MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Olympic torch or one version of it is on the upper reaches of Mount Everest. Spokesman for a group of climbers say the flame is now within striking distance of the summit. And they say conditions look favorable for a final ascent to more than 29,000 feet within the next few days. The torch is separate from the one that's touring much of the world and drawing protest. But for the Olympic organizers, its climb up Everest is just as important, at least symbolically.
And as NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves reports, the Everest flame is sparking its controversy.
PHILIP REEVES: Chinese officials say the team with the torch is camped about half-a-mile below the Summit. The climb has been delayed for days by bad weather. Now comes the final stretch.
For the Chinese, reaching the Summit will be, well, the crowning moment, the climax of a massive long-plan publicity campaign leading up to the Olympic Games. The torch is being carried there by team of 36, many of them ethnic Tibetans.
China hopes the spectacle of the flame atop of the world's highest mountain will erase the memory of uglier images - pictures of protesting Tibetan exiles being dragged away by police as the Olympic torch was taken from country to country.
Ms. WANG HUI (Spokesperson of Beijing Organizing Committee, Olympic Games): (Speaking in foreign language)
REEVES: Wang Hui, spokesperson of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, today sounded enthusiastic as she talked of the flames journey of Everest, Qomolangma, that's the Tibetan name which is used in China.
She described the expedition as an expression of the Olympic spirit, and of mans will to challenge nature. She was less interested though, in discussing the politics swirling around the flame.
Ms. WANG: (Through Translator) We should be paying attention to the Olympics and the torch relay themselves. We should not be forcing unrelated issues upon the games. Thereby complicating them and disturbing these pure and sacred events.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
REEVES: Her words are unlikely to have much impact here. Kawnsine Kanduks(ph), seating with his friends outside a giant white Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. He's one of hundreds of young Tibetan activists who regularly protest outside the Chinese Embassy.
Mr. KAWNSINE KANDUKS (Activist): (Speaking in foreign language)
REEVES: By taking the flame at Mount Everest, China's trying to show its dominance over the Tibetans, he says. It wants to show it can do what it likes, and no one will speak out. But some people are speaking out.
Mr. LUIS BENITEZ (Mountaineer): The fact that the Chinese government has been able to turn the highest mountain on Earth into a police state is unforgivable.
REEVES: Missouri-born Luis Benitez is one of the world's foremost high altitude mountaineers and guides. Last year he summated Everest for the sixth time. This year, he was going to return to the mountain but pulled out.
Mr. BENITEZ: It would have been my eight year in a row on the mountain, and I chose to cancel my involvement in the expedition due to the fact that nobody within my community seems to be willing to stand up and say this is wrong.
REEVES: By his community, he means climbers, he says many of them are keeping quiet because they're worried they'll be denied permits to climb Everest if they say what they think.
Benitez feels particularly strongly about China's role in Tibet. He says several years ago, he saw an escaping teenage Tibetan nun shot dead by Chinese border guards. He also views Everest as a treasure that belongs to the world and says China has no right to commandeer the mountain for a propaganda exercise.
The Chinese have closed down Everest's upper reaches while the flame is carried up. Part of the mountain also in Nepal and the Nepalese government has done the same thing, posting troops authorized to shoot at anyone who attempts to go there to protest.
Stephen Venables, a renowned British climber who's also conquered Everest, blames China for pressuring its much smaller neighbor.
Mr. STEPHEN VENABLES (Renowned Climber): To tell people what to do on the other side of the mountain in Nepal just seems to be quite monstrous, that China can dictate terms to the international climbing community in a different country.
REEVES: The Nepalese authority has appeared to be doing what they're told. Recently, they caught an American climber with a pro-Tibet flag in his bags. He was kicked out of the country.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.
NORRIS: NPR's correspondent in China Anthony Kuhn contributed to that report. And our program is prepping for a week of stories from China. My co-host Robert Siegel is writing about those preparations at our blog. You can find that at npr.org/chinadiary.
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