The red, white, orange and blue prayer flags fluttering from the pole atop the Kamba-la Pass (16,314 feet) only enhanced the spectacular scenery. To the north lay the stubbly green valley of the muddy Brahmaputra River, out of which we had just climbed via an arduous series of switchbacks (and in the process, seen our first grazing yaks); to the south, glistening in the morning sunlight, were the turquoise waters of Yamdrok-tso, one of Tibet's four sacred lakes.
While our group of nine Western tourists took in the view, our two native drivers performed an age-old travelers' ritual to appease the local lha, the spirit of the pass. First they added a stone to the cairn; then they contributed strings of cloth prayer flags they had bought in the predawn mist in front of the sacred Potala in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to the weather-worn assemblage.
Did they know something we didn't? Would we need divine assistance as we traversed the Tibetan Plateau along the Friendship Highway for the next five days?
As veterans of the 570-mile road that connects Lhasa with the Nepalese capital of Katmandu, they certainly knew it isn't much of a highway. Only on the valley floors near the few small cities is it even surfaced. The rest is unpaved and deteriorating, the inevitable result of the caravans of Chinese cargo trucks and Toyota Land Cruisers, the vehicle of choice--if not necessity--of the lucrative May-to-October tourist trade.
Nor is it particularly friendly, at least not to your backside, by virtue of the constant jouncing, or your nose, by virtue of the slightly less constant dust churned up by the vehicle ahead of yours. It is, however, the highest roadway in the world and arguably the most spectacular, offering not only exposure to rural Tibet but a view of Mt. Everest itself. All of which explains how my wife, Stacie, and I found ourselves in the company of a veterinarian and his wife from Ithaca, N.Y., an Italian couple, two Australian women and a female scuba instructor from Tokyo on the eight-day "fly in, drive out" package tour.
But the spectacular scenery would not come for three long, rough-and-tumble days. Despite its billing as the Roof of the World, the Tibetan Plateau consists mostly of rocky, dun-colored valleys through which snowmelt rivers nurture human existence via small but surprisingly luxuriant fields of green vegetables and golden barley. With hardly majestic peaks rising but a few thousand feet above barren hills of broken rock, this region more resembles northern Nevada than Shangri-La.
When booking our tour we had opted to journey overland to Lhasa and then fly out. Retracing the route of the first 19th century European explorers would allow a crescendo of anticipation culminating in the holy city. Two weeks before departure, however, the truly inscrutable CITS (China International Travel Service), the government operator of all tours, reversed our course.
We would happily discover, though, the advantage of wading into "real" Tibet after the disheartening Sino-fication of Lhasa. The fly-first scenario also reduced the threat of altitude sickness, as three days in the capital (11,800 feet) gives most flatlanders enough time to adjust to the thin air. At Kamba-la Pass, the adjustment time proved ideal as we stood blithely snapping photos fore and aft from a spot higher than California's Mt. Whitney.
From the Kamba-la, we bounced for two hours to a small village along the lake's northern shore and stopped for what would be the first of dozens of P&P; (potty and picture) breaks. It would also be our introduction to the rural strain of contemporary Tibetan capitalism: A peasant, clad in the standard dark chuba (gown), insisted that we look inside her traditional stone house. It was worth the five yuan she "requested" to see how spacious and well furnished these shelters are. After all, the entire family will spend five straight months here. Like most, hers had a giant scorpion etched in the sooty black wall, a talisman to ward off evil spirits.
After a lunch of chewy steamed momos (dumplings) served in canvas tents set up for the season outside a primitive truck stop, we pushed on to Gyantse, a 14th century fortress town in the Nyang Chu Valley. We would be eating lots of momos and thukpa (barley noodle soup) over the next four days, with the menus at our government-run hotels featuring more extensive but less delectable fare.
As we and our dust-covered luggage joined the swelling crowd in the lobby of the Gyantse Hotel, we realized our group of nine was merely a pea in a traveling pod of nearly 100. The reward for re-hitting the road first each morning, we soon learned, was enjoying the sights in relative solitude.
Compounding the irritation wrought by congestion was the lackluster performance of our CITS guide, Chi An, who joined us in Lhasa and repeated ad nauseam the facts about Tibet's legendary saints and kings. Worse, she did so in bursts during the few moments we were allowed to linger around objects of interest. To fill the intellectual void, we had all taken to reading our guidebooks even as she spoke.
In Gyantse, we put the long September evenings to good use by strolling the wide streets, an act that invariably attracted a gaggle of ruddy-faced children eager to practice their three words of English: hello, money, pen. They tailed us on a hike up to the partly rebuilt dzong (fortress), which clings to a rugged monolith. Destroyed by the British during the Younghusband Expedition of 1903-04, it now houses the curiously named Memorial Hall of Anti-British. Inside, artifacts illuminate the lopsided battle that finally pried Tibet open to the Western world.
The next morning we toured the Kumbum, a four-story chorten (stupa) topped by a tapering gilded dome and four sets of eyes, each gazing out in a different cardinal direction to represent the all-knowingness of Buddha. Kumbum means "100,000 images," and about that many deities and demons appear in the vivid murals and statues circling the upward spiral of chapels.
Next door is the vermilion stuccoed main building of the Pelkor Chode Monastery, which once encompassed 15 religious institutions belonging to three sects--a long-extinct model of interdenominational tolerance. Not quite gone, but definitely diminished in ranks, were the saffron-robed monks of the dominant Gelugpa order.
From there it was back to the highway for the four-hour slog to Shigatse and the Tashilunpo Monastery, Tibet's largest functioning monastery and the "home" of the Panchen Lama. Once subordinate to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama is now his government-sponsored rival.
We blew into Tibet's second largest city as a rare thunderstorm kicked a squall line of dust up the valley. Inside the walled compound lay a truly amazing concatenation of white, ochre and vermilion temples, assembly halls, throne rooms and residences, behind which towers a giant wall upon which an equally giant thankga (religious painting) is hung for three days every July.
Tashilunpo Monastery was founded in 1447 by Genden Drop, an ascetic monk who was posthumously declared to be the first Dalai Lama. Two hundred years later, the fifth Dalai Lama, who lived in Lhasa, honored the reigning abbot, one of his former teachers, by naming him the Panchen Lama.
The most impressive of Tashilunpo's sites is the Maitreya Chapel, with its 85-foot-high statue of the future incarnation of Buddha. More than 660 pounds of gold and hundreds of precious jewels went into the standing figure, which was completed in 1918, during Tibet's brief period of true modern independence.
Just as the gates of the monastery swung shut behind us, the sun broke through, washing the valley and surrounding hills with ethereal light. Cameras in hand, we scampered through rocky pastures to the ruins of the local dzong (this time destroyed by the Chinese during their 1959 invasion of subjugation) to get a sheep's-eye view of Shigatse, which is conspicuously bifurcated into "modern" (i.e., Chinese) and a "traditional" (i.e., Tibetan) sections. Descending into the latter, we found a small restaurant and tucked into a heaping plate of yak curry, complemented by bottles of cold, and quite passable, Lhasa beer.
Our itinerary for the next day included a side trip to Sakya, a 12th century center of its own order of Buddhist scholasticism. But nobody would be going to Sakya any time soon because a fresh landslide--the consequence of monsoon rains months earlier--had blocked the road.
Much of our disappointment would be assuaged at the Shigar monastery, where a dozen or so young resident monks gave us a spirited welcome. Communication was definitely limited, but they excelled in nonverbal cross-cultural interaction, inspired in no small part by the blue Bubblicious gum distributed by the veterinarian.
That night was spent at Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest) guest house, otherwise known as the Neverrest guest house because it can get quite chilly inside. But who needs sleep when outside, in the thin air, we could behold thousands of stars and the most spectacular shooting star I've ever seen?
The next morning we finally emerged from the succession of valleys to see snow-backed behemoths on the southern horizon. Alas, we were fated to frustration, not by the weather, but by human forces: The Italians had locked their key inside their room, causing all of us to lose 20 minutes of prime viewing. We would get just a few minutes' glimpse of the awesome northern face of Everest before swirling mists enveloped it. To our delight, however, the Cho Oyu Massif (at 26,750 feet, the world's ninth highest peak) remained completely unobscured above the tiny village of Tingri.
Though not a good day to see Everest, it was a good day to visit Tingri. A colony of nomads had set up their yak-hair tents to slaughter sheep, a service they periodically perform for strict followers of Buddhism. As we watched from the road, victim after reluctant victim was gutted and hung up to dry in the morning sun.
From Tingri, it was another long haul to La Lung-la--at 16,500 feet, the highest point on the Friendship Highway. Under ideal conditions, the array of 20,000-foot peaks that appears to block the way south is one of the trip's highlights. But on this overcast afternoon, we had to extrapolate upward from the dramatic bases.
From here it was literally all downhill. By late afternoon we could see the scruffy Chinese town of Zhangmu. Amid all the moisture, our luck ran dry: A mudslide had buried the roadway a mile above town. Availing ourselves of local porters, we hobbled into Zhangmu.
The morning light brought no Land Cruiser, so Chi An bundled us into a Nepalese truck for the remaining six miles to the border. It soon got stuck, and we had no choice but to escort ourselves--and our bags--out of China. A long, muddy hour later we staggered across the Friendship Bridge and into Nepal.
Marshall S. Berdan is a freelance writer based in Virginia.
Getting there: The truly adventurous can get to Tibet independently (round-trip fares to Katmandu, Nepal, currently start at about $1,575), but overland tours within Tibet must be booked through the only agency that operates them, the government-owned China International Travel Service (CITS). Its eight-day Friendship Highway tour (three nights in Lhasa and four on the highway, or vice versa) departs from Katmandu and includes transportation, hotels (with breakfast) and guide fees. Cost: $870 to $1,080 per person for groups of 10 or more. Or arrange bookings through travel agencies specializing in China (at higher prices).
Another option is to book the same CITS tour from a low-budget agency in Katmandu. With only four flights per week between Katmandu and Lhasa, however, be prepared to linger in Nepal for as long as two weeks.
Adventurers may take local public transportation or even hitchhike. It's smart to secure a Chinese visa before arriving in Nepal, as authorities there routinely refuse to issue them to anyone not on a government tour.
For more information: CITS, 333 W. Broadway, Suite 201, Glendale, CA 91204; tel. (818) 545-7505, fax (818) 545-7506, Internet http://www.cnto.org.