The other day I got a sweet potato from a street vendor. It was kind of cold and wasn’t too good, but it did give me the chance to visit the Chinese Military Hospital in Lhasa. At some point while eating the spud, I chipped one of my molars. It didn’t hurt, but I realized that I should probably do something about it. The Tibet Lonely Planet recommends the hospital as pretty much the only place to get modern medical treatment. Not so many choices, but at least there was one.
I hopped in a Taxi and, assisted by the correct spelling in Chinese for the hospital provided by the hotel clerk, made my way to what I what I had already resigned myself to being an expensive, painful, and crude treatment. When we got to the gate of the military complex, the driver must have explained that I had asked to come to the hospital, because the guard let us in.
I went into the plain looking building through the open door and was greeted by the dimmest of lighting. I asked the girl behind the glass if she spoke English, but she just shook her head. Luckily, a doctor walked by and asked what the problem was. I informed him that I had chipped a tooth and he explained it to the girl. She took my name and complaint and put it into a computer, then gave me a ticket to go see the dentist and explained that it was on the 3rd floor. I walked up the stairs in the nearly empty building, passing by rooms which looked like they had been neglected for years. When I got to the third floor, I proceeded into the dentistry area, which actually had reclining chairs and lights. This was a good sign. However, the fact that none of the three people in the room spoke English was not a good sign. The multiple stains on the wooden table used as a workbench was not either.
I handed the dentist my ticket and he motioned me over to a chair immediately. You don’t have to read outdated magazines in the waiting room when you are the only patient. I sat down, leaned back, and pointed back in my mouth. The dentist moved the light over my face and peered inside. “Ah,” he said. I think it was the sound of him discovering the problem, not a command for me to say the same. He called for one person to look on and began poking and scraping the afflicted tooth, while calling for another to bring him a tray. After poking and scraping for a while longer, he took the cloth off the top of the new tray and revealed a wide variety of drills and rusty tips. At this point I got a bit antsy.
He warmed up the drill a few times and approached my mouth. I held up my hand to stop him and played charades trying to get him to guess one of the following phrases: “May I have some anesthetic please?” “Hit me over the head with a mallet so I see little birdies.” or “Can we do this wild west style and I’ll drink a pint of whiskey first?” He eventually realized that I was apprehensive and got on the phone to someone. After a few minutes, a new dentist arrived who spoke a little bit of English. We talked a little bit and the new guy poked and scraped. He asked me more than once how long I would be in China, and seemed disappointed that I had only planned on staying another week or so. But this wasn’t small talk, it seems that it was going to take about a month to get the new crown made and put in!
That timeline royally screwed my plans for Mongolia and Russia, since I’d only have about a week to do both. I began trying to think of other ways around the problem, like not eating for the next few weeks and asked the dentist if there was anything else that could be done. He said that there wasn’t and that the pain would get worse. When I told him that I had no pain now, he looked surprised and called for another tray. He explained to me that if I had no pain, he could use some epoxy to seal up the hole until I got back home. That was a great plan and I immediately and enthusiastically agreed. The epoxy was even made in the US by a western pharmaceutical company!
After applying and shaping the new fake enamel — he did have to use the rusty drill then — I was all set to go. He seemed very pleased with his work, but I was even more so. This was a major problem averted. In the end it cost me only 13 Yuan, or less than $2! But more importantly, it meant that I could continue on the trip. As much as I enjoyed Lhasa, I didn’t want to be there for 6 weeks when there were Russian food and women waiting for me.
update: Here is a photo of my busted tooth.
We woke up at 7:30 and were on the road by 8am. Our initial excitement was quickly tempered by the numbing cold. Our toes were numb and I worried about frostbite. The road was rough, the windows were frosted and we were nearly comatose.
We hadn’t slept very well the night before due to the near freezing conditions in our rooms.
In an attempt to stay healthy in the high altitude with all of the exertion from the day before, we’d all had quite a bit of the very weak tea they served. Tea was the best way to get clean water from the well which provided the hotel with water, since the water had been boiled. However, this caused us to have to get up to relieve ourselves all night long. Since the toilet was on the opposite side of the compound, across 20 meters of about -15C open air, it was quite a chore. Consequently, sometimes staying awake and shivering only a bit with a full bladder was preferable sometimes.
At around 9am, we approached a checkpoint. We all had to get out of the relative comfort of the Land Cruiser and go into the unheated building. The process of looking over our paperwork took us about a half hour, during which we were cold, but were at least moving around and out of the wind. The same wouldn’t be true of our second checkpoint where we stood out in the wind. A couple of us had to use the toilet which necessitated crossing the checkpoint without papers of any kind and going into a ramshackle shack. However, this checkpoint was faster and we were on our way up the mountain quickly.
Around 10 in the morning, our toes warmed up and the windows got clear, but the road got a little more rocky and icy. We didn’t notice these things. We had crested the top of a hill and paused at a scenic overlook. From this vantage point, we could see four of the 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya range.
The day was perfect. Though the day before had seen snow and heavy cloud cover, our visit would have neither of those things. From the overlook point, each of the highest peaks was creating its own weather; clouds were bellowing from them, turning them into chimneys at the top of the Earth. China has its smokestacks, regurgitating trash into the sky, making you weep for the shame they don’t feel. Tibet has majestic mountains lifting air to become billowy balloons of white, marring the blue with beauty and bringing a tear to your eye for that reason. The moment left all of us with a prescient sense that China was indeed a whole different world away from this place, not its master.
The ride down into the valley and back up, up, up towards the base camp felt like the stream must feel coming down from its heights — our limbs, words, and minds tumbling over one another without concern for their final destination. It was onward at any consequence. The final checkpoint unmanned, we passed through with momentum growing as we sped uphill.
We reached the end of the road, the Rong Phu monastery across from the newly built Chinese hotel with its satellite dishes and antennae like hairs on a bar of soap. We were the first Land Cruiser, but several others quickly followed. By this time, we were headed off towards the mountain which was calling us in a tune we didn’t hear but felt as a moth feels the draw of the fire. Our driver didn’t have time to give us instruction or deadlines, we simply gravitated towards that landmark.
As we walked along the road and up and over hills as shortcuts, we hardly noticed the vehicle starting from the place past which only emergency vehicles were allowed. In less than an hour we had covered probably a kilometer and a half, by which time the Land Cruiser had caught up with us. Though it was prohibited, there were no officials to challenge us, let alone stop or prohibit us from continuing. Our experienced driver tackled the ice and flowing water skillfully and carefully propelling us toward our destination. We emerged from the winding road on a flat where perhaps thousands of adventurers had come before us to camp and plan before heading beyond where we would go.
We danced and played in the snow and on the ice. We climbed the outhouse and the hills around. We stood in wonder looking up at the mountains around us, the farthest from us, we knew, the highest in the world. We were higher, both in spirit as in body, than most people would ever aspire to be. We drank a toast of Jack Daniels to celebrate.
But Everest was not a place of jubilation for all. This was evidenced by the many gravestones we found on the low hills around. These were monuments for men who headed on past our footprints without retracing them. One stone marked the place of the first descent attempted by snowboard. One was for a husband and wife team who were not underneath their names. There were remains, too, of people who had died in the camp before trying and after successfully ascending the mountain to which we now stood, nearly prostrate reading markers. A humbling reminder that not all days were this beautiful and not all people were this joyous.
On the way back down the mountain in the Land Cruiser, we drank our oxygen. We’d each brought 2 bottles for the ascent but hadn’t needed them. Sucking on it coming down kept us giddy, whether from physiological or psychological effects, we didn’t know. We didn’t care. We all felt like we’d touched the Gods; modern day Icari with our wax intact. We passed through Shegar, our previous night’s resting place, and felt as if it were at sea level. We continued on back across our route, things seeming to be much less consequential than when we first passed them.
We slept in Shegatse in the Tenzin Hotel. We arrived after dark and checked into our rooms. They were expensive and fancy, but we felt we had earned them. Showers, heaters, television — we were living in luxury compared to the previous three nights. It was nice for the hour we were awake to enjoy it. But it was late and we were tired. We fell asleep quickly and deeply.
After our incredible and long day, we slept in until about 9am. This was the first night of the Tibetan new year and our driver wanted to get back to Lasa and his family as soon as possible. We wanted to get back too because we had heard so many things about the holiday that we didn’t want to miss any part of it.
The drive back was uneventful and we had a chance to reflect on all we’d seen and done in the last few days. It was really incredible to us. Even 24 hours after being in that place, we still enjoyed talking about it to each other as if the others weren’t there. We told the same stories over again that we’d shared the night before on the drive East.
The monuments at EBC marked empty graves, but the spirits of those fallen were present where their bones weren’t. And we’d taken a bit of that fervor with us while still leaving it there intact. It was one of the greatest experiences of any of our lives and one we will all tell many times over, hopefully to spread what we’d caught on that mountain on the far side of the globe.
On the third day of our trip, all that was planned was a quick jaunt to Shegar, about 100km from Lotse. However, as we got on the road, it began to snow. That made the roads a little more difficult to get across. We got to the last pass between the two towns and it was snowing harder than ever. However, after a minute of heading down the hill, it stopped. After a few more miles, we noticed some folks over to the side of the road waving us down, so we pulled over.
This was a couple of Swiss guys who were biking from Lhasa to Khatmandu in the dead of winter. Insane. One of them had some kind of a stomach virus and was unable to ride. While we didn’t have room in our car, Kernby volunteered to ride his bike into town, around 25mi away. It took about a half hour to get things transferred and for him to get bundled up, then he and the other Swiss guy started riding down the hill.
We took off after them and quickly passed them with a blast from the horn. We rode for a while more, then came to a small section of road lined with shops. The driver stopped and proclaimed it to be Shegar. However, according to all our accounts, Shegar should have been about 7km off the road. After about a half hour of translating, we discovered that this was considered a part of Shegar and that the staying in the real Shegar (also called New Tingiri) would have cost us too much time the next day when heading to Everest. It was not clear what the rush was to get to the 93km of dirt roads that make up the path to EBC, but the driver was adamant. However, he agreed to take us to the other town after we’d eaten and gotten Kernby back from his bike trip.
When this all happenned, it was still only about 2pm, so we went to get our permits to drive to EBC and our permits to enter it. Then we went to the town of Shegar and headed up towards the monastery there. On the way, we encountered plenty of local kids who knew the words that all poor Tibetans seem to know: “Hello. Money.” Brian played with them for a while, dancing around and chanting the mantra as if it were a game. The kids all laughed and had a good time, but didn’t stop begging. After a while they got tired and didn’t want to follow us up to the monastery, so we climbed the hill that was between it and us.
We found out later that there was a much easier trail, but we had a great time scrambling up the loose dirt and rocks. The monastery was officially closed to tourists for the day we had been told, but the doors were all open and there didn’t seem to be anyone who minded. Shortly after we arrived, we realized that some kind of a ceremony was going on in the main building. We walked over that way, but it ended when we arrived. The many pilgrims inside filed out and smiled at us and bid us “Tashy Dele”. We followed them out of the monastery and down the hill.
We all piled back in the Land Cruiser and headed back to the hotel. This is when we found out that the electric heaters in our room were of no use, since the town didn’t have power after 2pm. The only light was from a lantern and the heat was provided by sheep and yak dung burning in the stove. The combination smelled terrible, so the three of us headed out to wander around in a giant field just outside of town.
We strolled about aimlessly, each taking a different direction. There were giant runoff canyons formed by the melting snow. These were quite fun to explore. While I was coming out of one of these, I noticed a young shepherd boy standing at the rim looking down at me with his herd of goats behind him.
We spoke briefly in the few words we knew in common and the few hand gestures that we could make sense of. His name was “Urtoo” or something that sounded like it. He invited me to take his picture and I obliged him. Later, we were walking through the same gully and I had the opportunity to show him his photo as well as other pictures, such as that of the Potala and Tashilhunpo palaces. I also shared some of my bubblegum with him. Eventually, he had to go back in his direction and I went in mine.
Back at the hostel, Brian and Kernby told me that they’d had a similar experience with some folks who invited them to their home and gave them authentic yak butter tea and tsampa. The Tibetans are a very warm and welcoming people, and this sort of thing is common in their culture.
That night, we all went to bed fairly early since there was nothing to do in the cold and dark. Later on that night, Kernby woke us up to go out and look at the stars. You could see into forever that night, but it was too cold for me to stay out too long. But Kernby grabbed some blankets and went to sleep in the field.
The second morning of our trip, we went to the Tashilhunpo palace. This is the home to the Panchen Lama line of monks, though the current Panchen Lama was taken prisoner by the Chinese as soon as the Dalai Lama announced his divinity in 1995. I can’t get many details behind the Great Firewall of China, but I think that he was about 5 years old at the time. However, the Chinese have appointed a Lama to take charge of the palace so that everything runs smoothly for them.
The palace opened at 10am for tourists and we filed in and began walking around. Brian and I took the most clockwise route we could, circling the monastery just inside the walls. However, this did not provide us with much to see, so we began following the crowds a bit more. Inside of the many chapels, things were much the same as in other monasteries, with various representations of different holy
people and things under which were placed stacks of bills. Inside one of the chapels was a kind of souvineer shop, but more authentic than in most tourist attractions, since the monks actually make the items in the same room. Both of us bought something, as much to support the monks as to get the tangiable items.
We met back at the hotel and got on the road at about noon. We made a pit stop at Sakya monastery on the way. It was much smaller, only one chapel, but seemed to have as many beggars. We paid the entrance fee, walked around, and then headed out again, off to Lhatse.
We arrived near dusk and went to eat at a small restaurant. Then we went and checked into our hotel. They wanted 40 Yuan per person, but we got them down to 25. The place was empty and there was another hotel across the street, so that helped. This hotel was the most interesting so far. It had no heat nor hot water, but it did have
wash basins in the room. The toilet was outside and was just a hole in the ground that led down to the ground. This made using the toilet on the second floor (where we were staying) much more adventurous than the first, since there was a constant breeze blowing up.
We went downstairs to the small restaurant/bar to talk over the next day’s travels and get things sorted out. After we had accomplished that, Kernby taught us a card game that is played in many variants throughout Asia. I’m not sure what it’s called and I won’t waste the space to tell the rules, but it is a bit like a cross between Hearts and Poker. We played that for a few more hours and then headed off to
We had our stuff packed up and in the Land Rover by 9am, ready to go. We drove out of Lhasa, headed for our first location, Yamdrok Tso. This lake is one of Tibet’s three holiest. It has no river which feeds it, nor does one flow from it. Tibet’s largest freshwater lake has been refreshed only by rains and has been drained only by evaporation for millions of years.
However, recently the Chinese have created a hydroelectric plant underneath the lake that drains the lake of its water to produce power for Lhasa. The water level is slowly dropping below the natural level since the project was finished.
While the engineers have promised to replenish the water from a nearby river, this process has not yet begun. However, the water from this river has much different properties and may be toxic to the wide variety of life which lives there, including some species found only here. Not only that, but it is widely speculated that this procedure will actually end up in a net loss of energy and will only serve to destroy one of the Tibetans’ holiest sites.
People also question the need for the power generation capabilities, since Lhasa does not currently exceed its capacity. The reasoning goes that Lhasa is growing quickly, and demand will soon outstrip its current ability to power the city. However, the growth is due largely to Chinese migration to the Tibetan capital, not due to a wide scale change in the Tibetans’ traditional herding and nomadic lifestyle.
The lake was a beautiful place, even despite the lack of greenery and the fact that the lake was nearly completely frozen over. Nearby, there is a glacier, moving ever so slowly down a mountain slope. Hawkers have set up nearby selling worthless junk and attempting to charge a fee for taking pictures. They have also brought dogs and yaks to a scenic overlook of the lake, attempting to charge pictures for shots with the animals. They shove them into the pictures then demand payment. They forced Kamson to pay 30 Yuan by surrounding and not allowing him to get back into the car. It probably would have cost more but we got out and pushed them all away from the car. They might have struggled more had another Land Cruiser not rolled up as we were trying to get away.
That afternoon, we stopped in a town called Gyantse. Famous for its monastery and its carpet manufacturing, it is the 4th largest city in Tibet. Inside the monastery, there is a structure called the Kumbum (meaning 1,000 images) filled with murals and chapels. However, we arrived too late in the day due to the poor roads going on the way to Yamdruk Tso.
The carpet factory we went into was an interesting place, with several buildings full of women in various phases of preparing wool and creating the carpets. We talked to them for a bit in the few short sentences and phrases of English they knew and the gestures we could work out in common. Kamson bought a carpet and we packed it into the car and headed off to Shigatse.
When we arrived in Shigatse, we checked into the hotel of the driver’s choice. Kernby, Brian, and I weren’t involved in the decision making process, Kamson and Sonam worked it out between themselves in Mandarin before we’d arrived in the city. We set our stuff down in the 4 person room and got ready to go to dinner. But first we took a brief tour of the city. With only a few streets and a handful of traffic lights, it didn’t take long.
We went to a restaurant that the Lonely Planet recommended, but it seemed a bit dingy for Western consumption. We tried another place and it was much nicer. We had a good meal and noticed that the other two tour groups who had been trailing us all day long had wandered into the same place. They were also at the same hotel, on their drivers’ recommendations. These were probably the most Western-catering places in the city.
When we got back to the hotel, we were tired and went to bed immediately. We were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. The next day we were to see the Tashilhunpo monastery, one of the holiest in Tibet.
After we got to Lhasa, we learned that it was still possible to take a trip to Everest Base Camp, despite the season and the approaching of the Tibetan and Chinese New Years. EBC, as it is known, is the 5200 meter (over 17,000 feet) high lower encampment from which those who attempt to climb the world’s most famous mountain begin. Composed of only a few permanent buildings (mainly a postal hutch and several outdoor toilets) and tents of those who are visiting, attempting to climb, and even some tents rented as hotel rooms. The camp is located 7km away from the road, meaning that to reach EBC, you have to hike that distance in an altitude higher than most mountains in the world. At this height, the air is a little more than half as thick as it is at sea level, meaning that you have to breathe about twice as hard to get the same amount of oxygen into your system. This becomes a real problem when hiking.
We located a tour organizer, Lotse, who could get us set up with a driver and a good route of between 3 to 5 days for sightseeing, with stops at restaurants and hotels along the way. The cost was to be the same for 1 or 4 people, so we teamed up with a couple of people who were also interested in taking the trip. We sat down with our tour organizer and planned out a route from Lhasa around Yamdruk Lake, to Gyantse to see the monastery, then sleeping in Shigatse. The next day, we’d see Tashilhumpu, the palace of the Panchan Lamas, go from Shigatse to Sakya monastery and sleep in Lhatse. Then from Lhatse to Shegar. On the fourth day, we’d actually go to EBC, then back to Shegar. On the fifth day we’d make the long return trip to Lhasa and be done. We met our driver, Sonam, and paid half of the total fare.
Our traveling companions were two Canadian citizens of Chinese ancestry. Kernby was the first of the two we met. He was traveling with his father, Kamson. We’d first noticed them on the train coming to Lhasa, then gone out with Kernby and a couple we met our first night in Lhasa named Andy and Katch. That night, Kernby had been telling us that he didn’t really believe in Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), a condition where the high altitude and relatively little oxygen content in the air can lead to nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, lethargy, dizziness, headache…lots of not so fun symptoms. However, by the time we were ready to leave for the trip, Kernby had been fighting the condition and had finally won; his body had become acclimated to its new surroundings. We were able to buy small bottles of oxygen for the trip to prevent this kind of thing happenning on the multiple mountain passes and places we’d be hiking and sleeping where the relative 3600m height of Lhasa would seem like flatland.
We all went to bed early the night before we were to leave on the trip to be ready for the next 5 days of our adventure.