Taking the High Road - Tibet

Taking the High Road Two Yuppies & a Monk Hitch-hiking to Mt. Everest on the Tibetan Side!

Written May 16, 1998 - Tibet

Michael took a big whiff of his thick Yak (high altitude cow) quilt. “Ah Yuck!” I don’t know what smells worse, this blanket or me. It smells like chicken piss!” Michael still had “chicken piss” on his brain after last night’s experience in a Tibetan home in the small village of Chay. At least he didn’t experience the 18-year-old boy subjecting Courtney and me to his exposed penis after we had retired for the evening. But tonight will be different. The four of us, Michael, a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, originally from Colorado, Stein, a Danish man in his 40s who works with lunatics (his translation), and Courtney and I are snuggled at 14,000 feet in almost a “real” guesthouse. Almost, in the sense that the dust in our penthouse room is nearly a quarter of an inch thick, the floors are mud, and the door only stays shut if I prop it closed with my walking (mad dog) stick. The real treat is our outstanding views of Mt Everest at 29K+ feet (Qomolangma). The mountain is visible from our cracked bedside windows...a nice treat from the last few nights on the road.

There’s a lot to talk (write) about...From our very expensive, very inefficient ride across the Tibetan Plateau via land cruiser, locals throwing rocks at Michael in Chay, the ‘check point’, smiles and bribes, the cozy yak bed, the father and sons buns and, of course, a harmless pervert. Oh, I almost forgot to mention our hitching a truck ride up a 5,400 meter pass (highest in the world) to see the most breath-taking views of Mt. Everest imaginable as well as view of the entire Chinese Himalayan Mountain Range. All accompanied by our gracious hosts (the truck drivers) who stopped in the middle-of-no-where and demanded an exorbitant fee (we were screwed) for the pleasure of bouncing around in the back of their dusty truck among greasy blankets and 55 gallon drums of gasoline. Sound like enough adventure for one week?

In May of 1998, Courtney and I spent an incredible three weeks traveling through Tibet - all between 12,500 feet (Lhasa) and 17,000 feet (Mt. Everest Base Camp). The Chinese government had so many restrictions on how one could travel in Tibet. Where one could go with or without permits, who you could go with, how you could get there, etc., that we finally gave up asking for permission, drivers, guides, vehicles, etc., and took off hitch-hiking. Well our originally planned four to six day excursion turned out to be a little over two weeks with over 1,000 kms traveled, and most of that on the back or top of old transport trucks. Not to mention a whole bunch of walking. An incredible adventure!! I filled up an entire journal with stories and burned through about 20 rolls of film!! The following is a two-day journal entry. Not necessarily typical, but certainly not the most unusual.

Written May 15, 1998 - Tibet, Everest Region

Our experience in the little village of Chay on our way to the Chinese/Tibetan Mt Everest Base Camp is one I think Courtney and I will never forget. It started with a “paid” land-cruiser from Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) to Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal). Our intention was to jump off ½ way, at the roadside, and turn off to Mt. Everest on the Tibetan side. This way, we could avoid or get past one or two of the Chinese checkpoints before we started hitch-hiking (since hitch-hiking is, theoretically, not allowed and no one, other than authorized tourist buses and land-cruisers, is allowed to give foreigners rides, and we were not permitted to be there). We thought this would be the best way to “get-out-of-town.” Well, it worked except our driver was so slow and the roads so poor that what would normally take one day to travel, took two and he dropped us off at 7 pm in the middle of no where with one hour of daylight left and no chance to find any vehicle going our way. Oh well! We were not equipped to spend a night out in the elements as we were traveling very light with small day bags. We knew a small village and another checkpoint was about 10 kms up the narrow, washed-out road, so we started walking. We encountered two Tibetan men walking their yaks back to Chay and the five of us shared smiles and walked together for the final three kms. In Chay, the two men waited by our sides while we received reprimands by the Chinese check point attendant for not having permits to be in the area. We persistently stood there and followed our basic rule of Chinese Travel - smile, act friendly, and graciously offer to buy a ticket or permit and negotiate for as little as possible. In time, 45 minutes of face-off, we shelled out about 65Y ($8.00) each and were handed three colorful climbers permits entitling us to enter the Mt Everest (Qomolangma) region. We chuckled when we tried to answer the first question on the permit: “Name of Expedition?”.... Hummm .... Two Yuppies and a Monk, or Songs of the Sonji, Tibetan for toilet - I’ll save that for another story).

With our brief hesitation and the not-so patient Chinese attendant, our permits were snatched and Chinese characters scribbled on each one, and we were hustled out the door! The agent had his money and his interest was, now, dinner or TV, not us!

While Courtney and I negotiated our way into the Region, Michael was working on talking to the locals about a place to sleep. Soon, we found ourselves following our two guys into their family compounds, past the yaks, past Ama (mother) and up a steep wooden ladder to a half-sheltered side of their house. It was scattered with old blankets, yak skins, tools, jars and dir. Quite hospitable!!

One of the men pointed to a space among the clutter. It was a space big enough for one person. At the same time, a raggedy chicken took a piss in the exact spot. Ama quickly came by with a small carpet and laid it over the chicken piss. Michael nearly lost it!

We didn’t know exactly how to refuse the hospitality, nor if anything better existed in the village. We tried to ask, “how much money”? And not, “how much they should pay us for staying there.” We just couldn’t communicate. New ground for us (literally).

We left a few things that we didn’t care about too much, and tried to tell them we would stay, and then set out to explore the village in the remaining twilight.

Courtney and I got trapped entertaining about 12 children on a small dirt hill with a great view in the middle of the village. I snapped photos while Courtney taught them patty-cake! Michael moved about the village and finally made it back to us with news of a “better place to stay.” IT CERTAINLY WAS!! Michael volunteered to retrieve our belongings and break the news that we wouldn’t be staying in the first house. He figured, “what could they possibly say or do to a Tibetan Monk in Robes??? Well, as it turned out, PLENTY!! They were really upset! They tried to demand money and threw stones at him on his departure. He was really shaken when he returned. However, our new home had plenty of excitement and distractions to quickly occupy all of our attention!

We were staying in a traditional Tibetan home. Prior to entering the main room, we passed an open area similar to that offered to us by the first family. Michael quickly looked around for chickens. We learned that this spot was used strictly for animals (goats, chickens and the occasional yak). Maybe that’s where we ranked! The family lived in the central room around the fire; in this case, an iron pot-bellied stove fueled by scraps of wood and dried yak dung (shit). There were benches, padded by yak hides, on three sides of the room and two tiny smoke-stained windows. Dim beams of light meandered through the smoke filled room and illuminated the soot stained walls. The fourth wall contained wooden shelves which housed clay urns for water and a large bucket of Tsampa, the Tibetan food staple, consisting of ground barley and a large slab of yak butter.

Looking around the room, Courtney and I settled our stuff and rear-ends on one of the benches. We weren’t exactly sure how or where the three of us would sleep. Plus, there was now a fourth man, Stein, from Denmark, who arrived about the same time Michael discovered the place. He, too, was attempting to hitch and trek his way to Mt. Everest. What we did know was that our new home was 1,000% better than our first choice (plus, one of the sons in this family had gone to school and spoke a little English). He took charge and understood that we needed a place to eat, drink and sleep. We weren’t sure about the first place! This village was used to years of climbers passing through in their jeeps and supply trucks. But we were sure that past foreigners had very little reason to do much more than just wave to the kids, not to mention even think of staying the night!

In our limited Tibetan, Mandarin Chinese and his limited English, we learned that there were eight family members. Two daughters: 25 and 26 years old. Four sons: 8,15,13 and 10 years of age. The father was 5l and the mother only 40 years old. Boy, did she get started at an early age! I wondered where they all slept and where they would sleep tonight. I knew the four of us would take up most, if not all, of the room in the central room, or so I thought!

We were fed with Tibetan tea made from butter, hot water and salt and all the Tsampa we could eat. Thankfully, we brought some peanuts and were able to add a little flavor to the Tsampa. It tasted more or less like sawdust with little more nutritional value! Actually, it’s what the Tibetans subside on. The room was dark and the smoke stung our eyes. I watched the children shift the hot coals with their bare hands when stoking the stove. Were their hands so calloused or the dirt on them so thick that they couldn’t feel their skin burning? I cringed at the sight! We were tired from the long day’s drive and incredible effort trying to communicate. Seven sets of eyes had been staring at us from the moment we set foot in the room. But it was fascinating. I just sat on my bench soaking it all in. It was hard to believe where we were.

About 9 pm, the father came in from his long day’s chores. The family poured him a large bowl of Tibetan tea. Once the father was fed, the rest of the family joined in. We had eaten an hour earlier. Should have we waited? I watched as dirty fingers mixed the powdery Tsampa with hot tea. This was followed by a very fast shoveling of the gruel into their mouths. The final course was a thick buttery soup. (Are you starting to get the theme???). We passed on this one after trying a sip of Michael’s.

Finally, in the flickering of a single candlelight, with four foreigners propped against the walls with glassy eyes, it was time for bed. Courtney and I laid down on the side where we were sitting, Michael the other, and when Stein pulled out his sleeping bag (what a luxury) on the window side, he was told to move. Apparently he had settled in the father’s spot. The two women moved a large pile of blankets and made some room for Stein between the father and Michael. His face was inches away from Michael’s smelly feet. But, at least, he had a place to sleep. We weren’t sure for a minute! But, what of the other seven family members? With the exception of the 6 year old that crawled in bed with his dad, the others slept out in the partial enclosure with the animals while we nestled on yak fur beds with hard basket-like blankets coated with dust. Still, much better than our first choice with the old carpet and chicken piss.

“Neither of us really slept that night. There was far too much going on!”

The family moved about readying themselves for bed. The fire was damped. The food was sealed and stowed. I wondered from what critters it was sealed. The remaining dusty blankets were carried out of the main room into the shelter. At one time, the room was clear with the exception of the oldest son and the four of us trying to sleep. I watched him in the dusty room with the dim glow of the single candle as he lowered his pants and began to fondle himself while calling out,” Hello! Hello! “ So much for his command of English. I told Courtney not to turn and respond, but it was too late! She’d already rolled over to look and respond back, “hello!” In a loud voice, I told the others what was going on and all of us sitting up in our beds was enough to cause him to leave the room. Courtney told me that earlier this boy (18) came out of the family compound and watched her go to the toilet. Maybe, he was just repaying for the favor of the nice view! Very strange!!! It was nothing any of us could understand and probably not typical behavior. It seemed harmless; but needless to say, Courtney didn’t go out to the toilet that night!!

I watched the father come in and make up his bed. He rolled a thick yak blanket into a tube. It was like a sleeping bag made of heavy, rough burlap. It was hard to imagine how cold it would get that night, since for five hours we had been sweating from the heat of the potbelly stove in the tiny room. It turned out later I was very happy to be given the dusty blanket. It must have weighed 30 lbs with all the dirt and yak oil.

The father stripped down to nothing. His skinny Tibetan knife, which all Tibetan men carry, was the last to go. I think he tossed it into his bedroll with him. His clothes literally stood up on their own. No exaggeration, he climbed out of them! Many Tibetans, especially those outside of the few cities, only bathe once a year. This family certainly looked like they were ready for their yearly bath! The father, standing bum-naked in the candlelight, modestly turned away from us and called to the family. At this signal, the youngest boy, also naked, came running into the room carrying a bucket. He squatted over the bucket, pee’d and climbed into bed with his father. The candle was blown out, and we all settled down to the intriguing noises of the night.

Father breathed heavily, almost a snore. The young boy got up repeatedly and used the bucket. There were very loud snorts, which I thought were coming from an animal in shelter outside with the rest of the family. Michael, closer to that wall, thought they were human. It quickly grew cold. Very, very cold! I had a hard time getting comfortable with so many layers of clothing on (three shirts, 2 fleece coats). Not to mention being wrapped in dusty blankets of yak fur. I had visions of little creepy crawly things exploring my body without the thick layer of dirt on my skin to protect me like the locals. This combination doesn’t make for pleasant dreams!

Courtney and I were lying on the narrow shelf head to head. Periodically, we’d reach out to touch each other just to silently express, “You OK?” We were fine! Definitely a most unusual experience, our first with a Tibetan family high on this mountain plateau. This is a life-style that many Tibetan families share, at least those fortunate enough to have a house! There are still many that are nomads and live in tents, even though the Chinese have made it illegal to be nomadic in Tibet. I guess it’s too difficult to keep track of people if they are always moving around.

The morning came quickly with the father stirring and the children stoking the stove with yak dung. We were offered another thick cup of butter tea and a bowl of Tsampa. It was really cold!! We knew it was even colder outside. Every layer was piled on before we went outside to use the toilet. We wore gloves, hats and two pairs of socks! By the way, the toilet is more or less any place one can find that has a little privacy. Sometimes just anywhere, since privacy was generally impossible to find.

At 9 am, we said our thank yous and good-byes and quietly skirted around the house that threw rocks a Michael. The dogs barked their morning greeting (more like a threat not to get too close to their masters’ homes). And soon we were out of the village and heading up towards the next pass. With a 5,400 meter (17,800 ft) pass before us, we were hoping for a quick ride to the next village. Some say we on the highest road in the world. The sky was a clear; a deep royal-blue. We could see our breath for several feet, and continuously wiggled our fingers and toes to stay warm. We were on our third day, of what turned out to be many, on our adventure to the China Everest Base Camp. It was, indeed, a great start. Here we were, two Yuppies from Silicon Valley and a Monk. So far a wonderful adventure and a great team!

Side note: Travel can be quite varied in this part of the world (if you want it to be). We tend to mix things up a lot in order to keep it interesting and to push us out of our comfort zone. It’s usually in these situations when our senses and thoughts are really stimulated and we learn the most. We learn about ourselves, about each other and we try to understand what’s really going on around us.