The jeep moved on slowly just feet from the sheer drop. There was absolute silence on the mountain road. I felt tense and kept my eyes closed until we went round the bend past the overturned truck.
I was part of a group crossing mainland China and Tibet in search of mountains and monasteries. We were learning about Buddhism, Chinese and Tibetan cultures, history and seeing some amazing scenery along the way. Our mountainous exploration would end at the foot of the world’s most famous mountain; Mount Qomolangma. Everest in the English language.
This was my first big trip and I was on my own without friends or family. I would soon become close to quite a few of the group, not just in great, happy moments but in terrifying times like this mountain pass. There had been landslides, this stretch of road had no barriers and the fall would be fatal. A truck had crashed and there was barely enough space to get past.
The journey to Everest would be a massive test for me. I look back to being 21 years old on that first trip and can’t believe how much I’ve grown and learnt. As tough as some of the days felt with long drives, no toilets and occasionally a dodgy tummy, I did get to experience places like the Yangtze River.
Pilgrims and Tibetan traders could be found along the roads. Prayer flags and piles of stones were regular sights as an offering to the mountain gods.
We met people who rarely see anyone from outside of China. One day I quickly put on sunscreen before jumping out of the car to take some photos and soon had a crowd surrounding me. They spoke to each other and stared at my skin. I realised after someone reached out to touch me that some of the sunscreen hadn’t fully rubbed in and they thought my skin was melting. Our guide explained that they didn’t have anything like sunscreen but covered themselves instead.
There was such a difference in the rural villages to the over saturated advertising of the big cities. It was like another world. We met few people who could speak any English and needed to have conversations translated. We also heard the difficulties between China and Tibet from local people. It was an incredible eye-opener.
The capital of Tibet, Lhasa was a place I couldn’t wait to explore. I’d read about the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people so Potala Palace was high on the list. I found this place busy and there were more tourists but it was still quite peaceful. Walking into the few, simple rooms where the Dalai Lama lived I noticed that there were very few physical possessions. It was a life of enlightenment that he aspired to and worship was the key element. The colours were so vivid and decorations throughout were bright and elaborate.
Temples and statues adorned each part we explored. The chapels were at the centre of everything here. Religious and spiritual teaching went on all over Tibet as we had witnessed. Monks in bright orange robes could be seen in meditation and colourful prayer wheels engraved with Sanskrit were never far away.
I had imagined that the end goal of being at Everest Base Camp would be the highlight of the tour but each day I learned more and experienced a huge amount. It was a real emersion. Some places were slums and had no sanitation. I remember getting to a place that had hot water and going to the shower block for a good wash. I heard a scream and one of the other members of the group ran out. There was a rat that had died on the other side of the tarpaulin. I was so dirty from days of travel and no shower that I decided to go in anyway. I’ve never washed so quickly! It was rough and very basic at times but we had a great adventure.
Our group went out hiking several times during the trip. We climb pretty steep hills on the mountain ranges that local people seemed to be able to do in sandals on their lunch breaks! It was great getting out and high up in this landscape. Everything looks amazing from above. The temple complex Gyantse Dzong was one of the hikes I loved.
Staying in small communities allowed us to learn about Tibetan people’s lives and watch people go about their everyday tasks. Things like hearing the language everywhere and eating the same food gives you such a deeper travel experience.
We finally entered Everest National Park after a couple of weeks of being on the road together. One of our tour group got quite bad altitude sickness and had to rest at a lower level each night as well as seeing a doctor. We all felt light headed at different points and noticed we could get out of breath easily the further up we travelled.
We stayed in huts that night made from stone with flat roofs. It was freezing cold and we had piles of blankets on top of our sleeping bags. I slept well with only starlight visible outside. Tomorrow, I thought, we would be at Everest Base camp.
My breathing was laboured after about 100 feet. This was a strange sensation and felt frustrating but after a quick stop, I could set off again. I was slowly getting closer. The dirt road could allow horses and wooden carriages for people who were not walking. No cars were allowed past this point. It was quiet when we got past the tents and started out on the track.
Finally seeing the end and being at Everest Base Camp felt great but the whole journey had been important. I definitely wouldn’t have felt the same if I was just dropped at base camp. It was an incredible sight but it was much more than that to local people. It was sacred and part of their lives as Buddhists. I had changed from the scared young girl in Beijing to the confident traveller across Tibet standing at one of the world’s most famous natural wonders.
I sat looking out at the mountain towering above. The freshness of the air and the feeling of achievement, I knew travel was for me. I wanted to experience journeys like this for as long as possible throughout my life.
The viewing at the end was well worth the travel and dealing with altitude. The rough accommodation, showering with a rat and dealing with change in culture, food and way of life were all worth it. They made it special. It hadn’t been easy but I was strong enough. I could do it.
I look back and remember these moments as a rite of passage. I challenged myself. I wrote down places I wanted to go and I went. I saved and worked hard to have these experiences and they changed me. Mount Everest was a great day and the journey to Everest was one of the most positive and life affirming yet.
Have you been to Everest Base Camp or traveled in China or Tibet? Would you be inspired to explore this region now?