Despite its popularity and the advanced transportation and communication networks Mount Everest is still a bugger to get to. Our journey started with a 24 hr train ride from Xining (it would have been 44 hours if we had tried it from Beijing) to Lhasa. A couple of days to acclimatise to the altitude then a monster 13 hr drive to Shigatse. A quick nap and a feed and another 11 hr drive to base camp…the last 75kms on a bone jarring dirt track. Dawn photo session followed by breakfast and another trip up the mountain at 9 am with a 10:05am departure back for the 10.5 hr drive back to Shigatse. A shower, meal, nap and we were headed back on a 7hr drive to Lhasa for a night, before our 23 hr return train journey to Xining.
I guess if such a naturally beautiful place is to stay pristine then it will need to be out of the way. If you could get there by hopping a flight and taking a short cab ride it would cheapen the experience…we earned our views and photos.
We were blessed with stunningly blue skies and clear weather throughout all of our time in Tibet. As you drive through endless tracts of desert and dry riverbed you begin to realise how desolate Tibet actually is. There are some stunning sights but they are a long way apart. I had an image in my mind of what Tibet, Everest and base camp would be like and I was completely wrong on all three counts. The place is full of natural beauty but in a barren kind of way. The soil is poor and the temperatures are cold so the vegetation is sparse and the landscape is dotted with hardy animals like yaks and goats.
About 140 kilometres from the mountain along the torturous drive you catch your first real glimpse of Everest…and all the pain melts away. The great weather meant that our first viewing was the postcard shot. Our photo was of the peak with the wind blowing the snow wistfully from the top. A 10 minute stop for photos, oohs, aahs and wows…then back in the van for more torturous bumps.
There are little if any facilities along the road and those that exist are feral. Nine people were jammed into a van for essentially 5 days solid driving with zero privacy…to see a mountain and the odd temple and monastery along the way. As you do the obscenely long and uncomfortable drive you are told to drink copious quantities of water to offset the effects of altitude sickness. We all did what we were told and still all got altitude sickness to one degree or the other. Bumpy roads, full bladders, no facilities…we got to know each other pretty well.
Altitude sickness is a phenomenon that affects everybody but in different ways and to different degrees. Some of the others in the group were put on drips, given oxygen and took anti-altitude medication. Jill and I had none of any of this…we did both get the headaches and shortness of breath, we both skipped the nausea and vomiting and I got the added joy of sleeplessness. I basically had no sleep between leaving and returning to Lhasa (about 78 hours all up) then Jill forced another 9 hours on me as we had to go shopping and topping up our mobile phone credit. After 87 hours of being awake I caught about 4 hours sleep then headed for our 23 hr train ride back to Xining.
We finally arrived at Everest base camp at 10pm tired grumpy and exhausted. We did have a few choice photo opportunities along the way. But it was dark when we got in so we got into our accommodation, got fed and crashed. The accommodation was an indigenous tent on the side of the mountain. It had a wood stove in the centre, carpets on the dirt and a bench doubling as beds around the outside. The seven of us bunked down for a freezing night of communal camping while the driver and guide headed off to another tent.
When I said it was a wood stove in the centre of the tent…this was accurate…but… It was not wood that was being burnt. The fuel of choice in Tibet is Yak dung paddies and sheep and goat pellets. So in addition we had a rural aroma permeating the tent. The facilities were about 100 meters away and were totally rank and there was a very real threat that you could fall into a pit of raw sewage. Because of the threat of falling through the wooden floor in the tin shed onto the pit of raw sewage, those that had gone before had gone on the floorboards rather than braving the hole. So most of us chose torchlight and the rocky riverbed…behind whatever stone that might give you some semblance of cover. Clearly we were not the first with such an idea and the area was littered with human and animal excrement. So we added our fair share and moved on…I have a detailed version of this for my nephew Fleebs but have been banned from publishing it.
After a fitful nights sleep for most and no sleep for me…the sun rose and most of us headed to the other end of base camp for sunrise shots of Everest. Standing at over 5200 meters watching the early morning sun reflect off the highest point on the planet seemed to make all the pain of the preceding few days melt away. Back for brekkie then hop a bus to take you another 6-8 Kms closer for an hour of photos and our odyssey was over…except for the return journey.
Mount Everest is definitely a bucket list item but one that needs to be seriously considered before embarking. This is a destination that cannot be taken lightly and is a serious investment in time and damage on your body. Our trip was in the Tibetan summer and the weather was perfect…and the trip was still tough. The guide told us stories of others that had had weeks on the mountain and barely got to see it due to the clouds and mist…we were VERY lucky.
While it is a fantastic thing to have done and no doubt in the future we will regale you with stories of the time we slept in a tent at the northern face base camp (EBC for those of us who have been there) of Mount Everest in Tibet… we are both glad it is over and we are headed back to Xining for some well earned rest and a little bit of pampering. We can get one hour massages for less than $8 and both of us are aching and in need of some down time.