Tibet Revisited

Dave and I recently went to Richard Gere’s photo exhibit entitled Pilgrim which showcased pictures from his time in Tibet. Walking through the gallery made me want to dash back home and flip through my pictures from Tibet. I didn’t take nearly as many photos in Tibet as the other people I was traveling with did because I have problems snapping pictures. I feel like it takes away from the moment, so I’m always looking to strike a balance between taking enough to remember things, but not too many that I become removed from what’s happening. I love the pictures I did manage to get while in Tibet though.

I wish I hadn’t had to join a tour group to travel through Tibet. Everything is so tightly controlled there. I didn’t walk away with a strong feel for the country other than sadness for what has happened. My guide was Tibetan and I learned a lot from him, but he was also a bit of a creeper, so I tried to keep as much distance as I could. We weren’t allowed to wander freely around, so I wasn’t able to have those magical encounters you usually have while exploring. The encounters we did have were with frowning Chinese soldiers at various checkpoints or in front of the Potala Palace. I wish I could have visited Tibet before there were so many restrictions placed on it. It was a breathtaking place to travel and I can only imagine how much more magical it must have been many years ago.

Seeing Richard Gere’s exhibit made me want to post some more of my pictures from Tibet. Some of these I’ve already posted previously, others I haven’t. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! Read more

A Trip (or a Dream) to the Roof of the World

I’ve been in Laos for a day back from Tibet by way of China, and as I flip through my pictures from Mt. Everest I still can’t believe I was there! I can’t say that it’s been my lifelong dream to go to Mt. Everest because it only occurred to me a few months ago that I could and should go to Tibet — and that if I was going to be in Tibet I couldn’t miss visiting such an infamous mountain. Once I thought of it, I just had to see the massive giant that has lured so many climbers, taken so many lives, and inspired so many people.

It’s cheaper and reportedly easier to visit Mt. Everest from its Nepali side, but I don’t like to do things the easy way. The roads in the National Protection Area of Mt. Qomolangma (Mt. Everest’s real name) were reported to be terrible. I was expecting the worst and happily found the roads to be in better condition than many of the Nepali roads I’d been on two months ago. It also helped that Tibetan drivers are also a bit better. Because of the ease and popularity of visiting the gargantuous mountain from the Nepali side, there aren’t many tourists who venture to Mt. Qomolangma from the Tibetan side, which made me even happier with my choice of route.

We spent one night in Shigatse before making the long trip to Everest. We arrived at 5pm, which left our guide Samdup one hour to get our permits because the Everest permit office closed at 6pm. He returned from the office with our permits in hand, but apparently we were quite lucky to have them. It was a holiday, Buddha’s day of birth and death to be exact, so the office had closed very early that day. Fortunately, someone who worked in the office arrived at the same time as Samdup and he luckily convinced him to give us the permits.

Instead of feeling nervous and then relieved as Samdup relayed the story to us, I was overcome by the feeling and thought that there was not a chance in the world that I would not have gotten my permit. Somewhere during the course of my recent journeys I’ve acquired a bizarre sense of confidence and optimism. I knew that I would get to base camp and I knew that it would be stunning when I arrived. There was not a single doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t happen.

Our next obstacle occurred at the army checkpoint where we had to present our permits and passports to enter the area. One of Samdup’s documents — permit, tour guide license or something else important — had expired, which meant he couldn’t go any further. Muni, one of the other three people in my tour group, had a Lonely Planet China which warned that foreigners can’t go past that point without a guide. This caused some worrying among us as we waited for the verdict, but my confidence or absurd optimism kicked in and I knew we would be able to go through. Like I said before, I was going to make it Everest Base Camp and it was going to be beautiful when I arrived. After much talking the soldiers let our driver take us into the area, leaving Samdup to find his way back to the closest town.

We had originally planned to stop at Rongbu Monastery before settling in at the Everest tent camp, but because it was so late in the day we decided to skip it and pop in for a visit on our way back the next morning. After many hours of driving we finally arrived at the tent camp. We put our bags in a tent, quickly added more clothing layers, and set off for the original base camp. The current tent camp is three kilometers below the original base camp because there were problems with human waste disposal that forced them to move the camp to a lower elevation. Other than some Chinese soldiers, nobody stays at the original Tibetan E.B.C. these days.

The other three members of my tour group –Muni, Marco, Ed — and I were joined by a Swede named Henrick whose guide decided not to hike to base camp to see the sunset with us. We were told that the three kilometer walk would only take 30 minutes, and that they would let us in upon arrival even though our guide wasn’t with us. Both of these statements were wrong.

Henrick and I took the lead and after many shortcuts we reached E.B.C. an hour and fifteen minutes later. There was a red gate like you find at the entrance to a parking structure next to an army tent where we figured we had to show our permits, passports and visas. I was starting to get sick of handing over all of my documents at this point. It was just becoming silly. I can’t believe that the Chinese government actually thinks there’s a chance that I snuck into China without a visa, made it into Tibet and had the nerve to go confidently traveling around and crossing checkpoints without the proper travel documents. But I digress.

Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that Muni was carrying all of the permits until we reached the soldiers guarding the entrance. I asked the soldiers if we could come inside their tent since my hands were frozen, it was windy and I didn’t know how far the rest of our group was behind us. Surprisingly they agreed and as I explained that we needed to wait for my friends he made it very clear that if our guide was not with them then we wouldn’t be able to stay at the base camp to watch the sunset. We were already at base camp, 15 meters away from the sign that says “base camp”, but we weren’t allowed to go any further based on the fact that there wasn’t a guide to watch over us! It’s not like we were going to steal the mountain for god’s sake!

The view as we approached E.B.C. that evening.

Since I had nothing to lose, I pleaded with the guard while making up lies about our poor sick guide who stayed at the tents. After a while, he excitedly told us his great idea: He would kick us out of the tent and allow us to wait outside for 10 minutes after which we would have to leave. He kept proudly repeating that this was his idea. I couldn’t figure out why he thought it was so genius since it didn’t actually help us, until the fifth time I made him explain it, which is when he added that his general was in the next tent watching TV with the door open and everyone would be in big trouble if he saw us wandering around without a guide. So Henrick and I exited the tent, where we found the others arriving. We told them we couldn’t go in and that we would have to come back for sunrise with Henrick’s guide to hopefully get in.

When we got back, Henrick had altitude sickness and went to bed. And I started seeing things. The altitude was affecting us more than I thought it would. Every time I moved something, I could see a trail behind it. When I woke up I was still feeling this side effect, but by the time I got to base camp I was fine. I had no idea that that would be my reaction to the altitude. After all, we were only 500 meters higher than the elevation I had no problem trekking at in Nepal.

When we arrived at the military tent in the morning, Henrick’s guide Nyima took care of everything and we successfully ventured past the red gate. We took a few hundred pictures, and after 20 minutes the one cloud that was obscuring our nearly perfect view of the mountain disappeared and it was beautiful! It was exactly what I knew it would be like. This time of year you have to be very lucky to get a view like that, but for some reason there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Everest would show herself to me. The sunset had been crystal clear as well, so why wouldn’t the sunrise be as beautiful, if not more so? According to the locals though, many people make the same trip as us only to have the mountain view completely obstructed by clouds.

Our view from the original E.B.C. where everyone hangs their prayer flags.

I wrote the initials of everyone in my family on a set of prayer flags and hung them on a hill in front of Everest for good luck (writing full names was too difficult with the pen I had). Then Henrick and I built a little rock pile like the Tibetans do for good luck.

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect trip to see Mt. Everest, but lucky for me it got even better on our way out when we decided to stop and visit the Rongbu Monastery.

On Buddha’s birthday the monks at certain monasteries in Tibet wear masks and dance for the public to watch. The tradition goes back hundreds of years when a Tibetan king needed to raise money to build a bridge, so he danced around in a mask and costume. I’m not sure if this is exactly the story, but it’s what I understood from Nyima.

A few spectators at the Rongbu Monastery.

The celebration was supposed to happen the day we arrived at Everest, but the Rongbu Monastery celebrates and dances on the last day of the 15-day Saga Dawa holiday, which happened to be the day we visited the monastery. So at the highest monastery in the world we arrived five minutes before this beautiful, once-a-year dance began without us planning it. Like I said before, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip to Mt. Everest.

I can hardly believe that this was a part of my life. Luckily, I have plenty of pictures to keep reminding me that it wasn’t all a dream.