For centuries, Tibet was forbidden territory. All foreigners, except for Chinese, were excluded. During the 1800s, several Europeans, Indians and an American spent many months and endured the most extreme hardships in attempts to reach Lhasa. All were turned back or killed. Major Francis Younghusband eventually became the first European to enter Lhasa in 1904, but he had military support - more than a thousand Gurkhas, Sikhs and Fusiliers - and slaughtered hundreds of Tibetans on the way.
Although the Chinese authorities have opened up Tibet to tourism, it is still not easy to get there. Our applications for visas were initially refused because our signatures were not identical to those on our passports. My partner's application was also rejected because, in the accompanying photograph, she was wearing earrings and her hair was not tucked behind her ears. A special Tibetan Travel Permit had to be couriered to us in the U.K. The flights were long - twenty-eight hours, including a delay due to unspecified "military action" in Lhasa - and involved five different airports.
In Lhasa, "The Forbidden City", we visited the Potala, the historic home of the Dalai Lama and several Buddhist temples. The Potala is a massive fort, cum palace, cum temple. Its towering white ramparts and golden roofs dominate the city. It contains over 1,000 rooms. Some are lavish temples with hangings and golden replicas of different Buddhas. We saw the living quarters of successive Dalai Lamas and their tombs. We listened to monks in crimson robes chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. We watched pilgrims placing bank notes bearing portraits of Mao Zedong before images of the different Buddhas and topping up the vats of melted yak butter which contained lighted wicks with fresh butter from their own flasks.
We saw mandalas made from coloured sand, statues carved in butter, large images of fierce guardian deities, multi-coloured thankas and countless paintings of different Buddhas. Although we stayed in a hotel on the edge of the old town, where, each day many thousands of pilgrims in traditional Tibetan costume walk the Barkhor circuit around the Jokhang Temple, with prayer wheels and rosaries, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Lhasa is rapidly becoming yet another large, modern Chinese city.
But we had not travelled all the way to Tibet for its beautiful palaces and temples. We had come for the eight-day Gama Valley Trek which would take us close to the little visited East Face of Mount Everest, or as the Tibetans know her, Chumolungma, "Goddess Mother of the Earth". This remote corner of Tibet is two days drive from Lhasa. On the first day trekking, with Garym, our guide, our four yaks and a yak driver, we hiked almost 1,000 metres uphill and pitched camp on the banks of a round glacial lake. In the morning, we woke to distant views of two high snowy mountains, Makalu (8,481 metres/27,838 feet) and Chomo Lonzo (7,804 metres/25,603 feet) which had been obscured by cloud the previous evening. We continued over a high pass, draped in prayer flags.
That night we camped among meadows of flowers in Orchid Valley. The next morning, we climbed up through forests of juniper and rhododendron, until, rounding a corner, we caught our first glimpse of Everest in the distance - pure, white and magnificent. That lunchtime, we sat in the yak-hair tent of Tashi and Pasang, semi-nomadic herders. Smoke billowed from the yak-dung fire, as Tashi continuously rocked a large yak skin full of milk to make cheese. Cheese made the previous day was drying outside in the sun.
For the next three days, as we walked closer to the Goddess Mother of the Earth, above glaciers and powerful melt-water rivers, we were blessed with clear blue skies and magnificent views of Everest, the legendary South Col and Lhotse (8,516 metres/27,940 feet). The trek though had a sting in its tail. On the final night, as we camped by another glacial lake at 4,960 metres/16,272 feet, it started to rain hard. It rained all night and most of the next day as we crossed Nangma La Pass, at 5,344 metres/17,532 feet, the highest point of the trek.
During the trek, we saw no one except for yak-herders, a Swiss couple and a few intrepid Chinese hikers. We never slept below 4,500 metres and much of the time, we were higher than Mont Blanc. Despite the challenges of walking at such altitudes, the mountains, the clear thin air and the isolation were wonderful. Is this the most spectacular high-level trek in the world? Possibly. Neither of us has walked anywhere better.
Nic Madge Lhasa, 15th September 2018