town that has running, hot water and private bathrooms. Our expectations and standards at this point were so low, that we all actually cheered.
Our guide and driver making time
Lunch break @ a Tibetan teahouse
Charmless Saga
We left Saga the next morning and headed for Lake Manasarovar, a holy lake located near Mt. Kailash. Another long day of driving where the landscape became more and more harsh and foreign, where the only signs of life we would see outside our windows was the occassional village hut, a couple of nomad tents, yaks, and the predictable Chinese army patrol camp. In the late afternoon, we arrived at our first viewpoint of Manasarovar, where we came across people selling herbs and dried, dead fish from the lake, as it is believed that these can be used for health purposes and good luck.
Good luck amulets from the lake
About an hour later, we pulled into a settlement by the lake that consists of a handful of “guesthouses” which are essentially long, concrete buildings that have dormitory like rooms and a little restuarant area where they serve basic food and prepackaged things like candy, soda, beer, instant noodles, and coffee. After our group was split into two rooms and we settled who was sleeping where, we walked along the giant, pristine lake, with the trans-himalayas rising up in the background.
Lake Manasarovar
Lake Manaorsavor, known as “victiorious lake” is the most revered of Tibet’s holy lakes. Hindus believe that soaking in the lake can bring you good luck and that performing kora around it can remove all your sins. One step further, if you drink the lake water, it will remove the sins of 100 lifetimes! It is also believed that Ghandi’s ashes were sprinkled here. Buddhists also revere the lake, believing that Buddha’s mother bathed here before giving birth. We explored the lake area for a bit before we headed back to our guesthouse for some fried rice, tea, and sleep.
Our lakeside guesthouse
Overlooking the lake on a rugged hill is the Chiu monastery which contains the meditation cave of Padmasambhava, and it is believed that this is where he died. We visited here the following morning before we headed to Darchen, the dull and charmless town at the base of Mt. Kailash.
Chiu Monastery
Chiu Monastery
Buddhist Mantras @ Chiu Monastery
That aftenoon we arrived in Darchen and prepared our belongings for the 52km, 3 day kora we would be attempting around Mt. Kailash.
Kailash and Michelle in Darchen
Darchen- even the goat is bored
To be continued…

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