The Tibetans call it Chomolungma, or goddess mother of the world.
And so when Sonam, our driver, slowed the landcruiser and started pointing and chattering in Tibetan it took us a moment to realise what he meant.
Looking at the mountain from 4,000m on the Tibetan plateau, it can actually seem smaller than the surrounding peaks. In the above photo, Everest is the one with the cloud/snow trail in centre frame, towering at almost nine kilometres above sea level.
I’m pretty sure that’s Lhotse on the left, but please correct me if I’m wrong.
At almost 8,900m (29,000ft), Mt Everest is the tallest mountain in the world. It’s the stuff of legend and adventure. The subject of films, books and songs. And I’d travelled a long way to see it.
It’s difficult to describe how I felt at that first glimpse of Everest.
Bewildered and dazed, maybe. I’d been listening to a particular song by Ani DiFranco over and over during the days prior, and I couldn’t stop hearing it in my head.
From the depths of the pacific / to the height of Everest / and still the world is smooth / like a shiny ball bearing /
And suddenly, there it was.
It would still be several hours before we actually made it to Base Camp – first, we had to drive to Rongbuk, a small Tibetan settlement in Everest National Park. Rongbuk is home to a small teahouse and the highest monastery in the world – 5,100m.
It’s not much of a road to Rongbuk.
Unlike most other arteries in Tibet, it hasn’t been paved by the Chinese (probably due to the protected status of the Park, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time).
It was rough and stony and at times clung precariously to the sides of mountains – much worse than anything I would experience on Nepalese roads.
But despite the danger it was spectacularly beautiful.
At one point, we paused for a break from the rollercoaster 4wding and watched a group of children herding yaks.
The only sound was that of our drivers talking softly in Tibetan, the tinkling of the bells around the yak’s necks and, when they saw us, the pleas of the children for money or sweets.
It was cold and windy when we arrived at the teahouse in Rongbuk.
We were at almost 5,000m – and we’d be spending the night at that altitude.
We sat in the warmth of the teahouse and drank tea.
This was typical of guesthouses, teahouses and gers in China, Tibet and Mongolia and receiving the plastic thermos of boiled water or tea was one of my favourite daily rituals.
Soon, it was time to go back out into the cold again.
We were going to Everest Base Camp.
EBC is only a few kilometres from Rongbuk and a couple of hundred vertical metres above it, but we went in the landcruisers because any physical activity at that altitude was incredibly difficult, despite the acclimatisation from the trek around Mt Kailash we’d completed a few days prior.
We stopped just short of EBC to take some pictures in front of Everest’s north face, including the one below, before jumping back into the cars again for the final stretch.
I was hoping that tent city, the settlement that springs up each year at base camp to serve climbers, would still be in operation.
I’ve read a lot of books by mountaineers who’ve climbed Everest (yes, including Into Thin Air!), and I find the stories fascinating.
But when we got there Base Camp was empty and barren, apart from a checkpoint housing Chinese soldiers who looked over our passports and permits.
It was a little disappointing – it meant I’d be going home without a stamp in my passport from the Everest post office.
But oh wait! There was Everest. And the views were perfect.
We didn’t stay too long – the altitude and the cold were unforgiving. Back at Rongbuk, we drank more tea as evening fell.
Outside, the view was still perfect.