Day 16: Mt. Qomolangma (aka Everest)

This mountain road is incredibly beautiful.  And it’s a good thing, because we’ve been driving for days.

Scenes from the road:

We survived the ol’ tour guide switch-a-roo last night.  (We also survived the blood stained bed sheets in the hotel – we (Sam) demanded new sheets for two of the beds and the new sheets were also stained, but the stains weren’t so obviously the result of the hotel guest bleeding out on the bed, so we were able to just ignore them and go to sleep.)  So now we’re traveling with Lou Diamond Phillips (we’ve been having a hard time remembering his real name) who has turned out to be a bit of a ladies’ man – when we stop for meals he seems to know all the people (from taking all of his tours to these places, we assume) and the women hang all over him and flirt with him.  Hopefully he’s trading in some sexual favors to lower our prices.  Kidding!  Sorta.

Before we left this morning we were in Gyantse waiting for Lou Diamond (his real name is Choedak, or something like that) to get some tour paperwork together at the government office (or something.  It’s amazing, the things I choose to ignore that could really affect the trip.).  While we were watching some people making a giant Buddhist banner on the sidewalk, we looked up and saw an outstanding example of Butchered English On T-Shirts (And Some Other Places Too)!!! It was a store name: Wei come world each place the passenger friends to come this shop visit appreci ation.  And below that it listed some of the wonderful things you would find inside (precious raw material for medi-cine, Quality goods tur quoise, Valuable thing jadeite, hign Quality goods day bead, etc).

There are two other Butchered English On T-Shirts (And Some Other Places Too)!!! store names that we’ve really enjoyed.  First: Major Hot Dyeing Flagship Store.  (Do you suppose it is a store that dyes things, or a store that is failing and dying?)  Second, and more entertaining to me: Susie’s Vagarious Ice Cream & Barbecue.  (At first, I didn’t think vagarious was a real word, but it turns out it is.  It means “marked or characterized by vagaries; irregular or erratic.”  Which really doesn’t seem like how you would want to describe your ice cream and barbecue restaurant.  The dictionary also refers you to the word “vagariously,” which actually isn’t a real world.)  And though I’ve already written about it, I might as well include the final store name, just because it is so damn good: Go on Expedition Outdoors Sell Shoes Particularly.  *contented sigh*

Who would have thought driving through the Himalayan mountain range to get to Mt. Everest wouldn’t be a straight shot?  We wind around mountain curves, always slowing climbing to get over a mountain pass, or slowly descending from one.  The first pass was at 45oo meters (very close to 15,000 feet), so when we got out to walk around and look at the view, two things immediately struck us: 1) it is FREEZING up here; and 2) we shouldn’t be running around all excited-like because we are going to kill ourselves in this altitude.  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: thank god for Diamox, our altitude sickness medication.  The second pass was 5200 meters (17,000 feet – almost exactly the altitude of base camp itself).  The problem is that when we come down from the high passes in the heavens, things heat up pretty fast with the sun being so damn close and with six people in the car.  So we take off all of our warm gear, and then when we get out at the next pass its like the gusty wind is blowing icicles into our souls.  That may or may not be a small exaggeration.

Look at this freaking road.


I’ve been taking tons of pictures of prayer flags up here – it is invigorating to see them in this unforgiving, inhospitable place, joyfully doing their job of waiving in the wind and praying their owners’ prayers.  At one stop we met two Tibetan men making their pilgrimage to Jokhang in Lhasa – it was a son bringing his elderly father.  They had stopped at the same electrical tower that we did because it was covered in flags.   They said they were going to circumambulate the temple in Lhasa.  I took it as a reminder that it’s not just stories that we hear about Buddhists and their pilgrimage – that people are actually doing it every day.  Very humbling and grounding.

A plethora of prayer flags.

We stopped in some very small, dirty town for lunch.  While Lou Diamond flirted with the women and Sijila went in the back and ate with the proprietors (like he usually does) we sat alone in the front of the restaurant and watched the young girls who worked there having fun.  While they brought us food they were yelling, chasing each other, laughing, and generally having a blast.  It was a nice atmosphere.  James pulled out his own chopsticks to eat with (he keeps them in a little case in his pocket), claiming it was dangerous to eat with the reusable ones because not every place properly steams them to kill all the bacteria.  Oh well.

After Kristy and Sam went to the weird, public-type bathroom by walking through the back of the restaurant and across a gravel courtyard, they started taking pictures of the restaurant workers who were outside.  They created a crazed, fashion-shoot feeding frenzy!  Girls were sprinting to get their picture taken doing high fashion poses (one foot out in front, lean back, hands behind your heeeeeead . . . perrrrrfect *snap!*  Fit for vogue.)  At some point we got into the pictures with them, creating the first Phenomeblonde moment in a few days (and creating photo-shoot strangers seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty.  Insane!)  We also enjoyed watching little kids run up to press their faces against the window to see the weirdo foreigners eating before being chased away by the jokingly (we think) furious workers.  It seemed like the restaurant was a popular gathering spot for the kids after school when there weren’t customers inside.  Very cool place – a nice energy.

Phenomeblonde.  Look at that huge, white ogre towering over those poor, unsuspecting Tibetans.

Back on the road, climbing higher and higher into the Himalayas.  We pass the empty shells of the stone buildings and corrals that the nomads use when they bring their yaks through the country; shepherds watching over herds of sheep, goats, and yaks with their simple tents nearby; small “hamlets,” as the road signs name them, located in fertile irrigated valleys; ruins from some ancient civilization carved into the sides of rocky mountains.

Mountain Pass Saleswomen.

Mountain Path Minimalism

Blue and Gold Minimalism

During most of the drive today, James was sitting in the front seat without making a sound.  I thought he was sleeping, but soon learned differently.  We stopped in a horrible, horrible little town called Baber to buy tickets to get into the Everest national park.  It was like an old, abandoned ghost town – a long, dirty stretch of awfulness.  It stank with the thick, sickly scent of yak butter.  We went in to buy the tickets and James threw his money and me and with panic in his voice said he was going to the bathroom.  So thaaaaat’s why he was sitting so quietly up there.  Poor guy.  Hahaha!  And he was telling us we’d get sick using those chopsticks.

After getting the tickets I followed James to the bathroom.  It was the . . . WORST bathroom.  Ever.  We’ve seen some really, very horrible do-your-business-in-a-horrid-hole-in-the-ground bathrooms.  But this . . . wow.  Architecturally it was actually a lot nicer than some – it had individual stalls (though they had no doors) which can be a luxury.  On the other hand, I refuse to believe that it had been cleaned in the past year.  I identified every identifiable bodily function on the floor and walls, and there was some sort of gelatinous, congealed, lard-like substance piled in the trough.  I was gagging for the entire duration of my stay in this charming place.  I sprinted out.  I knew James was still in there, hidden and squatting behind one of the short dividers.  Later that night he described the day, with all sincerity, as his worst day ever.  I don’t know how he dealt with the bouncing, winding road trying to hold everything in.  The girls said their bathroom was really awful too.

We got back to the car, doused our hands with sanitizer, baked in the sweltering yak butter stench like it was a sauna, and a couple of little boys came up to us asking for money.  One of them carried a plastic catheter bag filled with yellow liquid and a tube extending into his zipper.  I saw him later with the tube dangling free, so we think it was a fake to arouse sympathy.  After the smell and the bathrooms we were really primed to be outraged and disgusted, so this gross display just pushed us over the top.  I hate that hell hole of a town.  I can not imagine any other place taking over Baber’s distinction as The Worst Place in the World.  We could not get out of there too quickly.

We stopped at the third major mountain pass of the day (5000 meters – 16,400 feet) where we had our first chance at seeing Everest in person.  The view was amazing – one hundred and eighty degrees of the Himalayan range . . . with clouds covering the peaks.  We couldn’t see Everest at all.  Choedak said other guides told him that the peak had been covered for the past three days.  So we prepared ourselves for the likely reality that we wouldn’t actually see the mountain.  Waaaa!  But it is so amazing to be here anyway that I think we can be okay with missing the visual if that is how it goes.

Cloudy Everest.  Is this as good as it will be?

View with my back to Everest.  Looks like Dali, but I can’t really figure out why.

Searching for a GOD D*MN SIGNAL!!  Supposedly that’s Everest back there.

Scarf Detail

Coming down from the last pass, the paved road became a switch-backing dirt horror that was incredibly uncomfortable.  The road was so terrible, and we were driving so slowly, that the windows had to be rolled up and the vents closed because so much dust was blowing into the car.  It was not comfortable.  I entertained myself by lightly setting my pen on a blank page in my journal and letting the bouncing car create some abstract art.  We ended up leaving the (terrible excuse for a) road entirely and following someone else’s tracks through rocky high desert terrain.  I can’t imagine what we would do if we busted something under the car, which seemed entirely possible.

Driving scribble.  At some point it started looking pretty cool, but I kept going and pretty much ruined it.

After hours we had only gone eighty-five km and we were beginning to forget why the hell we were doing this.  It was so stuffy in the car and we couldn’t sleep because of all the rough bouncing.  How the hell long is this road?!?!  I’M SO UNCOMFORTABLE!

And then we rounded a turn in the road and BAM.  Everest.  Crystal clear.  We freaked out, thinking a cloud bank could roll in any second (well! – we’d been hearing how the weather can change any minute up here!!) and took desperate pictures through the windshield while asking, pleaaading with Choedak and Sijila to pull over.  They stayed calm, entertained by our desperation, and we finally stopped at a brilliant turnout to create the world’s most fun photo shoot ever.  We took pics of each other and James and James took a ton of the three of us.  Our WE FUCK THE FAKESHIT hats were revealed with gusto in front of Everest, as per the plan we created as soon as we saw the hats in Lhasa.

First Views of Everest

We F*ck the Fake Sh*t Candid

We finally decided to get to the parking lot fifteen kilometers down the road and go to base camp.  We were so pumped up.  And now we could confess, safely after seeing Everest, how heartbreaking it would have been if we came all this way for it to be covered in clouds.

The parking lot is in a huge valley, surrounded by big yurts where we will spend the night.  And base camp is a few more kilometers down the road.  I guess normally you can wait for a bus to drive you to base camp from the yurts, but we arrived after the last bus already left.  Well, we didn’t really like the thought of hanging around the parking lot during what might be our only chance to see Everest from base camp, so we started walking.  Verrrry slowly.  The altitude was killer, which is why Choedak tried to convince us to just wait until tomorrow.  But it might be covered tomorrow!!! *desperate eyes*  We’ll walk and see what happens.


Everest from the parking lot.  Clouds are coming!!!

Mountains Surrounding the Yurts

Some other people saw us start to walk and, intrepid leaders that we are, they followed us.  The bus drove by us bringing the last group back to the parking lot.  Why can’t it just come get us, we wondered?  Choedak was truckin pretty fast, I think in an effort to discourage us, tire us out, and make us turn back.  But after a while, the bus came for us!  There ended up being about ten people on the bus, and everyone there was from or lived in California.  And it wasn’t like the others were all together on a tour – it was three or four different groups all from California, mostly Norcal people.  So random.  When we got back to the yurts, we all took a picture by the yurt with a sign that said “Hotel California.”  (Below the name it also said “Safety and easy!  Free charge battery.”

Walking to Everest.  Cold.  Happy.

We got to base camp (after giving a Chinese soldier our passports and permits – thanking god once again that we made the switch to Choedak.  Tsering surely wouldn’t have been able to get the permits.)  We took tons of pictures by the Mt. Qomolangma sign, then clambered down to take off our gloves and feel the icy stream running down from the peaks.  The closest the military allows you to go without actually starting to climb Everest is up on a hill, and it was so hard to walk up.  It was maybe sixty feet and I had to stop halfway and catch my breath.  At the top, everyone took turns sitting in the magic spot right in front of Everest to take pictures.  It was still clear – we got so lucky.

Group Shot!!

Everest with Prayer Flag Silhouettes


Sunset Behind the Mountains

It was so cold up there that my hands were shaking despite the heavy gloves.  Combine that with having to keep the shutter open because the sun was going behind the mountains and it was very hard to take a clear picture.  A curse on my decision to not bring a tripod on this trip!  And then it got so cold that the shutter mechanism froze.  My camera wouldn’t even take pictures anymore!!  Crazy.  We used Sam’s phone to call our parents (happy 4a.m. wake up call!!) and there was something incredibly moving about talking to my parents on the other side of the world standing in the Himalayas at the foot of Mt. Everest.  I got teary while talking to them.

What an experience.  I wish I could feel this joy and wonder at life and the world every second of day.  But then I suppose if you felt it all the time, it would not longer be joyous or wonderful.  I’d settle for feeling this exhilaration once a year.  Though really, I’m lucky to have done this once in a lifetime.  But hey!  This show ain’t over yet.

We finally went back to the yurt, pleasantly warmed by the stove burning dried yak dung.  It didn’t smell at all, and there was a big pot of yak dung just sitting there.  These Tibetans are brilliant!  The yurt owners cooked us dinner in the back, and we had a beer to see how drunk we’d get in the altitude.  I went outside to look at the sky – AMAZING.  I can’t imagine ever seeing a clearer night sky in my life.  Un-BELIEVABLE.  I’ve never seen the entire Milky Way dance from horizon to horizon like that.  I tried to take some photos, but my entire body was shaking from the cold (despite my shoes, warm socks, silk long underwear, pants, shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, gloves, scarf, and snow cap) so it was impossible to press the shutter release button without knocking the whole camera around.

Back into the warm, coziness of yurt.  We were laid out on long benches turned into beds, kept all the warm clothes on, and got huge quilts piled onto us.  It was so. freaking. comfortable.  Amazing.  I slept so good that night.


6 Responses to “Day 16: Mt. Qomolangma (aka Everest)”

  1. May 6, 2010 at 9:20 am

    I hung on every word, Stephen! I could feel your emotions… frustration and disappointment to complete awe and elation! I can’t even imagine seeing Everest and feeling, well, miniscule. What a trip! How touching the call to your parents…awwwwwww. 🙂

    Sometimes I read and think, “Man, I HAVE to go there!”. Others times, like when reading the part about Baber, I think, “Oh, I soooo don’t want to go there!” 🙂

    The minimalist road pics are great! Good composition. Those prayer flags – just the sheer volume of them – incredible!

    OMIGOD that pic of you in the restaurant! Hilarious! Have you EVER felt so giant in your whole life? LOL!

    The adventure continues, right?

  2. May 6, 2010 at 10:50 am

    oh yes! we aren’t even half way through with this little trip.

    thanks, i’m really happy with the minimalism shots.

    you SHOULD go, and just stay in the damn car when you make the stop to buy tickets for everest.

    i did feel quite ungainly standing with those girls. but, then again, it wasn’t much different than how i’ve felt the entire time.

    thanks tracy!

  3. 3 Kristy
    May 6, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I thought the worst town on earth was called Tingri? remember when we gave those kids our ice cream?? Is that coming soon? this was definitely one of the highlights of the trip! My dad still has the voice mail I left on his phone, which is actually almost cooler than having talked to him that evening/morning because he always plays it for people. It’s awesome because I sound like I just ran a marathon and like I’m about to cry.

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