This was to be a rest and acclimatization day, and we spent it reading, walking in the village, and dining on tasty and hearty fare prepared by the cooking crew.
Our very spacious tent - the largest Diane and I have enjoyed on the many treks we have taken over the years - provided a comfortable place to rest and read during a brief afternoon rain. After dinner we slept well despite a fortunately distant chorus of barking dogs.
Simikot Elevation - 2960M
SUNDAY, SEPT. 5
We awoke early to a lovely view of rocky and snow - streaked ridges bathed in early morning light and were on the trail by 10 A.M. after a hearty breakfast of eggs, pancakes, coffee, tea, and porridge - plenty of fuel for the 12 KM we must cover.
Our support included two donkeys , a horse and two Dzopa, a cattle-yak cross, to carry the gear. We also used two porters. The Nepal portion of our trek stretches for six days of walking, camping each night, and terminating at the Tibet border, where we will cross and use a Toyota land cruiser and a truck for the drive to Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash, and on to Lhasa.
But back to the present-- our first day of walking took us nearly 1,000 feet up above Simikot, and the airstrip where we topped a ridge and began a long descent down into the valley of the Karnali River----one of the great torrents that carries Himalayan snowmelt and rock and soil down to the Indian plains.
We lunched near the village of Dandaphoya and continued lower even than our starting point at Simikot down to 7,500 feet, past Tuling village and finally up to our 2nd night camp at a tea house at the bridge over the Yakba Khola, a small tributary of the mighty Karnali.
The scenery along today's route was quintessential high mountain Nepal--- abrupt, green, terraced hill sides rising several thousand feet on both sides of a gorge containing a roaring gray - white torrent at its bottom. Tiny villages of flat roofed dwellings seem to cling in defiance of gravity to the vertical valley walls.
After a welcome dinner of spaghetti, we fell easily to sleep anticipating a new day in the Karnali gorge. Our camp elevation is 2320 M.
MONDAY, SEPT. 6
Up at 6:30 A.M. for tea. Breakfast at 7:30 and walking by 8:45. The Karnali Gorge continues to be steep-walled and green and today's trail will take us about 1,400 feet higher, to a tea house near the small village of Kermi, at 2755 Meters.
But portions of this trail contain some steep ups and downs, though much of it is wide and smooth enough to accommodate a double mountain bike track. At one point two waterfalls cascade down a high rock face, sending refreshing cool spray across the trail.
We sight a lovely Hoopoe, which flies repeatedly ahead of us and alights on the trail, allowing us to view and photograph it at relatively close range. We lunch at 12:45 in Dhara Kermi, after walking about 3 and a half hours, then push on another hour and a half to our campsite right next to the trail near Kermi. Just as the tents are up it begins to rain. But the rain soon ceases and Krishna, Mahesh and Jim climb 600 feet up a side valley above Kermi to a natural hot spring area to bathe and do laundry. On the way down we visit a small water-powered mill where a local woman is grinding grain into flour---- very interesting.
We have tea on our return and retire to rest before a dinner of Macaroni & vegetables, deep-fried cauliflower and apple-lemon custard dessert. For the past two days we have been at relatively low elevations, below the starting point of 2960 meters at Simikot airstrip.
Small black flies plague us from morning to night and we are looking forward to gaining altitude tomorrow to escape these pests. Our campsite is at 2750 Meters.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 7
Up at 6:30 A.M. to partly cloudy day - tea - breakfast featuring fried eggs on chappatis. Our cook, Rudra has been excellent, showing imagination and skill by serving variety ---- no repeat meals yet --- with good seasoning and portions.
We began walking at 8:10 A.M. the earliest yet ---- by climbing a ridge up 700 feet elevation to a pine forested pass marked by a 5-foot rock cairn. Plunging down the steep trail on the other side took us to the banks of the Salle Khola river, a tributary of the nearby Karnali. We crossed the Salle Khola on a new steel suspension bridge, followed immediately by a herd of about 100 sheep and goats, which we photographed, and then photographed our Dzopas and crew crossing ---- great fun. The goats were a salt trading party returning north to the Taklakot area near the Tibetan border where salt is collected and packed in leather and fabric water-proof saddlebags designed to be carried on the backs of the goats and sheep, we were told. This salt trade has continued unchanged for centuries and seems to be flourishing because we have seen at least six salt caravans in the past two days.
Lunch was served at the river, near the bridge, and we were on the trail again by 1:30 PM. We climbed up and away from the Salle Khola and soon turned back into the Karnali gorge, where we had lovely views of the Karnali from above. The trail rounded a cliff where it had been blasted out of the rock with explosives recently, saving us a climb of hundreds of feet on the old route. The trail then descended to a lovely open meadow nearly at river-level with the Karnali, the first time we had been so close to this great torrent.
The village of Yalbang and its Buddhist Monastery was high on a hillside at the far end of this meadow, and soon we were climbing again to reach it and our camp. The camp lay beyond the village on a promontory hundreds of feet above the Karnali, next to the Yalbang primary school.
We arrived at 3:45 in welcome sunshine and put wet laundry out to dry. The children who greeted us were the first who have not asked for candy or pens. They are clearly of Tibetan stock, and tried their English and shook our hands---- very charming. We lost the sun but not before most clothing was dry. It has rained for periods of time both at night and while trekking for the past several days, making umbrellas a valuable trekking aid. Tea at 6:20 P.M. followed by a meal of momos, fried rice, salad, soup, prawn crackers and curried vegetables---delicious. We went to bed anticipating a long day tomorrow.
Camp elevation 3005 meters.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 8
More rain overnight and we awakened to rain at 6 A.M., but it ceased soon and we had a pleasant, almost sunny breakfast. A large salt caravan was camped near us and left even before our 8 A.M. departure. The first trail section rose immediately about 1,000 feet and then descended back to the very banks of the Humla Karnali, presenting splendid views back down the valley. Lunch came early next to the river at 11:00 to 12:30. We were the center of attraction for members of a caravan group who had just butchered a sheep and were cooking it nearby. The lunch spot is "Gering Pani". Just a wide spot in the trail next to the river. We then climbed again and in turn descended again to the Karnali, where we crossed on a steel bridge to the south bank and began another slow climb to Muchu, a small village. About half an hour beyond Muchu was the final Police Post before Tibet. Here Mahesh Gautam presented our papers and passports and we were stamped out of Nepal by a resident Immigration Officer though we will not reach the actual border for two more days.
Mahesh is our Liaison Officer, a valuable and legally required adjunct to all foreign trekking parties in restricted regions of Nepal such as Humla. He facilitated our passage through all police check points along the route and even intervened with airport security guards who wanted to confiscate Krishna Humagain's utility knife.
A light rain was falling as we waited for Mahesh to clear us out of Nepal and we waited on the veranda of an elderly woman who revealed under questioning that she had made three pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash in her life but had never been to Simikot, the nearest district administrative center. Another hour of walking brought us to the Tumkot River and our overnight camp in the tiny settlement of Tumkot, at 3025 meters.
The route over the past four days has taken us as high as 3100 meters and as low as 2300 meters from our starting point of 2960 meters at the Simikot airstrip. But all the ups and downs have helped condition us for tomorrow, when we will climb higher, and for day six when we ascend higher yet. Tonight the accursed flies which have bothered us for the past four days are almost absent, a result of our elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. Dinner at 7:10 A.M. featured samosas (Veg), wonderful mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy and fruit salad. Camp elevation - 3025 M.
As Diane lay in her tent after dinner a good-looking orange striped cat came in the door, looked at Diane and left. She interpreted this as the reincarnate spirit of her father. It rained periodically all night but stopped after breakfast. We bid Mahesh and porters farewell at 6:30 A.M. Mahesh's liaison officer duties were completed at Muchu.
THURSDAY SEPT. 9
With help from Krishna, we asked the Tumkot tea house & campground proprietor's wife to let us visit with her cat, thinking it would be the night visitor, but it was a different feline.
We set out earlier than ever at 7:40 A.M., leaving the Karnali river and turning abruptly up the gorge of the Bumachiya River, climbing almost 1,000 feet up a ridge and on to our lunch spot at a dirty hovel of a trader tea house in a pine and apricot grove named Torea. Then on 4 more hours and 2,000 more feet of elevation gain through our final police check post in the Humli village of Yari and on up to a camp area named Tharo Dunga after a 25-foot high rock pinnacle there. We had reached a point below Nara Pass, which would tax our bodies the next morning, requiring us to toil up another 1,500 feet. Our campsite was 13,000 feet. Dinner featured spaghetti & sauce, fried potato, cooked dried beef and vegetables and mushroom soup. Rain on and off over night.
At midnight I was awake lying in my sleeping bag, when I began to hear a Yak bell. The clanging rhythmic sound came closer and closer and evolved into a concert of many Yak bells, sounding like an Indonesian Gamelin Orchestra, moving slowly past our tents in the dark. In the morning I asked Krishna if he had heard this phantom orchestra and he confirmed that I was not dreaming. He said it might have been a caravan moving at night to smuggle Chinese liquor and wine past the customs check post at Yari though he said this was only a guess.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 10
Up as usual at 6 A.M. to face our climb to Nara pass. Rain had ceased and we breakfasted in fog, which slowly lifted as Diane started up around 7:40 A.M.. I followed at 8:00 A.M. The trail climbed abruptly, then eased as it approached Sipsip, a few stone shelters at the foot of the final steep ascent. We toiled upward meeting traders and goat caravans headed down, and reached the pass in good time --- about two hours. Nara pass, however, proved lower than our reference books had stated -- and lay only about 1,500 feet above Tharo Dunga rather than the 2,000 foot climb we anticipated.
A rock pile festooned with yak skulls and prayer flags stood on the broad pass, and yaks hove into view from the other side as we paused to drink in the lee of the cairn, out of the wind.
Than we headed down the north side. Around a bend a few hundred yards down, the panorama of Tibet and our old companion, the Karnali river, spread out before us through the thinning cloud and fog. Below lay the new steel suspension bridge spanning the river --- the international boundary ---- with goat enclosures and a few stone shelters of Hilsa on the Nepali side and the Chinese border station and village of Sher up a steep bank on the Tibetan side.
But we still had miles to go and several thousand feet of elevation to descend before reaching camp at 2:30 P.M. The long trail down contoured around steep canyon hill sides much of the way, and although relatively wide and new, it was under repair at many points.
This required several delicate crossings of collapsed trail sections, where a misstep could mean a potentially fatal slide many hundreds of feet down the precipitous, rocky slopes below. Our pack animals took an old, lower route which avoided these sections.
Hilsa is a large, flat expanse along the Karnali lying upstream and down stream and down stream of the bridge. the grassy expanse is subdivided by many stone walls apparently intended to contain goats and sheep, and se our camp in one of the "Corrals", which paradoxically was free of droppings. The climate seemed to turn dry and sunny on this side of the pass. We basked under mostly sunny skis for the rest of the afternoon, did laundry, read and rested.
Tomorrow would bring our official entry into Tibet, a half hour walk across the bridge and up the hill on the opposite bank, where a Toyota land cruiser from an agency in Taklakot was scheduled to meet us and take us north to Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash. Dinner featured a mushroom pizza and potato pancake with mushroom and onion gravy. Rudra continues to outdo himself. Slight rain overnight but sunny in morning. The drier climate of Tibet already is evident.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 11
Up at 6:30 A.M. for our momentous entry into Tibet just a hundred yards away across the Karnali river. After a leisurely breakfast, Diane and I fed leftover Rotis to a nice female goat which had been tethered to a rock near our tent for the past 18 hours. The expanse of "Hilsa" where we were camped was a vast way-station, corral and pasture for yaks, Dzopas, Horses, Mules, Donkey's , Goats and Sheep belonging to traders and salt caravans which constantly pas along this route.
We were entertained periodically by watching processions of animals being led, coaxed, pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled across the rather high, steel suspension bridge over the Karnali. Diane and I Crossed into Tibet at 9:35 A.M. Nepal time (Chinese time would require us to set our watches ahead 2 hours and 15 minutes). We passed the Nepal-Tibet border pylon and began a 400 foot climb up a steep hill to the Chinese border check post, where we would await a truck and land cruiser from Purang - 28 KM north.
High Mountain Wave Trekking had contracted in advance for these vehicles, which would remain with us for the nest 11 days, waiting while we circled Mt. Kailash, and then carrying us, our staff and all gear and luggage to Purang and we settled down for what turned out to be an hour wait for our land cruiser, our Tibetan guide, Pemba, and the driver.
At this point our two Nepali horse/donkey/dzopa wranglers were tipped (1500 Rs. each, equal to about $23 US) and bid farewell.
We piled into the land cruiser. Diane, Jim, Krishna, Pemba and Mingmar, the driver to Purang 28 KM and about one hour driving time north.
* At this point we two trekking clients were being supported by the following staff and vehicles:
1. Krishna Humagain Guide and HMW trekking part- owner.
2. Pemba Tibetan Guide
3. Rudra Bahadur Bhujel Cook and Guide
4. Mal Bahadur Lama Asst. cook and porter
5. Mingmar Driver of the land cruiser
6. Truck driver Norbu
And we would add Yak wranglers at Darchen.
All this logistical support was working flawlessly so far but had been complicated to arrange. HMW was working in Tibet with a Chinese Government tourism agency which covers Tibet. But back on the road (rocky and rough) to Purang, we stopped enroute to tour og Khojarnath monasteries said by Pemba to be more than 1,000 years old, one of Tibets oldest surviving monastery's.
We reached the wild and woolly frontier town of Purang (Taklakot in Nepali) about 2:30 P.M. (Nepal time) and were assigned a nice if very basic sleeping room, a thermos of hot water for bathing, a washbasin and clean bedding at the large government guesthouse.
After presenting our documents again to immigration officials (who logged us in on a laptop computer) we had to ask to get actual stamps in our passports. Our luggage was given a very perfunctory check by customs, and we were officially visitors to Tibet !!
Diane, Krishna and Jim walked through town to one of the local Bazaars. It consisted of a couple dirt streets of dark storefronts crammed with nearly identical inventories of cheap polyester clothing and Chinese goods. Jim bought a T-shirt for the hot hours to be spent in the land cruiser over the next 10 days.
A large group of pilgrims from India was at our guest house. They had entered Tibet directly from India through the Garwhal district near the point where the borders of India, Nepal and Tibet meet, and they had been to Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash and were on their way home. After dinner we were pleased and surprised to find electric lighting furnished by generator. We read and went to sleep about 9:45 P.M. (Nepal Time). Elevation - 3965 Meters.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 12
Up at 6:30 (Nepal time) for a hearty breakfast at 7:15 of cereal, pancakes, eggs and oatmeal. We set out under sunny skies at about 9 A.M. ( an hour later than we were told to be ready) for a 3 hour drive to lakes Manasarovar.
The vast, stony, hilly Tibetan landscape under huge skies filled with billowy clouds presented an ever-changing combination of muted earth-colors and landforms. We sighted lake Rakshas-Tal, Manasarovar's companion Lake, and the Gurla Mandata massif, which was overlain by clouds, denying us a view of its summit. Driving through the village of Chiu between the Lakes, we passed a monastery on a hill and came to the wide, flat strand at the northwest edge of Lake Manasarovar, with the flanks of Mount Kailash in view due north.
Our camp was set within a few feet of the water. The lake was higher than usual. After a sack lunch and hot soup Diane and Jim took a walk south along the lakeshore and Krishna walked back to Chiu for a hot springs bath. By about 4:30 P.M. Jim had developed a headache. Our campsite was at 4600 meters, about 15,000 feet, and Jim was having acclimatization problems. The headache and vague nausea kept him from eating dinner, but he was able to go to sleep by about 10 P.M. and by 2:30 A.M. when he awoke the symptoms had disappeared and he felt back to normal. Both Jim and Diane had started talking diamox, however, to help fend off acclimatization problems.
It began raining around 3 A.M. and continued in torrents at times until after 4:30. This combined with a quartet of barking dogs made sleep a sometimes thing.
MONDAY, SEPT. 13
Up at 6 A.M. Rain has stopped. Cloudy skies but some sun as we packed up and began the final motorized leg of our journey to Darchen, the ragged frontier outpost that is the starting point for most pilgrim's circumambulation of Mt. Kailash. First we visited the Chiu Gompa (Jiwa Monastery), near our campsite, which includes a cave where Padmashambhaba meditated for seven years 10 centuries ago. We reached Darchen after a 3 and half hour drive and entered the walled, government - run guest house compound, a notorious slum operated by the Chinese occupiers of Tibet, who require all tourists and pilgrim groups to stay there. We would have much preferred to camp on the spacious plain south of the gate, but this is not allowed. All travelers to Tibet should realize that their money spent in the country mostly ends up funneled by law and by design into government-run enterprises operated by the Chinese occupiers, and does not directly benefit Tibetans.
The obvious exception would be money spent in Tibetan small shops, renting Yaks, employing Tibetan Yak-drivers, guides or porters. We arrived at the guest house about noon and had to bribe the manager to rent us rooms in the new wing of the motel-like facility. The new rooms were Spartan but relatively clean. However the toilet building, a hundred yards across the U-shaped compound, was so horribly foul in the women's section that Diane refused to use it. The men's side was evil-smelling but otherwise tolerable. The courtyard of the guest house was strewn with broken glass and animal feces, forcing one to keep eyes to the ground when walking about. Several dozen shaggy pack-yaks ambled slowly about the compound, having returned from carrying Indian pilgrims who are unable or unwilling to walk around Kailash under their own power with the help of a man who spoke both Nepali and Tibetan, Krishna arranged for himself and Diane and Jim to ride a Yak in a circle while photos and videos were taken amid much amusement. A crowd gathered to view a replay of Krishna's video footage on the camera's integral view screen.
The fee for the Yak rides was 15 Yuan (just under US $2) for the three of us. From Darchen we could see an enticing glimpse of the summit of Kailash protruding above intervening hills. Our guide book stated that an "Utterly spectacular" view of the holy mountain's south face could be had in fair weather by hiking up the hills lying directly above and north of the village. Jim and Krishna considered undertaking the hike, but clouds partially obscured the peak and killed Jim's incentive.
About 2 P.M. the skies around Kailash cleared and we resolved to go up for the "spectacular" view and photographs. Pemba, who had never done this hike before, insisted it was his duty to lead us. Armed with directions from a local person, we set out on what turned out to be a 1,100 foot climb, taking 1½ hours. (Pemba could have done it much faster.)
We were rewarded indeed with stunning views and photos of the snow-clad, triangular, steep and striated south face of Kailash. The view and photos we obtained almost surely would exceed in beauty any views we would have during the 3 and half day circumambulation (called a Kora by Tibetans and a Parikarama by Hindus). We returned to Darchen in half the time of the ascent and were resting by 5:30 P.M. The exertion gave Jim a headache but it had begun to abate by dinner time at 7 P.M. To bed by 8:30.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 14
Up at 7:30 A.M., we began our Kora at 8 A.M. Krishna, Pemba, Jim and Diane ---- with a leisurely 3 hour stroll west of Darchen then north up the valley of the Lha Chu river, turning around the southwest aspect of Kailash, though we could see very little of the holy peak. We paused at a cairn and prayer flags, the first of four prostration stations on the Kora. This one was strewn with thousands faded, weathered articles of clothing and other offerings left by pilgrims seeking long life. We encountered only Tibetan (as opposed to Indian) pilgrims, but were told by Pemba that a large group of Indian pilgrims was expected to complete this Kora section in a bus later in the day. Their leaders would bring up yaks for them to ride beyond this 1st day leg of the Kora, Pemba said.
We, too, would employ Yaks, but only to carry gear and baggage and food , not to carry us. Continuing up the valley, we next paused at Darbochhe, a very tall pole adorned with many prayer flags. This is the site of an annual festival on the date of Buddha's birthday which draws Tibetans from throughout Tibet.
A bit further on we came to our campsite, opposite Chhuku Gompa (also spelled Chuku or Chugu), situated two or three hundred feet up the hill on the west bank of the Lha Chu river.
Our tents were already up. The crew had driven our truck to the site while we walked. Soon after our 11 A.M. arrival, Pemba excused himself and left with the truck driver to drive back to Darchen, where he would hire the 3 or 4 yaks and Yak drivers we would require. Pemba said he and the Yak team would return the next morning about 8 A.M. Sack lunch and tea came next, followed by rest in our tents. Jim's altimeter showed this campsite elevation to be 4750 meters. One authoritative guidebook listed about the same elevation. Thus Chhuku Gompa camp elevation : 4750M.
Tomorrow's camp is to be at Driraphuk monastery, which the book states affords "a fine view of the north face of Kailash". Our map gives an elevation of 4860 for Driraphuk. If true, this means tomorrow's trek involves an elevation gain of 110 meters. A mere 358 feet, plus any ups and downs along the way.
The killer day comes on day 3, the day after tomorrow, when we must ascend the dreaded Drolma La, a pass whose elevation is given at anything from 17,700 feet to 18,300 feet.
The climb up to the pass apparently will be from about 2,000 to 2,400 feet of elevation gain, which at lower elevations would present no problem to Diane or Jim. But to climb that much at an elevation above 16,000 feet is very daunting and beyond anything Diane has done before. We are anxious, though Pemba has told us we can climb on a Yak if we can't make the grade. THIS WILL TEST OUR TRUE GRIT! Dinner featured popcorn, garlic soup and delicious carrot, onion and cheese pizza! It began raining at 7 P.M. just as we sat down, to dinner, and poured, turning hall. Rain continued on and off all night, but stopped by rising time at 6 A.M.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 15
Cold and windy with gray, wintry skies. The season seemed to change overnight. Soon after breakfast Pemba arrived on a bus with a group of Indian pilgrims who were making a vehicular start to their parikarama. He told us our three yaks were on their way, and so we set off ahead with Krishna, confident our Yak caravan could overtake us. We changed the days marching plan by agreeing to camp much higher than Driraphuk, thus greatly shortening the climb we would face to the pass the next day. We thought all were agreed on this change, but either the yak driver was not informed, or he chose to ignore the change.
We reached an intermediate camp, and still no sign of the yaks or our staff Pemba told Diane, Jim and Krishna to go on while he waited for the missing yaks. We reach the next camp, our originally planned stopping place, Driraphuk, and spent an hour and a half of valuable trail time waiting for some sign of Pemba and the yaks. Finally our three Yaks arrived in tandem with three other yaks, two drivers and a stranger, who turned out to be another guide. Our cook, Rudra, told us that he and Mal Bahadur Lama had waited four hours for the yaks to appear.
Apparently the devious yak driver had spliced our party together with another party to increase his commerce, and the other party caused the four-hour delay. This ruined our plan to go to a higher camp to make tomorrow's arduous climb tolerable. We were furious, and told Pemba so. And we made clear that we refused to travel in tandem with another party for the balance of the Kora.
The clients of the other party still had not shown up by 4:30 P.M., though their camp stood next to ours. Tibetan Yak drivers, we were told by Pemba, include some devious, underhanded, stubborn and cantankerous individuals, and apparently we had drawn one of these. On the positive side, the wintry early weather transformed into lovely, sunny weather by about 2 P.M., just in time to give us a great view of the north face of Kailash from Driraphuk. During our walk we saw golden marmots galore and soaring buzzard - like birds at close range. We also encountered many---perhaps several hundred in all ---Tibetan pilgrims dressed in wonderful traditional multi-colored clothing. The women especially were lovely and well-dressed. Some spun prayer wheels and some groups included a few babies carried on backs. Diane presented small color photo prints of the Dalai Lama to some of the pilgrims, who received them with great reverence and appreciation.
The "Americans" reported to be joined with us turned out to be a lone American woman whose Chinese companion, a man, had been struck down with altitude sickness at Lake Manasarovar. We greeted her but did not converse. To be bed by 8:30 in preparation for a very early start (4:25 A.M. wakeup) to allow time for a very long day tomorrow. Camp elevation - 5080M.
An aside regarding elevations : elevations given in our various guide books and our map vary widely for any given location and are not to be trusted, we learned. The elevation gain from camp 1 (Chhukku Gompa) to camp 2 (Driraphuk), for example, was given as 350 feet by our references, and turned out to be closer to 1,100 feet. Drolmala, However, registered 5580 on Jim's altimeter, exactly the number cited by guidebook. The climb up to the pass from Driraphuk was about 1,650 feet gain.
THURSDAY, SEPT. 16
Jim's alarm sounded at 4:25 A.M., allowing 20 mins before 4:45 A.M. breakfast served in tent. It had rained heavily overnight and was foggy when we arose. This was the momentous day, the day we had pondered and imagined for several years, the day we would (we hoped) reach and trek over Drolma La at 18,300 feet, the high point of the circumabulation and supreme physical challenge of our visit to the Himalaya. We started walking under slowly clearing skies at 6 A.M. Many Tibetan pilgrims shared the uphill trail. After 4 hours of breathless toil we reached our treasured goal. The Drolma La festooned with more prayer flags than we had seen, or probably would ever see, in one location in our life times. And more were being added as we watched, by both Tibetan, Nepalese and a few western pilgrims.
During the hour we spent at the pass we visited with trekkers from New Mexico (2), Italy (2), Israel (1) and India (many). Westerners were about one half of one percent of the total. At 11 A.M. we began the abrupt, steep descent, after leaving two bandanas as our own offering and an offering we had carried from Idaho for a friend. The pass was not the only attraction of the day. Along the route were many piles of mani stones and a ghostly area of phallic stones set upright and wrapped in cloth. This last area was named Shiva Linga. On the way down was a small Lake sacred to Hindus. The entire trek up to Drolma La and the long route down to our night's camp at Zitulphuk took 10 hour including the hour at Drolma La and we were exhausted.
Then on arrival, we discovered that our careless, incompetent Yak driver had slopped Kerosene over our duffel bag through negligent Yak-loading technique. Jim's sleeping bag, some clothing and the duffel were reeking. We were furious again. Jim's sleeping bag was unusable, so Krishna rented a feather comforter from the nearby guesthouse. Then Krishna set to washing the duffel. Jim went to bed in disgust and exhaustion before 6 P.M. without waiting for dinner and Diane followed after having a bowl of soup.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 17
Overnight it rained, then froze, and we awoke at 6 A.M. to find our tents coated in ice, though the skies were blue and cloudless. As soon as the sun arrived we dried the duffel and some clothing that had been washed, but the scent of Kerosene remained, though less intense.
We stuffed our clothing in a poncho loaned by Krishna in an effort to insulate them from the contaminated duffel. Jim announced he would not allow the villainous Yak driver to have another chance to ruin our belongings. Krishna insisted that our stalwart assistant cook and porter, Mal Bahadur Lama would carry the duffel (which had storable pack straps) and Jim relented. The walk out under blue skies was pretty, and we reached our land cruiser about 10:30 A.M. after 2 hours 15 minutes on the trail. We drove a mile or so back to Darchen for what Tenba told us would be a half hour stop to obtain some sort of "stamps" on travel documents of our Nepali staff. This stop turned out to take three hours. We had lunch, read, wrote in the journal, and Diane bargained with the incredibly persistent Tibetan women peddlers who prey on trekkers in the guest house court yard. Elevation at Darchen - 4700 M.
* A Technical note: The Kora route from Driraphuk up to Drolmala was snow covered but only to a depth of an inch or less. Glacier glasses would have been helpful to Jim, whose eyes are sensitive to glare. Gaiters were not needed. On the descent we dropped below snow line within a few hours.
* Editor's note: We learned that our Tibetan guide's name is not Pemba, but TENBA Gyantsen. His agency is Ngari Kailash International Trekking Agency (A government enterprise).
We finally were able to leave Darchen at 2:00 P.M., after three hours of abominable red tape. During our wait the weather went from hot sun, to rain to hail and back to blue skies. About an hour on at a village named Hor, we stopped and met four Swiss young people who had just finished a five month volunteer work project back at Darchen -- one in environmental education and helping finish interior decorating at the new Darchen traditional Tibetan medicine hospital and the other three as carpenter bricklayers.
We drove until dark across surprisingly verdant but treeless plateau with frequent stream crossings, putting the lie to the idea that the western plateau of Tibet is without water or greenery. We pitched camp by headlamp, ate an abbreviated dinner in our tent and were asleep before 9 P.M. Camp was in the middle of nowhere beside a small stream at 4845 meters. It was our coldest night yet, and all was frozen in the morning but the skies were clear.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 18
Up at 6:00 A.M. -- frigid but pretty location ---- we were north of the east end of a long Lake Tempa said is named Tuktso, but that name is suspect. Better check a map when back in Kathmandu or in Lhasa. We were on the road again by 8:00 A.M. and topped Mayum La pass 45 minutes later, at 5100 meters where we paused at a prayer- flagged cairn. Then down the other side and on past herds of goats, Yaks, occasional grazing horses and even a few wild ass. We stopped at a sheepherder’s seasonal summer settlement and were invited into a tent for butter tea and dough balls by one of the leading herders. He had two wives, six children, 300 sheep and 40 Yaks and was quite genial. He said they spent about six months a year on the summer range and wintered near Lake Manasarovar.
Here as at nearly every stop we were objects of intense curiosity on the part of locals, especially children who were very sweet for the most part but occasionally could be annoyingly aggressive. As we were leaving our truck got stuck trying a shortcut --- took us 50 minutes to get it out. On eastward across the border between Ngari province to the west and Shigatse province to the east. Directly south we could see the northern front of the great Himalayan range. A wall of spectacular snow clad giants on the Nepal side of the border for the most part. Jim resolved to try to learn the names of the more prominent peaks when a map could be procured.
The scenery both north and south was dominated most of the day by snowy peaks. The truck got stuck one more time in a very boggy area but the driver extricated it with only a 20 minutes delay. Racing the calendar, we drove again until dark, sending yaks and huge Tibetan hares scurrying away from our path as we jogged and lurched ever eastward into the waning light. We made camp at 6:00 P.M. and were in bed by 8:00 P.M. with orders for a 5:00 A.M. getup to allow for a long and rough day's drive tomorrow. We ate dinner outdoors under a half moon and starry skies.
Camp elevation - 4600 Mtrs.
* Follow up notes: Two surprises confronted us this afternoon --- Sand Dunes, up to 50 or 75 feet high, lying in large cusps on the plain, and mosquitoes, at nearly 15,000 feet, in one region where we took a lunch break. Who would have imagined mosquitoes at 15,000 feet !! They were slow moving, however, and easy to swat.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 19
Up at 4:45 A.M. -- pretty warm. Sunrise at 6:23 found us fed (pancakes, granola and onion omelets) and packing to go. We were on the road by 7:00 A.M. We soon came along the course of the great Tsangpo river, which is known as the BRAHMAPUTRA in Assam and the rest of India and Bangladesh, where it flows ultimately into the bay of Bengal. Small, delicate animals, which looked like antelope, small deer, or small guanacos, watched us pass. We came soon after to a region noted for its heavy rain, but soon were back in sun again. For the past three days of driving, the road was so rough, mostly just a dirt (and mud and rock) track, and our progress had been held to an average of about 10 miles an hour.
About 10:00 A.M. today we entered a long stretch of well-constructed fine gravel road with a level built-up roadbed that allowed speeds of 40 MPH or more. And we began seeing such highway amenities as road mileage markers and even a few small hand-lettered signs. The landscape has become very green. At 10:40 A.M. we stopped to wait for the truck, which failed to appear for 40 minutes, We learned that the truck driver is upset with a change in itinerary we have made and is staging a slow down strike. Jim decides the driver has lost his tip as a result. We visit a restored monastery, which Tenba says is named "Thadu".
At our 1:00 P.M. lunch stop there is more debate with the truck driver. Soon we will come to the town of Saga, where the truck driver wants to spend the night, because it is a convenient turn off to the Nepal border, where he must take Rudra, our cook, and Mal Bahadur, our hard-working 2nd cook and porter. These two staffers are splitting off to return to Kathmandu by land while we continue to Lhasa, from which we fly to Ktm. The dispute should come to head soon. The driver announced he must have some problem with the truck checked in Saga, which was a stalling tactic designed to force us all to stay there. At this point Jim lost his temper and told the driver his selfishness had cost him his tip, and cursed him, all in English of course, which the driver couldn't understand. But the import was pretty clear. This probably did not help. Krishna then announced to the truck driver that the land cruiser was leaving and would proceed alone. We would rely on rest houses for food and shelter until reaching our hotel tomorrow in Shigatse. The driver then pretended to relent and told Krishna he would follow us to tonight's camp, bringing Mal Bahadur and Rudra and our gear and food as originally planned, then back track with them to the Nepal border.
So we set out, but the truck soon fell behind --- more stalling ---and was lost from view, even from 5035 meter. Turi La, which we reached at 3:00 P.M. We stopped to wait. Still no sign of the truck by 3:30, and all of us were concerned for Rudra and Mal Bahadur, who now were hostage to the lying, dishonest and rebellious truck driver. Even if the driver turned back to Saga, our two staff are relying on him to get them and our gear to the border, and given his dishonesty, We all feared in the back of our minds that he could abandon them or otherwise make further trouble.
Last but not least, by Shanghaiing our two loyal staff members, the driver was denying them their tip, which Diane and Jim intended to present the next morning at the planned post-breakfast farewell. The driver was an independent operator hired by Tempa's Tibetan Agency to drive just for this portion of our trek, and thus he could not be "fired". We wondered if he'd been paid in advance. But in the end, the truck did arrive 45 minutes after we stopped to wait. We resumed our eastward journey much relieved and drove until 5:45 P.M., camping by the road and by a stream at 4785 meters, higher than last night. Among the day's wild life highlights was the sighting of what appeared to be several foxes.
Tenba informed us we had covered about 300 Kilometers today in spite of nearly two hours delay caused by the truck driver's sabotage tactics. Tomorrow, he said, we could easily cover the remaining 300 KM to Shigatse, since we would part company with the troublesome truck and driver. Rudra served his final meal featuring a delicious veg pizza, roast mutton, soup, French fries & canned pears. To bed by 8:30 P.M. Elevation 4785 M.
MONDAY, SEPT. 20
Up at 5:15 A.M. After breakfast we presented tips to Rudra, Mal Bahadur and the rebellious truck driver (mainly to keep him from loosing face and perhaps causing problems for Rudra & Mal Bahadur).
Today's drive turned out to last about 12 hours and took us over a 25 Mile stretch of absolutely unimaginably bad road, so rough and tortuous that much of it couldn't really be called a road at all. It wound down a river valley through mud and over rocks and back and forth across the river and sometimes in the river. Though this was only 40 of the total 300 KM we had to drive, it took nearly a third of the road time. But the day saw us on some of the best road, too, paved asphalt sections that, alas, never lasted more than a few miles.
Other contrasts and changes:
Trees, for the first time since leaving Nepal.
Cultivation, with fields of barley being harvested.
More prosperous villages with well ordered houses of good appearance.
More traffic, especially near the turn off to Kathmandu at the town of Latse.
A much more Chinese presence & feel, both in terms of people and signs, which were almost entirely in Chinese script.
Lower elevation. We finally dropped below 4000 Meters.
Extensive construction of a new, elevated road bed with many retaining walls, culverts and bridges was underway in the bad section west of Latse, showing the determination of the Chinese to lace together this wild plateau with a road that would help insure military and political dominance. We had lunch at a good Chinese restaurant in Latse and set out again by 3 P.M. to cover the final 145 KM to Shigatse.
We arrived at the palatial Shigatse hotel after dark at about 7:15 P.M. Our room was wonderful, with a bathroom virtually at USA standard. Diane and Jim opted for hot showers rather than going out with the staff (Krishna, Tempa & Our driver. Our hotel had closed its dining room by the time we finished luxuriating in the shower (it was after 10 P.M. Chinese time) and room service was not operating. So we had two candy bars and read for a while in the comfortable double beds. We looked forward to a day of sightseeing tomorrow in this, Tibet's 2nd largest city, before driving on to Gyantse. Elevation - 3900 Meters.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 21
Up at 7:30 A.M. Chinese time (5:15 A.M. Nepali time) to repack. Breakfast at 8:00 A.M. Today's tour of Tashilhunpo monastery took us into a city within the city of Shigatse, a vast monastery with its own streets, housing sectors, plazas, back alleys and complex of temples and halls. Our drive on to Gyantse took us through intensely agricultural, cultivated areas -- very different form western Tibet. Much of the gravel road was lined with poplar -- like trees, leaves turning golden, giving the feel of Italian of French countryside were it not for the dwellings, which were distinctly Tibetan.
Our hotel in Gyantse was a pleasant surprise with nice room and bath, but obviously designed by the same team as had designed the Shigatse Hotel. Same furnishing, light fixtures, bathroom etc. Our arrival in Gyantse was delayed by a wheel bearing failure just outside town, and we elected not to have dinner, but instead went to the bar and consumed two bags of pistachios and a half pint of Chinese brandy mixed with coca-cola. While there we chatted with Bob and Pat from Florida, who planned to visit India after their Tibet tour. To bed by 8:30 Nepali time.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 22
Up at 4:45 A.M.(Nepal time). Met our staff at 6:45 and decided to skip breakfast in view of the 280 KM drive to Lhasa facing us. Before we could leave Gyantse we had a flat tire, and while Tempa and Mingmar had it fixed, Jim, Diane and Krishna had a wonderful breakfast of banana pancakes, omelets, Tibetan bread and coffee at the Tashi restaurant next to the entrance to the Gyantse castle. The drive to Lhasa made us feel we had left Tibet and entered China, for the Chinese influence - signs, people on the street, development - was ever more pervasive. And on reaching Lhasa itself around 3 P.M. Nepal time, the suffocation of the old Tibet by the new overlay of occupation Chinese infrastructure reached nearly 100%.
Lhasa, with the exception of the barkhor the "Old Town", - is a sprawling, modern Chinese city with polluted air and horn-honking traffic congestion. Our 12-Year-old hotel was anther in the chain of very similar government hotels. If we were to return to Lhasa, we'd stay in the "Lhasa Hotel" the former Holiday Inn.
Dined in the Barkhor at the venerable Snowlands Hotel, once (and still) the "Roadie" Hq. of Lhasa. Had Yak steak, chicken kebobs, momos, tomato salad and cheap red wine - great !!
THURSDAY, SEPT. 23
Toured the famed Potala this morning. Took over two hours, though a scholar could spend years in this Huge palace studying the vast collection of deity statues, statuettes, murals, mandalas, thankas and other Buddhist objects. Lunched at good Nepali restaurant and toured Sera Monastery. It is another (Like Tashiluunpo) religious city with an active population of monks.
Next we visited the Lhasa Hotel, the former notorious Holiday Inn, once boycotted because it was a Chinese government monopoly. It was hosting a lot of Americans this time, including a Stanford University alumni assn. group. Returned to our hotel to find they had failed to send our laundry to be done. Jim was really pissed. We went to bed early, skipping dinner.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 24
Up at 5:30(Chinese Time) to write post cards, shower and go out for breakfast. We don't care for the lackluster buffet meals at the "Grand" hotel. Met our staff at 9 A.M.
For the 2nd day our Toyota land cruiser is missing, the driver, Mingmar, having taken it in for repairs, so we tour by taxi to Drepung monastery. This, more than before, seems a "real" working place of worship, with whole families making the rounds of the Chapels and worshiping and pouring ghee into lighted butter lamps and prostrating themselves and leaving small cash offerings.
Next we return to the city for a four-hour break. Our next tour stop, the Johkang temple in the heart of the old section of Lhasa, is closed until 4 P.M. We lunch in the Barkhor section. The Johkang is thronging with local worshippers--- outnumbering tourists 10 to one. Being there is a very dynamic experience.
The Johkang is the final stop of our Lhasa tour. Tomorrow we bid goodbye to Tibet and fly back to Kathmandu. Dinner at Snowlands where Diane has roast chicken and Jim has Yak steak----perhaps his last. The Grand Hotel finally has managed to do the small bag of laundry we handed over three days earlier. We tell Krishna not to use this hotel again if he can avoid it (Hotel bookings in Tibet were made by the Tibet trekking sub-contractor). The hotel food was not good --- we took all meals out. The hotel offered limited hours of hot water--- even much more modest hotels in Lhasa offer 24 - hour hot water. Only one or two staff spoke English. The hotel was suited only for Chinese tour groups. To bed by 9:00 P.M. Chinese time for a 4:45 A.M. wake up .
SATURDAY, SEPT. 25
Met our staff at 5:30 A.M.(3:15 Nepal time) for the 1½ hour drive to the airport. Our timing was good. Only the Stanford University alumni tour group was ahead of us in the check-in line, or at least their luggage was there --- they arrived later. It was important to be early in the check-in to obtain left-hand side window seats for a possible view of Mt. Everest enroute to Kathmandu. We bid farewell to Tenba and Mingmar and gave them their tips and progressed through immigration without a hitch, thanks to Tenba's and Krishna's expert administration of our complicated group visa, further complicated because two (Rudra and Mal Bahadur) of the five persons listed on the visa had already exited Tibet by land route.
The 1 hour 10 minute flight to Kathmandu went without a hitch. We did not get a glimpse of Mt. Everest--- sometimes a bonus on this flight --- it was too cloudy. At Ktm. airport Krishnas wife, two young children and his business partner met us and accompanied us to Thamel and the hotel Vaishali.
The hotel was thronged by members of the Bangladesh delegation to the South Asian Federation Games, a regional Olympics among seven nations-- Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Republic of the Maldives, in addition to Bangladesh. Although we had confirmed reservations at the Vaishali, they had given our room away and claimed to have "lost" our reservation. Krishna called five other hotels and found them all full. Jim proposed the Yak & Yeti, Kathmandu's venerable and most famous hotel, where we were able to get a room for the coming week.
This brings our excellent trek and travel through western Nepal and Tibet to a close. The program organized by High Mountain Wave Trekking was very good. The complex logistics and travel documentation were handled professionally. We recommend HMW, to anyone considering a trip to Mount Kailash and lake Manasarovar. Finally we want to thank Mr. Krishna Hari Humagain. His companionship on this trip made it an entirely better and more enjoyable experience.
He is a very wise, gentle and contientious professional and a very good friend. His first thoughts always are for his clients and his staff. It was a privilege and a pleasure to travel with him and to become friends with him.
We dedicate our good memories and this modest journal to Krishna.