In 2010 I had the opportunity to travel through Tibet, from the capital city, Lhasa, to Mount Everest and the Himalayas. I knew early on that I couldn’t miss out on seeing such a unique place, so I planned to spend some time there before coming back to the US. My friends and I had some issues in Chengdu, where they wouldn’t let us transfer to Lhasa without the original travel permit, but eventually we made it through all the Chinese bureaucratic hoops.
In Lhasa we were greeted by tingling fingers and toes (thanks to the high altitude) and insanely blue skies, which was a nice change after years in Shanghai, where the smog usually greys out everything. In fact, most parts of Lhasa were a nice change. Instead of the skyscrapers of Pudong, all the buildings are very squat, which made the Potala Palace seem even bigger than it was, sitting on top of the hill at one end of the city. We spent several days there, acclimating to the high altitude and checking out local sites like the Potala, Barkhor, and several important Buddhist temples.
We then took off in a rickety van on the three-day drive from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp, hundreds of miles down the so-called “Friendship Highway” that runs all the way from Lhasa to Kathmandu in Nepal. We passed Gyanste, Shigatse, and several other cities along the way, usually stopping for lunches of yak meat, tsampa, and potatoes. The scenery was so unique and constantly changing due to us climbing so high so quickly. In the lower Himalayas, for example, there were deep-brown hummocky hills that looked almost velvety.
Somehow our van survived the rocky roads, hundreds of mountain switchbacks, and occasional herd of livestock without flying off any cliffs or even losing a tire, as we saw time and time again when passing other tourist buses or Jeeps pulled over. The worst we had was a sliding van door that was nearly impossible to open and shut. But with things like glaciers and nomadic shepherds to see, we hardly noticed. We finally made it thousands of feet higher over those few days to finally reach over 17,000 feet at Everest Base Camp.
I was a little worried as we made the approach to Everest, since it was completely covered in clouds and I already knew that we were visiting during a season where you’re lucky to get clear views of it. Some people wait for weeks to see it. But as we got closer, the clouds got thinner and thinner. By the time we’d reached camp, you could see the whole mountain clearly. I’ve never felt so lucky!
Despite my friends having been sucking oxygen since arrival in Tibet, I’d felt fine and hadn’t had to use it. After a few hours of exploring the camp and excitedly taking pictures, though, all the walking and jumping finally caught up to me and I suddenly started feeling the effects of the altitude. The night ended with me throwing up outside our yak-hair tent while a little sherpa girl held my hair and and patted me on the back. The night was pretty hard; nearly everyone had a splitting headache and no appetite (I essentially had all the flu symptoms you can imagine), and our Tibetan hosts had to help me into bed because I was violently shaking all over. They were extremely nice and made sure we always had a hot cup of green tea nearby to help with the dehydration from being in the thin air.
The next day I felt a little bit better and was able to see Everest in the morning light, which is something I won’t forget. I’ve never seen such a vivid blue in my life, and sadly, photos don’t do it justice. The sun hit all the snow and ice on the mountain and it was almost too bright to look at, despite Base Camp being several miles from the foot of Everest. The amazing thing is that, as we left, the clouds closed back in over Everest and proved that our timing couldn’t have possibly been better! We left Chomolungma wrapped in clouds, just as we found her.
Being on the rooftop of the world was a once-in-a-lifetime treat that I think about often. It’s hard to live in “the mountain state” when you’ve seen what a mountain REALLY is!