The road to Everest


Hillsides with gleaming white stone Hollywood-style inscriptions in Chinese; tiny grey nomadic stone huts nestled amid flocks of shivering sheep; wide open valleys with dry river basins the size of the Thames waiting to be filled with the spring torrent of snowmelt; and high mountain passes strewn with colourful prayer flags looking down on cloud-filled valleys and a panorama of towering white peaks. This is the land of the Himilayas.

That’s my best Michael Palin impression – but this truely feels like an epic journey. We’ve been on the bus since 6:30 this morning, and should get to Everest Base Camp (Tibet side) late afternoon. We’ve had the sun rise behind us and are now progressively gawping at a landscape that switches between passes covered with a dusting of snow and green valleys with small villages nestled between rocky outcrops.

Every now an again the bus slows to a shuddering halt as the driver navigates a section of road where the water has washed the surface away and the potholes outnumber the tarmac. Occasionally we’re passed by a high speed convoy of white four wheel drive vehicles, led by police.

We’ve stayed at various towns along the way from Lhasa, all unfortunately fairly lacking in charm thanks to concrete block buildings and identikit tibetan/chinese/western combo restaurants. Fortunately the landscape, monasteries and colourful and friendly local people more than make up for the residential architecture.

I think it’s fair to say that we have temple fatigue. Each day we’ve seen one or two temples or monasteries, each unique but also with very much in common – or to use the Asian phrase, ‘same same but different’. They are stunning, and I think we’ve learnt quite a bit, but they do tend to all roll into one in the mind.

The entrance doors – big, sturdy and red, surrounded by the four guardians, either statues or paintings. Facing south, because evil spirits come from the north. Inside, a yellow glowing light from hundreds of yak butter candles, being topped up by pilgrims from flasks. Then the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, lined up and decorated with all manner of colours and gold. We’ve seen: the largest sandalwood buddha in the world (27m high, apparently from a single piece of wood), a massive copper Buddha (26m), laughing Buddhas, past, present and future Buddhas, those with 11 heads, 1000 arms, and pretty much anything your imagination can think of. Plus the tombs of all the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Pilgrims often leave money, and so the area around each statue is littered with notes – entertainingly with some of the foreign ones on prominent display.

Some of the temples – and certainly the monasteries – we’ve been to have a protector temple, in which a devotee chants scripture while continually beating a drum to ward off evil spirits. And of course there are large brass prayer wheels everywhere, lining corridors, entrances and pathways.

Oh, and before I forget – Mandalas. Amazing artwork representations of the Buddhist universe in the form of sand paintings made by monks sprinkling coloured sand in an intricate design, forming a textured large piece. We saw some monks making one, with face masks in case they sneezed and ruined the whole thing!

It’s been interesting to see how these places of worship and living deal with tourists like us. Lonely Planet informs us that the Chinese authorities take the hefty entrance fee for each venue, and so the monasteries and temples are left seeking donations to survive. It’s no wonder then that almost everywhere we went there was a charge to take photos inside – normally 25 yuan, or £2.50. It did seem somewhat amazing though that a monastery we went to yesterday had a fee of 1500 yuan for video cameras – that would be £150!

It’s against this (understandable) backdrop of tourism for revenue that our impromptu and self-organised visit to a Nunnery yesterday was so refreshing. Guideless (and hence languageless), we made our own way into the assembly hall, walking round clockwise while a dozen or so nuns were chanting, sitting on their carpeted benches in the middle. As we were about to smile our goodbyes and leave, they invited us to sit with them, gesturing and laughing a welcoming greeting. We sat and they sang, they looked at our photos, and we all took photos together, with the nuns excitedly reviewing other places people in the group had been and particularly loving some photos of alligators. It actually felt like we’d shared something with them; a world apart from the monasteries.

The road to Everest is nearly complete, we’ve been going 9 hours now and in theory we should be able to see it shortly – if it wasn’t for the clouds. The final 102km are the ‘bad road’, which is basically a dirt track over the mountains, with tight hairpin bends and fords through riverbeds. That has taken us 3 hours so far, punctuated by the occasional Chinese checkpoint where we all have to line up in visa order and have our passports checked.

The final 8km to base camp is on foot, which we’re looking forward to greatly after being coupes up all day. Here’s hoping for blue skies!



Greening the giant


One of the stereotypes about China I’ve heard many times is that of a smoke belching, coal guzzling giant. Its massive need for electricity following rapid industrialisation, and the plentiful supply of fossil fuels from it’s vast natural resources means that it is a huge polluter – and one that has an image of being reluctant to adapt to the growing concerns around climate change. Like many other nations, China plays the development deficit card – if the west was allowed to use so much carbon dioxide in getting to its current level of wealth, surely it’s fair to do the same in playing catch-up. Cue a discussion involving modern technology being vastly more efficient, questionable phrases like ‘clean coal’, ‘carbon capture and storage’, and what fairness really means in a world that is currently consuming at twice the rate that is globally sustainable – but where most of that consumption is being done by a small proportion of the population.

In that context, it’s been interesting to see a surprising number of green shoots of renewables on our journey. Almost everywhere we’ve been, rooftops are decorated with solar water heating, the distinctive cylinders above a slanted set of pipes producing a pretty pattern in a panorama across the roofs of Lhasa. On our train journey across the interior, we passed wind farm after wind farm, with huge turbines lying on the ground in places ready for assembly.

In Tibet, it’s been fascinating to see the streets frequented by solar kettles alongside the motorbike shops and smoke belching tractors. Our guide was telling us that the parabolic mirrors with a kettle suspended in the middle used to be made of cement and take a few people to move around, but recent innovations mean they’re a simple aluminium dish on a portable frame. 20 minutes to boil a large kettle in the high altitude sun – not bad for free energy!

Oh, and Laura reminds me – electric vehicles. The alleyways and side streets here are disarmingly quiet (certainly compared to the cacophony of horns and engines on the main roads). Almost everyone seems to be using electric bikes – from your electric motor-assisted regular cycle, to pimped-up motorbike-sized things. And all absolutely silent. A few times we’ve nearly walked into the path of them (on the pavement, I should point out) because you just can’t hear them coming. I know electric bikes are becoming more common on the streets of Britain, but it’s us playing catch-up here.

I’m sure renewables remain a drop in the (rising) ocean – and many of the pressures to adopt these technologies are financial rather than environmental – but in a land where even in the fresh mountain air of Tibet the locals wear face masks for fear of pollutants, it’s easy to over-apply a single stereotype.


The bus


The wheels on the bus go round and round, but the people on the bus go squish and sweat. We have bus envy. Yesterday’s bus had seats with pockets, leg room, and – the holy grail of sunny travel – air conditioning. Today’s is a little more rustic, and the bad news is that this is our transport for the next week all the way to Kathmandu. We won’t quite have the ordeal being experienced by some cyclists we passed while ascending a pass at 4600m, but it’s fair to say we’re underwhelmed by the comfort. Of course this is more than made up for by the adrenaline thrill of hairpin bends and blind corners. I won’t go into a vivid description of the safety conditions on the roads in Tibet for fear of alarming relatives back home. We’ll be ok!

Today’s journey has seen us trundle through the Lhasa valley, following the river downstream to where it joins another and heads off to India. We stopped at a ‘water burial’ site, where the tradition is for the dead to be cast into the river, much like we’ll see at Varanasi in India. Amid the usual prayer flags, an interesting sight on the cliffs alongside the water – white paintings of ladders, to indicate that the dead should climb up to a heaven. Our Norweigen friend Gardar points out that ladders are of course bidirectional, and so an arrow would be a worthy addition!

On we go, past farmers baling their barley into lots of neat little stacks – like a small teepee, with the barley on top fanning out in a cone to keep the rain off. They must make lovely temporary housing for passing wildlife. The bus screeches to a halt as we’re surrounded by Yaks being herded down the valley by a nomad – and later a flock of sheep with their shepherd.

As we reach the pass, a gorgeous turquoise lake comes into view, glistening in the sunshine as far as the eye can see – and reflected in it’s surface, we can see snow capped peaks of a mountain range. Not the Himilayas yet though, we’re told. This lake is a mere 640 square kilometres in size, 240km long.

At each photo stop, there’s an assortment of locals – nomadic peoples who rely on passing tourism to supplement the meagre income they get from farming. Photogenic mothers, dogs with red fluffy scarves around their necks, and of course at least one yak. All, understandably for inclusion in a photo for a fee. We went through a pass at 5020m next to a stunning glacier, and found probably the highest outdoor pool table in the world, with a few locals playing a tournament on it. Amazing!

One last thing for today – prayer flags. It has to be seen to believed. I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of some colourful prayer flags draped across some rooftop, but I’d never realised quite how extreme they get. Every accessible mountaintop, electricity pylon, and pass has thousands of them, in places so dense that they look like a giant fluttering patchwork quilt hanging in the sky. And along with the flags, prayer confetti to release in the wind – oh, and along with that, all manner of rubbish from passing visitors. Beautiful from a distance, up close it can seem somewhat like legal littering, with more manmade rubbish than the last day of Glastonbury (which is bad, if you haven’t seen it!)

One day of the road trip down, five to go. Only a few hours tomorrow, compared to the seven we’ve done today.



Further notes on beating Beijing’s public transport

Once you have bought a new can of deodorant to replace that which was confiscated on an earlier metro journey you may again face ejection from a station when your bag is scanned. If this happens cross over the road to the other metro entrance where the security people will not recognise you, place the offending item in your pocket, and walk through security with a big smile on your face.

We’re not sure the same techniques will work in Tiananmen Square though, caution is advised for future travellers!


Beating Beijing’s public transport – update

A small addendum to yesterday’s travel advice from Laura…

Do not carry anything that might even be imagined to be suspicious on the subway. Or at least not if you lack the Mandarin to understand what’s being challenged and why!

Having successfully navigated the security for the past few days, we were slightly bemused when my bag was stopped in the x-ray check. (Yes, each station x-rays all luggage – an Olympics hangover? Is this coming to London?) This was followed by a comedy routine in which an item in my bag was taken out and waved around by me. Water bottle? No, smaller. Tube of glue? Nope, something else. Frisbee? Squarer…

Anyway – one of the attendants insisted we leave the station immediately: ‘take a taxi!’, another was asking that the bag be re-scanned, and the third pointed dramatically at my can of deodorant, and the flammable icon on the side.

Now, this wasn’t what the Lynx effect adverts told me expect (ok, and it wasn’t Lynx, in case you think I’ve totally lost my mind)! We were warned that we might have to sip our water to prove it wasn’t liquid explosive; I wasn’t going go do the same here!

I’m sure that the equally flammable lighters folks carry in their pockets are handled with just the same caution, which might be quite a good way of dealing with the endemic smoking problem here! I can’t quite imagine how ridiculous (let alone pungent) it would be if you couldn’t take deodorant on the tube in London.

Anyway, perhaps I’d better look up the Mandarin for “I’m going to smell really bad if you do that” for the next bout…


PS. Laura’s prioritised a trip to the nearest pharmacy for first thing tomorrow…

PPS. Simon has omitted the part when he spread his arms in a child’s impression of an aeroplane to explain that they didn’t care about him taking the deodorant on a plane :p Laura