Let’s start in the middle of the night for this one. Here’s the scene: Four of us (guide, driver, Ty, myself) sleeping in a big tent. The kind that stays put for a whole season, with a stove in the middle and a makeshift door. Oh, and the best part is that they use small solar panels and car batteries to power everything (they will even charge your cell phone), but I digress. We have been going to sleep around 9pm every night so we are usually up very early. Last night, I woke around 4:30am with a slight need to use the restroom (translation: get out of the tent). I went through the tedious process of quietly taking off the 7 blankets (it is COLD here at night), putting my hiking boots, coat, etc. on, and getting to the door without knocking anything over and waking everyone up. Problem: door won’t open. I didn’t realize they had a way of actually sealing this place. Solution: go back to bed and hold it.
About 2 hours later I noticed the driver get up and try the same thing. He failed once and then got a cigarette lighter and somehow figured it out. I followed. It had rained all night, but was now clear overhead with a full moon. Unfortunately, Mt. Everest was still covered in clouds.
About 7:30am, I see Ty get up and go to the door (he was feeling better). He immediately comes back and tells me to get out there because the mountain is out again! Twice in two days!! This time in the morning, so a completely different look because of the light. In the rock field near our tent camp was filled with tripods as people were already taking photos. It was amazing and again, very rare this time of year.
Eventually we had breakfast and hit the road. We decided to skip Old Tingri (where we were supposed to stay the night) and instead headed all the way to Zhangmu, the border town with Nepal. This sounded good because a) we had lunch in Old Tingri on the way and it was a dump to put it mildly, b) Zhangmu is only 2300 meters so we would finally get some oxygen, and c) we were told Zhangmu was quite nice and that we would be in a hotel vs. a guest house. All good.
Now here’s what really happened… We left on a rough dirt road at around 5200 meters and stayed above that level and on even worse roads for hours. I had somehow forgotten th at this whole time we were on one side of the Himalaya and we needed to get to the other. This is clearly the road less traveled. We had lunch in Old Tingri (ugh, but at least they had French fries – we are done with the Yak meat for awhile), and then drove for 4-5 more hours on a combination of perfectly paved new roads and horrible detours through the desert before dropping into a gorgeous valley above the Nepal border.
This last section of the Friendship Highway is stunning. After days in a barren wasteland, you suddenly feel like you are in Ireland, except huge mountains on both sides of you and maybe thousands of waterfalls everywhere you look. There is water everywhere here – both sides of the road, in every direction. Even the driver used some waterfalls that fell directly on the road to wash his car (felt just like the drive through wash).
While this all sounds great, there was also a darker side. This road is very dangerous. It is all new construction, and safety is something they obviously worry about after the fact. Maybe 60-70 times we had to drive around huge rocks that had fallen in the middle of the road with enough force to leave small craters. Some had destroyed the guard rail (where there was one). The road itself is beautiful as it winds along cliffs above the valley, but it is also a crazy construction zone and flood zone so there are parts where tractors and tents are perched precariously on cliffs, and where large quantities of water flood across the road and below it at the same time.
They close this road every day at a certain point for hours on end. Our goal had been to make it to Zhangmu during one of the open windows but we failed. Suddenly we were stopped along with twenty or so other Land Cruisers and motorcycles and were told we would need to wait 3 hours. Dickey came to the rescue by informing us that Zhangmu was only 3 kilometers away (actually about 10) and that we could walk. The driver waited with the car while we grabbed our packs and walked all the way down the valley to the town of Zhangmu. It rained on us and was humid, but this was welcome relief to the days of desert and high-altitude we had just experienced. Dickey walked part of the way with us, but eventually grabbed a taxi. We declined and finished the walk to the hotel.
Ah the Zhangmu Hotel. We were really looking forward to it, but should have kept our expectations low (although it still might not have met them). Great lobby, but the room has no air conditioning, a puddle on the bathroom floor, no towels, and no toilet paper (we eventually complained enough to get a better room which solved most of the issues except air conditioning, but I’m still not impressed). We have to stay here two nights. Ugh.