Taking the Slow Road from Lhasa to Kathmandu
Tibet has always been a bucket list destination for me, and recently I was lucky enough to be able to fulfil my ambition and travel overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu, via Everest Base Camp.
We flew into Kathmandu in Nepal to start our adventure. Applying for a Tibet visa in Nepal takes 3 working days, so we passed this time between Kathmandu and the idyllic Dwarikas Resort in Dhulikhel. This was my first visit to Nepal but the few days I spend here was enough to have me eager to explore more, thanks to the beautiful scenery, fascinating temples, and unfailingly welcoming locals. Visas successfully in hand, we boarded the plane to Lhasa, and the excitement began before we even arrived, with spectacular views of Mount Everest from the plane. Just a taste of what was to come!
Lhasa is a magical city, set in a scenic valley with the imposing Potala Palace towering over the low-rise buildings. We visited the Palace on our first morning in the city, and as expected this proved a spectacular introduction to our time in Tibet. We made our way up the steps, huffing and puffing due to the altitude, and were rewarded with sweeping views over the city and valley, and a real treasure trove of Buddhist artefacts and scriptures in the labyrinth of rooms which are contained within. During the rest of our time in Lhasa we visited the Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple in Tibet and set in the bustling Barkhor area, a wonderful place to wander around, taking in the atmosphere and watching the locals perform the kora around the temple. We also visited Norbulingka, the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas, and a quiet respite from the busier parts of the city. On our final afternoon we headed out of town to the Sera Monastery, dramatically situated on the edge of a hillside and famous for the unique spectacle of the monks debating.
After 2 days in Lhasa we set off on the long overland road back to Kathmandu. Leaving the city the landscape started to open up and it wasn’t long before we were treated to some of the spectacular scenery we had dreamed about before we came to Tibet. The drive to Gyantse took around 5 hours, and took us over our first 2 high passes of the trip. The first stop was at Yamdrok Lake, standing at 4,800 metres above sea level. We were there on one of Tibet’s few non-clear days and there was a light dusting of snow on the hills. Even so, the prayer flags blowing in the wind, and the bright blue lake spread out before us made for an impressive sight to behold. We journeyed on, later reaching the 2nd pass at over 5,000 metres altitude, where we got out to marvel at the Korola Glacier.
Arriving at Gyantse we were happy to get out and stretch our legs. Gyantse is a real Tibetan town, with traditional buildings lining the streets and the impressive fort towering over the town. We spent some time exploring the Pelkor Chode Monastery and enjoying the views from the mighty Kumbum Stupa. Our next stop was Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city and a big contrast to the scruffier Gyantse. The area around the exquisite Tasilhunpo Monastery is a real hub of activity, and we were fortunate to visit on a festival day when the locals were celebrating Buddha’s birthday, and the monastery was full of devout locals paying their respects. We joined the queue and took our turn to marvel at the standing Buddha, before wandering around the rest of the monastery to discover what other delights were hidden there.
In Shigatse we had to apply for permits to allow us to travel further on towards our eventual goal of Everest Base Camp, and then it was a long but scenic drive on to Shegar, also known as New Tingri. Shegar is a small town, and notable for being one of the access points for visiting Everest Base Camp. Everest is a 2.5 hour drive from Shegar, so we were up bright and early the next day to get on the road as soon as possible. The road from Shegar to Everest climbs up to the Geu La Pass at 5,195m, where we were suddenly hit with a spectacular panoramic view of Mt Everest and its surrounding peaks. Our excitement now at its peak, we drove on towards our ultimate destination.
The access point for Base Camp is Rongbuk, a small village with a beautiful monastery and some simple facilities for tourists. From here it’s a short drive on to Base Camp itself. The views of the mountain are truly breathtaking, with a clear full on view of the mountain dead centred in a dramatic valley. The clouds cleared as we arrived and we spent an hour at Base Camp simply drinking in the views.
After we had our fill of the mountain, it was back in the bus for the onward push to Kyirong and the Nepalese border. This is a long drive of 7 hours, passing through arid plains, snowy peaks, bright blue lakes, and finally descending into a lush green valley as we approached the border. Kyirong is currently the only border crossing between Nepal & Tibet since the 2015 earthquake closed the Friendship Highway at Zhangmu. Work is underway to reopen that crossing, but for now those wishing to make the overland journey must travel to Kyirong. Once over the border it’s a long and tough drive to Kathmandu, as the infrastructure in Nepal is a far cry from the smooth Chinese built roads in Tibet. We arrived back at our hotel in Kathmandu, exhausted but exhilarated from what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
A visit to Everest Base Camp can be included as part of any Tibet tour. You can extend the trip to carry on to the overland border with Nepal and on to Kathmandu as I did, or those who don’t fancy the long drives can also return to Lhasa instead. Get in touch to speak to one of our Tibet specialists to discuss your own adventure in this uniquely beautiful part of the world.