Getting There: From Maryland to Kathmandu to Lhasa
My only certified world travel experience in the 30 years prior to this trip was a visit to Epcot Center. The trip itself to Kathmandu was tediously long – a 14 hour moon shot to Seoul, then a 6 hour flight to Bangkok. The next day, a 3 hour flight to Kathmandu. By the time I landed in Nepal I had been on the road for 36 hours.
On the ride from the airport to the hotel in Kathmandu, I realized how unprepared I was. The traffic flow was organized chaos. I feel like I was living out a video game. Cars, bicycles, scooters and minibuses careened down roads. I honestly couldn’t tell which side of the road traffic was supposed to drive on in Nepal (did they follow the American or British convention?). In other words, I was having a fairly typical third world travel experience. When I finally arrived at my hotel I really did wonder “what the hell am I doing?”
Late in the afternoon I head out into the city on foot to start exploring. On foot, the traffic seems the same –chaotic, noisy, smelly. I walked past the Royal Palace.
This was ground zero for part of the “problem” as outlined in the US State Department travel advisory. The Maoists, at odds with the ruling monarchy, had taken control of large parts of rural Nepal. Walking from our hotel to the tourist area of Kathmandu (Thamel) involved passing under a machine gun emplacement by the walls surrounding the palace grounds which were located only a couple blocks from our hotel. At the main palace entrance there were a number of troops, in fatigues, carrying what appear to be M16s. The troops appeared to be about 16 years old. Again, the thought crossed my mind, why did I spend good money to come here?
I more or less successfully navigated Thamel, found dinner and then after dark, I started back to my hotel. Exciting discovery: there were no street lights! It was completely dark, lit only by the headlights of vehicles on the road. Remember that my wife has serious doubts about my navigational abilities in Maryland? In a minor miracle of urban route finding, I ended up back at my hotel. Next up for my trip? Meeting the rest of the team and catching a plane to Lhasa. When I met our lead guide the next day (an Australian), he jokingly declared that I was probably the only American in Nepal. At the time I considered that a most dubious distinction.
December, 1903 – August 1904
The Road to Lhasa
“…and British Intelligence, hypnotized by a fundamental illusion, built up in support of its validity on an elaborate dossier of clues from which the element of truth was almost wholly lacking, and to which plausibility was lent only by the sponsoring fallacies …”
(Bayonets to Lhasa, by Peter Fleming)
This quote is not from someone reflecting on the failed search for WMDs in Iraq at the start of the second Gulf War. Instead it refers to the intrigue surrounding British intentions in Tibet at the very beginning of the 20th Century, and the concern that Russian maneuvering in the same region threatened the British Empire in Asia, anchored by India. How did the British manage to find their way to Everest in 1921? The slopes of Everest form the border between Tibet and Nepal. At the beginning of the 20th Century, both were closed societies. We think of our world today as full of intrigue and danger, with global terror organizations, weapons of mass destruction, political maneuvering, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. But if we care to look, history teaches us that for all the complications inherent in our present situation, sometimes, very little seems to change.
The world at the beginning of the 20th Century was a complicated place and none more complicated than this region. Rumors abounded: Had Russian influence penetrated the forbidden city of Lhasa? Was there an armory in Lhasa filled with modern weapons stocked by a foreign power (Russia again). Had British intelligence officers been seized along the Tibetan border? When I read this, I thought “geez, this is basically Iraq and the search for WMDs all over again”. Ultimately, the British government made a decision, based on debatable intelligence (again, does this ring any bells?), and at the end of 1903, the British launched a military invasion of Tibet. Yes, the British invaded frickin’ Tibet. It was billed as a diplomatic mission with a military escort (I’m not making this up). They faced a country that expressly did not want foreigners on their soil but had little in the way of modern military equipment. The British had machine guns, artillery and multishot rifles. The Tibetans often had little more than swords and front-loading muskets. It was a gross mismatch. In one battle, at Guru, 600-700 Tibetans died and 200 were wounded (British casualties: 6 wounded). In another battle near Khang Ma, 200 Tibetans were killed, while 3 British troops were wounded.
Slowed primarily by the incredible altitude at which the war was fought (18,000 ft high passes) and by the brutal cold of a Tibetan winter, the British didn’t make it to Lhasa until the following summer but when they got there they extracted a treaty that was punitive in nature. I’ve read elsewhere that Francis Younghusband (the diplomatic attache for this mission) added certain additional elements to the treaty that included the right for Britain to send climbing expeditions to Everest via Tibet. But the documentation I’ve seen does not show this agreement as part of the treaty. Despite the invasion and the treaty, a series of events followed that led circuitously to a more positive relationship between Tibet and Britain. The most prominent of these being the British offering India as sanctuary to the 13th Dalai Lama when he was forced to flee his native Tibet in 1910 after the Chinese government “re-exerted” influence in this region (umm, does this sound familiar – the Dalai Lama and Free Tibet taking sanctuary in India from the Chinese? People – this is why everyone should study history)! This connection allowed the British to gain access to the Everest region for their climbing attempts in the 20s and 30s. The first goal seemed clear enough – figure out what route to take in order to get to the top and for this reason the 1921 British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition was launched.
I have to admit that learning this bit about how the British got a leg up on politics in Tibet in the early 20th Century and how this gave them the inside track on Everest climbing attempts was rather depressing. But, I hope you understand that reading all this stuff stoked in me a huge desire to see these places.
Kathmandu to Lhasa
It is 354 miles and a 70 minute flight to Lhasa, a far cry from what it took for the 1903/04 British Invasion force to go from the Sikkim/Tibet border, to Lhasa. Lhasa is at about 12,000 ft altitude so in a little over an hour we have gone up 8,000 ft. I’d now set a new personal altitude record – the first of many for this trip.
The Chinese military were clearly in charge at Immigration/Passport Control at the Lhasa airport. I or my luggage matched some sort of profile because I was pulled aside to be checked more thoroughly by a member of the People’s Liberation Army.
At this point, I started to worry. Just before the trip I had gotten turned on to Eliot Pattison’s novels. They are set in Tibet and the protagonist is Shan Tao Yun, a former (and now disenchanted) Beijing detective. Shan Tao Yun was described to me as sort of a Chinese Arkady Renko, or perhaps Harry Bosch. The books are great. They are all set in modern day Tibet and have a lot to say about Tibetan and Buddhist culture. Here was my problem: the books are rabidly anti-government (Chinese). I’m sure that Pattison is persona non grata in Tibet. But I stupidly brought a copy of “Bone Mountain” with me. Somehow the PLA immigration official missed that book in my pile. Instead, he gave John Feinstein’s “A Good Walk Spoiled” a careful examination before I was told that I was free to go. Earlier this year I thought about my brush with the PLA after reading what befell Otto Warmbier, the UVA student, who was arrested this year in North Korea for doing something stupid while on a tour.
So, I had managed to escape the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, get to Lhasa, set a personal altitude record (Lhasa sits at 12,000 ft) and avoid imprisonment in a Chinese labor camp. At this point I think I had been away from Maryland for approximately 4 days.
(to be continued)