Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Everest... aborted!

Now, truly independent travel in Tibet isn't really possible. You need a special permit just to enter the place, you must be with a guide in order to enter any monasteries or temples, tourists aren't allowed to use public transport, and if you want to venture outside of Lhasa, you need a permit stating your actual itinerary (and, of course, a guide). So, your basic Communist China bureaucracy at work - not sure to what end, as they are not actually preventing tourists from seeing Tibet, just making it difficult enough to drive down the numbers (and revenues), but I'm sure there's a grand plan to all of this somewhere.

I arrived in Lhasa with a permit allowing me to spend exactly four days in Tibet, specifically in Lhasa - this obviously wouldn't do, so I immediately set off in search of other tourists, with whom I would band together to get out of the capital and see more of this vast, fascinating country. All this to the great chagrin of my tour agency, who, I suspect, could get into trouble if I had overstayed my permit. And I had no intention of leaving, so I suppose they had reason to worry. What makes things complicated is that it's cold here in Tibet in February, so there's not a lot of tourists - were this equally frigid Nepal, there'd still be plenty of people, but this is Chinese Tibet... But never fear, by day 4, we had a group of 5 of us booked and ready to take a 4-day drive to Everest. Proper permits and everything! You can stop your worrying, Norbu!

Larry (our driver), Vanessa, Tim, Manuel, myself, and Emma on the way to Everest. Manuel is from Argentina (the 4th South American I'd met in Tibet!), the other three were students from Melbourne, Australia.

Everest is a fairly standard itinerary around here - you leave Lhasa on Day 1, taking a scenic drive to Shigatse, spend a night there, then up to Everest itself for days two and three, and return to Lhasa on day 4. Day 1 was bathed in brilliant sunshine highlighting the lakes and mountains that were passing us by:

Yumdrok Lake and some snow-capped mountains in the background

Cresting a 5,000+ meter pass near the Kharola Glacier. Prayer flags largely a theme in Tibet - absolutely everywhere!

Old meets new - prayer flags adorning a modern high voltage tower

In the evening we arrived in Shigatse, got a quick glimpse of the city, and settled for a perfectly nice dinner at a restaurant where noone spoke English. Side note: all meals in Tibet, outside of Lhasa, consist of noodles and yak meat. Sometimes, you get a menu, other times, you go into the kitchen and point, but the result is always the same. And it is delicious, mind you, but after four days I was looking for a bit of variety back in Lhasa. Lhasa features such exotic varieties as chicken, spaghetti, and Indian food... The conversation over dinner briefly touched on the subject of abortion, which we quickly skirted around, but the subject returned rather unfortunately the following morning, when we were informed by our tour agency's manager that the trip to Everest was going to have to be aborted! Apparently, another two hundred kilometers West, the weather was quite different - the passes were snowed in, there was no visibility anyway, and the police had closed down the roads. We met three Dutch girls, whose car had attempted the trip a day earlier, before the roads had been closed down, and they seemed rather shaken by the experience on the icy roads - they also didn't actually get to see the mountain. The weather was predicted to remain for over a week, so we reluctantly had to admit that we wouldn't be seeing Everest this time...

On Day 1, we were following the same route as another car heading for Everest. In fact, I had met the people in that car earlier, and they were the back-up plan, if the Australians hadn't turned up. As we later learned, that other car chose to just spend a day sight-seeing in Shigatse - there's apparently an important monastery here, where the early Dalai Lamas had resided. Tibetan monasteries are all more or less the same though, so staying in Shigatse seemed unacceptably boring to us (besides, that other car just wasn't that cool), so we instead got our guide and driver on board to visit Nam Tso lake - supposedly the highest salt water lake in the world, at an altitude of 4351 meters (not to be confused with Bolivia's Lake Titikaka - the highest navigatable lake in the world - with enough qualifiers, you too can be the best at something!). The guidebooks spoke very highly of it, and even though it'd be frozen over in February, it still promised a spectacular site. And it was only a day's worth of driving away.

The frozen alpine lake did not disappoint.

Nam Tso, flanked by some 7,000+ meter peaks. Plenty of prayer flags all around too

A pair of oversize rocks guarding the approach to the lake. Prayer flags at the ready

An outline of the edge of the frozen lake from a hill nearby

Getting close to the lake, we found some spectacular ice formations

Emma, striking a pose on the ice

During the summer months tourist season, you can stay right at the lake. Now, all the guesthouses were closed, so we headed back to the nearby town of Damxung for the night, passing more tall snow-capped peaks on the way

So, the lake worked out to be an excellent backup plan to Everest. No signs of the inclement weather showed up here, and apparently, our permits that stated Everest as our destination were good enough for Nam Tso as well. All attractions in Tibet, including Nam Tso and Everest come with an entrance fee, which I wouldn't feel all that bad about if the money didn't go straight back to Beijing... to return in the form of infrastructure improvements, I suppose, which the Tibetans would likely prefer to do without, if it meant independence... But that's a side note. Back on the lake, the only real problem at this time of year is the bitter cold, exacerbated by the never-abating winds - it is early February at 4,300 meters above sea level after all.

So, that's me, fully bundled up, yet still a bit chilly at the lake. We would eventually find a nice sunny spot, shielded from the wind, which was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch

After all that cold and wind, we were all too excited to stop by the Yangpachen Hot Springs on the way back to Lhasa on Day 4.

And on the evening of the 12th, we were back in Lhasa, just in time to watch the New Year's fireworks commence. More on those in the previous post - a little follow-up from this morning: today is the actual New Year's Day, both Chinese and Tibetan. It is a little similar to Christmas back home - most shops and restaurants are closed. Today was my designated souvenir shopping day, and I did manage to get what I wanted (somebody is always selling things to tourists in places like this), but the variety was decidedly more limited today than before. Lunch ended up in a Muslim restaurant (still featuring noodles and yak meat, of course) - I've been a bit surprised to learn that there's a sizable Muslim community here in Lhasa. For dinner, the owners of our hostel have apparently found a Chinese restaurant that's open - just like Christmas back home. Also like Christmas, the people go to church, en masse. Except in this case, everyone comes to Lhasa to visit the Johkang Temple. This is a very large place, and the line to enter wrapped all the way around! I'd have to guess it would take at least three hours to enter the place - nobody seemed to mind. New Year is also apparently the time for new clothes in Tibet, so everyone on the streets was sporting their brand new Sunday best. Conveniently enough, the New Year actually was on a Sunday this time around, so welcome to the Year of the Tiger!

An addendum: I can't believe these fascinating Tibetan people stole my fucking jacket! No, I can't help but keep being reminded of Cyrus' post about his granola bars getting stolen in Kazakhstan. And yes, it would've been much less likely to be stolen if I didn't have most of my attentions squarely focused on the very cute Tibetan girl I'd made friends with earlier that evening. And it wasn't even a nice jacket, considering that Buster had bought it back in Kathmandu and given to me in New Zealand, with both of us rather astonished that famed Nepalese quality had lasted quite that long... It is sort of appropriate that the jacket should make its way back to the Himalayas to perhaps remain there, I suppose, but that thought fails to make me feel any better (or warmer). Especially considering that instead of the money someone had apparently hoped I'd keep in my jacket, I had my gloves, hat, and ear-muffs in there. And I get the feeling I'll still very much miss those even after I pick up another cheap jacket of questionable quality at the next available opportunity... Well, I still like you, Tibetans - we didn't have to pay for any of our drinks that night on the bright side - but you are trying my patience!

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