Saturday, October 07, 2006

EBC trouble and transformation

The trouble began on the 10th night after our trip, after visiting the Guge Kingdom ruins (one of our favorite destinations) and after a splendid day around Lake Manasarovar.

We came to discover that the driver had a different itinerary than we had negotiated with the travel agent that would cause two of us to be liable for payment for additional days. Well, a long discussion ensued, and finally we agreed on something that would meet all expectations -- including a long ride the following day to Saga (a town we didn't much like), followed by Tingri, a staging town for a hike to Everest Base Camp.

The Saga segment went okay (despite the dust problem with back doors of the jeep that did not close completely; probably due to the fact that we were very sleepy after a 3:30am-late conversation about religion and life with a Tibetan guide that had us puzzled, surprised, enthralled).

(Here I got an answer to the question: why no (continued, armed) resistence to the Chinese occupation of Tibet (beyond the demonstrations which brought about brutal suppression and murder of 87,000 Tibetans in 1959 and the following years of famine due to the so-called Great Leap Forward that resulted in the death of millions of Chinese and Tibetans)? He said that as Buddhists they believed that killing people (which would be necessary) would bring bad karma to those involved, so they believed that waiting for karma to bring the correct resolution was the only way. This is completely consistent and heartening to me that people are living in faith, even in these extreme circumstances.)

The following day, we breathed a sigh of relief when arriving in Tingri mid-afternoon.

More trouble: Tingritans are hungry for money and I felt hassled as soon as we arrived --most especially by an angry, drunken Tibetan trying to double-charge after I went off with his horse for one hour. (It wasn't the money that mattered, it was principle.) Gimme money, money, money was the attitude all around. I wanted to get out of that town as quickly as possible.

(Glimpse of Everest from the road, early morning:)

The next morning, September 28th, the 13th day of the trip (ahem!), we arose early to head toward EBC. The terrain was exceedingly rough, including side-of-mountain roads, high passes (we had to get out and walk up at one point because the jeep lacked sufficient power), semi-frozen and running river-crossings and all-rock roads -- such is the terrain coming from the West (we later found out that coming from Lhasa the road is much more tame). About 40km outside of Tingri, with 20km to go to Rongbuk Monastery (the starting point for the EBC hike), suddenly,

THE FRONT, DRIVER-SIDE WHEEL BROKE OFF AND ROLLED PAST THE CAR AND THE DRIVER LOST CONTROL. Apparently the ball-bearings broke (the tire was smoking when we came upon it a minute later), the hub snapped, the tire dislodged from the car, and we lurched to the left side (no control of the car is possible with 3 wheels, not 4).

Fortunately, we were on a plateau. Had we been on the side of a mountain or at the top of a pass, we would have had a very bad accident and (not to be dramatic) probably died. We were very lucky about the whole incident. In all days on the trip, I counted the remnants of 8 jeep fatalities (no, I did not see any dead bodies, I wasn't looking that intently, but I did see one vulture circling above.)

The car was obviously irreparable, and we needed to leave for the hike back to town (40km / 25 miles) fairly quickly as it would take 8-10 hours. The driver insisted it was his responsibility to stay with the car (with enough fuel for warmth and tsampa for food, we were not too worried). For about 2 hours, we followed a young yak herder (whose gender we could not discern -- looked female but acted male) who led us back to the road.

Then it was the long road back to Tingri.

We walked 9 1/2 hours to the first town (and found a ride for the last 8 km -- after they tried to charge an exorbitant rate and we walked on to be called back 4 times.) The town was in harvest season.

We didn't hurry because we had sent word by another landcruiser (more below), and we were lucky that it was mostly downhill overall (though we did have our share of passes, rough terrain, basically everything we drove over that morning.) We were unlucky for the knee-deep river-crossing that involved taking off socks and hiking boots and wading across (I was still nervous from my kora experience) and the fact that the wind was increasing in speed and therefore growing colder as the day progressed.

While walking, we joked that some people paid for this experience, but we didn't pay one dime extra. We picnicked with our supplies of sweetbread and "Masterpieces" (a.k.a. Snickers bars -- a gift from the only landcruiser that stopped -- more below). We joked that all that was missing was coffee. We took catnaps by the side of the road, in the sun.

16 landcruisers passed us that day -- 16! The only one to stop was the second one (who had a full load of passengers, including one sick person.) We asked the driver to call our travel agent with 10RMB and the phone number. No other landcruiser stopped, even though they were coming from the direction of the accident and had likely seen the disabled landcruiser, even though some had only 2 passengers, even though we attempted the universal sign for hitchhiking, thumbs up. That was disheartening (but at least we knew we sent word for the driver whom we did not want to be stuck there indefinitely).

After returning back to the guesthouse, chaos ensued. Some in our group needed to get to the Nepal border and we didn't know how that would happen. We 2 thought we would be stuck in Tingri for 3 days (and to me that sounded like torture). Our original driver showed up not long after us, having gotten a ride back to town. He was generally useless at that point and even disrespectful. I am pretty sure that the Lhasa travel agent was evading our calls (our mistake was to let the driver make the first call, they could see the number that was coming in; I would not be so suspicious normally, but I learned from previous experience, like the drunken horse owner, how slimy and /or irresponsible some people can be!) One of us had a fever. I was nearing a cold. We decided the best thing to do was go to sleep, even though it was only 9:30pm!

The next morning we slept in -- talked in bed until 10:30am! Then we decided we better get the day going and figure out what to do.

At that point, all the bad transformed.

The only driver that stopped the prior day (the second landcruiser) suddenly materialized at our guesthouse -- with 2 open seats to Lhasa, leaving immediately, arriving that night! All we had to do was reach the travel agent, which we did, and they agreed to pay the driver. Similar situation with those going to EBC. (Miraculously, later we would even receive a very small refund from the travel agent once back in Lhasa.)

I felt completely comfortable and safe on the ride back to Lhasa (something I hadn't felt the entire trip prior) -- in the brand new, virtually dust-free landcruiser. I kept joking that when we got back to Lhasa I would kiss the ground. When we arrived in Lhasa, we threw our bags down at the hotel and ran to the Korean restaurant (the only one in Lhasa, open late). That was the beginning of the rejuvenation and refueling that would last the next 5 days.


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