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From Beijing to Base Camp

Lofty Line to Lhasa
At 8.53 pm the disparate crowd of produce-laden Chinese and rucksack-toting tourists stirred from reverie and surged en masse toward the ticket barrier. Soon we would  file onto the long platform, clutching possessions and tickets in sweaty palms, to view the humming, gleaming, gold-and-green machine that would take us across the rooftop of the world. Sorting the wealthy from the less well-off, the train accepted its new guests without comment, as tearful loved ones gathered in corridors and outside misted windows to say their fond farewells.         

The fact that Tibet is known as the “Western Treasure House” (Xizang) in Mandarin is no misnomer. The staggering natural beauty, vibrant Buddhist culture and quietly proud population of this elevated region make it a personal favorite when it comes to travel destinations. My latest journey from Beijing to Tibet would be a little different, however. Completed in mid-2006, the highly-vaunted Qinghai-Tibet Railway, connecting the forlorn outpost of Golmud with the sacred Tibetan capital, Lhasa, now offers non-fliers a new overland route that is hard to resist. Having experienced many a punishing train journey already, I was keen to endure this record-breaking feat of engineering for myself. 

Most of the new railway, on a par with the Three Gorges Project as a showpiece of Chinese technological know-how, is at a height of between 3500m (11,400ft) and 5000m (16,400ft). Considering the highest point in my native UK is a paltry 1300m, these figures are seriously impressive. As I boarded the T27 in Beijing and hurriedly filled out a medical disclaimer, it was clear that altitude was probably going to replace boredom as the biggest threat to human life as the train performed its 2-day, 2-night marathon.

After establishing bed rights with a couple of fellow hard-sleepers using a mixture of hand signals and elementary putonghua, I reclined on my bottom berth. Laying out wet wipes and hastily purchased snacks within easy reach, it was time to settle back for the long haul. Engrossed in a couple of Hemingway classics, the provincial capitals of Xi’an, Lanzhou and Xining passed before the compartment windows in surprisingly quick time, and we slid into Golmud station, “gateway” to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, in the pitch blackness and freezing temperatures of early morning.

Qinghai is reputedly where many Chinese law-breakers get sent to do time, and from what I could make out in the harsh glare of the platform’s floodlights, Golmud looked like the perfect penal colony. A few more hours of undisturbed sleep later though, we had put the dreary, industrial wasteland long behind. Daybreak found the T27 climbing over barren rocky plains, with decorative patches of powdered snow nestling in covered hollows, and trackside runnels of ice mirroring our progress. Approaching the Kulunshan Pass at 4772m, serrated peaks rose up and closed in to dwarf the train, white plumes of wind-driven snow billowing from their frozen summits across the crimson hues of the sun-warmed sky.  
The sudden hiss of escaping gas heralded our ascent onto the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau proper, as oxygen was pumped from valves on the wall and ceiling to counteract the effects of altitude sickness. Despite warnings from the train’s authoritative loudspeaker commentary, a healthy contingent of hardcore smokers continued to puff merrily away at each carriage intersection, reinforcing the impression that our O2-rich environment was more precaution than necessity.

Crossing into Tibet through the Tanggula Pass at 5231m, the arid landscape was replaced by lime green tundra, criss-crossed by frozen waterways and grazed by the occasional herd of yak, sheep or Tibetan antelope. Chatting with Sabrina, a plump agricultural student from Xi’an, I learned that special passageways had been made along the elevated rail line which allow the antelope to carry out their annual migration. Together with the widespread use of solar and wind energy evident on the plateau, this was an encouraging sign that the environment had at least made it onto the engineers’ priority list, albeit not right at the top.

We arrived at Lhasa Station at dusk, 48 hours to the minute after leaving Beijing, easing slowly into the red and white monolithic structure on the outskirts of town. Assuring an American companion that we hadn’t just pulled into the Potala Palace, I grabbed my gear, charged through the exit, hopped in a minibus and 30 minutes later was enjoying a scalding shower in Lhasa’s Tibetan Quarter. It was great to be back.

Breathtaking Beginning
The pulsating heart of the Tibetan Quarter is the Barkhor, essentially a pilgrim circuit that proceeds clockwise around the exterior of the 1300-year old, golden-roofed Jokhang Temple. In a sign of respect, Buddhists always circumambulate shrines, temples and other religious objects such as stupas in a clockwise direction, walking in slow, measured steps and keeping their right side towards the object of veneration. As a hive of streetside market activity and enthralling pilgrim jamboree, a trip to the Barkhor makes a perfect introduction to Tibetan life.

On my first day, which luckily happened to be a Tibetan festival, I stood close to the Jokhang entrance, mesmerized by the ceaseless flow of highly colorful Tibetans tramping around the Barkhor. From wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked toddlers in ethnic-style papooses to wizened, sun-darkened octogenarians with walnut-like skin, it seemed like the whole of Lhasa had turned out to pay homage to the Buddha. Some women had complemented their eye-catching ensembles with designer sunglasses and ribbons in their braids, and I visualized them sashaying down the catwalks of New York and Milan introducing a new line in Tibetan haute couture.

The Jokhang Temple is the spiritual center of Tibet, the Holy of Holies, the end point of countless Tibetan pilgrimages. Unlike the nearby lofty Potala Palace, the Jokhang has intimate, human proportions, bustling with worshippers and redolent with mystery. Drifting slowly with the crowd, I could see that the outer courtyard and porch of the temple were filled with pilgrims making full-length prostration towards the holy sanctum.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the predominant form of Buddhism in Tibet, prostrations are seen as a means of purifying ones body, speech and mind of karmic defilements, especially pride. Despite being a non-believer, it was a humbling experience watching these crowds of al fresco worshipers repeatedly following their strict routine, the noise of prostration boards scraping dusty flagstones filling the incense-laden air.

Momos, Monks & Monasteries
A late breakfast in a restaurant just off the Barkhor was a great fusion of East and West, as a plate of steaming momo and a frothy cappuccino were delivered to my table in quick succession. The half-moon shaped momos, or Tibetan-style jiaozi, were crammed with meat, vegetables and ginger, and the perfect way to warm up after early morning exposure to the chilled Tibetan air. An attractive Tibetan waitress invited me to order some yak butter tea, and for a moment I was tempted by my newfound surroundings to take the culinary plunge. Recalling for an instant the taste of rancid cheese and old socks that had assaulted my taste buds on an earlier trip, however, I chose to decline. 

No trip to Lhasa is complete with a tour of the supremely imposing Potala Palace. Perched on Marpo Ri (Red) Hill, 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, the huge red and white structure rises up a further 170 meters and is by far the greatest man-made edifice in the whole of Tibet. Originally intended as a wedding gift, the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo had the first Potala built for his new wife, the Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng, in 614. Rebuilt after the 17th century, the present Potala Palace is divided into the Dalai Lama’s living chambers, and those areas housing holy stupas and various Buddhist halls.

Climbing the steep steps to the Potala’s main entrance, I felt the effects of altitude kick in for the first time. It was disconcerting to be overtaken by Tibetan mothers and kids, passing the wheezing foreigner with gracious smiles. Still, I told myself it was good practice for the intended ascent to Everest Base Camp later, and lingered longer than usual in photo-taking to catch my breath.

The interior of the Potala is a seemingly never-ending succession of dark, smoky rooms, each invariably home to one or more oversized golden Buddhas and giant, candle-lit cauldrons filled to the brim with molten yak butter. Greasy soot coats roof beams and stone floors, saturating everything with the stench of stale butter. Much like the British Museum in London, it is unfortunate that very few of the Potala’s myriad treasures are viewable today. The tomb of the Fifth Dalai Lama, three storeys high, is made of a staggering 3,700kg of gold, and hints at the untold fortunes withheld from public scrutiny.
Another must-see in the Lhasa area is Drepung Monastery, formerly the largest in the world. Foolishly opting to save some money on a taxi ride, I was dropped off at the foot of Gambo Utse mountain after lunch, and found myself struggling to walk up the incline to the monastery entrance. Cursing my body and taxi driver at regular intervals, I eventually made it to the monastery complex, muscles burning and panting like an overweight bloodhound.

Under the burning afternoon sun, the narrow alleyways and whitewashed buildings felt more like the set of a Clint Eastwood western than a religious institution. The illusion was interrupted by two young monks in crimson robes who sauntered up to check out my camera and practice their English. Pointing out some of the monastery’s finest architecture, Chogyal and Jangbu were gracious hosts, although nodding sagely at my support for Chelsea, I wasn’t sure if this was out of misunderstanding or sympathy for a lost soul.

Scenic Route to Shigatse
The time had come to experience the wilder side of Tibet. Hooking up with two other Brits, both touring Asia and badly in need of a bath, a rugged 4WD and Tibetan driver were engaged for the following day. Our destination was Mount Everest on the border with Nepal, via a circuitous, backroad route that took in Yamdrok-tso Lake, the fortress town of Gyantse and Tibet’s second city, Shigatse.

As we crept out of Lhasa before dawn in blizzard conditions, our driver Jamdun soon put pay to any further sleep with a tape of lively Tibetan techno-pop. In any other environment I would probably have cut off my own ears rather than listen to this ultra-cheesy production, but as we wound our way along valleys, across bridges and over mountain passes, the heavy bassline and catchy chorus proved strangely soothing.

As the first rays of sun illuminated our surroundings, we traversed the Khamba-la Pass (4794 m) and came to a halt above the sacred, partially-frozen Yamdrok-tso Lake. Ethereal early morning mist clung to the caramel-colored peaks on the other side of the fan-shaped lake, obscuring views of the huge Mt. Nojin Kangtsang massif.

The exposed turquoise waters were thrown into sharp relief by the intense white of the snowy shoreline and the cobalt hues of the rapidly clearing sky above, and everybody piled out into sub-zero temperatures to appreciate the awesome landscape. A few minutes of joyful photography later and I was back in the warm confines of our vehicle painfully nursing two sets of numb fingers – Sherpa Tenzing would have been deeply scornful.

Hugging the frozen shoreline we reached the remote village of Nangartse, briefly stopping for breakfast before climbing again to the Karo-la Pass (5054m) and the glaciers of Mt. Nojin Kangtsang. At the foot of one mist-shrouded glacial tongue a couple of colorful flag poles and squat stupa had been erected, accompanied by what must be one of the highest (and most primitive) toilets in the world. After experiencing near frostbite in my fingers earlier, however, I had no wish to risk any other bodily extremities checking out this thoughtfully-located facility.

We finally reached Gyantse in mid-afternoon, with stiff backsides and growling stomachs. Once an important trading center on the routes between India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and China, the town’s imposing fort, Gyantse Dzong, still dominates views of the valley. Gyantse is also the site of the Pelkor Choede Monastery and beautiful Kumbum Chörten (10,000-image stupa). Commissioned in 1440, this religious structure contains 108 chapels on its four floors, and is the last of its type in Tibet.

Following a hasty meal of noodles in a roadside cafe, watched intently by a group of fascinated Tibetans, it was back on the road for the final leg of our day’s journey to Shigatse. On the pristine tarmac we made good time, Jamdun jigging away at the wheel to some top Tibetan tunes, while his passengers looked forward to a decent meal, a hot shower and maybe a couple of ice-cold Lhasa beers.

Himalayan High Life
The next morning I wandered through Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo Monastery, famous for being the home of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama in Tibet after the Dalai Lama. Located on a hill in the center of the city, the monastery’s Tibetan name literally means “heap of glory”, and after viewing its murals, statues, buddhas, resident monks and scores of devout pilgrims, I could see why.

It was time for the final push toward the climax of our trip. Sprightly as ever, Jamdun jumped back into our trusty Land Cruiser and by late afternoon we were at the gateway to Mt. Everest National Park, streamers and prayer flags fluttering in the strong breeze. The highest mountain in the world, named after a colonial bureaucrat by the British, is known as Chomo-lungma (Mother Goddess of the Land) in Tibetan, and Mt. Qomolangma in Chinese.

After some passport and permit formalities near the town of Tingri, we switchbacked up the head of a steep-sided valley, each successive turn offering increasingly magnificent views over the road just traveled. Finally cresting a ridge past a colorful array of prayer flags and twin Buddhist cairns, we were rewarded with a view of dramatic proportions. Stretching across the horizon beneath a cloudless lapis sky was the colossal Himalaya Range, a chain of jagged, snowy peaks straining upwards like the ramparts of an ice-bound fortress. From Mt. Makalu in the east to Mt. Shisha Pangma in the west, here were five of the world’s fourteen peaks over 8000 meters, dominated by the massive pyramid of Everest.

Overnighting in the village of old Tingri about 90km from Base Camp, day three of our expedition saw us up again before dawn in order to catch Everest at sunrise. Our headlights picked out the rough contours of the track in the inky blackness, as overhead the sky was a breathtaking kaleidoscope of stars. An hour later we entered the base of the Ronghpu Valley, and rounding a crumbling promontory of rock glimpsed Everest up close for the first time. The crystal-blue north face reared up like a natural chörten above the living river of gritty ice that forms the Rongphu Glacier. Back-lit and crowned with a halo of early morning sun, and plumed with a soft feather of snow dancing in the azure jet stream above her head, here was truly a goddess among mountains. 

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