Venturing out of Lhasa for the next phase of our trip, which involved heading to Everest base camps, and seeing the sites on the way. We had an early morning start on the minibus to Shigatse, leaving at 8am and arriving at about 1pm for an overnight stay. Part of the reason it took so long is that there are strict speed limits, monitored by check points. Sometimes our driver would just pull up on the side of the road 100 metres from the checkpoint and wait for enough time to have passed to go through. Our passports and visas were also regularly checked at these stations by Chinese police.
For lunch after arriving in Shigatse we had yak burgers – in fact double yak burgers – they were juicy and delicious and I definitely got what the fuss was all about!
After lunch we went to the local temple, founded by the Dalai Llama and gifted to the Penchant Llama. Here there were lots of murals showing the different stances for meditation, teaching, concentration and listening. I have found that the way you hold yourself can influence how you feel, so found this concept engaging. I am also enamored by the idea of meditation to calm my mind, but have never found the patience. I find capoeira meditative, in that I clear my mind and just play, but that is another story.
After the monastery we wandered the streets, hitting the local market and going into a few supermarkets where bulk buy was the order of the day. We had dinner at the restaurant and found all the Tibetans gathered there watching the daily soap! We had a brief chat with Sonam there and he told us that for breakfast Tibetans basically eat flour mixed with water, though he did not recommend it if you stomach was not accustomed.
The following day was dedicated to driving in order to get to Everest base camp. I didn’t mind sitting in the minibus, the scenery is beautiful and I listened to audiobooks – a revelation for me in terms of walking and running – or chatting with the group. We left Shigatse at 730am and arrived at 630pm, again slowed by the enforced speed limits. The final 100km was the worst, and the roads were very bad so we must have not got above 20km per hour the whole way!
Every time we stopped – for the bathroom, food, to look at a market stall, take pictures – we were surrounded by children who would ask us for money, that we studiously ignored as instructed. However, at one of these stops we were all distracted by two tiny, gorgeous kittens, but as my husband pointed out, a malnourished looking child we studiously ignored, kittens, wow! It is complicated. It is clear that the children have been trained to beg, and they may be better off than they seem, but it is difficult when you know how well off you are compared to them.
As we watched the landscape through the windows the thought occurred to us all that it would have been amazing to have this as your playground. But the villages we passed seemed very old fashioned, without running water, electricity or many of the other things we take for granted. Also, the landscape was marred by electricity poles, ans also rubbish, jut everywhere. Sonam said that people just throw things out of their cars. He said that the government will crack down on this with CCTV, which in theory seems like a good thing, but none of us like the idea of the government, any government, looking over our shoulders.
We arrived at Everest base camp around 630pm and got straight on the bus that takes you up to the main site. The skies were clear, and there was no guarantee that they would be in the morning, so we seized the opportunity (despite being tired from the day of bumpy sitting). I was ever so slightly underwhelmed. The location is set up for tourists – they drive you up about 5km in the bus and deposit you on a platform to take pictures – it just didn’t feel like an accomplishment.
At the bottom of the camp we stayed in a big tent, run by some lovely Tibetan folk: they spoke little English but were very communicative and kind. Some of the group needed to take oxygen because the high altitude was causing them nausea and headaches. Sonam said that if anyone got really bad we would have to jump in the bus and stay at a hotel further down, but luckily this didn’t happen ( I say luckily, but despite feeling fine a few times I thought a hotel would be nice…). There were two huge oven fires in the tent to keep it warm, and it was stifling, though I was also grateful. When we went to bed, under many layers of blankets that in fact felt a little crushing, the women who ran the place said that at midnight I would need to hide under the covers as the police cam around and checked that there were not too many people staying in any tent. I don’t know what happened in the end as I was fast asleep.
I will say that the toilets at Everest were the worst that I had encountered in Tibet. They were uncovered decks on stilts, which the rain had warped so they looked unstable, and under each whole the pile of ‘use’ was so high you could touch it from the deck. Just awful, but needs must.
We woke at around 730am to hopefully see the peak again, but it was cloudy, so we were grateful that we had gone up the night before to get the best view. The reverse of the long journey of the day before started at 8am, which would get us back to Lhasa, via Shigatse, the following evening.
On the way back down we picked up a kid who needed dropping off. The poor thing, probably because of the very bumpy ride, was sick all over the floor of the bus! It seemed that he was ill a few times before anyone noticed, as he was too shy to get anyone’s attention, I felt terrible for him!
It was only on this return journey that we finally stopped at a Tibetan restaurant (rather than a Chinese one). In addition to the momo and other wonderful dishes we had been introduced to in Lhasa, we had our first taste of Tibetan bread – kind of oily (in a good way) and just fluffy and divine.
We also stopped at the Gyantse Kumbum, an extensive series of chapels dedicated to the various gods.
We also stopped at a large dam formed by glacier waters that were the most amazing green!
Usually on these organised tours Everest base camp is the last stop, and I can see why. It is such an amazing highlight it is hard to imagine what you would want to do next. But after a night in Lhasa we headed for Lake Namsto. At the start of the journey I was struggling, but it was amazing.
We spent most of the trip speaking with our guide Sonam, finding out more about him and Tibetan culture. He told us that he had been a guide for 9 years, and before that had worked for an NGO, but that the organisation had left Tibet in 2008.
He is from the lower altitude region in the East. In the country side people just build homes and it is accepted that they own them. In Lhasa you have to buy them, making it very difficult. He did say that all houses have toilets in Lhasa, while in the villages there are public bath houses. In the East is it common for brothers to marry the same woman, so he has 5 fathers, who are all brothers, and so they can only guess which is their real father based on looks! He now lives in Lhasa with his wife, two small children, his mother and one of his siblings: in their small place he shares a room with his wife, his mother shares a room with the children and his sibling sleeps on the couch. In Lhasa there is a limit of two children, but this is not applied in the countryside and he has 16 siblings! He is the oldest of his siblings and learnt English and Chinese at school, and then improved it working at the NGO. He said that they learn Buddhism at school, which starts at 7am and ends at 6pm but they go home for lunch. He had to take a test to become an authorised guide and allowed to take groups like ours beyond Lhasa. You have to take the test before you are 35. His wife works for the same travel agent, but in the office making permits. The longest he has been away from him is 49 days!
Lake Namsto was a Utopia! The waters were fantastically blue and it was so big that it touched the horizon. It felt like a peaceful place. When we arrived we walked around part of the lake, the shores of which were populated by rocks and cave formations. There is one particular rock formation which you can climb to get amazing views of sunrise and sunset – we did both (of course)!
The region also carried some concerns. There were literally hundreds of stray dogs wandering the lake. They traveled in packs, which was scary, but of course it was fine. In the evening we did hear some dogs barking and children screaming, but I imagine that, like us, they were just afraid.
We stayed in a small hut on stilts, which was very, very, cold. And we found a mouse in our bed in the middle of the night. It was really rather cute, but the ruckus it caused was slightly hilarious.
We headed back to Lhasa to finish our trip, visiting our favourite food haunts and revisiting the markets and the Potala Palace. It was such a beautiful place, and the people were so kind and wonderful that I wanted to want to stay there forever, but I was ready to return to civilisation.