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A Shy Giant

My mind was awash with thoughts in anticipation of viewing the Earth’s highest peak. We were soon to be met by a spectacle of enormous stature in both reputation and physicality. I felt like a child about to meet my boyhood hero; shy and unsure of how to act in the presence of a superior. The group were all excited and a restless sense of ‘are we there yet?’ pervaded. I wondered if repeated ‘business’ visits to the mountain reduced its impact upon the tour guides; either way, it certainly beats a desk job. As we progressed the Chinese checkpoints began to increase, and every few miles Tenzin had to jump out and present our passports and the relevent permits. Not even Tibetans are allowed to move freely, and in areas such as this and at Mount Kailash in the West, they too are required to present paperwork to the stern Chinese guards. Elsewhere in the country, the traditionally free roaming Nomads are given designated areas to set up camp, their movement restricted by beaurocracy.

The mountain has long been named Qomolangma in Tibetan, and was only named ‘Everest’, more recently in 1856. It was prescribed by Andrew Waugh, surveyor general of India, in honour of his predecessor Sir George Everest. Everest himself would have preferred the use of the native name, but at the time it was questionably claimed that no such name existed. Whatever label is used, the peak standing at 8850 metres above sea level has for many years attracted huge crowds. As we pulled into the Nomad settlement just below Base Camp, it became clear we would have to wait a little longer to catch a glimpse of the summit. Cloud filled the valley and Tenzin pointed into the distance and told us we would climb this last section later in the day. Rows of Nomad tents set up in the valley during tourist season, and ours was boldly named ‘The English Hotel’. Though slightly less ‘authentic’ than our previous nomad experience, the large tent was homely and well run. As we slurped tea, the nomad in charge sprinkled water from a watering can onto the carpeted floor, and then stooped to inspect the results. ‘What’s he doing?’, we asked. ‘He’s cleaning the floor’, Tenzin replied. ‘Oh…right. Of course.’ Two bowls of noodles and one rock fall later, the cloud dispersed slightly and we began the final ascent to base camp.

It is possible to get a bus for the last stretch, but we decided to walk and within an hour we arrived at a very understated gathering of military huts. The Base Camp marker proclaimed we stood at an altitude of 5200 metres above sea level, and the huge Chinese flag proclaimed, ‘No Fucking About’. Tenzin gave us firm guidelines; we were only to stand on the mound and no national flags were to be planted. I asked what would happen if I raised a Tibetan flag, to which he laughed and said, ‘I’d end up in jail’. Point taken. I was however permitted to don the colours of the greatest football team in existence, and slip snuggly into the perennial stereotype of an English male abroad.

At the top of the mound, one is still a considerable distance away from the mountain itself, but the human sense of scale gets a little warped in front of the Himalayas. A vast, moon like plain stretches out in front, and a few brave souls ventured out, only to be quickly reprimanded by the Chinese authorities. At this point there is little else to do apart from sit and stare in awe. Light bounces off the snow covered mountain side, and the view is dazzling to the eye. I made an attempt to erect a pile of prayer stones, as is the tradition in Tibet, while everyone sat patiently and hoped the cloud at the summit would clear. Hope it transpired, held insufficient force to change the climate. We tried to convince ourselves that more of the mountain was coming into view, but today was not our day. A friend we met at a later date explained she encountered similar conditions with her tour group. However, her tour guide had instructed them to perform weather chants in order to encourage the clouds to clear. Even though the climate had remained poor for many days, within minutes of performing the ritual, the summit of Everest revealed itself. Alas, our lack of chanting left us with an obscured view, and as we went to sleep that night under layers of Tibetan blankets, we kept everything crossed in hope of a clear morning.

I woke early to see the sun rise, eager to be greeted by the wonderfully lucid Mount Qomolangma. I raced outside the tent, and to my surprise I was met by a vista of thick snow. My initial reaction to snow is ‘Yay, snow’, but then I looked up the valley and realised the main attraction was again hidden from view. I strolled around the campsite enjoying the crisp air and witnessed the condition of those who had clearly had a rough night. Most were Chinese who had ascended too quickly; the altitude induced vomit was flowing freely. Hazell and I wanted to send post cards from the highest post office in the world, but unfortunately it was closed. Tenzin told us the post man had been up all night drinking, singing and playing cards, so presumably was now in bed nursing a hangover. The winds of Karma had spoken, and it was not our time to see the summit of the mountain or send a postcard, so soon after breakfast we left. Everest is going nowhere, and we vowed we would return one day and trek to the first camp on the mountain.

Our driver then proved he was worth his fee as we took a short cut towards the Nepalese border. We bounced and clattered our heads against the roof of the four wheel drive; I was hugely impressed he was able to navigate within a terrain containing little that could be classed as a ‘road’. It was fantastic to be in the snow coated Himalayas, only us and the highest peaks nature has ever produced, at least that is what we thought. Appearing on the horizon two black specks came running towards us, and before long these specks were banging on our windows eager for us to give them goodies. This is obviously a regular occurence and the driver was prepared with a full bag of sweets. He offered me the bag to share with the children, but out of sheer instinct I ate one first. We then filled the hats of the two boys while they looked bemused as we took photos. As I knelt next to them I felt embarrassed at the complaints I make about comparatively small discomforts. I returned to the warmth of a four wheel drive car, and they returned to a freezing cold tent.

The remainder of the drive down the Friendship Highway was a beautiful transition from white snow to lush greenery. We stayed overnight in the border town, an interesting blend of Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese; I was struck first by the wonderfully colourful Nepalese trucks which seem to be a source of pride for their drivers. That night the food poisoning which eventually turned me veggie reared its ugly head. While squatting in pain I pleaded, ‘A Western toilet, a Western toilet, my kingdom for a Western toilet.’ Shakespeare must have turned in his grave. The following morning my condition was variable and certainly not helped by the crowds at the border crossing; hundreds of over eager sperm in transit, desperate to be the one lucky entrant into the ovum of Nepal. Every conceivable position was employed to encourage conception; the scene was a veritable Karma Sutra of queue jumping. I took a break in the toilet while back in the ‘queue’, Hazell was shoved over onto her front and shouted at by a Chinese official. A long power cut later and we eventually broke free onto the Nepalese side, where we said goodbye to our guide Tenzin and headed for the immigration office.

I was feeling mixed emotions on crossing the border. I was reluctant to leave one of the most incredible countries in the world, but at the same time filled with gratitude for having been given the opportunity to experience its wonders. Make no mistake, Tibet is an occupied country and should be treated as such by the rest of the world. For Hazell and I, it has captured our hearts and minds and we are now fully aware of the importance of helping Tibet and its people keep their culture alive. I just had to get over this food poisoning first. This show of gratitude began by tipping our tour guide generously; as it turns out a little too generously. We miscalculated and left ourselves without enough money to purchase our Nepalese visas. Some shrewd negotiations ensued, and eventually we supplemented our Chinese Yen with some of Joe’s ’emergency Dollars’ and offered it to the official behind the desk. ‘Oh go on then….’, he replied. We had definitely arrived in Nepal.

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