Getting There is Half the Fun, Part 2
(To see how we got this far, read part one)
My passport was long gone. I had given it to some Nepalese man who was going to arrange the border crossing. I sure hope he came back. We were sprawled out in a grimy restaurant back room waiting for the Chinese to decide when we would, or could, or should be allowed into Tibet. Traveling in this remote part of the world you quickly become expert at the waiting game. You wait at checkpoints, you wait at borders, you wait for landslides to be cleared, you wait for everything. Why? Well, because….and that’s the best answer you’ll ever get. So we drank tea and watched the river rush full force under the bridge that separated the two countries of Nepal and Tibet. It was for this natural resource that the Chinese took Tibet. The water that flows out of the highest mountain range in the world will quench China’s thirst for millennia. We watched the people cross back and forth over the ironically named Friendship Bridge which beckoned more like an iron prison gate than a friendly doorway.
We had ridden all night from Kathmandu to this crossing, on our way to climb the mountain of Cho Oyu in southern Tibet. Permits had been purchased, 12,000 lbs of gear checked off the list and packed, guides arranged and busses rented. It would take the better part of two weeks just to reach advanced base camp, or ABC, at the foot of the mountain. Half of the adventure of climbing in the Himalayas is simply getting to the starting point.
The night’s ride had definitely been an exhausting adventure. From my seat behind and to the left of the driver, I worked overtime for the better part of eight hours simply willing the bus to stay on the road! Now, we were chilling out after a breakfast of something I can’t pronounce…in full on wait mode.
Crossing the Border into Tibet
We were given complete instructions for the crossing. We would be called in order and were to line up exactly as so and cross the bridge in single file. Don’t even think about a camera or we may never see you again. Once at immigration, give your passport (mine miraculously appeared again, it’s recent destinations unknown) and whatever you do, don’t utter the words, free and Tibet, in the same sentence or make any references to his holiness, the Dalai Lama. If you have anything that might resemble literature to free Tibet or anything that even has the same letters, no matter what order, get rid of it now. If you are carrying a satellite phone….oh I better not even mention that in this book, never mind.
The most fascinating part of this experience was watching the Nepalese Sherpa hauling climbing expedition gear across the border. Teams of Sherpa are hired by expeditions like ourselves to take thousands of pounds of gear through customs. Many of the porters are women of tiny stature, barely five feet tall, yet carrying loads of Herculean proportions. I watched dumbfounded as many of these women carried babies wrapped in shawls strapped across their chests and 60lb propane bottles on their backs. They stood next to Sherpa men with 10 or 15 cases of beer as well as 2 or 3 fifty lbs sacks of flour all somehow tied together and held on their backs with forehead straps. Day after day, they went back and forth across the border like this. They resembled beasts of burden more than humans and my back ached just observing them. I was in awe of their abilities and I quickly became embarrassed of my own 40 lb backpack, which now looked like child’s play.
Can Lace Undies go into Tibet?
It took the better part of an hour to go through immigration and customs. The Chinese went through every detail of our backpacks. Oh my gosh, are undies with lace allowed in Communist countries? Would I be arrested, never to be seen again? I began to worry. They flipped through the pages of our books, scrutinizing the titles and asked us to turn on our digital cameras and show them the photos we had taken. No pictures of the bridge! One of our party (no pun intended) was pulled aside because the label in one of his shirts had a suspicious logo. Could be some secret underground shirt label code. They had to be sure and the supervisor was called in. They didn’t particularly care for the Buddhist prayer flags our Nepalese guide was carrying, however, they let them through. It’s customary to have a prayer ceremony on the mountain before climbing. It’s an uneasy feeling to go into your first Communist country and realize that you are no longer the decision maker. You won’t have a trial by jury if they suspect you of some misdealing and it reminds you to carefully watch your P’s and Q’s. The rules had definitely changed. We were not in Kansas anymore Toto!
On the other side our bus was waiting. The Chinese made the decision as to which bus would carry us to our mountain, whcih hotels we would stay at on the way and at which restaurants we would dine. If you don’t like to make decisions, this would be Nirvana!
Zhangmu and Beyond
We loaded up and headed to Zhangmu, the first town across the border for Chinese food of course! at the predetermined restaurant. Today we would drive to Nylaam at 12,000ft and begin our process of acclimation to higher elevations. But first, we had to once again brave the roads. 6:00pm was our scheduled departure time and while we had yet to see any of the drive in the daylight, perhaps it was better! Due to construction, the road was closed until evening. I wondered what a “construction zone” would look like. Given that a “normal” road was often impassable, how bad did the road actually have to be before it was fixed? Our initial wait was shorter than expected, however, as between the two countries there is a two hour and 15 minute time change. The entire country of PRC (People’s Republic of China) maintains only one time zone, though it spans enough miles east to west to warrant five. Many climbers simply remain on Nepal time when they come to Tibet. We decided to switch to “local” time. At six, we loaded up and headed out of town only we didn’t make it out of town. Somewhere down the road, large boulders had come crashing down into the road and so we would wait until they blew them up, or arranged a couple of Sherpa ladies to carry them off or something. No worries, playing dodge ball with bus crushing size rocks was not in my plan for the day! Once again, we turned on our ipods and tried to get comfortable in the van to wait it out. Somewhere late in the evening we finally rolled out of town.
This construction zone was more like a construction CITY. On the right the mountains towered above us, boulders, rock overhangs, and loose scree precariously perched, waited only for a nudge from gravity to flatten us. But, on the left side, wedged between the road and the cliff hundreds of blue-tarped hovels sat drenched in the rain. Peaking inside as we passed, we saw families living inside, cooking meals over small wood fires, sleeping on dirty mattresses, living life literally on the edge. We bounced our way through the mud and around large rocks. The mud road occasionally gave way to short stretches of pavement until finally about an hour into the ordeal, we hit permanent pavement and just before midnight, pulled into Nylaam and finally, into bed.
Stay tuned for part 3!!
To Your Adventures!