Mt. Everest, Tibet
We spent the night in Pelber in what I can only describe as another nice room with a crappy bathroom. Fortunately, I was only in the room for about 7 hours as we were up at the lovely hour of 5:00 a.m. and departing at 5:30 a.m. in order to get to Gau-la Pass so that I could see the sun rise over the Himalayas.
It was cold when we left Pelber, but it was nothing compared to the temperature at Gau-la Pass. When we arrived, it was well below freezing and I was very happy that I had opted to wear two layers of clothing and my heavy lined jacket with a down insert. I had also brought a hat and gloves and this proved to be a good choice as well.
The drive to Pelber took us up the mountains in the darkness. About a ½ hour into the drive we had to stop at yet another of a never ending series of checkpoints. This time, I actually had to go inside with my guide and driver and despite the fact that we were behind two very obnoxious Chinese bus tour groups. One woman had the audacity to point out the door as if to say get to the back of the line so I explained to her in English that we were at the back of the line because it had snaked inside so we could keep warm, that I know how to line up and that in my experience traveling, I have had dealt with more than my share of Chinese tour groups who have no clue what lining up means … stupid woman. Hank laughed at my comment. Anyway, despite the obnoxious tour groups , we were in and out of the check point in about ten minutes.
So with official business done, we continued onwards in the dark and made it to Gau-la Pass (5200 m) at around 7:00 a.m. I got out of the car to take a look and saw a lot of stars overhead, but in the distance all I could make out was clouds. Uh oh. This was not good. Sunrise was about a ½ hour away so I would hope for the best. As Hank noted, it’s the Himalayas. Wait a few minutes and the weather will change.
So I stood with a very nice Chinese couple (Gau-la Pass is popular with private tour guides, but the bus tour groups do not stop here) and although we could not speak each other’s language, we were commiserating about the cloud cover. As the sky began to brighten, a wind picked up (going from my right to left) and as I looked up, I could see the clouds starting to move. Well this was promising. The downside. Holy Crap! It was bitterly cold.
I had to go back into the van a couple times to unthaw, but as the sun started to come up, our patience was rewarded. There to the right was Mt. Cho-oyo at 8201 m as well as some smaller mountains in the Himalayan range. The sun glinted off Mt. Cho-oyo and the Chinese couple and I high fived.
Then slowly but surely the top of Everest came into view. Again more high fives. Finally Mt. Lhotse at 8516 m standing to the left of Everest made its appearance. It was wonderful and entirely worth the frigid wait.
Before I left, I grabbed the prayer flags I had purchased at Karl-la Pass and our driver helped me hang the flags as I made a wish. Apparently, my guide said prayer flags are hung to cleanse the air and make the mountain gods happy. The colours of the flags are red, green, yellow, blue and white and represent fire, wood, earth, water and iron. My guide and driver seemed pleased I took the whole process seriously.
Anyway, I finally had my fill of pictures and got back in the van. I was frozen and my fingers started tingling and would not stop (altitude). For the next 5 minutes as we descended down from the pass, I shook my hands, rubbbed my hands and did everything possible to stop the tingling (it felt like hundreds of pin pricks in my hands). Finally, finally, finally, the sensation started to die down and go away. Not a big fan of that little occurrence.
Anyway, by now it was pushing 8:30 a.m. and we had not eaten breakfast before we left so my guide and driver were more than a little hungry. We passed through a little village, but none of the restaurants were open so we ended up stopping at a local farmer’s house where we were able to pay for some breakfast. We sat down in what was the equivalent of a dining room and the lady of the house proceeded to bring us out some sweet tea (very good – fortunately no yak butter tea) and what turned out to be the most unusual breakfast I am certain I will ever have in my life. Presented before me was a large bowl of roasted barley flower, dried yak cheese (all crumbled up to also look a bit like flower), yak butter and sugar. I was given a bowl and into it went about a ½ a cup of the roasted barley flower, about a teaspoon of the yak butter, several teaspoons of the dried yak cheese and two teaspoons of sugar. Then the coup de grace: black tea was poured on top and the whole melange was mixed together.
Now like the teahouse in Samye monestary, I was in a bit of a bind. This stuff looked like brown paste. However, I was expected to eat it with a smile on my face. I took my spoonful and wanted to gag. My bowl looked endless. Fortunately, the cup of sweet tea was endless as every time I took a sip, it was immediately refilled. Only with the help of the sweet tea did I manage to choke this stuff down. And from what my guide tells me Tibetans love this stuff. Uh let me introduce you to waffles, syrup and bacon.
While I sat there gagging on breakfast, the man of the house showed up. Turns out he is the father of count ‘em … NINE children. Good God man. He was actually a very nice guy. Hank turned into my interpreter and the gentleman and I had a very interesting discussion about China, the US, Obama (he was a big fan) and the state of world politics. His only source of news is Chinese news, which he recognized was (to put it delicately) …. a little biased. He was clearly a pretty bright guy and had a nice little farming operation going with barley fields, yaks and cows as well as a herd of kids to help him out.
As we were sitting there a discussion went back and forth between my guide and our host, and I was wondering what was up. Finally my guide turned to me and said that one of his older daughters was visiting and had to return to Lhasa to start grade 10. Because there is no local transportation our host wanted us to give his daughter a ride to Lhasa. Our guide told him that I was on a private tour and that it was up to me as to whether to let the young girl ride with us for two days back to Lhasa. Uh … there are three of us in a six person van. Of course she can ride with us. Our host got a huge grin on his face. The daughter came into the room and offered her thanks. Everyone was happy.
Then, the next thing I know the family wants me to spend the night with them after visiting Everest. Now, the idea of spending a night sounding intriguing, but I wasn’t sure how much sleep I would get with 9 kids in the house. I was a little worried about the meal situation. And then there was the bathroom. I had the opportunity to partake and it wasn’t pretty. A back room, dirt floor and … three holes in the ground. That’s about it. I told my guide I would think about it
So we said out goodbyes and we were now off to Everest Base Camp. By now the sky was a brilliant blue and Everest was out in all its glory. The drive from the little farm to Everest Base Camp took about 45 minutes and I could not stop looking at the views. Absolutely magnificent.
We reached the Sun Rongbuk Monestary (the highest monastery in the world) where there are a number of tent camps for tourists as well as a Guesthouse (where I would stay if I opted for the guesthouse over the farmhouse). We parked the van, and my guide, driver and I started walking towards the Everest Base Camp sign about a 2 minute walk away. My driver said that in 8 years of driving he had never seen a day so clear for Mt. Everest or Mt. Qomolangma as it is known to the Tibetans. I don’t know what he has seen before, but I can tell you the view was absolutely stunning. Not a cloud in the sky and an absolutely dead on crystal clear view of the highest mountain in the world. You come up with a superlative and insert it here. It was a absolutely magnificent and rather than go on and on … I will simply let a myriad of pictures do the talking.
We next hiked about 1 km to the sign marking the altitude of Everest (8,844.43 m although my guide said the Chinese made the sign and got it wrong – the actual height is 8,848 m). Finally we hiked to the sign stating “Tourists Halts”. Each time I moved, I found myself winded. It was Incredibly thin air. I have no idea how those climbers can do it.
Once I had taken more pictures than I can count at the Everest Base Camp sign, the sign marking the altitude for Everest and the sign stating “Tourist Halts”, we wandered over to the little set of stairs leading to the Dza Rongphu Monastery, home to a solitary monk. Now the set of stairs leading up to the little hilltop stone monastery looked innocuous enough, but I actually had to stop after taking about ten step up to rest. It is very laborious breathing. I finally made it to the top, but not before I literally saw stars a couple times.
We wandered around the top. Saw the monk who was in the middle of mediation prayers and chants and then went to take a look at the meditation cave. I had to climb down into this tiny hole where there were some paintings on the the wall and a series of carvings and of course the every present burning of yak butter. It is alleged that Guru Rinpoche mediated here.
Our final visit at the little temple was to the sky burial site. Now in some parts of Tibet, rather than bury the dead, they cut up the dead and leave the body on the alter as an offering to nature. (Yea you read that right. Unfortunately, I have heard something similar to this gruesome practice before when I visited Iran where the Zorastarians would lay out the dead on platforms for nature to have its way.)
Anyway, it turns out that the villagers have a little different twist on sky burials. It seems that they lay the body on a platform and use the Hindu cremation technique with the ceremony performed in front of the north face of Mt . Everest. OK then.
So with this final story, it was time to go find some lunch and figure out if I was going to stay at the Rongphu Guesthouse or with the farmer’s family. We had a delicious lunch of pork noodle soup as well as ginger honey tea. I did a quick walk around the guesthouse, was shown a room. To say it was rather rough looking might be an understatement – paint peeling off walls, bare wire leading to a hanging light and no bathroom. However, the proud owner gave me a room looking right at the glorious north face of Everest. How could I say no. In addition, we could get in a quick nap before sunset. I’d sleep with my clothes on and look forward to a glorious shower once we got to Shigatse tomorrow. I was here to see Everest and knew this was not going to be the lap of luxury.
So I settled into my little room, took a nap and met my guide at 5:00 for sunset over Everest. Some clouds had moved in and the wind had really picked up. However, it was still fairly warm (although I was certain that would change as the sun went down). Hank and my driver dropped me off at the tent camp where they planned to hang out while I watched the sun set.
I wandered back out to the Everest Base Camp sign and although some clouds had moved in covering up some of the adjacent mountains (to my right as I faced the mountain), Everest was still out in all its glory. While standing there, some young fellow piled a bunch of rocks behind the sign so he could stand behind the sign. Great idea!
There were only a handful of us at the sign so we each took turns standing on the rocks behind the sign. It was an absolute riot as people from all over the world mugged for their cameras.
By now, it was close to 6 and apparently, my guide got the sunset time wrong. He had told me 6:30 p.m., but it turns out that the sun actually sets at Everest at 8:30. Uh what the heck was I going to do for 2 hours. In addition, the wind had really picked up and it was becoming very cold.
I wandered back to the tent where Hank and my driver were hanging out and told Hank we got the time wrong. Apparently was now informed. So we ended up drinking sweet tea and having some yak noodle soup.
By 8:00 it was frigid, but the setting sun was beginning to cast a glint on part of the mountain. I wandered outside, past the tents and stood in the bitter wind for the next 45 minutes as the sun set. It was amazing to watch the colours on the mountain.
By the time it was almost dark, Everest still glows a brilliant white. It was amazing. It was as if the mountain never got dark. I looked around at this point and realized I was the last person standing. I headed back to the tent convinced that I had done permanent damage to my poor little fingers. They were frozen and I was completely out of breath from the short little walk back to the tents.
Satisfied that I had all the pictures I could ever use, I said goodbye to Mount Everest. I could not have had a more glorious day at the mountain. In fact, ever guide we spoke to said that crystal clear near perfect days like the day we experienced are very rare. So yay for me!
Anyway, and we headed back to the Rongbuk Monestary guesthouse where we went to have some dinner. When we walked in to the little place, the room was packed with guests. Wow. How did this happen? When we were there for lunch there was no one around. Now the little guesthouse and restaurant were hopping.
I found a seat while my guide and driver went to have a beer with another guide and driver they knew. As my hands warmed up, my fingers immediately began doing that tingling thing that happened this morning … only much, much worse. I shook them, rubbed them, placed them on the stove (which was burning Yak dung … seriously), sat on them and shook them some more. Finally after about ten minutes, the tingling died away except for my right index finger. It would take most of the night for that to stop with the tingling.
Anyway, once I had the use of my hands back, I ordered some vegetable fried rice and some ginger honey tea and sat with a myriad of folks from around the world. There was a guy from Doha, another from Switzerland and another guy from France (all of whom just completed a 14 day bike ride to base camp). There was a group of Germans as well as a lovely French couple who were spending 3 months traveling around China. All of the folks in the rooms were hard core travellers. You had to be. For me it had taken a 12 hour plane ride from Seattle to Beijing, a 3 hour plane ride from Beijing to Xining, a 22 hour train ride from Xining to Lhasa and a 3 ½ day car ride from Lhasa to Everest to see the tallest mountain in the world. Was it worth it? You betcha! It was a day I will never forget.