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 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.
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.