Perils of Polly: Speeding to the top of the world

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

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Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
The author and her sister at Everest base camp on the occasion of Polly's 59th birthday.

Our goal was less than a day away. In fact, we were told we were five hours from Everest Base Camp, but had to hurry and eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and scram. Who knows why, but all I knew is that I wanted the clouds to part and be able to see the tallest mountain in the world.

The day was definitely a "hurry up and wait" day. We sped to the checkpoint and waited as the soldiers checked passports and whatever else they check. This is what the guide was for, and all we did was stand around and smile, trying to look non-threatening.

We got our permits, and then careened up the snaking gravel road and over a 17,060-foot pass at lightning speed. On the other side, the driver suddenly hooked left and we bounced down a mountain track of rocks and dirt. Sue and I looked at each other wide-eyed and shook our heads in disbelief. "He must feel he has to get around the other guides," she whispered, pointing to about four Landcruisers we were probably going to pass on our "shortcut."

"Or maybe he feels he has to make use of the fact he's driving a 4-by-4. Now I know why I've been smelling gas!"

Speed was this driver's middle name. Stopping for photos was not on his high priority list, either. Sue continually wanted to stop to get pictures of artistically designed dung piles, and that concept was totally out of his grasp.

About 15 bone-jarring minutes later we bounced back onto the main road, ahead of the other guides. Maybe they consider it a race. Whatever, the supposed 5-hour journey took two, and we pulled into "black tent city," the base camp for tourists, at about 10:30 a.m. Blue sky surrounded us everywhere except where Everest was supposed to be. OK, we'll wait.

And wait we did. We were introduced to our "hotel," a black tent where we figured we would be sleeping on colorful piled-up mats around the edge of the tent, similar to a ger arrangement, with the dung stove in the middle. Then my sister and I headed to the rocks by the glacier river and waited. It was warm but windy, so a rather pleasant combination. I lay down on the rocks, flapped a jacket sleeve over my face to protect it from the 16,000-foot-high sun rays, and napped. My sister huddled up behind a rock, protecting every inch of her skin. It turned out I should have included my neck under my sleeve, as it turned deep red and eventually even peeled -- my only sun consequence of the whole trip.

Communication was still a problem, and finally hunger drove us to find out what we were supposed to do about food. It turned out the "hotel" provided food when ordered, like a restaurant. We had no idea. So we had some decent fried rice -- about the only thing we could communicate.

Finally, after multiple games of Zilch, we went out at sunset -- 9 p.m. -- and there it was! Everest, shining pink in the sun. All the foreigners piled out of the 50 or so black tents, shutters snapping everywhere in the icy, now sunless, wind. We felt so lucky. It was as majestic as I had imagined. I could picture the many climbers who had lost their lives on the formidable mountain, until finally the bitter cold sent me seeking the heat of the black tent.

Satisfied and happy, I fended off the many blankets the host tried to pile on me and actually fell sound asleep -- not hot for a change -- and slept the entire night! The first since arriving in Tibet.

The next morning was my 59th birthday. I had asked God to give me Everest as a present, and behold, He did! The majestic peak loomed above us with morning light glinting off its multiple snowfields. How spectacular! Then I was in for a real surprise. The host and our guide had created a Tibetan birthday cake -- tsampa and sugar, and presented me with three prayer scarves. The cake is not baked, but merely blended and hand pressed from barley flour, yak butter, salt, black tea, and raw sugar. Yum! Actually it tasted a bit like sweet dirt, but I was enthusiastic about eating it, and even took seconds, asking for divine protection against any bugs that might be lurking because there were no sanitary facilities for washing hands. The fact that one-fifth of the Chinese population has hepatitis once again crossed my brain ...

Everest clouded over, and we headed back toward the Friendship Highway -- but were still in for more surprises. We stopped the driver to see some Himalayan blue sheep and a huge marmot they call a snow pig, and this time HE got excited, and pointed to some tiny deer that were feeding on the other side of the road. We didn't understand his excitement until I looked them up on the Internet after coming home, and discovered they were Muntjac, one of the oldest species of deer on earth.

We were supposed to continue our Tibetan tour, going to a lake just as high as Everest Base Camp, but Sue and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We'd had enough of the high elevation. We opted out and headed back to Lhasa and were in for another culture surprise: Tibetan speed traps.

Instead of patrolling the highways, drivers are required to stop at checkpoints to pick up tickets stamped with the time. When they pass through the other side -- maybe 50 miles down the road -- they're given speeding tickets if they didn't take long enough between the two points. Our driver's -- and apparently every other driver's -- answer to that dilemma? About a mile before the checkpoint, he pulled over and joined other drivers for a smoke, coffee, snack, or just conversation.

We went through three of these checkpoints, and each time he would speed, honk his horn at horse carts, careen between carts and trucks to get ahead, and then stop and wait before the checkpoint so he didn't get a ticket!

Lhasa, 12,000 feet, and our old dumpy room at the youth hostel, looked good. We now had an extra day to kill before flying home. But we figured it was better than another night at 16,000 feet without the benefit of gazing on the highest mountain in the world.

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