After a short break in Pokhara to recharge our batteries and fuses the team regrouped in Kathmandu ready to brave the Tibetan Plateau
I’ve always been skinny.
Even six months of intense military training when I was eighteen left me with the arms of a stick insect and the legs of a chicken. Now, after two months of vegetable Dal and an intense sweat-diet I could have given Kate Moss a run for her money. Check It’s On The Meter for more information.
However, compared to some of the cycle rickshaw drivers peddling around Kathmandu I was positively muscle-bound so I felt a pang of guilt as one of the emaciated but ever-cheerful guys puffed and huffed his way up the hills from the city centre to the airport with me lounging in the back seat.
The point where the slope got so steep that the driver couldn’t even pedal any more was too much for me so I jumped out and helped him push it to the top, inspiring beaming smiles from every other rickshaw driver nearby.
I was due to meet a friend from home who was to be our next passenger throughout China and after paying the rickshaw guy an extra fifty percent to try to assuage my guilt I sat down at the arrivals gate and waited. And waited. And waited.
Teenage Club with shower
I was just about to give up and when Matt strolled out, loaded down by bags and almost walked right past me. With a sudden look of surprise he caught my eye and walked up.
“Bloody hell Johno, you look like a white Somalian!”
The first landslides
We had a few days to kill in Kathmandu whilst we waited for our Chinese visas to be processed so we spent them, as always, trying to patch up the car check as well as catching up with Matt who I hadn’t seen since Christmas.
India had taken a heavy toll and Hannah’s current ailments included a broken front suspension bracket, a dying clutch that never wanted the driver to use first or third gear, no headlights after they bounced out on the horrific National Highway Seven, no fog lights, three out of the four door mechanisms rusty almost to the point of not being able to open them, two large holes in the boot, one flat tyre, the front wing falling off, no indicators, an ants nest in subwoofer and, worst of all, the chrome trim around the bottom of the car had lost its shine!
Momo on the road
We enlisted the help of Matt, Ozzy Craig( who had caught up with us again) and one of Paul’s girlfriend’s friends called Binay (who is possibly the best tour guide in the entire country, if you’re going to Nepal check out Sacred Himalaya, you’ll end up helping Binay’s charity and it’s very cheap. http://www.sacredhimalaya.com/) to right all these wrongs during the day and the evenings were spent exploring the backpacker haven of Kathmandu.
One place that had repeatedly caught our eye was the strangely named, “Teenage Club – with Shower!” We had seen the outside of many of these sleezy places in other parts of the world but here in backpacker-friendly Kathmandu it couldn’t be that sort of joint. could it?
After a few beers we decided to check it out, just for the purposes of satisfying curiosity of course.
The place was pretty much said what it did on the tin: We walked in to find a seedy bar with a sparkly stage, the focal point of which was a standard electric power-shower. We were immediately mobbed by uncomfortably young girls who conveniently just so happened to be hanging out there and asked us to buy them drinks from the hugely overpriced menu.
The friendship bridge!
We quickly decided that this really wasn’t our type of place and with our curiosity sated we were just debating how to get out of this particular situation when our prayers were answered and a powercut struck.
We jumped up to leave, blaring our excuses and secretly praising Nepal’s ageing power system. “How can we stay for dance party with no lights and most importantly… no shower?!”
Despite the barman’s cries that he would get a generator up and running we managed to escape and find some normal bars without showers or indentured teens.
The long road up to the plateau
By Sunday we were all ready to get back on the road again and drive the fifty mile hop to the Tibetan border ready to meet our compulsory government guide the next day. Over the last few weeks we had learned that straight line distances in Nepal don’t really mean much as the roads twist from valley to valley along steep mountainsides meaning that two towns a measly twenty miles distant on the GPS might actually be hours apart in real life.
Thankfully this road seemed quite direct and it looked like we would actually make it in good time, that was until the inevitable landslides reared their heads and destroyed our well-laid plans. By the time we found a hotel within eyeshot of the border we had managed to keep our target of never driving at night outside of Europe at an impressive zero percent.
Leigh gets confused by the altitude…
We were all quite nervous about meeting the compulsory guide we had paid through the nose for and who would be spending the next twenty-five days and covering thousands of miles with. My biggest worry was that with four strapping lads (or three strapping lads and one white Somalian) already in the car we would now have to potentially squeeze a Shuai jiao wrestler in there too. I sincerely hoped he would be a little fellow.
We passed out of Nepal, crossed the third Friendship Bridge (the first two having been washed away in previous floods) and stood around watching the female porters ferry huge sacks of flour through the border as we tried to spy our guide through the automatic gates and rows of guards.
…and the rest of the team
After a while we saw a tiny Chinese woman with a backpack and folder waving frantically at us with a grin. She looked like a lot of fun and would definitely be able to fit in the space in the backseat; could it be that she was our guide, “Frank”?
No, no it couldn’t.
After a quick chat we found that she was waiting for another tour group but she did agree to go back through the border and find our guy. Before long we had met Frank Jin and crossed the border into Tibet, or as Frank corrected us, The People’s Republic of China.
Frank seemed like a nice guy and after some introductions we shoe-horned ourselves into Hannah and drove up over twenty hairpins into the foggy mountainside above.
Hotel at 14,000ft
We were pleased to discover to that China has lots of good quality Youth Hostel Association hostels spread throughout its ten million square kilometres and that one of them was located in the first town we came to.
I was less pleased to discover that the Chinese have a strange habit of making toilets with no door. I discovered this when I knocked on Frank’s room door and he yelled for me to come in then looked almost as surprised as I was when I marched in and came face to face with him, pants around ankles. I felt like knowing each other for five hours wasn’t long enough to find ourselves in these circumstances.
The drive to Everest
The next day we climbed from our hostel at 5,500 feet up the seemingly never-ending mountain hairpins and onto the Tibetan plateau. The road was truly amazing and a magnificent feat of engineering far from the landslide-strewn track we had been told to expect.
As we chugged higher and higher we appreciated the views snatched through the gaps in the clouds but Hannah didn’t feel quite the same way.
Passing 12,000 feet the car started to feel more sluggish than usual and to belch out a thick black smoke. I had read that the highest point on the epic Friendship Highway between Kathmandu and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa was about 16,000 feet and was really starting to worry: if we were struggling with 4,000 feet of oxygen starved air still to go how would we ever make it over highest road in the world and into the rest of China?
Somehow Hannah crawled up the slopes and we tried to ignore the clouds of thick, black unburnt diesel being spewed out into one of the world’s most pristine landscapes. Eventually we crested the pass at 16,800 feet, all feeling a little weird from the altitude but not wanting to admit it, and stepped out to breathe in the crisp mountain air amid the prayer flags and Yak skulls.
Finding some fuel
The descent down the other side was an absolute pleasure and the road was unbelievable, probably the best of the trip. As the night fell we found ourselves settling into a walled compound at a mere 14,000ft and cleared all the excess weight off the car: tomorrow we would attempt to drive up the highest mountain on Earth: Mount Everest.
[Paul: every person in the hotel was giving us strange looks when we told them we would be climbing to base camp in our taxi. “You do realise it’s a 4×4 only track, right?”]
Although the far west of China is over two thousand miles away from Beijing the entire country runs on the capital’s time, meaning that when we left Nepal we had to put our watches forward two hours and fifteen minutes. This meant that our early morning sunrise was actually about 8am although most of the others had experienced a fitful night’s sleep due to the effects of the extreme altitude so I volunteered to drive first.
The first 60km continued on the stunning Friendship Highway and the low sun reflecting off the pools of standing water amidst the high meadows looked incredible and kept me wide awake until we hit the Everest turnoff.
“It’s one of those ones…”
We were a little surprised to find such a well established exit but perhaps should have expected (or been told by our ‘experts in self drive’ tour company) that Tibet isn’t exactly swimming in Welcome Break service stations and so should have stocked up on fuel in Nepal.
The sign indicated that Everest was 103km away and we had just over half a tank of diesel left. Under normal circumstances, on a flat road and at normal altitude, we might have just made this but on these extreme slopes where half of the fuel was ejected out of Hannah’s exhaust pipe in a cloud of acrid smoke it was just too risky so we decided to head to the next town and stock up.
It was only now that Frank the guide spoke up. Firstly he said we shouldn’t go to the town as there was a police checkpoint between us and there and secondly he thought the town had no fuel anyway. Probably.
Eventually we ended up flagging down a lucky truck driver who sucked some diesel out of his tank and generously only charged us three times the going rate.
The tour agency had planned for us to drive to Everest and back in one day then continue on to the next town and when we saw that Base Camp was only about 100km away and it was about 10am this seemed like a reasonable plan.
Two incredibly bumpy hours later we had been forced to reconsider after only covering about twenty kilometres. We figured if this kept up it would take us all day just to get there, not to mention returning. Disheartened, we cursed every Landcruiser that sped past us at twice our speed and with half our shakiness.
80km to go!
Our spirits were buoyed as we crested the first hill, up at an impressive 17,030 feet, and looked at the epic mountain range spread out before us. With 80km to go we were certain Everest must be one of the big ones directly ahead of us.
“Is that it?”
“Erm… I’m not sure”
“What does it look like?”
“Ummm, like a big triangle I guess…”
Our speed picked up a little as we careered down the other side of the ridge taking the narrow line of least potholes that veered from side to side as the track wound down the hill and much, much later we finally rattled into Mount Everest Base Camp, the first London Black Cab ever to make it to the first camp of the world’s highest mountain!
Made it to basecamp!
It was crap.
The motley collection of tent ‘hotels’ set amongst the piles of scree, litter and prayer flags smelt worse than a Hyde Park toilet and to top things off the peak itself was completely covered by cloud. We trudged up to a small plaque, took the obligatory photos with all the other tourists and tried not to think of the seven-hour bone-shaking journey down that lay ahead of us.In the dark (100% darkness driving rate maintained).
The top! (sort of)
Judging by the amount of photographs he made us take of him, Frank enjoyed the camp a lot more than we did but as soon as we got back in the car his mood changed. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are no Little Chefs to be found at 5000 metres so we had gone since our early breakfast with nothing at all to eat.
The long journey home
“You need to look after you nootrition when you on long journey,” Frank said, casting an accusatory gaze at my skeleton like arms, “if you my children I no allow you to do such thing ”.
This provoked a less than diplomatic response.
We were all in the same boat and in fact we were annoyed that our itinerary had seemed to suggest that this section would take a few hours, not a full thirteen (and counting)!
The next day was much clearer...
Just then another Landcrusier steamed past and off in a cloud of dust.
“You should have got four-wheel drive!” Frank huffed, shifting sulkily in his seat.
We all groaned.
It was going to be a long journey down.
Next time we tackle the Chinese driving test and paint the Tibetan capital Lhasa red.
Days on the road: 187
Miles covered: 20,498
Tanks of fuel used: 105
Records broken: Highest taxi ride ever?