Saturday, October 20, 2007

Planning for Tibet

In the run-up to our trip to Tibet, the biggest concern was about health and handling the altitude. I had heard all of the "bad trip" stories, from the people who end up canceling after a day or so, and flying home, those who spent a large part of their trip inhaling from oxygen containers, and one woman who spent most of the first night, and subsequent days battling the nausea induced by the altitude.

The new answer is to take the train from Beijing to Lhasa. It's a marvel of technology, crossing passes over 5000m in altitude, with pressurized cabins. And it is the first question everyone asks, "Did you take the train?" The travel time of 50 plus hours along with the pressurization allow a more gradual acclimatization then flying nearly directly from sea level in Shanghai to 3400 meters outside of Lhasa.

My answer is that while I'm sure that changing scenery on the train is incredible, I don't like being "stuck" on any form of transportation for over 2 days. Combine that with the rapid deterioration of public restrooms in many parts of the world, and particularly in China, the limited, and not gourmet, offerings of food on the train, and a basic time constraint, we flew.

The human body is not well adapted to transitioning rapidly from the oxygen and air pressure of sea level to > 3000 meters altitude. And so, after listening to all of the stories, I headed off to Worldlink to acquire Diamox. The doctor had traveled to Tibet and was knowledgeable about the drug. The bottom line is that the standard dose is one tablet 250 mg twice per day beginning on the day of departure. As it takes some time to work, it should be taken in advance. Or as the doctor suggested, you can wait and see how you feel. Perhaps taking one per day, or even, if needed, taking 4 to get the drug working. With the one week trip, she strongly advised continuing until two days after return - by no means stop at departure, or stopping while at altitude.

Buying the china-made drug here, I didn't get any of the warning information, which included a concern if you feel a "humming" in your body. Now according to the travel information people my brother-in-law talked with, that is a normal side effect, and certainly one all of us taking the Diamox experienced. Within the first hour of taking the first dose, you have a strange sensation of a physical buzz or hum throughout your whole body. While the level of the buzzing subsided some over the week of taking the Diamox, it was always a bit in the background. It was particularly noticeable when smaller muscles were put to work, most commonly when we were eating, when the whole area around the mouth would tingle. Or the morning we wanted a ways to breakfast, and found our lower legs and feet buzzing through the meal. Rather an interesting feeling. Now, I'm not giving medical advice or suggesting this isn't a side effect that should be concerning for some people; so do check that out for yourselves. As for me, Diamox allowed me to fly right to altitude, feel reasonably comfortable breathing (as long as I moved at a leisurely pace), and avoid headaches (except when I drank the Lhasa Beer).

And so, with drugs in hand and arrangements deftly made through Tibetan Expeditions, six of us flew out of Shanghai on Sunday, Sept 30. Keep in mind that planes are pressurized to about 9000', on our descent into Lhasa we "climbed" an additional 2500'.

Link to Arriving in Tibet and Off to Tsetang

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