They say that if you are in Tibet, you’re sitting on top of the world. After spending 8 days here, I understand why. Tibet is the highest region on earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 metres above sea level. In comparison, Brisbane, Australia, where we live, sits at 28.4m above sea level.
Tibet has the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest, which peaks at 8,848m, the world’s highest Palace complex (the Potala Palace), the highest railway and railway station, the Qinghai -Tibet Railway and Tanggula Station (5,068m), and many of the world’s highest lakes.
All this elevation brings with it both natural beauty and practical life challenges. Let’s start with the beauty.
Question: What does a Tibetan mastiff and a baby mountain goat have in common?
Answer: They both thrive in high altitude and they both shared a photo with Anne and I.
Over three days in Tibet we travelled by road from Lhasa to Shigatse and on to Namtso Lake. Along the route we traversed a number of high mountain passes. The first was at 4,288m, and it was here where we met this very cute twosome. Tibetan mastiff’s, also known as “Dok-Khyi”, which translates to nomad dog, are used to protect herds, flocks, tents, viillages, monasteries and palaces (and also to extract money from tourists who are suckers for a cute photo). They genetically diverged from the wolf about 58,000 years ago. The one we got close and personal with was only 18 months old! He’ll be a big boy when he grows up.
Other passes we encountered on our road trip included the Kamba La pass (4,852m), which overlooks Yamdrok Lake, the Karu La pass (5,039m), the Shugu La pass (5,300m), the highest point on our journey, and the Ne Gen La pass (5,190m), which led us into Namtso Lake.
The stunning Yamdrok Lake, or Blue Lake, and Namtso Lake, both hold sacred significance to the Tibetan people, and as with the mountain passes, both sit at very high elevations. Yamdrok Lake covers 638 sq kms and sits at 4,441m above sea level, whilst the much larger Namtso Lake covers 1,920 sq kms and has an elevation of 4,718m. Surrounding these lakes, the mountainous country is home to peasant farmers and nomads. Holding sacred significance, the lakes also attract a steady stream of Pilgrims who come to practice their Buddhist beliefs.
We stayed the night at Namtso Lake, which happened to coincide with a special religious festival, so we had the opportunity to join the Pilgrims at sunset in their kora around the mountain which sits beside the Lake. We drove through a heavy snow storm to reach the Lake, but by sunset, the sky had cleared and we enjoyed some amazing sights on our kora. We also “enjoyed” the coldest and most sleepless night that I can ever remember, but that’s another story.
I was amazed to see how the local peasant farmers and nomads use this harsh terrain to grow their crops (barley flower), and care for their animals, mostly yak, sheep and goats, and generally in mixed herds. The majority of work in tilling the soil is still done using traditional methods, where bullocks or horses are used to pull the ploughs, and shepherds tend to their herd or flocks in all manner of terrain and climate – what a tough life they live.
This high altitude does present practical life challenges, especially to we tourists, who have not been bred for life on top of the world.
Oxygen levels at 5,300m, the height of Shugu La pass, are less than half of that found at sea level. Quoting a paper from the Australian Chief Scientist, “Any given volume of air is comprised of 79% nitrogen, 20.9% oxygen and 0.1% other gases, but as you get higher and higher above sea level, the pressure of the atmosphere decreases. So as you reach higher altitudes, the air expands. While the composition of the air stays the same, the expansion means that the air is ‘thinner’ – so in essence, at higher altitudes you inhale less oxygen and nitrogen molecules than you would at sea level.” The net effect of this, especially to those of us not fully acclimatised to high altitude, includes shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Thankfully, we didn’t experience the nausea, but the breathlessness and odd bout of dizziness will long be remembered.
I’m pleased that we took the trip to Tibet, but I don’t believe that these high altitude destinations and I have a future together.
Whilst I didn’t need it, it was comforting to know that our tour vehicle carried an oxygen bottle, which stayed at the foot of my bed at Namtso Lake, and can you believe it, disposable oxygen bottles were available for purchase at the corner store.