Together with our friends Frank and Mila and a mixed group from Singapore and Indonesia Amy and I spent our „vacation” in Tibet from 27 May to 02 June 2009. A great experience that we probably only make once. Why this adventure? For a long time the “Roof of the World” was one of my dream destinations. Unfortunately, I did not know that this would be less a vacation, but rather an adventure with some quite tough encounters.

Day 1: Arrival in Xining

Our flight from Singapore via Shanghai and Xian to Xining is without any problems. China Eastern Airline has changed over the last few years a great deal: There are almost exclusively Airbus planes with modern furnishings. Only on domestic flights, the equipment is not made for non-Chinese people. So, I push with my rather normal-shaped nose the back of the seat in front of me when he decides to sleep. Chinese design. The best would be all the seats would automatically turn to sleep at the same time, like a pack of biscuits in De Beukelaer all tilt at once. No more misunderstandings and lots of space. I try to imagine how American citizens would fit into this kind of seat. That should probably look somehow like how a half-melted ice-cream between two waffles.

Our stopover in Shanghai Pudong should be without any problems – just in the transit area of the airport. However, our itinerary has been slightly changed. Due to the global swine flu epidemic, outside visitors to China are not immediately allowed to leave the plane, but need to undergo a health test. A team of four physicians dressed in space suits enters the plane, while all passengers remain in their seats. These physicians carry infrared temperature meters, which are shaped like pistols. With the pistols they “shoot” from a distance of one meter on the forehead of each passenger and then read the temperature. Since this action is probably already in flesh and blood, one loses just a bit of time. After a few minutes everything is over. Only one thing must not happen: There must be no coughing or sneezing to be heard. This would cause a complicated investigation process to trigger quarantine for all passengers at the end.

After arriving in Xining we take our first trip. We drive to a monastery, located on an altitude of about 3000m near Tibet – for acclimatization. Interesting for me is the eye-opening fact that serious work such as carrying stones and loading trucks is done by women in middle age. A nice idea I really believe to have some advantages. Following the eternal emancipation discussion we will probably find back to nature, and thus reintroduce orders that have been established thousands of years ago.

Monk seems to be a great job. In what other job can you loll about on a mat whilst having your hand phone at your ear in broad daylight whereas visitors search for the religion in that – always busy giving money?

Our hotel is situated at 2600m and is quite comfortable.

Day 2: Xining and Boarding the Train to Lhasa

We are driven about 160km to the highlands of Tibet from Xining to Qinghai Lake. Hours in the bus over 3100m altitude. Interesting. At the lakeside at 3170m we meet Tibetans who are trained to be nice to tourists by lending them a thick, ugly green Yak wool coat in bloody cold weather. Furthermore, these Tibetans offer tourists to take a short trip on a boat to an island, which you can also reach by foot or by bus, because later it will be discovered as a peninsula. On the supposed island it is possible to race with a buggy through the sand to the other end – with about 9km/h. It is still puzzling to me why one must sit in a buggy at over 3000m altitude with strong winds making the nose freeze. In addition, there is “a picture with me costs 10 Yuan” or “A ride on my horse will cost another 10 Yuan.” If the horse is accompanied by its own newly-born foal, the images are again more expensive.

On the evening, on our way to the train we visit a famous Buddhist monastery in Xining. On the way there, we stop at a museum for Tibetan medical art, that is a shopping area with a fantastic concept: First, praising of the great achievements of Tibet in the Traditional Chinese Medicine over the last 3217 years or so – then preparing visitors for the torments tourists are normally exposed to at high altitudes – after that showing of an enormous amount of over-priced Tibetan Medicine for nearly every situation of normal and abnormal life in stalls that disconnect you from the exit – and at last seducing to the purchase of medication that you do not need anyway. At least, by buying you will get rid of the stupid feeling of being an outsider.

We do our share by buying an odd root, that in hot water looks like a piece of over-aged beef with bullet wounds. It is supposed to help fighting altitude sickness. What is altitude sickness? Judging after the taste, this root must be an incredibly good piece of medicine. Later, we find that the same stuff comes in form of pills and is easy to be found everywhere – at a much lower price of course.

Day 3: On the Train

We sleep on the train – a bit. Unfortunately, I cannot sleep so well when my space is restricted to 70cm times 2m. The train runs almost entirely over 3000m altitude. In the four-bed sleeping compartment are Television, Radio and oxygen access for everyone. We feel quite good and we are in an excellent mood, because we will soon reach the highest altitude a train can get to. Slowly, we start feeling a bit strange. It feels like headache, which is however not like a normal headache you can kill with aspirin or ibuprofen.
Have just reached the altitude of Mt Blanc in the train. Wow. Now we are over 4900m. – in the train with oxygen in the cabin. Outside a few yaks, sheep and goats. From time to time we spot a tent, in which the yak herders probably spend their nights. It would not surprise me if the tent looked much larger from the inside than from the outside (Have you watched “Click” with Adam Sandler?). I guess the tent comes with plasma television and induction hob. Maybe not.

At the moment we are on a 1200km-long plane, ie despite the altitude no mountains to be seen. The UV radiation is so high that many Tibetans suffer blindness. For us, UV sunglasses and hat are strong requirements. The next stop will only be in 6 hours. We drink our own medicine against the high altitude, extracted from the root. This is probably for the elderly. We do not have a bigger problem up to now. Let’s see.

The high altitude is detectable: some airtight wrapped cookie packs explode. We have our altimeter: A bottle – tightly closed at 4900m – is getting “stiff” as we approach the maximum elevation of 5070m. At the moment, the bottle looks wrinkled, as we return to below 4200 meters.

We pass 5075m. The highest point accessible by train. A great feeling, but neither land nor humans and animals seem to share our excitement. Outside, there is no snow and the water looks rather watery – no ice. Yaks, sheep or goats do not display signs of enthusiasm. Also, the people – mostly shepherds – are not really affected by the feat of engineering.

Have now been more than 8 hours over 4000m with around 100 km/h on the train track. The area is huge! Slowly we feel the lack of air!

Beside us a little giant. This should probably be more than 6000m. However, it does not feel so much because we are already at 4000m. Interestingly, there is almost no snow and it looks hot outside. At a station with an unutterable Chinese name we go outside for fresh air. Fresh yes, but air? We hope that we will somehow get used to the altitude. There are a lot of yaks outside and none of them wears an oxygen mask. But it is likely that the yaks feed from the said root. So we copy them and drink even more of our brew. Tastes shitty, so it should have a good effect.

After 24 hours on the train we meet in an ultramodern railway station in Lhasa. Unfortunately, there are still some aftereffects of last year’s riots to be felt. There are a lot of army around the station. Buses are not allowed to drive up to the arrival hall, resulting in a walk of 10min for each tourist. Normally, no problem. However, there is a little problem if the tourists come from a train with oxygen supply and suddenly experience the “normal” low-oxygen air in Lhasa at 3650m altitude and have to carry their own suitcases. Perhaps this is a test of the qualities of tourists. Our tour group seems to pass the test.

Day 4: Lhasa

Now, we have a bloody shit night behind us. The pulse is always a bit too high to sleep, because the lack of oxygen causes the heart to pump faster to compensate. That will probably persist until the body has produced enough additional red blood cells to transport sufficient oxygen to all organs. Only thus the brain and other organs receive sufficient supply. With each movement, one wonders whether that is really necessary. Stair climbing is a very bad idea. Walking straight is a bit slower than usual.

Today we visit the gigantic Potala Palace. Dalai Lama is not there. For 50 years he has been sitting in India in his “summer residence”. If I had a palace like the Potala in Tibet, I would not be hanging around in India. Some of the rooms in the Potala are not so bad. Basically everything is made from yaks – almost everything. Yak hair curtains, Yak fur carpets, Yak butter candles, yak wax protected floors and yak …. Almost everything from yak. And, you can smell that. The isolation of the palace is made of lavender wood. Of this there are also a lot at great height.

In the afternoon we visit the Mecca of Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, which is located within sight of the Potala Palace. In this temple the last Dalai Lamas are buried, sitting embedded in gold and bronze. Furthermore, we learn that, in addition to the Dalai Lama and the South American llamas there are two more Lamas, Panchen Lama and the Karmapa. The latter two did not “chicken out”, they are still in China and work with the government.

Day 5: Lhasa

We are sitting back on the bus and go to a hot volcanic well at about 4600m. Some take a dip in the healing waters. Amy still has a little altitude sickness – as everyone here. I am no exception. She has just tested, how well you can remove one hour old breakfast from my pants during a bus ride. It is really easy. However, the altitude sickness is not as easy to combat. We take turns from the oxygen pressure bottle. After a few minutes of oxygen the headache is almost gone, but it occurs again a little later, when the bottle is no longer there. Our health is very poor. There is a lot of coughing and sneezing, all a result of the weakened immune system.
On the way back, we have an accidental “shopping tour”: First, praising of the world-famous Tibetan tea (In fact, not a single tea leaf can grow in Tibet!), while sitting behind small tables without a chance to escape – and then some tea tasting – free of charge – to develop a little guilt – then the door opens and many industrious Chinese girls bring in incredible amounts of the tea just tasted – Shopping Time. I abscond out of the room by pretending a terribly important telephone conversation with the Vatican.

Day 6: Lhasa – Shigazhe

In the morning, a couple of our group leave and fly home. The two cannot take the strains anymore and give up. Of course, that also leaves a bitter impression on the other travellers. Are we next?

Today our bus brings us over 350km from Lhasa to Shigazhe. Here we cross a river at 3500m altitude that flows into the ocean as Brahmaputra a few thousand km later in India. At a saltwater lake at about 4420m, we stop to take pictures of the impressive Mt Everest massif in a distance. Then continue on a 5040m high pass. Everything here is snow and ice-free and quite warm. The sun is very dangerous, it is forbidden without the right cap and sunglasses to go outside. UV is too strong.

On the pass, I and some others are violently hit. So, just to ascend to 5000m is not a good idea at all.

If you cannot remember the geography lessons: 5000m altitude has only about 55% of “normal” air pressure. This of course is the same for oxygen. I am now recovering in my hotel at about 3800m altitude. This elevation our bodies find normal by now.
We will not take on the Mt Everest base camp. We do not want to just sag. Maybe next time

Day 7: Shigazhe – Lhasa

Today we are more relaxed after a bus ride over 280km road back into our bed at about 3650m in Lhasa. Altitude sickness is over, we are almost fit. Only after rapid movements we recognise the shortage of air. So we postpone some exciting activities until tomorrow.
On the journey we stop again in a medical college. The procedure is similar to the first time: half-hour tour through a museum, where you find all kind of dried plants behind glass to be used in an ancient Tibetan tradition of healing – then it goes into a class-room style of lecture hall in which a Lecturer explains something in Chinese that has probably to do with health, because he wears a white gown and looks as serious as a doctor – it is about the art of hand reading, and – who would have suspected – the invitation to the palm reading … of course, free of charge. Whilst I still try to find the catch in that, there are three other “palm readers” entering the room and begin to read some of our fellow tourists from the hand. There are A4 sheets in Chinese and English handed to everyone listing the ten most important drugs and their effect on the human bodies. During hand reading, of course, for every tourist some diseases are discovered. Miraculously, some conscientious nurses in pink coats have an order form at hand, on which they quickly specify the proposed remedies, and – after some inquiries – the price next to it.

Before we started our journey to Tibet we received a complete health check. The results have shown that we do not need to worry too much about our health. The doctor discovered in my hand, that something with my third and fourth cervical vertebrae is not in order and that my liver has a problem. At the same time he tells me, though, that I’m very healthy. Aha. I thought so. If you want to know whether the signal light of your car works, you look in the exhaust. Wow. I’m thrilled. I do not buy the proposed medicine, although my shopping list with EUR 80 is a real bargain. Our Senior Tourist with 75 years of age who jogs every morning and keeps himself fit, buys medicine for over EUR 1800. No comment.

Finally we get a quick head massage by the doctors. Probably my masseur aims for revenge for not buying. He presses with full force on both thumbs from the left and right at my temples, remains in that position endlessly then he asks if I feel better. Well sure, I feel better after my head is out of the press. I have not stopped him – am not a wimp after all. After a few “normal” massage actions he takes my head with a handle, which I had already seen in Rambo. Fortunately I did not drop dead, as the victims of Stallone usually do.

On the way back to Lhasa, we stop on the road – like really rarely – to give some passengers the chance to visit the adventurous toilets. The toilets are dirty and very stinky houses with a hole in the middle. This hole offers unprecedented insight into the eating habits of entire generations of Tibet tourists. After I tried to visit such an institution once, I live in a quiet agreement with my digestive tract that all major operations have to take place in the morning or in the evening – no exception. The smaller operations are fortunately easier … for Boys. After some of these experiences, many women have discovered that their anatomy is not too different from the men’s.

One of those stops has an additional effect: We are invited by an “original Tibetan family” into the house. Our tour guide swears that happened purely by chance and is not planed at all.

We go into the yard, where we meet all sorts of animals. Dog, cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs are evident at first sight. As we observe the animals live on the ground floor of the house. On the second floor, we see something like an outdoor corridor with a loom, an area with cooking facilities, table and a few beds and another room with many chests and beds. Everything is very clean and tidy. A ladder leads to the roof, which is probably used for drying Yak excrements (Yak shit). I will not get rid of the feeling that this “random” visit is well planned and of course the Tibetan family earns small income. That is ok for me. The standard of living in Tibet is very low. If we have the opportunity we “donate” some money.

Buddhism is the predominant religion in Tibet. Therefore you will find temples and monasteries almost everywhere. When entering such a temple you should not miss to do something for your own soul’s well-being. That starts with ringing a bell, which is often at the entrance, so to speak, the predecessor of the doorbell. Entering a temple you need to keep to the right to avoid the people leaving – the one-way street is invented. In the temple there are usually many prayer wheels in different sizes with religious scripts or pictures. Some are tall as man. If you still want to do more for your soul, you turn these wheels, but always in a clockwise direction. On the road you will find the portable versions of these wheels, which are somewhat bigger than a cell phone and probably serve a similar function: the hot wire to the “Boss”. The men have a slightly larger version that probably has a greater range, perhaps the 3G of the prayer wheels. The advantage of all that seems to be that this kind of cell phone works without SIM card and power, altogether. We were not able to find out whether this also allows emergency. Is there a 911-drum?

In Tibet there are many serious offenders. These sinners are easy to recognize: they only move by praying, that is tossing on the floor. It goes as follows: lie down flat praying whilst placing a small object with outstretched arms in front of you – stand up and walk up to the object in front of you – lie down flat again and so on. Taller sinners have an advantage. The small Tibetan Chinese have been given an anatomical shortcoming.

The sinners are encountered everywhere, even in the middle of the street in the city. Unfortunately we could not figure out how to cross a traffic light whilst praying, i.e. what happens when the traffic light turns to red? We were told that many of these “sinners” perform this procedure for months or even years. Some of the Buddhists come from very distant areas of the Tibetan plateau and “pray” until they reach the very highest shrine, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

A praying lap around the Potala palace is feasible in a few days. We estimate that this footling round must be for a small sin such as “Serving your husband a warm beer.” We assume that the penalty for something as big as adultery must be draconian – perhaps pray to Mt Everest and back?

The praying sinners, however, are very well prepared. They wear knee protectors made of leather or wood, probably the impact cushion when lying down and uneven ground offset. So something like “the ski for the knee.” Some have slide mats in front of them. In addition, the hands of many are “dressed” in wooden shoes or rough gloves – although not very elegant looking, it should offer a good protection for the hands. We can see easily that they have been a long time on the road. The clothes are torn and incredibly dirty. Also, the body shows no signs of recent cleaning. We are curious to find out how they perform their “business”.

The way home to Singapore via Kunming the next day is unspectacular. What is new is that when entering an airport in China before an international flight even temperature is measured. These newly installed overhead scanners do their job almost without problem. Almost. Under certain circumstances, these scanners have a curative effect: After passing through the scanner I am held back friendly but firmly by a nice Chinese lady with the name 47312 on her name tag. Obviously, my temperature is too high. I am asked once again under the scanner. And again. And again. And again. … After the seventh scan she smiles friendly and lets me pass. Apparently under the impression of the Chinese medicinal scanner my fever has gone. Healthy and without suspicion of H1N1 I make my way through the first security check, health declaration, check-in, first stamp of the boarding pass, the second security check, scan and second stamp on the boarding pass to my flight. Thousands of years of experience in health matters and about the functioning of the human body are ubiquitous in China.

Epilogue

Something for those who also have Tibet on their wish list: You should be prepared. Unfortunately you cannot practice living at high altitudes – except in high altitudes, or perhaps at NASA. Good medicine and health care are the A and O. It is appalling that the headache from lack of oxygen is different from the normal headache or migraine. Our normal medicine could not kill it. It has been a long time for me that I have found myself kneeling in front of the toilet bowl before we started to Tibet.

We have been given a few tips by our tour guide before the trip:

  1. Before leaving take large quantities of beverage to increase the water level in the body – good sleep to have a healthy and strong body able to deal with the lack of immune system – vitamin-rich and nutrient-rich meals, because the body needs more energy at high altitudes and you need some reserves.
  2. Take large quantities of fast-acting carbohydrate diets, such as muesli bars, chocolate and grape sugar (glucose) on the trip – Aspirin should be in your luggage, in order to dilute the blood and thus relieve the blood circulation – medicine against altitude sickness should not be missed.
  3. During the journey you should drink large quantities of water – never miss a meal, and even between meals always take a little snack. Overnight in bed you should have water and sweets. One should take time for everything and should avoid quick movements. An effort at the wrong time can have fatal consequences.

However, during the first two days at 3600m altitude in Lhasa you do not want to eat. Overnight you force yourself to drink and nibble, because you cannot sleep anyway, and in the morning you return the food almost untouched.

At altitudes above 4000m you recognise very clearly that the body is not quite in order. For each movement you have to convince yourself. However, it makes no sense, to plan and pay for the trip and then to spend the days in Lhasa in bed. So, we “persuaded” ourselves to go for the next outing. In every hotel and every drugstore, there is oxygen from the handy pressure bottle with two hoses for the nose. This bottle helps a lot against the consistent headache. However, it is only good for a few minutes. After that, headache is back. A good business concept.

Now I can also imagine why some mountaineers pass out or turn insane at high altitude. Nerves are underserved. For example, en route to the 5000m pass I had problems with reading my phone. The normal SMS text was too small to be read. This is a not so nice feeling. I seriously thought I just aged a few years up there. Thanks god my senses are fully restored – if you can ever say this about yourself …

After a few days in Tibet, Frank discovered a black spot on the left eye. Because the right still worked perfectly, he did not take it too seriously. His doctor in Germany told him that this might have to do with the under-supply of oxygen. He had probably suffered a micro-infarction in the vicinity of the optic nerve.

Furthermore, the air is extremely dry in Tibet, resulting in chapped lips and dry and irritated nose and throat mucous membranes. Much drinking helps. But, drinking alcohol is a very bad idea.

General counter-measures recommended by a doctor: Leave the high altitude as soon as possible .

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