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Friendship Highway

Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet

By Carolyn Bonello

March 8, 2008 

Skimming through the pages of one of my many travel books, two phrases caught my eye: 

‘A journey to the roof of the world’ 

‘Without doubt one of the most spectacular highways in the world’ 

And from that very minute, I knew I had to go there!! 

The Friendship Highway, a 920km stretch of road, links Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa in Tibet. The drive takes five days, stopping at some of the most authentic Tibetan villages and highest mountain passes in the world along the way.  

Getting paperwork done 

At the time of my visit, September 2003, Chinese authorities did not issue visas for independent travellers in Kathmandu. So the only way to get into Tibet was to get a group visa and join a tour. This, however, was not enough- we also needed a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit which was thankfully arranged by the travel agency who we booked the tour with. We never got to see this permit, and later found out, after reading in our guide book, that it is more of a bribe allowing one into Tibet. 

The road to the border 

At 6am on the morning we (myself and three other girlfriends) set off from Thamel in Kathmandu, our bags were loaded onto a shiny silver land cruiser by our driver for the trip, Chimpy and our guide Purpu (who very inappropriately could barely string two sentences in coherent English). Initially, the roads were wide and smooth, lush greenery all around, with powerful waterfalls thundering into the wild raging river below us. Eventually, the smooth road gave way to a narrow, bumpy path, with a sheer 200m drop on one side and falling rocks and boulders on the other, the perfect recipe for a landslide. Sure enough, a few hundred metres ahead our jeep came to a complete halt due to a landslide that had occurred a few hours earlier. Total chaos lay in front of us -trucks jammed in the thick mud, drivers hooting their horns impatiently, others totally blocking the road. Everything seemed to come to a standstill, and for the next couple of hours several drivers gathered next to the landslide and discussed, with very serious, focussed faces, everything BUT finding solutions to the problem. Anyhow, after several hours a solution was found, the traffic was cleared and  a couple of nail-biting, stomach-churning, driving-through-waterfalls, truck-nearly-overturning hours later, we eventually got to our first stop for the day – the shabby town of Kodari which lies right on the border with Tibet. 

First steps into China 

Eagerly walking through tonnes of mud to reach the Friendship Bridge early next morning,  I could not for the life of me understand what was so friendly about it. We were greeted by grumpy-looking Chinese officials, stiff as ever in their khaki uniforms, shouting at us to put our cameras away, and then line up to be examined for any diseases. We stood there uncomfortably, as a small, stern man poked and prodded our ears (God knows what he expected to find inside!!) Well, in true Mediterranean character, we kept smiling, told them to have a very nice day, and then ran off eagerly taking our first step into China. 

The road to Tingri

Our destination for the day was Tingri, which lies at an altitude of 4390m. We had been warned that the discomforts of sudden altitude gain would be likely to make it an unpleasant stay. This did not even begin to alarm us and we urged Chimpy the driver to press his little foot on the accelerator and just get going. The initial part of the route lead to a place called Nyalam, which means ‘the gateway to Hell’ in Tibetan. This is because the narrow road drops into a mossy gorge of waterfalls and crevasses, and is usually submerged in a sea of cloud. Thank God, being September, the monsoon was over, so visibility was good and relatively safe. In our case, blue skies and wisps of light cloud made everything look even safer. Nyalam is nothing more than a one-street derelict town, with dug up roads and absolutely nothing promising in sight. And so we drove on. 

The nightmare roads soon gave way to smoother, wider roads, linking barren open spaces together. A feast of snow-capped Himalayan peaks dotted these spaces, offering the most spectacular 360-degree views i have ever seen. A couple hours later, a rainbow of prayer flags indicated that we were up at the Lalung-la pass (5200m). In spite of feeling extremely cold and light-headed, nothing could have dampened my enthusiasm at that moment, and I truly felt i was at the top of the world. I wanted to scream out loud and echo my thoughts back home, hoping that maybe someone would hear and be able to experience just a tiny fraction of the beauty present before my eyes.  

Life in Tingri 

Arriving in the village of Tingri was shocking. This was the most primitive, yet authentic Tibetan village we had seen so far. A few mud houses and a couple of old guesthouses lay scattered along one relatively wide road,  little rosy-cheeked kids ran carelessly along, energetically chasing a couple of shaggy-haired one-tonne Yaks, a display of fly-infested carcasses hung off flimsy wooden poles, and a young boy rode his donkey alongside the Yaks. At the other end of the road, in sharp contrast to all of this, a shiny modern pool table was proudly displayed outside a shop (cleverly named  ‘Tibetan shop’!), where what seemed like the entire male population of Tingri gathered round taking it in turns to figure out this new, exciting game. In Tibet, reality is harsh, and whilst men play, women work – in fact, across the road, the nearby fields were dominated by the entire female population this time, clad in colourful, striped traditional Tibetan pinafores, hair neatly wound into thick plaits, painfully doing the tedious  work that Tibetan men simply do not do. 

We spent the night at a cute guesthouse – the Everest Snow Leopard Guesthouse, where the highlight was definitely the toilet! The room, more suited for snow white’s seven dwarfs, contained no more than 4 small rectangular-shaped holes in the ground, around 50cm apart, separated by pieces of flimsy, red cardboard, 30cm high, which may as well not have been there at all!! 

Altitude sickness 

The next morning, Ii experienced the joys of altitude sickness. I had never in my life had such a terrible migraine, where my head throbbed continuously, and trying to flex my neck more than 5 degrees initiated a series of sharp spasms all the way down my back. The nausea was extreme and a night of dry retching culminated in a half hour session of vomiting at 6am, just outside the wonderful toilet!! Trying to distract myself from this horrible sensation, I decided to join my friends who had positioned themselves strategically on the roof of the guesthouse to watch the sun rising, amidst several towering Himalayan peaks which seemed to have suddenly appeared out of nowhere, on this crisp, cloudless, beautiful morning. My headache seemed to melt away as I focused on this magical sight around me. 

The guesthouse owner claimed that she had the best remedy for altitude sickness and 5 minutes later we were sitting at a table with a feast of pancakes with Yak butter and jam, eggs and Yak milk displayed in front of us. Not too convinced by the Yak products, I managed to force down a few bites of pancake, which my stomach was not too pleased with and violently refused a few minutes later when I was back at my vomiting spot, disposing of it all. Knowing that we had a long drive ahead of us, I vowed not to touch another morsel of food until we reached our destination, Shigatse. 

Along the way, the rolling hills and bumpy roads were the perfect recipe for the nausea to set in again, this time with accompanying, unbearable heartburn -  a nightmarish feeling that someone was pouring gallons of hydrochloric acid down my throat. All this became too much for me, and my next vomiting spot was at the top of the Gyatsola Pass at 5220m. (thank God for the wide open space and fresh air, which allowed my friends to keep a watchful eye over me without breathing in the pleasant aromas that I exuded!).  

Remaining alarmingly unwell all the way to Lhatse (the lower altitude, 4050m, should have made me feel better, but alas, I still looked as green and shrivelled and miserable as ever), I was literally carried to a dodgy-looking hotel room, and ordered not to move for the next few hours, until my face got back to a decent looking colour. 

Eventually, after drinking what seemed like gallons of water to rehydrate my shrivelled-prune look-alike face, the girls decided that I was strong enough to continue the journey. I was placed in the front seat of the jeep this time, next to Chimpy the driver. The road was unbelievably bumpy and I actually began to admire our dear Chimpy, as it takes skill and effort to manoeuvre a jeep on these kinds of surfaces, and to keep going, day after day. 

Shigatse 

This is the second largest town in Tibet, and is divided into an old but authentic, pretty Tibetan quarter, and a newer Chinatown, where large boring buildings line wide roads, and bright neon lights shine everywhere. Our very flashy hotel was unfortunately located in the latter area. The funny notice at the reception area immediately caught my eye. It read: 

“Our serve purpose is warm, safe, satisfactorily, clean and speed. All staff of Hotel Post will provide you with best manage and service. Welcome to our hotel and made a happy memories on the beautiful snowland.” 

Whatever kind of good service that was supposed to portray, the receptionist was a grumpy, rude man who was totally incompetent in giving us any information we asked for. I looked round the large, shiny, marble-overloaded building and felt incredibly sad as it was so evident just how much the Chinese ruined what was once such a beautiful magical land. 

The next morning we walked around the Tibetan part of Shigatse. I just couldn’t believe the radical difference in the two areas. Here, warm, friendly Tibetan women dressed in traditional costumes walked along the narrow, cobbled streets, smiling at eachother. Colourful market stalls lined the streets and sold an array of items ranging from Yak butter to warm woollen rugs and authentic Tibetan crafts. Groups of men dressed in woollen suits sat in circles on the floor sipping tea out of clay bowls. Everyone seemed happy, unlike the Chinese who seemed sad and repressed. We visited the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the largest functioning monastic institution in Tibet. The scene that greeted us was so spiritual and vibrant – old woman prostrated fervently outside the monastery, in a complete trance and in total oblivion of the several tourists, including ourselves, staring at them in complete awe. Inside, monks clad in deep red robes busily spun prayer wheels whilst reciting mantras....and then, rudely breaking the peaceful atmosphere...beep beep.....a monk receiving an sms!!  

Gyantse

After another long but beautiful drive we reached Gyantse ( 3950m), a tiny village, but by far the prettiest place so far. Our little guesthouse was actually very impressive -  a four-bedded room, covered in parquet flooring, with authentic Tibetan furniture and daintily-decorated clay jugs and basins to supposedly wash ourselves in. A short walk away was the Pelkor Chode monastery, a dark and gloomy place lit up by several yak butter lamps. We struggled past hundreds of Tibetan women, whose collective body odour was so pungent that it set us sprinting up to the roof for some air (and spectacular views). Supper that evening consisted of Yak steak, which left our jaws aching long after we finished chewing the beast. 

The last leg to Lhasa 

The next morning was the most exciting as we knew we would finally reach Lhasa. The six hour drive took us up to the Kamba-la pass at 4794m, and then to the Karo-la pass at 5045m with spectacular views of the Nojin Kangstang glacier. Distracting us from this jaw-dropping scenery was a Tibetan farmer waving us over to pose for a photo on his Yak, looking rather sheepish with red woollen pom-poms hanging off his one-metre, sharp slender horns. In shameful tourist-trap mode, we took it in turns to sit on the shaggy beast and put on our bravest smile for a silly photo (which we obviously had to pay the farmer for). A couple of hours later, our eyes were feasting on the dazzling deep turquoise Yamdrok-Tso lake, one of the four holy lakes in Tibet.  

Finally, at 5pm, after five days on the road, our necks stretched right out of the window, all fighting to be the first to catch a glimpse of the Potala Palace, we had reached ‘the heart and soul of Tibet, the object of devout pilgrims, the city of wonders’ - we were finally in the place the Dalai Llama once called home –Lhasa. And what a fantastic way to get there! 


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