Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Tibet Journals III: EBC

We detoured off the Friendship Highway through a large gate marked as the access route to Everest Base Camp. While stopped beside it in order to get our papers checked, I got out to stretch my legs below an array of jagged mountains that while they were also-rans in comparison to the peaks to come, they impressed in the way they imposed their odd contortions upon the flat brown plateau. All was quiet but for the wind, which seemed not to bother a woman standing alone out here.  Nothing else moved. (That would change when we passed through the gate again the following day. Below the sign were a half dozen Land Rovers parked side by side, and a photographer attached to this obviously Chinese expedition lying in the road before them in order to get it all in frame.)

Almost immediately, the road began to go through a number of contortions of its own, as it twisted itself through dozens of hairpin turns, climbing steadily toward the pass above.  From its highest reaches the Himalaya revealed themselves, filling the horizon with snowy triangles.  Everest was somewhere among them, though concealed by cloud. The road then led us down toward them, slipping through curves coiled even more densely.  Along the wall, a pair of Tibetan antelope raced across the road, while a third, far less daring, waited beside a hillock above.  

The road finally unreeled itself, then was threaded through an arch blasted through rock.  Below was a small village built below the ruins of an old dzong.  This scene would be repeated a handful of times, as the road, arrow-straight now, point us toward the mountain, not yet visible.  I wanted to check our progress, but Google maps is blocked in China, and all I got was a blue dot flashing there amongst a featureless center of the world.  Very Buddhist indeed. 

In one village our passage was impeded by a stream of lambs crossing the road. Where the settlements gave way, the river roared through, feeding an intricate series of irrigation channels that were a mandala of criss-crossing streams, a few somehow passing over others. Then water gave way to earth and Everest presented itself. Not long afterward, we were at her feet.   

The intent had been to visit base camp in the morning, but the weather was too perfect.  We drove past the final checkpoint, out to a cluster of huts on the horizon.  The true base camp was another couple of kilometers further on, but the tourist explosion had called for an alternative site to be built, so as not to trouble those who intended to actually climb the thing.  And I felt cheated again by tourism, where the authenticity of a historic site was packaged and compromised to meet the needs of an out of control market.  And to what ends? This new "base camp" had the atmosphere of a rock festival, of hundred of yurts built around a massive car park.  I was glad not to be staying here, as it would be a smokey and noisy and not to mention bloody freezing night.

We walked toward the silhouettes on the horizon, little groups taking selfies out by the commemorative stone.  It was cold here at dusk, and the people we passed were bundled up in parkas provided by their tour companies.  One young guy was huffing off a canister of oxygen.  A team of yaks moved slowly past.  A guard was standing beyond the stone, marking a boundary of sorts.  We went a little past and stood looking up at Everest. A series of vans drove further in, probably the summit team we'd met at lunch earlier.  At some point the urge to take photos crept in, me posing in an ironic showing of my North Face hard shell  Eventually I walked over beside the ribbon of a fast-moving river, then dunked my hands in the mountain's snowmelt, for as long as they could stand it.  But my eyes kept returning to the mountain. It was a strange feeling, to be looking at the biggest thing in the world.   

We had been able to score a room in the guest house, our windows luckily facing south.  Dinner was a simple bowl of noodles, in a room covered floor to wall to ceiling with wool and felt, fortified to keep the cold at bay.  There was a group of French here, as well as a small party from Singapore, to judge from their accents. A half dozen members of the military held court at one end of the room, smoking, and drinking, and talking loudly. (Later I'd see one of them pitch a glass bottle from their vehicle into the guest house car park.)  I grew tired of their swagger and went to fend off the cold in sleep.

It was a futile gesture, the cold and the 4,980 elevation making it difficult to sleep. At dawn, I lifted the curtain to watch the mountain come into the light.  Yaks grazed between us, a photograph to be stored eternally in memory.  When LYL began to stir I dressed quickly, a foolish thing to do in the cold.  Picking up my mountaineering watch from the dresser, I saw that the temperature inside the room was minus 5 degrees C.    

After breakfast, we crossed the road to visit Rombuk Monastery.  There were only a handful of monks here, chanting on their cushions, bundled in their robes against the cold.  I know from reading about the Mallory expeditions that the priest here had been a very powerful and generous man.  I imagine his current successor too must be, for the temple had been abandoned until recently, and the needs of restoration are great. 

In my readings, I'd often seen the classic photo of Rombuk with the mountain in the background.  I climbed the hill behind the monastery to frame my own.  A trio of middle aged Han tourists were already up there with their elaborate cameras, as their van waited below.  The whole hillside was littered with the brick foundations of ruined buildings, and I noticed one of the men turn to piss into the doorway of a collapsed monastic cell.  It was the most apt metaphor of the entire trip.  

On the turntable:   Santana and Jeff Beck, "Lotus Gem"
On the nighttable:  Graham Robb, "Parisians"

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