Traveling Overland through Tibet – Part one of two

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 8th, 2008. Updated on August 27th, 2010. Published in: Travel blog » Tibet.

Travel Journal Overview: And so I left Nepal for Tibet. The penultimate country that wasn’t a country anymore, according to some, on my overland journey. I was carrying a mixed bag of feelings around.  The following is part one of two entries involving a daily account. For those looking exact details and practical information on how to cross from Nepal into Tibet, then you should read my guide: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Tibet's remote mountain scenery (click to enlarge)

Tibet's remote mountain scenery (click to enlarge)

Saturday March 8th – Day one

The tour was going to be for 8 days. Like most tours the 8th day was actually where everyone leaves, and not part of the tour at all. So in actual fact we were going for 7 nights and 7 days across the highest road in the world. Still suffering from my last few nights in Kathmandu it took me a while to wake up on the overcrowded bus from Thamel to the border of Tibet. There were about 12 of us. 5 was what had been told to me at the agency. Large groups in my own experience were never good to travel with, and I just wondered how they would match up to the guest house group. It was better not to think of that I decided right off the bat. This was a new group heading into a new land. A fresh start.

Introductions over lunch had been minimal. All I knew was that there was an old Dutch guy, a large and quite tall Dutch guy, and a premature greying Australian mixed into a rather silent group. Our guide was surprisingly good. Informative and approachable, though that could have a lot to do with the fact that he was leaving us at the border for a local Tibetan guide to take over the tour.

The Friendship Bridge into Tibet was not exactly its name sake. After filling up various registration cards and thankfully not having to give blood as one form said for entry into the People’s Republic of China we crossed the traffic strewn bridge. The guide was correct about one thing. As I took my phone out to check for reception, and maybe try a quick illegal photo, a man in plain clothes came rushing up and waved my phone away. My first taste of Chinese law.

On the Tibetan side we waited for our new heavy set guide to round everyone up. Anil was better than I expected as well. He had a big smile and wore a stylish if a little outdated black leather coat. He smoked often and had rather sad worried looking eyes. He commanded a group of ramshackle drivers. A mix of cowboy hat wearing smokers and sleepy denim clad silent types. Only Anil seemed to speak English.

The biggest surprise was the condition of the 4×4 Jeeps that they had lined up for us. Battered old land rovers they were not! Brand spanking new Toyota Landcrusiers were all lined up the dirt border road. What’s more there would only be 4 in each Jeep, no overcrowding. The downside, there always is, was that another 12 people were joining our 8 day tour.

As Anil explained our itinerary no one noticed me moving my bags into a rather empty looking beige land cruiser at the rear of the vehicle queue. I suspected that after the instructions everyone would be making a bee line for the Jeeps nearest to them and causing a mass of squashed confusion. The big tall Dutch guy had similar ideas and upon seeing me load my backpack into the rear truck soon joined me. As he did, Anil finished and, the rush started. The majority of people headed to the Jeeps at the front, causing a bottle neck and giving me time to settle into the rear window seat on the right. I could have chosen the empty front, but figured on not drawing too much attention to myself having already scored an empty vehicle.

A tiny little Korean woman jumped in the back seat by the other window. Her only luggage was a small day pack and a rather large hard cover book written in Korean. With most of the Jeeps now full, and all 6’8 of the Dutchman, Stefan, in the front seat we looked on at the stragglers. A slender guy in his mid 20’s wearing a green sweatshirt headed our way. Not wanting to be pushed into the middle I hoped out and offered him the center seat. He had a strong French accent and body odor to match. Still, the windows were down.

No sooner had I closed the door than our sour looking driver started up the Jeep and our convoy of 6 Jeeps rumbled off into Tibet.

My neighbor, Quinnell, aside from the odor, was actually a good seat buddy. He was thin and with the tiny Korean beside him it meant I could spread out quite a bit myself. Imagining the Stefan’s large frame in the middle I decided it was a good thing to let him keep the front. I wasn’t sure if I liked our group so much as the more livelier people that had gotten into some of the other vehicles.

We were all very different. The driver spoke no English and preferred to play funky Chinese music on the stereo. The Korean Lady was more engrossed in the philosophy of life, and reading her book than about the trip. While Stefan and Quinnell were garnering a friendly chemistry in common interests relating to India. Having said that, I was quite too. My mind was fighting to stay in Tibet, but often times it wandered off to the conclusion of this journey and my time in Nepal.

Our first overnight stop was in Nylam, a small town that had a deserted air about it that seemed to follow on to every Tibetan town thoughtful the journey. We arrived at night there was little happening. We were bundled into two separate guest houses that were fairly rudimentary. Thin plywood partitioning and thin foam mattresses for all. Not to mention a single fairly overused squat toilet come shower room.

Some people headed out in search of food, never venturing off the main road we were on. I sat upstairs and watched Chinese television for the first time with two Slovenian girls. Mara and Natashka were full on for my dubbing of the Chinese movies they flicked through. It was late though, and it wasn’t long before I headed to bed.

Sunday March 9th – Day Two

Breakfast was seriously poor. Steamed bread and an egg. It seemed Tea was on rations too . It would also be the first morning when the Altitude Sickness would strike at us. Quinnell was in pain, and looked paler than anyone should. He was throwing up, and said his head hurt badly. A German lady took command arranged a impromptu meeting in the breakfast area. Tall, dark haired, bony framed and very commanding the German lady aggravated most of us immediately. She referred constantly to her experience as guide in Nepal, and her LP book with references to people dying of Altitude sickness.

She read an excerpt from some small medical book about the symptoms of Altitude sickness right before death. Quinnell looked on with sunken eyes from his seat next to me.

“Da guides are not trained professionals!” She exclaimed, “Dis man could be dying.”

Whether true or not, Quinnell was not amused at her bedside manner. “This lady has a mental problem?”

Stephan chuckled in reply, “Take it easy man. She was issues with everyone.”

Our guide Anil showed up, his permanent look of worry heighten my what he saw.

“And,” the German lady said pointing at Anil, “you guides need to decide. We turn back now, or we go on without the sick man?”

His eyes widening, Anil used his hands to motion calmness. “It is normal to experience headache for some people. We should move on. There is a good hospital in Lhatse. We go there next.”

“Dhat’s not in da guide book!” barked the German lady, and with that an agitated discussion broke out between the two.

Meanwhile Stefan urged Quinnell to head into the Jeep. Seeing my slight concern at his lack of care he turned to me and whispered. “It’s OK man. He was out drinking with the locals last night, that’s all.”

It seemed someone had picked up on Quinnell’s hangover as being altitude sickness. The rumour of truth quickly spread and soon we were all on our way again.

The Tibetan sky was about as blue as you could ever see. Not even the Nepalese trek produced a skyline so piercing in its perfection. The air was dry and calm. A cold wind blew steadily as we drove along the long winding well conditioned road. We were at about 3500m and would soon climb to over 5000m along one of the passes. There was no real sign of life once were outside the town areas. A herd of Yak’s would be the most of life we would see.

We ate at a predetermined roadside hotel. The groups were sticking to socializing and sitting with their Jeep companions. But we all did share a common realization. As we had climbed so steeply in altitude, we were all showing signs of Altitude Sickness. I thought my prolonged stay in Kathmandu would have helped. But I had a headache. A slow, ache that told me to stock up on water and swallow some paracetamol.

Desolately beautiful, if you can imagine such a thing. That was my feeling as I looked out at the mountain peaked landscape. It held a privileged feeling. Almost like the rare photographs from Mars, or from another far off planet. The vistas were not from everyday life. They ranked as almost being beyond the realm of normality. Something few people get to see in person. Yet there I was on the roof of the world looking out at it. And on frequent toilet stops leaving my mark.

Maybe it was the slight oxygen deprived light headedness or maybe it truly was the place. But it did feel somewhat surreal as we stopped to look out over Everest. Like my time at the Taj Mahal, it seemed almost dream like to actually put this wonder of a place form postcard form into reality. We were at 5050 meters and it truly felt like we were the only ones on earth.

Everest was one of three peaks along a wonderful ice capped ridge that stretched out before us. We were surrounded by prayer flags and isolation. No one or nothing could be seen nor heard. The cold wind was strong and blocked out all sounds. My head was pounding now and the blasted German ladies sermon on death in the mountains repeated itself.

We drove on in continued silence. Stefan was the only one not suffering from a headache as he bounced along to the tunes of our drivers repeating tape of funky Chinese music.

Lhatse accommodation was another dorm affair, however we did have working toilets though still no shower. In the evening the guest house broke out some local musicians and it got some of the Jeep groups together at last. At the helm were the two Slovenian girls.

Mara was seated next to me and was also curious about the group as a whole. To say she wasn’t gifted in the mammary section would not do me justice as a man. Her blue eyes and long lashes fluttered in conversation about travel and life. Natashka on the other hands was an attractive slender girl who seemed to take a more philosophical approach to everything. What was obvious is that they were out to enjoy their travel from every aspect. Two twenty something Australian lads also picked up on this and soon began wooing them with their own musical talent.

Monday March 10th – Day Three

Some headaches amongst the group began to pass. Mine did this in the morning, but by late afternoon it was always back. It wasn’t so bad as to have me saying I was ill, but it was enough to keep me quiet.

The spectacular and isolating views continued to surround us. Imagine if you would a constant colour scheme of dusty brown earth, majestic white mountain peaks and then a brilliant blue sky. It was almost dream like. Again the feeling of being oxygen deprived could have something to do with it. But on the whole it was something special we were passing through.

On one pit stop this changed. I went with Stefan and Quinnell to photograph a mountain top Yak farmer. We crunched over frozen tundra. Is it wasn’t below freezing I was sure it would have been marshland. In background was a picturesque snow covered mountain range with a brilliantly bright sun shining over us all. In the foreground was a tattered earthy dressed man herding his long haired yak’s. He saw us and waved. We stopped and took out our cameras. Within a minute we were surrounded by three boys, hands outstretched and all asking for money in return for the photo’s.

It was surreal to hear the touristic plea in such an isolated place. It sent me crashing back into reality. The boys persisted and blocked our camera’s from getting a good shot of the scene. Their English was perfect, if only for that one repeated sentence. “Money for Photograph, no money, no Photograph.”

Tradition also marked our day as we stopped along the friendship highway to watch as all our drivers got out and bought small packets of multicoloured confetti from a road side stall. They climbed the roadside embankment and threw the paper into the air where it caught the wind and fluttered high in a bright display. It was a good luck ritual and one that told us we were heading back into civilisation.

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from Tibet)

Stories: Surviving the Riots in Tibet

Stories: Watching the Chinese Army Move into Lhasa

Resources: All about getting a Tibet Permit / Visa

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

Tibet Travel Guide

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