“This may turn out to be the unfinished epistle”, I wrote on November 7th, 1986.
It was the beginning of my latest and last, as it turned out, though not “unfinished” epistle, to friends who always claimed to enjoy what I wrote about my travels. Which was convenient, as I loved writing about them.
Why did I expect this one could be unfinished? Let me explain:
In the decade roughly between 1976 and 1986, my friend Tim took me travelling. It was my “care-free” time,when no-one was depending on me for anything at all and for once in my life I really didn’t feel the need to answer to anyone.
It was fabulous.
And Tim was a terrific organizer of travel as well as a good companion.
Since I was a child, I had dreamed of going to Tibet, ever since reading James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”. My aunty Kay had a yen for it too. I suppose it was the whole mysterious Shangri-La thing that was so irresistible.
Tim was up for anything and if it was off-limits, so much more was the appeal. When China opened up to travellers, Tim was one of the first to cross the border. So when Tibet opened up, it was only a matter of time.
Getting to Tibet, however, was initially not all that easy.
While the discomforts of travel didn’t bother me mentally, by 1986 I was already beginning to find long-distance travel increasingly difficult for me physically and the last thing I ever wanted was to become a problem for my travelling companion.
So, when I read the 1986 Tibet Guide Book (I don’t remember which one) I began to have some serious doubts.
For starters, the guide book issued repeated warnings about altitude, stating that driving from Kathmandu to Lhasa (which was the only route available to us at the time) was the most strenuous way of doing the trip. We would be going to an altitude of 17,500 feet.
I had not ever thought about the effects of altitude on a human body, but the guide book informed me:
“the influence of altitude causes the body to retain fluid and swell. Hence it is recommended to drink a minimum of 3 litres of fluid daily and take diuretics to keep the kidneys functioning . Otherwise, severe altitude sickness may occur in the form of nausea, vomiting and headache.”
Or death, apparently.
Additionally the guide book described:
“hotels with dirt floor dormitories, no plumbing, no electricity and no heat, with temperatures that could plummet to -18 F. To wash, there might be a cold tap in the courtyard.”
Reading the latter, I considered the matter of the 3 litres and the diuretics and while I could see Tim coping with all of that, somehow the image of baring my butt in those temperatures did not hold great appeal.
To make matter worse, a friend of Tim’s returned from Tibet, not long before our intended departure, with the following news:
Four miles of the road we were to take had recently been washed out and it was quite probable we would have to march those four miles on foot, uphill, at altitude.
The previous year Lindblad travel had had two clients expire from altitude sickness, both during the same meal. Same sort of trip we were undertaking.
As I talked nervously to some of my work colleagues about my anxiety, they began to joke about it. One suggested that after all, I might never make it to Tibet, having been shot down over India en-route. (I believe there had been some “issues” in the area at the time.)
Another thought I would most likely succumb to food poisoning and thought it would be appropriate to have me hacked to pieces and thrown to the vultures, as they were still doing then in Tibet. Tim offered to bring back my big toe for token burial. Nice.
I considered casting about to see who would buy my trip off cheap, but Tim said no-one else would be crazy enough to even consider such madness. Big help.
It was all very well for my friends to make jokes. They didn’t realize I was truly worried about how the altitude would affect me. But I would never have forgiven myself if I had backed out of this opportunity.
I had actually once said that if I ever got to Tibet, I would stop travelling. “Adventure” travelling, anyway. Funny how that worked out.
I began to write the above mentioned letter on November 7th, 1986, during an excruciatingly long 8 hour lay-over at Heathrow Airport where we made a connection to New Delhi.
We were on our way…