The Friendship Highway is not Particularly Rider Friendly

The lovely Yeti Guesthouse in Gyangtse turned out to be a breath of fresh air.  Not only was it clean (including the shower) with plenty of hot water, but the breakfast was the best I have had in Tibet.  They served a pancake made with what else, wheat barley, yougurt made from yak milk, scrambled eggs, some kind of sausage (it was very good), cut up bananas and apples, potatoes with peas (no Bull I did not eat this … it as breakfast for God’s sake), a boiled egg, stir fried spinach, tea and of course orange juice.  WOW!  Can you please teach the rest of the country about property breakfasts.

Anyway, by 9:00 we were off an running to see the “sights” of Gyangtse.  First up was the lovely Pelkor Chode Monestary founded in 1418.  We actually only did a walk through of the Assembly Hall, but I actually liked it because it was spacious and did not seem crammed with icons and statues (although there were of course massive floor to ceiling statutes and a sitting buddah), but it just seemed more spacious.  My favourite part was the mural containing the tree of life.  It was fascinating.

Just as I was turning away for the mural to look at the old books I felt a pair of arms around me.  I turned to look and started laughing.   It was Marcus … my two German friends were still following me.  We chatted for a couple minutes before moving off in separate directions.  These two guys are simply lovely.

Gyangtse Kumbum

After leaving the monestary, Hank and I walked next door to Gyangtse’s most famous sight, the Gyangtse Kumbum or Stupa (Kumbum is actually Tibetan for 100,000 images.)  The stupa dates to 1427 and literally contains 100,000 images in a variety of murals.  Now I have seen a lot of stupas in Asia, but this one was really unique.  In addition, you could climb the steps and go inside the various little temples on each level to view the original murals and deities.  And bonus … pictures were permitted.  After I took the requisite exteriors shots, Hank turned to leave.  Uh what the heck?  I asked Hank why we weren’t going inside and he looked surprised that I would want to climb up and take a look in the rooms.  Good grief.

Mural at Gyangtse Kumbum

Anyway, once I explained that the murals were really what I came to see, we climbed the stairs, I paid the 10 RMB camera fee and began to wander around the exterior of the stupa.

I ducked in and out of each little tiny temple “room” and looked at the faded painting on the walls.  Each was decidedly different, but I was struck by the Hindu influence in the murals.  I would have to ask Hank about that.

Statute at Gyangtse Kumbum

I wandered in and out of each temple on the first level before checking out the staircase and the four Guardian king statues that pointed the way to the next level.  I decided one level was enough and was just turning to leave when I ran into the German boys … who immediately commented “Oh no.  Not you again.”  Turns out they didn’t care about the murals, but were very interested in the from the top so were going to hike all the way up for some pictures.

One of the Guardian Kings

We said our goodbyes and unfortunately, that was the last I would see of the boys.  They were only going on to Shigatse while I was passing through on the way to Everest Base Camp.  I would stop at Shigatse to take in a couple sites on the return. So with enough murals and statutes under my belt, I went and found Hank and we headed to the van.

Gyangtse Dzong

Just before we left Gyangtse, we made a quick stop so that I could take a picture of the Gyangtse Dzong or fort that dominates the hill overlooking the little town.  The fort dates to the 14th century and was made famous by Major Younhusband who led a British Invasion in the early 20th century to take over the fort so the Brits could control the major trading route to Lhasa.

I grabbed a couple photos and we were off for the loooooong drive to Pelbar aka New Tingri.  I was going to spend the night there and then we would drive to Everest Base Camp.  As we started to drive, I asked Hank about our itinerary for the next couple days and learned that the road between Pelbar and Everest Base Camp was recently paved so what was going to be a 4 hour rough and rocky drive tomorrow was actually going to be a fairly quick (and smooth) 1 1/2 hour drive.  Score!

Anyway, I told Hank I could not emphasize enough how important the Everest part of the trip was for me.  We could toss out all the other towns, monestaries, etc. and the number 1 priority for me was Everest.  So with this knowledge Hank suggested a couple changes to the intinerary.  First, rather than sleeping in, we would get up before sunrise and head up the pass so that we could see the sunrise over the Himalayas.  Second, Hank suggested that he and I hike to the actual Everest Base Camp.  (I guess there are two points that are considered base camp: one is where the day trippers stay and the second is from where the actual climbers start.  Hank said it would take us about a 1/2 hour to hike there and a 1/2 hour to hike back.  I told him I was absolutely game, but we could have to go slow with the altitude.

We would also take in the sunset at base camp as well as sunrise and leave very early Sunday morning to make the drive back to Shigatse where we would spend the night before returning to Lhasa.  Fine by me.

The scenery on the way to Shigatse

So this discussion helped occupy the first 20 minutes or so of the drive to Shigatse (where we were stopping for lunch).  I had read that the drive was rather boring and boy were the guidebooks ever right.  Lots of Chinese construction, the occcasional farming activity and lots and lots of barren rocks and land.

We finally reach Shigatse around noon and went to this local Tibetan restaurant where I ordered ginger honey tea, egg fried rice and vegetarian momos.  Hank and our driver must have had the special because they had their food in about 10 minutes while I waited about 20 minutes for the rice and about 45 minutes for the momos.  Why so long.  The momos and the rice had to be made from scratch.   However, all I can tell you is the food was so worth the wait.

As an accompaniment, the server brought out this spicy chili sauce she had made tha morning and it was divine.  I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I put some on the rice (made it much more flavourful) and I dipped my momos in the sauce.  It was so freakin’ good.  In fact it was so good that I refused to leave any behind.  I asked Hank to tell them to wrap up the five remaining momos with the sauce and I would eat it for dinner.  (These momos were HUGE and very filling.  The serving size was 9 and I ate, 3 and Hank ate 1.)

So with lunch behind us we set out on the longest part of the day.  Unfortunately, the trip from Shigatse to Pelbar was equally boring.  Lots of barley fields, the occcasional herd of sheep and tons of Chinese construction.

5,000 km to Shanghai

About 3:00 we started to make our ascent into the mountains.  We were going to be driving over two passes.  However, before hitting Tsou-la Pass (4500m) and Gyatso-la Pass (5220m) we made a quick stop at a signpost marking 5,000 km to Shanghai on the Friendship Highway.  Not sure the significance, but there was a huge sign and it seemed to be a really big deal for the Chinese tourists.

Anyway, we got back on the Friendship Highway (and again “highway” is used very loosely here as the road was barely wide enough to fit two vehicles) and set off on the climb up and over the Tsou-la Pass.

As we drove up and up, the side of the mountains seems to close in on the roadway.  However, the climb was not nearly as extreme as the climb the day before.  On one side of the road was a rocky mountain hillside and on the other was a deep gorge filled with nothing but a dry river bed.  The scenery was not particular inspiring.

Climbing to Tsou-la Pass

Once up and over Tsou-la Pass, we continued on towards Gyatso-la Pass (which apparently means first site of Himalayas).  Now this is where the drive got really interesting.  Originally the drive from Shigatse to Pelbar was supposed to be 4 hours, which meant we would arrive in Pelbar around 5:30 (since we left Shigatse around 1:30).  We fell in behind wide body truck after wide body truck all going about 5 miles per hour and none willing to pull over.

This is the Friendship Highway

Our driver was doing his best to get our these idiots, but with the narrow road and the wide trucks we were often running on the shoulder i.e. near the side of the mountian.   We finally managed to get around what appeared to be the last of these butheads and began the steep climb up to Gyatso-la Pass.

Now this part of the drive was brutal.  The road was full of pot holes and when I say pot holes I actually mean craters in the middles of the road, missing pieces of the road and large cracks everywhere.  It was like playing a game of dodgeball.  Crazy.   And obviously the condition of the road drastically slowed our progress.

Entrance to Mount Everest Reserve

However, we finally made to Gyatso-la Pass and the wonderful archway that read “You have Entered Mount Qomolangma National Nature Reserve”.  Qomolangma is Tibetan for Everest.  YAY!  And I got my first glimpse of the Himalayas.

So we pulled over and I hopped out for a few photos before we dover through the archway on to Pelbar for the last 20 minutes of the trip.  Uh not so fast.  We came to a grinding halt about two minutes after passed under the arch.  I could not see what was going on and neither my guide nor my driver seemed to care much about finding out.  At least for the first 10 minutes.  Once we passed the ten minute mark, my driver finally got out of the car to check it out.

Apparently about 5 cars ahead, they are laying some new gravel on the road (this part of the road was not paved for some unknown reason).  Anyway, a little car apparently got stuck trying to get through the gravel and they were trying to push it out.

First sighting of the Himalayas

A few minutes later the car was freed and we were on our way … or so we thought.  Turns out the big dump truck in front of us was here to drop more gravel.  Good God.   Talk about a comedy of errors.  So we sat again.  Watched the rocks dumped.  Watched the backhoe move the rocks around and smooth the whole thing over.    And then finally we got the go ahead to climb up and over the small mound of stones.  Finally we were on our way.

Now even with the 30 minute delay, I was figuring on another 20 minutes to get to the hotel.  However, by 6:30 we still were not at Pelbar.  (My guide’s idea of 20 minutes is clearly out of wack).  I finally asked how much longer and was told Pelbar was right around the bend.  And low and behold there it was.

It has been a very long day.  I just wanted to eat my momos and get some rest before the 5:00 a.m. alarm.  I was rather happy to be finally done with the not so friendly Friendship Highway.




Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

2 thoughts on “The Friendship Highway is not Particularly Rider Friendly”

  1. I thoroughly enjoy your blog and your photos. Everest base camp has been a dream of mine. I can’t wait to continue to hear how it goes – thanks for sharing!

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