Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On to Everest

I made the mistake of waking up too early. The Shigatse hotel turned on the hot water an hour AFTER I showered. Sigh.

We left the tired old hotel—which had rooms left yesterday since it was about to be renovated—after breakfast, which was a unique experience. Breakfast was included, so I dutifully traipsed into the huge, dilapidated hotel dining room at 7:30, where I learned that the meal was buffet-style and all eastern—that is, soup, noodles, vegetables. I didn't have high expectations here so I found a bun, ordered some instant coffee, and went to sit down.

A waitperson noticed me and motioned me over to a small table by the kitchen.

I was sitting there, nibbling my bun and waiting on my coffee, when an array of foods was presented to me.

Suddenly, the waitress brought me a fried egg. Oh. I ate it, amused by this new treat.

Then, I was presented with a few fried potatoes. I ate those too.

And finally, some toast materialized on my table.

So sweet, these hotel staffers. They wanted to bring me a western breakfast. They just couldn't get it together to do it all at once.

At nine, my driver had hurried into the lobby to grab my bag while I retrieved my key deposit, and then my guide opened the 4x4 door for me, as usual.

"Today the distance we will drive isn't that far, just 340 kilometers, but the hours are long since the road is bad," Rinchin announced. "And the weather is not looking good." He motioned at the cloudy sky.

Cloudy skies don't make for the best north face of Everest viewing conditions.

"It's okay." I tried to keep my expectations low. "I saw it before one time, many years ago." In 1998, when I'd last been in Kathmandu, I'd reasoned that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and taken a small sightseeing fly up to see Everest. It had been disappointing, like seeing it on TV, but if today's weather wasn't going to let me see Mt. Everest, there wasn't anything I could do to change that.

We drove south alongside craggy cliffs, past spectacular mountains surrounding plains. We stopped first at a petrol station, where the driver rocked the 4x4 back and forth to make the petrol settle in better (or something), and then went to a rest stop which had a solar stove heating tea water and a "5000 km from Shanghai" marker.

"The toilets here are very bad," explained Rinchin. "We can find a bush-toilet later."

I took his word for it, given the vomit-inducing condition of the toilets he'd thought were good earlier in the trip.

A brand-new, modern playground was next to the rest stop. This is part of the dilemma of today's Tibet. It's an ancient religious culture, which millions of Chinese tourists want to see. But it's also full of newly built infrastructure, as China is pouring money into its reluctant region. And who can argue with improvements like playgrounds, anti-smoking campaigns, and recycling programs? But the cost of the improvements is high, as the culture everyone has come to see is adulterated and secularized into a kind of Tibet ™ Theme Park while the locals seem to shake their heads and disapprove. What, I wondered, as surely every Tibetan and tourist to Tibet must have wondered at some point, would have happened if China had not invaded Tibet?

And did 5.8 million tourists count as a more modern type of invasion? Again, should I even be here?

Of the 5.8 million, only 9 were here at this small Tibetan rest stop. Me and two 4x4s of Chinese independent travelers. They wandered around with their Canons, in their fake North Face fleeces, and I recognized one of the cars from when it had been parked by the roadside earlier, its occupants snapping photos of cows and sheep (it's hard for me to imagine being from an area so urban that you've never seen cows, but I'm sure we have this in the US too). We all took photos of each other in front of the 5000 km marker, and then headed on first to a mountain pass covered in rippling prayer flags, then to an Everest viewpoint where nothing but bleak clouds over a pale green plain could be seen, then to the lunch stop, where we ran into each other again at New Tingri.

We were really rural now, and the town looked like what the guidebook had described—a glorified truck stop—but we had to stop here so that I could purchase my national park admission pass for 180 yuan. The restaurant was crowded, small, and filthy. We all ate rice and veggies and drank jasmine tea.

After lunch, we got to the Everest turn-off. There was a convenient crevice along the road here, a perfect bush-toilet. And then we rattled up the mountain switchbacks along a dirt road, eventually hitting a shortcut.

"The driver said this will save us a lot of time." My guide didn't sound so sure. "It's the old road."

"It's okay if he just follows the new road," I said, but too late. We were lurching through creek beds and mud pits. I suspect the driver was just bored and wanted to use his 4WD.

Two hours or so after leaving the main road, we pulled into the Rongphu Monastery Guesthouse.

"We can stay at the souvenir sellers tents by base camp if you want," said Rinchin. "But this is much nicer. At the tents, you all sleep in a room together and the toilets are disgusting, and sometimes there are bedbugs."

"Here is fine." The word "bedbugs" is enough to keep me far away from any accommodation.

"Fine" is an exaggeration, but if this was the best on offer, I wasn't interested in the worst. The drop toilets out back smelled so bad that I couldn't bear to go in, preferring to kneel behind them in the yard. We weren't here that long and I wasn't likely to eat much here, so this wasn't a problem.

We were each given a Thermos of hot water and a key to a room. The rooms were clean and had several blankets. Electricity went on at night for a few hours, though I couldn't figure out how to turn it off. The area was chilly—there was nothing to do but sit around the fire in the restaurant, while the guides and drivers played cards together.

"Do you want to go to base camp?" I could see that Rinchin did not want to go out in the rain to where we were unlikely to see anything. I could see his point.

"Yes. We're all the way here."

"There is nothing there."

"I know."

The driver took us down the road in the drizzle for a few kilometers to a tent-village. No climbers were here—it's the wrong season. We boarded the sightseeing bus for the last few miles to the viewpoint, where I had to show my passport to a Chinese soldier.

I was surprised at my inability to climb a small hill without panting, wondering if I might die, and feeling utterly weak.

And there was indeed, nothing to see. Nothing but rain, gray, clouds, and prayer flags.

Everest, you taunt me.

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