Mission aborted!

Events have shoved us off the Roof of the World. Never before have Steve and I had to cut short a journey and return home. But in the present case, it seemed unavoidable.

We were supposed to get from Lhasa to Beijing by train! But we were grateful to get the last two seats on a plane, since we needed them.

We first learned that an emergency was brewing around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, when the ringing of Steve’s phone woke us up. (Or rather, woke Steve up. I was awake, struggling to breathe in enough oxygen.) It was a call from the retirement complex where his 98-year-old mother, Carol, resides. Although increasingly frail, Carol has been able to live independently at the White Sands, just 10 minutes from our house. Although Steve failed to get to his phone in time to answer the call, he almost immediately received a text message from our older son, Michael, who also had been contacted by the facilty staff. Eventually, we figured out that Carol had been unable to get out of bed and was being taken to the hospital for evaluation.

Trying to discern what was going on over the course of the next few days was challenging. China is 15 hours ahead of the US, so the only reasonable time to converse with San Diego was early in the morning, China time (when it was late afternoon back home.) Our younger son and a close family friend finally determined where Carol was and managed to visit her, and for a day or two, she seemed to be doing okay. But Thursday morning we heard she would be undergoing surgery the next day. This seemed drastic enough that we decided we had to return home, as quickly as possible.

Now that I’ve done it, I can report that if you have to make a bunch of last-minute travel arrangements, Tibet should not be your first choice to do it from. When you can get access to the Internet, it’s slow, and the Chinese government limits what you can see (no Google! no Facebook! no gmail! etc.). When we informed Tashi, our guide, and Woeser, the tour company director, that we needed to cut our trip short, they were sad but understanding. Caring for one’s parents is still a pretty serious duty in China. They said there was no way to try to book the flights online, and Woeser seemed to be saying that if we went to a travel agent, we wouldn’t be treated professionally; that it was better to go to the individual airline offices. That sounded strange, but we were game. Tashi, Steve, and I hailed a taxi and went to the intersection where Tashi thought the Air China offices were located. We got out and scrutinized the millions of Chinese characters on the nearby buildings but saw no clue to what we were looking for. We tried all four corners of the intersection. Finally Tashi talked to a local shopkeeper who assured him Air China was nowhere in the vicinity. We hailed another cab; drove to another part of Lhasa, and when we got out, we spotted the offices of both Air China and China Eastern, not far from each other.

Inside the large Air China office, only 2 employees were evident. One was assisting a customer. The woman next to her sat behind a large sign saying “Manager.” But she didn’t even glance at us, standing in front of her desk, until Tashi asked her a direct question. No seats on any Air China flight to Beijing were available that day or the next, she proclaimed curtly. We walked out, crossed the street, entered the China Eastern office, took the elevator up to the 6th floor and found a single bored looking employee behind a computer terminal. He too declined to look at us. Once again, when prodded by Tashi, without so much as looking at his screen, he also said no China Eastern seats were available.

It was about this time that it dawned on us we were trying to travel at the end of one of those monster Chinese national holiday weeks, when a substantial number of the country’s billion inhabitants all take to the road simultaneously. Also about this time, Woeser called and suggested we try the travel agent he works with, someone skilled at finding seats on domestic flights. By then Steve and I had managed to use my American Airlines app and ascertained that seats from Beijing to San Diego seemed to be available on Saturday. We happily told Woeser to go ahead and secure a flight to Beijing, if possible. A few minutes later, he called back and said she had snagged the last two seats for us on an Air China flight leaving Lhasa at 4 p.m. Friday. They were expensive — almost $600 each. On the other hand, to our amazement, the American Airlines Beijing-to-San Diego tickets we bought online cost less than that.

If it wasn't what we had planned, the flights from Lhasa to Beijing (via Chengdu) were pretty interesting, nonetheless.

For this trip, we bought travel insurance that’s supposed to cover “trip interruption,” so we think we’ll be reimbursed for the costs of changing our plans. What we’ve lost and cannot recover is the opportunity to drive southeast through the harsh Tibetan landscape (which we were supposed to do Friday), see those Himalayans foothills that were on Steve’s bucket list, sleep at the foot of Mt. Everest (scheduled for today), and take the two-day cross-China train trip from Lhasa to Xian next Tuesday, stopping there to see the fabled army of clay warriors created for China’s first emperor.

We’re very sad about that, but we don’t have any doubts this was the right thing to do. Even though Carol sounded better Friday morning (and never had to undergo any surgery), she appears to be facing critical decisions about her living situation, and as her only child, Steve is the person best situated to help her with those. Also, we keep reminding ourselves that the week we spent in Bhutan was wonderful. Our brief visit to Nepal made us long to return there. If like Heinrich Harrar, we had to leave Tibet earlier than we would have wished, what we saw during our short time there was incomparable. On the plane ride home tomorrow, I’ll try to describe what our Three and a Half Days in Tibet were like.



Up on the roof

The pace of my blogging has been slowed by a couple of physical maladies. The first is the cold I finally succumbed to in Nepal (the one that appeared to start with Ugyen and Howie back in Bhutan.) Steve got it from them but seems to have recovered almost completely. I’m still a mess, but in my defense, the Roof of the World is not the optimal locale for getting over respiratory ailments. Even though we slept a couple of nights at 9000 feet in Bhutan, we immediately felt Lhasa’s 12,000-foot elevation upon our arrival Monday afternoon; walking seemed more of an effort than normal and climbing a couple flights of steps made my head spin. Mercifully, neither of us developed the killer headaches and disordered thinking that came with the altitude sickness we experienced in the Andes. But the lack of oxygen did trash my ability to sleep both the first and second nights here; if I got more than 2-3 hours, it sure didn’t feel like it. So exhausted that it felt almost physically painful, I crawled into bed both nights and felt like I was suffocating (the blocked sinuses didn’t help). That made me feel panicky and gave me insight into what congestive heart failure must feel like — icky. By Wednesday, climbing steps no longer felt impossible. But my nasal and sinus passages are still rioting.

Whatever made us think it would be such a great idea to travel to Tibet? The biggest inspiration came from Steve, who has always longed to see the foothills of this region where the whole earth has heaved up so much that the bases of the Himalayas are higher than the tallest mountains in Europe or America’s lower 48. Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet make a logical circuit for taking that in. But I have to say I didn’t begin to get really excited about visiting Tibet until Steve and I read Heinrich Harrar’s classic memoir, Seven Years in Tibet (upon which the much more recent Brad Pitt movie was based).

Actually, we listened to the book while on a road trip this summer. Heinrich’s writing is only workmanlike, and parts of the book have the pace of a heavily laden yak. But overall it’s a wonderful (true) account of Harrar’s escape in the early 1940s from a British POW camp in India (where the apolitical Austrian mountaineer happened to be when Britain went to war against the Germanic axis.) The escapee made his way to the Tibetan border, slipped across, and with another German mountaineer managed to walk (over the course of a full year) to Lhasa. Over and over they were politely received but ordered in no uncertain terms to leave the country — then completely closed to foreigners. Heinrich and his buddy bamboozled and charmed and bullshat their way eastward. In the fabled capital, they were ordered out but again managed to worm their way into the Tibetans’ affections, and no wonder! They were wonderfully talented fellows and not only figured out how to speak cultured Tibetan but also offered their services on public projects ranging from garden design to engineering. Eventually HH met, befriended, and became the tutor of the teenage Dalai Lama (the world-famous 14th incarnation, who now lives in exile in India) and he came to love Tibet so much he would have lived out his life here. Everything collapsed when the Chinese invaded in 1950, and HH fled to write up all his varied adventures.

His book is a detailed portrait of life in a theocratic medieval society dating back well over a thousand years. I found it fascinating to think that he was taking it all in while my dad was going to high school in Chicago and my mom was settling into her first clerical jobs in San Diego. Upon our arrival here Monday, I had the fleeting thought it would be cool to see some of the places Heinrich describes in the book. When I asked our guide about it, though, he ruefully said he’s never been able to read it. The Chinese rulers ban it, as I should have known. We’d been warned that they sometimes confiscate copies of Lonely Planet Tibet when they find them in visitors’ luggage.

Last month the authorities staged huge celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. (That was 15 years after they marched in and took over.) We saw giant red banners proclaiming, “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful socialist new Tibet” and other obvious evidence of what they’ve done with the billions of dollars of investment they’ve poured into it. All the roads we’ve seen so far are broad and well-maintained. They’ve built a causeway and a tunnel that have cut in half the time it takes to get from the airport into town, and they’ve built the high-tech rail line that we’re scheduled to leave on next Tuesday. They’ve opened public lavatories all over the Old Town, and they employ a large corps of street sweepers that keep it remarkably clean. They’ve also set up security checkpoints around the biggest landmarks, in an attempt to prevent more monks from burning themselves alive (as more than 100 have done in recent times). Chinese soldiers march around with assault weapons at the ready, and they sit at stations with riot shields set up for action.

Steve and I find all this interesting, along with the more homey features of life here. We think it’s the first time we’ve traveled in a truly polyandrous society. Our guide this afternoon told us about his one aunt who has four husbands (all brothers) and 9 children from them. (They call the oldest one “Father” and all the rest “Uncle”). And oh, by the way, all the sights we’ve seen so far have been world class.

But I’m too tired to write about those now. I need to go to try to sleep (at least) before our final full day of touring in Lhasa before heading east to Everest Base Camp. (Also, I can’t post any photos tonight because of technical difficulties. You find a lot of that with the Internet in China.) I’ll try to add then whenever I can.