I still remember my first look at Mt. Everest. We were driving down the highway in Qomolongma National Park in Tibet. Qomolongma is the Tibetan name for Everest. It means “mother goddess of the earth”. My guide Norbu had asked Sonum our driver to pull over to the side. “John, there is Mt. Everest.” I couldn’t believe it. I was driving down a highway and all of a sudden I’m looking at the world’s highest mountain.
I remember thinking that my first sighting should have been after a long and strenuous day of trekking. I’m exhausted, hungry, dehydrated and there it is Mt. Everest! From the side of a highway with kids running up to the truck looking for candy and money was not what I imagined.
En Route To The Start Of The Trek
We were driving to Old Tingri on The Friendship Highway. The route that takes you from Lhasa, Tibet all the way to the border of China and Nepal.
Mt. Everest’s summit point lies exactly on the border of China and Nepal.
We would start our trek to Everest Base Camp Tibet(China) from Old Tingri. You can actually drive almost all the way to base camp in Tibet. This is unlike on the Nepal side of the highest mountain in the world, a much different experience. The landscape, the people, or lack of.
Nepal’s Everest is crowded. The trails, base camp, the villages. In Tibet, barely a trekkers’ or tourist infrastructure exists. A couple of guesthouses. A tented camp and a small Chinese Army base and checkpoint at EBC.
Drive To Everest Base Camp?
I remember going back and forth by email with my outfitter in Lhasa. “Are you sure you want to trek to Everest. I can have a car drive you there. Save you some time”.
Why would I want to drive to Mt. Everest? It just wouldn’t do it justice. The Chinese actually wanted to pave the road all the way to base camp but there was such an outcry and protest from around the world that they cancelled their plans. It’s still a gravel and dirt path.
For me it wasn’t just about the bragging rights. I wanted the whole experience. Camping on the Tibetan Plateau. Hearing the wind at night. Sleeping beneath the Himalaya. Seeing wildlife, nomads. I wanted to walk. Feel the land. Maybe even trek in the same footsteps as Mallory. George Mallory was the British explorer and mountaineer whose 1924 attempt of a Mt. Everest summit cost him his life.
Here on the Tibet side of The Himalaya we are higher up then on the Nepal side of the start of an EBC trek. Lukla, where most people start their trek in Nepal is at 2800 meters. Old Tingri is 4300 meters above sea level. Stark, barren. Tibet.
No Yak Support
Starting our trek from Old Tingri took us through the old expedition route to Mt.Everest. Probably the same way Mallory trekked with his group. Including the cases of champagne and tins of fois gras. We are taking some assorted vegetables, fruit, rice. An unplugged expedition. We do have something Mallory did not have. Landcruiser support.
I wanted so badly to trek with yaks, the long-haired bovine,(cattle) of the area that do so well at high altitude.
The head guide back in Lhasa tried so hard to arrange it but the mountaineering teams for Everest had hired all of the local yaks and yakmen so we will have a modern approach. We will still trek though. Our landcruiser and driver will meet us at each new camp.
We are pushing it and will move at a three and a half day pace to EBC rather than four and a half. The pressure is on because we were trying to get to Mt. Kailash for the start of The Saga Dawa Festival. The celebration of Sakyamuni, the current Buddha’s enlightenment.
We drove all day from Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet to Old Tingri. Old Tingri, or Dingri was once a trading post for Nepalese Sherpas and Tibetan wool traders. Today its a street lined with a few shops that sell snacks, hard goods, and a few restaurants where the TV is always on. Tuned to the one and only Tibetan language channel.
Arriving In Old Tingri
We arrived around 4:30pm, with strong winds. Norbu suggested a stay at a guesthouse the first night. It was late in the day and it would have been a bit of a challenge getting through the army post and checkpoint in the village and setting up camp before dark.
We found a guesthouse across the street from the start of the trek. My room was adequate. I had my own bathroom and shower. Luxury in these parts. No hot water until after 9pm. I remember having to prop one of my large duffel bags against the door to keep it shut.
A Restless Sleep And Nauseous Feeling
I had some dinner in the restaurant. Met a Tibetan guide that was taking a group of Japanese tourists to Cho Oyu Base Camp. Cho Oyu is the fifth highest mountain in the world. Finally I went back to my room for a hot shower, and bed. We are set to start the trek at 9 the next morning.
I did not sleep well. Off and on. Restless. Listening to the door hitting my duffel bag as the wind blew through the night. I had been in Tibet for almost a week and I thought I was acclimatized to the elevation. I was not.
I woke up with a headache and nauseous feeling. Classic altitude effects. I remember lying in bed thinking how am I going to call in a report in an hour. At the time I was working for a radio station in Canada. I had put together a fundraiser for the radio station’s local charity and as part of the campaign and as a thank you to my sponsors I would call in live reports to the afternoon talk show.
I Feel Like Crap
I finally dragged myself out of bed. Managed to get to the toilet in time to vomit before I made the phone call. Still feeling like crap I got through to the producer, Gabe. I think Gabe sensed something wasn’t quite right. He asked me how I was feeling. I said “fine”, with a tight face. Eventually I managed a barely acceptable report of my travels and a description of where I was with the host, Jon.
Before breakfast another visit to the toilet. I still don’t know why or how I managed to eat something. Coffee and a small pancake. It didn’t stay down.
Finally Norbu came by room at 9am. “Are you ready to go?” he asked. I told him what happened. He looked me up and down. “You will be fine. I’ll come back in a half-hour.”
I remember thinking I hadn’t been that sick before at high altitude. I didn’t know if I would be fine. I had bouts or waves of sickness before. I had thrown up in my tent in the crater of Mt. Kilimanjaro the night before we summited. Nothing quite like this.
Getting Through The Army Checkpoint
We get in the landcruiser at 9:30 to drive through the small village. There is an army checkpoint we must go past and we are not allowed to walk through. It’s about a five minute drive from the highway.
We drive through the small traditional Tibetan village and in the middle is a guard post and soldiers.
There are many checkpoints in Tibet. If you are driving anywhere, I mean anywhere in Tibet you can expect to stop at least once in your day. At some checkpoints only your guide has to go into the office with your passport to check in. At this stop I must get out and present my passport to the soldier.
The soldier can’t be more than twenty-two. Actually they all look really young, with machine guns.
I understand they can’t be friendly and must be business like and I respect that. He’s just doing his job. The soldier says hello to me in English and asks for my passport. He opens it up right to the page my Tanzania visa was on. It had a picture of me. He stared at it for what seemed like a minute. I was going to direct him to the correct page but I keep my mouth shut. Besides I might throw up if speak. Finally he says to me,”Kilimanjaro”?
“Yes, I said. Just over a year ago”. I started to ask him questions, like where he learned to speak English. “University”. I can see he is uncomfortable making small talk and being friendly so I go back to keeping my mouth shut. In the meantime I was still feeling gross. We got through the checkpoint and found a place to stop. Sonum drove ahead and we started trekking.
We Start Walking
Initially I was keeping it together trying not to puke. Not exactly enjoyable but better than the way I felt back at the guesthouse.
We had come to some creeks. The water was high so we needed to jump. This felt so awful but I managed to get through without any incident.
I was still able to enjoy the scenery. We had Cho Oyu in front of us. One of the highest mountains in the world! Enough to help take my mind a little off the way I was feeling.
Our First Camp
Finally after about three hours of walking we found an area to camp. Sonum had gone ahead of us in the land cruiser and was finding some water. He returned and he and Norbu set up the tents and camp. I found a piece of ground to crawl to and hunker down on. Like a sick wounded animal. Once the tents were set up I had something to eat and a nap.
Two hours had passed. I got up to walk around. I felt so much better. Actually I felt amazing compared to just a few hours before. Full of energy and ready for the rest of this trek.
Adjusting To High Altitude
I’ve told many people who intend to go mountain climbing or trekking above 3000 meters for the first time that occasionally you will have waves of nauseousness, headaches, and sometimes you will throw up. Not always, but most of the time this feeling will go away. Your body is adjusting and sometimes it takes a little longer to acclimate then the pace you’ve set. Of course, if the feeling doesn’t go away then you need to drop in elevation immediately.
Guests For Dinner
Norbu and Sonum started preparing dinner when we were joined by a local villager, his deaf four year-old daughter, and his flock of sheep. He sat down and talked for awhile with Norbu and settled in to join us for dinner.
Norbu told me the villager, probably had never been more than five miles away from Old Tingri his whole life and dreams of one day going to Lhasa.
His daughter came by my tent a couple of times and held her hand out. We gave her an apple but I can’t help but think she had been tainted. Foreigners meaning well but giving candy or money and potentially setting a bad pattern.
I always recommend if you must give things out hand it to the parent, teacher, or village elder. Don’t hand things out directly to a child. You are encouraging them to beg.
The local villager had a rough looking plastic container with some local brew, or Chaang. I decline an offer of a swig. Normally I would imbibe but it’s been a rough day.
That night the winds blew hard. The tent flapped and barely held it’s form. I was sleeping below the most storied mountains in the world. I was living a dream. Camped on The Tibetan Plateau. Heading for Mt. Everest!
I am a broadcaster, photographer, writer and videographer with a passion for travel throughout Asia. I love making connections and engaging with people. I am spiritual and seek adventure wherever I go.
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