Friends often ask what prompts me to go to some far-flung places on my travels.
Obviously reading magazine articles and promotional emails from certain travel companies have a bearing. Condé Nast Traveller magazine has an excellent feature each month known as ‘Epic Journey’. I’ve just finished reading about the 4,000km railway from Beijing to Lhasa climbing so high that passengers are provided with oxygen – from coils of plastic tubing with a splayed end to put in your nostrils. Last month I was also teased by a mailing from St Regis Hotels talking of their new Lhasa property “surrounded by snowcapped Himalayan peaks only minutes from the Potala Palace and UNESCO World Heritage Sites”. M-m-m, there’s a stirring!
At the same time, I also recall reasons why I may regret any idea of returning to Tibet. I can still vividly remember the dirt everywhere and the over-powering smell of yak butter in glasses for all the candles. Then the thought of . . .
having to get by with minimal appointments in a very basic government ‘guest house’ room doesn’t exactly excite me. All I had was a tin dish to wash in, and this didn’t help much to remove the dirt that had stuck to the Vaseline in thick swathes on my dry lips.
More frightening is the recollection of looking for something to relieve the terrible altitude headache when I tried to sleep. In a vain attempt to alleviate the pain, I pulled a folded, cold wet towel tight over my forehead while pressing the back of my neck on the ribbed outside surface of an empty Coke bottle, rolling it back and forth, but to no avail.
“And he’s still thinking of going back?” you might ask.
It’s worth resurrecting a story I wrote around that time. Not only does it reflect on my experiences in Tibet, but also on conditions in China, still quite primitive only twenty-five years ago. I write about the parlous state of aviation at the time, but why I felt no fear, I’ll never understand. Parts of the story also show me up as being quite inexperienced and naïve in some matters, and perhaps more than a little influenced by what my Chinese ‘minders’ were telling me.