By Carolyn Bonello
March 9, 2008
It all boiled down to time restrictions and bad planning on my part. I’m not usually a wimp when it comes to trekking. I would never back out. The more gruelling the trek, the better. And here I am in Nepal, and there isn’t enough time. Enough time to trek to the place I’ve been dreaming about all my life, the greatest, most majestic sight that should be on everyone’s ‘50 things to see before you die’ list. And I need to get it ticked. Desperately. But there isn’t enough time, or so I’m told.
My fault. I admit. I’d been so enthusiastic about cramming in every temple, monastery and inch of greenery there is to tread on in my already-tight schedule here in Nepal, that I failed to realize that trekking to Everest Base Camp needs around 3 weeks. And the harsh reality is that I just don’t have 3 weeks to spare. Conclusion? Scrap it. Off the itinerary. Just like that. And I’m so close. Not enough, it seems.
I had planned the Annapurna Circuit Trek. I had booked a 5 day overland trip from Kathmandu to Lhasa. I had made sure to visit the Boudanath stupa, Swayambunath temple, had organized day trips to Bhaktapur and Patan, tasted every different version of Dhal baat in Nepal - but didn’t leave enough time to pay a visit to the sacred Sagarmatha, Goddess of the sky. What a terrible oversight!
But sometimes persistence pays off. A dream is a dream. And I will get there.
I soon find out that Everest Base Camp, at an altitude of 5200m, is accessible by road from the Tibetan side. A three hour drive from the Friendship Highway along a dirt road, would lead to the Rongbuk Monastery – the highest monastery in the world, lying at the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier. The best part is that base camp is a mere 8km away. And what a wimp-ish way to get there – by jeep! Well, if that’s my only option…..
Its 5am and I hop enthusiastically into a flashy land cruiser with 3 of my girlfriends. Our driver leads us out of Lhasa as we start our journey across the Friendship Highway. Not a soul in sight, except for the odd farmer with his laden Yak walking to God knows where. We make an obligatory stop in Shigatse, to get hold of the famous permits we were told we’d need for Everest Base Camp. No one speaks a work of English, and our driver isn’t helping. He waves his index finger aggressively at a sleepy official, who doesn’t even bat an eyelid. A long string of harsh-sounding Chinese words follows. I have no idea what is going on, but 50 Yuan and a piece of greasy paper later, we are on our way. The roads are barren and desolate, and I wonder who on earth would be checking our permits. Eventually, though, we reach a sorry excuse for a check point in the remote, shabby village of Chay. Two grumpy-looking guards eye us up and down, and wave us out of the jeep.
‘You pay. I give you paper’
‘But we already have our papers’
They never even check our EBC permit. They produce another paper we apparently need. It says:
‘Receipt for the fee of environment to entry the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve Area’
And so, out come another 65 Yuan, for yet another permit. This time the driver is smiling. I smell corruption. Part of our permit fee seems to be going in to his back pocket.
The jeep cruises on, along the Friendship Highway, and we soon reach the turn-off point to the Everest access road. It’s a bumpy ride, but worth every jolt. The road winds its way up to the Gyawo-la pass. We are now at 5210m and I feel so lightheaded, I could well be floating. The views here are out of this world and expose a huge sweep of the Himalayan range, including the peaks of Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu.
I spot a group of trekkers working their way up a steep path. This is where I want to be. This is where I would be if it weren’t for my bad planning. We sheepishly leave these ‘real’ travelers behind in a cloud of dust as our flashy land cruiser speeds off. The road gets bumpier and steeper. And finally, several stomach-churning, hairpin bends later, I see it. My first glimpse of the sheer North face of Everest. In full splendour. Not a cloud to hide the grandeur of the mountain. Just blue sky. I stop the driver so many times to take photos, it’s a miracle he hasn’t asked me to get out and walk. Its freezing and my fingers are almost numb. Eventually the jeep is jolted to a standstill.
‘We arrive. This Rongbuk monastery. ‘
Great. At 4980m, this is the highest monastery in the world, with the most dramatic views, and I’m going to spend the night here. But I need to get to base camp before the sun sets.
‘From here you walk. Only 8 kilometer’
Only? Is he trying to be funny? My lung capacity seems to be failing me. I can hardly breathe at rest, let alone walk 8 Km. I try and cajole the irritated driver into taking us there. A snickers bar eventually does the trick.
Base camp is an eerie place. The silence is remarkable. The environment is harsh. I struggle up a small hill to reach a rainbow of prayer flags, fluttering in the freezing wind amongst a pile of rocks and stones. Debris left behind by previous expeditions make the reality of it all sink in. I have watched so many documentaries. And this is where it all begins for those who chose to climb the North Face of Everest. This place must have witnessed so many feelings of fear, triumph, despair, loss.
I sit and gaze. I can’t explain how spiritual it feels to stare at this graceful, gentle mountain that reveals the true soul of nature in all its beauty, temper and might. A few scattered clouds descend and float around it, as though worshipping the sacred mountain. As the sun sets, the sky turns burnt orange and Mount Everest slowly fades away into a sea of darkness. It’s cold. And I mean really cold. But I don’t want to leave. Hundreds of stars have now filled the sky, and the mountain re-appears as a dark shadow, silhouetted by the bright moonlight.
‘Late, late. I go now. You come?’
The extremely pissed off driver speeds back to Rongbuk monastery, nearly missing a couple of hairpin bends, which would have sent us plummeting into the total blackness. Man, he’s really had enough of me today. I don’t blame him.
The monastery is bustling with activity. It’s incredible how many other wimps like me have chosen this idea. Or maybe not. I stare at a stocky German man, his calves about to explode. He just cycled here. I can’t believe it. If this is not the ultimate endurance test, what is?
I attempt to eat something but seem to be suffering the early effects of altitude sickness. My head is throbbing, my stomach seems to be rejecting the idea of an omelette wrapped in a soggy chapatti, and I am slightly disoriented. At this altitude, apparently, it’s normal. I try to distract myself and chat to other travelers. I desperately need to lie down. My head seems to be spinning. I shuffle along to my room, which, for 25 Yuan, is pretty decent. Plus, it does have the best views in the world. My stomach churns its way through a restless night. I feel as hung over as the last time I overdid it with tequiIa shots. I can’t stop vomiting and right now, the thought of walking up at 5am to watch the sun rise over my dream mountain, is totally not enticing. I’d much rather be home.
But I eventually make it to the icy base camp at 5.45am. I’m surrounded by pure natural elements -rock, sky and wind. The peace is overwhelming. Initially shrouded by cloud and mist, the mother goddess of the Earth, Chomolongma, eventually reveals herself, as the sun slowly rises.
Whether conquering the summit, or merely skimming its base, this mountain has a profound impact on anyone who visits it. And I can safely say that it was definitely worth the wimp-ish trip to get here. This is a sacred space. And right now I’m in heaven!
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