"The ride is short today, but we're leaving Gyantse early because we need to pick up your permit for Everest," explained my guide – who’d asked me to call him Jack – as he opened the car door to let me clamber up into the 4x4.
There’d been a lot of opening and shutting doors for me here in Tibet. And carrying my luggage. It was all part of the system, where as a non-Chinese outsider, I wasn’t allowed in for several random months a year, then when I was allowed in, I was carefully chaperoned.
The reason for this wasn’t clear – supposedly it was for my safety, but I was skeptical about that. But I’d read up on tourism in Tibet, and learned that the Dalai Lama encouraged mindful tourism. So I’d decided that boycotting wasn’t going to make a bit of difference with millions of coach tourists heading in from China, and decided that the way that I could make a difference was to travel with a Tibetan driver and a Tibetan guide, patronising Tibetan businesses as much as I reasonably could. If I rearranged my thoughts just a bit, I could see that my guide was an English-speaking specialist that depended on English-speaking tourists for his income. And he was probably running short on income given how many months we’d been banned this year. So ultimately, me travelling with him instead of on a public bus was contributing to his livelihood.
But I still felt kind of sheepish and silly every time someone waited for me to get into a vehicle and then closed the door behind me.
Permits... What is all this about Everest permits, I wondered. Tibet's Everest Base Camp is sensitive as it's in a border region and they're afraid I might try to go to Nepal illegally... by CLIMBING EVEREST?
No, that wasn’t it. I’d have to ask later, find out why I needed a permit to go to Tibetan base camp. I appreciate what mountaineers do (especially Reinhold Messner when he tried to find the yeti!), but my climbing limit doesn’t involve snow or bottled oxygen. Usually, it just involved the four flights of stairs to my apartment.
Could this permit have to do, perhaps, with people who have Tibetan flags that end up unfurled at Everest? That’s certainly happened plenty of times before. Or maybe it was about safety? Climbers get into trouble often enough on the Nepal side – why not here? But no, I wasn’t a climber. I was already breathless and exhausted. I could barely climb a hill at this altitude, much less the foothills of Everest.
We drove through Gyantse and out of the other end of town, back onto the southern leg of the Friendship Highway. The ride to Shigatse was only 100km, barely worth waking up for.
But our plans for applying for a permit early were squished when we approached a huge field full of dancing men just outside Shigatse.
"Do you want to take photos?"
The men were practicing for some kind of Tibetan pageant, though they would be in traditional dress tomorrow when they performed. Today they were in their street clothes.
A man next to a generator fired up a tinny amp anchored to the back of a tractor, and a Tibetan song came squawking out of the underpowered speaker. On cue, the group all hit drums with what looked like feather dusters, then the group did a turn, then another.
They started to smile and enjoy themselves as they danced.
We watched long enough to where we were just late enough to not be able to get the permit until after lunch.
"I'll try later," said Jack. "Let's take you to the hotel and then you can have lunch while I get the permit."
We tried several hotels – but it was high season – they were full or not allowed to take foreigners. Finally, we went to a decrepit old 70s-style hotel, which had one room left, "but no Internet."
This was according to the clerk at Reception. So I was surprised when I got off the elevator and saw a sign for commercial wifi.
The signal was strong, but required membership and payment. So I walked two blocks to a coffee shop – YAY, coffee!– with wifi, signed on to my dormant Boingo roaming account, and activated the Asia-Pacific membership.
After lunch, Jack showed up with my permit. We then continued with our scheduled sightseeing excursion to Tashilhunpo Monastery.
I was feeling ungratefully monasteried-out. Altitude had me exhausted, the moral questions of China and Tibet had numbed my brain, and I really wanted a day to sleep. But when you're paying by the day to be in a country, there's no time for rest. You see all you can and promise yourself you'll process it later.
So I took photos and tried to just commit the Tashilhunpo Monastery to memory. Whitewashed towering blocks were topped with red-brown bands and gold trim. Burgundy-clad monks chanted in a room, their friend posted outside – by a pile of all their boots – to halt curious tourists.
And when this was done, I walked alone through town, snapping photos, noting that a lot of blenders were oddly for sale here, and finally eating momos at a popular restaurant before heading back to the hotel to sleep.
Not many days were left on my Tibet trip now, and this was a good thing as I was too overwhelmed and altitude-tired to appreciate what I was seeing.
Only one problem. Coming up tomorrow night was our toughest night. A night of roughing it between poor roads and reputedly terrible accommodation, before moving on to a sketchy border town.
Everest Base Camp, coming up.
In the morning, Jack announced that today’s ride might be difficult.
“Today the distance we will drive isn’t that far, just 340km, but the hours are long since the road is bad. And the weather is not looking good for the mountain.” He motioned at the cloudy sky.
I wanted to see the north face of Everest – but I had to be prepared for disappointment.
“It’s okay,” I claimed. "I saw it before one time, many years ago." In 1998, when I'd started a Dragoman overland trip in Kathmandu, I'd taken a small sightseeing flight up to see Everest. I didn’t want to miss Everest today, but I also didn’t want Jack to feel bad that the weather wasn’t within his control.
At least we were far past the reach of the tour buses now. Only 4x4s turned off the main road and headed up the rugged switchbacks to Everest base camp. It did not escape my notice that Chinese young people filled the 4x4s, that these Chinese backpackers – unlike their countrymen on the tour buses – were also escorted by Tibetans. This, I realised, could possibly be Tibet’s best hope – the young people of China educating themselves on Tibet without the interference of official information. Was I imagining a dream or was there room here for dialogue between Tibetan activists and young, educated Chinese who were beginning to really travel and see the world?
Jack offered me the option of staying next to base camp in a tent with souvenir sellers. We’d headed there for the view, but Everest had been fogged in.
Jack waved at the tents as he nonchalantly explained that he wasn’t fond of staying in the tents as these were often crowded with tourists, not typical of Tibetan life, and sometimes had bedbugs.
He knew, by now, how to press my buttons. I’ve been savaged by bedbugs a few times on other journeys, and am bedbug-phobic. I was happy to stay at the monastery guesthouse, with a Tibetan family and a young Tibetan guest who explained to me that she was in limbo, waiting on papers so she could cross certain checkpoints on her way back home. She’d been studying in India and was full of dreams, but right now her biggest hurdle was simply crossing Tibet. We pulled out my laptop and went through my trip photos, one by one. She was delighted to see so many places around the world.
I went to bed without supper. I was altitude-tired and cold – and in the morning, I awoke up at six to look out the window.
Snow? Where had that come from?
Jack had made sure that I’d gotten a room with a view of Mt. Everest. Except the fog had messed up his plan.
But at seven, Jack peered into my big window (fortunately, I was clothed, though I was blowing my nose).
I hurried outside with my camera.
"It has never disappointed me yet, not in a hundred times of coming here," he murmured as we stood in the centre of the tiny village, between the stupa of Rongphu Monastery and our guesthouse. Jack even took a few photos with his phone.
"We were lucky because it snowed. Snow is good luck."
Yep. I was glad we'd gone hours out of our way, put up with dust and rain and a chewy pancake made palatable by the single-serving Nutella I'd been carrying since Bangkok, and didn't even mind that we had to take the old road – "The driver wants to know if you've even been on a road like this."
"Tell him about Congo. Tell him about the old road to Siem Reap.Tell him about... heck, just tell him yes.” – all the way back to the new road today since we were heading south.
Because the mountain was stunning.
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