Stage 30: On the roof of the world - from Lhasa to Kathmandu
Stage 30 takes us through the highest mountain region in the world – the Himalayas await. But on the very first day, we face an all-important question: Will we all receive our entry permits for Tibet? Unfortunatlely, because of the 50th anniversary of the flight of the Dalai Lama, this was by no means certain. But everything went well: Three group members received their permits for Tibet at the airport in Beijing.
Five more adventurers join the expedition in Kathmandu. There, they must fill out more forms - in addition to the entry permits they applied for previously - and exercise patience. Their visas for Tibet are issued that evening. We can go!
Arrival day comes to a close with a communal supper in Bakhor Street in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. Here, the group members get to know each other for the first time and allow their bodies to gradually become acclimatised to the altitude, which is new experience for normal natives of Central Europe. Lhasa stands at an altitude of 3600 metres, the air is thin here.
On the second day of our tour, we visit the formidable Potala Palace in Lhasa. This was the residence of the Dalai Lamas from 1642 to 1959. We struggle up the many steps to the entrance, even this is extremely tiring because of the altitude. But the weather is kind: The sky is a radiant blue and affords us unbelievable views. We gladly interrupt our ascent time and again to take photos and catch our breath.
The interior of the palace itself has the air of an enormous museum. Its most striking features are the many gilded stupas, which hold the earthly remains of the fifth Dalai Lama, among others. After lunch, our sightseeing continues in the Old City of Lhasa. We visit the Jokhang Temple. For Tibetans, this is the holiest shrine, and everyone must have made a pilgrimage to it at least once in their life.
After the obligatory shopping expedition along Bakhor Street, and the purchase of several souvenirs, we end the day with supper together again.
After a short night, we are ready to begin our first day on the road. However, we do not get very far. First item on the agenda: a photo opportunity in front of the Potala Palace. Then we are off, headed for our destination for the day, Shigatse. This is the site of the fabled Tashilhunpo Monastery - the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, after the Dalai Lama the most important religious figure in Tibet.
Shigatse is just 270 kilometres away and the road is paved the entire way. We should really make rapid progress. Should. But we had reckoned without the checkpoints. About 100 kilometres from Lhasa, we are stopped for the first time. We're given a little ticket showing the exact time of our arrival at the checkpoint - and of course it has a stamp.
We resume our trip, delighting in our drive through Tibet, along the banks of a magnificent river, through narrow gorges and across expansive plains to Shigatse. While we visit the imposing Tashilhunpo Monastery, our Chinese tour guide Lee must fetch more passes.
The next leg of our journey is a bare 200 kilometres from Shigaste to New Tingri. This road is also asphalted all the way. But our guides have decided that we should take a minor detour, which looks very interesting on the map and leads us off the metalled track. The road we take is breathtakingly beautiful. We drive through tiny villages, past cultivated farmland. Whenever we pass, Tibetans wave and offer the friendly greeting, "Tash delai". Shortly before lunchtime, we cross a river. On the right of the road, a sheer rock face rises vertiginously heavenward, on the left, it plummets steeply into the depths. There is just enough space for one car - a wonderful road! A short while later, we reach a plateau, and the road turns to sand. This presents no difficulty for our vehicles, but a local driving a Toyota has got stuck. Of course, we are glad to help, and we tow the car out of the sand until it is on firm ground again and able to drive without assistance. Our next challenges are the very wide rivers, but our vehicles acquit themselves admirably.
Early in the afternoon, we pass through a small mountain village. Just as we are about to leave the village, the road is blocked by a lorry that appears to have broken down. Nothing can move, until finally our guides navigate a route through the scree and round the stricken lorry. It takes a full 45 minutes to reach the road again. Happy to have circumvented this obstacle, we drive on. But our happiness is shortlived: an hour later we are standing on the edge of emptiness at 5000 metres. A landslide has taken the road down the mountain with it! Absolutely no way through. We have to turn round and drive 80 km back the way we came! Upon reaching the village we left earlier, we discover that the allegedly broken down lorry has inexplicably broken down at another place on the road - apparently it ran out of petrol this time. After some discussion, our threat to drive through the fields appears to do the trick. A driver appears and drives the lorry off the road. So it does work! We do not arrive in New Tingri until three o'clock in the morning. After a quick beer together, we fall exhausted into bed.
At 10 o' clock the next morning, still a little tired, we set off for Mount Everest. The first checkpoint looms after five kilometres. We must go one by one into the military police office and present our passports. Then, at last, we can go on to the top of the world. We come through the first pass, and are dumbstruck. The panorama is one of awe-inspiring majesty: Everest, Lohtse, and numberless other mountains that "only" rise to 7000 metres, tower above us. After an extended break for photographs, we head on towards base camp. We stop for photographs many more times as we draw closer to Everest. Leaving base camp, we visit the highest monastery in the world. Rongbuk Monastery stands at an altitude of 4998 metres.
The next day begins easily enough. Through another police checkpoint, our route takes us across the Tibetan Plateau, whose area is larger than Germany. Mountains in indescribably rich and varied colours rise to more than 5000 metres on all sides. It is not without reason that Tibet is called "the roof of the world". The road to Dram leads through two passes: Lalung La and Thong La. Both are above 5000 metres. After lunch, the road leads inexorably downhill. Then, just before our destination, a roadblock. The road is being built, and there is no way through. It is opened briefly to allow a car with two high-ranking police or military officials to pass, but unfortunately we cannot follow and must wait almost three more hours before being allowed to drive the last 30 kilometres to Dram.
Today is the day we leave Tibet. Fifteen kilometres farther on is the border with Nepal. But getting out proves to be every bit as difficult as getting in. Altogether, we wait six hours before we are allowed to leave the country. First we are told there are documents missing, then the border official has to wait for his boss, because he does not have the authority to let us through. Explanations change by the minute. Driving over the Friendship Bridge at last, we cannot say we are sorry to be leaving Chinese bureaucracy behind. At the time, we were blissfully unaware that we would have to wait another two hours before being allowed to enter Nepal...
At last in Nepal, the road penetrates deep into the heart of the Himalayas. It is pleasantly warm. Compared to Tibet, the streets are teeming with life. People, cars, brightly coloured trucks, rickshaws, produce stalls – a bustle of activity, just like on television. We have to drive slowly, and carve a path into the ancient royal city of Bhaktapur. The hotel is a welcome sight. We eat our evening meal on the roof terrace and are glad that we will sleep more warmly here.
Because of the time change, we wake up very early, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the old city coming to life. Market stalls with fruit, meat, vegetables, souvenir booths are erected and another day's business begins. The atmosphere in the city invites one to stay for longer, but we make for the Chitwan National Park. The Tribhuvan Highway is extremely narrow as it leads south. We are force to stop time and again, because the road is not wide enough for us and the lorries approaching from the other direction. Undiluted adventure! The steep mountainsides are all cultivated and divided into terraces. At dusk, we finally reach the paddy fields that surround the national park. By the time we get to our lodge, it is completely dark. The food is delicious, and a beer and chat before bed.
But the next day starts at 5:30. Today's highlight is to be a ride on an elephant! We tour the national park perched on a pachyderm's back, and the wildlife does not disappoint: apes, birds, deer, even brightly coloured beetles and some animals we have never seen before.
The excursion is followed by breakfast, and then a walk to the nearest village. Here, the agenda includes a boat trip and lunch. Nothing is planned for the afternoon, and we are free to do as we please.
The last day of this leg! The day begins tranquilly and everything is going well until the radio crackles into life: "Udo, I think you've lost a bit of your car." And in fact, Udo has lost a bit of his car: The driveshaft, which was already faulty, has decided to strike out on its own. After a makeshift repair, though, we can carry on, and we reach Kathmandu without further incident.
The next two days are spent sightseeing: The Monkey Temple, Patan, Durba Square, the House of the Kumari are just a few of the fascinating highlights of this city. We stay out till evening, returning only to share our adventures with our companions. Unanimous verdict: When can we go again?