Overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa and Back
There is a long story about how I ended up in Nepal for two weeks waiting for Shani and the start of our Tibet trip but the short version is that my Saudi Escort Visa ran out and I needed someplace to be. Yes I was officially an escort so I’ve always got that going for me! One of the perks of being a digital nomad means I can have an office anywhere that has WiFi so off I went to Kathmandu.
Fast forward a few weeks and myself and the hotel driver are sweltering in the non-air conditioned airport at 11 pm waiting on a late arrival from Saudi Arabia. The poor girl had booked a flight on a dry airline that had a layover in a dry airport that was now running over an hour late for arrival. The end of Ramadan and beginning of the Eid holiday in the Middle East means a lot of guys were headed home for a break. Shani likens that experience to being on an overcrowded chicken bus, just in the air!
Tibet can be tricky to get into as the rules change all the time but we had contracted with a tour guide (required) that had a partner in Nepal to get us the visa and drive us to the border where the Tibetan guide and driver would take over. You have to go as a ‘tour group’ which we were granted as a party of two.
We had a couple of days in Kathmandu while the visa was being processed. You can see our Kathmandu gallery here – The Gallery. We opted to spend the last night before Tibet at a jungle camp near the border where you sleep in safari tents and end up getting leeches when you walk around. It’s a very cool spot called The Last Resort that offers all kinds of great adventures that I would love to go back and do when we have more time.
Leaving Nepal was a little chaotic at passport control and then you end up walking across Friendship Bridge that spans the the Sun Kosi river and the border to China. At the border our bags were dutifully searched by Chinese immigration and our map was confiscated. That’s a no-no apparently. So is bringing in a guide book and anything about the Dali Lama. It was here that we met our Tibetan guide Jampa. We loved Jampa! If you are planning a trip please try and book with a Tibetan owned and operated outfitter. We went with Tibet Highland Tours with our custom itinerary from Kathmandu to Lhasa and back. They were partnered with High Asia Tours in Nepal to handle that side of things.
One thing about traveling overland in Tibet is that it requires a lot of paperwork and checkpoints! Mostly this involved Jampa getting out and showing some papers and then we were on our way but there were a couple of times we had to get out and show our passports before moving on. Also they are very serious about not taking any photos at the checkpoints, something I had to keep reminding Shani about! I saw one poor guy getting pulled in for some questioning after he was absentmindedly snapping some shot on his phone.
Our first stop for some more paperwork was the border town of Zhangmu. We were deposited in a restaurant for some snacks and drinks while Jampa did her thing. We also needed a restroom break and there was some sort of spa in the basement of the restaurant. I fell down the stairs and was lucky to only bruise myself! And no, I had not been drinking yet, it was just slippery small steep steps.
The road to Zhangmu and beyond has a lot of tight switchbacks and you start gaining elevation pretty fast as you head higher up into the Himalayan mountains. It’s really fascinating to see the landscape change from lush Nepal as you climb higher and higher into the unique Tibetan highlands and the roof of the world. Our trip involved very long days in the SUV, sometimes more than 12 hours, but it was a great way to see the land and people of Tibet. About 300 miles and maybe 10 hours later, Shigatse was our first night on our way to Lhasa. Lhasa was another 170 miles down the road and after our relaxing night and filling breakfast we were off.
Lhasa is a pretty incredible place. We had several days to explore the Potala Palace, the Summer Palace and the old parts of the city. The Potala Palace is such an iconic structure and really dominates the city. Be prepared to walk up a bunch of stairs on your visit!
On one of the days in Lhasa we were seeing the sites and happened to be there as they were prepping for a big ceremony. With reverence we all watched as they chanted and donned the ceremonial regalia, made a fire and burned bowls of grains on a bonfire fueled by yak butter. During the whole trip we were able to see monks doing their rituals which was fascinating. Jampa is very devout and helped inform us about what was going on, the significance of the mantra or which Buddha we were looking at. Sometimes she would quiz us to make sure we were paying attention. All fascinating stuff.
When we were in Lhasa we had some really good food. Don’t be tempted by the new KFC that opened (the first major western chain to open there, sadly). If you’re looking for less regional cuisine there is a good Dutch run international restaurant called Dunya. I had a yak burger and a beer; there is some really tasty yak in Tibet! There was another more western style place that served burgers and pizza that was good as well. We also ate at a restaurant called Snowland and at Lhasa Kitchen. Both had great food with the more traditional Tibet/Nepal/Chinese/Indian flavors.
We had a home style meal at Tibetan Family Kitchen arranged by our tour operator that was fantastic! Yak momos (dumplings) were to die for. Shani ate the middles out of them and couldn’t get enough. There was also a stir fry style yak dish and some fried rice with yak. As you can tell, we ate quite a bit of yak on the trip and every time it was exceptional. We also found a pretty drinkable Cabernet called Great Wall that is being made in China. The Chinese have developed quite a taste for wine these days and have been buying up available wineries in Europe for a while.
After Lhasa we were back on the road. Our first stop was the beautiful Namtso Lake. Some of the landscapes in Tibet are just unbelievably beautiful and the rest of our journey back to Kathmandu would have a lot of them!
After Namtso Lake we had a long trip to Yamdrok-Tso, a sparkling turquoise lake and then over Kampa-la (16,568 feet above sea level) and Karo-la Pass (16,552 feet above sea level) to view Mt. Nojin Kangtsen Glacier.
Next we went to the Kubum Stupa and Pelkor Chode Monastery. I think the stupa is partially famous for all of the statues of Buddha and various incarnations. Jampa said there were 1,000 of them. I also think Shani took a picture of every single one! After the monastery we spent the night in Gyantse. Somewhere along this route Jampa also pointed out some locations popular for sky burial. Sky burial involves dismembering the body and leaving it out for birds of prey to pick clean.
From Gyantse we headed back towards Shigatse and over the Tsou-la Pass (14,764 feet above sea level) and Gyatso-la Pass (17,126 feet above sea level) to end the day in New Tingri. With good weather you can see your first views of Mt. Everest from New Tingri.
In New Tingri we got very lucky in two important ways. First, the original hotel options involved no private bathrooms and no hot water. Not normally an issue. This time it was a bit of a problem as the next night we were going to be in a yak tent with no private bathroom and no shower and the night after that we would be back in Zhangmu in a hotel with…no private bathroom and no shower. The second issue was the weather. During the end of July and beginning of August when we were there it is rare to get a view of Mt. Everest as it’s just generally too obscured by cloud cover.
As luck would have it though, there was a new hotel in town that Jampa had heard about and we were able to book there and it was perfect for us and had a private bathroom and hot shower! They had decent food and lucky stroke number two, we did see Mt. Everest from the hotel balcony! A great little turn of events for us.
The next morning we were off to Everest Base Camp. We would cross Gau-la Pass again (we had crossed it on our way to Lhasa). Just another pass over 17,000 feet above sea level! These were by far the highest mountain passes I’ve ever been on but still not the highest in the Himalaya! The dirt road to Everest base camp is about 65 miles but due to the rough nature of the road it took nearly four hours to get there. Along the route Jampa was pointing out the other very tall peaks that we could see including Mt. Lhotse, Mt. Cho-oyo and Mt. Makalu, all over 26,000 feet above sea level.
Once at Everest Base Camp we got settled into what we thought would be our yak tent only to be relocated because some Chinese tour operator wanted the whole tent for his tour group. Bullshit but what are you going to do? Not worth fighting about. We relocated to another two room tent and actually slept in the small room with the family and their kids. A more unique experience than the first tent for sure!
If you were actually on an expedition in a summit attempt there is another base camp a little further in but we were’t allowed to go much further. You do take a bus a short little distance and then walk up a hill and hope the clouds clear and you get a good view of Earth’s tallest peak.
Not only did it eventually clear up and we were treated with clear views of Mt. Everest, it stayed clear into the early evening and we got a lot of clear pictures. We honestly had very little hope of seeing Everest on this trip and were amazed at our good fortune.
Our last day was a drive from Everest Base Camp to Zhangmu where we would spend the night before heading back over the boarder and into Nepal. However there were a couple of problems that needed addressing. The biggest problem was that during our trip there had been a massive landslide that completely wiped out a village and the road that connected the boarder towns to Kathmandu. We had no idea if we could get anywhere if we managed to cross the border and we had reports that the border was closed. The second detail that needed sorted was the hotel situation especially if we were going to stay put at a closed border. We were not psyched on shared bathrooms and no showers!
Jampa had been in contact with the tour company and some of the other guides and there was talk about helicopter rides over the landslide but we weren’t 100% sure this was going to be a reality once we got there. The other option we were hearing about was trekking over the slide which didn’t seem like an awesome idea as there was still rain in the forecast and neither of us was really prepared for that. The third option was overland back to Lhasa and fly to Kathmandu.
We decided to head to the border and see what the deal was. We had discussed alternate accommodations with Jampa as well and we managed to get a room at a pretty nice place given the circumstances! Private bathroom and hot water secured, we all started asking around about what was happening. As it turns out, they were only letting the stuck tourists across the border and if you had the cash there were helicopters coming in and out. Shani was not psyched on that option!
After shelling out $250 each we assembled at the tiny school house and waited for the first helicopter to fly in. We got on the second heli that came in, had front row seats and were treated with amazing views as we whirled over the lush terrain. At the end of the day, it all worked out and we had an incredible adventure.
We did a ton of planning for this trip and if you have any questions or would like more info on what we did and where we stayed just drop us a note or comment on this post and we’ll see if we can help. Also you can see the full Tibet Gallery here – The Gallery.
Please note that this trip is currently not possible. The Tibet-Nepal overland border crossing remains CLOSED and has been since April 2015 due to the earthquake in Nepal. Check with www.thelandofsnows.com for updates on this situation.