Days 25-29: Everest, and as far as the Nepal border

The trip has carried on getting better and better, and I think these few days have been the best yet.

DAY 25, saw us leave Shigatze and head for Sakya. The main point of interest was a monastery that had a completely different look and feel because of the Mongolian influence.

Sakya Monastery, Tibet

It was a little odd to see monks visiting a monastery as daytripping tourists, not prostrating pilgrims, posing for mobile phone snaps in front of the prayer wheels…

A visiting tourist monk at Sakya Monastery, Tibet

…not least because they got more hassle from the souvenir (and yak butter) vendors than a dozen white western tourists!

A few of us hardier souls (the temperature fell to 2 degrees after lunch) scrambled up the hillside to some chortens, from where we saw a mini sand tornado sweeping through the valley below. We were blessed by a lovely amiable old monk in the ruined monastery up on the hillside.

My friend the elderly monk

I lagged behind the group afterwards writing a few things in my notebook, and he grabbed it from me to write his name and a short blessing in Tibetan. Absolute legend.

The next day – DAY 26 – we had an unexpected itineary change due to one of my lovely new friends being taken very ill and having to go to hospital for a wee while. Luckily he’s back to fighting weight and with the group again now, but he did give us all a bit of a worry back there…

DAY 27 was a biggie, finally making it to Everest Base Camp. We woke up to a winter wonderland in New Tingri, as it had snowed overnight. The bus wound it way up a twisty, snowy road (only getting stuck into a snowdrift the once) towards the Wula Pass.

A snow-covered Wula Pass, Tibet

There’s also a concept that I must introduce you to, that of the SGS: Shitty Gift Squad (© credit due, I believe, to Scott Irwin). Here they are, excitedly swarming around an arriving bus to peddle their remarkably overpriced wares.

'SGS', aka. 'Shitty Gift Squad' (Tibetan branch)

This particular branch were lurking at the top of the 5,200m Wula pass with Everest in the background (had the weather been clear enough to actually see it), but their natural habitat is anywhere where tourists gather in groups of four or more. Watch out for them on your next encounter: they’re devilishly persistent!

Back to the trail, we reached Rongbuk Monastery (5,100m above sea level: the highest in the world) for lunch, and to meet the locals…

The yak welcoming committee at Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet

… and then headed up a little further to the Tent City below North Base Camp, where we could just about see the peak of Everest peering through the clouds for a few seconds.

Tent City, Everest North Base Camp, Tibet

After stopping at the highest Post Office in the world to send postcards (update on May 24th, 27 days later: I’ve been home two weeks, and the postcard I sent myself still hasn’t arrived), it was a couple of hours’ breathless hike up a gentle stony path to Base Camp.
The highlight of the hike, given the peak didn’t grace us with its presence again, was the incredibly docile deer. I’m presuming that they see so few humans that they don’t take fright and bolt like deer normally do, and that meant we were able to get very close indeed.

When we got to Base Camp, there was plenty of time for photo opportunities. Predictable, moi?!

A very very special day, given it was something I’ve wanted to do since about the age of seven (having seen a documentary on Chris Bonington a few months after his return from the 1985 Norwegian expedition, fact fans!), made even more so when the peak finally came out of the clouds again for a minute or two as we were hiking back down.

DAY 28. We spent the night in yak hair tents at the Tent City – let’s just say it was minus 2 at 7am the next morning after the yak dung stoves had been re-lit – but there was SUCH a huge reward awaiting us. The morning sky was crystal clear and cloudless, allowing a full view of the peak. Magic.

A clear Mount Everest, from Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet

After that, nothing was really going to begin to be noteworthy.

The snow had melted as we zig-zagged back up the windy roads and over the Wula Pass, leaving zebra-stripes on the hills, and a clear view back south towards Everest and the other tall peaks in the distance.

Zebra-striped snow melt, Wula Pass, Tibet

We basically sat on the bus for an entire day (that’s an awful lot of knitting!), stopping in Old Tingri for lunch and then making a fairly hefty altitude drop off the Tibetan plain as the landscape got greener. Our last hour was a steep descent down a very precarious road down to the border. I say road, but most of it had swept down the steep slope to the river below in the last monsoon, and the new one hadn’t been built yet.

Ah yes, the main highway to an international border crossing

The bus was lurching around in the mud, perilously close to the steep drop, and I felt like it would have been safer to walk at least twice. Someone got valium out of their rucksack.

Still, we made it down to Zhangmu for our last night in Tibet. Like a typical border/trucker town, it was a wretched hive of scum and villainy, so much so that I expected to see Greedo or Jabba The Hutt in one of the bars. Instead, there were just money changers (who mainly changed Chinese Yen for freshly-photocopied dodgy Nepalese Rupees. Seriously), many “ladies of the night” and a bar with a picture of Oddjob for it’s sign! And, as the town clings tightly to the hillside, a lovely view down the river valley.

Looking south down the Bhote Koshi river, towards the Friendship Bridge

You just needed to shut out the noise of the ropey discos, and pretend you were on the edge of a fjord in Western Norway.

DAY 29. The once again full, reunited group said our sad farewells to our lovely Tibetan guide Yonten at the border crossing below Zhangmu, and then made our way across into Nepal over the Friendship Bridge.
We’re now at the top of a hill in Dhuklikel, hoping the thunderclouds will clear so we can see the Himalayan skyline again on the horizon. If not, the boys and I have just been into town to buy beer, haha…

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