7 am came and went. I was in the restaurant of the hotel with Yingchu. It was the agreed time to meet up for breakfast. I was keen on an early start because we were to climb quite steeply during the days’ drive. In case of any discomfort on the way we would get more time for recovery at Dingri, the place of night halt. Moreover, the extra time would give us more time for photography on the way. Well, my co-travellers were nowhere in sight. At 7.15 am Lal Jose was yet to have his bath. By 7.45 am my fuse blew. I went up to their room and shared a piece of my mind.
I was served Continental breakfast at the hotel while Yingchu had Chinese fare consisting of rice porridge soup, baked rice cakes and pickled bamboo shoot, beans, gram and beans. I had a double bulls eye with toast, bun and two slivers of ham. The coffee was delicious; freshly ground and aromatic. I completed the check out formalities when Lal and Baiju completed their breakfast. Finally, we left at 8.15 am, after taking some time over stuffing the luggage in.
Our entry into Zhangmu town had been greeted by showers of rain. It rained quite heavily through the night and it continued to drizzle in the morning. Yingchu told me that Zhangmu gets more rainfall than most other places in the region as it was placed between the valley and the mountains; the former being humid and the latter being dry. The mixing of the cold and hot airs produced the extra rainfall in Zhangmu. Perhaps because of the rain the hills around Zhangmu upto Nyalam were green and wooded. The mist added a touch of the artist’s brush on the landscape. Yingchu had warned us that the landscape would change dramatically between Zhangmu-Nyalam and Nyalam-Dingri. And it did. After Nyalam we encountered bluer skies but drier air and bare mountains. The contrasts were a photographer’s delight. Even though I was driving and doing that on the right hand side for the first long drive I enjoyed the landscape thoroughly too, thanks to the lovely roads throughout the entire stretch. The roads were either concretized – where it was vulnerable to water logging – or bituminized – without any cracks, potholes or settlements. It was a real beauty. The speed restriction through villages is 40 kmph and on the highway 80. The feature of the highway is the ‘Speed Ticket’ given for stretches by the Police check posts. The first ticket stipulated that we should not cover the next stretch of 96 kilometers in less than two hours! The next stretch of 125 kms was given a time limit of 2 hours. Thus, the condition of the road – mountainous or otherwise – determined the speed limit; sensible and a much better way of ensuring compliance. This is something that we could adopt in Kerala instead of deployment of ‘speed supervisors’ and rancorous encounters.
We had to stop at many check points. The first one was immediately after we left Zhangmu town. Yingchu produced all the required documents but could not convince the stoic policeman. He proceeded to intermittently peek at the papers between clearing many others who came after us. It was quite clear that he had no clue what he was looking for. He decided to speak to his senior and fortunately, he happened to come by at that very moment. He looked at the papers, spoke to Yingchu and asked the policeman to clear us. After nearly 20 minutes of hanging around we got back on the road. The rest of the check points presented no problems. We did not even have to get down from the car. Yingchu would go and speak to the concerned people in the post and we would start motoring again.
We took a short detour to Nyalam town to tank up and, if possible, fill up an extra fuel can. At the fuel station, where diesel is priced at Yuan 7.91, the fuel station attendant approved the sale after being shown the papers for the car. However, he refused to give us additional fuel. Yingchu told me that additional fuel cans are normally not permitted in the car! Only the routine for tomorrow presented a challenge. The distance of Nyalam-Old Dingri-Everest Base Camp-Dingri is close to 400 kilometers. The tank capacity of the Endeavour is 70 liters; the mileage is slightly under 6 kmpl! Therefore, it limits the drive to just about 400 kilometers between fuel stations.
Yingchu brought us to the Snow Leopard Guest House in Old Dingri town, the take off for the Mt. Everest Base Camp when one comes in from Zhangmu. There is also a road from Dingri to the Base Camp, which is presently closed for repairs. The Guest House was a simple one with three beds and attached toilet. Attempts to log in using the mobile WiFi were not so successful – it was discernible that Google was not a favourite with the government. Before lunch I washed the car with assistance from one of the Guest House guys. Yingchu was tasked with ordering local favourites for lunch. Yak fried rice and Chicken noodle soup arrived at the table and we took the first lessons in use of chopsticks from Yingchu. The food was tasty and I had so many helping that it must have embarrassed the others at the table. The soup was fantastic. It also went well with the yak fried rice. After the heavy meal it was bedtime. We all had Paracetamol tablets and plenty of water to keep headaches at bay. During the drive we had climbed from Zhangmu at 2000m to Jiacuola Pass at 5010m and Old Dingri at 4300m. The sudden ascent could create problems; but none of us had any serious issues. At the Pass we stopped for breathtaking views. We got Yingchu to fix the sticker for China on the car. Thus, 3 of the 27 countries have turned green on the car! A vendor at the Pass had displayed a large number of local handicrafts and what he claimed to be fossils for sale. I picked up a ‘fossilized’ scorpion encased in Amber for Yuan 60.
The 2 hour snooze cleared up the head. I went for a long walk to the village place. The shops displayed a large variety of items for tourists and daily use from walkers for kids to trekking equipment. There are many Guest Houses, mostly Tibetan style, and restaurants. The sun was hot and overbearing even at 7 pm local time. I was forced to buy a hat for Yuan 20 from a wayside market to keep it out of my eyes. The entire village was tuned to serving tourists. The shopkeepers had their calculators ready to start the bargain.
On return to the Guest House Yingchu took me to the tourist counter attached to it to take the entry tickets for the Base Camp. Interestingly, vehicles are charged per wheel at Yuan 100. So it was Yuan 400 for our car. Mercifully, the charge for us was not based on the number of legs we had! It was a flat charge of Yuan 180 per person. I decided to turn in without dinner as the huge lunch was still mostly intact. So, tomorrow it is onwards to the Base Camp of Mt. Qomolangma, the Tibetan name for Everest, and pronounced Choomalooma.