The Silk Road, China

Monday, 20 August 2007


Chinese whispers

All we wanted to do was see the north face of Everest from the Tibetan base camp. How hard could it be?

Agonisingly difficult, apparently. As well as our difficult-to-obtain-but-completely-ineffectual permit to enter Tibet (no one checked for it subsequently), we needed an "alien" permit to visit the Everest region, a guide and a ticket to the Everest region.

Throwing money at the Chinese bureaucracy

I am now in a position to say that this rivals the bureaucracy (and frustration) of Turkmenistan... and as we were to find out, unlike Turkmenistan, it did not even guarantee results. We arrived at the checkpoint at the turn off to Everest Base Camp and were told in typical Chinese style that EBC was closed. No reason, no explanation and certainly no apology.

And so began the Chinese whispers. A number of explanations surfaced, and some of them blossomed in the information vacuum left by the authorities. These ranged from the mundane (the condition of the road), to the intriguing (something to do with the 1 year "we are ready" event for the Beijing 2008 Olympics), to the paranoid (the location of the massive Chinese standing army in Tibet). By the end of the day I had reported to the BBC bureau in Beijing that the Chinese army were amassing troops in the region (true), that there was trouble at the Nepali border (true), that it was eventually closed (true) and wondered out loud whether this might mean a 'situation' was developing (not true so far...!).

Perhaps Tom, Debs and I have all spent too long working in professional services, but by a day or two into our little trip, we had identified a bewildering number of 'stakeholders' all of whom had a different perspective on us achieving our simple objective of getting to Everest.

They included: our driver (as distinct from the owner of the jeep and the manager of the jeep); our guide; the travel agency (through whom we had booked the trip); the 'Group Leader' (who it transpired was the government bigwig who had closed the mountain on behalf of the Chinese government); and the Everest region ticket sellers (who worked on behalf of the Chinese government, and rather than being a helpful source of information, sold tickets regardless of whether the lucky purchasers would be allowed access to base camp).

This quality of information (low) combined with this number of stakeholders (high) resulted in a situation which would have been hilarious had not Tom and Debs flown half way around the world to see Everest.

It all came to a head as we sat huddled around a phone in a small room in Tingri at the end of an abortive first day. We were there in order to attempt to buy another set of 1000 yuan (75 pounds) tickets so that we could try again the following day. Predictably, the ticket holders were delighted at the prospect of taking the money off our hands, but could offer no guarantee that they would actually be of any use.

At this point, we discovered something about the Tibetan way. We knew that many Tibetans (and Chinese) like to avoid confrontation at any cost, but we discovered that in the case of our driver and guide, this extended to a complete refusal to address the harsh reality of the situation and instead to invent numerous obstacles (as if the Chinese government wasn't enough), all the while refusing to actually state that our situation was hopeless. The driver kicked the ball into play by declaring that the alternative road to base camp was so dangerous that that owner of the Landcruiser required that we should accept liability for any damage to the jeep.

Looking down at our contract that plainly stated (in English... therein lay the problem) this was not the case, we begged to differ and decided to call Tenzin at the travel agency through whom we had booked the trip. But by now Tenzin had decided that the situation at EBC was 'political' and therefore anyone who even asked how it might be overcome was on the verge of dancing naked at base camp waving a Free Tibet banner (his words, not mine). Tom consequently received an earful down the phone for 10 minutes and we were disowned by the travel agency if we so much as attempted to go any closer to Everest.

At this point anther phone was thrust at Debs, without so much a word as who it might be. A man told her that, while the road was perilously dangerous, everyone realised how much we wanted to go to base camp and so we would try the following morning. Delighted that someone was finally talking our language (literally and metaphorically) - and that this was in fact the 'manager' of the jeep - we began to to discuss throwing caution to the wind and risking the road (and liability) despite what the Tenzin had said.

Shortly afterwards, we were somewhat surprised to learn that everyone else's understanding of the above conversation was that we would not be able to attempt the alternative route. As we sank into total confusion, our guide attempted to clarify things by reminding us for the fifth time that buying tickets for the following day might be a waste of money, because they did not guarantee entry beyond the checkpoint.

Finally, the driver intervened and in an instant earned his wages for the entire trip. While we had spent the best part of an hour trying to decide how to proceed, he pointed out that the sky outside had cleared and Everest was visible in the distance... This farcical situation had meant we were missing the very reason we were there.

Everest in the distance (c60km) from Tingri

We went outside and enjoyed the view and agreed that we were not going to resolve the situation. That night at supper, our driver declared that he was more than happy to attempt the drive to base camp if only he had a "partner driver." We thanked him, said we would be delighted to pay for a third helper and left him at 10pm, drinking and playing cards, knowing full well that said 'partner driver' would not materialise by 8am the following morning...

Tingri was as close to Everest as we would get on that occasion. We will never know the reason, but the one year before the Beijing Olympics event is the most likely. The following day, a multiplicity of sources confirmed that both roads remained closed. We had no choice but to head back towards Lhasa.

Take 2

Three days later, just as we were readying to leave Lake Namtso for Lhasa, we found out from Tenzin that EBC was open. A mad flurry of rearranging Tom and Debs' flights followed and we signed up for second trip to base camp.

We drove immediately to Lhasa, swapped vehicles, driver and guide and headed out towards Tingri. Without a hitch, we passed the numerous checkpoints and found ourselves picking our way up the rough (but hardly life threatening as we'd been led to believe) track to base camp.

There we discovered that the weather was an even more formidable opponent than the Chinese government. Spring, not the rainy summer months, is the time to see the mountain - it is then that the expeditions attempt to reach the summit. We arrived in the pouring rain and spent much of our time at base camp huddled in a tent playing cards.

But we were extremely lucky. We enjoyed good views of the mountain both evenings we were there and spectacular views the morning we left. Base camp sits down the valley from Everest, behind a massive terminal moraine which straddles the entire c1km wide valley floor. Beyond the moraine are the white seracs of the glacier and finally the bright white north face of Everest.

What surprised me was how high the snowline was. Due to the time of year, the mountains were brown for another c1000m above base camp, which itself is 5200m above sea level. It was also very hard to believe - from the bottom - that four vertical kilometres remained above us to the summit.

Whenever Everest appeared from behind the clouds, it always seemed impossibly large. But the more time we spent gazing at it, the 'tamer' it seemed. Then we would return the following day and be amazed once again by its size. (What is also certain is that the mountain looks considerably bigger 'in the flesh' than in a photograph...) But despite this, the one thing we all agreed that remained constant was the burning desire to know what it must be like standing at the summit.


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