I was excited when I heard I would travel to Tibet with a colleague, without any health concerns. However, some colleagues’ reminders of the risks of high altitudes soon attracted my attention to mountain sickness.
I searched online and collected heaps of ideas on how to stay healthy and fit at high altitudes. I was fully prepared with many useful items. See below a list of things I brought:
- SPF 30 sun cream (this proved to be very useful in protecting my skin)
- Lip cream (my lips cracked the first 2 days, but they recovered when I applied the lip cream)
- High altitude sickness medicine (for 5 days’ use)
- Antiemetic medicine (didn’t use through the trip)
- Antidiarrheal medicine (didn’t use throughout the trip)
- Umbrella (great to bring, as the weather varies it rains at times)
- Headache medicine (didn’t use throughout the trip)
- A box of glucose injection (5 pieces)
- Motion-sickness medicine (didn’t use throughout the trip)
- A lot of snacks (didn’t eat them)
I also purchased two boxes of Gao Yuan An (高原安, mountain sickness medicine) on Taobao, China’s largest online retail site. I took the medicine the day before I departed.
We flew from Guilin to Chongqing in the morning, and then we transferred to Lhasa. The dry atmosphere could be felt the moment we landed at the Lhasa Gongga airport. My lips were already beginning to crack. My legs felt like jelly as we exited the plane. My colleague complained he had a bit of a headache. I noticed his lips had turned purple.
Despite these initial concerns, I was fine the rest of the day. However, the first night was a nightmare. I could hardly fall asleep although I was exhausted. I tossed and turned, and I tried every possible way to fall asleep. All my efforts were in vain. Even worse, I woke up frequently, around six times that night. This was my first encounter with mountain sickness.
The next day’s journey to Samye Monastery included a 10-minute drive on a hairpin road. I thought it would upset my stomach, but I was all right. My ears were singing, however, and I suffered a minor headache when we were reached a 4500-meter-high mountain pass. Moving one step required three times the energy needed at a normal altitude. I moved slowly all the time. Experts say that moving slowly is the best way to ease mountain sickness.
A young Australian guy had suffered a strong headache the day he arrived in Tibet. But it was not serious, and he could move freely.
All my symptoms disappeared as soon as the altitude dropped.
A 15-year-old Chinese girl who was in our group felt very uncomfortable the entire way. She complained of a headache and upset stomach. In the end, she had to abandon her visit to the monastery and the rest of the day’s activities.
The next night was still tortuous, although a bit better than the first night. I woke up at 5:30 and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I waited until the day dawned at 7:00 a.m..
On the third day, I was extremely exhausted because of the last two nights’ poor sleep.
We drove from Tsedang to Lhasa on the third day. Lhasa is 60 meters higher than Tsedang. I guess this was the reason why the local travel agency arranged for the first two days to be in Tsetang.
The extra 60 meters didn’t result in anything for me, but it was a challenge for three of the male travelers in our group. Once again they complained of headaches.
I finally had a good, normal sleep on the third night, and I felt energetic the next morning. The fourth day’s journey was tough, the hardest so far, and it involved climbing for 4 hours to and from with a large crowd of Tibetan people. It was the Shoton Festival. I was extremely exhausted, and I could hardly walk another step when we made it back. However, I did not suffer any symptoms of mountain sickness.. My body had gradually acclimated.
The biggest challenge for me came on the sixth day, traveling from Lhasa to Shigatse. Most roads run at altitudes of over 4,500 meters, and the highest pass is over 5,400 meters high.
At Gampa-La Pass (elevation 4794 meters), my legs ached. For the first time in Tibet, my ears were ringing to the point that I couldn’t hear clearly. Moving a few steps caused me to lose my breath. On a lighter note, however, Gampa-La Pass is the best place to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of Yamdrok Lake.
We stopped at Nagartse, a town at an elevation of 4,200 meters, for lunch. A lady in her 30s suffered from serious mountain sickness after rushing up a few steps to the restaurant’s second floor. She was breathless and weeping. Her face turned purple and paled. She recovered soon after inhaling oxygen for several minutes. We were all fine the rest of the day.
To summarize my experience:
- Don’t be scared of mountain sickness. Most people will be ok with adequate preparation and knowledge.
- Move slowly even if you feel energetic.
- Taking mountain sickness medicine a day before depature is recommended.