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Driving To The Everest Base Camp

WORDS: AYUSH DHAUBANJAR
PHOTOS: PRIYANKA KOIJAM & AYUSH DHAUBANJAR

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This epic 800km drive by Mahindra Adventure took us from the lush green Nepalese country side, through some of the finest and most thrilling mountain roads, straight up to the scenic barren landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau. And eventually we reached the base of the highest point of adventure.

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It’s the third night of this epic driving adventure and I am sleeping like a log at the Rongbuk Everest Hotel, the highest in the world located at an altitude of 5150m above sea level. Suddenly past midnight, I find myself wide awake and uncharacteristically sweaty . Even more so, considering the fact that of all the places in the world I am nestled within close proximity to the mighty Mount Everest and the temperature outside has been easily hovering below a bone-chilling zero degrees Celsius. So as I begin to take off the layers of clothes, I had covered myself in, I recall the warning from the hotel owner. We had been advised to wake up every three hours in the night and heat up our SUVs in order to prevent the diesel from freezing up for our early morning drive to the Everest Base Camp. But after some seemingly wise discussion over the customary round of evening drinks, we had unanimously decided to put off the cold idea. No doubt, all of us were warmly snuggled up in our beds and catching up on deep sleep without a care in the world. Something that we would regret later…

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Ok, wait a minute. Driving, Everest Base Camp, SUVs… Doesn’t make much sense right??? No wonder, even my family and friends thought that I had lost my marbles when I cheerfully shared with them that I would be driving up to the Everest Base Camp. The confusion isn’t a complete surprise because most of us have little or no idea that it is actually possible to drive/ ride to the Everest Base Camp rather than giving way to the highly popular, but lengthy and tiring ‘trekking’ alternative. While the South Base Camp of Everest in Nepal is the one accessible only by foot or in helicopters, the 5200m high North Base Camp located on the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier Zone in Tibet has vehicular access.

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I had first become familiar with the possibility of this driving/riding adventure of a lifetime about five years ago and ever since had it on the top of the list of things to do before kicking the bucket. So you can well imagine my joy, when the folks at Mahindra Adventure invited me to be a part of their historical and first ever epic drive by an Indian four-wheeler manufacturer, from Kathmandu to the Everest Base Camp in Tibet. Fittingly christened as ‘The Summit’, this exclusive media drive was executed by Mahindra Adventure in association with adventure travel company Sacred Summits from 30th September – 5th October, 2014. It was a great privilege to be the only Nepalese media representing AutoLife Nepal amongst the team of experienced Indian journalists from reputed media houses like Autocar India, EVO India, TopGear India and Rediff.com.

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With an adventure ready convoy of two Mahindra XUV500’s, two Mahindra Thars and one SsangYong Rexton to take on the challenging drive, we set out from Kathmandu on the early morning of September 30th, 2014. The 120km drive on the Arniko Highway from Kathmandu to the Nepal-China border at Kodari was supposed to be a relaxed affair through the beautiful Nepalese countryside, past terraced paddy fields and the hilly riverside forests. But due to a recent massive landslide in Jurey, just short of about 20kms from the border, an entire hillside had caved in on a large section of the road and we had to take the diversion to an alternative off-road route. Though the capable off-roaders easily waded through the slushy terrains and river crossings, we were unfortunately delayed at length on some of the stretches due to oncoming traffic. By the time we made it to Kodari, the Chinese Immigration and Customs had already shut shop for the day and that meant an unexpected night halt in a lodge on the banks of the raging Bhote Koshi River in Tatopani.

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Next morning, we were off to an early start and raced ourselves ahead of the haphazardly lined-up transport convoys in the opening hours of the Nepalese Immigration Office. With our well-experienced local agent working his way through the bureaucracy for us, we were swiftly cleared past the Nepalese border gates and across the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge to Zhangmu. As we waited for the stringent processing of permits through the Chinese Immigrations and Customs, I couldn’t help but marvel at the tall concrete cliffside buildings glittering in the sun along Zhangmu’s flourishing ridgeline. Looking back at the conditions at home,, it was a sorry state of underdevelopment with scattered houses and naked hills. With all the formalities taken care of, we set the clock 2.15 hours ahead to match the Chinese time zone and began the right-hand side drive on the Friendship Highway towards Upper Zhangmu, where we stopped for lunch and got our final road permits issued.

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As we drove up the excellent winding mountain roads through the rolling hills towards Nyalam at 3800m, the topography gradually began to change from the deep forested valleys of Nepal to mountain desert-like terrains with fewer vegetation of the green kind. The skies turned turquoise blue and magical cloud formations floated over the snow clad hills in the vast arid terrains of the highest plateau in the world. All this majestic scenery was further complimented by the thrill of speeding through butter smooth roads that were occasionally laid out till the horizon and seamlessly climbed up and down mountain passes with long sweeping corners. This fantastic Friendship Highway follows the western portion of Chinese National Highway 318 heading all the way to Shanghai and is a stunning example of the Asian superpower’s rapid pace of development even in such remote high altitude areas.

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We continued our ascent into the picturesque Tibetan plateau towards the 5126m Thong La Pass and the views only seemed to get better with Himalayan giants like Mt. Shishapangma gracefully hiding behind the overcast clouds. After a brief stop at the pass, we descended towards the less significant Lalung Pass at 5050m. From here on, the roads were mostly arrow straight through a flat plateau towards Old Tingri. By the time we made it to the Kangar Hotel in the quaint town of Tingri, it was pitch dark. Thankfully, the high altitude hadn’t quelled my appetite and I could enjoy the adequate variety of fresh Chinese food on the table that varied from yak, pork, and chicken to potatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, corn kernels and boy choys. The food was very different but truly ‘dellliciouuussss’, just like how our guide Tenzing would simply put it, much to the agony of the less experimental ones in the crew. With its luxurious accommodation and piping hot shower facilities even at 4350m, sleep wasn’t really hard to find at the Kangar Hotel.

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After the acclimatization night in Tingri, we took a diversion from the fine asphalt road and began the 70km dirt road drive along the Rongbuk Valley towards the Everest Base Camp. It was a bumpy ride up and down the dry terrain, along a gravelled path with some occasional rough spots. The quality of roads deteriorated but the views only seemed to get better and better as we drove past the endless twists and turns, and ascended little by little towards the azure sky. After a scenic off road drive on the narrow road along the Rongbuk River, we made it to the Rongbuk Monastery. Originally built in 1902, the Rongbuk Monastery belongs to the Nyingma sect of Buddhism and is the highest monastery in the world at an altitude of 5150m above sea level. But the north face of Everest still lay hidden in the thick smog of low lying clouds. So we drove 8km further to DzarongPu and waited by one of the many yak wool tent hotels scattered across the settlement, hoping for the foggy weather to clear up. This was the closest to the Everest Base Camp that general travellers were allowed to sleep and also the furthest that private vehicles could go. From here, one has to board an environmentally safe public bus for the last 4kms to the Everest

Base Camp. Interestingly, DzarongPu is also home to the Qomolangma Base Camp Postal Service which is the highest post office in the world at 5200m.

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Everest didn’t seem like in the mood to put up a good show and with darkness falling upon us, we had to return back to our base at the Rongbuk Everest Hotel. The rooms were comfortable and warm, but the common toilet facilities are best not talked about. It was a much better idea to head out to the open and brave the cold rather than trying to withstand the tough test of managing to last enough in the foulest latrines I have ever come across in my life. Ironically, food was pretty good and it was a tough decision to take the risk of overeating up here. We passed away the evening gulping down some naturally chilled Lhasa Beer in the warm restaurant of the hotel and hit the sacks early praying hard for a majestic view of Mt. Everest tomorrow. Otherwise, it would be an incomplete adventure even after having come so far.

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Early next morning, a quick view out of the window is all that it took to make our day. Outside, standing alone like a snow covered pyramid was a dramatic view of the mystical Everest in all its grandeur. And there was more good news. After some internal arrangements with the authorities, Tenzing had worked out a special permit that allowed us to drive all the way till the Everest Base Camp! Without any further delay, we headed out to heat up our frost covered SUV’s. The XUVs and Rexton sputtered to life, but the old school Thars just wouldn’t budge. Even several futile attempts like externally heating the frozen fuel tank didn’t help. It was probably the outcome of our laziness to wake up in the cold night and heat up the SUV’s, but we would rather believe that the mythical Yeti must have tinkered with it in the middle of the night. Anyways it was a good lesson learnt in the higher Himalayas. So we left the Thars to bask in the morning sun and packed ourselves into the two XUVs and Rexton for the last 12kms to the Everest Base Camp.

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And what a soulful drive it was, sitting on that driver’s seat and gaping in awe at the fantastic view of Everest that kept closing in every passing mile. With such a cinematic view of Everest plastered on the windscreen, the convoy we were driving easily seemed like the most beautiful moving view point in the world. Even after parking the car right on the foot of the colossal Everest, all of this still felt like some dream. Of course, all it took to come back to my senses was to open the door, step out of the air conditioned car and feel that awakening gust of those strong howling cold winds blowing down the supreme mountain. And then came the difficult hiking bit for the last 100m up a hillock to the tourist view point. It was definitely no walk in the park at the 5200m altitude, but once at the top all that breathlessness easily takes the back seat. There it was right in front of us – Everest for the world, Sagarmatha for the Nepalese and Qomolongma for the Tibetans. Not a speck of cloud to obstruct the grandeur and all you want to do is sit the and lust at the magnificence of this highest peak in the world standing solitarily on the horizon and piercing into the clear blue sky. But with the crazy winds hitting us hard and cold, it was time to head back home.

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Hesitantly, we got back to our sturdy Mahindra’s and hit the dust trail for the way back home as Everest gradually disappeared from our rear view mirrors. After the night halt at Tingri, it was another lap of the fantastic drive experience back to Zhangmu. The return journey was a memorable one as we passed by stunning views of the mystic mountain ranges alongside the flat mountain desert plateau and raced up and down the passes through the incredible number of corners, leaving the enchanting treeless Tibetan Plateau behind. Our last night in Tibet was spent in Zhangmu, where we also had our first taste of the unique Tibetan nightlife. It was a whole new level of experience where we were expected to order beer cans by the dozen, gulp it down like Tequila shots and groove to music which was an odd mix of Tibetan pop songs and groovy English and Hindi numbers. And what better way to end this adventure on the way back, than with an adrenaline pumping and suicidal Canyon Swing jump from a 160m high suspension bridge above the raging Bhote Koshi river at The Last Resort in Nepal !!

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To sum it up, nothing else has really touched me as intensely as this epic drive experience on the Tibetan plateau to meet the towering mountain against the bluest skies I have ever seen in my life. Everything from the flawless logistics arrangements by Mahindra Adventure and Sacred Summits, the high-spirited team of like-minded motoring hacks to the joy of driving a capable convoy through the fantastic roads on the roof of the world, is something that will stay with me forever. So if you were to ask me, would I do this trip again? Over and over, again and again! This drive is easily one of the best overland routes in the world that brings you right at the foothills of the highest mountain. I wonder if anything else will ever beat that sublime experience of stepping out of the Mahindra XUV500 and gazing at Everest standing breathlessly on that hillock…

WHEN TO GO?

The normal tourist season in Tibet is from May through till October. The busiest months are usually July and August.

HOW TO GET THERE?

This is not a trip that you can easily pull off as an individual traveller. A visit to the Everest Base Camp in Tibet requires a permit from the Chinese government, on top of the permit required to visit Tibet itself. Such permits must be arranged via authorized travel companies in Nepal and Tibet who take care of all the overland logistics.

THE CHALLENING BIT?

– With the route altitude almost averaging at 4000m, acclimatization and standing up to the bone-chilling weather is the primary hurdle.

– Food is often very different and you will have to be more on the experimental side and adjust your expectations.

– A clean toilet facility is a hard to find luxury here at the roof of the world.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND?

If you are really looking tforward to such a drive/ride, you could never go wrong with a well sorted package tour from Sacred Summits based in Kathmandu. With decades of experience and being one of the pioneers of this overland experience from Kathmandu, they would probably be the best bet to get you across and back in the safest and most memorable way possible. And if you really love to drive on your own, stay alert for the second edition of ‘The Summit’ from Mahindra Adventure and book yourself a seat. Otherwise, if Everest is not your cup of tea, Mahindra Adventure also has a myriad of other driving holidays lined up for you which range from a day-long escape to multi-day expeditions around India, Nepal and Bhutan.

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www.mahindraadventure.com

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Mahindra Adventure is a unique marketing unit of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd that specialises in organizing self-driving adventures across India, Nepal and Bhutan with their adventure ready fleet of over 100 Mahindra vehicles. Be it single-day off road adventures or multi-day expeditions to beautiful places, Mahindra Adventure has something for everyone. Mahindra Adventure also runs India’s first and only dedicated Off-Road Training Academy and fields a successful factory rally team at the Indian Rally Championship. So with the tank full of options that Mahindra Adventure provides, it’s not really difficult for the enthusiasts to seek ways to get lost.

www.sacredsummits.com

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Sacred Summits Pvt Ltd is an adventure travel company which has specialisation in overland rides/drives, treks and expeditions to the magical mountains and terrains of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim. Their team comprises of highly experienced and qualified experts who specialize in developing tour packages that suit anyone with a spirit for adventure. If you truly seek an adventure in the Himalayas, look no further.

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