From Shigatse, we continued our journey to the base camp of Mt. Everest. Before that, we needed to go to the highest Monastery in the world, Ronghbuk Monastery, which was 5,200 metres above sea level. This monastery was the gateway to the base camp. This would test my reaction to mountain sickness.
But before we went through the test of mountain sickness, we needed to test our motion sickness because the road to the base camp was extremely bumpy. Even if you had your seat belt on, you’d still feel that your body was moving sideways or up and down in your own seat. I didn’t eat much for breakfast so that was good.
The roads were not roads. They became roads because too many vehicles had trodden on them.
As our Toyota Land Cruiser cruised along the rugged road, I could see some construction works. I am sure the road will be much better now, after 15 years.
As the driver drove on the dusty, sandy and stony road (despite the fact that we had closed all the windows tightly, some sand and dust still got in), we started to hear some funny noise. The driver turned around a few times and finally stopped.
Did the vehicle break down?
We were literally in the middle of nowhere.
Fortunately, it was only a flat tyre. The driver was apparently very experienced in fixing it. He changed the tyre within minutes and started driving again.
This 7-hour bumpy scenic drive was amazing. The way to Mt. Everest was so beautiful. We saw some wildlife too, like a brown fox running across the field. We also saw a small tornado ahead of us. However, it’d be a challenge to take any photos unless the driver stopped the vehicle which he did only a few times though because not everywhere was safe to pull over.
‘Poverty’ is a very abstract word. We don’t normally see it. We usually know that it exists in a country by looking at that country’s statistics. But in Tibet, you can see it almost everywhere. The saddest thing is, you can see it on little kids.
To enter into the National Park, we needed to buy tickets and showed our identity documents to the authority at the entrance as this place was very close to the border.
Our driver stopped the 4-wheel drive at the gate. One of our travel companions opened the door and left it ajar to air our vehicle. A little kid took this opportunity to approach us to beg for money. She then closed the door. Common sense tells us that giving money to kids is not encouraged because of the underlying negative consequences. I looked at the little kid through the window. I couldn’t utter a word. His clothes were not clothes, they were rags. He had dust all over his face. His hands were dirty. I saw him picking up some rubbish on the ground and played with it.
Was he happy? Was he satisfied with the way he lived? Did he know anything about the world outside? Or maybe he had never thought of all these questions because he lived in such a remote part of the country? And since no comparison could be made, therefore, he was happy with the current situation?
Every day we live, we compare. We compare our own situation with other people. How come we can never be satisfied with ourselves?
I looked at this little kid. Yes, I could only look at him.
Maybe I’ll never understand how he feels.
And yes, I could only look at him through the window.
I think this pass was more than 4,000 metres high. We were close to our destination. Our driver told us that his previous tour did not see the top of this mountain. The top of Mt. Everest was very sacred and very mysterious. It seldom showed itself so clearly like this. Most of the time, it was covered by clouds. I think it was mainly because of the height of the mountain. To see the peak of it, the local people believe that you have to be a devoted pilgrim. We had a devoted Buddhist pilgrim in our group. Maybe that explained?
Looking at the sun setting at the peak of Mt. Everest made me feel so small.
After we got off our 4-wheel drive, my travel companions and I waited at the car park right outside the entrance of Mt. Everest National Park for a special mini-bus to pick us up to Ronghbuk Monastery. We were freezing cold.
I had actually forgotten to check the temperature this morning but it was simply not necessary. I could tell when I left the room early in the morning. This morning, just in case, we bought 3 bags of oxygen at the motel. One bag each.
The road leading us to Ronghbuk Monastery was no better than the one that took us from Shigatse to the car park. In fact, it was a bit understated. It was so bad that one of my travel companions said, ‘are we driving on skeletons?’ It took us an hour to reach Ronghbuk Monastery from the car park.
When we arrived there, it was already dark. The ‘receptionist’ took our dusty backpacks and ushered us to our ‘bedroom’. She walked up the steep hill very quickly and I couldn’t follow her. I was panting. My travel companion said to her, ‘please go slowly. She can’t catch up with you.’ She then realised I was still acclimatising and started to walk slowly.
We reached a wooden house.
The receptionist opened the wooden door.
There were three elongated, wooden, thinly carpeted benches attached to the sides of each wooden wall in the room. In the middle of the room lay a few wood-burning stoves with pots on top. The room was ablaze and warm. But stuffy.
Several nuns were sitting on the benches, praying in Tibetan, I guessed. They welcomed us and invited us to sit down. They even offered us butter milk tea (a very famous Tibetan tea). Unfortunately, I couldn’t drink tea and it seemed that the tea was very oily and greasy. My travel companion saw my reaction and said to me, ‘just be polite and take one sip.’ So, I sipped a little bit of it and then placed it back on the wooden table.
The room was getting more and more stuffy. I was very eager to leave this room. The problem was I didn’t really know why we were there in the first place. To welcome us? Or…?
There were a few other travellers in the room and they were taking photos with the nuns. After they finished, I asked them, ‘are we going to stay here tonight?’
One of them answered, ‘Have you paid? If yes, then yes, you are.’
‘Don’t worry, they will leave soon.’ He meant the nuns. He then continued, ‘then we will sleep on these benches.’
My eyes popped out. Huh?! On these benches?
There were very thin rugs on these benches but when you touched them, you’d see some grey and black stuff sticking in your fingernails.
Thank God, I had my lovely sleeping bag in my backpack.
The nuns left.
But their scent stayed.
My travel companions and I walked down to the reception area to buy some instant cup noodles for dinner. It was the first time for me to breathe in fresh but freezing cold air after arriving at our ‘bedroom’.
We went into the dining room and almost immediately after I walked in, another guest sitting inside told me to shut the door. He then folded his arms shivering. It was too cold.
Walking back up with our 3 cups of instant noodles to our room, we found that the water left behind by the nuns was still hot, so we used it for the noodles but the fire was gone, leaving the room quite dim.
In fact, I didn’t really have the appetite. I could only finish half of the cup. Mountain sickness, yes, it was starting to play some games on me now.
Got ready to sleep.
I had my backpack beside me and I placed the bag of oxygen on top of my backpack so that I could reach it easily.
I spread my sleeping bag and tucked myself in.
One of my travel companions slept on the same bench with me. The top of our heads could nearly touch each other. Her friend went out to smoke.
The room was full of some kind of smell which was like the butter milk tea or… was it the ‘perfume’ used by the nuns?
I was a bit delirious now.
I hid myself in my sleeping bag. I couldn’t really stand the stuffiness and the smell of the room anymore. I put some Mentholatum on my philtrum to deceive my senses and my brain. I had the oxygen bag right next to me now on the ‘bed’, just in case.
It was very dry and hot. I woke up. The smell of the room made me sick. I took out a plastic bag from my backpack, trying to vomit but couldn’t. More Mentholatum and for the first time, I inhaled oxygen.
The last light bulb went off. The room was completely dark.
I could feel that my travel companion woke up as well. She was checking her phone. I asked her if she was ok. The moment she turned around and looked at me, I could see tears on her face. ‘Are you ok?’ I was worried. But she said yes.
I went back to ‘sleep’.
My nose was still very dry. It was still very hot. I was sweating. But how could I be sweating? It was supposed to be freezing cold! I inhaled some more oxygen and intended to put on more Mentholatum. Gosh! The bottle of Mentholatum was soaked in my sweat and the content was melting. How could it be melting? It was supposed to be solid, wasn’t it? My nose was running… Hang on! How could it be dry and at the same time running? I rubbed my eyes. My goodness! I had tears coming out from my eyes and I didn’t even realise it! I was losing my consciousness…
I looked out of the broken window.
It was still very deep in the night. It was extremely dark inside the room and outside. I felt fear, … I felt death.
The oxygen bag was not working properly. I couldn’t breathe in any oxygen at all. I couldn’t feel anything coming out of the tubes. Fear again and again visited me. Would I die? Would I become mentally retarded because of the lack of oxygen?
‘Stay calm. Fear and your psychological conditions will lead you to death.’ That was what I had in my mind. I kept telling myself this throughout the night.
At that very moment, my other travel companion came back into the room. He knew that I was looking for help. I told him, ‘my oxygen bag doesn’t work.’
He tested it in the dark and said, ‘it has run out of oxygen. It’s empty.’
‘How can it be? I have only used it a few times.’
He tested it again and confirmed it was empty, ‘use mine.’ He said.
‘What about you?’ I asked.
‘It’s ok. I will stay outside.’ He helped me to open another oxygen bag and then left the room.
Now, I could breathe in oxygen again. I felt so much better.
If it weren’t because of him, I could have died.
Why was it still dark?
Absolute darkness engulfed the entire sky.
More oxygen and Mentholatum.
‘Will I be able to see the sunrise again?’ I thought to myself.
10 October 2005
P.S. I believe places situated at a high altitude are hard to be developed. To totally eradicate poverty for these places, it may take a long time. 15 years, I think, the situation in Tibet may now have improved.