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Altitude Sickness

by Chihiro Yatsu

Tourists in Tibet are always fretting about altitude sickness. It's a mysterious condition! The symptoms vary, with some people bed-bound for most of their stay in Lhasa while others really active on the day they arrive.

Our first experience with mountain sickness was in July, twelve years ago. We traveled from Golmud to Lhasa by bus and although the temperature down on the Silk Road was a blistering 40C, we were soon cloaked in falling snow as we climbed into the Tibetan highlands. Some hours after we left Golmud, I realized that I was becoming ill. As the bus climbed, a terrible headache, endless nausea, and cold chills swept over me, all aggravated by the fact that the bus had no heater.

I wondered whether this was mountain sickness but as I slipped in and out of consciousness, all I could think about was reaching Lhasa as soon as possible. As we neared a pass, the bus gasped hard and with a laboring sigh it dropped speed. I glanced through the window at a sign reading 5,231m above sea level, and at that point I really started to regret ever getting on-board.

That night we stayed in Amdo and I just flaked out on the bed in the pitch-black guesthouse. My condition wasn't improving and I couldn't sleep for the hammers in my head, and vague fears for my future. All the while I listened to another backpacker beside me who was asleep but having trouble breathing. It was a comfort to know that I wasn't the only one suffering. Calmed a little by this, I was asleep before I knew it. Next morning, with the bus descending gradually throughout the day I realized that I was starting to feel better and when we finally arrived in Lhasa my spirits were high and my condition was almost back to normal.

Some years later, we decided to skip the bus and instead we flew into Lhasa. Nothing happened to me on our first day and I was very relieved, thinking, "I am all right this time!" Two days later, it caught up with my partner and I with headaches, nausea, and high fevers. Although I was experienced in this area, I still had difficulty overcoming my anxiety, worrying about what on earth I would do if my condition got worse. My fever remained high, so we decided that it was better to be safe than sorry and off to the People's Hospital we went. The hospital was a real disappointment; first we were directed to different departments and finally the staff told us there was no medicine in stock. All this effort just seemed to make my condition worse.

When I explained our situation to the receptionist at our hotel, they introduced us to a clinic nearby. It was tiny and not very hygienic, but the doctor examined me and using a disposable syringe gave me the required injection. Moreover, this angel of mercy visited our hotel room and made sure there was an intravenous drip set-up, though the instructions to pull out the needle when it was finished was a bit surprising.

The following year we decided on another route and entered Tibet from Nepal overland. By this time we knew a lot about the hardships caused by altitude sickness, so we finally decided to execute a 'Diamox' tactic. It's a famous medicine among trekkers in the Himalayas, so we bought a substantial amount of it in Kathmandu, smiled, and said "With this, no pain!" Before we got in the chartered Land Cruiser in Dram (Khasa), we took a bit more of the medicine than instructed just to make sure. Within half-an-hour we had to stop the car for a call of nature. After that brief stop, the car pulled away again but within minutes I was bursting to go again. Yes, the medicine also has a diuretic effect.

We had to stop the car numerous times which annoyed the driver but gave the poor local women who was carsick the whole journey some relief. Finally after crossing another 5,000m pass, we safely reached Lhasa. After the ill effects subsided we were once again able to enjoy the Tibet of our dreams.

Extract taken from "Mapping the Tibetan World"








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