Tibet – Our Journey to Everest Basecamp
Let me begin by warning you that this blog post is going to be largely about toilets. Our story is, after all, about five blokes travelling through rural Tibet, five blokes ill-experienced in the delicate art of the squat toilet and five blokes who were living on a largely yak based diet. It was, let’s be honest, always going to be a story about toilets…
With this the focus of our post I feel like I must start with the toilets on our flight from Hong Kong to Cheng Du in China. Now these were some toilets with which I got well acquainted… The night before our flight had been an exciting one in Hong Kong and I’m gonna say that it was a mixture of jet-lag, Chinese food, over excitement, and probably also the fifteen pints that meant that I can now give a better description of the inside of a Sichuan Airlines toilet cubicle than anyone I know. And I’d bet money on that.
“It’s a strange irony when the place you must go if you might need to vomit, smells so bad that it makes you definitely need to vomit.” – Brook Driver 2016
We spent one night in Cheng Du before flying on to Tibet and this second leg of the journey included infinitely less vomiting on my behalf. In fact I felt positively chipper as I browsed a shelf of a Chinese bookshop at the airport. I had just been in the airport toilet, having made a deal with my guts to ‘do me a solid’, and in there I had seen one of the funniest signs I have ever cast eyes on. The English translation of the disabled toilet sign had read, ‘Deformed man end place’ and I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard whilst sitting on a toilet since the time I did acid in 2008.
By the time I had done my business though, soothed as I was by the sound of Chinese men hacking up phlegm into the sinks, and headed to bookshop, my laughter had abated. Then, and I’m not joking, a little Chinese kid pissed on the floor at my feet!
This kid must have been about five years old and he was wearing what Stefan aptly described as a reverse loincloth. Basically it covered up his entire lower half, except for his bare arse and his little cashew nut of a penis. I saw a number of these reverse loincloths on young children in Tibet and, whilst I couldn’t find any in adult sizes, my dad agreed to personally help me tailor my jeans into what was obviously a bit of a local style.
I’d noticed whilst I was browsing the books that the little boy’s mother was not allowing him to touch anything on the shelves, pulling him away from the books and snapping at him every time he reached for one. In fact I’d noticed that she wasn’t letting him do anything really. He wasn’t allowed to sit on the floor, mess up his hair, play with his shoelaces or see what was on his mum’s phone screen. However, the only thing that it seemed she didn’t care about him doing was defecating in public. It was totally bizarre.
On the plane I was taking a little nap, glad not to have my head down a toilet, when I was woken up by an airhostess holding a potato… She was literally just holding out a cooked potato in one hand, with no napkin or plate in sight, asking me if I wanted it. I politely declined, though I did accept her offering of a ‘wet turban’ the next time she came around. No idea why but there you go.
In Lasa (Tibet) we stayed for two nights in the Shangri-La hotel. Compared to where we were heading off to this place was unbelievable luxury and the extravagance of it all was immediately demonstrated to me by the monk who walked past us in the lobby, wearing aviators and New Balance trainers whilst facetiming on his gold iphone. And that was a monk! Yes, this was a high-class Tibetan establishment and it was a great place to ease us in to the 3,500m altitude. Though even this hotel was not without it’s quirks.
There was either a real language barrier in the hotel or the staff were just hilarious pranksters (and I’ll leave you to decide which one it was). We mistakenly drank yak butter tea thinking it was English Breakfast, were served horrible yak steaks instead of beef and had a doctor run to our room when we had asked for an adaptor at reception. But the best story of all comes from one staff member’s attempts to get past the language barrier using technology.
Stefan opened his door one evening to a young Tibetan employee smiling at him. Since the man couldn’t get Stefan to understand what he was saying he got out his phone to translate. He obviously had the desired phrase saved on his phone on a translation app but as he scrolled through his saved phrases he accidentally landed on the wrong one. The phone, to the employee’s horror, read out ‘fuck your mother’ in a computerized monotone and the employee realised what he had done and scarpered.
Do Tibetans just have an amazing sense of humour and a daring to match? I’m still not sure. Though the next day all of Stefan’s laundry had been done for no charge and I had to wonder why that was…
Our actual trip to Everest was an incredible journey through a fascinating country. Tibet is massive and to get across it and back we must have covered over a thousand miles in an old transit van. I could tell you some beautiful tales of some of the things that we saw, poetically describe the people that we encountered working the land with their ox-pulled ploughs. Or the shepherd we watched, herding his sheep from the top of a hillside using only whistles and an unbelievably accurate sling to throw rocks that he picked up around him. But this blog is about toilets so I will get back to it: now this was an awkward place to have a poo:
Atop the walls of the rural buildings that we past, families would stack yak dung out to dry in the sun. These would then be used as building blocks, which, as Stefan pointed out, meant that your dreams of a new extension on the house rested largely on how much you could get your Yak to go to the toilet. I’m gonna say that my uncle Barry (BL), who I have to thank so much for taking me on this trip of a lifetime, would not have been building many houses with the rate that he was going to the toilet. Refusing to be tempted by the four-foot holes at the hotels and restaurants we went to, he was instead just eating Imodium tablets like they were skittles. Even a rare yak steak couldn’t move that man’s stubborn bowels.
After days of exploring the Tibetan countryside we made it to the Rombok monastery, the highest monastery in the world and from where we would start our trek to basecamp. The altitude was 5,150m and though we had been aclimatising for a number of days now it was still pretty uncomfortable. We ate some fried rice, had a couple of cups of jasmine tea and then set off for basecamp.
Trekking at that altitude is obviously fairly exhausting but the dramatic, almost lunar landscape, along with our excitement at watching the tallest mountain in the world come in and out of the clouds in front of us, carried us through and we arrived at base camp in the early afternoon.
Sadly, when we actually arrived at the camp, the mountain refused to come out to play, which didn’t make for exceptional photos:
We stayed for one night up at the Rombok Monastery and it was a night that I know I will never forget. There was no heating in the rooms but there was a cozy, communal room, heated by a tin stove full of yak dung in the middle. It was here, that evening, surrounded by Tibetans drinking ginger and honey tea, that we did something that I totally did not expect to be doing; we watched one of the group games of the Euros. It was Russia vs Slovakia and a truly surreal experience. At half time we put on our jackets, took our teas outside and watched as the clouds parted and the summit of Everest appeared once more, bathed in the blue light of a near full moon. It really was magical.
However, it has to be said that not all of this section of the trip was quite as romantic as this. The altitude was giving us all nagging headaches and the days of yak-based meals were starting to take their toll. However it was again the toilet situation that was really causing concern. The three long drops stank so bad that Johnny and Stefan had decided to join BL in his boycott of the toilet. Whilst they were popping pills, the locals had a different method for avoiding the bogs, choosing to simply excrete on the floor wherever they pleased.
For some reason I couldn’t stop thinking of what auntie Barbara’s reaction would have been if she had experienced what her poor son Johnny had at that monastery. Just hours after arriving he had opened the curtains of his room to find someone dropping their guts right outside his window! To make matters worse, when Stefan was having a wee outside a Tibetan guy had come and squatted down next to him. Five minutes later this same guy was bringing us out our fried rice in the dining area! Delicious…
Anyway, I’d really like to finish this post by leaving you with one of the nicer images from this part of our trip; the highest mountain in the world basking in the moonlight perhaps, or maybe our final, breathless steps as we arrived at Everest base camp after hours of trekking. But I think that it would be doing the trip a disservice. Instead I want to leave you with this:
‘It’s 3am. The moon is out and all heat from the valley has dissipated into the cloudless sky. The monastery and the surrounding countryside are silent and there are no lights in the windows, when suddenly there is a movement. It’s a yak, treading the route it’s walked so many times before, the route it’s been taught by its ancestors, by it’s very genetics, carving his way through this barron landscape… Oh wait. No it’s not. It’s Mark Driver, my dad, heading off into the wilderness for a poo, a stolen roll of the Shangri La’s bog roll in his hand… Naughty Mark had tried his best but now was going native…’
And now for some photos:
Can’t forget this unmissable restaurant as well:
Oh and also the hotel with a spa that offered a ‘too much oil’ treatment:
P.S. One last time let me say thank you to my uncle BL for everything on this trip. It was truly one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life and I will never forget it. So lovely to have experienced it with the family and as it says in your wallet, ‘I owe it all to my uncle Rob’.