Monday, October 30, 2017

Everest Base Camp

Everest Base Camp! Today was the day. I have read quite a few books about Mt. Everest climbs. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, Left for Dead by Beck Weathers and Dark Summit by Nick Heil to name a few. Add countless hours on YouTube and a few Hollywood movies and needless to say Everest has my undivided attention. No, I have no ambition to gain experience and technical knowledge to attempt an Everest Summit. Although there are worse places to die than attempting to climb Mt. Everest. Eaten by a shark in South Africa, yup that would be worse.

The drive from Shingatse to EBC was about 3 hours. We drove through hidden valleys passing small villages and towns that hid any trace of the Himalayas.  At the entry town of Shegar we had to obtain our Aliens Travel Permit at another military checkpoint. This one very heavily patrolled with smiling and polite armed to the teeth soldiers which gave everyone an odd and uneasy feeling. Through the checkpoint  we went through a small pass and as if on cue there stood Everest, bold and dominate as she should be. The first thing that came to my mind and I don't know why was "there are almost 300 dead bodies on that mountain dating a back to 1922. A detailed list can be found here on Wikipedia.  Don't get me wrong I was not in a dark or gloomy mood, I was ecstatic, but knowing the history of such a place is critically important for me.

There is the actual EBC which is a series of large tents holding 10 to 20 people. We chose to stay 3 km away at an old hillside hotel with hotel being a very loosely used term. We shared 5 people in a cold and drafty room but with huge warm quilts and sleeping bags to keep the cold out and yes, it was cold. There was also a warm restaurant with good food and cold beer for a post hiking gathering and spectacular views.

Once settled we had two choices. We could take the van the 3 km to the base camp then hike or hike the winding road, the choice was easy and obvious. With Everest straight ahead welcoming us we chose to walk which as this altitude we would be a bit slow so it took 45 minutes. It was arguably the best short walk I have ever taken.

Arriving at base camp we were given instructions that as foreigners we could hike only as far as the Rongbuk Monastery which turns out is the highest in the world and contains both Monks and Nuns. It was not elaborate by any means but the location gave it an incredible spiritual vibe even for non-believers. The Monastery also gave me great views of Everest and the surrounding mountains. There is not much to say really. I wandered from my posse, found a huge rock and sat quietly for about an hour taking it all in. There was Everest so close as if I could reach out and touch it. Looking around I noticed others had the same idea. Alone, paired up or in small groups just sitting and taking it all in. A monumental sight to know that so many others had looked up from their cameras and cellphones having realized the enormity of the situation.

I do not know how long I was in the park because it did not matter. The sun was starting to set and being in a hidden valley surrounded by the highest mountains in the world the peaks stayed bright while around me the areas were becoming long with shadows. Walking around the Monastery or the scree filled ground I had to pose at the landmark showing 5200 metres. I was standing at 17,060 feet knowing that it was almost 11,000 feet below the peak of Everest. Perspective is absolutely everything.

My team decided to head back to the hotel but there was no way I was going to leave. They jumped in the van and the driver asked me when he should come pick me up. Don't, I will walk back. The poor guy looked a bit confused. Again, there was no way I was going to jump in a van at the foot of Everest.  So as the crowds started to return to base camp and the buses and vans headed back to the series of small hotels I picked up some water and cookies from the base camp shop which were priced exactly what you would think they were priced given the location. I walked out of base camp and heading the 3 km down the now car free road towards my hotel. The walk took me well over an hour as I made points of stopping, looking around and listening to the small stream beside me taking the melted snows of Everest down stream. It was not a spiritual moment but it was a special moment to be alone with my thoughts surrounded by the highest mountains in the world.

Then a car drove by, honked his horn and pulled over which could have killed the mood. The driver asked if I wanted a ride. When I explained why I was walking and how I was enjoying myself he smiled broadly, said something in Tibetan, waved and drove off.

I returned to a warm welcome by my guide, who I suspect was a bit concerned for my welfare. He gave me a bit bowl of noodles, a cold beer and pointed me towards my crew. The Johnny Walker Black had made an appearance and we excitedly talking about the experience with each other and the others in the room. Sunrise was at 6:00 and there was no way anyone of us were going to miss an Everest sunrise. It was a bit anti-climatic considering all that had happened however feeling the cold morning air while sipping hot coffee and still groggy from a lack of sleep, low oxygen level I had a calm warm feeling knowing everything was alright in the universe.

There was only one reason for that and it towered 8848 metres (29,029 feet) in front of me.

Rongbuk Monastery

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Gyantse / Shigatse

Road Trip! We had three days in Lhasa and were fully adjusted to the altitude. Now it was time to hit the road. Today we were off to view Yamdrok Lake, the Gyantse Stupa and Pelkhor Choede Monastery. We were going to travel approximately 350 km including the climb up the Kampa La pass which zigzag up to 4700 km. Our final stop would be Shigatse, gateway to Everest.

Leaving Lhasa we went through the first of what would be many police checks. All told through this trip we had to stop for 11 police and 2 military check points. The military check points were a bit intimidating. Remember Tibet does have a history of rebellion since 1959 and the young soldiers have indoctrinated well. I was more nervous going through check points in Tibet then I was when I crossed the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Wait, no I wasn't. In Egypt we were told that if the bus broke down or had a flat tire we were to duck down below the window otherwise there was a good chance that we would be shot. Yes, that was a bit more nerve racking.

We were heading towards Mt. Everest so figured our direction would get more impressive as we went along. Our first stop was atop the Kampa La pass at 4700 metres. The roads were scary switchbacks and I could now see why this trip is not available during the winter months. I would not want to walk up or down these roads let alone drive. As we climbed the pass there were various viewpoints of the valley below, each nicer than the previous one. Once we reached the top you could see how the Tibetans were embracing the silliness of tourism. They had photo opportunities with huge dogs and small goats and yes there was a yak there dressed up being abused by selfish snapping tourists. I guess it was better than laboring in the fields. It was a fun hour.

About an hour later we came to another pass that was covered in prayer flags. As we crept closer to the top the turquoise blue of Yamdrok Lake appeared and in the distance the peaks of the Himalayas. This being a standard route for the Everest Base Camp trek every car, van, bus and motor cycle was converged at this spectacular meeting point. We had a few hours here giving us ample time to take photos, walk down to the lake to take more photos, climb back up and take more photos and then just take more photos. I took over 1500 photos on this trip and as I delete and edit them I am hoping for 200 good ones. I do not need 30 of this lake no matter how fantastic it is.

Back in the van and off we went. The next stop on this 8 hour road trip was the glacier at  Mt. Nyechen Kangsar which was at 5039 meters, a personal best for me that would be topped at Everest Base Camp (EBC). The glacier itself was a hanging glacier that had reseeded from the roadway over the past 20 years. I had seen the exact thing in Banff a few years ago with the Athabasca Glacier. I had been there in the mid 80s and it was impressive, reaching the roadway. Now it is a 20 minute walk to get to it. Natural or man induced climate change is real and we need to stop ignoring it.

And off we go. There were long stretches of this road trip that were quiet. We did not have anyone overly chatty who felt the need to ramble the entire trip. The views were great allowing everyone their own personal introspective trip. Next stop was the town of Gyantse. Here we picked up our permits to enter the Everest "zone" which included both a police and military check point (yawn). Gyantse is also the home of the Pelkhor Monastery and the largest Stupa in Tibet. Like all others we were not permitted photos but it was impressive with its golden Buddhas and scroll works and books dating back 1000 years. The monastery was build into the side of a sheer rock face and was protected by a fort on the highest peak in the town. A fort no foreigners were allowed to climb. It was possible in the past but now it is home to "government activity".

Next stop, Shingatse, our hotel and a hot meal and we were ready. We climbed one more pass, the Kya Wu Lha Pass at 5198 metres, another personal best. It was from here that we had our first view of Everest which was standing high among the other peaks. Everest, the Himalayas and Tibet. The journey that was was long but now I was re-energized. It was Everest!

We were about an hour to Shigatse and were the first to arrive at our hotel. The others straggled in bus by bus and van by van and the you could see the long day had taken it's toll. It was now 7:30pm which put us on the road for just over 10 hours. The various stops were excited, even exhilarating, but 10 hours on the road is still 10 hours on the road. We found food, beer and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black that we had decided to bring to EBC to celebrate.

Sipping scotch looking at Mt. Everest was the perfect plan after a long travel day!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple

I had all the effects of the altitude. Shortness of breathe at time when I moved to quickly, loss of appetite, peeing every 5 minutes regardless of the amount of water I drank and terrible sleeping patterns if I could sleep at all. It was not just me, everyone suffered in their own little world and NOBODY complained. We talked about it sure. "He did you sleep last night? Shit no." "Peeing much? Every 10 minutes", "Go on ahead I will catch up" That was the phrase that was heard most often. A double check and you knew it was just a breather break they would be alright. This was day 3 and I felt great. Now to climb the 330 steps of the Potala Palace...shit!!

The Potala Palace is the standing icon for Lhasa, Tibet, Buddhism  and the Dalai Lama. It was the home to the 14th Dalai Lama, the one we know of today, until he fled to India during the 1959 uprising. It is a powerful symbol and somewhat overwhelming to come upon it for the first time. There are two palaces, one red and one white which are easily viewed from the street.

As with most places in Tibet there were no pictures allowed inside. The climb was not difficult along the winding steps but the thin air make the going a bit slow without being obstructive. As you climbed the views became more impressive, naturally. Directly in front of the palace is a park with a huge monument dedicated to the Chinese "liberation" of Tibet. The park is surrounded by two small lakes that I soon discovered was one large lake before 1959. The Chinese decided to destroy the peaceful view from the palace and erect a concrete bastion of a daily reminder of who was in control. I was a guilty as every other person of wandering in the park completely unaware of it's historical implications towards the Tibetan people and their Buddhist beliefs. Naturally it was beautified with fountains and nightly light shows but the giant memorial to the "liberation of Tibet" is the centre piece that can not be ignored.

Meeting rooms, prayer rooms, viewing and vantage points, peaceful courtyards, Buddhas and the wonderful kaleidoscope of colors that are Buddhism were everywhere. Walking throughout the palace give me a great sense of history and also a real sense of sadness once as the enormity of the Tibetan situation hit me smack in the face. It was then I realized that my trip could go south quickly. I could travel Tibet and enjoy it's history, culture, food, natural beauty and the warmth of it's people or I could have a huge hate on for the political situation. I chose the first option but kept aware with open eyes and ears to learn as much as I could from the second.

The Jokhang Temple is in the middle of Old Lhasa and it is surrounded by Bakhor street, an island if you will. It is one of the oldest Temples in Tibet and it's importance was immediate with the number of worshipers everywhere. What is an impressive temple? I have entered over 20 temples in various locations in China and they are all impressive. Some are larger and more ornate but the feel of The Jokhang Temple was different. Most have had a smattering of worshipers but Jokhang was surrounded by a community and you cold sense this was the centre of town, Old Lhasa for centuries.

Our guide left us here and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. I spent a bit of time with my fellow travelers but we slowly wandered from each other doing or own thing. I was learning new photography tips from Sylvie without me being annoying. I started to try to look at things a bit differently and used my depth of field a bit differently. I noticed my photos were improving if I took my time. The incense in this temple was strong so I kept outside.

** Today the temples use extra incense because "the Chinese eat so much garlic and they stink so the smell must be covered". Our guide held nothing back when it came to his disdain for the Chinese.

Inside the palace it was a bit of a shit show with so many people. It was outside that caught my attention. People of all ages, shapes and sizes praying, worshiping, reading or just being a part of the crowd. Yes, there were quite a few snap happy tourists but everyone was met with warm smiles. These people were in their happy place and the surrounding distractions were anything but. It was an impressive sight and I spent the better part of 2 hours just handing around. As I do in situation like this I keep the camera at a minimum, although I do use it, and try to be in the moment. I watched a variety of methods of prayer and worship, chanting and even a bit of singing. I honestly felt any stress and daily anxiety drift from my body. I could have fallen asleep along side everyone with a care in the world.

I did the next best thing, I met my new friends and went for a beer.