My third journey around the world included many interesting and, for me, never before seen sights. Near the top of that list would be the fascinating overland journey from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal, right across the majestic Himalayas. It took five days to complete in an SUV with a driver and a guide. It was like no other cross-country drive I have ever taken. The 515 mile route linking Lhasa with the Nepalese border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge remains the most popular overland route in all of Tibet. The Friendship Highway follows the western portion of the Chinese National Highway, and at the Nepal border, it continues as the Araniko Highway for another 75 miles into Kathmandu, Nepal.
My trans-Himalayan journey commenced in Lhasa, Tibet. To get there I took a train from Beijing. In addition to being the highest railway line in the world, this route holds several other world records, including highest train station and highest railway tunnel. This journey required 41 hours through some of the most incredibly beautiful scenery I have ever witnessed. There is scarcely any land as far as one can see that hasn’t been farmed, built on, or mined. Every muddy river has several bridges reaching over it and dams along its course. The hillsides look like layer cakes made of rice terraces. In the morning I began to notice that the farms had disappeared and now I see a strange-looking emptiness that stretches out as far as the you can see. On the right side of the train, there was a clear view of the craggy, snow-topped Kunlun Range. I have never in my life seen such beautiful scenery in such a short period of time. On arrival, the first order of business was to adjust to the 12,000 foot altitude so I took a couple of days in Lhasa to acclimate before beginning my journey across the Himalayas.
One must-see site in Lhasa is the Patola Palace which has been the winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century. It symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism’s central role in the traditional, governmental administration of Tibet, a role which is plays to this day. The 13-story complex with its more than 1,000 rooms and 10,000 shrines is built on Red Mountain in the center of the Lhasa Valley at an altitude of 12,000 feet. The White Palace constitutes the living quarters of the Dalai Lama while the Red Palace is completely devoted to study of Buddhism and prayer. The Red Palace also contains the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas.
Finally the time came for the adventure to begin! The driver, the guide, and I departed the hotel promptly at 8:30 a.m. I had bought two small canisters of oxygen to have at the ready for the altitudes I would face. After leaving the city of Lhasa, we drove southeast for about 60 miles along the Kyi Chu River which is a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. The altitude here is about 14,600 feet. In the far distance I got my first glimpse of the glaciated peaks rising to more than 23,500 feet. It reminded me of Mt. McKinley in Alaska but with a clarity seldom seen in the industrialized world – you could see every detail of the ragged, snow-capped peaks. The first major site was Lake Yamdrok. Its turquoise-colored waters are beyond description. This freshwater lake, one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet, is over 45 miles long and covers an area of 260 square miles. The lake is surrounded by many snow-capped mountains and is fed by numerous small streams. The lake is revered as a talisman and Tibetans from the Dalai Lama to local villagers regularly make pilgrimages here.
We drove on toward Gyantse, passing the very imposing Kharolaglacier at 18,250 feet. From the glacier, the road continues to descend to Gyantse (elevation 13,210 feet) which boasts one of the best preserved fortresses in Tibet; however, it is more widely known for its monastery, the Gyantse Kumbum, which dates to the 1400s. Its 100 foot high Stupa (a structure containing relics, typically the remains of Buddhist monks) is one of the tallest and largest in all of Tibet.
The drive from Gyantse to Shigatse is only about 90 minutes. The route passes through fertile plains where wheat and barley flourish. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet. It is fairly modern with a population of over 100,000. It is situated 12,600 feet above sea-level. Its main attraction is the Tashilhunpo Monastery which is one of the six main monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism. Before the bloody Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) there were more than 4,000 monks in residence here. Now there are only 600.
The following day we had a pre-dawn departure heading for the Mount Everest Base Camp. The roads became extremely rough and progress slowed to a snail’s pace. Finally, after about 40 miles, we arrived at the turn off from the main road and began the drive to the camp. The distance is only 70 miles but due to the “road” condition it took three hours to reach the base camp area. Driving along a crude, undeveloped dirt track with the sun slowly emerging over the tops of snow-capped mountains, their reflections glistening off the glaciers, I felt I had arrived at the doorway to heaven. I was rudely jolted from my revery when the SUV hit yet another pothole that seemed to have no bottom! My head banged against the SUV’s roof and brought me quickly back to reality.
We stopped for photos at the Pang La Pass (17,062 feet) because it affords an amazing, sweeping view of the Himalayas. This was one of the highlights of this overland journey! On a clear day you can get an excellent view of not only Everest but also of Lhotse (4th highest peak), Makalu (5th highest peak), Cho Oyu (6th highest peak), Shishapangma (14th highest peak) and Gyachung Kang (15th highest peak).
About three miles from the actual base camp there is a car park with a few stores offering basic services. This is as far as my driver was allowed to take the SUV. From here, I took an “environmentally safe” bus to the official base camp further up the mountain. In order to protect the environment around the camp, private cars and tourist buses are not allowed. Instead, tourists may either trek or use a specially equipped, eco-van to reach the base camp.
On arrival at the camp I produced all the various permits and licenses as well as my passport and visas for China and Tibet. I also had to go on oxygen, although it might have been due more to lack of sleep and exhaustion than to altitude. I sat in a tent briefly where I got my breathing under control. The effort was definitely worth it as there was a crystal clear view of Mt Everest. The petons driven into the packed snow, where climbers had begun their trek up the mountain, stood out sharply. As I stood here at about 18,700 feet, transfixed by the vista stretching out before me, I tried to imagine the challenge this magnificent mountain presents to those brave souls who set out to climb it. What a moment for me, personally.
After spending about six hours at the base camp, we pushed on to the border town of Zhangmu which was a very long drive indeed. Despite the extremely rough roads, the views were breathtaking. I had a free day in Zhangmu before departing from China so I walked around the town and later had the guide take me to an internet café. It was wonderful to reconnect with friends and read the news from the USA. I reveled in attaching photos to my outgoing emails.
The next day I left the hotel early and went to the Chinese immigration office where I passed through without difficulty. Here my Tibetan guide and driver left me at the barrier. I exited the Chinese immigration building and slightly to the left, saw a short bridge of less than 150 feet in length. It is known as the “friendship” bridge and it connects Tibet with Nepal. I tried to take a picture but was descended upon by guards shouting in Chinese. I walked across and was surrounded by a herd of touts who wanted to sell me a ride into Kathmandu. I selected the least offensive looking one and headed for the shed in which I would pay $25 for a Nepalese visa.
With visa in hand, I went through immigration and customs buildings and got into the waiting four-wheel drive vehicle. I sat in the front passenger seat with three Japanese in the back. Off we went for the five-hour (85 miles) drive to Kathmandu. The road was rough but picturesque and the drive was smooth compared with the road to the base camp. The driver used his horn quite liberally and the pollution was overwhelming, especially once in the Kathmandu metro area. Many pedestrians and cyclists were wearing masks.
Once in my hotel in Kathmandu, I e-mailed friends and family in the USA that I was alive and well. I went to the coffee shop at my hotel, outdoors on the patio overlooking the garden, and had fish and chips. In this lovely and quiet setting there was ample time to reflect upon the mighty natural wonders I had seen on this incredible journey.
Next time: London to Venice on the Orient Express