The drive was a testosterone-fuelled race along a two-lane motorway no wider than a country lane in Buckinghamshire. The driver, a stocky Chinese with a short military haircut and thick neck was high on adrenaline, his lips fiercely sealed in sheer satisfaction, his fat and sweaty hands grimly holding the wheel very tightly. The guide, a gentle and relatively assertive Tibetan boy who had been specially chosen for us, said nothing. He didn’t say anything because he wasn’t allowed to. The feeling was that none of us were allowed to say anything. The driver was in charge.
“I need the toilet.” I declared. The car, a spacious 4×4, produced by some nameless car company scattered around China and delivered to Tibet to ferry adrenaline-thirsty tourists from Lhasa to Kathmandu. It was 9 days into our 2 week adventure travelling from Beijing to Lhasa by train, then overland to Kathmandu. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which I couldn’t resist even with my lung condition – I had been afraid it was getting worse and seized maybe this last opportunity to climb to high altitude.
There are no petrol stations along the road from Lhasa to Kathmandu and there are no toilets as such. If you need to go you just end up behind a bush .Boys to the left side of the car and girls to the right. There was no sense of embarrassment as there was no time for it. The driver was keen to get to the hotel and get some rest after another personal record of the day, the guide to get rid of us and get a new group, we, I was desperate to catch a glimpse of Everest. Holly wanna be a photographer, to get the best angle for her next image. Four of us from four different cultures around the globe squeezed into the same car. Relieved, we continued to Tingri, a small Tibetan village, the last one before the first base camp, where we were supposed to spend the night before going to the North Everest base camp. It was the end of November and we were blessed with the weather. The days were sunny and crispy although the nights were cold.
By the time we entered Tingri it was dark. Very dark. There were no cars around and no street lights. You would hear people, animals and music but you wouldn’t see anything until you got very close. Before checking in to the Zhufeng Hotel for two nights the guide decided to take us for a meal. The restaurant looked like a shop with four tables at the end of long empty shelves. It was dark inside too but very lively. Lots of people who checked us out attentively. Holly decided to have omelette, the safest option in this kind of environment and I wanted just boiled potatoes. I wasn’t hungry; I was ecstatic to be so close to Mt Everest, but also tired and scared. Paranoid if I had altitude sickness even I didn’t know of any symptoms. The omelette was swimming in fat and made me nauseous just looking at it. My potatoes, squeezed into a pot, were pushed in front me – four of the biggest potatoes I have ever encountered in my life. They looked like jacket potatoes on steroids. I smiled and asked for a knife and fork. The waitress brought me a meat cleaver and I took the smallest potato, placed it on the table, and smashed it with the cleaver. I ate it with dirty fingers, beyond caring whether I was picking up some dreadful bug, while the waitress looked on approvingly.
The hotel, officially 3 star by Chinese standards, wasn’t far from the restaurant and we walked back through dark uneven streets. Waiting for the guide to check us in I looked around at the empty reception, restaurant…there was none of the usual hustle and bustle in the hotel. This one was quiet, actually quite dead, and with all the ornaments carved in stone you would be forgiven for thinking that you were in a graveyard. The receptionist, dressed for bed and in her flip flops, showed us a room on the first floor. We didn’t take the lift as it was out of order. And the room, although spacious, was cold. More on the frozen side.
“As it’s out of season there is no heating and the electric is switched off in most of the hotel.” Explained the guide apologetically.
I chose the bed near the window, because I was for some strange reason worrying about fire and thinking about escaping through the window. Holly, so adaptable, went straight to bed in her pyjamas and started snoring while I was still counting the number of layers I had to take off in order to get into my 95% cotton and 5% polyester jimjams. There was a sudden banging on the door – our guide had brought us a small electric heater, one which lights up the whole room but doesn’t produce much heat in the process. I took off only my shoes and carefully placed them in front of my bed, which I had never done before, in case there was a fire and I could run. Where to, I didn’t know. High altitude does strange things to your mind.
The dreams I had that night were hallucinations. I was the director of some move; I think it was Seven Years in Tibet as I saw Brad Pitt. We were pals, very good pals me and Brad Pitt. We didn’t sleep together or anything like that, it was a very professional relationship. I was in charge though, I was telling him what to do… Every time when I turned around I saw very bright stars popping out of nowhere. I was making a movie under a bonfire.
I couldn’t get back to sleep so I went to the window and firstly I thought I was in Greece seeing large shiny grapes in front of me and the crop was very good! Then my rationale brought me back and I released the grapes were stars hanging within easy reach. I lifted my arm to pick them as they were so close, only to hit the glass and wake up Holly. I stop breathing for a moment and tried to find Big and Little Dipper but because of the sheer volume of stars I got confused. Amazed, I sat in the window and watched the stars, dreaming and hallucinating until they gradually dropped into some unknown distance or simply disappeared under the sun’s own glare.
A loud bang woke me up in the car. My first thought was that one of the tyres had given up and my second one was worry about where we going to find a new one. The driver laughed and showed us his cigarette lighter which had exploded in his pocket. Holly and I looked at each other and we didn’t laugh. We were relived it wasn’t the car as we knew we would be stranded. We were in the middle of nowhere heading to the first base camp, and there was no phone signal available. We had just passed the last military ramp where a pimply youth dressed in too-big military uniforms and with nose full of hanging snot, vetted our Tibet permits and passports and let us pass. I don’t think he would come to our rescue. He had ogled Holly’s camera lenses, which were long even by my standards let alone for this boy trained to suspect anything out of the ordinary.
The sky was clear with beautiful patches of white and then suddenly the highest mountain on Earth appeared in front of us. The top was covered in the fast moving clouds and with occasional wind we would get a glimpse of its mightiness.
I stood there in front of this dragon of a mountain and I felt so small and everything I had felt about death, sacrifice, cold and suffer just evaporated. I felt angry for wasting my time on all this feelings and started cursing God for not bringing me here before my 26th birthday and letting me climb the highest mountain on earth. I felt a failure for never contemplating the possibility of climbing Everest until I was thrown in front of it.
Today I am happy just watching video recordings of my visit.