travelogue – The North Face – Tibet

Rick TibetHuge pinnacles of ice, soaring as high as 15 metres above the glacier; icebergs which will never calf; described in our guidebook as resembling dozens of Sydney Opera Houses. To me the most elegant are white-blue sailboats. I had to be restrained from climbing in and on top of the frozen waves.

Damian said, “We are damn lucky to see this.”


But how did I get here?

On the Ganden – Samye trek we got inspired to next try the Highest Trek in the World; a trip to Everest’s North Face advanced Base Camp III (6340 metres). Nowhere else on Earth can you walk to such an elevation with no need for crampons, ice axe, or any mountaineering skills.

To have enough time I would need to extend my visa. This demanded 4 trips to the Police in two cities. On my last attempt I promised, if successful, to do a kora (ritual counter-clockwise circumambulation) at the Shigatse monastery, home of the Panchen Lama.

To gain merit. Soup-up my karma.

Unexpectedly I got 7 days. Time enough to try Everest!

I set out at dusk for the 1 hour fast walk. I knew from our morning kora that there were perhaps 1000 dogs asleep (only 1 was dead for sure) around the monastery walls. When I started the walk a number lay with eyes open, watching. As I moved up the mountain some were sitting. More trotted down from the hills. I accompanied women who gave out water, left-overs, bits of rice. Snarls. Growls. The curious fallen puppy we had returned to the litter in the morning was again whimpering on the path below the den. But this time the sick, crazed mother was watching. I didn’t dare touch the pup.

I hurried to safety as the city erupted; a canine chorus.

Damian, a great travelling companion, and I were travelling the Friendship Highway (Lhasa to Kathmandu via Everest). Damian is Swiss, a ski guide and mountaineer who attempted the Weisshorn in September (unsuccessful due to weather). More importantly he speaks German, French, English, and reads, writes, and is fluent in Chinese. He loves to barter in the Chinese manner, organizing huge meals for groups of 8 to 10 backpackers.

Of course we travelled illegally, refusing to join any government approved tour group. This means we had to hitch the trip, variously on tractors, horse carts, Tibetan people movers (dump trucks jammed with sacks and singing locals). We learned that open trucks are the best ride; taking in the air & scenery, standing to absorb the bumps.

I don’t like hitching. It teaches patience too well. Picture me sitting roadside watched by sharp-eyed, oily Tibetan crows. Mean opportunists, these demon birds sharpen their cruel beaks remembering the last tourist who died hitching at this spot.

Once we sat all day, finally hiring a mini-bus to take us over a high pass. The driver, fearing the police, spent several hours negotiating the charter (bribe). The Chinese compromise was that the bus could drive us up to the police checkpoint, we would then walk across (somehow less illegal), and then the bus could pick us up again on the other side.

The Friendship Highway is infamous. On one high pass we squeezed by a huge semi almost capsized in the mud. Several other trucks were stranded. A bus seemed to have slid down the mountain.

It was a struggle to reach the trailhead.

Tingri to Everest Base Camp Trek:

The most popular big hike in Tibet, this is a long, harsh slog. We managed the 70 km in 3 days, hiring a packhorse for a half day and riding up a jeep track for the last hour with a Canadian family. We slept in

  • my tent
  • a smoke-blackened Tibetan home (pots big enough to cook a goat)
  • the Rongphu monastery guesthouse

We ate gourmet imported camp food we had purchased from a Nepali tour guide. We sampledtsampa with butter tea (inedible) and thugpa stew (which tastes as good as it sounds). Damian tried the raw, dried meat but had to spit it out.

This food is what the Tibetans eat every day, all day.

Rongphu monastery, the world’s highest, has stunning views of Everest — far superior to the Nepal side. Everyone sits out to watch the play of light at sunset, the North Face golden. In October the weather is stable, day after day of sunny skies. At times even the peak was clear; no blowing snow off the top.

North Face
North Face Everest (or Chomolunga)

It is quite warm except when it is windy. It is always windy. We heard hypothermic horror stories from those who tented at the base camp.

At the Rongphu monastery the ambiance is end-of-the-world euphoria. When an Israeli pulled a pistol out of his parka to punctuate some anecdote, no one even blinked. The Tibetan cook there thought I should pay for a meal I hadn’t ordered or eaten. When I tried to leave he shook me by the lapels, pushed me out the door, on to the ground, and fell on top of me. I was too surprised to be angry.

(One of the big disappointments for travellers is the realization that many Tibetans just are not friendly. In fact, it is hard to picture a more disreputable rogue than a Tibetan man. I tried to be tolerant, knowing that the Tibetans are not far removed from a peasant, rural existence. But three times I saw Tibetan men kick women. Each time I stopped to yell incomprehensibly at the offender. The third instance, to demonstrate how I should mind my own business, the man then slapped his wife backhand. I stood stupefied as two other men consoled and hurried her away. Tibetan children routinely stone foreign cyclists,

Damian & I set off determined to climb high. We reached advanced base camp I (5460 metres) and pitched the tent in a protective ring of stones. A surprisingly healthy monastery dog followed us all the way up the mountain. We pondered whether we (and the dog) were tenting higher than anyone else on Earth that night.

Next day we got an early start, carrying only a daypack. We calculated a 2:30 PM turn-around time. This was it. Climb high and then hustle back to the monastery. Perfect weather. It was a 10 hour walking day.

Along and atop the glacier was rock, ice, and dust. No snow. Creaking and continual rock slide. Caves, tunnels, and under-ice rivers. At one point there was a 700 metre drop-off. We drank glacial melt water to prevent dehydration.

We reached the littered advanced interim base camp II at 5760 metres and climbed higher, perhaps reaching 5900 metres. We lost the trail. Dead-ended several times. Game over.

We took photos. Scrambled around the seracs. And turned back.

This was a long, exhausting hike. I was tired of scree underfoot.

Yet this is an adventure I would recommend unreservedly. (As I do the Lost City trek out of Santa Marta, Colombia.) To do it right you need the first 3 weeks of October, flying into Lhasa and out of Kathmandu. YOU could walk to base camp III!

I am ready and eager to leave Tibet. I’m tired of the bureaucratic idiocy in this sad, subjugated colony. Tired of the misinformation and the mistreatment of valued foreign friends.

I will remember the stark landscape; the intense sunlight and black shadows; the detailed relief. You can see more clearly in Tibet. I’ll remember the skies, particularly one otherworldly evening — alternating streaks of blue and yellow, which had all travellers straining to explain the phenomenon.

I will remember the traditional Tibetan costumes; the great Tibetan teeth; the happy, healthy, filthy, scabby, snot-caked children. (I’m much more compassionate of Tibetan dirt after 9 days without a shower. My hands will not come clean no matter how much I wash them.)

I’ll remember the picturesque Tibetan towns marred by drab Chinese buildings, telecommunication tower, and loud-speakers still shouting distorted Communesque lies in 1998.

I’ll remember the pilgrim touching-up the colours on beautiful rock paintings.

And I’ll remember the monk who cleaned the monastery assembly hall sliding around in over-sized sheep-skin “skates”.

Opinion not fact.

As you’ve already surmised, I’m no careful reporter. This is Gonzo journalism; subjective, personal impressions. Take care.

After a few short weeks in Tibetan lands (on your map Tibet is only about 1/4 the size of ethnographic Tibet) I’ve grown less sympathetic of Tibetan independence.

To start with, I was suspicious of any cause that is so popular. It is trendy to Free Tibet, but boring to talk of the Kurds who are far worse off. (In the same way that AIDS is chic, but prostrate cancer should not be discussed in polite company.)

In all my backpacker pro-Tibet propaganda nowhere is it mentioned that pre-invasion Tibet was a backwards, impoverished Theocracy, an unsanitary slum.

One quote I did pick up somewhere — Past tragic, present painful, future bleak. It has never been easy to live on this plateau.

Theocracy is bad government. Religion is Monty Python’s Life of Brian. God often becomes an excuse for corruption and excess. One funeral pyre of a Dalai Lama is covered with 3700 kg. of gold, encrusted with pearls and jewels paid for by donations of poor pilgrims.

I believe in a separation of church and state.

(One of the great stories of Tibet is that of the 6th Dalai Lama. Born to be God-king, he never took his vows preferring women, late nights in chang houses, riding and archery with his friends. He was murdered at age 23.)

KunOn the other hand, it would be interesting to see what the current Dalai Lama (like Nelson Mandela) could have done. Even Confucius called for leadership by the wisest sage. I found the film Kundun to be very believable. I respect the Dalai Lama’s philosophy of non-violent resistance. But I fear for the cause after his death. Finding his reincarnationwill be a disaster.

To be fair, the Chinese are doing some good things here. They are masters of infrastructure; roads, bridges, telephones. The minorities enjoy a surprising number of privileges, as do our own First Nations. It could be that more Tibetans live in comparative comfort and security than ever before. The biggest problem is education. Literacy rates are very low; rural Tibetans can’t get to schools and many urban Tibetans can’t afford school fees.

Tibetan culture and religion are as safe as any in the world. Why? Touri$m! What is more compelling than Tibetan Buddhism?

After a few weeks of casual discussion, observation and beer drinking; despite intensive lobbying by two Tibetan advocates. (Lama in Xiahe and Tenzing in Lhasa); I’ve concluded that there will never be aFree Tibet. The Chinese will absorb these lands by immigration. The Clinton visit to China slammed the door. China now has legitimacy — in exchange for a few economic crumbs.

The best I hope to see is one final visit by the Dalai Lama to Tibet in his lifetime.

There will never be a Free Tibet. But the greater danger for Tibet and even China is world monoculture — Coca-colonization.

When I think of Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman”, I think of his stern, gigantic white statue in Chengdu … dwarfed in a sea of neon advertising for Cognac, Toyota trucks, and Swiss watches.

Damian & Everest

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