It looks like the first teams trekking to Everest Base Camp – South will arrive this weekend. We have been following them all week and so far so good. Just the usual trek sniffles, coughs and aches along with some heavy downpours and a few inches of fresh snow. But the biggest complaints thus far has been weak cell phone signals and lost luggage.
The action is heating up on the north as well. Today teams are starting the long drive either from Kathmandu or Lhasa to Everest Base Camp – North aka the Chinese Base Camp.
While many choose to climb Everest from Nepal to enjoy the experience of trekking the Khumbu, the North side offers a unique opportunity as well. I can tell you that you have never seen landscape like that of the Steppes of Tibet, even if from a moving jeep window.
The drive from Kathmandu is like a trip back in time. While Kathmandu and Lhasa may seem somewhat primitive, they are world-class compared with what is down the road. Leaving the noise, congestion and pollution of the city, you are soon on the small winding roads of rural northern Nepal.
Many tiny villages dot the landscape before you stop at the boarder with China. There a large white bridge, the Friendship Bridge, marks your entry into Tibet and the port city of Zhangmu. The shanty shacks of Nepal overlook newish buildings on the banks of the Bhote Koshi River trying to show the Nepalese that life is different in Tibet, however the reality is quite different.
This is the major land route between China and India thus it is crammed with 18 wheelers, often backed up for miles clearing customs. Zhangmu is a city of military, government bureaucracy, commerce and opportunity. One must be careful as it has the morals of the old west and the smell of an old cowboy’s horse. And like Vegas, for some, what happens in Zhangmu, stays in Zhangmu.
Clearing customs is an experience unto itself complete with questioning looks, confusing searches, random rules and a few smiles. Once completed, you feel like you just climbed something large and dangerous and lucky to have escaped.
The next phase is to get to the town of Nyalam. In earlier times the road was beset by landslides where the locals would miraculously appear to ferry your cargo across the mudslide, for a large fee. Today the journey still requires hours but now on a newly built road that by some counts has taken a decade of manual labor.
I can remember driving this road in the late 1990’s seeing tent camps for the workers and then a few years ago seeing the same tent camps just a few miles away. This must have been what it was like building cathedrals in the Middle Ages – lifetime employment …
The road follows a deep gorge with almost zero room for driver error. In fact, you must use a Chinese driver from the CTMA to navigate these roads, and to key an eye on you. Soon the road leaves the low forests and enters the high plains of Tibet. This is a scene that challenges words. The views of brown grassed plains track unbroken from your toes to the horizon. It is a gentle land of rolling hills marked by the sharp contrast of the snowcapped Himalaya.
Back in Time
The asphalt road, complete with undulated bumps created by laying it on the permafrost, takes you to the frontier town of Nyalam. Located at 12,300’, this is an ancient town that once served as a tiny trading posts for nomads. But with tourism today it has a few hotels but still hints of it historic times with stone walled buildings, grass roofs and dirt roads. Most teams spend two nights here, taking walks to begin the acclimatization process.
Leaving Nyalam, you think the “rustic” environment is behind you, however the next stop at Tingri, makes Nyalam look like a 5 star resort. The drive makes up for the accommodations once again, as you crane your neck to spot Cho Oyu, Shishapangma and, of course, Everest. The road takes you over the Thong La Pass at 16,700’.
Two more nights in Tingri along with a requisite hike up a local hill to perhaps 18,000’. You are fortunate if your hotel “room” has running water, a toilet or electricity but you are getting ready to climb Everest so your mind has shifted away from luxuries and now you appreciate basics, like food and air. In a case of serious juxtaposition, you will have full 3G cell phone service however 🙂
The next and last leg is across more of the Stepps and the Pang La pass at 17,060’. If the clouds are cooperative, the entire North Face of Everest is visible, and your heart will skip a beat as this is without a doubt the most impressive side of the highest peak on earth.
Finally you pass the Rongbuk Monastery at the head of the Rongbuk glacier, and several small villages selling souvenirs to tourists visiting base camp. Eventually, through another check point armed with your climbing permit you arrive at Everest Base Camp – now the real work begins.
Memories are everything