What could go wrong during an 80km high-altitude trek in Tibet? Contributor Karen Tee shares her adventures.
Since I began practicing yoga more than six years ago, I have found myself increasingly drawn to Tibet, the land of the mythical snow lion and birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism. To celebrate my 30th birthday, my boyfriend and I decided to make this dream a reality with a trip to Tibet, where we would explore the historical and cultural landmarks of the region and also embark on an 80km high-altitude trek between two monasteries – a trek traditionally undertaken by Tibetan pilgrims.
During our two weeks, we camped at Lake Namtso – the highest saltwater lake in the world at an elevation of 4,730m – saw the sun rise over the majestic north face of Mount Everest, and explored many key sites in the development of Tibetan Buddhism, including Sera Monastery, Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. Most of all, the memories of warmth and hospitality of the Tibetans continue to stay with me, long after I have left the country. Here are five lessons I learned while on my travels.
It never hurts to be prepared
I may be reasonably fit, but as someone who was born and bred at sea level, attempting a high-altitude trek would require special training. While we did not have the luxury of training in a low oxygen chamber the way some athletes do, we made the most of what we had by spending weekends climbing stairs in HDB blocks with fully laden backpacks. We made sure to get prescriptions for Diamox, a high altitude medication, to ease the transition.
We also spent ample time acclimatising in Kathmandu, Nepal (elevation 1,400m) and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet (elevation 3,650m), before embarking on the trek to get ourselves progressively accustomed to the high altitude. Neither does it hurt to figure out evacuation details should an unforeseen emergency arise – in our case, this came in the form of a yak, but more on that later.
Success is achieved in a series of small steps
One of the most challenging portions of our trek was when we had to traverse the steep faces of a few mountains by picking our way along what felt like never-ending rocky yak trails. But as I picked my way precariously along these paths, careful not to lose my footing on the loose gravel and boulders, I could not help but admire the harsh, yet otherworldly beauty of the Tibetan mountain range. At my lowest point, when I felt I had no more energy to move any further, I told myself to simply put one foot in front of another, and to lose myself in the scenery. That day, I learnt the true meaning of meditation – a single-minded focus on just being present.
Sometimes you have to know when to throw in the towel
On the third day of our trek, I got hit with altitude sickness despite all the precautions we took. I spent the night breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank, in hopes that my condition would improve by daybreak. Unfortunately, I woke up with a splitting headache and a terrifying inability to breathe properly. As I could barely walk ten paces without feeling like I would pass out, we had to make the heartbreaking decision to turn back before my condition worsened. I was so weak, I had to be carried down the mountain on a yak – a unique challenge in itself – but thankfully, a couple days rest at a lower altitude was all I needed to recover from the illness.
Never underestimate the power of determination
Tibet is undergoing rapid development under the direction of the Chinese government. Consequently many of its cultural landmarks are slowly but surely getting whitewashed. For instance, the iconic Potala Palace, which used to be the residence and seat of power for the Dalai Lama, is now mostly a museum for tourists (sadly, Tibetans are rarely allowed inside); while Barkhor Square, the spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism, has been cleared of street vendors and is frequently patrolled by armed guards.
However, you only have to pay a visit to these places to notice that the locals will not allow their beloved religion to go softly into the night. Hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims visit these two sites daily to perform koras or pilgrimage walks, and light yak butter lamps and Buddhist altars still take pride of place in many Tibetan homes, with many secretly displaying portraits of their beloved Dalai Lama. Such simple acts, yet so thoroughly profound to experience.
It’s ok to not fall in love with the local cuisine
Many of today’s intrepid foodies travel the globe in search of the most exotic culinary experiences they can find. Well, sometimes the cuisine is just not worth gushing about, and I have to say that would be the case with Tibetan food. Daily staples such as yak butter tea, yak meat and tsampa (a dry, chewy dumpling made from barley flour), are an acquired taste, to put it mildly. I tried them all, hoping against hope that they would tantalise my tastebuds but had to politely move on to other dishes. Luckily, the genial Tibetans are generally unoffended if foreigners prefer other types of food!
28 Oct 2016