Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Sharyn Smith

I have returned from Mount Everest relatively unscathed, if not unaffected. The trip was brutal: driving for two straight days there, and two more back, in a luggage truck with three chain-smoking, butter-tea drinking, yak-eating Tibetans who spoke no English, and were apparently unable to understand my Tibetan.

All attempts at communication were met with absolute hilarity. My traveling companions thought that Canadians had the best sense of humor in the world! I was recovering from a nasty case of “ate something I shouldn’t have” acquired along the Drigung Chu river just before I left, and didn’t quite have my normal intestinal fortitude. Particularly when lunch was served at a roadside shack where the dishes were washed in a mud puddle next to the toilet, and the meat still had bits of hair and skin attached. I’m pretty easy going, but I suspect that our driver was trying to kill me.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted of butter, tea, and various bits of yak floating in mystery broth. I managed to convince the driver that Canadians were the toughest race in the world, and that not only were we unaffected by the cold (windows open to air out cigarette smoke at five thousand meters!) but that we didn’t need to eat, either. No problem! Arriving at the Rongphu Monastery was nice. I was too excited by the prospect of getting out of the truck to even take much notice of the north face of Mount Everest looming just to the south. Rongphu Monastery is the highest in the world, at just a hair over five thousand meters (16,400 feet).

Completely abandoned by the driver, I managed to blunder my way through renting a bed in the guesthouse, and even found, much to my delight, a restaurant of sorts. Of sorts, because they didn’t seem to serve westerners (there was a raucous game of mahjong going on, which included the participation of several monks), and after forty minutes of trying to order, I gave up—I wasn’t that hungry anyway—and had a wander about the monastery. The nuns and monks were in the middle of a service, so I sat outside the temple and listened to the haunting and wonderful mix of chanting voices and drum rhythms. I must have sat, mesmerized, for about twenty minutes or so, when a god-awful cacophony broke out. The chanters were blowing their horns, instruments ranging in size from two meters long to the size of my pinkie.

The effect was somewhere between a yak being murdered and a mosquito buzzing in your ear. Even now, I don’t know if the horns are used to praise the gods, or to frighten them away. Despite myself, I broke out laughing, and then, to my surprise, I heard laughter coming from inside the temple too. A monk looked out the door and beckoned me in. I shook my head no, embarrassed to be caught laughing at their ceremony. A short minute later, a young nun came out, grabbed my hand, and dragged me inside. The temple murals were incredible, but I didn’t have much time to stare at them. I ended up sitting in a row of nuns (unlikely though that sounds), chanting my best omanepadmehum, and getting laughed at again. The nun at my side assured me that I had the words all wrong, and gave me a copy of their prayer book so I could follow along. Pity I don’t read Tibetan script…

The monk who had first beckoned me in sucked on a lollipop as he chanted, and his buddy kept trying to make him laugh. I found the irreverence confusing and delightful all at once, and when it came time to blow the horns again, Lollipop blew the most awful note he could and we all had a good laugh. The performance lasted for most of an hour, and the only down point was that I had to drink butter tea again. Sometime later I went to bed, only to be woken up at five thirty in the morning by Chinese drivers fixing their truck outside my window with a sledgehammer…grrr…

The best thing was that in the morning, a trekking group arrived and a cook magically appeared in the restaurant. I missed out on ordering (you only get one shot!) but the group donated their leftover pancakes to me, and I feasted for the first time in days. Afterwards, I hiked the seven kilometers up to the Everest base camp, a motley collection of tarp-tents located (as I found out) about three kilometers and six hundred meters lower than the real base camp. There was a busload of Chinese tourist there, photographing themselves in front of the mass of white cloud that was Everest that morning, and I kept walking past, heading for the toe of the Rongphu Glacier, rumored to be a short distance away. It wasn’t, but I found it anyway.

Rongphu was undoubtedly one of the most stunning glaciers I have ever seen, with frozen falls and huge seracs (blocks of ice). Gorgeous. I wandered around a bit and found ABC, or Advance Base Camp (altitude 5,800 meters, or 19,000 feet), which contained a delightful absence of camera-wielding tourists and a wonderful group of climbers. It was so nice to speak English! The guide, Jeff, was American, which he admitted only after first trying to claim he was Canadian (his accent nailed him). He was a really nice guy who has climbed and kayaked in and around British Columbia. He also had real bread and peanut butter, which was so exciting I actually…well, enjoyed it.

At ABC, I watched the most phenomenal sunset I have ever seen. A crystal-clear sunset with Mount Everest right there, silhouetted first in Alpenglow, then in starlight…without a doubt one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Jeff hiked back with me to the first base camp; he claimed he needed supplies in the morning, but I think he was being nice. It was so much easier going down than up! As we walked, Jeff nicely explained to me that there was a permit required to go above the first base camp—a permit costing two hundred dollars! Oops! I guess that there are no signs because everybody goes up there with a guide, and all the guides know and tell their clients.

I, however, was smuggled back into base camp with no one the wiser, only to find that all hell had broken loose because the cook whose truck I came up in had decided I was dead and had initiated a wide-scale search for me. Apparently, it had never even occurred to him that I would go for a hike. The four searchers were very forgiving, chalking it up to “crazy western-ness,” and demonstrated their forgiveness by providing copious amounts of yak bits and butter tea. They thought it was a great joke, actually, and after driving me back to the Rongphu Monastery, kept me up late in the night with their frequent pointing and laughter. Ha ha ha!

I’m back in Lhasa now, where it feels very civilized. I’ve only got a couple more days until I return home—darn it!

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