Well that was Fun!

Mt. Everest – Shigatse – Lhasa

So as I was leaving the restaurant at Mt. Everest to get some sleep before the long drive back to Shigatse, my guide stopped me and advised that they had learned about some new construction that was starting in the morning on the road through Mt. Qomolangma National Nature Reserve. As a result, they were recommending we leave by 4:30 a.m. (WHAT???) in order to beat the construction. Well what are you gonna do? I nodded and trudged off to try and get some sleep.

However, the barking dogs in the area made sleep difficult. Then add to that the problem with tingling fingers, a cough (which I am told will dissipate once we descend to a lower altitude) and the lack of bathroom facilities in my room and it all made for a sleepless night.

And speaking of bathroom facilities, in order to use the outdoor facilities, I had to cross a courtyard, go through two curtained arches and out the back of a building to a stall with holes in the ground. And it was -10C.

So when I got back to my room, and found the staff had placed a large bowl on the floor along with a canister of hot water, I contemplated what this was for. Was the bowl and hot water for washing up or if was it the proverbial pot to pee in? I opted for the latter (sorry to be graphic), but when nature calls in the middle of the night I damned well wasn’t going out in -10C.

Anyway, between the barking, the tingling, the coughing and the bathroom issues, I ended up with about two hours of sleep under my belt, before I was crawling into the van for the long drive (about 8 hours) to Shigatse. It was freeeeezing outside. My driver has to scrape the windshield as I huddled under my coat and blanket. Brutal.

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Everest in the moonlight

We pulled out of the parking lot in the dark as I said goodbye to Mt. Everest. We wound through the little villages and farmland and 40 minutes later we were at the farmer’s house to pick up the young girl who we were taking to Lhasa with us.

As soon as we pulled into the gravel driveway, the man of the house was out to meet us with a thermos full of sweet tea. We sat there for about 10 minutes as the young girl’s bags were loaded into our van. Now here’s the twist …. It turns out that the farmer and his wife were the parents of my guide! Hank had been reluctant to tell me because he didn’t want to pressure me into agreeing to have the young girl (who turned out to be his sister) ride with us. And how did I found out? Well the next day at lunch, Hank was asking me about the highlights of my trip. I rattled off Mt. Everest, the debates at the Sera Monastery, the Kumbum in Gyangtse with the beautiful murals and of course the Potala Palace. Then I added “you may think this is strange with all the amazing sites I have seen, but another big highlight was having tea and chatting with that farmer. He was very bright and very interesting.” Hank lit up like a Christmas tree and then sheepishly told me they were his parents. (I am sure I never would have found out if it hadn’t been for me innocent comment.)

Anyway, with all the luggage loaded, goodbyes were said. Now here’s the interesting thing. There were no hugs and no tears. The father placed a white scarf around the young girl’s neck and then there was some waving and comments and that was it! Given that they only see her about once a year, I didn’t get it. I asked my guide about it and he said that crying is considered bad luck when you send someone off so the parents have to hold it together. Yikes. I know a lot of parents that would not be good Tibetans!

So with everyone on board, we continued onward. We immediately began to climb towards Pang-la Pass (where I had watched the sunrise). The original plan was to leave later from Mt. Everest and arrive in time for sunrise again. However, the road issue changed our plans.

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Last view of the Himalayan Foothills

We continued through the pass with ears popping and fingers and feet tingling. As we descended the sensation eased. We stopped at the ever present guard post to “check out” so to speak and then made it to the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve arch as the sun was rising. I turned one last time to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas as we bumped along the road out of the park.

Now we were making good time at this point. However, about 10 minutes after the arch, we came to a dead stop. Uh oh. After about 5 minutes the traffic began to move ever so slowly with tourist vans, buses, and trucks plodding along down the hillside, around the twists and turns beside the enormous gorge. Traffic finally cleared out about 45 minutes later so what would have taken 10 minutes took an extra 35 minutes and none of us could figure out the hold up.

So once freed from the congestion, we dodged the potholes, took detours around washed out bridges, climbed back up the passes we went through two days ago and generally backtracked to Shigatse. Now I was so tired, I ended up sleeping (or at least dozing) for part of the ride. Our driver was downing Red Bull. He was doing a yeoman’s job on a very difficult road.

Around 9 we stopped at a little roadside restaurant where I had some Chinese dumplings and black tea for breakfast. The proprietor tried to serve me Conge (a Chinese porridge), I took one spoonful and wanted to gag. Completely tasteless. Yuck. But two thumbs up for the dumplings. Hank’s sister ended up staying in the van. Poor thing was not feeling well (she had been looking at her phone for most of the trip, and I was certain that all the bumping, twisting and turning combined with looking down had made her feel ill). I told Hank to tell her not to look down, and for the rest of the trip she held her phone up or simply stared out the window.

We finally reached Shigatse around 1. We ended up dropping Hank’s sister off at the bus depot. She was in a hurry to get to Lhasa and did not want to spend the night so she was leaving us in Shigatse.

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Tashilhunpo Monastery

So the plan for Shigatse was to visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery and then visit the Tibetan Handicraft Market (with real Tibetan products) before checking into the hotel. Hank and I were really done in, but we both put on a brave face and stopped first at the Tashilhungo Monastery.

Now I will say it as a real shame I was so tired, because this place was one of the few monasteries in Tibet that had not be altered or changed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The monastery was massive and dominated the hillside overlooking Shigatse. It was made up of dozens of little cobblestone alleys and tiny little chapels off the alleys. In addition, the monastery is home to the Panchen Lama, who is the second highest ranking lama to the Dali Lama.

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Narrow alleys at the monastery

Anyway, when we got through the entrance, I took a look up …. oh no! More stairs. And if the altitude wasn’t bad enough (well over 12,000 feet), I had gone from -10C to 30C in the span of about 8 hours. It was sweltering. However, never one to back down, I charged forward.

We first visited Chapel of Jampa that housed a 26 m statue (i.e. humongous) of the future Buddah (don’t ask how they know what he will look like, but he won’t be making an appearance for 25,000 years). We wandered through the Chapel and then over to the Tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama. There were a lot of people in this Tomb, but for me it was a “meh” moment.

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Panorama of the ceremonial couryard
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View from the courtyard

We excited the Tomb and went through a huge ceremonial courtyard which was actually pretty impressive. Apparently they use the courtyard for a lot of ceremonies and significant events. We exited the courtyard and walked down a series of very narrow cobblestone alleys to reach our final destination (which turned out to be my favourite place), the Assembly Hall. This was the oldest building dating to the 15th century. It had amazing original wood pillars, old murals and housed the throne of the Panchen Lama. There was also a room with a number of antiquities and various shrines to the Panchen Lama, which was really stunning.

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Ceremonial room in the Assembly Hall

So with the visit done, we walked back out and down the hill (yay!) through the narrow alleys to the sounds of music. Apparently there was a “state sponsored” concert going on just outside the monastery walls. I was actually too tired to care. Anyway, we walked across the street where I was able to take a panorama shot of the monastery before our driver picked us up for lunch.

We ended up going to the same restaurant (with the fabulous veggie momos) that we ate at a couple days before. However, not wanting to wait for lunch (it took about 45 minutes for the momos) I opted for the egg fried rice and some chicken and mushroom soup, only to be told they had no mushrooms. When the soup came I was wishing for the momos. While the broth was fabulous, the chicken was probably a decade old or more. Seriously. I have never had such tough chicken.

After lunch we made quick stop at the Tibetan Handicraft Market (it turned out that it was also a meat market …. goat anyone?) I wandered around the stalls and found a very nice lady who gave me a stool to sit on (bless you) while I looked at some pendants. I opted for a tiny amber pendant and a yak bone pendant. II had to have something made of yak since I had eaten enough yak (you can insert the specific food here) while in Tibet.

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Goat (you knew I had to have a pic

By this time it was 4 and it was all I could do to crawl into the van for the trip to the hotel. All I wanted was a shower and some much needed sleep. And that is exactly what I got! I think I slept for 9 hours before getting up to check the Seahawks score (crap we lost) and then jumping into the shower a second time. (I apologize to the hotel and guests if I used all the hot water … it was too good to get out.)

We were back on the road at 9:00 a.m. for the trip to Lhasa and my afternoon flight to Chengdu. Originally I was supposed to have a nonstop from Lhasa to Kathmandu on Tuesday morning – i.e. the date after I got back to Lhasa, but Air China cancelled their Tuesday flights … no idea why. As a result, they had rebooked me on an afternoon flight west to Chengdu (2 hours) and then a morning flight east from Chengdu to Kathmandu (3 hours). It ended out that I would arrive in Kathmandu about 2 hours earlier than my original nonstop flight so that was good. The downside … I lost my night in Lhasa.

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Waterfall on the road to Lhasa

Anyway, the trip from Shigatse to the Lhasa airport was pretty uneventful. The northern Friendship Highway was not nearly as beautiful or interesting as the southern Friendship Highway. The road was good and there was the occasional waterfall as we wound our way through the gorges between the high Tibetan mountains.

Now one last interesting note. Throughout my trip, I had noticed two circular globes on the dashboard of the van. I also noticed that every now and then, my driver would speed up or slow down for no apparent reason. Well get this. Apparently, the Chinese authorities monitor every vehicle on the Friendship Highway, and if you pass certain points with cameras ahead of the timed schedule, you receive a fine. To combat this, our driver had his own timer so he could keep track of his speed and time. That was one of the purposes of the globes (as well as to video the inside of the car and the road). In fact, on the last day of the trip, we were making such good time that our driver had to pull over twice and wait for the time to pass so that we could “catch up” to the scheduled time.

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Villagers on the road to Lhasa
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Village houses on the road to Lhasa

We reached the airport at 2:45, a couple hours before my flight. I said goodbye to my lovely and talented guide, Hank, and driver, Samteng, and thanked them profusely for the wonderful trip. I loved the people of Tibet. I loved Mt. Everest, the Sera Monastery Debates, the Kumbum in Gyantse, the momos, and of course my guide’s dad, the lovely farmer. I will NOT miss the yak butter tea, the traditional Tibetan breakfast or for that matter any breakfast served (except for the breakfast at the Yeti Hotel in Gyantse) and the horrid, horrid toilets.

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Samteng (l) and Hank (r)

It has a really amazing 10 ten days. Now it was on to a few days in Nepal.