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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

I'd like Tibet you've been waiting for this

CHINA | Thursday, 28 October 2010 | Views [1055]

5,250m away from sea level and still we're craning our necks to look at mountains another 3,000m up.  Welcome to the roof of the world.  We'd had tantalising glimpses of the high himalaya ever since arriving in Kathmandu valley, but the vistas on offer at the high passes north of the border are unmatchable.  That giant pass, the Ya Tola, was the best of all.  Ahead lay Everest, to the right Cho Oyu and every peak in sight over 8,000m high.  Each pass is festooned with prayer flag marking auspicious places, to grant good luck to all those who pass through and so the wind can take their blessings across the world.  The mountains are understood to be holy by the Tibetans and in the company of these colossi it's hard not to agree. 

Few words can describe the mountains, so have a good look at the pictures instead.  It felt wonderful up there, not even too hard to breathe, nor too cold, though the wind was pretty fierce.  The air was clean and pure and the desolation almost complete.  It never seemed to get boring, staring at the immutable mountains that changed colours like chameleons throughout the day.  We clicked and clicked till our batteries and our thumbs were exhausted.  We met a cyclist up there, he'd come all the way from Beijing and had crossed the 5,000km mark that day.  A stunning achievement and one sadly open really only to Chinese.  We'd met another couple of cyclists earlier, on the dwarflike Tong La, our first real pass at a mere 5,160m.  Bizarre.

It becomes hard to judge distances here, a lack of reference points deceiving the eye and shortening the vast spaces.  When we first spy Everest it looks like we're just a few km away, though in reality it's hundreds.  We excitedly crowd the edge of the bus eagerly trying to snap it, prompting our guide to calm us down as though we're kids, buying our peace with a promise to stop at a viewpoint.  She comes good on the promise a short while later and we get our first proper look at the planet's highest point.  It's still early, so the sun hasn't yet got high enough to illuminate the gargantuan rock.  Distinctively enshrouded in shadow, the mountain stands slightly apart from the others, aloof, even.  It's not the tallest looking, many others appear taller as they are much closer, but a quick borrow of binos reveals the jetstreams that only Everest can summon into being.

The usual scenery is akin to Iceland, barren expanses of seemingly nothingness with distant hills standing guard behind.  No trees live up here, just long, wide plains filling the valleys between more and more hills.  Of course, even these mere hills are taller than anything in Europe.  The Chinese have done a good job of filling the valleys with industry, solar panels have sprouted up everywhere in the absence of trees and there are electricity lines supplying every little town.  The roads are excellent, incomparable to those of India or Nepal.  With the odd exception where we have to ford rivers, every kilometre is smooth and easy.

Because we're so high up we have to be careful not to bang our heads on the sun, it's actually rather hot.  On the bus especially, there's a greenhouse effect but even outside its possible to wear a T-shirt and we even end up catchig the sun (you just have to reach west at sundown).  It feels quite silly to be putting on sunscreen when it's so cold, but the sun is really fierce and we burn in just 15 mins outside. On the other hand, it's very very cold at night, particularly in Nyalam, our first overnight.  The Tibetans don't seem to get the idea of central heating so it's about 4 degrees overnight in the room.  Our blankets are thick though, so apart from cold noses we're all toasty for breakfast.  No way is anyone using the cold shower though!  In the bigger cities the weather is like England in November, so not bad at all.  The mornings are colder because we use Beijing time, about two hours out from natural time.

Our final day of passes leads up to the Kharola glacier at a height of 5000m and also to the Tso-Yamdruk lake.  The former is a big agglomeration of ice, the second a spectacular carpet of blue between the tawny steps of the hills.  It also marks our goodbye to the true leviathans, from now on we'll see mere 5,000m peaks.  Before all this fun, though, a drama at the day's first viewpoint: Uncle Geert's camera slips from his shoulder.  He scrambles after it as it bounces helter-skelter towards the edge of the cliff and we all draw our breath as he fights to remain on top of the precipice.  Luckily he stops and comes back, but the camera continues it's descent right down.  Search parties are formed and SuperLucasz eventually climbs down far enough to sight the camera.  He returns with this news and descends with Geert, a length of wire and a big pole found by the guide.  Somehow, he manages to construct a rudimentary hook and lift the smashed camera back into Geert's hands whereupon the memory card and battery are found to be unscathed.  Yamdruk-Tso lake is a beautiful final scenic stop spot in Tibet.  It's shimmering with blue from a distance, icily crystal clear up close.  Lots of monks and laypeople are at the foot of the lake, taking photos and performing rites.  The beach of the lake is dotted with small stone stupas.  The sky at this point is blue as ever, with broad strokes of cloud liberally pasted across.  It's appropriately dramatic and te first time we've seen cloud in a long time.

There are 16 of us in the group, 4 Belgians, 2 Dutch, 2 Israelis, 2 Czechs, 2 Germans, 1 Spaniard, 1 Brazilian and us, the 2 Brits. We initially refer to each other by nationality, but as the days go by, we learn one another's names and form friendships. The visa restrictions mean that independent travel is impossible in Tibet, and we had a number of reservations about being on a tour bus. We made the initial journey from
kathmandu to the border in a jeep with Tobias and Claudia, from Munich, and when we all had to wait for 3 hrs in no mans land as the bus had been delayed behind us, our misgivings about organised tours grow significantly. But our group was wonderful - like us, people who wouldn't usually have chosen to do a tour, and we made a fun motley crew. After a long time of being a pair, it's nice to spend time in a group too.

We're disappointed to learn that the first Yaks we see are not actually yaks. They are Zos, female yaks who are the ones that produce the yak milk, yak cheese, yak butter and generally do all the work. Even more upsetting, the first one we see is stuck in a river where kids are throwing stones at it, and the next one is being chased by barkng dogs. Poor things get brought back from the grasslands twice a day, while the yaks only have to come back when there's ploughing or carrying to be done. So much for sacred animals! We do see some yaks eventually, giving some meaning to the endless yak puns.  Apart from the pay-yaks (10 Rupee for a photo!) at mountain passes and the odd zo hanging around near towns, there aren't many yaks close to the border, but after Gyantse the yaks are easier to spot, lots of semi-wild herds roaming about.  Still, it's not until we're on the train out that we see the immense herds we'd read about, hundreds of square animals eagerly pawing at the frozen earth to find something, anything, to eat.

Although buses are the lowest of the low in transport options, the trip through Tibet wasn't so bad.  It was a good-size bus and all the luggage fitted in the bottom.  It did get quite hot but it was never too uncomfortable and we could always move around easily or change position.  We were jumping off about once an hour anyway for toilet and viewing stops, so we never got dead legs or soforth.  The roads are superb - flat and fast.  The only time we have to deal with any bumpiness is to ford a river.  The Chinese roads also avoid switchbacks where possible and often circle round hills to climb.

See part two for culture and stuff


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