The Other Side of Everest
AFR Sophisticated Traveller, October 2019
Mount Everest has had a bad press of late. There have been too many deaths on the mountain and too many people attempting to climb it. That famous Nirmal Purja photograph of people queueing along the summit ridge as if waiting for an overdue bus went viral this year, suggesting a place no longer remote and exhilarating but crowded and dangerous.
But you don’t need to risk your neck or your frostbitten extremities to see Everest. You don’t even need to do the three-week round-trip trek to the Nepalese base camp. Believe it or not, you can drive there.
It so happens that the Tibetan side of Everest sits on one of the world’s great overland road trips: Lhasa to Kathmandu. In a shade over a week you can experience the barren wilderness of the Tibetan plain and the towering monasteries upon it, and the view of Everest along the way is even better than the one the trekkers see in Nepal.
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People do a trip like this for two reasons: spirituality and mountains.
There is ample scope for the first in the two days you must spend acclimatizing in Lhasa at the start of the trip: the Tibetan capital sits at 3,600 metres, a fact that reveals itself first in a headache and then when your toothpaste explodes.
Lhasa has been undeniably changed by China over the years but its landmarks are intact. The place you see on the postcards is the Potala Palace, and it is magnificent inside and out, but today has the feeling of a museum. The Jokhang, a cramped and murmuring burrow of a temple in the centre of the surviving old town, feels like the true heart of it all, with tiny dark chapels in every corner, claustrophobic and ripe with the smell of yak butter being
burned for the candles.
The experience that will stick with me is seeing the functioning monasteries of Drepung and Sera on the city’s outskirts, where you can still see hundreds of monks neatly ordered on the forecourt, a red mass in their robes, chanting in a bass unison.
In Sera’s debating courtyard you get to see monks in a curious ritual. One stands and puts a theological argument to another who is seating, but he delivers his opinion with a leaping clap, as if unloading his view with a slingshot into the face of his friend. The seated monk then responds to this onslaught in peaceful equanimity; thus they test and validate their beliefs.
Suitably acclimatized, we leave Lhasa early on the third day, already having lost two of the group to sickness. The other eight of us board a bus dramatically less striking than its driver, who looks a Tibetan Errol Flynn in his local booted finery and a resplendent moustache. Everything about this man, from his eclectic bus soundtrack of Hindi-pop and Tibetan chanting to his joyful dancing at not only the mountain vistas but the toilet stops, will enliven the trip.
We grind out of the city’s outer streets, which look now like any other Chinese city, and head south through the hills past the airport on a fine dual carriageway, crossing the sprawling, lazy Brahmaputra river, which is drifting its way to India. We follow its banks alongside fields where harvested barley is bunched in tied stacks like Vietnamese hats, waiting for mustard to be planted in its place, and in time top 5,000 metres at the first of many passes, the Khamba.
Oddly, on the way up, we pass an occasional vast Tibetan mastiff sitting on a table at the side of the road. Eventually we stop at a viewpoint where there must be half a dozen of them, some in sunglasses, immaculately groomed alongside a group of uncharacteristically demure yaks.
The gimmick, of course, is that you can be photographed with these animals for 10 yuan a pop. The usual queasiness about their treatment is softened by the fact that they are the best-cared for animals I have ever seen in China.
I think to myself: well, I’m not doing that.
And then: how often do you get the chance to be photographed with a yak?
A minute later I’m wearing a Tibetan fur hat and sitting astride a fine white beast, waving a bit of rope around. I send a photo to my wife who instantly immortalizes it on Facebook transposed with a pic of that kid on the back of a dragon in The Neverending Story. The resemblance can’t be denied.
This momentary loss of dignity behind me, it is time to enjoy the first of many views. The pass overlooks Yamdrok Yumtso, a coiled scorpion of a lake coloured a vivid turquoise backstopped by a white-tipped mountain. We descend to its banks on a surprisingly flawless road and follow it before a second pass, Karola, where an iceflow seeps from the summit, and back to green hills studded in yellow clumps of rapeseed, as a dappled cloud confuses the light to arrange shifting shadows on the hillsides.
The next few days will shift between these ideals, the spiritual and the mountainous, punctuated by checkpoints: Tibet is a place of permits within visas within permits, which makes it a difficult place to do solo and instead an environment where you are wholly reliant on the impeccable logistical skills of your guide.
We see the ancient trade town of Gyangtse, dominated by a sturdy hilltop fort once annexed by the British explorer Francis Younghusband, an act Tibetans recall with some equanimity on the grounds that he didn’t destroy anything once he got there. We go to Shigatse, whose Tashilhunpo Monastery houses a 26-metre statue of Jampa, the Future Buddha, with fingers a metre long apiece. And we visit Shegar, where the highlight is seeing workers rebuilding a monastery destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The beams are half painted, ordinary timber at the base, vivid with colour at the top, where men sit with incongruously real-world paint pots transforming their space from carpentry to unearthliness.
And then on the fourth day out of Lhasa, a roadsign: Qomolangma. This is what the Tibetans call Everest.
The tension builds as we climb a hundred switchbacks to the Pang La pass, not knowing whether the clouds will allow us to see the mountain from the top. I wonder what I will feel and say when I see it, this most famous and mystical of places.
The answer turns out to be “Awwww, mate,” in something of the attitude of Adam Gilchrist successfully contesting a pivotal LBW decision. I wish it had been something more poetic, but that’s how it felt. Mate. Look at that.
So what’s it like, to crest a pass and see revealed the mightiest of mountains amid the rangy sweep of the Himalaya? What’s Everest like?
Everest is stocky, broad-shouldered, massive. Even from 60 kilometres away, as we are here at the pass, and even flanked by giants like Lhotse, Cho Oyu and Makalu, all of them 8,000 metres and more, it is immense, not just high but wide. On my first impression, which will change, it is a manspreading bully of a mountain, draped stubbornly across the horizon, hogging the sky.
The view from here is just an appetizer: we drive closer for the rest of the day, switching at one point to a fleet of electric buses, before reaching the Rongphu Monastery at 5,200 metres. You used to be able to drive further, to the base camp from which George “Because it’s there” Mallory set off on his famous fatal attempt back in 1924, but now that’s restricted to those who are actually climbing. No matter: the view is much the same from here.
Or it would be. But we can’t see it.
We’re sanguine about the cloud, reasoning we’ll see it in the clearer morning, and head to our beds on the one truly rustic accommodation experience on the tour, with a single toilet for the whole guesthouse, legendary across the travelling community for its uniquely abysmal condition, which is a pretty high (or low) bar to beat in China. Everywhere else has been decent, somewhere on the one to three star scale.
That night is the first time I am truly hit by altitude sickness, unable to breathe in air with effectively half the oxygen content it would have at sea level, retching with skull-crushing headaches. The night is further enlivened by a weasel of some sort that penetrates the room and attacks the fake Maltesers I bought in Shigatse. Altitude sickness hits everyone in different and undemocratic ways that take no account of age or fitness; our guide has a portable oxygen tent and is highly skilled in treatment.
Still, I get up at six to see the sunrise, which is stupid: because Tibet is obliged to follow Beijing time and the whole vast nation has one time zone, it’s never light before 7.30. When light arrives it reveals heavy cloud through the valley and the mood is resigned.
But the wind shifts and the mountain starts to appear, in bits, starting with the right shoulder, and then, as the sun rises, an illuminated side of the summit. The eastern flank is revealed, an icefall at the midriff, and finally, around eight, the whole beast, smudged only by an occasional drifting cloud thousands of metres below the peak.
From here, it dominates the valley, too big for a zoom lens, and one can study the routes that Mallory and others must have taken: the ridges to gain, the starker traverses. I dismiss my manspreading analogy from the previous day: it’s a goddess, a matriarch. It gives, not takes. It is beautiful.
Once everyone has taken exactly the same photograph 300 times it is time to retreat, retracing our steps towards the main highway. Spoiled by splendour, we don’t even stop as we return over the Pang La pass.
It takes three more days to get to Kathmandu from here, and about three hours to cross the border into Nepal. Borders are odd and illogical up here, dragged irrelevant across the peaks; the mountains and plateau take no account of them, wandering in and out of Bhutan, India and Nepal, so much more powerful and enduring than the humans who drew these invisible lines upon them.
But the crossing has one considerable tangible impact. Every metre of road on the Chinese side has been pristine. On the Nepali side it’s a stretch to call them roads. They have mud of a consistency of the kind that trail bikers and Tough Mudder organizers go to considerable effort to create. The terrible 2015 earthquake made a bad situation worse – ours is not the same border crossing that people used before the earthquake, because the road was destroyed – and even in our new route we are thwarted: a landslide takes out our road and we eventually make our way to Kathmandu in helicopters, darting above the rivers beneath low monsoon cloud.
Would we have a feeling of greater achievement had we walked for weeks to see the mountain? Would we feel we had earned it more had we done it all by foot? Perhaps – and there’s no argument against the famous Nepali treks. Just know that there’s another way to see it, and it looks just as mighty when you get there.
Chris Wright was a guest of World Expeditions on their High Road to Lhasa tour