After a week in Lhasa it was time to meet up with the tour group that we would be with for the journey through to the Nepalese border. Thankfully, there were no rare units among the 3 Americans, 1 Dutch, 1 Dane and a Pole (Polish, not an inanimate object) and everyone got along. Although one Indian chap quit the tour after one day as he seemingly was unaware we’d be seeing a number of monasteries , which is odd as it was clearly outlined in the program sent out months beforehand. But the main attraction was always going to be seeing the Himalayas, and Everest, they truly didn’t disappoint.
The first days were spent in Lhasa as we checked out a couple of monasteries around the city and gained a deeper understanding of the culture that runs so deeply in all Tibetans. It’s impossible to say we understood everything of course, as a little bit of information overload took hold as we learned about the hundreds of deities, Bodhisattvas, Gods and Buddahs. One of the most interesting things was at Sara Monastery, where we watched the Monks deep in philosophical debate whereby they slap their hands and stamp their feet to ask the questions of their interlocutor. The purpose is to test them and the ideas they hold, it’s an age-old tradition as one of the core tenants of Buddhism is not only to question oneself, but the very ideas of the holy books themselves. It’s entertaining to watch, even if you can’t understand a word.
The 2 main attractions in Lhasa though are the Potala palace and the Jokhang temple. The former was the center of monastic and government activity, and home of the Dalai Lama up until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. The latter is one of the most holy sites in Tibet and pilgrims come from all over Tibet and beyond to pray here. The Potala has an imposing presence on the hill above the city and the oldest parts date to the 7th century, although the main body was built in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. It’s a truly impressive building, and the mandated 50 minutes to get through isn’t really enough to feel the full scale, with foundations as thick as 5m at its base, it’s a true feat of engineering and perseverance, and it’s curious how it lost out to Christ the redeemer on the world wonder list. Jokhang also dates back to the 7th century, but the main artifact that draws people from all over is a statue said top be blessed by the current Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama himself 2700 years ago.
It had been a fantastic week and a bit in Lhasa, also to catch up with our friend here, and after we finally managed to pay for her dinner we’d achieved all that we needed to. So after a tearful goodbye we were heading out of Lhasa with some refreshingly calm driving from our new driver in comparison to our last trip out of the city. The first couple of days were spent like our trip in Lhasa taking in Monasteries, with one having a truly cavernous library with 84,000 books, with oddly enough only dated to 1959, which is suspiciously the same time as the cultural revolution, but surely that had nothing to do with it.
The undisputed highlight of the trip came after we’d wound our way up over multiple mountain passes, uncountable switchbacks past beautiful emerald green lakes and glaciers. In one of the most awe-inspiring cites one could see, the great Himalaya mountain range lay before us, with Mt. Everest (or rather Mt. Qomolungma by its original Tibetan name) standing tall above all others, the mountain that makes and breaks, dreams, hearts and families with an almost mythical hold over humankind in our quest to conquer her. If it was impressive from far away, as we drew closer, and eventually into base camp, its true scale is realised. At 8848m it is immense, especially when you think base camp is at 5200m so it’s a mind-boggling 3.6km elevation in front of you, and when breathing is as difficult as it is at 5200m, one can scarcely imagine what it’s like to take those last few steps to the top. The temperature plunged after dark, which combined with the aforementioned oxygen deficit make it even more incredible that the great Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay managed to scale it with such rudimentary gear. Perhaps even more incredible is that some do it without oxygen, the first such accent in 1978 by Austrian mountaineer Peter Habeler and Italian Reinhold Messner. In 1986, Swiss climbers Jean Triollet and Erhard Loretan climbed the north face of Everest with no ropes and no oxygen in less than two days – a mountaineering achievement unmatched to this day. The first woman to go without Oxygen? Another New Zealander of course, Lydia Brady in 1988 at just 27 years old. So it appears this mountain is ingrained in NZ and Swiss blood, but we’ll leave the climbing to the professionals. There is something emotive about baring witness to one of natures most impressive creations, made even better by the fact that the weather was so kind.
Crossing the border into Nepal couldn’t have been a more stark reminder of the wealth gap between the 2 nations, the Tibetan side with nicely paved roads and a large modern immigration hall. The Nepali side? Well, a real estate agent might have called it “a real doer upper” or “rustic”. We jumped into to some 4X4s that we didn’t know who had paid for and bounced our way down the road to the immigration office, which as luck would have it doubled as a lodge and restaurant and looked like a street stall that might sell fruit and vege. With visas stamped we hopped back into to the jeep despite the fact we still had no clue had paid for it, but we were later to find out the Nepalese government offers them for free to tourists. That seems to sum up Nepal so far, as Tom an American in our group says “Nepal stands for Never Ending Peace And Love”. It’s a sentiment on display everywhere. The road all the way to Kathmandu was a horror show and as someone had described to us as “the worst road in the world”. They weren’t far off, so it’s amazing to think trucks ply this main trade route. However, the views were amazing and we made it in one piece so our Nepalese adventure had got off to a great start.
Until next time.
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