BootsnAll Travel Network

Traveling The Friendship Highway

I had one more adventure near Lhasa before heading out on the seven day trip to Nepal. On Wednesday morning Greg, Kera, and I, along with four other people, were shuttled by van to the Denchen valley. There I met up with the first of the three horses that I would ride that day. Before continuing, I should say a little about Tibetan horses and riding styles. The horses are smaller than western horses (more the size of a large pony). The stirrups on the saddles tend to be non adjustable, and the saddles are not cinched as tight as on western horses. The saddles are also a hodge podge of styles including wood, steel, and old British calvary saddles. You can imagine what happens when someone of my height gets on a short horse with short stirrups. The ride though fun left me cramped and bruised. After meeting the horses, we mounted them and went on our way riding through several small villages and along an arid mountain valley. My first horse (the Toyota Corolla of horses) responded well to commands but was very thirsty. He stopped at every watering spot and drank copious amounts of water. I could feel him swelling up like a balloon. I had to constantly hurry the horse along to catch up with group. After lunch, we switched horses. This time I ended up on a grandma horse (the Buick of horses) with graying mane. She couldn’t be hurried and was content to stay in the center of the pack. She appeared to have a male admirer who wouldn’t leave her side despite repeated attempts from his rider. At one point another male horse appeared to show some interest but was dismissed with a kick from my horse (while I was on her). My last horse of the day was a male (sports car horse). This was the first time that I have ever galloped (or very fast trot) on a horse. At one point I almost fell off the horse sideways due to the loose saddle but managed to right myself. The saddle of this horse was very male unfriendly. It had a foward lean that squished me against the saddle horn. Not good when going fast on a horse. During the ride we were accompanied by a young colt whose mother was part of our pack. The colt was constantly backing up to convenient trees to get a good scratch on his rear. It was also interesting to see the ruins of the fire stations high on the hills. The Tibetans used a system very similar to Lord of the Rings to alert neighboring villages of imminent invasion. They would light fires atop tall hills. Each within sight of the next station.

The night was finished off at the dinner that Ivone was hosting for her Tibetan friends that she met on the train. Before going to the dinner, I had returned to the hat stand to get the email address of the Tibetan lady that I mentioned in the last entry. She still didn’t have an email address for me so I gave her mine. I also invited her to the dinner. Though she normally didn’t close up her stall for another hour or so, she decided to come along after a consultation with her friends who helped her close up her stand. Kera was with me at this time, so they probably thought it was okay. They did want to know if we had a cell phone number. The dinner lasted about two hours. It consisted of representatives of three main tribes in Tibet (Lhasa – my friend, Khumba, and Amdo). All of them speak a different dialect. Some of the people could translate between the groups. My guest left early. I felt a little bad as she seemed a little intimidated by the large crowd and was very shy during the meal. The dinner ended with two of the group presenting us with white silk scarves (katas). They are presented to honored guests in Tibet.

The next morning Ivone, Greg, Kera, and I (henceforth the four of us) met up with our driver and our guide at the Banak Shol hotel. The guide’s name was Pesang and the driver Tenzin. Tenzin spoke only a little English. We headed off for the first stop (in a Toyota Landcruiser 4500) of our trip to Samye monastery. The four of us and Pesang had to take a ferry across a lake to get to the monastery. The ferry consisted of a very large skiff full of tourists and Tibetan pilgrims. It was powered by a truck engine with a propeller mounted on the shaft. After crossing the lake, we piled into the back of a truck for the trip to the monastery. We spent the night at the monastery guesthouse. There were only pit toilets available and hand crank pumps and a few water spigots in the center courtyard for public use. We spent the evening climbing some hills near the monastery and exploring the small town. That night we went to bed listening to the sounds of the monks playing what sounded like alp horns from a rooftop.

The next day we headed for Gyantse. We first dropped off our guide at the airport so that he could take a bus back to Lhasa. Due to the popularity of the Landcruiser trips, there were not enough guides to go around. We got a small discount due to this. We were still able to communicate with our driver using Ivone’s mandarin, hand signals, and his limited English. Along the way to Gyantse we took a detour up a very high switchback road to view Yamdrok-tso lake. It is considered a holy lake and is a beautiful turquoise color. It is unfortunately being drained by the Chinese for hydroelectric power. They have built a tunnel beneath the lake which causes it to drain to a river. The problem is the lake has no significant sources of water renewal. The Chinese claim that the excess power is being used to refill the lake, but the level is dropping. Tenzen stopped on the opposite side of the hill so that we wouldn’t have to pay the parking lot fee. We only had time for a quick view so that we could leave before the police saw us. After going back down the pass, we headed off road taking a “shortcut” to Gyantse. The bumpy dirt road took us through dusty villages (with children running to the vehicle for food or handouts at every stop) and desert areas with sand dunes. We were not alone. There were several other SUVs on the route. We would see the same people over the next few days. That night, we checked into a nice hotel in Gyantse. It sat below an abandoned fort (dzong) set high on a hill.

Our morning in Gyantse was spent at the local monastery. The main attraction was the large six chorten which was full of murals and chapels to various Buddhist deities. Growing a bit tired of monasteries, Greg, Kera, and I decided to explore the ruins of an old wall high on the hill above the city. What followed was like FOX’s When Wild Animals Attack. We first encountered a very unhappy dog locally on a chain. I would be unhappy too if my tail were bitten off. Making our way around the dog, we next encounted a domestic yak and his lady friend standing next to the wall. We apparently got too close. We had become accustomed to the the docile livestock in Tibet. You sometimes have to push the yaks, cows, etc. out of your way to pass. The male yak charged us causing us to scramble back down the hill and find an alternate access point for the wall.

Following all the excitement, we hopped back into the vehicle to head to Shigatse. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and was the seat of the Panchen Lama. It sits below the ruins of the old fort. Shigatse was once the capital of the Tsang Kingdom. The fort was used by the Tsang kings to enforce their rule on the surrounding area. Much to our surprise there is now a mini Potala palace built on the site of the ruins. The Chinese, for some reason unknown to anyone we asked, built the recreated palace here. They never finished it, though, and the inside is empty. After checking into our room Ivone went to see the monastery, Kerra took a nap, and Greg and I went to see the mini Potala. The palace was deserted, and we went in through an open door. The palace is an empty shell full of exposed pipes and wiring. There at least are great views of the surrounding area from the balconies. The only mishap was my fault. Upon exiting onto one balcony, I shut the door behind me causing it to lock. Fortunately there was another open door so we didn’t have to scramble down the steep hillside. Following a path down into the town, we ended up in a park with some bronze sculptures depicting tourists interacting with locals. One amusing scene involved a western lady snapping pictures of a Tibetan mother and child. We also went to see women weaving at a carpet factory in town.

Our next destination was Sakya. Sakya is a very small town situated in an arid valley. A river seperates the more traditional village from the modern town. There are two monasteries in town. The one of interest to me was the ruins of the North Monastery set on the mountainside above the towns. I went up to the ruins alone. There are only walls left standing. It was great to be surrounded by the ancient walls. As I was alone the only sound I could hear was the wind whistling around the mountains as I stared out over the dry plain and snow capped mountains in the distance. After leaving the monastery ruins, I made my way along a path to a nunnery set on the mountain above the village. I had to backtrack several times to find a route that didn’t end in a steep dropoff into a gorge. Along the way, I encounted a waterfall that was just sloped enough that I could scramble up. Leaving the waterfall, I made my way to the nunnery. It was an interesting contrast to the monastery. The nuns wear the same robes as the monks and also shave their heads.

We departed Sakya for Everest Base Camp. This was the destination I was most looking foward to. We had to stop in the town of Shegar first to buy tickets for the vehicle and us. At the entrance to the nature reserve of which Everest is a part, we had to show our tickets. As we no longer had a guide, we had to pretend we were with another group so that we could get in. Technically we aren’t allowed to travel around without a guide. The base camp was accessed by a dirt road that went over a 17,000 ft. pass. The road switchbacks up a large mountain. All the switchbacks are visible while driving and one can see other vehicles crisscrossing back and forth on the mountain up above you. We stopped at the top of the pass and had great views of many Himalayan peaks including Everest (Qomolangma).

Everest base camp (really just for tourists, the real camp is about a 4 km. hike away) is a series of tent hotels situated in a valley downrange from Everest. We were showed into one at random. There were a series of benches covered with woolen blankets to sleep on. The tent was heated by a metal stove which burned dried yak dung and what looked like sheep or goat pellets. I spent the first evening hiking to the “real” base camp 4 km. away. This was not easy as we were at 16,500 feet. Fortunately the trail wasn’t that steep. The weather was perfect without a cloud in the sky, so I had excellent views of Everest. Trying to sleep that night was interesting. I had to put extra blankets under my pillow so that I could breathe. Whenever I laid flat, I couldn’t get enough oxygen. It is not uncommon for people new to this altitude to stop breathing at night. It isn’t serious as you wake up. It can be a little disconcerting though. It is similar to what happens when a person has severe sleep apnea. It was very cold during the night and the water in my bottle partially froze.

Ivone was the first out the next morning to watch the sunrise over the mountain. Sunrise here is about 7:30 a.m. I got dressed and went out to attend to my morning needs of brushing my teeth and the bathroom. On the way I passed Tenzen who was also in our tent. He was grumbling and moving around under his blankets. He had already made it clear that he didn’t like it at base camp due to the altitude and cold. He was doing a reverse princess and the pea impression (he being the pea) and sleeping under about 80 wool blankets. The bathroom at the camp bears special mention. It consists of a tent over a large pit. The tent is divided down the middle for male and female. On each side there is a series of about five wooden slats with no dividers over which one squats. The “doors” were just flaps cut in the side of the tent. As it was windy, the flaps were usually blown open. As I see it, there are about four ways to use a bathroom like this for people used to a little privacy.

1. Go in, squat next to your neighbor, and go to your happy place so that you are unaware of the smell beneath you and the partner next to you.

2. Go in, squat next to your neighbor, and engage him in conversation. You can make helpful suggestions which would help your neighbor “drop the children off at the pool easier” (I read this phrase somewhere). Things like “have you considered more fiber” or “are you getting enough liquids?”

3. Go with my route. Go early in the morning when the waste is frozen (less smell) and the tent is deserted.

4. Go outside. Many of the large rocks around the camp had “surprises” behind them which desiccate in the cold and dry air.

After surviving the bathroom, I hiked again to base camp under another cloudless sky. I walked beside two Dutch girls whom I had met during our drive. They had elected to take a horse ride to the camp instead of walk. At the start of the hike, there are a group of men with horses and carts who will take you to the camp for a fee. I walked as I need to get in shape for the Annapurna Circuit which will go up to about 10,000 feet.

As I am running out of time, I have to summarize the next few days quickly. We left Everest and overnighted at Tingri. Tingri is a small town whose main attraction is the views of Mt Cho Oyu. We then left Tingri and arrived at the border town of Zhangmu where I am now. Zhangmu is built on a mountainside. It is a large town strung out along the single road that switchbacks down to the Nepal border. The town has lots of traffic jams as Nepali and Chinese trucks fight for space. While we were watching, one such jam was being settled by a scuffle between a policeman and another man. The landscape is very lush which is a big contrast to the arid Tibetan plateau. The Friendship Highway between Tingri and Zhangmu is under construction. The road descends from 17,000 feet to 8,000 feet. Due to the construction, the road was little more than a muddy lane hugging the mountainside with a drop of hundreds of feet on one side. There were often streams of water running across or down the road. The sides of the road were lined with tents for construction workers to sleep in. The tents were right on the edge of the cliff. At one point we thought we would have to wait eight hours to continue down the road. Supposedly the road is only one way at certain times. A group of Landcruisers including us were stopped at a gate. After lots of discussions we were allowed to pass even though the road was closed to traffic going our way. We also had to pause at one point for blasting to take place. We heard the boom in the distance and then drove by as workers cleared the rocks from the road in front of us. Despite the disconcerting road, the scenery is spectacular full of lush mountains topped with snow. I have to say it is the most beautiful drive I have ever been on.

Tomorrow, I leave China. China has been interesting and frustrating. Everything is open to negotation including the rules. Even when you think you are legal you have to sneak around. In Tibet there are entrance fees for viewing many of the natural sights. Some are quite high by Chinese standards. While this is not unusual in and of itself, my complaint is the use of these fees. In the US, the fees are used to maintain the sites and upgrade the tourist infrastructure. In Tibet, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Many of the sites are covered in trash and the tourist facilities are usually quite dirty and rundown.

I have posted my last pictures of China.

Side Notes:

Symptoms: I appear to be healed after nearly a month of feeling malaise and head pressure. Doubling my antibiotic dose appeared to have helped. I guess it was sinusitis after all (not the brain tumor which was my secret concern as I had some light sensitivity as well). I also have adapted to the altitude. AMS can be bought on by sinus troubles. I still get the occasional headache but it soon goes away after a few hours at a new elevation.

Money Spent Updates:

Including all transport and visa costs:
Australia: $75 US/day
China: $44 US/day (I was in the 30’s until the expensive trip from Lhasa to Zhangmu and the expensive horse riding trip)

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No Responses to “Traveling The Friendship Highway”

  1. Penelope Says:

    Hi Barry, I’m a friend of Ivone. I’ve very much enjoyed your postings! Thanks

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Joe Coury Says:

    Wow – China’s behind you already! Looking forward to hearing of your passage into India.

  4. Posted from United States United States

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