We have made it to Tibet but the Chinese authorities are still thwarting our plans. Luckily we make one amazing part of our trip.
Tibet Unfolds – 4th to 9th May, 2015
The earthquake has changed our itinerary considerably and plans have had to be fluid, but we have packed so much in that the start of the trip seems like a life time away.
Following our two nights at Terdom Hot Springs we head back to Lhasa for a night.
In the time we spend back there we meet other tourists who have been told not to head West as roads (and sometimes entire areas) were closed due to earthquake relief.
We also see the hoards of climbers and their gear, back from the evacuated Mount Everest region (on the Tibetan side). Everest, we were told, was shut for the season. This put paid to our Base Camp visit as well as a planned three day trek to Shishipangma base camp.
Colin works hard on contingency plans, should we find ourselves blocked from going West entirely.
Colin Works His Magic
Eventually we get word that we are able to head West, through Gyantse, at least as far as Shigatse. Most tourists were informed that Shigatse was the farthest they could go. We had whisper that, as we already had permits secured for our Mount Kailash trek, we may be able to proceed further.
The six of us loaded up and headed to Gyantse, with a stop at the dazzlingly turquoise Yandrok Lake. Yandrok, at 72km long, is one of Tibets four sacred lakes and, judging by the numbers of Chinese tourists, a popular place to visit. We all had the obligatory ‘here we are, with a yak, in front of a lake’ photographs and headed on.
The Lhasa to Shigatse route is popular with Western tourists – although Western tourism is incredibly small scale in Tibet – so our paths crossed with others a few times in the following couple of days. There was the group of German bikers, some American ladies in their sixties, two Dutch ladies and the Australian lady who warned us away from the poor toilets at the nunnery days before.
In Gyantse we visited the Dzong – a fort built in the 13th/14th century to guard approaches to Lhasa and the surrounding area. The fort was attacked in 1904 in a British attack led by Younghusband. Looking at the magnificent Dzong I see early inspiration for the design of the daleks!
A stroll through Old Gyantse town reveals attractive homes facing towards the mountains, each with their own cow tied up outside. It also leads us to a rather mysterious 1970’s disco boot, discarded at the back of the houses.
We move on to Shigatse and to the first (and only) hotel of the trip to combine comfortable beds, hot running water (which ran in the right direction and didn’t shoot straight out of the tap onto the opposite wall), heating and wifi.
Dinner was at a lovely restaurant, where Ralph and Dad were able to sample the local Chang – barley wine – a taste which Ralph took to and Dad did not.
We we’re glad of a good meal together as tonight signalled the end of the holiday as a group of six. From Shigatse Dad and Eileen were to travel back to Lhasa for two nights and then fly home. I couldn’t let Dad leave without one last attempt to beat him at cards. So, armed with a bottle of the local red wine, we head back to the hotel. Inevitably Dad went home the victor at two games to one and a fair amount of the interesting wine was poured down the sink.
The Party Separates
It had been wonderful to spend two weeks travelling with Dad and getting to know Eileen. Now we become a band of four.
And a very lucky band we were too. For we were granted passage on to Mount Kailash. One of only two groups to have gained permission so far this year!
Mount Kailash is a mountain sacred to Hindus, Bon and Buddhists. The Kailash kora is a pilgrimage around the mountain. Most Tibetans travel to do the kora at least once in their lifetime. It usually takes three to four days to complete but some hardy souls do it in one and others, even hardier, prostrate themselves all the way round. The mountain has never been climbed, due to it’s religious significance. Very few Westerners ever travel to do the kora.
Getting Closer to Kailash
From Shigatse accommodation goes downhill fast and we know we are getting into serious adventure travel territory. Don’t get me wrong, the standards of living and accommodation for us are high compared to that of the locals, but they provide a stark contrast to our expectations back in England. I am now used to using long drops (never long enough) and storm drains as toilets, having no running water (a bucket of cold and a flask of hot are usually provided) and layering thermals with multiple duvets to keep warm on freezing nights.
Two long days of travelling at least reassure us that we will reach the village of Darchen, at the foot of Kailash. Many checkpoints of both the police and the PSB (Public Security Bereau) have to be passed through. Each time our papers are checked and we are allowed to move on we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Our final potential stumbling block was the check point into Darchen. Our guide was out of the van for a long time before coming back; “The police want to see you all” he announced. We dutifully filed out of the vehicle for closer inspection, only to discover the main reason our presence was required was to sign a disclaimer. There had been a lot of snow on the high pass of the trail and the authorities didn’t want any broken legs on their conscience.
A Night In Darchen
Darchen was far from inviting, depressing row of modern but tatty shops and restaurants concealed most of the old town. The standard, scraggily dogs roamed the streets, waiting for their midnight chorus.
Despite this there was beauty surrounding us. Mount Kailash, with its distinctive domed peak, loomed high and the flat plains of Tibet gave way to the Indian Himalayas in the distance.
We were planning on a rest day in Darchen before starting the three day kora but the weather looked good for the following day, so the decision was made to take advantage and get it done.
When debating whether to hire yaks or porters, our guide explained that yaks were prone to leg it off up the mountain, losing your baggage in the process. We chose porters.
We were working on a minimum of everything – the only clothes changes for the next three days would be underwear (sleep in what you walk in). However we also needed to carry sleeping bags and food for three days, hence the presence of our two lady porters.
Guides and porters have the ability to put you to shame with their strength and lack of ‘gear’ but their big advantage is being used to the altitude. We have been at altitude for around nine days now. Starting from a low point in Lhasa, of around 3650m and moving up and down as we crossed the country. Darchen is approx. 4575m above sea level. Although we have acclimatised well it is still a breathless experience if walking fast or going uphill.
The other main side effect of altitude is a lack of sleep. We all check in with each other in the morning; “How did you sleep?”, “I got two full hours, then was awake for three and went into deep sleep an hour before the alarm.” Plus most of us have suffered with a Cheyne-Stokes reaction (I will let you look it up) at some point, which wakes you gasping for air.
Altitude or no, we have walking poles extended, factor 50 on our faces and fully charged cameras. We are off on the kora!
As we travel through the uniquely barren and yet beautiful scenery of Tibet I sometimes zone out and listen to my music. Occasionally a song comes on which sums up the moment. Here is one which I feel suits our journey: https://youtu.be/H7Gr6HBMDu0
The Mount Kailash Kora
Saturday 9th – Monday 11th May, 2015
We set off on the kora in high spirits. This is what we came for. Three years ago Colin had a group of us organised to come out and complete this trek but visa restrictions saw us splitting into two groups with me heading off on the Nepalese Everest Base Camp trek instead. The EBC trek consisted of myself, my then partner Bob, Ralph (who is also on this trip with his wife, Carole) and Ralph’s brother in law, David. EBC was an amazing and eye opening experience for me and caused me to fall in love with Nepal.
Not long after Bob took his own life, in February 2014, Colin told me that he was planning on trying for the Tibet trip again and kindly invited me along. I knew that Bob would have gone on the trip had he still been with us. This was my chance to see Tibet for him and take his adventurous spirit somewhere he never got to go.
The Past and the Future
During this trip we have all talked about Bob and laughed at shared memories of a man with a bombastic sense of humour and a desire to constantly push his own boundaries. I have also been able to talk, with joy, about the man I am in love with now. Someone who understands why I needed to do this trip. My past experience of living and losing Bob has shaped the person I am today. The future is with my new partner and I am excited to get back and share my life again.
It certainly felt as if Bob was tracking us from somewhere as we started our trek.
Day one was a steady rise, past prayer flags, Om Mani Padme Hum stones and yak skulls (I also found a random yak foot and lower leg!). The skulls are often placed in amongst the prayer stones and inscribed with prayer themselves.
We make our way along a deep valley and through the site of the Saga Dawa festival. This is a yearly event, the highlight of which is the raising of a flagpole. If the flagpole stands upright once raised it will be a good year for the Tibetans. A sort of Tibetan Groundhog Day!
The wildlife in the mountains tend to be fairly unafraid due to the lack of hunting by humans. The journey to Darchen had bought us close ups of a wolves and wild ass. Now we are able to get good pictures of the birds and large, marmot-like creatures, named as mountain rats by our guide.
Waking With A View Of Mount Kailash
There is a long slog at the end of the day into our guesthouse accommodation. Colin and I push slightly ahead of Carole and Ralph and end up exchanging pleasantries and energy sweets with a group of elderly Tibetan pilgrims.
Our guesthouse leaves little to be desired, mainly due to the shouty young lady running it. During the night toilet options are; brave the semi-wild dogs by going out to the loo, cross your legs or use a pee bottle. We all make our own choices on that one!
The dawn view of Mount Kailash makes up for the uncomfortable night. There are not many times in your life that you wake to such a special view.
We needed to set off early as our guide is concerned about the snow softening in the afternoon. Our guesthouse was at 4950m and we immediately head uphill on snow and ice. The crux of the day is going up and over the Drolma La (La means Pass) at almost 5670m. The highest I have ever been before was EBC at approx 5385m, so I know this will be a tough test.
Our path turns a corner to reveal the pass ahead. The slope is dauntingly steep and long. I start up with Colin but he is stronger than I and steadily moves ahead. Carole and Ralph are behind with our guide. The porters and our driver (who was also portering) skipp ahead or behind us with ease. Our driver tells us he has done the entire kora in one day before – quite a feat. However, he has forgotten to bring sunglasses, a mistake which would probably have caused him snow blindness had Carole not had a spare to lend him.
I don’t know how long it took me to get up the pass, it certainly felt like hours. At points I have to fight the urge to sit down in the snow and rest. Nearer the top it is a case of taking ten small steps then stoping to gasp for air, before pushing on. Most of the time I can see Colin, way up ahead and the others down below but several false summits see me lose sight of everyone briefly.
Reaching the top brings about a mixture of relief and pride. Colin had arrived fourteen minutes before me and it was about fourteen minutes more before the rest of the party arrived.
We sit beneath flapping prayer flags, eating hard boiled eggs and apples, congratulating each other on making it. All the while Tibetan teenagers bounc around us, erecting new lines of prayer flags and singing. Our guide allows us a short rest and photo shoot before reminding us about melting snow and the dangers of staying at high altitude too long.
What Goes Up…
The descent proves to be almost as difficult and strenuous as the ascent. I am up to my knees or waist in snow on multiple occasions. We string back out into our ascent pattern. Our porters help me safely across a portion of frozen lake and then I am alone again.
This is a peaceful and reflective part of the walk for me – surrounded by snow and mountains. I see Colin ahead, stopping occasionally to check on my progress but eventually I move atop a rocky slope with no one in sight ahead or behind. A sign to my right urges ‘Caution: danger of death’ so I follow footprints to my left. It soon becomes apparent this was a mistake – ‘danger of death’ was the safe route!
I’m on a steep and melting snow slope with no desire to attempt a climb back up. Following the, now meagre, footprints off the snow I find myself on an equally steep, rock and shale slope. This is scary territory and it’s time for a pep talk. ‘Right Cadi’ I tell myself ‘you got yourself here and being scared won’t help. You’re on your own, get yourself down safely’. And I did; zig-zagging cautiously, so as not to pick up speed. I spot Colin sitting on a rock below. As I pick my way over the last patch of snow towards him relief and pride flash up again.
We regroup before heading off on another valley trek to our accommodation. Colin is still strong and breaks ahead whilst I enjoy a more relaxed pace with Carole and Ralph. Slightly delirious hilarity ensues when all three of us and our guide get stuck up to our waists in snow after eight hours of trekking.
Risking The Dogs
That night Carole and I share one room whilst Ralph and Colin take another. I lie awake for over an hour, trying to pretend I don’t need the toilet. I am relieved to hear Carole get up at around 2.30 am and ask if I we can go out together. We were both glad of the company when one of the skip dwelling dogs wakes as we walk back. By the morning we have expanded the ‘rustle in the darkness’ story to us having been attacked by a pack of wild dogs!
The final day of the kora begins with us all breakfasting in the tea house tent. This tent is the social and eating area for the family who ran the guest accommodation. It is also their sleeping quarters. As we eat, the granddaughter of the family – a charming girl, of around three years, who had delighted in greeting us with many ‘Tashi Deley’s’ the day before – was snuggling into bed with her granddad.
The Final Leg
It’s a four hour trek back to Darchen, mostly downhill. The path, at first, unremarkable, soon narrows, with slopes above and a small ravine below. I worry when a herd of yak appear over a brow, towards us. Yaks are big, tough beasts with long horns and a grumpy disposition. We move up onto some rocks above the trail to let them pass. A young man, who had been picking his way along on his motorbike, switch’s off his engine and waits for them to flow around him.
A little further along we watch a shepherdess control her flock with the accurate use of a sling shot. Any stray sheep would hear a stone crack hard above its ear, sending it jogging back to join the flock.
We arriv back to Darchen at lunchtime and celebrate with a delicious meal of noodles, fried aubergine, smoky black fungi and, of course, Lhasa beer!
All four of us are excited to have finally achieved the kora but none more so than Colin, who had dreamed the dream for many years. I feel I have pushed myself to honour Bob and believe I did him proud. Future adventures will be my own; shared with someone incredibly special, but I am glad to have achieved this one. The future is bright.
The Rest of the Trip
Mount Kailash was not the end of our trip. For some reason it is where my notes run out. Perhaps I thought I would remember the final days and write them up at home. Perhaps I was just too relaxed to write. I can tell you that we saw many more amazing sights, including the wonderful Guge Kingdom.
I am privileged to have been able to experience these sights and adventures. Here’s to many more!
If you would like to read about the first two parts of my trip please follow the links below: