I was warned that I might not actually see Mount Everest, because it’s the rainy season in Tibet, and nature is fickle. But seeing it or not, I was still determined to make the journey there. I wanted to feel what it was like to stand on the rooftop of the world, and was not that hung up on snapping the perfect photo.
At this point in the trip, I was the only traveler, the other two in my group not having signed up to see Everest. We left Shigatse and wove into the barren wasteland that is the Himalayas. At times, I got glimpses of snow-capped mountains, and at others, cloud-drenched rock. We entered what I like to call “The Road of Insanity” because it’s a very rough, relentless dirt road that lasts for several hours. Dust billowed in the sky, at times twirling into dust devils or cloaking the other cars altogether. Desert sand lumped into moguls. Blunt rock jabbed out of the earth. Still, we climbed.
I got my first glimpse of Mount Everest after we had snaked our ways up a sloping mountain, and after we’d passed striated, almost lava-like cliffs that I was told were the tectonic plates pressing together. We stopped at the top, and embedded in clouds, I saw the base of the world’s tallest mountain. I thought the elevation would go down from there, but after we went down the mountain slope, we entered the valley of giants, in which we were surrounded by snow caps and my ears popped every three seconds from their sheer height. The rock turned grey, barren. And in the midst of this massive display of stone, Everest Base Camp appeared as a collection of large black tents.
We took a bus to an outlook for Mount Everest, with workers toting oxygen bottles in every other seat. The mountain’s peak poked through the top and within its white cloak, it lay in wait.
But I hadn’t come to Mount Everest to just look at it and call it a day. If I had, I would be quite disappointed and deemed the trip ruined because of clouds.
It’s a queer thing climbing in the clouds, though, which I experienced the next morning hiking the distance we’d covered by bus the previous night. You don’t realize you’re inside of a cloud because no matter the altitude, you always think the clouds are higher. But out here, we met the clouds face to face, and as I walked the slow, breathless walk to the outlook, I could feel the clouds on my lips like mist.
I couldn’t see Mount Everest that morning, but I could feel it all around me. It was in the stones I walked upon (and yes it counts: I hiked on Mount Everest), it was in the air I breathed, and most of all, it was in the clouds I kissed as I went to greet it face to face.
She was a slight Tibetan woman in charge of the tent at the Everest Base Camp where I and some other Chinese guests were staying that night. She kept the stove in the middle of the tent stoked and occasionally pattered into the other room (it was a big tent) to get more water and food when ordered.
I mostly stayed out of her way and chatted with the tent mates and my guide, Tashi, but as the evening progressed one of the Chinese guests addressed her.
“So, you’re Tibetan. Do you have any songs? Will you sing? Or will you dance for us or something?”
And then this quiet woman, without even looking up from the stove she was tending, said “Um, no. How about you dance?”
What could he say? He didn’t want to dance, either.
And with that single line, the Tibetan woman left, having gained so much more than the money from the guests.
You don’t notice it at first, but after climbing a flight of stairs or walking a couple of blocks down the street, you feel it. Your chest, heaving from the effort and your heart pounding from such simple motions. You drink more water, you take a rest, but the thin air reminds you about your body’s relentless need for a breath.
In the Lhasa hotel, there was a free health checkup for altitude sickness. In convenience stores, air is sold by the aerosol bottles. Pre-packaged potato chip bags expand, straining against the wrapper. But still, the nights are never silent, for the sound of beating, hungry hearts.
On the whole, my body did quite well with the altitude. (Much thanks to my family’s excellent genes). Any slight headache could quickly go away with more water and rest. I was even able to go to Mount Everest Base Camp without needing to snort air from the bottle. But I cannot deny that I panted more than usual, or that my body would gasp after some physical exertion, reminding me that I had to breathe more slowly, more deeply. “In the shape of a Hershey kiss,” as my mom would say. It took effort to reach the top, to find my way to the Base Camp. I thought about my breath on an hourly basis.
And as our car climbed higher into the mountains and as I stepped out to get a better view or climb a flight of stairs, and when I saw the Hallelujah that is the Himalayas, my breath was taken away at the sight. My heart rapped against my chest, my breath gasped, and breathless I stood, admiring the world’s tallest, most brutal mountains.
And this seems to be the story of visiting Tibet, that it takes mammoth breaths to get there, and that it takes them away with a single sweep of its sights.
Now that my roommate and I are at last all moved into our new apartment, I can start to think about my next big trip, starting in July. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I only have 4 more provinces to travel to in China before I’ve been to them all! So with that in mind, July is when I’ll be tackling another piece of China’s Wild West by visiting Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
I’ve been asked before how I travel, or how I plan my trips. Everyone does it differently, but I tend to think more in terms of directions/overall shape. For example, I know what the spots I’d like to reach, but in terms of exact day to day planning, it’s more up in the air. I know what general direction I’m heading and how to get back, but that’s it.
For this trip, my “general shape” is that I’ll start at a magazine launch in Shanghai where one of my poetry translations has been published. Then, I’ll board a train to get out to Qinghai, then TAR! From Lhasa, a 48-hour train (they have beds) all the way across China to see the landscape fold together. It should be an exciting trip, especially since I’ll get to experience the highest altitude in the world and see mountains well beyond my imagination.
Here’s a breakdown of the trip.
Well, I’m no stranger to Shanghai, given that Hangzhou is only one hour’s train ride away. I’ve gone there to meet friends during international flight layovers, I’ve gone for the literary festival, I’ve gone for a bachelorette party, and I’ve gone to just straight up travel of course.
This time I’ll definitely have a pretty clear goal, which is to attend a magazine (“The Shanghai Literary Review”) launch, and hopefully meet some other interesting writers and editors. I’ll be fancy, I’ll be (hopefully) charming. In other words, I will be the exact opposite of what I’ll be like traveling in the following weeks when my clothes get rumpled from the washed-in-a-sink routine.
While in Shanghai, I may call up some friends, or I might just scuttle into a nice western restaurant to enjoy a good meal before boarding the train.
First off, to get to Qinghai, I’ve figured out a train system that will get me there. First, I’ll be doing an overnight train to Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, and then a short 1-hour train to Qinghai’s capital city, Xining. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually not so bad, especially considering that I’m basically crossing the entire country.
Since Qinghai is part of the Tibetan Plateau, is home to Tibetan people, and is historically Tibet, much of what I want to do in this province is related to Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t have many specifics nailed down for the 10 days or so that I’ll be here, but there are three things I want to do: Find the salt lakes, go to a Tibetan village, and go hiking. From what I’ve read online, all of this is extremely doable. There’s the Chaka Salt Lake, which is just to the North/Northwest of Qinghai Lake (the huge one), and there are national parks, and there are several Tibetan villages, including Tongren, to name just one.
This part of the trip is travel like I’m used to — the kind in which I’m a leaf on the wind, and enjoying whatever experiences come my way.
Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
To get to Lhasa, I’ll be taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has been dubbed “The World’s Highest Railroad,” because of the altitude. While there are flights going into Lhasa, it’s better to go in slowly because 1) the scenery is amazing, and 2) it helps you adjust better to the high altitude.
As for my time in TAR, I will be on a much clearer schedule, because I’ll be going with a small group tour.
Oh yes, I’m not a huge fan of group tours, and yes yes, it’s more rewarding to travel alone, but that’s simply not the best idea when budget traveling in TAR. This is because all foreign travelers in Tibet must have a guide and a driver, since we are not allowed to take pubic transportation outside of Lhasa. Likewise, there are areas that foreigners are discouraged from visiting. Because having a guide and a driver can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, I’m joining a group to make it more affordable. That being said, the two companies I’m considering (Budget Tibet Tours, and Tibet Highland Tours), seem to have good itineraries in mind.
(By the way, if you want to know a lot more about traveling in Tibet, check out this website. The writer is very friendly and actually responded to my questions!)
The trip I want to take will be an 8-day journey from Lhasa (where we will see the Potala Palace, which in itself is entralling) all the way to the Mount Everest Base Camp. (“OMG you’re climbing Mt. Everest??” NOOOOO I’m not a mountaineer and would need many years of training to even think of that — this is a “poking the base of the mountain” trip). The journey will take us past glaciers, the world’s highest monastery, and I assume more gorgeous scenery.
Oh, and while I’m in Lhasa, I also plan on riding the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel. (Again, because of the altitude.) It’s barely mentioned online, but it’s just odd enough to attract my attention.
Anyway, I’m getting pumped for my trip, and will share details as they come/I hit the road. As for now, that’s just a glimpse of where I’ll be in less than a month!