Everest to Shenzhen
An overland journey from one side of China to the other
Part IV: The Road to Everest Base Camp
The road to Everest Base Camp from Shigatse is one of the most spectacular and most memorable I have ever traveled. As I go back through my photographs and journal entries I struggle to find words to express the wonder that highway inspired.
Gyastso La Pass
From Shigatse we continued westward along Highway G318 – the Friendship Highway that connects Lhasa with Kathmandu in Nepal. After the Village of Lhatse, the road turned south and began the gradual climb high up onto the Gyastso La Pass.
At an elevation of 5220m (17,125 ft), Gyastso La is the highest pass on the Friendship Highway. Unlike other Tibetan passes, the road to and from the Gyastso La pass is relatively straight. It climbs slowly, and steadily through a river valley before emerging quite suddenly atop a snowy plateau.
When we stepped out of the van for photographs, a cold wind stabbed at my skin through my fleece jacket. Even in the middle of June, snow on the ground melted into muddy little puddles around patches of brown grass. In spite of the chill, we took our time using the facilities, and admiring the cold mountain views.
Speed limits along Tibet’s remote highways are enforced by checkpoint. At one check you pick up a time-stamped receipt, at the next you turn it in. If you arrive before your designated time, then you were speeding and must pay a fine. The result of the speed control is two-fold. Firstly, people drive slower on the dangerous mountain highways. Secondly, even with the slower speeds, most travelers find they need to take a 20-30 minute break just out of sight of the checkpoint to avoid the fine. This is how we came to enjoy a leisurely lunch at a restaurant in the small town just shy of the final speed-check and our entry to the tightly controlled national park around Mount Everest. I don’t remember what we ate, but I’m certain it was some kind of Yak dish.
After lunch, our guide presented each of us to the officials sitting behind a long counter. Half of the room served those leaving the park, and half those entering. A metal barricade down the center of the room made the dividing line clear. Of course, only one official worked behind the desk and he took paper work from both sides of the room. It didn’t take long to get our approval and head back out to the van and continue along the road to Everest
Pang La Pass
The ladder-like road twisted up the steep mountain slope doubling back on itself over and over again. Looking up, we saw an endless succession of cement barriers, all seemingly stacked on top of one another. Looking down, we saw loop after loop of fresh, black asphalt.
“CHOH-moh-LUHNG-ma – Chomolungma,” our guide corrected us as we climbed higher and higher. This Tibetan name for Everest means Goddess, Mother of the Earth.
The Chinese government only recently paved this section of the road to Everest. Many sources still list it as a well-maintained gravel affair. On a clear day you can see four peaks that top 8000 meters from the top of Pang La Pass (elevation 5,205m – 17,076 ft) including the mighty Chomolungma.
Even though a thick layer of monsoon clouds obscured the highest of the mountain peaks, the view was still impressive. Mountain ridges rolled across the landscape in beautiful waves of browns and golds and coppers. At our feet, the road folded over itself like a pile of discarded ribbon before disappearing in the depths of the river valley 1000 m beneath us.
Road to Everest
We twisted and wound our way down the mountain. Each turn brought fresh perspectives on the natural and desolate beauty of these mountains. I began to feel the effects of the two high-mountain passes with a dull throbbing around my temples. I drank some water and took some ibuprofen. Nothing to do for the altitude but drink water and wait.
We curved through a tiny gully and through a tunnel blasted in through a cliff face that jutted out of the hillside – too ancient and too stubborn to make way for our impatient world.
As we dropped into the valley, a collection of mud ruins – once the homes and towers of a small community – told the tale of progress.
“That? A village that was abandoned…moved…long time ago,” our guide explained.
Sometimes it was hard to tell whether “a long time ago,” meant fifty years – during the cultural revolution or hundreds of years. I suspected the answer was closer to fifty.
The valley widened into a broad, rock strewn flood plane where the waters of the river were still low. We sped past green fields and made a quick stop in the tiny village to pick up supplies for our tent-hotel at Everest Base Camp.
When we reached the base camp, we consulted with our guide and decided to go up to the “view point,” right away.
“Take a warm Jacket,” he cautioned. “Very windy there.”
We purchased our tickets and piled into the little dusty bus that rumbles back and forth along the dusty track to the “view point.” tiny rock piles, many of them erected in memory of climbers who lost their lives in their attempt to reach the summit, cover a prayer-flag topped mound.
We looked toward the mountain and saw only a rainbow in the thick mist that shrouds the pinnacle. The only sounds are our own voices and the sound of the prayer-flags popping in the frigid wind. This is the closest tourists like us can get to the mountain. The police watch your every move here. They follow the bus up the mountain, drive out beyond the mound to wrangle any one who dares trespass, and then follow the bus back down to the base-camp.
“Some years ago, some tourists brought a flag here and took the picture – a protest. Caused many problems for us, many problems for our guests,” our guide explained.
We waited on the mound for a while. We all hoped that the wall of cloud might dissipate and reveal the mountain. Unfortunately, that was not to be. It was with some disappointment that we piled back into the dusty bus and rumbled back down the hill to base camp.
The most memorable monastery in Tibet
“I have something special to show you, if it is open,” our guide told us. “Old Monastery!”
On the side of a hill, just a few paces from base camp, a tiny stone structure perched on top of some rock doing little to make its presence known. We climbed the stone steps and ducked through a low door into a small, simply furnished temple.
“The sacred place in this temple is not here,” our guide told us. “It is under our feet.” He opened a trap door and we all scrambled down into the tiny cave-temple. A single bulb and a basin of butter candles gave the little cave its only light.
We crouched as we made our way into the depths of the cave. Here were the Buddha statues. Here were the stories told in the hopes of the offerings and the care taken of the poor furniture. When we emerged again, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I’d just seen the best monastery in Tibet.
Agony and Ecstasy at Everest Base Camp
Everest Base Camp is a collection of tent-hotels arranged wall-to-wall in a long rectangle. At the heart of the rectangle is a ChinaPost tent where you can send post cards with the commemorative Everest postmark.
We all sat on the collective bet at one end of our tiny tent. There is barely room to move through the tent without brushing against the piping hot stove pipe. Our group will share this cozy space with the host and his family as well.
A dull, persistent pain throbbed against the insides of my temples like a ghoulish dwarf chiseling away at the insides of my skull. Everyone gets altitude sickness in Tibet. We’d tried everything we could to hold it off. We drank gallons of water and Tibetan herbal tea. We took a daily dose of Ibuprofen – shown in one study to have about an even chance of lessening the effects of high altitude. We even avoided showers for the first three days of the trip. But when it comes to Everest base camp, everyone gets sick to some degree.
“The mountain is out!” our guide announced triumphantly as he burst into the tent. “Come quickly!”
After a brief scramble for shoes and cameras and jackets, we all squeezed past the burn-inflicting stove pipe and into the black of the night. There it was – like a sailboat on a sea of grey: the peak of Chomolungma. I’m not sure if it was the general lack of oxygen or excitement for catching a glimpse at last of the mountain that proved so elusive during the day light hours, but I was practically giddy as I rushed through the base camp snapping photos.
Later, my head throbbed in the dark tent. The noodles I’d had for dinner sat in my belly like lead. As I sipped some water I wondered briefly if my friends were getting any sleep. I heard someone roll over and realized that of course they weren’t. Who could sleep with that pain.
‘Is the agony of the altitude worth, the tiny glimpse we got of the peak?’ I wondered.
Some informative links about the road to Everest
Myths and Mountains provides practical information about year-round travel to Everest Base Camp in Tibet.
You can read an older account of the road across Pang La Pass here.
Dangerous Roads might be a bit out-dated, but it provides good information about the roads and passes.