Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, March 14th

I wasn't scared
Or... Who will rid me of this turbulent piste?

The flight from Chengdu to Lhasa crosses the Himalayas.

Sounds like a straightforward statement, and it is - until you're actually in a plane on your way over them, and then it gains a little more depth of meaning. As we left the Chengdu plain, and punched through the clouds, I could at first see a little black triangle ahead, protruding above the cloud layer. Wow, I thought, that must be a mountain. But then M told me to look a little further, and I realised that this had just been a foothill of a foothill. The real foothills stuck up a good mile above the cloudline, and beyond them the mountains towered two or three miles above them.

As we flew into the range, they just went on, and on, and on, and on. Stretching to the horizon on all sides were thousands of snowy peaks of breathtaking scale, a vast, frozen, hurricane-tossed sea. And the wind that howls over them drives up into the layer that aeroplanes usually use to avoid turbulence. Thus a few minutes into the flight, the seatbelt lights came on and a warning about impending turbulence came on. Then the plane started to buck up and down - and sideways, which was new to me - extremely violently. M wasn't best pleased by this to say the least. And looking out of the window I realised that here, we were thousands of miles from safety. If the plane had a problem, there was nowhere to go: no sea landing, no landing in a field; no local airfield to put down in instead. Just barren, remote mountainsides...

Clearly looking out of the window wasn't doing me any good, so I perused the poorly translated in-flight magazine to learn that they'd been doing this for the past 40 years bla bla, expert pilots bla bla, specially adapted planes bla bla, this airline has crossed the Himalayas 46,000 times with a relatively good safety record. It was that word "relatively" that got me a little. Clearly a bad translation, I told myself. But with the engines of our Airbus occasionally screaming with more thrust, then easing off, then screaming again, and the wings flapping up and down like a eagle looking for a thermal, I have to admit to a couple of misgivings. But then, these people do this every day - there were four flights that left Chengdu for Lhasa that morning alone, within an hour of each other, and why the hell should this be the one to have problems, not to mention the 46,000 (relatively) successful journeys? This attempt at logic kept me outwardly calm while I reassured M that we'd be OK.

It was when the cabin crew came out with the breakfast trolleys and unflappably served apple juice without sloshing it over the edge of the cup, despite all the bouncing around, that I genuinely relaxed. And after an hour and a half, the distant, white snow-capped mountains turned instead to very close, brown foothills as we descended and headed into the valley where the airport is. The pilot put on the air brakes about a mile from the runway, then totally relaxed the thrust, and we just glided in, which genuinely impressed me.

Welcome to Lhasa

Lhasa is at 3,600 metres above sea level. The amount of oxygen in the air here is very much reduced compared to what we're used to, and as a consequence most people get some form of 'acute mountain sickness', or AMS. Some get it quicker than others too, so I should have realised something was amiss with M when she turned to me at the baggage reclaim, and her face was the same colour as her off-white down coat. We piled onto the Lhasa bus, but she was overtaken by nausea and had to get off, like NOW. I dived into the luggage compartment and grabbed our ruckies, as she staggered and all-but collapsed by the door. Her lips and eyelids were tinged with blue. Not good.

I went back into the airport and mimed an oxygen mask, and the ladies pointed upstairs. I legged it up two flights of stairs, which was a bit of a dodgy idea given the altitude, but thankfully my only symptoms were instant fatigue of my calf muscles. Managed to buy a couple of spray cans of oxygen, then returned to M on my wobbly legs, and she had a few blasts. After about 20 minutes the colour had come back into her cheeks, and we decided to get a more expensive cab, rather than a bus, so that if she became sick again we could at least get him to stop.

Our dodgy-looking gold-toothed cabbie stopped in a small village just outside the airport compound and loads of guys leaned in and jabbered at us. Eventually a PLA man got in the passenger seat of the car. We set off again, and as we drove on the main road to Lhasa (95km, which takes two hours), they started talking to each other, and then taking sidelong glances at us in the back. Suddenly the driver veered off the main road onto a gravel service track next to a large unfinished roadworks project, that was a partially completed highway on stilts across the vast flat marshy valley, ringed with mountains. We drove into the middle of the marshlands.

This was the second time that morning I wasn't scared, oh not at all. Perhaps it was that we'd had to get up before 5am to get our plane, or recovering from the severe adrenaline rush of the flight, but at this point, their unintelligible conversation and glances appeared in my fevered imagination to be as follows:

Dodgy Gold-Toothed Taxi Driver: I say, PLA Bloke, these two look like well-fed and rich foreigners, don't they!
PLA Bloke: [Glancing behind him] Oh I say, they do indeed, don't they, Dodgy Gold-Toothed Taxi Driver. What say you we drive into the remote Himalayan foothills, rob them, and do them in? Nobody will ever know.
DGTTD: Capital idea, old chap! Do you happen to have your weapon with you?
PLAB: I certainly do, my good fellow. Why not veer across the valley right here?

After about twenty minutes we arrived at the other side of the valley, drove up a gravel slope, and were facing a very long, very dark tunnel. Clearly this was where they were going to hide our bodies. A bored-looking PSB guard sat at a barrier in front of the tunnel, and the driver and soldier got out and started to banter with the guy. Another ten minutes later during which time I was considering stealing the car and going back the other way, since the keys were still in the ignition, the PSB guy told them to sling their hook. They got back in the car, turned around, and headed back across the marshes.

When we turned onto the main Lhasa road, the driver finally indicated that the tunnel, which hadn't been opened yet, was a short-cut through a range of mountains that we would now have to drive around. I laughed with relief at my stupidity and lack of trust, and indeed as we rounded the back of the range, I saw the other end of the tunnel from which we would have emerged, which short cut would have saved us about half an hour's driving. As it was the abortive trip had added an hour.

Eventually we got to Lhasa, and I glimpsed the Potala Palace for the first time and got a little frisson. I have waited to see this for many, many years. We finally checked into our hotel, the Pentoc Guesthouse, and as the medical advice had said, did nothing. We sat in the hostel café for four or five hours drinking water and coffee, then went to bed for a nap, M still feeling pretty weak, then back to the café, then back to bed. I got the insomnia that had been predicted, coupled with deep lower backache and stabbing pains in my left leg. Evenutally I drifted off, and I slept like a baby.

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