Top of the world

Monks at Tashilhunpo Monastery

Mary King treks across the roof of the world from Nepal to Tibet

Our Nepalese guide looks perturbed while the Chinese immigration officials are clearly amused by these foreign devils who, having crossed into Tibet, are now throwing a tantrum. The reason for our truculence is simple. Having shelled out US$400 to a tour operator in Katmandu, we expect to get what we paid for: a Toyota minibus to Lhasa. Sunir is now saying that we will have to travel 180km in the back of a cattle truck to meet the minibus, which is stranded due to a landslide.

We are not persuaded. We are not even sure that any Toyota minibus exists in this neck of the woods but are certain that we are not going to risk our lives, traveling like cows across mountain passes that will take us as high as 5000m. Tenzin, our Tibetan guide, confides that we would be fools to consider such a trip as, apart from the lethal condition of the route, we not only risk severe high altitude sickness but, should the truck break down, certainly die from hypothermia. Our Nepalese friend, however, is adamant that we move on.

The Italians are on the verge of apoplexy, hurling a volley of Latinate expletives at Sunir, but the man is not stirred. We wonder how many other tourists have experienced this same scenario once they have passed over to Tibet from Nepal. "What if I die?" Pietro exclaims, trying to get Sunir to see reason. "The Chinese will send your body home," he replies matter-of-factly, with the crux of the matter totally eluding him. On this note we dig in our heels, refusing to budge until the minibus turns up. Sunir quickly takes flight, returning to Katmandu, and we are all left, cooped up in a cold, rat-infested hotel in the melancholy border town of Zhangmu with the simple knowledge that a bus may not appear for days.

Into thin air
So starts our five-day, overland trip on the roof of the world to Lhasa, a Shangri-La that has stirred the imagination of travelers for hundreds of years - but the romanticism of travel in Tibet is already wearing thin. On the evening of our third day in Zhangmu, Tenzin informs us that the minibus has arrived after all, and we should be ready to leave at 7am the next day. From Zhangmu the bus lurches forward, averaging 10km/hr, as we scramble through the slush and sludge. The ride is precarious and bumpy to say the least, leaving most of us regretting our light breakfasts, but as the road takes us higher, we enter a landscape of such raw beauty that it is absolutely breathtaking.

As the road follows the deep valley of the Bhote Koshi River, the sky opens out before us like a brilliant blue canvas, the clouds swirling boldly against it, as we chug through a wilderness flanked by rows of mountains with their suggestion of mysteries and immensities beyond. The wind howls and a thick cloud of dust spirals upward as a dust storm blows up in the distance. There is hardly any other transport on the road, and our minibus passes nomads on pony-drawn carts only occasionally. It is no man' land. Herds of black, long-haired yak graze along the roadside, snorting threateningly when we get too close and bolting away in thick clouds of dust. Mountain goats snuffle through the shrub and bracken, looking for some tasty morsel. There is not a tree in sight, just prayer flags flapping in the wind and stone mounds that have been left by pilgrims on their way to Lhasa.

Temple in Gyantse

On Lalung La Pass we all start to feel the initial symptoms of high altitude sickness. At 5050m above sea level, the air has thinned out to such a degree that some of us begin to feel the throb of a headache while others feel nauseous, and one German woman starts to go blue in the face. Although most travelers to Tibet suffer such mild symptoms of high altitude sickness, it is a condition that can worsen and rapidly prove fatal. Hardly a year passes without some overseas visitor to Tibet dying from the condition that is caused by a reduction in the amount of oxygen available to breathe.

Diamox pills are handed out by those who had the foresight to bring the drug, and Pietro and Gigi offer the Italian cure-all: garlic. The bus stinks of garlic, and we are all relieved when it's time to get out, stretch our legs and take in the view of Mt Everest, which at 8848m is the world's highest. It is an exhilarating experience to stand above the Tibetan village of Lao Tingri, our hearts racing and lungs rasping in the thin air, as we look beyond the prayer flags at the sheer exuberance of Mt Everest, standing magnificent yet forbidding in its cloak of snow that is a startling metallic blue. The wind is fierce; ripping though us, the sky a scowling blue as the sun glares mercilessly off the ice and snow, blistering our lips and dazzling us. But while admiring its formidable beauty, one cannot help also feeling a sense of awe for those who have managed the immense act of conquering Everest's summit.

Just after midday, we stop for lunch in a Tibetan hamlet, which in the midst of a dust storm has the forlorn and deserted aura of a spaghetti western's ghost town. Packs of dogs snarl and growl as a handful of villagers timidly observe us from the porch-ways of their whitewashed houses. A gang of babbling youngsters run over to greet us, calling out "kuchi, kuchi" (please) as they hold out their grubby hands for a few yuan. They look like street urchins out of Oliver Twist, and we laugh as we shake hands that are literally caked in dirt. With hair matted with filth and dust, runny noses and grimy faces, these kids are as happy as any. Going without a bath for a few months is not that unusual in Tibet because in many areas, such as our lunchtime stop-off, there are no rivers; water sources are limited, and there are also no trees to provide firewood. Instead, plates of yak dung cling to the outside walls of the houses, drying in the wind and sun, and are the only source of fuel for many.

Monks relaxing at the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

Following our lunch of rice and potatoes, which was swilled down with cups of foul-tasting yak butter tea, Tenzin drops the bad news on us that our driver, Li, wants to make up the day lost at the border. This means we will now continue past Xegar and onto Shigatse, thus cramming a two-day journey of 488km into one day. None of us is too happy about this, especially as the day wears on when, after 16 hours of driving, we seem no nearer our destination; the road conditions worsen and the bus is plagued by an array of mechanical problems. By 2am, Li is psyching himself up to cross a flooded area by the light of the moon. Several trucks are already stuck in the sludge, wallowing like water buffalo in various stages of submersion, with their stranded passengers trying desperately to pull them out. Miraculously, we make it through and at 3am, after 20 hours on the road, we finally pull into the Shigatse Hotel, exhausted, dusty, and no longer enamored by the idea of overland travel.

Beyond the clouds
Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and the seat of the Panchen Lama. From 1959, the tenth Panchen Lama was employed by the Chinese authorities to act as a spokesman on Tibet. He rebelled against the Chinese in the 1960s and was later rumored to have died in prison. He resurfaced in Beijing, however, where he held a government position, but in 1989, he and his parents all died of a "heart attack," according to the Chinese government, during a rare visit to Shigatse.

We spent a morning viewing the Tashilhunpo Monastery, which was constructed in 1447 AD by the first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drub, and where 4000 monks studied during its religious heyday. Today, only 600 monks study here, but it is considered a second Potala Palace by many pilgrims and hundreds visit daily, armed with yak butter to feed the lamps, prostrating themselves around the stupas and up to the room that houses the 26m-high, gold-plated statue of the future Buddha. Shigatse bazaar also buzzes with life. Stalls, selling everything from slabs of yak butter to yak wool, prayer wheels and rosaries, line the streets while Tibetans vie with each other to win a sale from tourists, who are tempted by the pseudo antiques, jewelry and fur hats with elaborate gold brocade designs.

By our fifth day we are heading for Gyantse, which is dominated by the fort that was attacked by the Younghusband Expedition in 1904 when the British tried to gain control of one of the main trading routes to India. We pass a gold mine where PLA (People's Liberation Army) soldiers are busy digging and stop at Yamdrok Lake to view its pristine turquoise waters. On Kamba La Pass (4700m) we can make out the Lhasa Valley to the north and, having crossed the bridge spanning the Brahmaputra River, we arrive on the outskirts of the capital.

The scenery and the atmosphere change abruptly as the asphalt road leads us past a military base from where a convoy of green trucks, full of soldiers, is pulling out. Smoke stacks of factories raise their ugly heads against the city's skyline, belching out thick clouds of smog. The awe-inspiring mystical beauty of Tibet is now far behind us. It is getting on for dusk, a dust storm is starting to blow up in the city and through its shroud we can just make out the ghostly outline of the Potala Palace, perched high upon its hill.

Getting there:
Singapore Airlines flies from Narita to Katmandu via Singapore (Tel: 03-3213-3431). For more information on overland trips from Katmandu to Lhasa, contact Ultimate Descents at P.O. Box 6720, Katmandu, Nepal, Tel: (977-1) 419295 or 426329, Fax: (977-1) 411933. Email: Website:


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