As you descend from the Tibetan plateau to the border town of Zhangmu the vegetation turns lusher around every bend of an incredible deep canyon. Zhangmu is a one road town, only this road barely clings to a very steep hillside and has many hairpin turns. The road is clogged with Tata trucks bringing hand-made goods to China and picking up electronics in return. What is a luxurious paved ribbon on the northern side of the Peace bridge is a dirt road on the Nepali side. The border town of Kodari is complete mayhem with three cars and a donkey cart abreast where only one bicycle should fit. We enter a visa office which we easily could have missed and bored officials look up from their computer game of solitaire to grace our passports with an entry. Frequently hobbling over recent landslides we continue on with a friendly Nepali. At one point the road is disrupted by an overturned truck and we have to switch vehicles. The temperature rises and the traffic maddens as we reach Kathmandu within 4 or 5 hours.
You may ask ‘What’s the big deal?’ but reaching the Everest North Base Camp at above 5000 meters was so cathartic that Cranky had to shed some tears.
As a kid Cranky had read Reinhold Messner’s account of soloing up the North Ridge and immediately decided to toughen himself for a future career as a mountaineer by sleeping outside his home in a tent, rain, snow or shine.
Years have passed and Cranky dropped plans of hopping up Mount Everest on one leg without oxygen or pursuing any other records, really Cranky didn’t think that he’d ever get around to see the mountain.
The dirt road to the base camp veers off the Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu so it was almost an afterthought to our trip to go up. As we got closer and fought battles with Chinese permit bureaucracy and endured our extremely unpleasant driver (Cranky almost got in a fist-fight with him but that’s another story) it started looking like there was no way we would reach the base camp during any sort of daylight.
Endless switchbacks, potholes that could swallow a city bus and a few picturesque Tibetan villages line the road to the base camp. It was built solely for a 400 person Chinese mountaineering assault on the North side of the mountain.
As we reach Rongbuk monastery it is evening and our driver and guide start arguing about where we should spend the night. They want us to make a choice but Katja wisely says ‘Let’s go!’ as it is about two hours of hiking to the actual base camp. Cranky takes the lead as by now he is completely obsessed of getting that one perfect photo of Qomolangma for his collection. As if the thin air means nothing he races up the side moraine, just one more little ledge, one more and the perfect view will reveal itself.
The guide left behind, Cranky really has no idea where he is going but up must surely be the direction. In the end Cranky reaches the completely off-limits-to-foreign-devils top of the side morraine just above the Chinese military post. Sensing this may not be the right trail he waits for Da Nuo, the guide, and Katja to catch up. The guide is not pleased as the Chinese are very unforgiving of side excursions. Managing to escape notice the three sneak down to the military post and secure the very last passage of the day past the gate to the base camp view point.
With the soldiers and their guide hiding in the warmth of the military post, Cranky and Katja soak in this most magnificent view as the very last light fades on the peak.
Afraid that Russia would overtake Tibet the British under Colonel Younghusband fought a battle here against the underequipped Tibetan army in 1903. Of course this was based on bad intelligence. Sound familiar?
You can make out the yellow hat monastery Pelkor Choede in the background.
These pots and stoves once fed 7000 monks and are still being used for the remaining 700.
Even with the Potala Palace, amazing monasteries and incredible mountains in the vicinity what remains most unforgettable are the pilgrims with their wide range of outfits, weathered faces, open gazes and life stories that we can only sense but will never know.
Soon Da Nuo will have slapped the names and purposes of all the Buddhas into our heads just as the debating monks emphasize their questions with a clap of their hands.