QOMOLANGMA | SNOW GODDESS OF MOUNT EVEREST, TIBET (西藏 Xīzàng)
This is the story of the most spectacular photo I have ever taken.
In the summer of 2000, I made an agreement with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to conduct independent research in Tibet after my summer study abroad at Peking University (北京大学). I proposed to travel overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal.
My Liberal Studies Adviser, Prof. John Cheng, agreed, providing I kept a detailed photo journal of my travels.
Lhasa, Tibet, and the journey ahead
After a month-long study abroad program with the University of Hawaii, ending in Chengdu, southwestern China, I set out with two students, to Lhasa, Tibet.
I planned to travel southwest from Lhasa, by Toyota Land Cruiser, across the fertile valleys of Xigazê and Gyantse. These ancient cultural and religious centers are the gateway to the Tingri Plain, a 4,500 meter-high basin located north of Mount Everest.
The trip began inauspiciously. As mandated by the Chinese visa restrictions in Beijing, I had booked through the China International Travel Service, CITS, for the hire of a Toyota Land Cruiser and local driver for two weeks, as well as a national guide and an international guide – not a cheap excursion by any means. I had paid in advance for what I hoped would be a relatively new model vehicle to get us over the mountains and difficult terrain ahead. What actually appeared outside the CITS office in Lhasa that morning was an ancient, battered truck with bald tires, stinking of fuel from what was clearly a leaking tank. The less said about the social skills of the Chinese driver, the better.
Within ten minutes of sitting in the fume-filled truck, I was physically sick. I made the decision that there was no way I was going to spend two weeks like this, and insisted that the driver turn around and head back to the CITS.
Smiling, but unyielding, I explained quietly and politely to a series of CITS officials that the truck was unsafe, and unlikely to get us to Everest.
After several hours of this, I was very relieved to see the arrival of Mr Quan, a distinguished-looking driver in a beautiful late-model Toyota Land Cruiser. We were back on the road.
And so it came to pass that Mr Quan, myself, my two students Kawika and Aaron, our national guide, Mr. Wu, and our international guide, Nancy Lan, set off for Everest.
Over the next few days, I learned that Mr. Quan was indeed a driver of quality, who had previously served many dignitaries on past tours, including the Kennedy family from the United States and other international government officials.
Valleys, villages, and mountain passes
With Mr. Quan at the wheel, we crossed though expansive valleys with fields of yellow rapeseed flowers and visited small traditional Tibetan villages. We cautiously drove up steep, dangerous switchback roads to high-mountain passes, some at 16,000 feet or more.
At each pass, we stopped to check the vehicle, especially the brakes, before descending to the next valley. I followed local tradition by tying prayer flags to shrines to thank the spirits for our safe passage, and send peaceful mantras in the wind.
Mount Everest and the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve
Entering Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, we headed to the Rongbuck Monastery to photograph the north face of Mount Everest. Our Land Cruiser powered up the last mountain pass of the trip, through sunny skies and cold winds, and as occasional gaps appeared in the clouds, we caught distant glimpses of Everest across the most impressively massive valley I ever saw. (See my photo top of this page).
Story of most spectacular photo I have ever taken – Qomolangma, the snow goddess of Mount Everest
South from the Rongbuck Monastery, across a glacial valley of naturally-crushed grey rock, I hiked to nearly 18,000 feet and stood at the foot of Everest. The north face of the mountain towered nearly 10,000 feet above.
The air was thin and the wind reddened my skin. I set up the camera and took pictures, in color slides and black and white prints, but Everest had a mind of its own.
As quickly as the summit appeared through the rapidly moving clouds, it was gone from sight. I had seen just enough to know it was there; but for several hours, until nearly dark, I saw only grey clouds breaking across the summit.
It was getting dark and dangerously late to return to camp, and I scrabbled down the glacier feeling somewhat defeated, reflecting on the stories I'd read of climbers who spent years planning and training, only to fail in their bid for the summit.
The truck started, and we drove away in the darkness with the mountain at our back. As I was reaching for something behind me, I caught from the corner of my eye the sight of a sudden change of wind. In seconds, the east wind whipped away the covering clouds from the mountain, revealing the full magnificence of Everest in crystal clarity.
Qomolangma, the legendary goddess of the mountain, was miraculously lifting her veil.
"Stop!" I told Mr. Quan. "Wait!"
I gathered my gear and launched out of the truck, fumbling to get a shot before the surreal moment was gone.
I knew it was the perfect photo of the top of the world.
Thank you for visiting my Tibet Learning Adventure Page.
I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to Tibet, or would like to arrange a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.