NEPAL AND TIBET-TOUCH THE TOP OF THE WORLD AND THE FRIENDSHIP HIGHWAY

     


 The shops have them everywhere, printed T-shirts that have the slogan ‘I survived the Friendship Highway”. Several times I commented, ‘I wonder what that is referring to. It didn’t occure to me to ask our Tibetan driver the meaning of the slogan thinking instead that it must be some kind of joke. I quickly found out the joke was on me.

But I will rewind to how we ended up on this ‘enlightened’ highway. Landing at Kathmandu in the swealtering heat was as we expected – buzzing with people all clustered like bees in a hive waiting to take people to the city. ‘Taxi mam – taxi sir’ . Thankfully we were in a group with transport to Thamel pre-arranged.  

We spent 3 days in Kathmandu to acclimatize before our next flight into Lhasa Tibet. As we passed over Mt Everest I became aware of a tingling sensation in my fingers and toes, my colleagues seemed unfazed by this so I realised that this was my introduction to altitude. It excited me to be presented with the white silk scarf (Khata) representing greetings well wishes and gratitude. This is a sign that you are in a buddhist country and are welcomed in a most honourable way.
POTALA PALACE


      Tibet is a country of many faces not the least of which is presented in the shape of snow covered peaks and glaciers. Here the stark contrast of the treeless ranges is never more evident. as we depart the capital Lhasa we find ourselves driving through arid landscapes on gentler climbs to Base Camp at Mt Everest. It is easy to believe that all of the terrain will be of a similar nature as we cross gently flowing streams trickling milky white water- the result of melting snow running over limestone. The “trek” into Chomolungma National Park is a gradual one as we stop to picnic alongside smaller streams of ice cold water amidst lush green pastures. The story of Tibet is for another time but suffice to say it remains one of the highlights of my life to date.
     
As we depart  Mount Everest for our journey towards Nepal we become aware of subtle changes in the terrain . Our introduction to the Tibetan landscape has been slow and gentle so it is reasonable to think that the return journey would be similar. We were surprised when the landscape changed so rapidly and quite dramatically.

      The last town before the border crossing ZHANGMU or DRAM (known by two names) comes as quite a shock. Our hotel is referred to as “simple” but pleasant with brilliant views. As we enter our twin room, my first thought is to seek out the amazing view. As I pull back the curtain I become aware of movement in the wall – which isn’t surprising as most of the lining under the window is missing. I believe this is so that the mice have free entry to come and go as they please – which they did. That night I feel movement on my bed clothes and know without a doubt it is one of the little visitors checking out the new travellers. The next morning reveals a mist that has enveloped the mountain to obscure the view of the valley below like a shroud over the landscape to hide what should not be seen.


THE FRIENDSHIP HIGHWAY

       A surprisingly hearty breakfast is prepared but it is with some disappointment that we are now ushered out quickly to join our drivers for the final leg of our descent into the unknown. It does not take long to realise that the road is not built for two way traffic. Champa – our Tour leader, tells us that we are “breaking the rules” by travelling down through the valley at the wrong time of day. The government has placed a “curfew” on vehicles going up and down. This means one way traffic only and we are outside the curfew hours for – going down. He surreptitiously tells us that if we are lucky the guard will still be asleep at his post or better still in the lavatory so we can sneak through. Luck is on our side today, the guard is nowhere to be seen. With hurdle number one dispensed with, all that remains now is a pleasant trip through lovely scenery with a spattering of cascading waterfalls and lots of lush growth along the way. I may not have taken into account the sheer drop on one side. The road is so narrow that if another vehicle or worse a truck did by chance come in the opposite direction, we are going to be in serious trouble. How could we possibly reverse back up a mountain as steep as this?
     
      We are extremely happy to reach what we are advised is the halfway point. Having only encountered a few smaller vehicles which squeeze past by pressing themselves against the mountainside, we stop at a wider section of road for nature calls. I am  reflecting at the strength of the women of the villages who cart rocks on their lower backs to help stabilize landslides. Small in stature but strong in will, this is how I will always remember them. They look up and smile as we pass – or was it a grimace, yes maybe the latter is more the case.

      We are all grinning like Cheshire cats as the steep decent seems to be a little less threatening and we begin to- level out. The mist has lifted to reveal monkeys running through the brush which seems to be as wild as those who inhabit it. The flatter country is short lived as we take to our vehicles for more exhilarating and bumpy downhill adventure. It pays to think of the scenery and not look down. The journey we are on will change in the future, that is evident by all of the hard work we see along the way. We are informed that transport trucks which swap in Kodari on the Nepalese border will be the ones mostly to use this road after a new one has been built by the Chinese Government. There is now a rail link from Lhasa to Zhangmu making life a little safer for tourists. As much as this is a positive outcome, there is something to be said about the adventurous nature of what we are doing. For all of the nervous moments travelling the Friendship Highway, there is nothing quite like it for excitement.


      
       I am amazed at how rapidly the road has deteriorated as we near the check point on the Nepalese border.
The buildings go from moderately built and clean to almost shanty style in construction. The contrast is confronting. The roadside stalls are dilapidated and ramshackle in comparison to Tibet’s simple yet solid constructions. The road is rough and unkempt, the customs office – loosely described- is hot and very disorganised. As we sadly say goodbye to our Tibetan guides, it is time to begin the drive by bus back to Kathmandu. A few more memories to make before our return to the Western world.

                                                      www.enticingbhutan.com

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