There are not many marvels on Earth which have inspired and challenged Mankind as much as Mount Everest. While climbing the summit is the privilege of professional mountaineers, ordinary mortals can experience it by making it to the Base Camp. Monasteries, Monks and Mountains will teleport you into a different world.
I was in China so I chose to reach the Base Camp from the Tibetan side. It took me 4 days of driving and 3 days of trekking to reach from Lhasa. The drive across the Tibetan plateau is an experience by itself. I would classify the whole journey under 3Ms – Monasteries, Monks and Mountains. Of course there was 4th M that was omnipresent - Chinese Military, deployed in large number to prevent any uprising.
We landed in Lhasa on day 1. We were quick to visit two of its architectural landmarks, the Potala Palace and Jorkhang Monastery. Beyond this it was like any other city with all the urban trappings. So in our eagerness to get going, we decided to leave Lhasa in 1 ½ days against the advised 3 days for acclimatization. A mistake we came to regret later due to an altitude sickness we suffered from during the latter part of the journey.
Tibet is a land of ‘the Land Cruiser’. Nothing else can take the terrain. We hired a cruiser 4X4 and headed westwards from Lhasa. We had a bountiful experience of 3 Ms in our route, Lhasa-Yamdrok-Xigatse-Gyantse-Tingri-EBC-Sakhya-Lhasa. We had to cross 6 passes above 5000 mts. high and in fact the highest was at 6880 mts.! Dozens of ancient Tibetan villages made up the landscape.
The route covered some of the oldest Monasteries in Tibet – Sera, Jorkhang, Tushlimpo, Gyantse, Ronbuk and Sakhya monastery. Though each one of them was stunning, the ones farther away from Lhasa seemed richer. My personal favorite was Sakhya. Monasteries are the center piece of Tibetan society. They are places of worship as well as administration. Each monastery was ornate and had a quaint look with hand plastered walls painted in Red, Black and White. The inside walls adorn lovely murals that bring to life stories of monks and religious scriptures.
For those who meditate, Monasteries are a fountain of energy given the fact that hundreds of monks have been chanting and meditating here for over 1000 years.
I always thought Hinduism was the most ritualistic religion until my trip to Tibet. For Tibetans, life is all about faith. Everything else is subordinate to faith. So everything one sees on the street is an expression of faith. People prostrate their way to Monasteries from hundreds of miles away; others circumambulate them, chanting all the while.
Outside of Lhasa, Tibetans live a dated life. Their dress, food, belief, and society almost everything about them is at least 200 years old. Most bathe once in several months due to the extreme cold. I met a few who haven’t had one for years!
The Yak is an inseparable part of Tibetan Life. It is food, protection, livelihood all rolled into one.
If the Monasteries are the center of Tibetan existence, monks are their masters, the spiritual erudite. It is believed that every Tibetan family should send one boy to the service of God. Not all the offspring become eligible for monkhood. There are families that continue to produce kids till they are able to produce a Monk! A certain characteristic is looked for by senior monks to conscript a boy to monkhood. Once conscripted, the monk lives rest of his life within the confines of the Monastery striving for the ultimate truth of life.
My best monk moment was the open court debate at Sera monastery. Hundreds of monks assemble at the courtyard, spilt into teams of two students and a teacher. It is a vociferous debate of the nuances of Buddhist scriptures between the students, arbitrated by the teacher. The whole debate is punctuated by an aggressive charging and clapping of hands. As a foreigner and with a language handicap all I could do was to observe the monks. I found them to be quite graceful, irrespective of their age. Monasteries typically have hundreds of them from playful 8 year olds to spiritually ripe 80 year old veterans! Without exception each one of them had a radiant look about them.
They say first encounters with great things are always dramatic. It was so true of Everest as well. My first sight of Everest was from 50 kms. away from the base camp as our cruiser came out of a delicate bend. It was a clean direct view of a gleaming peak in the scorching afternoon sun.From then on till the base camp, the peak grew bigger and more majestic as we neared it. The best view I got was from Ronbuk monastery the highest place of worship in the world.
Watching Everest face to face was the most humbling experience of my life. It was not about its size but the sheer divinity that makes one feel so small in front of it! Everest deals with people on its own terms. The best expression of it was from a mountaineer who failed many attempts to scale its peak – ‘Conquering the peak is possible only if it chooses to allow you to’. That’s quite evident even from a distance, the face keeps changing all the time, stormy to calm, cloudy to clear, snowy to gleaming peak. Some of these transformations happen within minutes.
The inhospitable environment exposes the human frailty. For a city slicker the high altitude gave a tough time, a prelude to may be what’s in store during old age! Three gasps of breath for every step. An absence of appetite or interest in food combined with a brutal cold wave of the night was quite a handful. There were a few moments when I thought I was passing out and conscious that the closest medical help was about 6 hours away!
Personally, I would not like to call this a holiday. It was much more. A trip to the Everest Base Camp or even higher is a must for all those who want to experience the supremacy of nature.
Three days of acclimatization is a must before proceeding to avoid altitude sickness. In terms of things to carry, some essentials are chocolates, water purifying tablets, wipes, hand sanitizer and a first aid kid including Diamox. It is essential to stay hydrated throughout the journey.
For my travelogue on trekking up Mt Kilimanjaro, visit here.