I guess Tibet, from my limited perspective, can be divided into Lhasa and the rest of the plateau. I had read and known that the Tibetan plateau was one of the most remote places on earth, but the visual reality was still surprising. It reminded me at every turn of Peru and parts of Bolivia and I realized that high-altitude living, especially in poverty, doesn’t really differ dramatically across the world.
Herds of sheep, simple abode houses, colorful traditional dress, hearty soups and homemade spirits sketch out a rough outline of rural Tibet. Towering Himalayas, kids with wind-chapped cheeks and runny noses, general stores selling Chinese crackers and the odd bottle of Coca-Cola are the daily details. We stopped in tiny one-burner restaurants with five-item menus (and even then, some thigns weren’t available: When I ordered a pineapple juice and was informed there was none, my German travel companion Chris wryly said: “Go fish.”)
It’s a real shame that we had to be on the tour. We didn’t really see much. And the distances covered–up to 12 hours a day in the van (on bumpy, unpaved roads)–meant we saw a good deal from the window but only stopped at incredible lookout points, not small towns along the way. Our guide, Lobsang, was at first very closed-lipped with us. Later, once we left Lhasa and were on the road, he loosened up and talked a bit about Tibetans’ relationship with the Chinese.
Simply and unsurprisingly, they hate them. When a car coming the other way was driven by a Chinese person, our van would refuse to move out of the way, forcing the other driver to back up along treacherous mountainside paths. When we passed a car with engine trouble, we’d slow down to see the ethnicity of the driver, choosing to speed by or stop and help depending on whether or not they were Chinese. And Lobsang also told us about the Chinese mandatory yearly training for tour guides, where they are instructed to tell us about the 1951 “liberation” of Tibet and so on and so forth.
So just for posterity: We spent a half-day in Gyantse, a night in Shigatse, a day and night at Everest Base Camp, and a day and night in Zhangmu, the frenetic border town between Tibet and Nepal. In Gyantse we had the worst meal of the trip so far–an impressive distinction. In Shigatse, we searched for hours for a grocery store to stock up on provisions, only to find it underwhelming (no chocolate) and behind a huge crane and Chinese construction site.
A couple notes on Base Camp: We slept in nomad tents and froze our tushies off, but the sunset and sunrise views of Everest made it all worth while. The nomad kid who took care of us made us dinner–I had noodle soup. Others had fried noodles. There was also fried rice on offering–a couple pieces of cabbage rounded out all the dishes. I was wrapped up in a tshirt, pullover, light fleece and light rain jacket and piled under several blankets, with Hot Hands in strategic places on my body. I wasn’t too cold in the night, but I woke up to a cup of tea frozen solid next to me. We dragged ourselves out from under the covers in time for sunrise–a magical experience. We arrived two days before the end of the season and many nomads had already packed up and moved on. The “toilet” at the camp clearly hadn’t been emptied once in the whole 6-month season. It was, as usual, two simple holes in the ground of a wooden hut, but where the hole should be were heaping piles of human feces, discarded toilet paper, dirty tampons, and general filth. I’ve never seen anything like it.
In Zhangmu, we were so ready for a nice toilet and bed after a week of filthy, smelly squat toilets and wooden planks for beds. The mattresses were…softer, I guess, and the toilet (hole) at least had a nearby window for ventilation, but we didn’t find the comforts we’d hoped for. We tried to go to dinner at the only place recommended by the guide book, but when we got there, the lone employee said there was no food. We went down the street and had a mediocre meal at a place with one burner–my food came first, then they started the next dish, and that went on for six people and two hours.
Crossing the border from Tibet to Nepal was a little nerve-wracking since some of us had copies of Lonely Planet, which the Chinese are known to confiscate due to material related to Tibet and Taiwan. I hid mine in dirty laundry. He asked if I had any books, I said no, and I moved through the line without further questioning–until the passport check. They took my passport, made me stand aside while everyone else streamed through without incident, and finally brought it back and handed it to me wordlessly. What was THAT about!?
We got to Nepal (my home for the next month), paid for our visas, saw a newspaper in Nepali with an image of dead Qaddafi and learned he’d been killed days earlier. We stepped outside the visa office and (after two hours) got a bus to Kathmandu–a five-hour ride for $4 on an old converted school bus. This was the developing world I’m used to–a death-defying ride on an ancient, very unsafe bus clinging to mountainside unpaved roads, full of potholes and mud, as 5,000 foot cliffs taunt alongside. People got on and off at various intervals, carrying foods and clothes and 1000 rolls of toilet paper to resell and chickens and gizmos for sale and you name it. The behaviors and landscape were familiar, the smells and sights new and exciting.
We finally arrived in Kathmandu–if I described Lhasa as an assault on the senses, the same applies here two-fold. Thamel, the backpacker ghetto, is the highest concentration I’ve ever seen of bars, restaurants, outdoor gear shops, trekking agencies, hippie clothing stores, Nepali and Tibetan knick-knack shops, etc etc, all for a dozen winding blocks. Chocolates, bottled water, granola and juices at rock bottom prices (1 liter of bottled water = 8 cents) await trekkers heading to Everest and beyond. Thousands of Western tourists, decked in hippie apparel, trekking gear, and various forms of Indian/Nepali/Tibetan garb snake through the streets. It’s frenetic and alive and yes, a backpacker ghetto, but damn, it’s nice after the harsh realities of the high Tibetan plateau. We settled into a rooftop cafe and had a big meal–we hadn’t eaten all day. I had vegetable curry with rice, a Tom Collins (!), a mango juice and chocolate pudding–all for $6. I made my way to my hostel, outside Thamel. It’s actually on a tea farm in the spiritual part of the city–I am awakened by the sounds of chanting as people make their way from temple to temple. My room costs $3 per night and includes a hearty Western breakfast. It’s populated and run by hippies spending months in Nepal, but they are nice.
Tomorrow, 24 October, my trekking partner and I leave for the Everest Base Camp trek. We return on 8 November. After consulting many fellow travelers returning from the trip, we decided that 16 days should be enough to sufficiently acclimatize and maybe even do a couple of side day trips from various camps along the way. The ultimate goal is the base camp, of course, which stands at 18,000 feet. We’ll trek for 12 days up and four days down. Today’s mission is to buy a super down jacket–one that is so warm yet folds down to nothing–here in Kathmandu. I’ve found them for about $30, a steal by US standards. I’ll rent a super warm sleeping bag and buy a hat, gloves, poles etc. I’m not messing around after I saw how cold it was at Tibetan base camp. Unfortunately, I’ll shed these things once I leave Nepal–my next stop in a month is India and then SE Asia, all hot hot hot.
So signing off for at least 16 days, then. I’ll try to upload more pictures once I get back, but fast internet is expensive and hard to find. Leave comments! Also, does anyone have any questions? Sometimes I feel like I’m just writing and nobody’s interested. Maybe I could do a Q-and-A thing.