I went to Tibet two years ago back when I lived in Shanghai, China. Recently it has been coming up in my Facebook memories and looking back, I see that I only posted about the good and happy moments of the trip. Although it was a positive experience that I would be happy to relive exactly as it happened, I think it’s important to share the less glamorous details like throwing up four kilometers from the Everest base camp.
Altitude sickness is something that effects everyone a little differently, so when you research it there are many mixed reflections about it. For example, we had about ten people in our tour group and I was one of the two who had the most severe reactions. Out of the ten people, three arrived in Tibet by train which lessened the effects of altitude sickness due to the slow pace. Ultimately, almost everyone experienced headaches and discomfort at some point in the trip.
Before I get too ahead of myself, let me give you some background before I dive into the dirty deets…
We booked the trip to Tibet through Tibet Vista. We chose the 8-day Tibet trip during our Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Isaac’s father David was joining us on this trip from the USA. Since he had to get a visa to China first, he came to visit us in Shanghai before we took a flight from Shanghai to Lhasa a few days later. Since Tibet is technically in China, visitors from abroad need to get both a Chinese visa and a special Tibetan permit. Tibet Vista helped navigate us through the entire process to make it as easy as possible.
Lhasa is the highest city in the world with an average altitude of 3,650m (11,975ft). The moment we got off the plane and entered the airport, we saw kiosks selling not only post cards but also pills, drinks and oxygen tanks to help with altitude sickness. Since Isaac is a bit of a hypochondriac, he quickly said he felt lightheaded. I laughed it off until 30 minutes in and both David and I felt it too.
That evening we took a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) walk to a nearby market and restaurant. Walking up just ten steps left us out of breath and slightly dizzy. Against our better judgement, the three of us shared one beer at the restaurant and it hit us really hard. I avoided alcohol for the rest of the trip, but I didn’t feel 100% at any point during those eight days.
We spent the first few days in Lhasa to acclimate to the altitude. Although we felt better the longer we stayed, our days were filled with long trips. When we visited the the Potala Palace, we could feel just how high up we were any times stairs were involved. We made sure to stay hydrated and we tried to avoid eating fatty foods, which supposedly makes it worse.
Out itinerary was like this:
Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa (3650m – 11,975ft)
Day 2: Lhasa Tour – Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Street (B, D)
Day 3: Lhasa Tour – Drepung monastery, Sera monastery (B)
Day 4: Lhasa- Shigatse via Gyantse 360 km – 224 miles (B)
Day 5: Shigatse (3900m – 12,795ft) to Everest Base Camp (5200m – 17,060ft) (B)
Day 6: EBC (5200m – 17,060ft) and return to Shigatse (3900m – 12,795ft)
Day 7: Shigatse (3900m – 12,795ft) to Lhasa (3650m – 11,975ft) 350km – 218 miles (B)
Day 8: Depart from Lhasa (B)
It wasn’t until day five that we traveled to a city with a higher altitude. The longer you stay, the more acclimated you are and the fewer symptoms you endure due to altitude. The drive there was long and grueling. It took six hours and the roads were windy, but the views along the way were well worth the discomfort. It was also just the beginning of what real discomfort and altitude sickness felt like.
During the drive from Shigatse to the Everest Base Camp, we had a bit of a hiccup. The regular road was closed, sending us on a three-hour detour along a dirt road in a small van that was so rickety that we had bruises from being knocked all over the place. When we thought that the worst part of it was over, we drove up a switchbacking road, the altitude rising with each turn.
The moment we stood at the Gawula Pass, looking out at the Himalayan mountain range at the altitude of 5198m (17054ft), we definitely felt that it had been worth it. But it would have been much easier if we had been in less of a rush and had a longer time to acclimate before taking on these trying roads.
We arrived at our destination, which is about four kilometers from the official Everest Base Camp, just as it got dark. We didn’t get to see the views before heading to bed in an extremely packed hut where over 20 of us slept together. We were offered food and drinks which I managed to stomach before going to bed. At this point, three of our group had already taken their turn on the oxygen tank which helped relieve their altitude sickness.
I felt surprisingly fine going to sleep and still felt okay when I had to go outside to pee in the middle of the night. When I woke up in the morning, at 5200m (17,060ft) I felt very out of it. I thought that I could power through the day though, so I ordered pancakes and had tea… By the time the food arrived I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat it. I tried to go outside but had trouble walking without feeling incredibly dizzy.
While everyone else went to see the sunset and get closer to Mt. Everest, another lady from our group and I stayed in to drink tea and breathe some oxygen from the tank. It did not make me feel much better. They examined us both to determine how bad it was and since our nails hadn’t turned blue, they didn’t rush the group to get us lower down. The best way to cure altitude sickness is to simply get to a lower altitude.
When the group returned, I was offered some anti-radiation pills, which is something that doctors will prescribe for altitude sickness. We had been driving for exactly five minutes when I had to puke in a trashcan, with the beautiful view of the sun rising over Everest in the background. Once I had throw up and we had driven more down the hill, I felt much better. The lower we got, the better I felt. The same was true with the other lady who had been as sick as me.
At the time I was upset and embarrassed but all travel faux pas always become the stories you love the tell. My experience with altitude sickness was unfortunate and really unpleasant, but I didn’t let it ruin my trip and the fear of getting it shouldn’t change your plans to go. From my experience, none of the remedies helped make me feel any better but the oxygen did seem to help others on the tour.
What I can guarantee is that the gimmicky expensive pills or drinks sold at the tourist stores won’t offer any relief. You should consult your doctor back home prior to your trip or get professional help from a doctor or nurse if you have any problems while you’re there. Other people on similar tours at our hotel went to the pharmacy that was in the hotel’s reception area to receive a shot that helped with their discomfort.