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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Everest: the perfect mountain view

January 26, 2008, United Kingdom

Approaching Everest Base Camp from the quieter, Tibetan side provides
the most startling - and breathtaking - views of the mountain, discovers
Tarquin Cooper.

In the barren black and white world of life above 5,000m, the only
colour comes from a bunch of synthetic flowers hanging from the inside
of our dining tent. It's a small touch, one of many designed to make
life at Everest's Base Camp as comfortable as possible for those hoping
to climb the world's highest mountain. I appreciated the touch, too, and
I had only just arrived. The thin air at this altitude made me feel as
though I had fast-forwarded to old age and I was only too grateful for
small comforts.

Until recently, only the most adventurous could dream of visiting Mount
Everest. In the 1920s it took British explorers a month to march from
Darjeeling by foot and pony via the steamy jungles of Sikkim. Even in
the 1970s, the expeditions led by Sir Chris Bonington took a month
walking from Kathmandu.

And yet today anyone can get there in a matter of days, independently or
with a tour operator. Up to 25,000 people do each year, many for the
sheer impact of seeing Everest with their own eyes. I had just joined them.

There are actually two base camps, one on either side of the mountain
(and the only way to get between the two is over the top). The route
through Nepal has traditionally been the favoured one, and in peak
season, September to November, it can be very busy. It's a 10-day hike
from the small airstrip of Lukla, up hill and at altitude. Although the
trek is beautiful - lush forests, steep gorges, wobbly foot bridges over
thundering cascades - it doesn't provide the best view of the mountain.
You catch glimpses of its triangular summit poking above a sea of other

To see Everest at its best, standing proud, you have to approach it via
Lhasa in Tibet. I wasn't going to climb the mountain, but I wanted to
get the same view that Mallory and Irvine first had in 1924.

However, travelling to China-ruled Tibet today throws up some difficult
questions. Although the Chinese have invested hugely in Tibet's
infrastructure, they have also imposed severe restrictions on Tibetan
cultural life. Locals are, for example, forbidden from worshipping the
Dalai Lama. And local tensions are often felt by visitors. Just weeks
before I arrived, five American Tibetan exiles staged a demonstration in
front of a Chinese mountaneering team at Base Camp and were arrested.
They unfurled a banner that parodied China's Olympic slogan: "One World,
One Dream, Free Tibet, 2008". They spent the next 55 hours in custody.

To the visitor arriving in Lhasa, the pace of development is immediately
obvious. The airport terminal is all steel and glass, while the railway
station, which opened last year with a direct service to Beijing, is an
even bigger statement of China's might - it is vast, imperial, and imposing.

We ran the gauntlet of officials and emerged to meet our guide, who
asked us not to discuss politics. And then it was onto the new road,
billiard-table-smooth for the hour-long journey into the city. Our
driver took a wrong turn and apologised - the road had only opened the
week before.

Lhasa looks and feels like a modern Chinese city. Our hotel, the
Himalaya, gleamed, from the huge faux marble columns in the foyer to the
20ft chandelier dangling from the ceiling - a shining example of modern
China. Outside, the wide boulevards were lined with modern,
glass-fronted shops, filled with colouful household goods. Shop signs
were written in Chinese script, and the pavements were filled with
immigrant Chinese.

The traditional Tibetan quarter today comprises just four per cent of
the city, much of which - including Tibetan landmarks such as the Potala
Palace and the Jokhang Temple - felt as though it had been preserved for
the benefit of tourists.

But we were here to see the mountain, and arriving at 3,600m meant that
acclimatisation was a priority. Base Camp was another 1,600m higher, and
we were told to expect some level of altitude sickness, such as
headaches, lethargy and nausea.

Even in Lhasa, the altitude's effect was severe. At Potala Palace, I
conducted an experiment by attempting to run up the steps to its
entrance. After 20 yards my heart felt as though it would burst and I
could taste blood in my throat. It was ten minutes before I could speak,
but I'd learned my lesson: Tibet's height was not be taken lightly.

The altitude governed our itinerary. Following a few days of
acclimatisation in Lhasa, we drove to the town of Shegar (also known as
New Tingri), at 4,050m, where we stayed for a day to acclimatise
further. We used our time to climb up to the Shegar Dzong monastery,
built on a sheer mountain ridge. At this elevation, the landscape was a
dusty, barren wasteland - a vaste swathe of windswept plains.

It was this barren side of Mount Everest that the British explored in
the 1920s and 1930s before switching their attentions after the war to
Nepal. The view as we rounded the Rongbuk monastery was the same as the
one that would have greeted Mallory and Irvine in 1924. It was magnificent.

Everest filled my horizon, and yet it was still 15 miles away. A few
miles on we reached the terminal moraine - the vast boulder-strewn
valley floor at the end of the glacier. This is Base Camp, the place
Everest climbers call BC, and is home to about 20 teams of 600
mountaineers and Sherpas, dotted about like colourful army encampments,
each with their own flag or sponsorship logo.

We bumped our way in and met Russell Brice, a mountaineer from New
Zealand who is generally considered the best expedition organiser on the
mountain. Brice had thought of everything for his visitors' comfort.
Climbers were woken with sweet, milky tea and handed hot towels before
meals, which were served in a giant tent complete with wood-burning
stove, widescreen TV, bar and colourful, plastic flowers.

We were priveliged to have entry to Brice's camp: most independent
travellers are limited to the row of marquee-style tents erected by
enterprising Tibetans just up from Rongbuk. This area is called Shanty
Town, also home to a recently-opened, basic hotel.

Brice ordered us to do nothing for two days, and we were thankful. Every
step was slow and wearisome, but I managed a stroll to a nearby knoll
that had become an impromptu memorial park to fallen climbers. Amid the
more modern memorials was the most famous: "In memory of George Leigh
Mallory and Andrew Irvine, last seen 8th June 1924, and all those who
died during the pioneer British Mount Everest expeditions." The memory
of those men's bravery was being kept alive in the neighbouring tent by
two world renowned climbers, Leo Houlding and Conrad Anker who were
preparing to climb in replica wool and silk clothing for a documentary.
On my last full day at BC, I braved a trek. It was serene amid the chaos
of the enormous Rongbuk glacier that carves its slow way down the
mountain. From my vantage point, at the lung-bursting altitude of
5,500m, there was no sign of a human footprint. Oxygen bottles may still
litter the mountain higher up - and several bodies too. But here it
looked as pristine and awe-inspiring as it would have done in 1924.


Tarquin Cooper travelled as a guest of Motorola. Himalayan Experience
(00 33 4 50 54 09 36, organises treks to Base Camp.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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