Back from Tibet

Su and I came back last Saturday night from Tibet, thoroughly exhausted. She lost five pounds while I, eight, representing about 5% of our respective body weights. Funny, I had never had so much nibbles all my life than what I had in the two weeks, in the form of chocolates, mainly dark ones, even sweets which I never touch before, peanuts of all styles, crackers, energy bars, bananas, apples, prunes, dried tomatoes and so on. I don’t normally eat between meals – I drink, maybe – but traveling on a coach in a pack of 24 plus for many hours in a stretch during which everyone was passing down all sorts of food makes it difficult to resist, besides we need the energies.

It all began about two months ago when I met this chatty lady at a funeral. I offered to drive her back to her office afterwards. On the way, she mentioned that she was planning a rather exclusive trip to Tibet; exclusive in the sense that the group would have full control over the itinerary and details of the trip, that it would be a bus tour so as to allow participants time to acclimatize to rising altitudes, that it would be a small group of around 14 to 16 so as to allow more room for picture taking en route, and that the group would only admit people it deems appropriate. She indicated that if I made up my mind before the end of the day, she could see her way to include us in the group as the last members.

I wasted no time to consult my High Command who was very supportive and we became the 13th and 14th member of the group. In the end, the group grew to 24 members, mostly couples, including five from Beijing and Shanghai, but not including three local guides and two drivers for the journey from Xining to Lhasa, or the first five days. We then changed transport, and the supporting team was reduced to one driver and two guides. The resultant dynamics and chemistries generated from an enlarged and hence less homogenous group would make interesting text-book case studies on leadership and interpersonal skills. Indeed, I was humbled by how well our nominal group leader had dealt with the various situations; and I would go no further than that in this letter.

Before I took up some formal studies in Buddhism, I had never wanted to be in Tibet, even though many people had described it with superlatives and hyperboles, ranging from being enchanting, exotic, exciting to exhilarating, from being magical to mysterious, and from spiritual to supernatural. Many authors have used phrases such as “heaven to the spirit, but hell to the flesh” or that the scenery is superb and one of its kind that cannot be found or duplicated anywhere on earth. Well, if one believes in everything one reads, life would be much simpler and the world a much happier place in which to live.

I was almost in Tibet three years ago when some alumni from the Chinese University of Hong Kong organized a trip and invited their HKU counterparts at the Centre of Buddhist Studies to join them. I recall that I had even paid a deposit, but then I was prevented from going because of something else. A number of my classmates from HKU had gone on the tour and come back with beautiful pictures and even more fascinating stories about the trip. Their stories had certainly piqued my interest. I told myself that I would go there some day.

Why do I want to go there? Well, that was also the question we asked ourselves when we were trailwalking in the Nineties. We promised each other not to do it again at the finishing point, but even as we pledged it, we all knew we sounded like a broken record.

Then, I always hold the view that companions in a journey are more important than the places one visits; and it is the process which makes the difference. Now that I have a willing and very able travel mate, I have all the more motivation to take on more exotic routes.

On the other hand, Su often says that I am a lazy traveler and hence not the best travel mate. I don’t read travel literature before trips. Indeed, I sometimes don’t even bother to study the itinerary. I recall I was ridiculed by the tour leader of the Antarctica trip and then by the rest of group when I asked him for the start day of the trip, about a week before the tour was to begin.

Su and I have since uploaded selected pictures of the Tibetan trip. They should speak for themselves. Su was rather worried beforehand that I could be adversely affected by the high altitude of Tibet and had briefed me thoroughly of the acute mountain sickness (AMS) syndromes. By definition, high altitude means 1,500 to 3,500 m, very high altitude, 3,500 to 5,500 m, while extreme altitude, about 5,500 m. When acclimatization lags significantly behind ascent, various symptoms would show up due to the body’s intolerance to a low oxygen environment at high altitudes. Typical symptoms include hyperventilation or fast breathing. Shortness of breath during exertion, increased urination, altered breathing patterns at night, frequent nightmare awakening and strange dreams.

We had a medical doctor traveling with us, who prescribed us Diamox, which we took dutifully until the day we were to board a flight back. Most of us coped reasonably well, but we all reported rather strange dreams indeed. I woke up one morning looking for the steering wheel of my car. In the last frame of my dream, the steering wheel came off and the car was free wheeling. Then apparently, AMS strikes young people and athletes harder, so that seniors and less aerobics mortals such as I would be less affected. The bus also carried oxygen supplies and glucose phials which proved very handy at high altitudes and during emergencies.

Our group covered many mandatory tourist spots, indeed a bit too many by my standard. We covered over 5,000 m on the Qinghai – Tibet Highway, first the National 109 Highway which runs from Beijing and then the 318 Highway which starts from Shanghai. In Lhasa, we visited of course the Potala and the Norbulingka; and we took the famous Tanggula Pass which was over 5,200 m. Then there were numerous exceptionally beautiful and unreal lakes, some with salt water while others are embankment waters. Of course, we visited the Mount Everest Base Camp where we saw the Peak, Qomolangma Summit. We subjected our bodies regularly above 3,500 m and to over 5,200 m more than a couple of times.

Our Group Leader had tried to place us in the best hotels wherever possible, but there were problems, besides the logistical difficulties. For example, we had stayed in two hotels which could not provide us hot running water. Queen of Make-shift Su made use of the water bottles to rinse the strategic parts of the body, and we survived. We also had great fun making instant noodles for breakfast in complete darkness; and we have learnt to move slowly and with grace.

I have since talked to a few friends who have been to Tibet, many for more than once. Everyone had enjoyed their trips and treasured the experience. Most people have said that it would take at least three weeks to cover the main attractions, even with good and reliable transport. Others professed that it was hard work, hard for the body and the mind at times.

Most Hong Kong people are used to the daily conveniences and we are used to traveling with laptops, blackberries and mighty phones. Tibet is actually not too bad when it comes to electronic communications. China Mobile has done a good job and we enjoyed free Internet in most hotels, except in a few places. It meant that we had been kept up to speed with the sad news in the Philippines. The priest in the chapel I went to said in the last Sunday sermon that it is in such trying times that we should throw ourselves entirely at the hands of God, admitting our helplessness with Faith, Hope and Humility. The priest invited us in particular to mediate on Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

I wish you all well; and hope to talk to you later.

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