RL Stevenson wrote “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” but here in Tibet I am not sure if all the pre- trip planning gives me hope of travel, let alone an expectation of arrival. I have come from New Zealand half way round the world with a small group tour, arranged to travel overland in this remote and fabled country, visiting temples and Everest base camp. I bought the recommended down jacket, snow pants, waterproof boots, woollen gloves and socks, and borrowed a sub zero sleeping bag. I take diamox for the altitude, and think I am well prepared.
Suddenly our leader is hospitalised and flown to Kathmandu. I have a large map written in Chinese, so after Lhasa I do not know where I am. I can’t ask the drivers of our three vehicles who speak Tibetan or Chinese. They can’t talk to our crew of Sherpas and only one Sherpa knows some English. Everyone depends on our Tibetan guide to translate. Shocked, leaderless and a long way from home, all I can do is await what may come. A Chinese truck loads up our tents and food plus the Sherpas, and we climb into unnamed 4WDs of uncertain age or origin and dubious maintenance. Seat belts do not work, even if they exist and passenger seats unhindered by bolts, slide over the floor.
Three days later the road falls apart. The monsoon was late, road surfaces washed out, blocked, and vehicles swerve and skid in loose gravel. Our vehicle shudders and stops. A flat tire? No such luck. A wheel lies on the road. The driver can’t bolt it back on. Other vehicles ignore us. After five hours without help our drivers act. They take one bolt off each wheel, so we have four wheels fixed by 3 bolts instead of four. For the next 100km it’s a wobbly three legged race to Shigatse, where repair yards and broken vehicles line the road.
At the hotel check in we sink into red satin cushions. Great! A luxury night not under canvas. Hot showers will be bliss. Forget the missed temple visits. The clerk shouts at us to go away. Where to? All hotels are full. More shouting. Our guide refuses to move. Uniforms parade past us displaying impressive ribbons and gold braid. The dining hall wafts mouth-watering smells. We are starving, cold and intimidated. Three hours later we are allocated rooms. The showers are cold. Flushing the toilet sends a dark tide seeping under the door and down the corridor.
Along the route toilet stops gain a new meaning for women. Men have it easy, they face away from the road, unfazed by lack of privacy. Above the tree limit there are no bushes, no buildings, just a level plain. In desperation women drop trousers and squat beside the road. “If you can go in Tibet, you can go anywhere” we say. We prove this at the monastery toilet perched on the mountain side, with 27 seats in a communal row, open both to public view and the weather, overhanging a long drop of 1000m. A test of endurance is the next toilet which we reach by scrambling up the side of a large rock, to a depression at the top.
We reach the side road to Rongbuk monastery and Everest base camp. The drivers refuse to go. It is snowing, we are freezing, can’t see the road, let alone any mountains. We camp outside a village. A deafening broadcast lasts until midnight as Bollywood enraptures the villagers with pictures that need no translation. The next day I am caught by the dreaded tummy bug, and must wait while the others climb down a cliff to see the mystic poet Milarepa’s cave. Hope becomes just a wish to survive.
The trip is ending as we descend 3000m to the Friendship Bridge and the Chinese-Nepalese borders. We unload our belongings and the drivers turn back to Lhasa. Chinese customs will not stamp our passports as we came on a group visa. Nepalese Customs demands individual stamps, “Go back!” We sit by the road, stifled in the sun. Endless arguments until they let us through. We catch a bus to Kathmandu.
Life is increasingly complex: crowds, slums, noise, cows confusing the traffic, an elephant. I remember the silence, the empty Tibetan plateau, the monasteries I couldn’t visit, the mountains I didn’t see. The hope of travel is to return.