Tibet - Getting to know Everest National Park
Qomolangma, the Chinese name for Mount Everest, translates to 'Goddess Mother of the World'. You only need to see her from up close to understand why people are so often moved to such superlatives. Everest National Park (Qomolangma National Nature Reserve) contains four of the six highest peaks in the world, and runs along the border with Nepal, from where most ascents begin. The Tibetan side commands views of Everest’s formidable North Face, which are utterly mesmerising even during the summer, when much of the mountain’s upper reaches are wreathed in cloud. This is one of those rare destinations that never fails to surpass expectations.
This is, of course, the world’s highest national park. Five of the mountains here have altitudes over 8000 metres, while Mount Everest herself stands at 8848 metres. The journey to Everest takes you through the arid, desolate landscape of the Rongbuk Valley, formed by a massive glacier that climbers must cross to reach the Advanced Base Camp. It’s an unforgettable journey, carving through the mountains with astonishing vistas around every bend in the road. At the northern end of the valley stands the famous Rongbuk Monastery. Overnight visitors to Everest and climbers waiting for their window of opportunity have the option of either staying here, or in tented accommodation.
Despite huge growth in visitor numbers in recent years, the Mount Everest National Park region remains almost completely undeveloped. There are very few man-made structures around beyond the small roadside town of Shegar, also known as New Tingri, from where you can trek to base camp. It’s not to be confused with the Old Tingri, further to the south. The wider area of the reserve is comprised of dense virgin forest (where rare snow leopards prowl), deep valleys, and the occasional hot spring. Geologists frequently explore the reserve as the hills are formed of many different types of rock, giving them fantastic hues of colour that are a tempting proposition for photographers.
Climbing Mount Everest is an incredible feat of endurance and peril. One that has proved irresistible to many explorers and climbers, including the Englishman George Mallory, who when asked why he wanted to reach the summit, offered the legendary reply 'because it’s there'. Relatively few attempts begin from the Tibetan side, although it’s considered the easiest approach with the best weather. Most visitors are here just to soak up the stunning panoramas, which are best appreciated during the climbing seasons of spring and autumn. In summer, the mountain is often obscured by cloud, while in the winter the views are wonderfully sharp, but the temperatures are uncomfortably low.
What to do around Everest National Park
- Largely rebuilt since it was devastated during the Cultural Revolution, the Rongbuk Monastery was founded in 1902 by the Lama Zatul Rinpoche, who gave the sherpa Tenzing Norgay his name. The surrounding hillsides are peppered with ancient meditation caves, while pathways are engraved with prayers and religious symbols. Even if you’re not staying overnight at the welcoming monastery, it’s well worth pausing here a while for an enthralling view of the mountain, with fluttering prayer flags and a gold-tipped chorten in the foreground. Many opt to leave their vehicles behind here for the five mile trek up to base camp, which is as far as you can go without a climbing permit.
- You can also take a longer trekking trail from Old Tingri, which takes between three and four days and passes through several pleasant little villages. Along the way, you’ll get a superb view of Cho Oyu (Turquoise Goddess), which is the sixth highest mountain in the world. Most Tibet trekking routes are best enjoyed during the spring and autumn, when you can anticipate good clear weather and stunning scenery.
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The mystic Milarepa
There are several pilgrimage sites in this region linked to Milarepa, a renowned Buddhist philosopher, yogi and poet from the 11th century. Many legends are associated with Milarepa, some related to sorcery, and he was also said to have been possessed of supernatural running abilities - a handy skill to have if you ever bump into a snow leopard.
A very English mystery
Everyone knows Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to officially conquer Mount Everest. But it’s possible that two English climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, beat them to it by almost 30 years, with an ascent that began on the Tibetan side. The men disappeared during an attempt in 1924, and Mallory’s body was found on the North Face in 1999. It remains unknown if Mallory and Irvine perished on their way to the summit, or on the way back down.