Tibet in 2010 – 12,000 feet

How would your life change if any of its components increased by 100 times?

It could be the number of people you know. The free time you have. Books you read. Money. Employees you are responsible for. Shoes you own. Places you visit…

Or altitude.

Altitude of San Francisco – 39 meters (131 feet) above sea level.
Altitude of Lhasa – 3,490 meters (11,450 feet).
Altitude of Yamdrok lake – 4,441 meters (14,570 feet).

There are a few options getting to Tibet.

  • Air. If you choose to fly directly to Lhasa from a low altitude area, be prepared for the shock. You will notice immediately many symptoms of the altitude sickness, some people more severe than others’. Or, you can fly to Linzhi, a city that is half a day ride from Lhasa and has much lower altitude.
  • Train. The sleeping cart is quite comfortable, especially if you can secure a place in the soft bed cabin. The railway itself is a human marvel. At one point, it passes the Tranggula pass, which is 5,072 meters (16,640 feet) above sea level. As the train climbs up, your body will have time to adjust. However, there’ll still be discomfort. The sealed cabin and oxygen supply may help.
  • Road. There are two highways. One travels along the railway line. The other, more scenic but considered more dangerous. With experienced driver, the ride could be another adventure on top of Tibet.
  • Foot. Pilgrims who prayed all the way to Lhasa treat the weeks or even months’ journey an honor. For cycle enthusiastic, biking to Lhasa is not impossible. As a matter of fact, I have seen many cyclists along the road. I assume ample training and preparation are needed for such a long and tough ride.

Once you start to reach the high altitude, prepare to live with the discomfort as long as you stay at that level. Imagine you never had the knowledge of altitude sickness and were dropped into Lhasa unknowingly. Your body probably wouldn’t understand what was missing. The change in oxygen and air pressure is not as measurable as other elements essential to our lives, such as, food. Our brain can be sure of how many meals we have missed, but it won’t know the percentage of oxygen that does not exist anymore. Regardless, our body react right way. Heart beats twice as fast. Short of breath after previously effortless movement. Slow reaction. Shorter memory span. Insomnia. Worst of all, headache. Many of the more severe symptoms will recede after a day or two, with the help of Tibetan herb medicine (which could be the sugar pills anyway ;-). As the locals said, it is more mental than physical. The discomforts will eventually become part of the total Tibetan experience :-).

p.s. Radio lab did an interesting piece on human limits. How much can our bodies and brains endure? Listen here: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/


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