Tibet (Final Day 18) – Perilous Journey: Shegar to Zhangmu! 8 July 2009

Lester called today a “perilous journey” – maybe exaggerated, but it felt like an APT description!

The very short version of this very long day goes like this: hairpinOnly a couple hours after we got underway and through a Chinese checkpoint, and saw Everest for the second time, we got told the road was closed until 8 pm. Then were let through after only one hour, but told we had to detour; we then built our own road (the 8 of us in the van) at ~16,000′, and then we hairpin-turned over and over, dropping over 9000’ in elevation for the day. The last few hours were in pouring rain, during road construction on the slopes of a near-vertical gorge, and for the last hour we competed with literally hundreds of semi-trailer trucks for one lane of road. More than once I found myself thinking “please don’t let the road slip away underneath us!”

So, to back up to the beginning… Appropriately, we slept our last night in Tibet at over 14,000′, and were looking forward to having MORE AIR to breathe! But most of us were pretty well acclimatized by now, and no longer huffing and puffing when climbing stairs.

Shortly after we took off we encountered a Chinese checkpoint (I think we went through one other checkpoint somewhere, and there were police-station stops in the larger towns around Lhasa). checkpointThis area is closely watched and known for Tibetans trying to escape into the Everest/Khumbu region of Nepal. As the official Tibetan guide for our tour, we often had to give all our passports to Konchuk so he could get our already pre-approved passage cleared with the local authorities. This time we were asked to get out of the van, but they didn’t even compare our faces with our passports, they just wanted to see us (emphasize their authority?); they were satisfied and immediately told us to get back in and waved us through. Just a ways on we passed the turn-off point for Everest expeditions that summit from the Tibet side via Rongbuk Monastery.

We took a very long stop on the road just before Old Tingri at the second Everest vantage point – Konchuk grew up about 6 km outside this village, looking at Everest. everestHe knew it only as Chomolungma, its Tibetan name, and while he knew that “Everest” was the tallest mountain in the world, he did not know until he was an adult that they were one and the same mountain! So we stared at the clouds hiding the range for about 30 minutes, willing them to move, as Konchuk advised us to “watch closely above the right end of the bridge.” We knew that the huge mass closer to us was Cho Oyu – one of the over-8000-meter peaks, and were enjoying the glimpses we were getting of its massive base beneath the clouds. Then one of us pointed out a large triangular peak that emerged from the clouds far to the left, and Konchuk says “Oh! THAT is Everest!” Howling with laughter, we gave him a very hard time!

As we were getting ready to head out again, a father and his young son walked by, and we noticed his hat, and Achi (barely suppressing a grin) couldn’t resist getting his photo taken – check this out!!

After that we made a delightful mid-morning stop in a small tea-house with a young father who was taking care of his toddler. roadWhen we took off again, the road surface suddenly disappeared, and for the next 30 miles it looked like this…gravel piles across the road about every 100’… so obviously, it was quite slow-going. At one point the road actually disappeared, and we followed other tracks cross-country until the road appeared again! And then just after the next big town, we were stopped and told we would not be able to proceed until 8 pm! Konchuk and Sangye did their magic, chatting up and smoking with the Tibetan road workers, and after about 30 minutes we were allowed to proceed, IF we agreed to take a long detour around the mountain. This portion of the road (under construction) would take us over our second and third highest passes yet on the trip (both over 16,000′), so of course we were all wondering what this detour would look like. But we did NOT take the detour; our resourceful guides decided to take a chance on just continuing up the road along with the handful of construction vehicles carrying blacktop.

Still progressing slowly, and usually behind a dump truck, we got over both passes with no difficulties, and then as we began our descent, we finally caught up with the paving crew. (We could see our road curving and winding steeply away down the high pass into misty green valleys.) roadbuildingSo, we turned around and found a gravel track that took off down the mountain on a more direct route… No problem (though we all were sure glad our van had double tires in the back!), until we met up again with the new road under construction: a small hill of dirt/gravel and a 3-foot deep concrete water culvert between us and the road presented a bit of a problem. A 4-wheel drive vehicle had followed us down the track, and we all got out to inspect the terrain – and began our road building. (Actually, I was still feeling pretty bad, so I voluntarily become the photographer/videographer, and I got some good footage of our work.) It took us only about 45 minutes to smooth out the hill of dirt and fill in the culvert with big stones (all with bare hands), and with great teamwork, we got the van across! (Remember, this was all done at about 16,000′ (5030m)!)

Then began our descent in earnest…we began dropping fast and it became greener with each mile – very dramatic and a sight for green-starved eyes. We could see the bases of huge peaks sort of hiding in clouds ahead, but the peaks were really socked in so we were unable to see Shisha Pangma to the west as we had hoped. descentWe stopped for lunch in Nyalam at 12,400’ – a dusty, ugly concrete town populated largely by road construction crews.

As we continued to descend into the Sun Kosi Gorge, we entered the mist and rain, while the road switched from concrete to pavement to gravel to dirt and back again, and we were almost in shock at the steepness of the canyon walls and how much damage the moisture caused via land- and rock slides. constructionSO much rain, and on such a steep road! (This photo is from the next day – sunny; my photos from today were mostly blurry from not enough light.) And the construction was endless – long stretches where concrete and rebar reinforcements were being built, or repairs being made where landslides had nearly covered the road and we had to weave around debris. We also discovered that the [soggy] laborers actually LIVE on the side of the road in tents. As I mentioned, even though we have been impressed with Chinese engineering, given all the rain, I was nervously wondering about the integrity of the road and the possibility of more rock/land slides!

We were stopped again for road construction at 4:30 pm at about 8000′ – less than one hour away from our destination. semisWe were told it would be 7pm before we could proceed, but we got lucky again (more smokes shared by Kunchok and Sangye?) and were let through, although when we came through, the guard at the bottom started yelling at the one at the top for letting us through. We thought it was just grandstanding until we saw semi after semi, hundreds of them, waiting for the transfer of goods from trucks in Nepal, below the border bridge crossing. Vehicles could barely squeeze past each other the road was so crowded – we kept wondering how in the world the trucks could turn around???

When we finally reached Zhangmu at about 7000 feet, with **great** relief, we were awed again, this time at the town – it **literally** clings onto the side of canyon wall. posterIt is built around about 20 hairpin turns, each at the end of ~500-foot long “streets”. Five-and-six story buildings tower over these turns and roads, and are packed with shops. As we walked to dinner, Konchuk took us through what felt like a subterranean tunnel that connected the upper level of the street with the lower one. After dinner, the rain and mist had lifted a bit, and we visited a Tibetan guest house with spectacular balcony views, then followed the hairpin turn back up, still admiring the views both up and downhill.