What A Schlep! Getting to Tibet Part 3

This is part 3 in a series of articles I wrote on the experience of getting from Kathmandu to Advanced Base Camp of the mountain Cho Oyu in Southern Tibet.  Climbing the mountain was the objective of course, but the story of the journey to the base of the mountain reminds us to enjoy the “journey” of life and not be only focused on the end goal.  If you missed the first two parts, be sure to read them first.

Part One
Part Two

Nylaam, in southern Tibet, is a one road town with a very militaristic feel.  Entering off the main roadway, you first spot a sterile, cement prison lined with razor wire and no one in sight.  Up the road, small variety shops line the street blaring Chinese music and offering everything from candy to plastic toys.  Store proprietors often quietly asking did we have any US dollars to sell.  The butcher sits outside his shop on the ground with a hind end of a frozen pig, his machete in hand, chopping off hunks of flesh.  Dogs and cows pick through a large trash heap a couple of doors away.  A businessman strolling down the street one his way to work, looks disgustedly at them and tosses his Diet Coke can at the starving, emaciated canines. If his life were happier, he wouldn’t need to torment others.

We take all this in as we make our way to the restaurant across the street from the hotel in search of hot tea.  The night before, we had arrived in the dark and were taken to various hotels along the avenue.  As the only female in the group of climbers, they had thoughtfully given Ridlon and I a private room while the others slept in noisy dormers holding six to eight single beds.  Our spartan room had two single beds and a small table between them. There was one large window, which actually opened up INTO the ladies bathroom.  Figuring it never hurt to ask, we inquired after a room with a window to the outside and they happily switched us to a room with a view of the street.  Bedding is rarely changed in most hotels in Tibet so we opted for our down sleeping bags and liners.

Tibet is a fascinating country, the people warm and friendly, the scenery has no equal.  Yet, life is hard and sanitation practically non-existent.  So while it may have seemed snobby to constantly reach for the hand sanitizer, it was actually self preservation.  In six weeks time, we zipped through three bottles of the disinfectant.  The alcohol drying our hands with the consequence of constant ripped and bleeding cuticles.  It was better than the alternative.

We were very careful with what we ate, never used the chopsticks unless they came in plastic wrap and never drank any water that was not boiled first.  It was a ritual to fill our water bottles with boiling water in the evening and let them cool in the night air.  Even so, it was common to find weird things floating in the water.  Hotels did not have private baths or sinks so hot water was provided in a large thermos.  You then poured the hot water into large basins lined on racks at a communal washing sink.  BYO towels! Toilets were of the “squat” variety and I felt my thigh muscles noticeably stronger after weeks of this necessary practice.  A large tub of water and ladle served as the flushing mechanism.  BYO toilet paper! Showers were non existent in our hotels.  Sponge baths were the norm and once a week or so on a warm enough day, I poured hot water over my head with a drop of shampoo to keep my hair clean.  Due to our strict regiment, years of keeping our bodies strong with supplements, and probably a bit of luck, we remained free of the digestive ailments that hobbled at least 75% of our team at one time or another.

12,000 feet would be the lowest elevation the team would see for the next five weeks so it was critical to help our bodies slowly adapt.  We were cautioned to do everything slowly, and hydrate like maniacs.  Of course, the more hydration, the more time on the bathroom thigh-master!  By the end of the week my thighs felt that they had already hit the summit of the big Mt. E!

While rest was extremely important to the acclimation process so was the right amount of exercise since we would soon be climbing thousands of feet above this elevation.  We took our first trek up the mountain near town.  It was a steep hike with about 1500 feet of elevation gain.  Slowly slowly we kept telling each other.  The idea was to get to the top and get used to 12,000 feet but not to get into a race. Bear in mind here, that I am climbing with a bunch of boys and this was their first opportunity to flex their muscles for each other…oh boy! It’s one thing to climb to 13,500 one day and then come back home to lower elevations.  It’s quite another to sustain yourself here and then continue higher for six more weeks.  We had to now be very careful and meticulous in our actions.  The view from the top was spectacular but nothing compared to what was to come.  At lunch, later in the day back in Nylaam, I had my last beer.  Most of the guys were still able to slug down the monstrous bottles of Lhasa brew (containing enough formaldehyde to pickle you!) but after a few sips I knew that my drinking days were done for anything at or above this elevation. We were now 2,000 feet above the highest mountain peak in the range where I lived in Montana.  This was beginning to get serious.

After two days in Nylaam, we were ready to continue towards the mountain and to higher elevations.  Tingri was our next stop at 14,000 feet up on the Tibetan Plateau.  This plateau is thought to be the largest and highest place that has ever existed on Earth, covering an area larger than the lower forty eight states with an average elevation over 16,000 feet.  It is a massive expanse of treeless beauty and rolling hills flanked by towering snow-capped patriarchs.  We passed small agricultural villages dotting the countryside along the way.  We began to see yaks, the preferred beast of burden at this elevation (they can’t live at low elevations) and simple people working the land, many of them growing ne, a type of barley from which a staple food called tsampa is made.  The road to Tingri was excellent and recently paved.  It seemed juxtaposed to be on this lovely highway watching the harvest of the ne with hand tools, boiling my water and carrying my own TP.

The town of Tingri itself was an anomaly.  It was reminiscent of an 1800’s wild west town, one road stretched out across the plateau.  The street gutters were full to the brim with trash, cans of knock off Chinese Red Bull and plastic wrappers of every sort.  While it created a definite eye-sore for the town during the day, it was a warm mattress on which to lay for the hundreds of dogs that roamed the village.  Most of the pups were Tibetan mastiffs, a beautiful and ancient breed of the country resembling a bit of a mix of rotweiller and shepard.  They either wandered in packs looking for handouts or lay quietly on the thrones of trash or out of the wind in the gutter.  My heart ached and I wanted to bring them all home.

The dogs of Tingri

Red Bull knock off in Tingri

One of the great oddities of Tingri were the motorcycles.  They were parked everywhere.  The men of Tingri had great pride in these bikes that were painted with bright colors.  Groups of men sat outside the shops in the dirt admiring the bikes and obviously doing their best to outdo each other in the outlandishness of their rides.

Tibet plateau Tingri

The colorful motorcycles of Tingri, Tibet

The buildings were basic cement block whitewashed with colorfully painted gables.  Each building along the main street resembled the next, giving the town a look of false organization.  Every roof had a small stack of emergency firewood on it, trees being something rare here on the open plateau.  Most cooking was done by solar cookers or yak dung stoves.

Our hotel was built in the same style as the rest of the town and reminded us of the motor lodges of the 1950’s.  Each room was a cement cell large enough for two single beds and a plastic trash can.  The walls and ceiling were covered in bright colorful cloth to cover up the drab cement walls and floor.  As was the norm, no water, no towels, a hole in the ground commode across the parking lot and bedding that had not been changed in at least a year’s time rounded out the amenities of the Everest View Hotel (no view of Everest in sight!).  We threw our packs in the corner, pulled out our down bags and declared ourselves home.

Everest View Hotel - No view of Everest in sight!

Lucky room 13!

0 Star luxury in Tingri Tibet

(Check out this hilarious video for the inside scoop on this hotel, Everest View Hotel Tour)

Other climbers arrived and we found ourselves among a unique tribe of people, an international assortment of adventurers who’s dream was to stand on the summits of the great peaks of the world, or die trying.  As we spent the next two days acclimating to our new elevation, we began to make friends from Norway, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal and a myriad of other countries.  Tingri was a melting pot of fascinating explorers.  My recently acquired Spanish friend, and I took turns stealing food from the restaurant to feed our new found dog friend, I affectionately called LBD (little black dog).

As per the Chinese government, we ate all of our meals in the hotel’s restaurant, we came to call the deja vu cafe.  The food was actually not bad, all chinese dishes but every meal was exactly the same, over and over and over.  LBD didn’t seem to mind however, as she feasted for two days on rice, vegetables and finely sliced and stir fried yak.  No, yak does not taste like chicken but closely resembles beef.

One morning, Ridlon and I hiked about 20 minutes out of town and up to a poignant memorial.  It is a beautiful stone wall dedicated to those who dared to dream of standing on the roof of the world but perished in the attempt to climb Mt. Everest.  It is a sobering reminder of the uncertainty of life and the seriousness of the climb ahead.  We each took it in, in our own way and then quietly we walked back down.

At the bottom of the road I was pulled out of my deep thoughts by a piercing scream.  It sounded very much like a dog in trouble.  We rounded the corner and stopped short.  In front of us were five children, not a single one over the age of six.  One of the young boys had the leash of a dog in his hand and was holding it with all his might as the dog tried to back out of the collar and break free.  In a game of what looked like fun, the children were laughing and hurtling rocks at close range at the dog.  The pup, unable to escape yelped and yelped in pain.  I was stunned and mortified that the children could be so callous.  There have been many instances in my travels where I’ve kept quiet in situations because of cultural mores and traditions but that would not fly now.  This was nothing but raw cruelty.

I let loose my own banshee scream and ran like a woman possessed straight down the hill and directly towards the kids.  Startled, they dropped everything they were doing and the dog high-tailed it.  I knew they couldn’t understand my English as I ranted on and on about the poor dog, but my intention was crystal clear.  Unfortunately the children did not seem fazed at all by my actions. Within minutes of my arrival in their faces, they saw opportunity and began to ask for a handout.  Disgusted, I turned on my heel and marched off.

We went back to the hotel and gathered some food and returned to the scene of the crime.  Our intention was to find the dog, feed him and let him know that he was loved.  It took quite a bit of time for the frightened animal to have enough trust to come and take the food from us.  The children returned, pawing at us and asking for candy.  At that time, I felt no sympathy except for the dogs.  We turned to go, walking through a rocky field.  On the way, we passed a young man who smiled and waved.  There were many dogs sprawled out in the field.  One, apparently was in his way so he bent over, picked up a small rock and pelted the dog on the backside to move him along.  It was then I realized the children were only mimicking the actions of the adults around them.  Why is it that instead of caring more about those who have less or who can’t help themselves, we take out our own miseries on them?

To Your Adventures!

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