To get to Mount Everest from Tibet, you need two things. First is an entry permit into Tibet itself. This permit lists the cities you will visit, in order. Second is a permit to visit base camp. Without that permit, you can't even get close. And the process is different if you're a Chinese national vs. an American.
So the morning of our second day in Lhasa, Dan and I were casually conversing with our tour guide, a very nice Tibetan guy, and he happened to mention that we were to get our Everest permits in Shigatse the following day. I'd known that would happen for awhile, so that was fine. Our Chinese compatriot, however, could not -- she would need to get her permit in Lhasa. This development caused me a small amount of stress, since this information was new to me, and we hadn't planned for it in our day's schedule, and, well, I just had no idea how long this would take. On top of that, I was worried by the way our guide just casually mentioned it. I like to have these kinds of things planned up front and don't like the appearance of oh-by-the-way-you-might-not-be-able-to-get-into-Everest in situations like these :-)
Anyway, we got her permit just fine and continued on with our day. It turns out it didn't take very long, but again, the diminished confidence in our travel agency (and morning rush) was unwelcome. That might be part of what led to my somewhat crappy day that day, as I talked about in my last post.
The next day, we drove to Shigatse and arrived there about 45 minutes before the permitting place closed for the day. We sacked out in our hotel and our tour guide went to get our Everest permits. After about an hour of waiting, I called our guide and asked him about the permits. His English isn't the best, but I was definitely able to understand that the answer was "no". However the signal quality wasn't great and I was having trouble understanding him, so I asked him to come back to the hotel. In the meantime I met up with my 3 companions and we began eating dinner in the Nepalese/Indian restaurant attached to the hotel (mmm, yak and potato curry!).
Our guide still hadn't showed up after about an hour, so I called him again, and he said he was on his way. He arrived along with our driver and began explaining the situation. The problem was this: our travel agency had forgotten to put "Mt. Everest Base Camp" as a destination on our permit. (Remember how I said that the permit lists the cities you'll visit?) So the agency in Shigatse was like "We can't give you an Everest permit; your Tibet permit doesn't say you can get an Everest permit." Talk about frustrating! Here we are, 400 km from Lhasa, tired after 7 hours of driving, some of us sick from the altitude (I'll cover that in a separate post), and looking forward to Everest -- only to be told we can't go!!
To his credit, the guide acted very quickly. He called the travel agency (which is based in Lhasa, a situaiton that actually worked to our advantage during this whole permit hoo-hah) and arranged for them to fax an updated permit to the Shigatse agency. This, he assured us, would enable us to get our permits the following morning.
I was pretty upset at this development and called the woman who'd arranged our tour, Christina. I told her we were not happy at being made to wait around in Shigatse with so much uncertainty because someone at her agency forgot to put an important destination on an important document. I thanked her and the guide for working so quickly to correct the problem, but you know, even so.
Anyway this setback resulted in about 2 extra hours of waiting around the hotel lobby on the next morning while our guide and driver went to the Shigatse permit place and talked with them. He came back smiling and waving the permits. We were all good!
Out of Shigatse we traveled along the Friendship Highway. We passed the point, marked with a nice sign, that is 5000 km (3,106 miles) from Shanghai's People Square. We ate lunch in Lhatse and made another permit-related (and bathroom-related, although that was difficult given the lack of "bathrooms" in the town) stop in Shegar. A few km out of Shegar, we turned off the Friendship Highway (which is blessedly paved) onto a 100km dirt road that leads straight to Everest.
Here we started meeting permit checkpoints with increasing frequency. Starting from the beginning of the road, I think we went through four checkpoints to actually get to Base Camp. Some of the checkpoints were just dudes in tents, dressed in camo, blocking the road with a length of pole on a fulcrum and weighted down on the other end with a rock. Keep in mind this is a pretty damn remote area, as the pictures will show.
Anyway the 100 km road is, like I said, all dirt. (Which is why, if you go to Tibet and Everest, be sure to obtain a 4WD vehicle. Land Cruisers are popular.) And the first half of it is up and down a mountain, so again, lots of hairpin zigzag turns that are not a lot of fun given the fact that you've probably got a headache -- an increasingly painful one given that you ascend a mountain, descend it, drive through a valley, and then ascend even higher up to Everest Base Camp all in the span of 2 - 2.5 hours.
Finally we arrived at the Rongbuk Monastery area and encountered another checkpoint. This time, instead of one dude in a tent, it was like eight dudes in 5 tents, one big one and four single-person ones clustered around it. We made a pit stop here before continuing on, in no small part because it was our first chance to really SEE Everest. The monastery is in a valley and you can see clear through to the peak at other end.
Clouds were obscuring the peak at the time, but I was so thrilled to see our goal in sight that I snapped a bunch of pictures anyway. It turns out that I didn't need to be so hasty though, because we had yet another permit snafu. (This is the third one, if you're counting.) Remember how we were almost denied in Shigatse, but finally got the travel agency to fax us a new permit in order to obtain the Everest permit? Yeah, well, at this point in our travels we got stopped because our Everest permit did not match our original Tibet permit. Someone forgot to tell these guys that we were allowed on through!
We waited and waited, stuck inside the Land Cruiser outside the checkpoint tent, freezing cold (it was about 7:30 PM now, the sun was going down) and dealing with headaches and being generally frustrated that we were SO CLOSE to our goal but were stopped by yet another travel agency screw-up.
What I thought would be a quick five-minute discussion turned out to be about a two-hour wait. We watched our travel guide and driver disappear into the tent to talk to people, re-emerge on cell phones, vanish again, and so on. We had no idea what was happening or what our status was. When our driver came back to the truck to get a cigarette, he told us the chances of us gaining entry weren't looking good.
At some point I got outside the truck and went to the bathroom in a nearby port-o-pot. By this point we'd been waiting for like an hour and a half. On my way back, instead of getting inside the truck, I put on my gloves, pulled up my hood, and stood outside the checkpoint tent. I didn't say anything; I just stood there shivering in the cold. I just wanted these checkpoint people to know that we were damn serious about going to Everest. I wanted them to see it on my face and see the determination I had just to stand there in the cold, outside the tent, listening to them decide our fates. More than that I wanted to remind them that the people they were talking about were here, waiting and listening, in the flesh, not just abstract concepts. I wanted to present them with the consequences of their decisions full-on.
Whether or not any of these high-minded ideals had any effect on the ultimate decision is, of course, something I will never know. But the fact remains that after I'd been out there for 10 minutes, a police car pulled up and a guy got out who was obviously in charge, because he began talking directly and forcefully to our guide. He spoke too quickly for me to understand much of anything. Then he went inside the tent, and our guide came out again, on his cell phone. The driver was with him, so I asked him how things were going.
I used Chinese because 1) our driver doesn't understand English and 2) I wanted the boss-guy (老板 or laoban) to see that this lao wai wasn't a doofus and could speak some Chinese. I thought about addressing and appealing to the laoban directly, but I decided against it. These were military people, and in the extremely hierarchical Chinese culture no less. Better to speak only when spoken to. Plus, my Chinese isn't that good.
Add to this now that the sun is setting over Everest, which is BEAUTIFUL, but my friends in the car are distraught that the clouds still are covering the peak. Every so often the clouds will waft a certain way and we'll catch a glimpse of the peak; someone will shout "PEAK! PEAK!!" and you'll hear cameras clicking for a minute. I tried my best to act dignified in front of the laoban and the other army guys, but then I was like, well, what if THIS is the closest we get?? So I broke out my camera and started snapping away. Then the sun hit the peak and the peak glowed orange and we all oohed and aahed.
You would too, trust me.
Anyway the laoban heard me speak and said to me what most Chinese people say when they hear me speak (*dusts knuckles on shirt*) which is something along the lines of "Your Chinese is very good!" He even said "Very good!" in English. So I thanked him, told him I was American (although he no doubt knew that from looking at our permits) and that I'd been living in Shanghai for nine months. I made some chit-chat about the weather too; he agreed it was too cloudy and said that yesterday it had been better. (And in my mind I said something along the lines of "Thanks for the information, dickhead.")
Again -- I make no claims as to whether any of this had an effect on us getting past the checkpoint. I never found out the reason everything got cleared up, nor do I much care :-) But we'd been waiting there for two hours and I was desperate. And after chatting with the laoban for a minute, he said something and the party began to break up and everyone began to disperse. This time when I asked our driver: "Keyi fang ma?" Can we enter? He smiled and said "Keyi."
Yes. We could go to base camp.
By that time it was around 9 or 9:30 PM and dark. We drove about half a mile stumbled out of the Land Cruiser. We'd arrived at, well, I'll call it Tent City. It's the floor of a valley just a short ways from Everest in which many entrepreneurs have set up tent hotels. Each tent fits 5 - 6 people comfortably, has enough room for someone like me to stand, walk, and move around comfortably, is amazingly decorated with rugs and paintings, and comes equipped with numerous blankets and pillows, a fire, a stove over said fire, and a dedicated staff to serve you all kinds of food and drink, anything from instant noodles and root beer to fried rice and stew with sheep's meat. It was about the size of the living room at my parents' house. By gum, we're roughin' it now!!
Dan and I entered the place and were in heaven. After the two-hour wait we just endured, any freakin' thing short of an Iron Maiden would have been a great place to sleep, but luckily this place was way nicer than that :-) We flopped down on the quilt-covered benches while the others piled on in.
We spent the rest of the evening eating fresh-cooked dinner, drinking DELICIOUS sweet tea, and hopping outside to try and take long-exposure pictures of the stars, which were twinkling in the night sky. Unfortunately the pics didn't come out all THAT well, but it was fun nonetheless to explain my tripod and some of the camera settings (shutter speed, aperture size, etc.) to the tour guide in the dark. I put on my hat, gloves, one of my wool sweaters, and two fleece jackets.
I don't know when we went to bed, but it must have been around 11 or midnight or so. The hotel "staff" swaddled us all in blankets and LITERALLY tucked us in. That was great. I had a real tough time sleeping that night. Consider two things: 1) it's below freezing in the tent (the fire had gone out) and 2) you're 17,000 feet above sea level. I slept for about an hour or so but then I snapped awake and couldn't get back to sleep. I had trouble slowing down my breathing enough for sleep to come. It was very irritating, lying there in the dark, not even tired, bored out of my mind, and breathing somewhat shallowly. I mean, I was comfortable, warm even, I just couldn't sleep.
Others of our group were not so lucky. In the middle of the night, some of us had trouble breathing due to the aforementioned cold and altitude. It didn't sound serious, but you know, that's a scary feeling especially when you're so far away from home :-) So a little before 4 AM we all got up and made a big to-do about relighting the fire, clearing the smoke out (we'd forgotten to cover the stove w/the metal pot), gathering firewood out back where it was stored, etc. I think we were up for close to an hour. It was fun in a camaraderie-like way, although I wasn't the one having trouble breathing, so don't take my word for it :-)
All told I probably got about two hours of unconnected, very shallow sleep. Which sucked, but in the morning, I didn't care, because we saw the sun peek and rise over Mount Everest around 7:30 / 8 AM (the sun rises late in these parts). And it was just fucking gorgeous. Crystal-clear weather. Headache be damned, I scrambled around on the rocky floor of the valley taking picture after picture (after picture after picture). It hurt but it was worth it.
After awhile I noticed that my toes were hurting. They were freezing! I started getting mildly worried about frostbite, a distinct possibility (or so I imagined; I don't really know). It was comforting that my toes hurt; that meant I could feel them and thus they were still receiving blood. Still, for about 30 solid minutes, those little piggies went all the way home. I wiggled my toes for dear life, and this was after I stepped inside the tent, ate a nice breakfast of fried rice & eggs, added two layers of wool socks, and set my feet up near the fire. In fact I set my feet so close to the fire that I accidentally cooked my shoes for a little bit :-)
Some of our troupe were still not having the best time. The cold and altitude don't just go away, you know, especially if you haven't had much sleep. They were sick. One threw up outside the tent. Luckily all I had was a splitting headache that throbbed every time I moved, and some formerly-frozen-but-now-warm toes. I could deal with those ailments just fine.
About 10:30 AM we motored on up to base camp. The sick members of our troupe had to be convinced, because they were feeling extra-shitty. But it's like, you know, I know you're not comfortable and you're sick and whatnot. And I respect if you want to not sit in a car for the 10-minute drive to base camp. You can get great views of Everest down in the valley. But this is what we came all the way here for!!C'mon guys!! You're not really thinking about NOT going to base camp are you?!? Okay I didn't put it like that, they didn't need THAT much convincing, but still :-)
Anyway we drove up to base camp and passed through one FINAL checkpoint. I was sweating bullets that we were going to have yet MORE permit problems, but luckily those fears were unfounded, and we were waved on through. I was underwhelmed by the area. There's like 4 - 5 low-slung, garage-type buildings where I guess the Chinese guards there live, and a couple tents too. There's also a sign commemorating the place.
But when you walk over the small hill in the distance, you see frigging BASE CAMP. All it is is a vast expanse of rocky ground on which expeditions make, well, camp. There's no need for permanent structures because the expeditions bring everything with them up the mountain. And beyond base camp is, well, the peak. Again, the weather was gorgeous. Clear unobstructed view. And you're at the foot of the tallest mountain in the world.
I'll shut up now and let you see what I saw.
Nothing else much really matters after that. We chatted with some cyclists who'd rode there from Lhasa (talk about insane). I called my parents and said hello, and then we left, went back to the tent to pick up our belongings, and started the long, terrible drive back to Shigatse.