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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

On the Road, Kathmandu To Lhasa

September 11, 2010

In which the Journal's extreme-sports
correspondent seeks an appropriate vantage point to view Mount Everest.
By MICHAEL J. YBARRA
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)
September 9, 2010

Along the Friendship Highway, Tibet

My eight-hour bus ride was into its 14th hour. We
were stalled in traffic outside of Kathmandu on
the eve of a Maoist-led general strike that would
shut down Nepal's capital for an entire week.

I jumped out and waved down a motorcycle rider
who was slowly weaving through the tangled skein
of buses and trucks. I offered him money for a ride.

"Not everything is about money," he said.

I could smell the beer on his breath.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"America," I said.

"Hop on, American," he said.

I was racing back to town-so I could spend
another five days on a bus. Actually, I was going
to spend five days crossing the Friendship
Highway, the just-about-completed road that links
Kathmandu to Lhasa-the highest paved highway in
the world. Most of the journey would be above
11,800 feet, and three passes would top 16,400
feet-almost 600 feet higher than the summit of Mont Blanc.

And it's the only road in the world with a view
of Mount Everest. When people find out I climb,
they usually ask me two questions: Have I ever climbed Everest? Do I want to?

No, I say. At 29,029 feet, Everest may be the
tallest peak in the world, but it's a lumpy,
visually unappealing mountain, not technically
challenging, and crowded with people lured by its
fame as much as anything else. Still, I was keen
on seeing Everest-from a distance.

But first I had to get back to Kathmandu, which I
did with just a few hours to spare thanks to my
new motorcyclist friend. Early the next morning I
met up with the group I was going with to Tibet.

China doesn't allow individuals to travel in
Tibet-officially known as the Tibet Autonomous
Region. Visitors must join group tours, carefully
limiting their time in the region. Mine had about
25 people, mostly backpackers in their early 20s.

For several hours our bus followed the bubbling
Bhote Kosi (literally River from Tibet) north
toward the border. At the border we crossed the
Friendship Bridge into Tibet-China's idea of
friendship apparently requiring you to leave one
bus, then hike uphill for half an hour to
another. Not to mention confiscating your
guidebook. China bans Lonely Planet guides
because of a map representing Tibet as a separate country.

Some of our group tore the covers off their
books, others tried hiding them. Several were
found and, after some wrangling, the owners
ripped the map out and got their books through. A
friend had a Nepal trekking guide seized because
it contained a photo of the Dalai Lama.

On the new bus, the difference in roads was
instantly noticeable. The pavement was smooth and
wide, traffic almost nonexistent.

The road climbed toward the Tibetan plateau, the
Bhote Kosi snaking through a canyon hundreds of
feet below. Then we hit the final section of the
road yet to be paved. The driver told us to get
out and walk while he maneuvered the bus over a
mud track hugging the cliff side. We walked about
half a mile. A local bus full of passengers bumped by.

"Why didn't they have to get out?" one of my fellow travelers asked our guide.

"We have lots of Tibetans," he replied, "but foreigners are expensive."

Well after dark, we reached Neylam, a sad, dirty
Chinese town where we spent the night in a guesthouse.

I had been looking forward to the next day when
we would reach Lalungla, a pass at 16,400 feet,
which on a clear day offers views of five of the
world's highest mountains, including Everest. But
the pass was shrouded in clouds when we reached
it, brightly colored prayer flags the only thing
visible in the softly falling snow.

On the other side, the road dropped into an
immense valley, barren hills ringing the horizon.
It was all sky and dun-colored earth. We passed
small settlements now and then, dirt farmers
riding the edge of the road in yak-carts or
ancient tractors. Once in a while a Land Cruiser sped by.

That night we stopped in Latse, another
characterless city. I walked to a small monastery
at the edge of town. I poked my head into the
temple. A half-dozen red-robed monks were sitting
on cushions. Several were drinking Coke. One was
talking on a cellphone. They motioned me in. I
folded my legs onto a cushion, looking around at
the candles burning in dishes of yak butter,
painted thangkas hanging on the walls, piles of
Buddhist scripture tied in neat stacks on a
table. A monk offered me a bottle of water.

Outside a mountain goat was eating my shoes. When
I picked up the shoes, the goat butted me with
its huge curlers. A monk chased it away.

On the third day we reached the city of Shigaste,
home of the Panchen Lama, where the Tashilumpo
Monastery crawls up the hill at the edge of town.
After walking through the lovely temples, I set
off to hike the khora, or pilgrimage circuit,
that circles the monastery clockwise. The path
was full of pilgrims, some turning small
hand-held prayer wheels, others spinning the
large, stationary prayer wheels lining the trail.

After two more days and almost 450 miles of
driving, we dropped from the Karo Pass at 16,568
feet and rolled into the wide valley holding
Lhasa. The two-lane highway became four, and
suddenly there were other vehicles on the road.
We entered the city, which has swelled to 250,000
people. The road grew to six lanes, flanked by
ugly new buildings-a typical sprawling Chinese
city despite being at 11,450 feet. "China Dream,"
beamed a huge billboard in English. "China Pride."

"My romantic dreams of Lhasa just died," said my friend Andre.

Many visitors feel that way. The Potala Palace,
perched on a hillside at the edge of town, still
dominates the skyline, although the Chinese have
turned the Dalai Lama's former residence into a
museum with the few remaining monks forced to dress in street clothes.

The old town area surrounding the Jokhang Temple,
the holiest shrine in Tibet, still buzzes with
pilgrims. Yet an outer circle of Chinese troops
in riot gear is a constant reminder of how
tightly Beijing circumscribes Tibet's freedom.

One day I went to the Sera monastery outside of
town. I skipped the tour bus back and set off on
my own khora, following a dusty path up a hill
behind the monastery. The only other pilgrims
were two Tibetan women in high heels and floppy
hats. Numerous spur trails branched off higher
into the hills and I had trouble following the
proper path. One of the women noticed.

"Hello," she chirped, pointing me back to the
right way. Several other times they stopped to
wait and direct me. I began to think of them as
my personal Bodhisattvas, Buddhas who have
attained enlightenment but opt to stay on earth to help others.

To Buddhists, the harder the journey, the greater
the merit one earns. I began to think my idea of
seeing Everest from a road was too facile. A
great mountain, even one I don't want to climb, deserves better.

Unexpectedly, I finally did get to see Everest.
On my flight leaving Lhasa, I found myself on the
wrong side of the plane, so I snuck into an open
window seat in first class. And there it was:
Just a bump on a ridge-but what a ridge. Everest
and its satellite peaks rose above a sea of
clouds like an island, into a cobalt blue sky, a
plume of snow blowing off its summit like a flag.
Its bulk was impressive. I began to look for climbing lines.

Then I got kicked out of the seat. It seamed a fitting departure from Tibet.

Mr. Ybarra is The Journal's extreme-sports correspondent.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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