Great Escapes

My night at Rombuk was cold and restless. Breathing was difficult, every breath requiring utter concentration, and thus making sleep almost impossible. Allan's snoring, bolstered by his already suffering respiratory system, had reached volumes usually associated with light passenger aircraft. I'm really not joking - it was almost as if he was trying to make the loudest noise he could and had settled for one of the most bone-jarring death rattles ever heard. I ended up plugging myself into Kate's iPod - thanks be for in-ear headphones - but even then I could feel Allan's nasal barrage rattling my diaphragm from twelve feet. 

I grumpily woke up the next morning and Judy immediately asked me if I'd slept well. I bit my lip, was perfectly polite and then extracted myself from the blankets and got on the bus. Today we're driving to Zhang Mu, our final port of call in Tibet before we cross the border and venture into Nepal. Unfortunately, Drujal has been caught out by the subtleties (I could have said 'machinations' there) of Chinese bureaucracy so he can't accompany us over the border. The short story is that the Government told him that if he sent his passport to the central office then they would reissue him with a 10 year passport; instead they simply kept his passport and refused to reissue it as he's a Tibetan national. 

I think I'll really miss DJ when he's gone. Laziz was great, really fun and even better organised, but Drujal and I seem to have clicked in a way I never did with Laz. He's really easy going, knowledgable and has the kind of meandering intelligence usually associated with philosophers rather than tour guides. He's also in possession of one of the most colourful life stories I've ever heard; he escaped from Tibet before his teens, crossing the Himalayas on foot, and enrolling as a novice in a Buddhist monastery in order to have access to an education beyond the government-approved one he'd have received under the Chinese. Freed from his vows in his late teens, he decided to cross back - officially this time - and was promptly arrested for illegally crossing half a decade ago and imprisoned (without trial) for four months. After his release, he battled briefly with alcoholism - he's tee total now - before joining Gap Adventures and leading people all over Tibet. He's a fascinating guy and it was a privilege to make this journey with him. 

Anyways, with one final glance back at Everest, we started off again, back the way we came - twisting, lethal roads and all - before rejoining the highway and making our way along the sandy flatlands that edge the Himalayas. We pass mile upon mile of what I can only describe as desert, punctuated only by the occasional hill or lake, the landscape seemed endless. Yellow sand disappeared over the horizon, making the mountains we had only just left seem like a cruel mirage. 

Slowly, the plains began to undulate like a lazy sine wave, getting bigger and bigger, until we were travelling up and over impossibly rolling hills and valleys. One more big up and the land plateaued, suddenly presenting us with almost the entire Himalaya range in one vivid panorama. The rocky, moonlike plains seamlessly ran into the snow-lined borders of the mountains, our distant viewpoint making it seem like sugar sprinkled over concrete. No more superlatives, I'll let my unworthy photos try and speak for themselves. 

After this final Himalayan crescendo, the coach dived into the valleys again and the landscape reformed itself once again, this time into damp, green cliffs and foaming waterfalls dropping over mossy rocks. We'd left the dry, crisp climate of the high lands and were now moving into the wet, grizzled weather of the sweeping valleys that deal with the tonnes of water storming off the mountains towards the sea. This creates dramatic gorges, overpopulated with the plant-life that can't survive in the unforgiving high altitude environments, and whose orientation means that it never really dries out. 

Another harrowing coach ride, worsened by whole, coach-sized chunks of road having crashed down the valley due to recent landslides, and we arrived in Zhang Mu. It's an unusual place, a pioneer-town balanced precariously on the cliffs and as such is mostly vertical. Massive towers rise up from the soggy forest floor and huge drainage culverts (or waterfalls, as Judy called them before I unthinkingly disillusioned her) drive through the town, meaning wherever you are you can always hear the rushing of what is mostly water. Zhang Mu is also a massive logistical hub, mostly for deliveries to and from Nepal and India, so the streets are lined with cheap booze joints, red-lighted 'massage parlours' and pharmacists - basically, everything a trucker needs to get him through another night on the road. 

We all head out after settling into our rather pleasant hotel, our last meal with the Tibetan guides who'll leave us at the border tomorrow. It's a quiet affair, as most of the group are shattered, but I find a moment to share a final (non-alcoholic) drink with Drujal. It's a suppressed end to an amazing country, but it's an end nonetheless. 

Until tomorrow.