Everest: Our Escape From Tibet
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, Tibet @ August 6, 2012 - 10:56 am

You can read about our previous days in Tibet here!

Day 7: Numb Fingers and Tears

After a hectic day in the wind yesterday I woke up smashed – my face glued to my blow-up pillow. Our guides woke up earlier than usual (think they felt a bit bad about yesterday) as we told them we need to get going earlier in the day - leaving at 10am is just too late. Tenzin also made us hot oats which was a nice change. However, I was still miserable knowing I had squat energy and fumbled in the tent till it was warm enough to emerge.

We said our usual prayer and headed out on the slightly inclined road – the wind found us five minutes in. I knew we had one pass today so we readied ourselves for the steep uphill ahead. This time we could see the top of the pass so it wasn’t as daunting as the unknown. Four kilometres uphill in an icy headwind and we were at the top – our fingers and toes numb with cold.

Tenzin then told us it was downhill, flat and then the pass. What? Hadn’t we just done the pass? I was baffled. Anyway we’ve come to not expect anything on this trip – 'expect the unexpected' should have been our motto. Still I wanted to have some control of the situation. I grabbed my Ugg boots from the car so my feet wouldn’t fall off and added an extra fleece for the downhill.

On the long way down it was so frosty that we couldn’t feel our fingers and toes. I had to stop several times because my fingers couldn’t muscle the energy to pull the brakes – and I couldn’t feel them in any case. It felt like it went on forever. It’s weird hating the downhill but in these conditions everything seems like agony. Eventually I burst into tears – sobbing was the only way to alleviate the pain when there was no other way out.

At the bottom of the hill of death I donned my thick K-Way rain jacket and waterproof pants which seem to keep the heat in. It helped a bit but I was absolutely finished at this point. We’d done less than 30km and had at least 70km today to get through!

To my surprise the guides had set up lunch early (1pm) and I was grateful to be able to rest in the sun. As I stumbled towards their makeshift picnic Tenzin said they were talking about March 2008 – the protests against the Chinese government, which had seen many people jailed. He was one of them. Everyday our guides seem to warm to us little by little but there is still a huge divide between us. They never ask us about ourselves and probably out of fear they don’t reveal much about themselves either.

He said he was jailed for three months. He also told me that when he was 10 he has risked death and escaped from Tibet over the mountains (Tibetans may not leave Tibet until they are 65) to India. Apparently 24 people had begun the three-month journey and two people died along the way. Others got frostbite and severe wind-chill. After this my petty cycling problems seemed so insignificant and paled in comparison. I don’t think many of us can relate to this – having to fight for survival for and for basic human rights.

After lunch I felt queasy and tired – the lack of oxygen also made me want to dose off while on my bicycle. I really struggled for the next 20km but tried to remind myself of the incredible will of the people of Tibet and I forged on.

Eventually I decided it was probably a good idea to take Diamox again as I really wasn’t feeling good and knew we would be gaining altitude again. I’d stopped taking the Diamox as it has pretty dire side effects and I’d started getting tingly, numb fingers and face a day or two before. Anyway prevention is better than cure, especially since there is no cure for altitude sickness besides descending.

After the police checkpoint for the day (Tenzin clearing us before we arrived), we only had 10km left. Thing is it was up the Gyatsola Pass – the one I wasn’t expecting today. Thankfully I was feeling a bit better and the scenery was lovely, which changed my mind set and made the ascent much easier. We arrived at our campsite in high spirits and were rather amused to find it was next to a camp of nomads. Sheep and kids bleated at our arrival (so cute).

We ended up playing the Tibetan game with our guides – the first time they’d invited us to do so. By the time we’d finished playing the wind had picked up and it was freezing so we retreated to our tent supper in hand. We had now cycled 540kms through Tibet!

Day 8: Higher and Higher

Having camped at 4200m last night we woke up to a very frosty morning and everything had turned to ice – including my wet buff inside the tent. We lay staring at each other waiting for our guides to bring us coffee in our tent – the now official start to our morning. The reason for us sleeping so late – since we probably were asleep by 9pm was that at altitude because of the lack of oxygen you tend to sleep up to 10 hours – and of course we were also exhausted. At about 9.30am the sun finally reached our tent and I quickly changed into my cycle gear plus Ugg boots and waterproof layers. I wasn’t risking freezing again.

We knew we had about 10km to the top of the Gyatsola Pass at 5248m since we’d already done 9km of it the previous day. We know however that our guides don’t work in kilometres but rather ‘how many turns’ or switchbacks in the road and it’s constantly a mental battle to be given a rough estimate. We headed out at about 10.30, Tenzin waving us goodbye more warmly than usual – he probably knew what we were in for.

We started the painstakingly slow climb in good spirits – only bothered by our frozen fingers. The day seemed to slip by as our minds wandered – the barren landscape evoking creative thoughts with the absence of any distractions. We passed many nomads whistling high on the rocky hills above, tenderly guarding their sheep. One stopped and gave me a push up a part of the hill and then asked for money – as most rural Tibetans do. What they would do with money here in the middle of nowhere, I have no clue. I gave him 2RMB for a “photo” and then he picked up Richard’s sun cream and smelt it and looked at it curiously as if he’d just come out of the movie ‘Caveman’.

Still we climbed… The cold wind got stronger and stronger and seemed to bite into my cheeks. Finally we’d done 10km but there was no sign of the top. Now began the real challenge not knowing and peddled about 5km an hour uphill, taking regular breaks to avoid altitude sickness. Huge patches of ice kept us company and the occasional yak passed by…

At about 15km I had to walk – we’d been cycling uphill for four hours! And then at 16km we saw the prayer flags signalling the top. As we drew nearer to where our guides were waiting, the wind slapped us from all directions. We told them we needed to warm up in the car before the long downhill. As we got into the van Richard grimaced in pain and started to lose the plot a bit. I’d never seen him like this before. The guides saw this and suggested they take us downhill and then we cycle the last 25km on the flat road to the town of Shegar. I didn’t mind either way but I knew that once our bodies had cooled down from the exercise, we’d be cold and would not want to get back on our bikes again in sweaty, wet clothes. So we decided to get a lift into Shegar instead – a dead one-horse town which was as dusty and desolate as the terrain surrounding it. Tomorrow we head towards Everest – 20kms of uphill awaits!

Day 9: Towards Everest Base Camp

I’m sitting outside in the ferocious wind at Base Camp Everest – on the Tibet side. Our little yak tent guesthouse is filled with cigarette smoke from our guides and two weary-looking Chinese backpackers who hitchhiked here! Pity since I was finally starting to feel a tinge of happiness being warm in this harsh place.

The last two days have been atrocious. With a tired body and reasonably positive mind we started to climb Pang Pass at the entrance to Everest Base Camp Reserve two days ago, after standing in a queue at the strict border control point manned by the Chinese of course. Russians kitted to the max stood in front of us, while some Spanish women with make-up caked on their faces and Gucci sunglasses stood behind.

The Pang Pass is 20km of uphill on a rocky jeep-track and bearing in mind that we have no suspension on our bikes at first it was easier than expected. For the first time I put my iPhone on and started to listen to my iTunes - the first time I had afforded myself this luxury as today was a special day - we'd see Everest for the first time.

The kilometres rolled by swiftly - especially after the Gyatsola Pass. The sunshine and lack of wind made it rather pleasant and we took about three hours to do 20kms and 42 hairpin bends, compared to 16km in four hours yesterday. When we reached the top we were greeted by a wind that I thought would sweep us off the mountain and some persistant touts harrassing us for money. We had to head down the pass for about 2km before we could take pictures of Everest - standing clearly before us. Again we put on all the clothes we had with us.

I grabbed a peanut butter sandwich and almost instantly that terrible heartburn set in again - this time it would stay with me for the next two days, clouding my view of Everest. Compounded by a downhill that was more difficult than the uphill - the bumps in the road were painful - I was miserable again. Every day we seemed to do so well and then something would change or get worse and we'd end up being tortured for hours as the day melted away in tears of agony.

My fingers were in cramp from pulling the brakes on the 20-odd kilometre downhill and my body - already aching from 10 days of riding - was being shaken to pieces. The problem is the slower I went the colder Richard would get but I just couldn't go any faster.
The moon was high in the almost royal blue sky and the rock formations would have inspired any traveller but not me. After a few bouts of tears we finally made it to our camp which was near a little hamlet. As we pushed our bikes over a partially frozen stream towards our camp some curious farmers followed us closely.

The Nightmare Continues...

At this point I felt like we were not eating enough to sustain this kind of cycling and after dinner our guides said that they would go get some Chinese bread in the little village for lunch for the next few days. Apparently it cost the equivalent of R35? We gave them R45 in RMB and asked if we could have a little extra bread to eat when they came back as we were still hungry. The said "no" and kept the extra change. I was trying not to care but started to feel really manipulated between the tour company and our guides who constantly made us feel bad about the fact they were not getting paid enough by the Chinese company when we'd outlayed R30 000 for this very basic tour excluding equipment or food.

I crawled into our tent forlorn and suddenly some village children appeared. Scruffy and rough the kids kept on saying "hello", "hello" and then the pleas for money came. I could hear an older boy egging on a younger boy named Tashi and they continued incessantly. I'm pretty sure they were swearing at us in Tibetan. Eventually they retreated only to throw a huge rock at our tent very close to where my head was. Richard leaped out of the tent and chased them. I was so angry I almost broke the tent trying to get out screaming, "I'll kill you!". Richard followed them for quite some time - they ran so fast even he couldn't catch them. I was really impressed with him as I've never seen him react in this way and usually we are both too soft. It probably wasn't the right Christian response but after weeks of agony, frustration and underlying tension we just snapped.

I said we should pack up, find a hotel and just called this trip quits as I felt more and more animosity towards the people and the situation we were in. My legs shaking with fright I couldn't push my body one more inch.

When Tenzin and the driver got back we told them we couldn't camp here as it wasn't safe. As expected he said: "If I here no problem." Richard insisted that we need to do something and Tenzin suddenly got more and more agitated and then got really angry with us and said, "If you don't like the guide you can change it". This was completely offside as we were not questioning his him as a guide. I'm not sure how us being scared and not feeling safe translated into 'we think you're a bad guide'. I was so hurt at this that I just hung my head in disbelief. We had no choice but to stay. I lay in the tent, eyes wide open and waited for the nightmare to end.

Day 10 and 11: To Base Camp

I've now retreated to the yak tent at Base Camp as it's started snowing outside. My fingers are cracked and my thumb has a huge split in it and stings as I write...

So I woke up this morning and felt like I couldn't move. My hands had lost some of their feeling from the bumpy road and non-stop cold. Today we only had 35km to cycle to Everest Base Camp but the road was like a construction site and was so bumpy that even the hoards of jeeps rattled as they drove past.

We did about 15km in two hours and then that Everest wind picked up and we'd had enough. We got a lift the last 20km which probably would have taken us the whole day - the van even struggling to get through.

Since we'd decided to skip a day on our trip which was going to be our only 'rest day', our guide pulled some strings and got us into the guesthouse at Basecamp - which we were actually meant to stay at the next night but for some reason we were now going to have to camp. Thank goodnesss we didn't as I don't think I would have survived the night...
Our yak tent guesthouse was basically just a room full of soft benches where you can sleep, around a dung fire. I really thought that Everest would be a hightlight but it's extremely bittersweet. Right now to us it's just a huge overpriced and overrated piece of rock.

Day 12: Everest by Morning Light

Last night I lay on my 'bench' trying to sleep with the light on while our guides chaffed the yak tent owner - she attended to their every need as if they were old lovers. On top of the commotion I found it really difficult to breathe up at 5200 metres - the first time we'd slept at this altitude.

It was blisteringly cold outside and the moon with a strange circle of light around it, shone on Everest and made it seem like I was in some celestial fantasy. I couldn't stay out for too long though as it was too cold. Having to make a run for the loo I covered my nose with my buff - shit was piled high, pads full of blood and frozen vomit covered the hole in the ground.

As the night wore on I drifted in and out of sleep - our guide asked if I was feeling ok as a lot of people get altitude sickness here. I couldn't tell him that they were keeping me awake - especially since like a wet blanket i'd already complained about them smoking. But in all fairness the air is so thin here without the added addition of the heady mixture of dung, juniper and 'leftovers' fire, filling the little tent with thick fumes. In all honesty, I would rather have joined in the revellery but we didn't have the money to drink beer here and it would have only added to any kind of altitude sickness.

Our guides were pretty funny though - mischevious characters just looking for a bit of fun. Who could blame them? A bit out of our depth and confused about day-to-day happenings, we'd stopped having fun a long time ago and had switched to survival mode.
Finally as the cold air crept into the tent in the early hours of the morning, I felt I could breathe again but now I was freezing - my sleeping bag even felt wet on the outside from the cold and the water I had left in my mug had frozen.

The view of Everest having been hidden by the mist the day before was now "clear" as Tenzin announced and promptly got back into bed. I finally pulled myself out of my sleeping bag while breathing ice and ran to take a closer picture - the early morning light shining on the face of the mountain. Out of breathe from the short run, I felt an immense feeling of gratitude and awe. This may just be a rock but it certainly is a majestic one!

My fingers went numb trying to take a picture and I retreated to the tent as quickly as possible. Two hours later our guides roused themselves, washed their faces, donned their face cream and then proceeded to eat tsampa till about 10.30am - all while we waited for them.

Today we'd catch a lift in the car to Tingri as it would simply mean backtracking along the same road as Everest Base Camp is a considerable detour off the Friendship Highway. Our guides didn't speak to us the whole time and didn't stop or suggest lunch and by 3pm we were starved. We arrived around that time and they suggested that we stay at this guesthouse instead of camp as there was bad weather and wild dogs? How was that different to any other night? Catch is we would have to pay as this wasn't part of the trip. Immediately we got our backs up. Why did they spring this on us now after silence in the car for hours? Of course we would rather not camp but was this not an excuse for them to visit their cronies and drink beer? As if we stayed they got free accomodation and food. Suddenly we felt angry and betrayed again - should we not make them camp and cook and do the work they were being paid to do? As it was we were cutting the trip short because of them mostly. At this moment I just wanted to pack up and tell them to take us to the border right away. Then again were we imagining all of this? By being stingy and skimping and scraping were we not just ruining it for ourselves? We calmed down and decided to cough up the money for food and accomodation for the night - a khaya with two beds, a bucket for washing and no electricity.

In any case Tenzin was right about the dogs. Mingy muts fought outside in packs like tame wolves. I looked out of the window of the hotel restaurant and there were two western women waiting for their bus driver to finish his meal inside - they were handing cigarettes to some rotten looking teenage girls.

Day 13: Sand in Our Teeth

I've managed to clean myself with wet wipes inside the tent as an icy wind blows everything in it's path in all directions. The fine dust is coming in our tent and it's pointless trying to fight it. My hands are so cracked there are deep vains of dirt embedded into them which is impossible to get out. After four days of not showering I'm seriously feeling grotty.

Today we left the town of Old Tingri where we spent the night in our 'ikhaya'. Our guides got hideously drunk again - apparently it was a special day in China where young men go to the bar and drink together? Patriotism is rather fical around here. Anyway, after about 15 beers between them they started getting friendly again and Tenzin apologised for getting angry the other night when the kids threw a stone at our tent.

Bottom line is we feel ripped off, they feel hard done by, and all in all it's just a bad situation set up by of course the Chinese who have to do nothing for our R30 000 besides get Tibet permits for us. The result: Our Tibet tour has turned into an emotional drunken rollarcoaster...

We woke up at 8am today, packed our stuff, made our own breakfast after asking for hot water from the staff, cleaned our mugs and packed our bags and put them in the car. All this while the guides were served yak butter tea in bed by the staff at 9.30am.

We left them to their routine and hit the road at about 10am after waiting. We then rode a very boring 54kms before a lunch of stale bread and polony (a welcome change from the peanut butter). We thought we could push it and do an extra 11km today but as we started off this manic wind picked up again and I'd had it. I refused to cycle another 10km in this weather at 5km an hour on a flat road. It was just too agonising.

So here we are below the Lalung Pass. Apparently the road to Zhangmu is impassible due to a rockfall and many tourists have driven back to Lhasa to fly to Nepal. We are just praying we don't have to stay in the town of Nyalam, which we will reach tomorrow, for too long...

Day 14: We Want Freedom

Last night was bad enough eating dust but as soon as the wind stopped that infamous pounding at the back of my skull started. I wolfed down some Diamox but it was obviously too late. And once again our headache tablets were in the van. Eventually at 8am I spewed bright-green bile from my already empty stomach and then retreated to the car - no cycling today.

We were meant to cycle the last 80km up the Lalung and Tang Passes to reach the town of Nyalam by evening. Being in the car we got there at 12pm midday. I didn't even lift my head en route, to see the 'majestic view of the Himalayan Range' we'd been looking forward to seeing (at 5050m). I just tried to sleep while it felt like someone was squashing my head in slowly. When we got to the town we waited in the car for about an hour. The town was slammed with tourists who'd been waiting to get to the border for days.

We were in luck! There was a small window where they were letting people through - but only for an hour. The road would be closed again for a week after that. Tenzin was rushing around and wouldn't tell us what was going on - then suddenly we were on the move. We started the drive down the hill towards Zhangmu and the border at a rapid rate - cars jostling to get ahead. This was meant to be the longest downhill in the world which we'd hoped to cycle. About 15km down the hill we suddenly had to get out and pack our bikes on the side of the road. Apparently we could only walk or take our bikes - no cars could go from this point.

The problem was our guides had to escourt us to the border, which meant we'd have to wait for them to walk down and then they'd have to walk back afterwards? I rendered it pointless - cycling down and leaving them behind. So I offered for the guides to share my bike on the downhill. I was half asleep I didn't realise that i'd have to walk 15km in my Uggboots! I think I was disorientated by the groups of tourists pulling their luggage along - thinking 'surely these people aren't going to walk with all their luggage for 15km'! Luckily I popped a few headache tablets before we left the car and was feeling slightly better now.

But now the scenery was so spectacular I didn't mind walking - green pine trees appeared on the expansive hills above and water cascaded from countless waterfalls with snowcap peaks still looming behind. After a dry, brown Tibet for three weeks this was heaven! Good riddens I thought. My mood had turned from dismal to delighted.

Tanuk our driver refused to take my bike and we walked together - Richard stopping every now and then to check we were ok. We got to the rockfall in this already hazardous road - CCTV was there filming while the Chinese military helped each of us across. As Richard was crossing some small rocks started to fall and everyone started shouting in a flat panic - no one got hurt.

After this Tenzin sped down the hill on my bike leaving us all behind. We walked for hours or so it felt and in all this time Tanuk didn't complain once. We tried to communicate - both only knowing a little Chinese. Three hours had passed an it was now pretty late in the day. The border would close soon so we had to hurry.

Tenzin suddenly rocked up in a car - he must have grabbed a lift from someone going up - and hauled us a cab for the last three kilometres or so. From here we had to cycle again for about another six kilometres downhill and Tanuk had to stay behind as he wasn't allowed near the border. Tenzin jumped on the back of a friend's motorbike and they led the way.

Finally we were at the border - the Chinese officials shoved us around as we were not standing in the right place. We also had to unpack all our bags for them to check. We made it through the border just in time and didn't look back. As we approached the Nepal side children were running to the border line almost taunting the Chinese officials and there was no real security check - we even battled to find the visa office. The taste of freedom was exhilarating!