Our drive roughly southward brought us to viewpoints of Yamdrok Lake, another holy lake that is shaped like a scorpion from a Google Earth perspective. After traveling along its shores, we stopped for lunch and tried the infamous yak butter tea. We were pleasantly surprised at how drinkable the slightly thickened concoction of black tea, salt, and of course yak butter was. It reminded me a little of plain yogurt mixed with salty soup broth, and it was easy to understand how this is comforting sustenance to Tibetans in such a harsh environment.
In the afternoon we visited an unique religious structure called a stupa in the city of Gyantse. Imagine a giant white tiered wedding cake, where pilgrims and tourists can walk around each layer, pausing to peer in to small dark rooms holding shrines to deities. This Kumbum stupa is the largest remaining in Tibet with an imposing fortress perched on a nearby hilltop and guard walls snaking along the length of the ridge line.
Onwards to Shigatse in the evening light, we stayed at an ornately decorated palace-like hotel where confusion surrounding our request for a queen room once again resulted in a nice upgrade. We didn't have much time to enjoy it though as we had arrived late and still had to seek out dinner, successfully keeping with the Tibetan theme. Patronizing only Tibetan-owned restaurants while in Tibet helps their survival in the face of increasing competition from Chinese-owned businesses, as well as raising the percentage of locally produced food in our meals. Besides, we had definitely had enough Chinese food for a while.
Already our seventh day in Tibet, we barely managed to eek out a breakfast at the buffet overrun with Chinese tourists beginning their extended national holiday break. One man piled his plate high with rolls, leaving just one behind. He turned to Matt, pointed at the lone roll, and said "Enough," clearly intended to imply that he was not being greedy because he left one for us to share. Incredible...
Despite the hungry start to our day, we enjoyed walking around yet another monastery. While many elements are the same, the specific history, context, and atmosphere of each one keeps it interesting while experiencing its unique "personality." Our guide was busy getting yet another government permit for us, this one with the lovely name of "Alien Travel Permit," so we were left to simply observe and take in the Tashi Lhumpo monastery on our own.
Without a guide to focus on, our attention gravitated to the devoted worshippers who dutifully poured more yak butter into already overflowing vats with rows of lit wicks embedded in to them. A monk would dutifully scoop out the excess yak butter into a plastic container, leaving a cavity for the next worshipper to fill. Prostrations and offerings of bills in minuscule denominations, ironically all with Chairman Mao's portrait on them, were also made in front of key statues. It appears that the main occupation of the monks present in the chapels was counting money, secondary only to controlling yak butter levels in the lamps. Most pilgrims whipped through each room at a breakneck pace with so many deities to visit, but their speed conveyed a sense of purpose rather than ambivalence or disregard. More than anything else that we witnessed, these acts of pure and genuine devotion gave me hope for the survival of Tibet in some form, whose religion is inseparable from every other aspect of its culture.
The Tashi Lhumpo monastery was the historical residence of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual figure after the Dalai Lama. Since the invasion, the Chinese government has installed their choice of Panchen Lama successors, of course disregarding the traditional process where the Dalai Lama conducts a thorough search for the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama. When the tenth Panchen Lama died under suspect circumstances, having been Chinese-groomed but evolving into a vocal advocate for Tibet, the Dalai Lama identified a six-year old boy as the correct successor. The Chinese government instead bestowed on him the honor of becoming the world's youngest political prisoner and forced the hand of Tashi Lhumpo's lamas to promote the Chinese-approved son of Communist Party members as the next Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama-appointed boy and his family have not been seen since...so...will the real Panchen Lama please stand up!?!
After some drive time and lunch break, we visited--you guessed it--another monastery! This one was memorable for its immense library; the high-ceilinged corridor felt like it was lifted straight out of Hogwarts. This feeling was enhanced by the fact that the sacred texts do not look anything like a regular book. They are long rectangular bricks of pages sandwiched between a thick wood cover and wrapped in brightly colored cloth.
Regional clouds rolled in as we finished our visit at Sakya monastery, thus obscuring what would otherwise be our first views of the Himalaya and Mt. Everest as we crossed over a 5400 meter (17,700 feet) pass and headed to the highway strip of Shegar to overnight before heading toward Everest Base Camp early the next morning.
Leaving with the first morning light did not equate with an early arrival at EBC, as the majority of the 100 kilometers (62 miles) were along a rough bumpy road in a vehicle less than ideal for the trip. We were informed that the four wheel drive vehicles had all been rented by Chinese tourists at highly inflated prices, so travel agencies put foreign tourists in all the leftover vehicles, since they are generally unwilling to pay any more for their already expensive tour.
The vehicle turned out to be the least important thing we were competing with the Chinese tourists for. When we finally arrived at Tent Camp, a collection of 40 or so black tents set up in an inward-facing rectangle on a barren rocky field, we discovered that the alleged reservation we had for beds in a tent was supposedly outbid by Chinese tourists. Our guide and driver seemed at a loss for what to do, but eventually began timidly poking their heads into a few other tents, coming back to report that all of them were full. Here we forcefully suggested to our guide that if the Chinese were "stealing" reservations, then he simply needed to pay more than what they offered to re-secure our reservation. After some more time wandering around, we don't know how he did it since communication was not his strong point, we ended up in a tent with a beautiful and friendly hostess.
After a quick but less than filling lunch of instant ramen, we walked the remaining four kilometers up to the official Everest Base Camp. When we arrived, the all-important peak was hidden by clouds. We decided to wait for an opening from the viewpoint bedecked with mounds of prayer flags, perhaps due more to a few persistent prayer flag salesmen pestering the tourists than actually being a location of great spiritual value to Tibetans. Combatting the biting wind with only a light jacket and scarf wrapped around his head like a ninja, our guide quickly got too cold and opted for a bus ride back to tent camp while we huddled in a windbreak. Our patience paid off and the panorama of white colossal mountains soon cleared of clouds for longer than our dropping body temperatures allowed us to remain stationary. We warmed up quickly though on our brisk walk back down to tent camp, peering back often at Qomolangma, the Tibetan name for the highest mountain on Earth, meaning "Goddess Mother of the Universe."
The tent was cozy from the wood burning stove, as well as six Czech cyclists who we talked with enviously. The twenty days it would take to cycle the same route we were doing in a week was simply out of range for our travel budget. Since the guide and driver would still be required to follow slowly in a vehicle behind us, our environmental impact would have been greater as well. We could have at least cycled from tent camp up to the viewpoint, but we did not want to deal with the hassle of getting the bicycles out of the van. Ironically, when we returned on foot, our driver made us unload everything so he could rescue a fellow driver and passengers from a vehicle breakdown along the rough road. Wedging the eight panniers into every nook and cranny of the tent certainly added to its coziness as well.
Our two beds were really one long narrow ledge, which really didn't work with our one Big Agnes double sleeping bag. Meanwhile a perfect double bed sat empty, reserved for some Chinese tourists who never showed up. Perhaps from altitude, but more likely from the uncomfortable bed situation, we were awake in the middle of the night to witness the bizarre police patrol that silently entered the tent, shined bright flashlights on all the sleeping folks as well as us, then left. Apparently, they visit each tent every night to ensure that no one is over their quota of guests in order to keep the profits equitable among all tents. It seemed unnecessary this particular night as every bed in tent camp was full. This is the work that occupies police at the highest police station in the world, and by police station I do mean police tent. On the other hand, the highest post office (tent) in the world was a happening place, with nonstop postcard selling and stamping, thus sending hand-scribbled musings of the novelty of it all 'round the world.
The next morning dawned cold and clear, with a dusting of snow covering the ground as well as our bicycles locked up just outside of our tent. Throngs of people wandered out across the open expanse beyond tent camp to photograph Everest in the early golden light. Even more throngs of people were lined up to take the shuttle bus up to base camp; you could feel the tension in the air as people calculated how many bus loads were ahead of them and would they miss the morning light? Would they beat the clouds? We were relieved that we had visited the afternoon before at our leisurely pace of walking both ways.
Surprisingly, our driver returned from his overnight rescue mission right on time. We reloaded the van with our bicycles and gear and mentally prepared for another long day of sitting in the vehicle. Except for a brief visit to Rongbuk Monastery, the highest in the world (of course), the only other sightseeing stops were for roadside photos and more roadside time-killing before reaching the speed checkpoints. Amazingly, in one day we descended from EBC at approximately 5,200 meters (17,000 feet) to lush, humid forest with waterfalls cascading down every slope at the Tibet-Nepal border, hovering around 2,700 meters (8,850 feet). We literally drove to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and nose-dived down the steep side of it until we reached Zhangmu, a border town that looks and feels a whole lot more like China than Tibet.
That evening we shared a really nice dinner with our guide and driver, as well as a few beers. Ironically, this farewell evening held the best conversation of the whole trip as they seemed to suddenly open up as well as take a personal interest in us for the first time. I am sure the beers had something to do with it. The conversation did hit a standstill when I asked what they think foreigners can do to help Tibet. Some words were exchanged between them, but nothing got translated back to us. It was a question we had been pondering on our tour, and one with no easy answers of course. While the thought of Tibet regaining its political sovereignty seems far-fetched after so many decades of occupation, there is still a cultural and spiritual Tibet worth fighting for the preservation of. "Free Tibet!" is not yet an irrelevant slogan of the past.
One of the Chinese government's main justifications for its behavior in Tibet is that it is bringing economic prosperity and development to the region. While to a certain degree this is the case, Tibetans largely remain excluded from well-paid and/or powerful positions and have to compete with highly-networked Chinese businesses on all fronts. For example, in the tourism sector, there are many Chinese companies that provide a mass tourism experience at a cheaper cost. A simple but powerful choice that foreign tourists should definitely make is to book a tour with a Tibetan-owned and operated company, especially one that is listed on the excellent website Tibet Ecotravel Collective. These companies not only give Tibetans employment that encourages them to take pride in sharing their culture, but they pledge environmental and social responsibility as well. For example, we chose Explore Tibet who gives ten percent of its profits to assist rural communities in improvement projects requested by members of the community itself. This in turn helps maintain the integrity of a traditional lifestyle and provides resilience against influences such as the urban migration of young people. The funds donated by these responsible companies are lifelines to Tibetans in need since international NGOs are generally banned from working there by Big Brother.
The other important lesson learned from our visit to Tibet was this: go to Tibet, support Tibetans, but whatever you do, do not go to Tibet any time close to the Chinese national holiday that officially begins on October 1st, but in reality seems to begin two weeks prior. The code words for this time are "peak season" and the real meaning is that foreign tourists get the leftovers of everything from vehicles to hotel reservations. Because many ex-pats working in Beijing and Shanghai also use the holiday to travel to Tibet and are still required to have a guide, this period also results in a shortage of quality guides. Even the least talented and experienced ones will be picked up for tours just so companies can cover their bases.
The next morning we went through the tedium of a busy border crossing, waiting in line for over an hour while being thoroughly entertained by the most ridiculous Chinese propaganda video imaginable, then getting our many bags trampled (by Chinese tourists) after we were required to unhook them from our bikes and put them through the security X-ray machine. We said goodbye to Nawang and Tashi, farewell and good luck to Tibet, and see you later to China. Then we pushed our bikes across the Friendship Bridge into Nepal, looking forward to a new country and getting back to our preferred travel style: on our bikes and on our own.