Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sex, Drugs and Yaks on the Roof of the World

Well there were quite a few yaks, a fair haul of aspirin and anti altitude drugs but that's about all really. Sorry for the misleading title.

Anyway it's been 4 quite tricky days since leaving the mining town of Golmud. But then I'm sure these emails are most appreciated when I'm not enjoying myself 24-7. I suppose the main problem has been breaking all the rules of ascending at high alitude. And then the odd beer and a little over exertion inevitably led to a crash. But it wasn't immediate...

The first day out and we went from 2800 metres to 4300 metres. We had reached the high plateau of Qinghai on the run in to Tibet. There were snow capped mountains and glaciers, giant passes (over 4800 metres) and, of course, the railway. The Chinese have been building this since 2001, a railway to link Golmud with Lhasa. Many have said it will be impossible and it has been a tad expensive. But it is a most impressive achievement so far. Unfortunately it will probably be a further nail in the coffin of Tibetan culture as firstly the Chinese army and then civilians can flood in without experiencing the arduous road journey.

And it has been an arduous journey. Day 2 dawned rather painfully as I slept badly and developed a banging headache. That'll be altitude sickness then. The important thing in these situations is to get lower, not really an option in our case. Instead we travelled on a little but the ill health of a number of the group led us to camp at 4600m on scenic rolling hills. Unfortunately my condition was getting worse and I was banned from leaving the truck entirely. I felt nausea, dizziness and exhaustion to add to my entertaining headache. Luckily I hadn't gone blue or started foaming at the mouth so the offer of oxygen treatment from the railway workers up the valley was politely declined on my behalf. Instead there was a selection of aspirin, paracetamol and some anti altitude drugs. That night was not one I would wish to repeat too often and by morning I felt worse. But rather than descend we had to keep of climbing over two monster passes, the second being nearly 5300m. I was actually quite concerned about this as my condition wasn't improving, however I was promised that we'd be back down to 4000m by evening. This as it turned out was not possible as we only got down to 4600m and I felt rough. It was all I could do to avoid a minor yak stampede as I mistakenly got between them and evening pasture. I retired under a stunning night sky, starfilled over us but surrounded on all sides by lightning storms. Didn't really appreciate it though.

By some miracle I slept like a log and was able to eat the next day. And what a day. This is why overland travel is the best way to go. Yesterday we'd crossed the border into Tibet proper and now we were on the high northern plateau. The scenery was magnificent. From glacial peaks to rolling grassland, nomads tents to mud built dwellings and everywhere the smiling, weather beaten faces of the Tibetan people. I don't guess they see the likes of us very often as we attracted crowds wherever we stopped. The highlight of the day (and probably my whole trip) was when I spotted a gathering on top of a small hill. It turned out to be the annual horse racing festival of the local area. Everyone was dressed up in their Sunday best to watch the 9km ride across the plateau. Small boys were the heroes for the day and they somehow managed to keep their crazy pointed hats on as they raced across the grassland. The crowds of spectators were as excited to see us as we were to see them. The outfits on display were fantastic as were the jewellery other accessories that were in evidence....

Continued in later as my taxi is leaving...

This was originally written on 18 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

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