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Published: October 28th 2010
The decision to go to Tibet was a difficult one. On one hand we really wanted to see the culture and environment before it is completely changed, on the other hand, we weren't too keen on being forced onto a pre-arranged guided tour and given a carefully selected view of the country courtesy of the Chinese Government.
In the end, our desire to see the country won and we signed up for a very typical seven day budget tour of Tibet taking in Lhasa, Yamdrok-Tso Lake and Everest Base Camp before heading on down The Friendship Highway to the Tibet / Nepal border.
As if we hadn't had enough of trains, we opted for the 48 hour train ride from Chengdu to Lhasa, sharing our sleeper cabin with a lovely French girl and shy German man. Apparently it is better to take the train to Lhasa as the flight option can be too much of a rise in altitude for some. Not wanting the insane headaches that I had in the Indian Himalaya a few years ago, it wasn't a hard choice. Anyway, the views out the window were amazing. Throughout the 48 hours we trundled our way past
areas of perma-frost, lakes and snow-capped mountains. We didn't bother taking any photos as they probably wouldn't have turned out anyway but did managed to get some pretty spectacular filming done.
The views may have been fantastic but the service from the Chinese staff on the trains was typical of most railway staff we have encountered. The job description obviously states 'general laziness and a strong disinterest in people' as being key characteristics for the job! For most of the trip, the cabin crew sat together in the smoke filled dining car, glaring at anyone who was rude enough to attempt the purchase of a bottle of water. Not something that you would expect on one of the big tourist draw cards in China.
Our few days in Lhasa provided some very strong impressions on all seven members of our group.
The level of religious devotion shown by the Tibetan pilgrims was absolutely unbelievable. All along the railway line towards Lhasa, the pilgrims could be seen. These people wear guards on their knees and hands that allow them to slide down onto the ground without leaving a layer of skin on the stony ground. They lie down
on their stomachs, reach their arms forward in front of their head in a prayer position and press the forehead towards the ground. After this, they slide forward, stand up, take two steps and then repeat the whole process again. Some pilgrims will continue this for up to 500 km!
We visited many monasteries where we watched the devout moving through the semi-darkness with their prayer beads, humming, stopping at every idol and pressing bundles of yuan onto ever increasing piles. The intensity of their devotion was mind-blowing. On the day we visited Jokhang Temple, it was an auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar. The elderly, the sick and disfigured stood waiting in queues for hours before being rushed through at the fastest possible pace dictated by the flow of people and guards.
No amount of writing or photographs can accurately describe the level of intensity involved in visiting the Jokhang Temple. The dim light, constant chanting, overpowering smell of yak butter and incense smoke, the number of statues, carving, ribbons, gold, woodwork, offerings and moving along with the dense flow of people was without doubt one of the most memorable travel experiences we have ever had. It
Lady and her baby,
Monstery near Lhasa
really was like standing inside a documentary - except the faces of the people, the clothing and the smells were all right there within touching distance. I am glad that photography is banned inside, no photograph that I could accurately convey the experience anyway.
The other monasteries didn't quite match the experience at Jokhang. In fact after visiting three monasteries in a single day, we were all feeling total monastery fatigue and could hardly face another Buddha, Protector or deity.
Our guide took us to a more local monastery instead of one that is regularly visited on tours. When we finally got access, we were all wondering why we had been brought to such a dull place. Most monasteries have intricate murals painted on the walls but this one had just been recently painted pale yellow. Our guide was obviously shocked and made a few discrete enquires. As it turns out, the murals were being 're-done' but as to why, he wouldn't or couldn't elaborate any more.
While the devotion of the Tibetans left a huge impression on us, it's sad to say that the level of security in Lhasa made just as strong an impression. Obviously
neither of us have been to a war zone, so never in my life have I seen snipers standing on rooftops, police with riot gear marching in groups up to twenty, machine gun, helmet clad officers watching over groups of old ladies buying their vegetables. Everywhere, they stood. Packs of soldiers marching through the games of small children and clusters of armed officers at almost every intersection just watching, watching, watching. We were told that the security has been this strong since the riots in 2008. Imagine a child nearly three years old, who has never know life without being watched in Lhasa.
We were warned on numerous occasions to be careful with our photography. The guards and police mustn't be photographed. No one was going to take their chances when machine guns are involved!
After seeing the sights in Lhasa, we were whisked out of town to begin our trip on the Friendship Highway towards the Nepal border. Thankfully we had an excellent, safe driver who stopped as often as we needed for photo stops and toilet breaks. With the amount of water that we were all knocking back, these were essential! We were all trying to
get through three litres a day which we were actually managing. It did mean a whole lot of loo breaks though!
Our first stop was an area where river burial takes place before we set off up the first big pass, Kamba-la at 4700m. The views of Yamdrok-Tso Lake below were magical but by this time I was feeling so light headed that the 100 metre walk from the van to the toilets felt like a marathon!
In the afternoon we passed another beautiful lake that was actually man made for hydro electric , then a glacier and finally loads of snow covered peaks. Not wanting to spend any more time looking at monasteries, three of us gave the monastery at Gyantse a miss and wandered slowly around the village instead.
As the sun was setting we finished the final leg of our long day of driving and pulled into the town of Shigatse for the night. Despite the constant dizziness, it was my favourite day drive in a long time. The photography opportunities were fantastic as there was so much to see on the road side - seeing Tibetan people going about their lives was a
great. I wish my eyes were a lens so I could capture every detail that passed by our van window.
The next day we set off in stunning weather towards Everest Base Camp where we were due to spend the night. We were so lucky, bright cloudless blue skies were a guarantee of amazing Everest views. We passed through more rugged mountain scenery and checkpoints before starting up the final bumpy metalled 100km stretch to Everest Base Camp.
By this time I felt like I had polished off a few bottles of wine (I hadn't obviously!) so I spent my time in the van concentrating on being very still and breathing enough air into my lungs. Then something funny happened.
By the time we reached the 12km marker I started crying. I never said anything to anyone and no one noticed. I have no idea why this happened.
By the time we reached the 14km marker, I felt a tingling sensation in my little fingers. Moments later it spread into my fingers and my lips began to tingle.
What happened next is a bit of a crazy memory but I remember looking down at my
Mt Everest to the left
Not too impressive from here because are at 3500m already.
fingers and seeing that they had bent into a set of ugly claws. I can't think of a better way to describe them. By this time both hands were absolutely paralysed and my whole face was numb. It took all my energy to turn to Chris and get his attention. He told me later that my face was unforgettable, I was white, my mouth had drooped to one side and I was breathing through straw sized hole.
I'm not sure who was the most terrified by this stage but I know my only thoughts at this moment was 'I don't want to die here, I'm not going to die here, Am I going to die here?' as I glanced down at my contorted hands my fear only grew. By now the numbness was starting to creep up my right leg. Chris and another guy in the group were rubbing my hands but their efforts produced nothing, it was as if my hands and now my arms had turned to steel, they wouldn't move an inch. By now that van had managed to turn around as we headed off back down the pass.
The hour drive down towards Tingri
hospital felt like an eternity as I gasped for air and trying to make sense of what the heck was going on. Finally, by the time we arrived I was able to move my hands. It sounds weird, but I became aware of my body again, feeling was returning. I was utterly exhausted, as if I had just run a marathon.
We were so lucky to have an couple on the tour who could translate for the doctor and explain what happened. They were able to get the names of the drugs used in the drip and most importantly, ensure that the needles were from an unopened packet. After ten minutes of arriving I had stopped throwing up and was tucked up in a bed connected to beeping machines, a drip and nice supply of oxygen. Bit of a dramatic way to get an afternoon nap huh but all this travel has really taken it out of me!
Well that was hopefully the first and last night that Chris and I will ever have to spend in a Tibetan hospital. It really wasn't the cleanest place - I sure wouldn't want to give birth there or undergo any
surgery! For instance we had a stray dogs wondering down the hallways and the power supply going on and off at random. There was paint (or plaster?) on the blankets where we spent the night and it was definitely the first time I have ever seen a nurse use her cell phone to check the levels of medicine left in the drip or eat sunflower seeds as she emptied the bedpan!
Despite the shabby surroundings, my doctor and nurse were really attentive and keep watch on me for most of the night. After three hours my heart rate and blood pressure was creeping back up to normal. It was a bit difficult after the rest of the group headed back up to Everest Base Camp, all our communication was based on hand gestures which was tricky to say the least. The doctor tried his best to get me to eat salted noodles and drink boiling water. It was such an effort to get down a few sips of water and a mouthful of noodles but I managed a bit in the end.
Well, what actually happened up there? I still don't really know. None of the books I
This was such a lovely family. Funnily enough, they were all fascinated by the hair on Chris's arms!
have read about altitude sickness have mentioned arms becoming paralysed but the doctor was able to demonstrate the same position that my arms had been locked in while up on the mountain. He hadn't seen me in that position but maybe another one of his patients had come into looking like that before.
Looking back on the whole trip, all the signs of not having acclimatised properly were there. I felt completely drunk on the train and was one of the few people who needed to be plugged into the oxygen supply. I was still dizzy for most of the time in Lhasa and ate hardly anything most of the time I was there. The walk up the stairs to Potala Palace nearly exhausted me and I actually missed most of it because I was so nauseous. I guess what happened was a massive panic attack and I was literally “paralysed by fear” and unable to breathe properly when the tingling sensations began in the van.
On the drive to the Nepal border the following afternoon we still needed to cover one more pass (4800m) before heading downhill all the way towards Zhangmu. As we slowly climbed upwards
the tingling sensations in my fingers started again. This time I was prepared with my oxygen can (note to all tour guides: have emergency oxygen in your van - its pretty %£%^%^* simple!!!) and managed to drain the first one in about ten minutes. After this, Chris pulled the curtains on the van, placed a new oxygen canister in front of me and handed me the i-phone. I spent all my concentration on a stupid puzzle game and happily made it over the pass without any more problems!
The last twenty or so kilometres of the trip were stunningly beautiful. Within one bend of the road, we travelled into a different world. The bare, rugged mountains were replaced with the most lush rainforest covered slopes. The road literally cuts though the Himalaya via a beautiful Gorge then eventually opens out not only into a different country but a different world.
But that's another story.
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