We’re in Kathmandu, Nepal. This morning we applied for our Indian visa. Last night we splurged on cocktails. There was live music. I can wear my flip-flops again! Life is good and comfortable here in Thamel, the tourist area of Kathmandu. Now that we are here, it’s hard to imagine that only a few days ago we were snow trapped on EBC at 5150 meters.
Our Tibet tour had started friendly. We took the train from Xi’ning to Lhasa on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the highest railway in the world. Apart from that, the train ride was actually no different from any other train ride in China. After about 24 hours on the train we arrived in Lhasa. And what a pleasant surprise this city was!
Lhasa has two faces. There’s a new Chinese part which looks the same as all the other Chinese cities we have been before: one big modern shopping mall. Boring. But then there’s the old Tibetan part called the Barkhor, which is the pilgrim circuit around the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. The area is full of ancient Tibetan buildings and a never-ending flood of pilgrims circumnavigating the temple. It has a certain spiritual atmosphere and we like it right away. Very different from any of the other places in China we visited before.
We meet our other tour group members: an elderly Australian couple, two girls from Singapore, an American girl, a French guy and a Spanish – sorry, Catalan – couple. A nice group of people. The first 2 days in Lhasa are relaxed. We visit the usual sights: The Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama lived until he was exiled in 1950, the Jokhang Temple and the Drepung and Sera monasteries. On the third day we hit the road, the 865km long Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu to be precise. It’s a long but beautiful day along the holy Yamdrok-Tso lake and some 5000+ meter passes. The day ends in Shigatse, the second biggest city in Tibet. So far so good.
But things start to change on the 5th day. Today we climb up to Everest Base Camp. We have had clear blue skies until now but today it’s clouded. First I have hopes the weather will still brighten up but as we get higher up in the mountains it becomes clear that there’s no chance we will see Mt Everest today. At the last checkpoint near the Rongbuk monastery it even starts to snow. If only we would have known what was awaiting us…
I had been grumpy for most of the day. We travelled all the way here to see the highest mountain in the world and now all we get is fog and snow. But after a couple of hours I start to see the humor of the situation: driving 100 km up a road that rattles your teeth from your skull only to end up in a cloud of snow. And we still have to go down the same way too!
We spend the rest of the day in our yak hair tent. The good thing is that we now finally have a chance to get to know the rest of the tour group a little better. Daniel brought some Pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur from France and I play some request songs from my laptop. Even “mama”, our Tibetan hostess, starts to dance. It’s a great night.
But then the night comes. And it keeps snowing. When I get out in early in the morning to take a pee I’m in the snow up to my ankles. Shortly after there is a little panic among the Tibetans because the tents are about to collapse under the weight of the snow. In the middle of the night they climb on the roof of the tents to wipe the snow off. By the break of dawn there is more than half a meter of snow. No way we will be able to go down in our bus that has no snow chains or whatsoever.
The situation is becoming precarious. We are at 5150 meters which means there’s a serious risk of getting Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). In which case the only solution is to get down as quickly as possible. Carina and I have acclimatized properly but some of the others haven’t and start to show symptoms of AMS. We get some information that the Chinese authorities are busy clearing the road but this will still take all day. There is no direct danger but the uncertainty of the situation is uncomfortable.
At the end of the afternoon a group of soldiers enters our tent.
“Hello! This is the Chinese government. Don’t worry. We are your friend. You are save now. We take care of you. This is our job.” – Hilarious.
With soldiers taking pictures of us it looks more like orchestrated Chinese propaganda than a serious rescuing operation. The tent camp must be evacuated but for hours nothing happens. It’s already dark when we are directed to our bus where we wait for the snow shovel to dig us out. There is at least 50cm of snow by now.
After a while a camera team enters the bus asking us about our physical condition. Showtime all over but in the meantime still no action. We are waiting in the bus for more than an hour until the huge shovel machine clears the way and a group of soldiers pushes us to the main road.
We manage to go down but not for long. The road is blocked with multiple 4WD’s. Groups of Chinese are shoveling the snow away to get their car moving. There is no chance we go down any time soon. So we get out of the bus and walk down the slippery road in the dark to the guesthouse near the Rongbuk monastery, the place where all the evacuees have to gather. We spend the night in a room that has the feel of a prison cell.
The next morning two people in our group are in pretty bad shape. They have to go down asap. But it isn’t until Carina and Elena, the American girl, grab the doctor by his arm and demand for immediate action before they finally organize us a 4WD to go down. Despite the seriousness of the situation for some of our tour members I find the views on the way down amazing. It’s all white, much nicer than when we drove up.
When we arrive at the very basic hospital in the village 50 km’s down another reporter is awaiting us. We start to feel like rock stars. After the sick people have some medical checkups we are released from the show and our journey can continue as planned.
In the news: http://www.chinadailyasia.com/news/2013-10/21/content_15093708.html
Oh… and on our way to the Nepalese border Mt Everest finally revealed itself…