The Friendship Highway, a 920km stretch of road, links Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa in Tibet. The drive takes five days, stopping at some of the most authentic Tibetan villages and highest mountain passes in the world along the way. It has been described as ‘A journey to the roof of the world’ and ‘Without doubt one of the most spectacular highways in the world’. Reading those descriptions, I knew I had to go there. The trouble was getting across the border to Tibet.
At the time of my visit Chinese authorities did not issue visas for independent travellers in Kathmandu. So the only way to get into Tibet was to get a group visa and join a tour. This, however, was not enough- we also needed a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit which was thankfully arranged by the travel agency who we booked the tour with. We never got to see this permit, and later found out, after reading in our guide book, that it is more of a bribe allowing one into Tibet.
The road to the border
At 6am on the morning we (myself and three other girlfriends) set off from Thamel in Kathmandu, our bags were loaded onto a shiny silver land cruiser by our driver for the trip, Chimpy and our guide Purpu (who very inappropriately could barely string two sentences in coherent English). Initially, the roads were wide and smooth, lush greenery all around, with powerful waterfalls thundering into the wild raging river below us. Eventually, the smooth road gave way to a narrow, bumpy path, with a sheer 200m drop on one side and falling rocks and boulders on the other, the perfect recipe for a landslide. Sure enough, a few hundred metres ahead our jeep came to a complete halt due to a landslide that had occurred a few hours earlier.
Total chaos lay in front of us -trucks jammed in the thick mud, drivers hooting their horns impatiently, others totally blocking the road. Everything seemed to come to a standstill, and for the next couple of hours several drivers gathered next to the landslide and discussed, with very serious, focussed faces, everything BUT finding solutions to the problem. Anyhow, after several hours a solution was found, the traffic was cleared and a couple of nail-biting, stomach-churning, driving-through-waterfalls, truck-nearly-overturning hours later, we eventually got to our first stop for the day – the shabby town of Kodari which lies right on the border with Tibet.
First steps into China
Eagerly walking through tonnes of mud to reach the Friendship Bridge early next morning, I could not for the life of me understand what was so friendly about it. We were greeted by grumpy-looking Chinese officials, stiff as ever in their khaki uniforms, shouting at us to put our cameras away, and then line up to be examined for any diseases. We stood there uncomfortably, as a small, stern man poked and prodded our ears (God knows what he expected to find inside!!) Well, in true Mediterranean character, we kept smiling, told them to have a very nice day, and then ran off eagerly taking our first step into China.