As the three previous posts, all blank postcards, only partially portray, central Tibet has some beautiful, other-worldly scenery. High-altitude and semi-arid, the land mostly depends on snowmelt from ever-dwindling glaciers for sustaining life. In winter, the hills and valleys turn the same color as the dusty rocks lining the road, leaving three colors: brown land, white peaks, blue sky. Across the miles on highway G318, the only variation is the sky. At dawn it glows in the fierce cold wind, then pales and recedes under the dazzling, not-quite-so-distant sun passing overhead. Late afternoon it returns, like the tide, a deeper blue and darker until the fading sun drops out and it swallows everything up into cold darkness and wind. The Milky Way hangs overhead like a million glimmering icicles.
But as we made our tour-guided, 4WD-way from one checkpoint to the next on our drive from Lhasa, the mind of many a group member turned towards even more impressive landscape. Following the Friendship Highway to Nepal (so-called, in typical propaganda fashion, because it allows China to directly threaten India with an all-weather invasion route), we would be passing within spitting distance of that holy grail of awesome landforms (one, anyway): Qomolangma. Zhufeng. Mount Everest.
The problem was, “Zhufeng Base Camp” 珠峰本营 was nowhere to be found on the Tibet Tourism Bureau permit we carried. The towns on our tour itinerary were all there, penned in by hand by some bureaucrat who’d determined we didn’t pose a threat to any of those places. But Everest Base Camp had been closed since 2011 to all foreigners, at least those without military climbing permits. So, since we didn’t plan on climbing the damn thing (or have $30,000 in any case, required for the associated fees), we couldn’t go.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for members of this group. Among us was an accomplished mountaineer and another skilled climber, both whose social circles included dudes who’d actually summitted ol’ Qomolangma. Added to them were a couple who were just plain star-struck at the thought of seeing (and getting their picture taken with!) a slab of rock with a world record to its name. Maybe they could get its autograph, too. Great minds think alike; hope springs eternal, etc., and there was quickly a consensus that we’d pick our least-bad Chinese-speaker, have him sweet-talk a Public Security Bureau clerk in Shigatse or Tingri into giving our permit a quick additional little stamp, and then be on our additional 2-day way to the top of the world.
There were problems with this plan, however, and the first one was our guide: Tenzin Norbu. With a name that practically sounded like it was our destiny to be guided, sherpa’d by him up (to) Everests’s shiny north face, he was in fact not supportive. This of course should not have been surprising. First of all, as a Tibetan guide catering to foreigners, he had zero incentive to piss off anyone who might make a phone call to have his license revoked or worse. Second, over the last four days, he had a perfect, 100% record for saying “not allowed” to any questions about what we might do with our free time, other than sit quietly in our hotel rooms. He was a pleasant enough guy, with his tight dredlocks giving him the appearance of a Tibetan Lenny Kravitz in an old Christmas sweater. But he had nothing to gain from helping us push, or even inquire about, the boundaries. He said there was no way we could get to Everest Base Camp.
One of the more determined group members worked on him. What about asking the PSB in Shigatse? No harm in asking, right? We had to go into their office to get our permit stamped, anyway. One of us could go in, pop the question like we didn’t know the rules. See what they say.
Right before reaching Shigatse, Norbu said fine. I was picked to go in with him, along with another member of the group whose Chinese was better than mine.
We walked with Norbu to the Shigatse PSB office. Outside, a mock 4-storey building, the kind used by militaries and police for practicing raids and clearing rooms, loomed over the parking lot.
The PSB agent at the front desk was from Shandong. That’s pretty far from here, I said; how do you like Tibet? He shrugged. Small talk complete, I moved on to business. Can we go to Everest Base Camp? He looked at the permit. No.
We walked back to the two vehicles we were riding. The news was taken in stride. A new plan: Well, we’ll just ask again at the checkpoint in Tingri!
And thus Everest, a tall mountain somewhere behind the brown slopes off to our left, loomed even larger in the thoughts of most passengers as we made our way out of Shigatse the next day. It was a just a mountain; then again, celebrities are just people. For some, fame has an attraction all its own.
Our driver, who regaled me with the tidbits he knew about each village we passed, and spoke of covering the distance from Ali to Shigatse on cigarettes and Red Bull, was puzzled by all the attention to the matter. He turned down the Akon CD playing on the car stereo. “You’ll see it from the road, up ahead, you know. Don’t worry about seeing Zhumulangma Feng. You can take pictures, too.”
Farther up ahead, after crossing over into the Qomolangma Nature Reserve and descending a bit on a curvy road, it came into view. Three little white peaks poked above the undulating brown. The one that appeared biggest was Cho Oyu. To the left, looking the most diminutive in comparison, was Everest. Zhufeng.
Everyone got out their cameras. This was it. Snap, snap, snap. Smiles, thumbs up. What kind of funny pose or face are you supposed to make in a picture with Everest? Everest demanded originality. Everest demanded handstands. The photoshoot continued, until the last members reached the limits of their creative and/or gymnastic abilities.
Then we got back in our vehicles and continued towards Tingri. The road curved, Everest dropped from of sight. I turned up the Akon and watched the afternoon sky shift shades of blue.