On Top of the World
A trip from Lhasa to Mount Everest Base Camp will stay with you forever
The Tibet Autonomous Region is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the highest region on earth. A land filled with snow capped mountains, sapphire coloured lakes, billowing bright prayer flags, Buddhism and smiling faces - a trip from Lhasa to Mount Everest Base Camp will stay with you forever
In addition to experiencing a wonder of nature - Mount Everest (or Chomolunga, Goddess of Nature as she is locally known) - accumulating plenty of good merit, and breathtaking (literally) moments, what resonated the most looking back at the nine days spent in Tibet are the many, many sun-beaten, deep lined smiling faces that beamed back on the journey from Lhasa to Mount Everest Base Camp (EBC).
Tibet is a terrain so unforgiving and merciless, it dictates your pace and itinerary. ‘The Roof of the World’ is the highest plateau on the planet, with an average elevation of around 4,500m. Therefore, being prepared is more than advisable. Diamox is the most tried drug for altitude sickness prevention: headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and inability to sleep are often experienced at altitudes over 3,000m. Drinking lots of water also helps to prevent falling victim to the potentially serious effects of being at that elevation.
Spending time acclimatising in Lhasa is the way to prepare for the trip to EBC, as well as delving deeper into the very spiritual world of Tibetan Buddhism, which is everywhere. We visited in the first week of May; the weather was kind and it’s also one of the best times of the year to see Everest in her full glory.
House of Shambalha, in the heart of the old part of the city was where we parked ourselves in the capital, and it was a wonderful mix of cosy and traditional. The charm of the rooms, caring and smiley staff, and authenticity of the space enriched our stay. Stepping out of the property into the narrow surrounding streets was to be engulfed into the hustle and bustle of this very particular city. From the pilgrims moving in a slow clockwise swirl around Jokhan to the ever-present prayer wheels, getting swept up in the energy of Lhasa was a trip in itself.
The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, crowns the city with its formidable White and Red Palaces architecture, and stands at 3,700 metres. Book well in advance for a visit to this museum and World Heritage Site with copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes and 13 stories of buildings - containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues (not all open to the public).
A stroll around Lhasa city centre will quickly make clear that the swirling masses of pilgrims condense around Jokhang Temple. Jokhang, ‘House of Buddha’, is the prime seat of the Gelugpa (Yellow) branch of Tibetan Buddhism (the newest of the schools) and was originally built in 647 AD. As the spiritual centre of Tibet and holiest destination for all Tibetan Buddhists, pilgrims of all ages and physical ability can be found prostrating around the temple day and night - a powerful experience. Following the clockwise movement around the temple, in unison with the prayer wheels and the rhythm of the crowd muttering mantras, and the smell of burning yak butter candles and incense wafting from the surrounding temples makes for memories that will stay with you long after you leave Tibet.
For those with intrepid natures (and willing to wake up at 5am) a hike around the Lingkhor is unforgettable, and good way to gain merit, to boot. Lhasa has many kora – walking paths around sacred sites undertaken usually while praying, meditating or prostrating - and these are great places to mingle with Tibetans from all walks of life. At 8km, the Lingkhor encompasses the whole heart of Lhasa. The path is not easy to find or navigate on your own, so ask your guide.
There are no signs and no special starting points, just join from where you are. At the base of Chokpori Hill is a cliff face covered in bas-reliefs of Bhuddas and Bodhisattvas painted in bright colours. This impressive venerable shrine is where many pilgrims prostrate themselves before the wall carved with dozens of images, the most important of them being a large Blue Buddha.
Be sure to see all of the “great three” Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet: Sera Monastery (watching the monks debate in the courtyard is magnificent), Ganden Monastery and Drepung Monastery.
Once you are acclimatised and able to walk without passing out, it means your journey to higher altitudes can begin – the two-day drive from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp. Leaving Lhasa and driving south, we arrived at the ridiculously beautiful views of Yamdrok Yutso Turquoise Lake and Karola Glacier. The contrasting colours and landscape will leave you speechless as the bright prayer flags struggle in the strong wind and frame the image. Yamdrok Lake lies at 4,408m and is revered as the life force of Tibet. Covering over 638km2, its teal blue waters make it the largest lake in southern Tibet. Surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges, the lake is fed by icy streams and inlets that flow down from the higher elevations during the warm summer months.
Spending the night in Shigatse, once Tibet’s second largest city and home of the famous Panchen Lamas, the drive to EBC begins in earnest. In 1865, Mount Everest was so-named by the Royal Geographical Society of England. Tibetans honour the mountain as Jomolangma or Queen of the Universe. She peaks at 8,848m and Tibet is home to her stunning North Face. From Everest Base Camp at 5,100m, the mountain face soars another 3,648m.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of standing at the base of the most famous mountain on earth, looking up for the first time, that mythical mountain of man’s great fascination. Icy winds blowing and the clouds closing in and out of her summit in a game of hide and seek, the sound of prayer flags fighting the currents.
In the distance up ahead, the yellow tents of the climbers lay, cordoned off from the tourists. 2017 saw a record number of permits for Everest being issued in what is turning into an increasingly controversial activity – attempting to summit Mount Everest. This year, a record 373 permits were issued to foreign climbers to reach the summit of Everest from the Nepal side, with a further 136 granted permission to ascend the north face in Tibet.
Our tent was set further back from those of the climbers, and the yak-dung fire in the middle was a most welcome respite from the biting winds outside. Shared with eight other people, from Shanghai and wheeling around oxygen tanks, we slumbered down for an early night in the comfortable and endearing accommodation.
At 5am we grabbed our cameras and snuck out of the tent, not wanting to wake up the others, but it was hard to contain our delight when we stepped out into a majestic sky with a bursting Milky Way and blinding stars. Fighting the cold we walked as far as we could to get close to the mountain and sat in silence and in awe of the Goddess of Nature, as fast shooting stars danced around her.