The Road to Shigatse
4 Days in Lhasa
Here was the plan: we had 4 days to get used to the 12,000 ft altitude of Lhasa before we moved on to the Everest region, where the altitude would get progressively higher and the air thinner. Before leaving Kathmandu, our guide had us watch a video on altitude sickness. The video showed people in various stages of distress around the Everest region who had either not properly acclimated or had just plain ignored milder symptoms and pressed on instead of turning back. Where we were headed, at Everest Advanced Base Camp, the amount of oxygen was less than 50% of what is available at sea level. From the time we arrived in Lhasa, till the time we started the trek proper in the Everest region, we would take a total of 8 days, gradually moving higher and getting adjusted to the reduced oxygen. Our guide’s main suggestion on this topic was “Do not try to go faster than the sherpas because: a) you will lose and b) you will get sick.” It sounded like reasonable advice to me.
While in Lhasa we saw some amazing things. At the heart of the Barkhor, the old city
market, is the Jokhang Temple – a Buddhist shrine built in the 7th century AD. In the morning, the Jokhang is shrouded in juniper incense burning in large urns outside the entrance. Buddhist pilgrims and monks are everywhere. People walk around the square outside the temple, prayer beads in hand, humming mantras. Others are completing the “Kora” a circumnavigation of the entire exterior of the Temple, turning prayer wheels that line the walls as they go. I saw men wearing leather aprons and what appeared to be wooden blocks on their hands. They walked several feet, threw themselves down on the stone path around the temple, paused to say a prayer, then arose and repeated the process. Westerners were still a curiosity. As I walked the Kora, a monk stopped me, fascinated by my beard and the hair on my arms. He picked at the hair on my arms, as if to make sure that it was real, exclaimed something in great delight to his friends and then moved on. I just stood there for a moment, somewhat taken aback.
While still in Lhasa we started doing some day hikes to further our acclimatization. One destination was the Sera Tse – a sort of satellite monastery dedicated to serious meditation perched up high on a mountain overlooking both Lhasa and the main Sera Monastery. As we started up towards Sera Tse, I quickly got short of breath. It was an odd experience. At high altitude, all the cues around me seemed the same as with the hikes I had gone on in Maryland and Virginia in preparation for this trip. The one difference was invisible – the thinness of the air. But, your body tells you immediately that the air is thin even if your eyes can’t. Not surprisingly, Sera Tse was quiet. All I met was a single cat.
As I approached the ridge line near Sera Tse I saw what appear to be vultures circling high above it. I started to worry a bit. Buddhists practice a number of different burial rituals. Internment in the ground is uncommon, perhaps understandable given the rocky nature of the soil. Cremation is practiced, but there is also “Sky Burial”. The bodies are specially prepared, sometimes dismembered in particular ways, and then laid out on the mountainside. Vultures come and pick the bones clean, completing a kind of spiritual recycling process. I had inquired about sky burials before arriving in Tibet and was told that they are strictly off limits to westerners and I should avoid them out of respect. Now, with vultures circling over head in the distance, I feared that I might be unwittingly walking into such a ceremony. I approached with some hesitation and found the ridge empty but came upon a series of flattened, circular areas carved out of the ridge, lined with stones. If these were on the Appalachian Trail, I would have said – “oh, look, a campsite”. But, this wasn’t the AT and these were not campsites and I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. I dropped my pack a discrete distance away and enjoyed the view. It was spectacular.
British Reconnaissance Expedition
May – June, 1921
Darjeeling to Tingri
“It was a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world”
(George Mallory, upon glimpsing Everest from Kampa Dzong, 1921)
(The above might be the best working example of turgid prose I have ever encountered)
The British climbing expeditions of the 20s and 30s began with an arduous ocean voyage to India, then by train to Darjeeling. And from there they walked, for a long time. After leaving Darjeeling on May 18th, the British expedition went well south of Lhasa, first passing through the town of Kampa Dzong. By June 27th they were in Shegar Dzong, a regional capital, with an impressive monastery. The pictures taken of Shegar Dzong by the 1921 expedition show whitewashed buildings seemingly growing out of the mountain to which they cling. At the pinnacle of the mountain out of which Shegar grows was a walled fortress. Shegar Dzong, the “Crystal Fort”, became an important stopping point for all of the early British expeditions. There, they negotiated passage through the region and secured additional porters. From Shegar, they pushed on to the town of Tingri, then and now the gateway to Everest. A three day hike from Tingri led them to the Rongbuk Monastery, at 16,000 ft, the highest monastery in the world. Everest absolutely dominates the landscape at this point. A few kilometers from the Monastery they established a base camp which remains today the site of the modern expedition base camp for those climbers attempting Everest via the Northeast Ridge and the infamous 3 steps. And now the real reconnaissance could begin. Where was a climbable route and how could they get to it? Here, they were ringed in by adjoining mountain ranges and glaciers pouring down from Everest itself. There were no recon satellites or airplanes. To find their answers they would have to walk around Everest, looking for a way up.
I was totally pumped. Unlike the British in 1921, we had started in Lhasa but we were to begin paralleling the British expedition when we hit Shegar Dzong and would then follow their path to Tingri and then to the Rongbuk Monastery before arriving in what became known as Everest Basecamp.
Lhasa to Shigatse
Our first real acclimatization hike was to climb Nyizer Ri, a mountain just outside of
Shigatse. The mantra for high altitude mountaineering is “climb high, sleep low” and this continued the process that we had started even while still in Lhasa. We made it to the top (14,050 ft) and discovered 2 Tibetan men already there. Prayer flags were strung up and in a small depression at the summit the men were burning juniper incense and heating up Tibetan tea. This was a theme repeated throughout the trek. We would make our way to the top of some mountain and find a couple of Tibetans already there or failing that, the summit would certainly be adorned with prayer flags. The first time or two that this happened, it really bothered me. Here I was huffing and puffing up to the top of something and when you finally get there it felt like your sense of accomplishment had been diminished because people were up there and they weren’t celebrating getting to the top. The top wasn’t the end point – it was a means to a completely different end point. So, my reaction was pretty selfish and rather petty. Mountain tops are special places in Tibet – a place to celebrate one’s spirituality. Despite everything that has happened politically and militarily in the past century, spirituality remains an integral part of Tibetan culture and this was brought home repeatedly throughout our travels. Here people practice their religion in an open, public way that we find uncomfortable in the secular West – whether that is making a pilgrimage on your hands and knees, saying a prayer every step of the way or climbing to the top of a mountain solely so that you can worship. Despite that cultural disconnect, I can appreciate some aspects of this – the view from the summit of Nyizer Ri was breathtaking.
We were now primed to pick up the trail proper, of the 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition as we headed out from Shigatse to Shegar, Tingri, Lungjang, the Rongbuk Monastery and, finally, Everest Base Camp itself. Things were getting really interesting.
(to be continued)