The massive and mysterious Mt Everest captures the imagination of travellers from around the world. Straddling the borders of Nepal and Tibet, the majestic giant sits at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Its Tibetan name, Qomolangma
, means "mother of the universe". Climbers have been attempting to reach the summit since 1922, but for most mortals its physical demands place it out of reach.
In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit after a gruelling climb up the southern face. They were low on oxygen and stayed for just 15 minutes before making the equally gruelling descent.
North and south base camps are used by climbers as a place of rest, to acclimatise and reduce the risk of altitude sickness. They are made up of long lines of tents with food, blankets and lighting, all delivered by sherpas and animals.
To approach Everest from the Nepalese side requires an eight-day trek to the south base camp, but from the Tibetan side you take the two-lane Friendship Highway joining Tibet and Nepal to the north base camp. It is 3500m above sea level and can be fairly hairy in parts.
The 20-hour drive to the south-west camp is a true frontier adventure. You will cover 700 winding kilometres, with a couple of detours along the way which are well worth taking.
From Lhasa, you reach Yamdruk Tso Lake in two-and-a-half hours. The large coiling turquoise lake is stunning. Lying several hundred metres below the road, it is first viewed from the Kamba-la Pass. Also down there are the Samding monastery and the little village of Nangartse.
At an elevation of 4488m, Yamdruk Tso Lake is one of Tibet's four holy lakes and pilgrims spend weeks walking its perimeter. Tibetan Buddhists view it as sacred, while their Chinese neighbours see it as a resource to be used in a hydro-electric scheme.
A river runs hundreds of metres below the basin of the lake and the Chinese have drilled a tunnel underneath so its water falls into the river and produces electricity for the Lhasa region.
Three hours further on takes you to Shigatse. It is at an altitude of 3840m at the confluence of the Yarlong Tsangpo and Nianchuhe Rivers and was the ancient capital of Ü-Tsang province. It contains the huge Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the first Dalai Lama. This is one of Tibet's six great Gelugpa monasteries and the tombs of past Panchen lamas rest there in a series of ochre and gold buildings.
The imposing castle, Samdrubtse Dzong, was built in 1363 but destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution. Donations from Shanghai allowed it to be reconstructed, using old photographs as a blueprint. It is built from cement and the outside is wainscoted with natural stones. It will eventually become a museum of Tibetan culture.
New Tingri, five-and-a-half hours further on, provides incredible views of Mt Everest, far superior to those on the Nepal side.
Twenty-seven-thousand square kilometres around Everest's Tibetan face have been designated as the Qomolangma Nature Preserve and New Tingri is the gateway to that preserve. Highlights include the ruins of Shegar Dzong and the small Shegar Chode monastery dating from 1269.
As the road climbs up the valley, you will see tiny traditional Tibetan villages with farmers taking care of maize and potato crops with the help of yaks. Don't be surprised if older Tibetans poke their tongues out at you. It means they don't have green or forked tongues and are not the devil!
The drive to Rongbuk is around three hours, the last stop on the road to Everest Base Camp. Most climbers stop at the Rongbuk monastery for spiritual support on their expedition. There are two accommodation options in town very basic guesthouse quarters at the monastery and the gleaming Rongbuk Hotel, recently built by the Chinese Government.
The Rongbuk monastery, lying at the foot of Rongbuk Glacier, is the highest monastery in the world. It was founded in 1902 in an area of meditation huts that had been in use by monks and hermits for more than 400 years. It was once home to 500 nuns and monks, but numbers have dwindled to around 30. At its front is a large, round, terraced chorten containing a shrine.
Hermitage meditation caves dot the cliff walls around the monastery and up and down the valley. Walls and stones, carved with sacred syllables and prayers, line the paths.
The founding Rongbuk lama, also known as the Zatul Rinpoche, was much respected by the Tibetans and even though he viewed early climbers as heretics, he gave them protection, meat and tea and prayed for them.
Rongbuk is only 200 metres lower than the north-side base camp of Mt Everest and climbers must pass through it to reach the highest peak. It has some of the most dramatic views in the world, with a panorama of Shishapangma, Mt Everest, Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang.
North-face Everest Base Camp is just 20 minutes away. At 5200m, it is slightly lower than its Nepalese counterpart at 5380m. The Tibetan side attracts fewer climbers as the northern route is considered more difficult than the southern.
Peak climbing is in April and May, before summer monsoons. May is the best time to view Everest when it is least obscured by clouds. Base camp is a collection of tents housing expedition parties, "tea tents", accommodation tents for tourists and mountaineers and even the highest post office in the world.