Tale of the naieve nomads

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May 6th 2006
Published: May 28th 2006
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Here's a great idea:

Take two people with no extensive camping/trekking experience, set them
loose in the highest mountain range in the world and see how they do. Yes,
i admit- i am an idiot.
So, monday we spent at ganden monastary. It was a very quiet day of rest
and relaxation before the big hike.
Tuesday: Eric and Corrina (our irish trekking buddies) show up to the
monastary with our guide early in the morning. The guide is talking with
the yak man and working out last minute details. After a minute or two of
talking with the guide, we find out that this man has never done this trek
before. I'm thinking to myself, "what are we paying you for?" I admit, it
makes me a little bit nervous. But the yak boy (who is responsible for the
yaks) knows the way so that makes me feel a little bit better. We begin
our hike. It is beautiful. All around are towering mountains and you can
see the valley floor below. We don't ascend too much so the fatigue isn't
so great. I'm thinking, " i can do this...piece of cake."
Tuesday night: We
leaving Ganden leaving Ganden leaving Ganden

As we climbed above Ganden monastary, we got an excellent view of the surrounding mountains
get to camp and set up. Max and i are the last ones to
set up our tent. We start cooking dinner (rice and beans) and it takes
forever. The rice simmers for about 40 minutes and still isn't done, but we
eat it anyway because we are hungry and everyone else is going to bed. As
night falls so does the temperature. In my sleeping bag i am constantly
fighting between sweat and shiver. After 2 or 3 hours of tossing i still
have had no sleep. In a sort of half daze i realize that i am completely
dehydrated. I sit up, chug some water, and then realize that i can't
breathe. I keep trying to take a deep breath and cannot. The air is too
thin. I start to panic. My heart races and i can't do anything to slow it
down. My head aches, my stomach hurts, and i feel literally, like i am
going to die. I have altitude sickness. People in colorado complain of it
all the time and i kind of dismiss it like they are wimpy and need to get
over it. I have a new found compassion for those suffering from it.
It was very scary. I could not sleep because i could not get my heart
to slow down....my body literally would not rest. My heart was working
overtime to try to get enough oxygen to the rest of my body----it was
beating so hard and fast at rest that i was having chest pain. There was
nothing i could do but drink more water or go down to a lower elevation,
which is not an option at 1 in the morning. Like my mother, i of course was
worrying myself to death. I also had to wake up max and make him suffer
with me as well. My mind went through several stages. I thought of putting
on the head lamp and walking down. I thought of dying. While peeing
outside i saw the most beautiful starry sky....and that helped me accept the
fact that i was going to die in the mountains. It sounds ridiculous but
literally that was how scared i was. I felt like i was being slowly
suffocated. By some miracle at around 4 in the morning i managed to fall
into a half sleep and remain in that comatose state until morning. When i
woke up, i had to touch myself to make sure i was still in fact alive. Not
a restful night of sleep at all.
Wednesday: My heart has slowed down a little bit. I check my heart
rate with max's and the guide's and it is about the same as their's so i
think that i've acclimmated. We cook breakfast and as usual we are the last
ones to dismantle the tent and be ready to go. Today is the hardest day.
We are climbing 3000 feet to an elevation of 15,000 feet. Two chinese men
have joined our group. We start to hike. The terrain is not an easy dirt
trail.....it is a mucky field of dirt humps that are covered in a sort of
hay type grass. When you step on this grass, your foot shifts and your
balance changes.....working all sorts of wierd muscles to compensate for the
change. One of the chinese men is wearing a yellow jacket and he is setting
the pace for our group. I very quickly begin to hate this man. I was
keeping up with him but he refused to let anyone catch up. Anytime we would
get anywhere near him, he would sprint up the mountain to try and get as far
ahead as possible. Then he would sit and watch us work up towards him.
When we'd get close he'd turn around and bolt up again. Now, i am
competitive, and this was really starting to piss me off. It was good
because it was giving me a goal to get up that mountain---catch that beaver
head. We go on like this for about an hour or so. I keep trying to catch
him and he keeps mockingly turning around and making it impossible. To add
to it, he'd smoke a cigarette while he'd wait. While
he bursts ahead i start screaming profanities at him and giving him the
finger out of frustration---i suppose i had to take it out on somebody. I'm
hoping that he could not understand my english. it was not very nice.
We have now climbed about 1000 feet i'd say. i turn around and wait for
the rest of the group because i realize that my efforts to catch the evil
man in the yellow jacket are in vain. We take a break and it is here that i
realize max is not feeling well. He has a nasty cramp and it is paining him
to keep climbing. We still have about 2000 more feet to ascend.
I decide to hang back with him and try to encourage him. If it were me,
i suppose i'd want him to do the same. My help just seems to frustrate him.
The rest of the group goes ahead and it's each man for his own at this
point. The sky is grey, the ground is that gross hay stuff and thorns, and
now we are also navigating medium sized boulders and snow. I see no beauty
in this. I don't think max does either. For what seems like an eternity we
inch up the mountain. Every thirty or 40 steps we have to stop to catch our
breath. I longingly look up towards the rest of the group, and wearily look
back to max who is clearly suffering. The top of the pass is in sight, but
at the pace we are going it is still an eternity away. Wanting desperately
to cross the pass so that we can sleep at a lower altitude i break down into
tears. This helps nothing. I lose my breathe again. Max repremands me for
crying because he knows it is only worsening the situation. Somehow we plug
on. After about 4 or 5 hours we finally reach the top of the pass. We are
exhausted. I am tired. But there is still a lot of time left before we
reach camp.
The descent is a welcomed relief, but it comes with it's own set of
fears. The mountains we are climbing rise so steeply from the valley floor
that the trail is skinny. Not only that, but it cuts through rock slide
areas. As i follow this path i look up towards the mountain's summit and
notice that above and below me, the peak wall is strewn with large boulders
and rocks that look slightly unstable. With the yaks behind me i have a
fear of a rock slide. If any change in the wind or dirt should make a
single boulder move, it could trigger the rest of them too as well and we'd
all be goners. Heck, even if one descent size rock decided to fall it could
be the end. I try very hard to remove this thought from my head. We
descend through this rockiness for about an hour and in the distance we see
a herder's camp on the valley floor. My heart rises in joy because i have
hopes that the end of our miserable day is near. We get to the camp and the
guide tells us that we won't be sleeping there, we'll be climbing. While i
desperately want to fight him on this, it appears that there is nowhere in
the hay clump mess to set up a tent so we must press on. We ascend again.
After another 500 or so feet we reach our real camp. I am not impressed.
We are at an even higher elevation than the night before. I reason with
myself that if i made it over the first pass ok, then my body should be
fine. This proved to be so.
Wednesday night: As usual, everyone has their tent set up before us.
People are even cooking dinner. Max and i set up the tent and we decide
that the rain fly looks odd and that one of the poles must be wrong. We
start disassembling the tent....which by the way takes the last bit of
effort that we have in us. As we start doing this, it begins to hail.
Hard. Our fingers are freezing and we are hurrying to switch out the poles.
We finally get them switched, and then we realize----we had it right the
first time. OUCH. At wit's end, we work through the hail storm to change
out the poles and by the time we get it right again our tent and rain fly
area is covered in hail. Everyone else is cozy in their tents and fed and
we are freezing and starving. We throw off our boots and crawl in the tent
as it hails outside. Max is very clearly frustrated and at this point i am
feeling really horrible for dragging him along on this "adventure." He
looks at me and says, " Has any of this been FUN for you?" i reply, "no."
He mocks me. "Oh, let's go camping in Tibet, that will be fun.....let's
hike in the himalayas....it'll be great." I start crying again. And then
we both just start laughing. We have to. It is the only thing that will
get us back home. We start playing the A-Z game in which we take letters of
the alpabet and align them to a certain catagory. Our category is, "things
we'd rather be doing right now." Some memorable answers are: B-brain
lobotomy, F- flogged by a cain. You get the point. Our spirits lift a
little and we laugh at our naievity and misfortune. The sun peaks out and
gives us enough time to cook instant noodles. We count our blessings. That
night we both sleep. We still wake up every hour to turn, but it is a huge
improvement from the previous night.
Thursday: We wake up. I open the tent door to four or 5 inches of snow.
Max sees this as well and we just shake our heads. Let me just tell you
that pooping at high altitudes is no picnic either. Not only do your legs
get weak from holding yourself up (and from the muscle fatigue the day
before) but the energy you exert to "squeeze" leaves you breathless and
panting. good times.
Today we are crossing a 15,100 foot pass, but are only ascending about 1000
feet. The mountain rises a little more gently and we reach the top in about
2 hours. At the top of this ascent we realize that the hardest parts are
over and that it is literally, all downhill from here. It is a good
feeling. We have to navigate around large boulders to get down. There are
two frozen alpine lakes in front of us and the views are gorgeous. As we
get lower and lower down the mountain, the temperature warms. We start to
see life again. There are butterflies and the smell of pine finds my nose.
It reminds me of colorado and i miss it. We are making great time and
actually pass the herder's camp that is supposed to be our sleeping spot for
the night. It is only 1 or so in the afternoon, so we press on into the
next day's trek. I am motivated to get back to Lhasa and out of these
mountains. I think everyone else is as well. The man in the yellow jacket
is still being annoying. We pass him because he's tying his shoes and he
runs to get in front again. I confront him and ask how much he'll be
pitching in for the guide (since they just randomly joined our group.) The
guide gets involved and says that he'll be paying nothing and this starts a
feud. We settle the dispute and they agree to pitch in for the guide. We
descend more. It is actually hot. The guide says we will stop at five, but
we stop at 4 because the yaks are tired. The camp sight is nice. We are by
a stream and i take a very brief, cold dip in to try to remember what clean
feels like. My lips are burned and swollen like angelina jolie's and my
hands look leathery and old. My nose is raw from blowing it all the time.
I'm looking good. I think it's the dirtiest i've ever been.
Thursday night: We're getting more efficient at setting up the tent and
cooking. We have tea and good conversation with our irish friends. sleep
is ok, not great.
Friday: Today is a joke. We hike about an hour and a half and go
through several small villages. It is nice to see civilization again. The
yak boy leaves us today and we tip him well for his services. He is the
true hero of the trip. From here we wait for a tractor that will carry us
and our bags to the Samye monastary--our final destination. We all have
Lhasa on our minds. The tractor comes and it's bed is about 6 feet by 4
feet. All seven of our backpacks are thrown in, and we stradle around them.
It is an hour long bumpy ride back to the monastary. It
is by no means comfortable, but we are willing to take it if it means we'll
be back in Lhasa. At the monastary, we see loads of others who have come
from trekking. Everyone looks dirty and worn. We dine at the monastary
restaurant while we wait for our bus home. The gringos are served last, but
at this point we are too tired to care. The bus ride back to Lhasa takes 6
hours when all is said and done. It is dusty desert road, and i am finding
it hard to breathe. We take an hour hiatus at a monastary while pilgrims
check it out. (we don't have the correct permits to be here so we have to
lay low.) We load back on the bus. It is raining now.....dismal and
dreary. My window is leaking air and rain and the radio is blasting really
loud tibetan screaming--- the joy of travel.
On the bus i have lots of time to think to myself, to synthesize my
experience of the last few days. Questions are raised. Why do i do this?
What is it about this that brings me joy or satisfaction?
Clearly these past few days were not exactly fun, why bother? Was it worth
I don't know exactly how to make other people understand what i take from
travel. All i can figure is that within me there is an insatiable curiosity
to see what is around the next corner, to find out what's happening over
there. I want to be able to look at a map and see its flatness and lines
turn into 3 dimensional realities of sights and smells and colors. I can
now look at the Himilayas on a map and know that their surface is bumpy and
rocky and dismal at times. I can see their jagged unforgiving peaks and
know their authority. I can know that on their slopes there are thorny
bushes and snow.
Honestly i did not like a lot of the feelings i experienced in those
mountains. I did not like resorting to shouting at the man in the yellow
jacket. i did not like being cold or sweaty or tired or dirty. i did not
like pooping outside. i did not like thinking that i was going to die. I
did not like the feeling of being completely powerless and at the mercy of
my environment. But i did glean something from this experience.
In an unforgiving surrounding, i was confronted with struggles on a
physical and mental level. But I think that it is a healthy and good thing
to be confronted with the thought of death. It is a good thing to be in the
absence of trees and birds and life. It is a good thing to feel small and unimportant and
powerless. It is a good thing to experience those feelings of fear and
frustration with someone you love. Strength and wisdom are born from
struggle.....without it, the smell of pine is just a passing sensation, the
person you love is just a person, the comforts of home are an unappreciated
Did i have fun these past 4 days? Absolutely not. Am i glad that i did it?
You bet.

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