SkyDrive (Lalunga Pass)

12 Sep

We were roused from our sleep at 4am. The rain was still falling.  We had overnighted in Zhangmu and had not been able to leave as planned because of the mudslides the rains had caused. Due to the steep elevation gain over the first couple of days of the overland drive, each day had been carefully plotted to help gradually acclimate us to the altitude change. But, we were now faced with making up the lost day and would bypass our initial destiantion point of Neyalam, and instead head straight to what should have been our second destination point –Lhatse. Lhatse was over 435 km away from Zhangmu and would require us to go over the Lalunga pass at 5,050m (over 16,000 feet high). We were to reach Lhatse later that evening and overnight there at a height of 4,050m (over 13,200 feet high). Zhangmu is close to being a subtropical area of Tibet and its elevation is 2,300m (7,500 feet). So, when I got up that early morning and shook myself awake, it was with the knowledge that we would be more than doubling our altitude gain on that same day.  I could sense trepidation trickle through a few of the other individuals in the tour group. One guy kept talking about the onset of symptoms of “A.M.S.” — acute mountain sickness.  I was so relieved this guy was not sitting in my Landcruiser.  But, at that point, I wasn’t as worried about the dramatic altitude gain as I was concerned about the idea of driving up and through a muddy mountain road over the south face of the Himalayan range that lay before us — with only our Landcruiser’s headlights under a moonless night with no sun at least for another 3 hours.  I sat shotgun and will never forget it. What we drove on was an insane excuse for any kind of vehicular road. It was nothing more than gravelly switchback trail that happened to be wide enough for one car to be on at a time. The rain had churned the dirt into a gummy mud, and of course there were no street lights — or lights of any kind. My Tibetan driver had nerves of steel and I could only bounce my head up and down as we dodged and weaved around fallen boulders, tree branches, and had the tires spin out from time to time in the deeper mud. During one bend of the drive, we entered an opaque portal of thick mist where the car seemingly drove itself. There was no overt maneuvering by my driver and it felt like we were in a sled coasting along through the mud.

Himalayan sunrise

I didn’t unclench my teeth or hands until I saw the first ray of the sun. And from that initial point of light, the sun just exploded out in front of us — we were headed due East. When we came out of the mountains and onto the first flat stretch of land, our driver stopped. We hopped out and looked behind us. The mountains we had traversed stared silently back. They were massive. It was hard to believe these were just the initial rim of the Himalayan range. We then drove into the 2-road town of Neyalam and our guide who was in the lead car motioned for the other cars to stop. He went out and knocked on the door of a storefront. It was still very early and the sun was just starting to warm the earth. The town seemed abandoned. But, when the door opened, I realized this was a restaurant and we went inside to have breakfast. The family that ran the restaurant was still asleep — their living quarters was on the other side of the dining area. I felt bad that they had to get up just to serve us, but we had been expected the night before and they had been prepaid by our guide. They brought out some butter tea (a mix of milk, salty yak butter, and black tea which warmed and then confused your tastebuds – a godsend that morning), some bread & butter and one hardboiled egg. Neyalam had an elevation of about 3,800m (over 12,000 feet), and other than feeling drowsy, I felt no ill effects. We got back in the cars and saddled up for what I can only describe as the skydrive. The road was nothing more than packed dirt and rock and as it got higher every sign of life began to drop away. The trees, bushes, and scrub faded into oblivion as we climbed.  The roof neared.  I felt a tightness in my lungs. At first, I thought I was just getting cold and bundled up as we went through the pass and crested. We were now on the Tibetan plateau.

Prayer flags at Lalunga Pass, Tibetan plateau (2007)

The driver motioned for us to get out of the car. I opened the door and an icy wind hissed. I took a few steps and I remember not understanding why my feet felt so heavy. I plodded along as if my shoes were fitted in concrete.  There were colorful Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind and I wanted to walk in the middle of them.  Bits of patchy cloud were suspended overhead. So close – maybe only 10 feet above my head. I could have jumped and touched them, but I was having a hard enough just moving one foot past the other. When I got into the center of the prayer flag configuration, I did a 360 turn to take in the vista around me. My eyes teared uncontrollably — not because of any sadness or joy, but because of the thin air and piercing wind. As I wiped away the tears, I felt a freshness. I breathed deep and was momentarily gripped by the unknowable or otherworldly. I looked at my Landcruiser in the distance and although I could see it, I wasn’t actually seeing it, but was instead looking through it. I was completely transfixed by the enormous white-domed mountains looming around me which were so overpowering that the man-made car before me ceased to have any meaning. I was standing in the middle of a cathedral. On the surface, I appeared to be surrounded by nothing more than a lifeless landscape, but people had lived on this plain for millennia. Their trinity consisted of  yaks, barley (tsampa), and Buddhism. That was what had sustained them — unchanged — even up to the present.  As my driver waved me back to the car, I thought it would take me forever to walk back. I began the slow shuffle and I was overtaken by a whiteness.  My brain felt bigger than my head.  I had to continue through the whiteness, and as I did this, I had the sensation of being able to see myself walking from above.  It was as if another door of consciousness had opened. I had nothing to say when I got back in my seat. My head throbbed. I thought I saw the letters, A.M.S., spelled out in the windshield. I prayed for a speedy descent.

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