Tibetan Plateau…Dedicated to – To Edward Rogers 1969 – 2015. ‘This is the highest toilet on earth’ our guide trilled, waking me from my 5th nap of the day. We had left Shigatse some 5-6 hours ago and despite the spectacular scenery along the way, the rocking motion of our 4WD lulled me to sleep like a gurgling baby.
I opened one eye against the glare of the sun. He was pointing to a concrete shed, reachable by thirty steps or so. Next to it was a sign declaring we were now at 5250 metres above sea level. Hmmm, hilarious!’ I thought remorsefully, having exposed my butt to passing vehicles two hours ago as I peed “au naturale”. We were literally on the ‘Roof of the World’ and yet, here was a ‘proper’ toilet in quite literally, the land of sh!tholes!
If I was brave enough, I may have taken the opportune moment of a toilet break, but the short walk from the car to the foot of stairs left me gasping for air. Lungs burning and legs in danger of buckling below me, climbing the stairs seemed as tough a trek to Everest Base Camp – which is exactly where we were heading – well, minus the arduous bit. I’m not ashamed to admit we were doing it the ‘lazy’ way, journeying all the way into Mount Everest’s North Base Camp by 4WD.
Still, one should not take this trip lightly. “Altitude kills!” a sign warned, reminding us that we are venturing into one of the most hostile places in the world.
Indeed, we may have been in the comfort of a 4WD but I was feeling far from relaxed as we climbed through a magnificent landscape of bare fault lines and rock formations some hours later. We had already lost one member of our group at Tingri due to mild altitude sickness, and I too was beginning to question my physical state of being.
Something was definitely odd. There was a bizarre tingling and sometimes sudden pulling on my scalp. It felt like someone was tugging at my hair. I turned around in my seat and shot my fellow travel buddy an accusing look but he looked at me blankly. Oh, this was very weird.
The anxious part of me wished I had forfeited this dream of mine to see Mount Everest. I ran the symptoms of altitude sickness in my head… Severe headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, blurred vision, delirium… I had none of these – unless claustrophobia was missed out in error? We were in the car for a total of 12 hours now and I felt like a caged animal clawing at the windows. I needed air… a satisfying intake of fresh, lovely, heavenly air.
Just as I was about to surrender to a puff of bottled air, my concerns were quickly forgotten as an easterly wind drew back the curtain of dense cloud to unveil our first glimpse of the nation’s Jewel. There she was in a cinematic view… Superior, proud and powerful; unmistakably the summit of Mount Everest, or what the Tibetan’s call Chomolungma – ‘Goddess Mother of The Earth’, Earth’s highest point at 8848 metres.
Even at a vast distance away, she was enormous; filling the valley and taking prominence of the foreground. The scale only enhanced the enormity and incomprehension of climbing it; which I suppose is the huge draw for the recorded 800 climbers who attempt to climb it each year; what the National Geographic now describes as a ‘commercialized climbing circus’.
I was not going to be one of those 800 today. I was happy to admire it from afar. Aside from the hefty £30k price tag, I’d seen the movies The Wildest Dream and Vertical Limit, and I knew the statistics of success aren’t foolproof. Despite frequent earthquakes and landslides, 4000 people have scaled the summit since Sir Edmund Hilary in 1953; but it’s also worth taking heed that hundreds have also perished. The most recent earthquake occurred in April 2015, killing 22 climbers, and it was only very recently that Tibet reopened its doors to climbers.
There was a general sense of assurance that we were safe from aftershocks. Actually, at this point, I didn’t care. High on adrenalin, I felt like an adventurer, ready to face the unpredictability that Mother Nature can throw at you.
This time we were in no danger of tremors…Grey clouds ominously rolled across the sky with the portent of rain. We were suddenly in a race against time and weather.
‘We may not be so lucky to see the summit after all,’ our guide warned. I suddenly felt crestfallen. This was meant to be the grand finale of my soul searching trip. After my disappointment in Lhasa which I had nicknamed ‘Chinasa’ because of the Han Chinese ‘invasion’, I was hoping I’d find what I was seeking across these Tibetan plateaus. I had been carrying photos of my parents and brothers with me at the start of my trip, hoping I’d be able to ‘lay them to rest’ in these spiritual lands but nothing seemed quite fitting enough.
We couldn’t give up now. We had journeyed so far to reach her. Sensing our urge, and with the epic vision of myriad snow-capped peaks just a kiss away,, our driver put our 4WD in to drive and we continued to climb towards her…
Editor’s Note – Continued tomorrow!