‘This is the highest toilet on earth’ our guide trilled, waking me from my 5th nap of the day. We had left Shigatse some 5-6 hours ago and despite the spectacular scenery along the way, the rocking motion of our 4WD lulled me to sleep like a gurgling baby.
I opened one eye against the glare of the sun. He was pointing to a concrete shed, reachable by thirty steps or so. Next to it was a sign declaring we were now at 5250 metres above sea level.
‘Hmmm hilarious!’ I thought remorsefully, having exposed my butt to passing vehicles two hours ago as I peed au naturale.
We were literally on the ‘Roof of the World’ and yet, here was a ‘proper’ toilet in quite literally, the land of sh!tholes!
If I was brave enough, I may have taken the opportune moment of a toilet break, but the short walk from car to foot of stairs left me gasping for air. Lungs burning and legs in danger of buckling below me, climbing the stairs seemed as tough a trek to Everest Base Camp – which is exactly where we were heading – well, minus the arduous bit. I’m not ashamed to admit we were doing it the ‘lazy’ way, journeying all the way in to Mount Everest’s North Base Camp by 4WD.
Still, one should not take this trip lightly. “Altitude kills!” a sign warned, reminding us that we are venturing in to one of the most hostile places in the world.
Indeed, we may have been in the comfort of a 4WD but I was feeling far from relaxed as we climbed through a magnificent landscape of bare fault lines and rock formations some hours later. We had already lost one member of our group at Tingri due to mild altitude sickness, and I too was beginning to question my physical state of being.
Something was definitely odd. There was a bizarre tingling and sometimes sudden pulling on my scalp. It felt like someone was tugging at my hair. I turned around in my seat and shot my fellow travel buddy an accusational look but he looked at me blankly. Oh, this was very weird.
The anxious part of me wished I had forfeited this dream of mine to see Mount Everest. I ran the symptoms of altitude sickness in my head… Severe headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, blurred vision, delirium… I had none of these – unless claustrophobia was missed out in error? We were in the car for a total of 12 hours now and I felt like a caged animal clawing at the windows. I needed air… a satisfying intake of fresh, lovely, heavenly air.
Just as I was about to surrender to a puff of bottled air, my concerns were quickly forgotten as an easterly wind drew back the curtain of dense cloud to unveil our first glimpse of the nation’s Jewel. There she was… Superior, proud and powerful; unmistakably the summit of Mount Everest – Earth’s highest point at 8848 metres.
Even at a vast distance away, she was enormous; filling the valley and taking prominence of the foreground. The scale only enhanced the enormity and incomprehension of climbing it; which I suppose is the huge draw for the recorded 800 climbers who attempt to climb it each year; what the National Geographic now describes as a ‘commercialised climbing circus’.
I was not going to be one of those 800 today. I was happy to admire from afar. Aside from the hefty £30k price tag, I’d seen the movies The Wildest Dream and Vertical Limit, and I knew the statistics of success aren’t foolproof. Despite frequent earthquakes and landslides, 4000 people have scaled the summit since Sir Edmund Hilary in 1953; but it’s also worth taking heed that hundreds have also perished. The most recent earthquake occurred in April 2015, killing 22 climbers, and it was only very recently that Tibet reopened its doors to climbers.
There was a general sense of assurance that we were safe from after shocks but as grey clouds ominously rolled across the sky with the portent of rain, we were suddenly in a race against time and weather.
‘We may not be so lucky to see the summit after all,’ our guide warned, but the epic vision of a myriad snow capped peaks spurred us to battle on.
One final checkpoint and a lot of kerfuffle later, we had reached base camp. A circle of identical tents marked the periphery of the campsite; each tent emblazoned with a large red number to aid you in to orientating your sleepy, oxygen-starved-self should you need to pee in the middle of the night.
Our tent itself was like stepping in to an Aladdin’s Cave… Thick drapes of yak wool protected us from the harsh outside elements… Central to the space was a burning stove fuelled by yak dung, and circling this were our beds for the night… Firm mattresses adorned with thick, colourful blankets and fluffy pillows. This was definitely my idea of camping… We were ‘glamping’ it up at Everest!
I felt like I was being suddenly hugged by a thousand warm arms as we warmed ourselves around the spitting stove and were served hot yak butter tea by our local host for the night. The feeling was short lived though as our guide urged us to press on. We had a small window to go up to the viewing point before nightfall descended upon us.
Back outside, the camp was a throng of activity now. Every nationality was present… Chinese, Japanese, American, Europeans, adventurers from all walks of life tied together by an unvoiced, strong mutual bond to see Everest. If there had been any national stereotypes and resentment beforehand, the vision of Everest had ebbed them away. We were one of the same in this moment, dressed in thermals, our ‘Gore-Tex’ and ‘North Face’ brightly coloured jackets… And together we made our journey towards the viewpoint.
‘Remember, go slow, go slow,’ our guide reminded us again as he watched us race off in excitement.
I consider myself relatively fit and take pride that I can endure an hour of intense cardiovascular workout; but any amount of training proved fruitless in this environment.
I ascended the top of the hill where countless thousands of prayer flags fluttered against the wind and realised my lungs were burning. If I wasn’t smiling so much it may have been easier to take in deep intakes of air but the scenery before me was everything I dreamt of and more.
It’s beauty was epic, monumental, wild and terrifying. Heart racing I sat down on a rock and drank in the view. Filling the screen was a cinematic view of Everest, or what the Tibetan’s call Chomolungma – ‘Goddess Mother of The Earth’. She rose high above the clouds, so high she soared triumphantly in to blue sky above mist and gazed way down below at us. The sun glinted off her snowy white peak like a sparkling bejewelled crown, adding to the semblance of her celestial status. In front of her were ‘smaller’ mountains holding guard like they were her protectors.
They must have been amused at us, the spectators. We were a weird mix. Some of us seemed more absorbed in taking selfies, finger poised in the air as if to say to Facebook or Instagram followers – ‘Look, I’m touching the tip of Everest!’
This was perhaps not the best place for introspection but for the first time on this soul searching trip, I think I may have found what I was looking for…
I took out my own string of prayer flags that I had purchased in Lhasa, and wrote on each flag the names of the people I love… of those here on this earth and of those who have gone from our lives.
The Tibetan store keeper had explained to me that, “Beings touched by the wind are uplifted and happier, and will receive good fortune. The stronger the wind, the more your silent prayers will be answered…”
Touched by this belief, I too wanted to believe the mystical powers hidden in these landscapes. I wanted to believe that there was magic in this world, that life wasn’t all about heartache, loss and suffering.
Names clearly written, with a strong desire to believe, I strung up my prayer flags to join the thousand of others. I watched each colourful flag flap against the escalating wind and imagined that everything in the world would be okay now; that with love there would be harmony, that with acceptance there would be peace, that with optimism there would be happiness and that with happiness there would be belief.
Enlightenment to the soul was but for a fleeting moment though… The honking of a bus was rounding the last of us little adventurers up for the day. The sky was darkening. Rain was on the approach. The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped. I was happy to be led back to camp where we were going to be fed and then put to bed.
As the six of us sat around the stove and tucked in to our vegetable chow mein later, sure enough the heavens had opened. The wind and rain tried to whip at our tent but years and years of nomadic living in harsh conditions outwitted the weather.
I only wished our particular tent had caught up with modern times! I was in need of a pee and discovered the only facility was a 100 yards away in a shared outbuilding.
It was pitch black outside now. The prospect of peeing in a sh!thole in the dark was foreboding. Thank goodness I had packed a head torch and strapped it on to my head like I was going on a major expedition. The wind was howling and rendered my umbrella useless. I envied every man I spotted p!ssing against the side of their 4WD. They were like rabbits caught in my headlights as I dodged growing puddles and god knows what…. Human faeces???! Finally I found the ‘washroom’ and from that moment on, I will never take a proper toilet for granted.
Sleep came in stutters. The retching and vomiting of nearby campers stirred even the heaviest of sleepers. The altitude was ruthless and smothering. I gave up trying to drift back to sleep and stepped out of the tent to take another glimpse of Chomolungma before madness descended on the camp again. She was shrouded in mist now though. I would never see her again.
As we made our long, arduous journey back to Lhasa on our final leg of the trip, I tried my damnest not to fall asleep this time. I wanted to soak in everything… the glittering turquoise lakes, the snow capped glaciers, the expansive plains dotted with nomadic tents and yaks, fields of golden yellow flowers, colourful prayer flags that draped high above us in to the heavens and most of all the big, wide smiles and warm greetings of the Tibetans as we passed them… I wanted to freeze frame every picture, every feeling and every thought, because from the moment I had stepped in to Tibet I realised I now saw the world with a different set of eyes…