Driving with Sonam --Lhasa to Zhangmu, Tibet (and bus to Kathmandu, Nepal)

October 21-27, 2006


Sunrise from the 17,000' Pang La, with Lhotse and Mount Everest (Qomolangma) on the left, and Mount Jachonaggangri and Mount Cho Oyu on the right.



Clause #13 (from our 'contract' with the F.I.T. travel company that arranged the overland trip):

"If any of your clients did not political problem or destroy fro the government rule during the tour in Tibet F.I.T. travel will never take responsibility for that."



We hired a Land Cruiser and driver for a six day journey from Lhasa to the border with Nepal at Zhangmu, taking in several monasteries and walks along the way, including a side trip to the Everest base camp on the Tibetan side of the world's highest mountain.

A couple days before we were to leave, we met Rosie -- a Parisian teaching English in China for the past seven months -- who joined us for the adventure. After months of foreign travel, we had a great time whiling away the hours talking with Rosie about literature, world politics, and her take on China. Our Tibetan driver, Sonam (who didn't speak a word of English), was briefed on our travel plan at the office the night before departure. Sonam turned out to be a wonderful partner, quietly murmuring his Buddhist prayers as he patiently drove all day listening to his three chattering western passengers. As far as we could tell, he only drank yak butter tea and ate tsampa (barley flour mixed with yak butter and water), occasionally carving a slice of yak meat from a hefty piece that was often stored in the space between the two front seats. Whenever we got to our hotel stop, he seemed to gamble the hours away playing mah jong with his buddies.

Our seven day journey took us from the 12,000' elevation of Lhasa up to the high point of 17,160' at the Everest base camp. (See the trip elevation chart.)


A cold wind and light snow flurries at the 15,820' Kamba La above the glowing blue waters of the Yamdrok Tso.


Rosie finds a ram's horn on our failed attempt to cross the river and visit the Yundrungling Bonpo monastery.




We spent two days in Gyantse, exploring the town, fort, monastery, and most impressive, the world's largest chorten, Gyantse Kumbum. We walked to the top of this 35 meter structure, up six winding floors past 77 chapels, each filled with a beautiful tara or wrathful deity, past statues of teachers and the three Kings of Tibet, and finally, in the four chapels the highest level, buddhas who had reached enlightenment.



There were amazing views and at the Gyantse Dzong, a 14th Century fort. This was the site of the ill-fated 1904 British invasion of Tibet, involving 1000 British troops (plus 10,000 servants and 4000 yaks), launched to prevent Tibet from forming an alliance with Russia, and force an Anglo-Tibetan alliance. In only four minutes, the British slaughtered 700 Tibetans, who relied on primitive weapons and charms blessed by the Dalai Lama as their defense. After another battle at bloody battle at 5000m, the British moved on to Lhasa, drafted a trade agreement, and withdrew after supporting an agreement assigning Chinese authority over Tibet.

Gyantse is at the crossroads of trade routes south to Sikkim, India, and Bhutan, west to Shigatse, and northeast to Lhasa. Before Chinese takeover and development, it was the third largest town in Tibet.





Shigatse is Tibet's second largest city, and home to the Tashilhunpo Gelugpa monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama. A continuous line of prayer wheels circles the monastery.









Sakya monastery, a forboding fortress built in 1268, was full of spooky chapels, one with manequin body parts hanging from the ceiling.










Ruins of the Shegar Dzong (Crystal Fort) and the Shegar Chode monastery, founded in 1269.






Sunrise at the Pang La.



Qomolangma (Everest) towering more than 12,000' above us at 29,205' (8850m) as seen from the base camp at 17,160'.


Pit stop on the drive from the base camp.








Ruined forts along the plains between Shegar and Tingri, destroyed during a Nepali invasion in the 18th century.


Nomadic Tibetans travel by foot or horseback, with large herds of yaks.



Tong La, our last high pass before the 9300' decent to Zhangmu.





We spent the final night of this odyssey in an overpriced hotel in Zhangmu, a reckless town on the border of Tibet and Nepal. We said farewell to China, took a taxi down a muddy slope past lines of blue trucks transporting goods from Nepal to China, and were dropped off at the Friendship Bridge. We walked across the bridge to Nepal, got our passports stamped, and were incredibly lucky to hitch a ride with a Norwegian professor and his seven architecture students, who had chartered a bus for the 80km ride to Kathmandu. We settled into the clean (safe!) bus, watching as the public buses filled to the brim, and then loaded at least thirty more passengers on each roof. The students will spend the next few months back in Norway, designing buildings for Lhasa.

We were enjoying junk food with the students, fun conversations, and happily anticipating our stay in Kathmandu, when the bus stopped at yet another checkpoint on the highway, but this seemingly permanent checkpoint was manned by a group of armed Maoist rebels, instead of the usual Nepalese military. They demanded 5000 Nepali rupes, about 70 US dollars. We had heard many stories from fellow travelers who had been forced to provide a "donation" to the Maoist cause, and suggested to the Professor that he insist on a receipt, which might come in handy at the next checkpoint, if there was one (there wasn't). He looked shocked, but went back out on the street and, after a short negotiation, came back on the bus waving the formal receipt. Two days later, when the Maoists closed down the streets in the Thamal District of Kathmandu for a major street cleaning operation, we felt relieved that at least some of our money might have been used for improving conditions in Kathmandu, rather than buying arms. (The Maoists and the Nepalese government have agreed to another 3-month cease fire, while they continue negotiations for a new government that incorporates the Maoist agenda, and moves the country away from its historic rule by monarchy.)

After arriving in Kathmandu, we were stunned to read in The Himalayan, the local paper, that the rumors we had heard were true: the Chinese shot and killed a 17-year-old Tibetan nun just three weeks before we crossed the Himalayas. She was one of 73 Tibetans fleeing China to Nepal, crossing the Nangpa La, a 5,800m pass about 15 miles west of Everest. She had planned to study at a nunnery in India. Her death was recorded on video by a western mountaineer at the base camp of Cho Oyu, and widely distributed on the internet. In China, her death was reported but with the claim that the "People's Armed Police" opened fire in "self defense." The Chinese have planned to start the 2008 Olympics by carrying the Olympic flame to the summit of Everest; worldwide attention on this shooting may put a damper on those plans. The next evening, we learned a young Chinese man has been sentenced to ten years in prison for posting notes about a government meeting on his personal blog. After spending almost a month in China, we feel privileged to have experienced the culture and seen remote corners of the rugged Tibetan plateau, but relieved to be away from this aggressive and oppressive government.


Lhasa, Tibet (jeep) Gyantse (jeep) Shigatse (jeep) Shegar (jeep)Everest Base Camp (jeep)Zhangmu (taxi)Kodari, Nepal (bus)Kathmandu