We pulled together our trip to Tibet at the last
minute in Nepal, and left two days later. Our goal in Tibet was to
see some of the area, but mainly to experience Everest base camp. We had to
pay for a full group tour even though it was just the two of us.
We were told to lower our expectations for accommodations and cuisine,
but that was understated! Except for a couple cool points, such as
experiencing a minor earthquake, and hooking up with a very cool group
of overland tour leaders, our Tibet experience was miserable. Poor
American-China relations made entry difficult (see Getting
There). And the roads were unbearably rough (we drove over 30
hours on them!), the 'nicest' hotels
were horrible by our travel standards for this trip (no heat, no hot water,
limited electricity, and some had no private bathrooms/toilets or
running water). And Everest Base Camp was a complete
disappointment. And we were so hung-over/sick the last day we
wanted to die. We were so ready to escape Tibet.
Currency: Chinese Yuan (¥$9:US$1)
Language: Tibetan, Chinese
Internet connection speed: None
English speaking TV channels (in hotel):
Time difference: GMT +8:00 (12 hours
ahead of Atlanta) -- same as Beijing!
Cost of custom tour: 179,000 Nepalese
Year China invaded Tibet: 1950
Driving lane: right side
Temperature in hotel rooms: Zhang Mu 50°F,
Shegar 35°F, Tingri 38°F, Nyalam 40°F.
Since we had decided against doing the 11+ day trek in Nepal to Everest
after climbing Mt. Kilomanjaro, we were quite intrigued when we realized we
could drive close to Everest Base Camp from Tibet. Since a major
Maoist (rebel communist party) strike was planned in Nepal at the end
of the week we arrived in Nepal, we decided it was a good excuse to
leave Nepal and go to Tibet to see Everest. We could find only one
travel agent in Nepal that could pull together a shortened, focused trip to Tibet
in such an immediate timeframe. We wanted to see Everest in as
short a trip as possible, but because of acclimatization issues and
travel distances we had to dedicate 5 days to the trip. We found
the travel agent on Sunday afternoon, and they secured Chinese visas on
Monday, and we left on Tuesday. We were a bit disturbed by the
high cost of the trip, especially when the agent admitted that all the
accommodations were only about US$4 per night except for the Shegar
hotel (for which we had to pay
extra). But they they had to drive
a car all the way from Lhasa (500km away) to pick us up at the border, pay
the driver and guide for 5 days, etc. etc. So we decided to do
Since we had sent back home all our cold weather gear after
Kilimanjaro, we were woefully unprepared to travel to the Tibetan
plateau, almost all of which is above 16,000 feet, and very cold. Before leaving on the trip,
the travel agent loaned us each a down jacket and sleeping bags, and we
bought US$2 gloves in town, so we felt a little better.
This was our first taste of Chinese culture, and it was interesting
to see it through Tibetan land. Our guide clearly had some
negative feelings about the Chinese impact on Tibet over the last 50
years. If you are interested in seeing another group's negative
views on the impact, check out: Friends
of Tibet (NZ) and page down to the 'Look at what has happened...'
section. We did see some of the very different Chinese nuances
such as the extensive spitting, chewing loudly, and openly burping in
The following describes the events on our days in Tibet.
Day 1 -- Kathmandu to
Tibet border/customs to Zhang Mu, Tibet
We left on Tuesday morning in
a fairly new Land Cruiser. However, it was rush hour in Kathmandu
which made it a very slow trip (~3 hours) to the border. The back
seat of the Land Cruiser had minimal leg room, so it was quite
uncomfortable. Closer to the border the paved road gave way to a
rock/dirt road and became quite bumpy for the last 30 km. The
driver and guide decided to stop in a tiny village along the way to eat
lunch, but we did not eat, after looking at the condition of the food
sitting out on the open counter.
Please see the Getting
There section for the details of our very difficult immigration
We stayed in the Zhang Mu
hotel that night, and were happy to have our own toilet, but were a bit
surprised when the power and water stopped in the night (of course, no
hot water any time). There is no heat in the hotel so the
temperature dropped to 50°F in the room overnight. But the hotel
had heavy blankets so it was not so bad. We had eaten at the hotel
restaurant and were plenty satisfied with the very inexpensive noodles
Day 2 -- Zhang Mu to
Tingri to Shegar
Please see the Getting
There section for the details of our second day of the very
difficult immigration effort!
We awoke at 7:10AM to a
rumbling of the hotel -- after several seconds we realized it was an
earthquake! Our guide believed it went on for about 5 minutes, but
we only realized it for the last 20 seconds, probably because it felt a
lot like the Palace on Wheels train ride in India. We did have a
hard time going back to sleep as we thought about the positioning of the
hotel (and the rest of the buildings in town) on the edge of a mountain ridge and how
easily they could collapse and topple down the hill. Fortunately,
there were no other tremors. We figured it was a very minor
earthquake since we did not see any damage in town, but it was our
We drove from Zhang Mu to the
small town of Tingri for the next 5 hrs 15 minutes along very narrow
rocky, rough mountain roads. Our heads and bodies hurt from the
constant rocking/bumping of the car. A few times a minute we would
hit a bump large enough to lift our bodies out of our seats. We
figured our heads hurt from the continuous bouncing of our brains in our
skulls! Except for the glimpses of awesome far off snow-covered
ranges, the landscape was very barren and brown, with the occasional
stream running down the mountain side. We passed several small
mud/rock villages with dirt farmers and small herds of yak and dzo
(combination cow/yak). We could see very little grass or other
vegetation that could support the yak or other animals. We assumed
the farms would produce some sort of crop later in Summer (it was start
of Summer) but currently there was just dirt and rock.
We ate at a small restaurant
in Tingri with couches around all the walls. The stove in the
middle provided comfort in the now-chilly 16,000 foot atmosphere, and
the dumplings and noodles were quite good. Our guide wanted to
stay in Tingri that night, but we had paid extra for the Shegar hotel
(which had a private bathroom) so we decided to drive the extra 90 minutes of
bumpy road to Shegar.
As we pulled into the Shegar
hotel (the only one in the tiny town), it was eerily deserted. We
honked a couple times, and someone came out of a door around the corner,
opened the hotel door, turned on the lights, and checked us in. It
looked like a huge hotel from the past, abandoned for years (think Jack
Nicholson and 'The Shining'). Our
room was already freezing as we entered, and the water (only cold) cut
off shortly after we arrived. That night it dropped to 38°F in
our room! Kristen's very expensive breakfast the next morning was
not very good, and we realized it had probably not been worth the extra
money to stay in this place. We could not see how it survived
charging rates 20 times higher than anywhere else in that area.
Day 3 -- Shegar to Tingri
to Rombuk to Everest Base Camp to Tingri
On day 3, we drove back 90
minutes along the bumpy road to Tingri and then turned off for the road
heading to Rombuk monastery and Everest Base Camp. We are not sure
our guide and driver had taken the barely visible road before because we
changed direction several times and stopped to ask the few yak herders
we passed for directions. The landscape was extremely barren and
we could not understand how the few herders survived in this
environment. As the road was barely marked most of the way, we
crossed boulders, partially frozen rivers, and holes for the next 3½
We were happy to get out of
the car, for a bit of peace, as we reached the monastery. At 16,
400 feet, Rombuk is the highest monastery in the world. The guest
house and restaurant where we intended to stay that night were both
unexpectedly closed (apparently, they had not opened for 'season' yet.)
Our guide was worried because we had nowhere to stay and no way to get
food up there, so we would have to drive back to Tingri/Shegar that
night. Since it was approaching 3PM he was worried that we had not
eaten (Kristen since light breakfast, and Dan since yesterday 4PM
dinner) and it would take 3-4 hours to get back to Tingri/Shegar.
So he suggested we stay in a village between Rombuk and Tingri. We
were scared about that idea.
He wanted to drive us to
Everest Base Camp, since we had not eaten and since we were short on
time. We told him no way -- we wanted to walk the 7km distance,
since that was the point of the trip! He argued a bit (only trying
to help us), and then agreed to meet us at Base Camp in 2 hours so we
could drive back -- a nice compromise.
Shortly after we started to
walk, many Land Cruisers passed us on their way to Base Camp. It
was not a very impressive walk along the barren road to Base Camp --
very different than what we expected. We did get good views of Mt.
Everest, but it felt almost cheap walking along a road. At 17,000
feet, hungry, thirsty, with very cold wind blowing in our faces, we
started to regret the decision to walk the 'trivial' distance.
After we made it over half
way to base camp, Tempa showed up in the Land Cruiser with some dried
spicy noodles he had procured from somewhere at the monastery. We were quite happy
with the morsel of food, and willingly jumped in for a ride the rest of
the way to Base Camp. As soon as he said 'we are here, this is
Base Camp', we looked around and felt a sinking feeling in the pit of
our stomachs -- we went through all this expense and effort for
'this'! It was nothing more than a rocky area with a small sign,
and small one story building (not sure of its purpose), and one tent
arrangement of about 15 climbers. The view of Everest was
partially blocked by a dirt/rock hill, and it was still quite a distance
from the steep inclines of Everest. We realized that we had built
up something different in our minds and this was not it. We later
checked and believe there is an Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side that
might have better met our expectations (not that we would bother at this
point!) At that point we wished we had driven the whole 7 km
to Base Camp instead of walking any of it! Fortunately, since we
had had the noodles, Tempa felt better about going all the way back to
Tingri or Shegar, rather than staying in a primitive
The once again very rough
ride back to Tingri was awful. Even worse, the Land Cruiser
started losing power as we drove up hills, and eventually stalled.
Tempa and the driver got out and banged around under the hood,
removed/looked at spark plugs, and eventually got us started
again. We made it back to Tingri, but no one was comfortable with
making it all the way to Shegar, especially since it was almost 8PM and
would be dark soon. The Land Cruiser could not top 10km/h at that
point, so we were a bit concerned about making it anywhere.
In Tingri, we stayed at the
Snow Leopard Lodge, the nicest lodging in town. The room was
pretty clean, but the shared toilets (i.e., holes in the ground) were at one end of
the courtyard, there was no running water, and it got down to 35°F in
our rooms that night. The sleeping bags and two heavy comforters
made it bearable, but the late night headlamp-assisted run to the
outside bathroom/pit was painful!
Kristen standing on Friendship Bridge which divides
Nepal and Tibet (China).
Street view in Zhang Mu, the Tibet border town.
Friendship highway, which winds through the town, seems to be the only
road in this side of Tibet.
A view of the many trucks blocking the road in Zhang Mu.
Notice the trash on the side of the hill.
The sunset view from our Zhang Mu hotel room. Although
it was 50°F at night in our room warm by Tibetan standards, we had intermittent electricity and
only cold water,
the view was nice as the hotel (and the whole town) sat on a ridge. Pretty scary during the
earthquake (see text).
On the way to Shegar on day 2, a panoramic view of the
mountain range from La Lung La pass at 17,000 feet. It includes
Shisha Pangma mountain (8000+m).
Dan standing by the Buddhist offerings at La Lung La
pass. The pass is the first stopping point above 17,000 feet on
Kristen and the Land Cruiser in which we drove.
Another view along the road to Shegar on day 2.
Kristen trying to stay warm and pass time in the Shegar
hotel. The hotel was way too expensive, especially given that it was
38°F in the room, it had part time electricity and intermittent water
The Shegar hotel, the only hotel in remote Shegar, was
completely empty, except for us.
Scene of a yak on our drive to Rombuk Monastery
and Everest base camp on day 3.
A panoramic view on the way to Rombuk Monastery and Everest Base
Camp. The landscape was barren and desolate, like most we saw in
View of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the
world, from Rombuk Monastery.
Dan on our 7 km 'walk' to Everest Base Camp from Rombuk
Monastery. We were passed by many cars driving to Base Camp!
Panoramic view of Everest Base Camp. Not very
impressive, and very disappointing to us.
Dan standing at the Everest Base Camp sign. Note
that the sign does not say 'Everest', but instead, Qomolangma, the Tibetan name for
Kristen standing at the Everest Base Camp sign.
A bridge over a frozen river on the way back from Rombuk
Monastery. We had expected to stay at the monastery guesthouse, but
it was closed -- we were quite happy with that since it likely would have
been even more spartan than other places we stayed!
A panoramic view of the town of Tingri, where we stayed
on day 3, after visiting Base Camp. The town is only about 500 yards
We stayed at the Snow Leopard Lodge in Tingri. It was
quite cold in the room (38°F) and we had to walk a long distance from our
room to this wonderful bathroom. This is considered the best place
We ate in Ando Restaurant for each meal. At least
it was warm!
The Land Cruiser blew a piston 20 minutes outside Tingri
(aka 'middle of nowhere') on day 4. We were stranded.
With no phones anywhere (not even in Tingri, we
believe), we were fortunate that this bus of very kind British overland
travelers let us join them.
On the way to Nyalam on day 4, we made a pit stop at
this building near a Chinese army base. Note that all these bottles
are Pabst Blue Ribbon beer bottles! Why would you import PBR?
Dan and Kristen with a nice mountain range background,
on the way to Nyalam. One benefit of joining a group tour -- someone
can take pictures of the two of us!
Wouldn't you know it, the tour bus got a flat
tire. Fortunately, these seasoned travelers were well prepared.
We and the Brits huddle around a kerosene heater in the Nyalam
hotel restaurant as the snow storm rages outside. It was the only
semi-warm place in Nyalam.
Street view of Nyalam.
Kristen in our tiny, freezing cold room in the Nyalam
hotel. The curtains moved as the wind blew through the windows during the snow storm.
The often visited men's bathroom in the Nyalam
hotel. We will never forget the smell and we will not miss Tibet!
Day 4 -- Tingri to Nyalam
After stopping at the same Tingri
restaurant for breakfast, we started what we thought would be our trip to Zhang
Mu, for a warmer night with private bathroom on our last night in Tibet.
However, the Land Cruiser could only sustain a speed of 5-10km/h so we became
immediately concerned after leaving Tingri. Since there were no mechanics
or any real assistance (no phones, we believe) in Tingri we had to try.
Within 20 minutes of driving the Land Cruiser halted, and the driver declared
its death after another check under the hood. He was very upset because he
said (translated by Tempa) that he had told the agency in Lhasa that provided
the Land Cruiser that there were engine problems, but 'those Chinese mechanics'
just waved him on and said to take it anyway!
So we stuck our thumbs out and looked
for a ride (not really, Tempa just stood in the middle of the road).
After about 5 minutes a tour bus approached, but it was completely full.
After another 10 minutes, another partially full bus stopped, and after some
light discussion, they let us join them. The driver stayed with the Land
Cruiser -- we are not sure what he did out there in the middle of nowhere.
We were so fortunate to have this
particular bus approach when it did. There were only 7 people traveling
together on a bus that would hold 30, so there was plenty of room for us and our
bags. The group all worked together at a overland travel agency in Britain
so they were very experienced travelers, very laid back, and were quite
fun. They generously offered us sodas, snacks, etc. We realized that
the bus took the bumpy/rocky road much better than the lighter Land Cruiser, so
the roads were not quite as miserable.
They were going to stay they night in
Nyalam, and then head to Zhang Mu the next day, so that was now our plan, as
well. We took pictures of their whole group for them on some of the scenic
stops, and started enjoying having some English speaking people around again for
Charlie, the most outspoken one of
the group, decided that they had to do a buff picture just because 'they
could'. Of course, Dan was not one to shirk that kind of challenge, so at
La Lung La pass (17,000 feet, with great panoramic views of
snow-covered mountains) they did the deed. Fortunately, they had liter
sized Lhasa Beer bottles for coverage, so the pictures were not truly
They were quite pleased that
we had the digital camera, and we all enjoyed watching a slide show of
those pictures on the laptop over beer in Nyalam.
That night, we joined them for warmth
and drinks in the Nyalam hotel restaurant -- they had secured a kerosene heater
and we gathered around it in the restaurant. With a snow storm outside,
and our room approaching 40°F, it was the only warm option! We took the
heater to one of their triple rooms after we closed down the restaurant to move
on to some port wine they had with them. After way too many Lhasa Beers
and port wine, lots of very entertaining stories, rather incriminating pictures,
and smoke-covered clothes (most of them chain-smoked while drinking:-), we
escaped to our frozen room for a cold long spinning night. The many trips
to the only toilet (actually, just a ceramic hole) down the hall were
quite cold and painful.
Day 5 -- Nyalam to Zhang
Mu to Kathmandu, Nepal
Even though we woke up twice in the
night to take aspirin, we were quite hung-over after the late night of
drinking. The ride to Zhang Mu did not take too long, and we waited in
the lobby of the Zhang Mu hotel for an hour before starting the emigration
process/border crossing process. Customs was actually fairly quick,
and we jumped in a truck for the 8km road to the Nepal border. Of course,
the road was once again blocked, so we had to traverse down the step
mountainside shortcut, and walk the rest of the 2km to the border.
Fortunately, there was a guy that offered to carry our heavy bag all the way for
¥10 (about US$1), so it was not so bad. Ashray was waiting for us at the
bottom to get us through Nepal customs.
Our Land Cruiser ride from the Nepal
border to Kathmandu was miserable -- no leg room, we were hung over, lots of
honking, very slow and long. We were so happy to get back to the Crowne
Plaza! We checked in and and immediately showered and changed clothes for
the first time in 5 days! We made ourselves stay up (with difficulty)
until 10PM so we could finally sleep through the night.
On our first Sunday in Kathmandu we walked into a travel agent suggested by
our tour guide in Nepal and decided, on the spot, to design a custom trip
through Tibet and to Mt Everest. Ashray, the agent, could not do the trip any shorter
than 5 days/4 nights, but he said we could leave on Tuesday morning. On
Tuesday morning, driver and guide picked us up at the hotel and we started the
110km journey to the Nepal-Tibet border, with our final destination for that day
being Zhang Mu, Tibet on the border.
The journey through the mountains in the Land Cruiser was along hairpin turns
around which our driver honked continuously. When we passed the many buses
packed-full of people inside and on top, we always came dangerously close to the
sheer drop off on the side of the road. Although most of the drive was
fortunately on paved road, the last 8km was on extremely bumpy dirt/rock.
It was slow and quite painful on the internal organs (but nothing like what was
to come in Tibet)!
As we got closer to the border, we passed through two Nepalese police
checkpoints. The second was in a small border town where there were many
westerners hanging around waiting to get through emigration. We
transferred our bags to the trunk of a very old tiny car, which would actually
cross the border and take us to our next car in Zhang Mu, Tibet (up the hill,
about 8 km). Ashray, was there to help us get through
emigration/immigration. After about 15 minutes Ashray waved us on, as the
rest of the westerners still waited.
After walking through Nepalese emigration and over Friendship Bridge,
Ashray showed our passports and 'group visa letter' to the Chinese guards
securing entrance to Tibet. The guards looked closely at us and our
pictures as Ashray pointed to our names among five names on a formal stamped sheet
of paper, and they let us pass. He explained to us later that China does
not let individuals (a couple is considered an individual) into Tibet --
the smallest group size is five people. So his company made up 3 other
names and passport #'s, added them to the list to make five, and paid for passes
for all five people!
There was a big sign in English explaining the history of Friendship Bridge
just past the guards. Dan stepped up close to the sign to take a picture,
and the guards came running after him yelling! Oops, another illegal
Once the very old tiny car made it across the bridge, we started driving up a
very steep, extremely rocky/bumpy road towards where we would meet our Tibetan guide/driver. Unfortunately, the road was blocked by a long line of trucks,
apparently abandoned for now, blocking the road. We have no idea why, but
that meant that the car couldn't pass, so we had to walk. One local
guy carried our big bag, while we carried the computer bag and backpack.
Rather than walking on the road, we took a short cut that went straight up the
mountainside, eliminating the switchbacks. We were very hot and sweaty
when we reached the meeting point. There were several Land Cruisers lined
up, but Ashray said they were waiting for the group of 30 tourists that we saw
milling about at the immigration checkpoint. Because our guide and driver
hadn't yet arrived from Lhasa (and would not be arriving until that evening),
Ashray told us that we would have to wait for the large tour group to make it up
the hill, then catch a ride with them to Zhang Mu. We groaned inwardly
because there was no sign of the tour group and it was hot and dusty sitting in
the sun. After about half an hour, Ashray waved to us and told us to climb
into the cab of a big truck that was going to Zhang Mu. We climbed into the
cab, where there was a woman already sitting on the back part of the bench-like
seat. A man traveling with the woman also climbed in.
The 8 kilometer-ride up the mountain was unbelievably steep, bumpy and dusty
with an untold number of switchbacks. We had a space in the cab about
30x18 inches for both us! Dan was jammed against the door and
the window, hanging on to the front handle with both hands, while Kristen was
sandwiched between Dan on one side and the emergency brake, stick shift and the
driver's open, half-full liter of beer on the other. In addition the woman
behind us was bracing her knees against Dan's back, and her toes were poking
into Kristen's butt. Speaking of butts, as if things couldn't get more
uncomfortable, half way up the mountain, the driver lit a cigarette. The
smoke was billowing throughout the cab, choking us along with the dust. At
this point Kristen just started giggling at the absurdity of it all. And
for the first and (hopefully) last time, we supported littering and couldn't wait
until the driver finished the cigarette and threw the butt out the window!
We finally arrived in Zhang Mu and waited for 45 minutes while Ashray argued
with one customs official after another. Apparently there was a problem
because our guide from Lhasa (who wouldn't arrive for several more hours!) had
the Tibet Tourist Bureau Permit, without which we were not allowed to enter the
country. Ashray finally convinced the officials to let us enter Zhang Mu
for the evening, with the promise that our guide from Lhasa would arrive with
the required permit. The officials agreed, but insisted that they keep our
passports, and that Ashray also stay in Zhang Mu (he had planned to return to
Kathmandu as soon as he got us settled) as a guarantee that we would stay put, until
the other guide arrived.
Ashray asked quietly whether we had 'the' Dalai Lama book with us (we assumed
that would have been a bad thing given he is in exile from Tibet). The
customs officer requested that we open our big bag, as a few officers watched.
He went through each compartment, and took out a couple guidebooks, rifled
through them, looked at us as if he was saying 'you are lucky this is
real'. From that point we had to carry all our stuff to the Zang Mu Hotel, but
fortunately it was only abut 100 feet away from the customs office.
Tempa, our Tibetan guide, arrived that night with the correct papers, and we
restarted the immigration effort the next morning. We spent 1 hour 40
minutes standing outside the customs gates, while Tempa walked in and out of the
gate talking/arguing with inside and outside Chinese customs guards. They
sent him back to an area out of sight. He came back with a hand-written
letter (in Chinese) that we later learned was a sworn statement by him and the
agency that we were trustworthy Americans and that they would personally
guarantee that we would not cause harm to their country, and that we would leave
the country under their guidance. Apparently, the first couple letters
were not sufficient because he went through that process multiple times, until
they made him fingerprint-sign the letter and accepted it. He still had to
go back and forth several more times, with intermittent arguing, before finally
telling us to follow him through the gate back into Tibet.
Later, Ashray explained to us that over the past 1½ weeks it had been much
more difficult to get Americans into Tibet/China. Given that we were in
the midst of the spy plane/crew hostage situation, and the Taiwan weapons issue,
we understood. Ashray was very clear to point out that when (if) we were
confronted by the Chinese army or police in Tibet, we should remain silent and
let Tempa handle it. Fortunately, this was never an issue for us.
|Hotel Zhang Mu
||From what we saw, this was one of the best in
Zhang Mu. There was a much larger looking one at the top of the
town, but we did not get the name. Lower your expectations.
|Qomolangma Shegar Guesthouse
||Only option for private bathroom 50 miles
around Tingri. Definitely not worth the price -- a rip off.
|Everest Snow Leopard Hotel
||Considered nicest place in Tingri. Ok
if you get in 'back-packing' budget mode.
|Nyalam Nga-Dhon Guesthouse
||As last hotel we visited, probably ok.
Ok if you get in 'back-packing' budget mode.
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