A Journey to the Roof of the World

By Rabi Thapa

EVEREST BASE CAMP? A motorcycle ride to EVEREST BASE CAMP? Yes, as absurd it may sound, it is now possible to undertake a motorcycle journey into Tibet and ride into

the northern base camp of Mt. Everest. Well, not exactly to the Everest Base Camp but four kilometers before to Dza Ronghu, the tented city that used to be situated at the Everest Base Camp, but is now relocated due to environmental issues. The view of the north face of Mt. Everest from here, is most spectacular.

Tibet is a sacred land of myths and mysteries inhabited by the ever-smiling people and has always exerted a magnetic pull upon travelers for centuries but only a few intrepid, serious and determined have been able to make it. In 1985, Tibet was opened to tourism and in 2003 we organized the first motorcycle trip into Lhasa and Northern Base Camp of Mt. Everest, and the rest is history.

Travelling east of Kathmandu through beautiful Nepali countryside, the 128 kilometers Arniko Highway brings us to Kodari (Nepal / Tibet) border, a place of stunning natural beauty which has an exotic history going back to ancient times as the starting point of the trans-Himalayan caravan route, the Nepalese equivalent to silk road. The border village is still an important trading center between Tibet and Nepal and tourists are required to have a valid passport and a pre-obtained visa for Tibet.  Here we completed Nepali immigration and then clear customs for the motorcycles. We then rode across the Friendship Bridge and meet up with our Tibetan guide who would assist us to complete Chinese immigration and well as clear customs for our motorcycles to enter into Tibet.

After receiving clearance, ride 8 kilometers to Zhangmu also known to Nepali as Khasa. The town hangs on a cliff face and over the years the whole hillside has been converted by buildings as trade between Nepal and China prospers. The streets are narrow with shops lined on both sides of the street and at times traffic congestion can be a real menace.

However, after leaving Zhangmu, the newly built road initially provides a pleasant ride through forested areas, cascading waterfalls and a fast flowing river but within a span of only 30 kilometers we go past the tree line and enter the barren high altitude desert plateau and arrive at the settlement of Nyalam at 3750 m. Immediately one can feel the effects of the rarified air and even the smallest of chores makes one breathe heavily. So ideally, one needs to make slow movements, drink a lot of fluid and let the body acclimatize to the altitude.

View from Thong La.
View from Thong La.

From Nyalam, a 20-minute ride takes us past the Milerapa Cave, where Milerapa had come to meditate before overcoming the demons and finally succumbing to poison by his own trusted devotee. From here it is an exhilarating 55-kilometer ride to the Thong La (5,050m) marked by an array of prayer flags, rock cairns and chortens lined with yak head skeletons and magnificent views of the Himalayas with Mt. Sishapangma taking the front seat (8013m). Other visible peaks are Langtang Ri (7,205 m), Dorje Lakpa (6,966 m), Gauri Shankar (7,135 m), Cho-Oyu (8,201 m) and Mt. Everest (8,848 m) but are dwarfed by the vastness of the Tibetan plateau. It offers a sheer feeling of standing on the roof of the world. A little beyond lies Lalung La at 5,200m, which is a non descript pass only noticeable by the prayer flags strewn around the area.

A short descent and then continue the ride on the Tibetan plateau with views of Mt. Everest (weather permitting) and passing small road side settlements to bring us to Tingri (2 ½ hours) a Typical trucker’s stop type Tibetan settlement with a few restaurants with pools tables located outdoors, lodges and a General store. Horse carts are widely used to transport people and goods and dried Sheep meat, a local delicacy, are displayed on side streets and sold to passer byes. It is a logical place to stop for lunch. The food available is very basic and one is recommended to bring some supplementary diet while embarking on this trip.

After lunch, the drive from Tingri to Shegar is straightforward and the 70-kilometer is an easy ride of 1 ½ hours. Shegar, also called New Tingri, surrounded by mountains, is another town that lies in the shadow of a great fortress. Even in ruins, it is majestic. Seeming to grow out of the craggy brown rock, its sinuous wall bristles with watchtowers like stegosaurus spines. Isolated in 1855 by marauding Nepalese in search of booty, the Gurkhas cut off the Dzong’s water supply and settled in for a long siege. Shegar proper has little to recommend it except the highest post office in China.

View of Mt. Everest from the Base Camp
View of Mt. Everest from the Base Camp

At Shegar, we purchase our tickets and retrace 4 kilometers and take the diversion to Check point and for the entry into Quomolongma (Everest) National Park. After getting our permits and tickets checked and approved, set off on a zigzag trail all the way to the Gyawala Pass at 5200 m. A cluster of prayer flags depicts the Pass and from here, there is a panoramic view of Mount Everest, Cho-Oyu and other smaller peaks of the Himalayas. Many locals have set up souvenir shops to attract tourists. It is also possible to buy prayer flags and have it strewn up on the hillside in the name of your loved ones.

After a brief rest, we once again zigzag our descent with a 100 spectacular switchbacks and arrive at the settlement of Tashi Dzom in about 2 hours. After a bowl of noodle soup, the safest bet to a good lunch, we set our sights to Rongbuk and follow the Drakar Chu River. The view of Mt. Everest looms ahead ever protecting and watching as we round the bend and arrive at the Rongbuk monastery settlement area, where we check into the Rongbuk Monastery Guest house. (Note: the lodge provides basic amenities and the  Dining room serves adequate meals like fried rice, soup / noodle soup and chowmein) but the heat of the burner brings a welcome respite from the biting cold outside).

Dza Rongphu.
Dza Rongphu.

These days, the tented city of the Everest Base Camp has a new location “Dza Rongphu” and is about 4 kilometers from Rongbuk (3 kilometers before the previous location). Vehicles are prohibited to travel from Dza Rongphu to the Everest Base Camp (5,200 m) and so we board the bus (Yuan 50.00 per person) for the 3 kilometer ride to the Everest Base Camp, identified by a marker and protected by a small group of army personnel stationed at this lonely out post.

From the Base Camp, views of Mt. Everest are blocked by the over head ridge and so a 10-minute hike up to the ridge is worth the effort for unobstructed view of the windswept Tibetan plateau and the fantastic view of the North Face of Mt. Everest.

After a picture break, hike down to bus stop for the ride back to Dza Rongphu. Here we browse through the tented city looking for souvenirs at the many shops or send a post card from the highest post office in the world or stop for a cup of tea / noodle soup at any of the tented restaurants.

Later, we rode back to Rongbuk and visited the Romgbuk monastery. Located at an altitude of 5100 m, it claims to be the monastery in the world. Belonging to the Nyingma sect of Buddhism, it was constructed in 1899 and went under massive reconstruction in 1983. It is an important pilgrimage site and all mountaineers climbing the North Face of Mt. Everest seek blessings here.


NOTE

The return to Nyalam (287 kms) or Zhangmu (317 kms) can be done in a single day via another shorter route that links directly with Tingri. From Zhangmu, it is once again an eight-kilometer ride to the Friendship Bridge and another 128 kilometers to Kathmandu.

Tibet, the Autonomous Region of the Peoples Republic of China, is extremely remote and isolated by the most formidable Himalayan ranges and so a motorcycle journey to the Everest Base Camp (North) is not for the faint hearted. The rarified air of this high altitude destination makes the journey difficult and physically challenging.  However, a fascinating world of timeless splendor and unique tradition and breathtaking scenery awaits all travelers to the Roof of the World.


(Author is the CEO at Sacred Summits, www.sacredsummits.com)

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