On the road (or there and back again)

Or even, how I learned to stop worrying and love Thamel.

My boomerang trip is nearly complete, and once again I’m sitting in the heart of Kathmandu’s tourist district, which seems to have gained a bit of colour in its cheeks since we last met. Perhaps because it’s a Saturday night? It reminds me of the Khaosan Road in Bangkok, all western and eastern music splicing and overlapping, hip young things and lots of lights. As I type, a band in a nearby club is not doing too badly with a cover of Steppenwolf.

Of course, my new-found generosity towards this place could also be a result of having spent a week in Tibet – precisely the kind of harsh, unforgiving and untamed (once you get out of the major cities) hinterland I was expecting it to be. I knew it was going to be a physical challenge, but I didn’t realise on how many levels. The altitude is the main thing – above 4000m and I found myself slipping in and out of sapping, nauseous daze, which seemed to pass with eating (except that my appetite was suffering too) but soon swept back with a vengeance. The dryness of the air as you ascend increases, which gradually sucks the moisture out of your skin, especially the lips, and also your lungs, meaning you need to drink at least 3 (but preferably 4+) litres of water a day. So you’re gasping for water the entire time, as your mouth and lips and throat are eternally parched, but in the back of your mind is the fact that you’ll quickly need to make a trip to a toilet which is either a) a fetid squat job with flies buzzing around and an open box of used toilet paper next to you (that’s if you’re lucky) or b) a ‘long-drop’, which is basically just a hole in the ground in a shack, the ‘drop’ part of which is evidently rarely cleared out. Were you eating while reading that? If so, I apologise.

But the rewards are great, if you have the energy to seek them out. Our next stop after Shigatse was Sakia, a much smaller town on the way to Everest, and far more in keeping with my romantic vision of Tibet. There is barely any Chinese influence, and watching over the town is a tremendous mountain, peppered with ruins, houses and monasteries. A handful of us made the climb, and while altitude sickness set in before I reached the top (I suddenly found myself unable to swallow – my body’s very own early-warning panic signal), the part I’d managed was one of the highlights of the trip. Wondering out loud what the ruins would have been like before they became so, we felt for the first time as if we were properly exploring on our own, and not just being tourists in a flock. From there (4300m) it was another massive ascent the following day to 5000m, at which point I admitted defeat and took some Diamox (altitude sickness medicine). I couldn’t face another night and day of nausea, and was determined to make the 4km walk to Everest base camp. The drugs worked, and I made it across the wind-blasted tundra and to the top of ‘marvel hill’ to gawp at the tallest mountain in the world as the sun set. I got pushed backwards by the wind a couple of times, and experienced a new meaning to the word ‘cold’ – but once again, it was worth it. Everest emitted a peculiar gravitational pull as I walked towards it, and I kept having to stop and stare. I understand why people get the overwhelming desire to conquer it, in spite of the risks – it is, in a word, awesome.

Unfortunately, my efforts were not rewarded with a warm and comfortable bed for the night – staying in a monastery guesthouse at 5000m with no heating is one of the more unpleasant nocturnal experiences of my life. In spite of that I managed to fall asleep, although I question now whether it was simply a defence mechanism which kicked in to stop me feeling the cold, and in fact I simply passed out – when morning came, it felt like I’d pulled an all-nighter.

The day after base camp did, however, bring a totally unexpected delight, which soothed much of the physical (and mental) stress of the past few days. We descended ear-poppingly quickly towards the Tibetan/Nepalese border, and seemingly from one minute to the next, at about 3000m, entered a gorge of mystical proportions. The road spiralled through a spectral forest, rendered so by layers of cloud. Grey shadows – a suggestion of a tree or cliff – emerged from the mist, only to slip back in again. We made a stop for people to get out and stretch their legs, and the difference in the air was incredible, and sublime. After the barren land higher up, the smell of greenery and humidity was something to be savoured. We all just sat around, breathing it in. It was a magical scene, reminding me of something from a Studio Ghibli film. I could imagine spirits and forest-gods sauntering about unseen behind the trees and waterfalls. The cloud all around us also added to the impression that we were descending from the sky – as someone on my group put it, that ‘there’s a land up there, and a land down there, and they’re connected by this crazy road’ – a sort of limbo land where anything can happen. Revitalised, we hopped back onto the bus, which took us through more of this amazing landscape – which lasted well into Nepal.

And here I am – the journey back from Tibet has been tough, fun, awe-inspiring, and at times a little scary (especially this morning, when due to the torrential rainfall last night, our bus had to negotiate a series of landslides along a road which has a sheer drop into a ravine and no crash barrier. We had to get out and walk at one point because the bus was leaning over the edge of a cliff).

What a trip – Tolkein would have been proud if he’d cooked this one up.

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