Have you ever had one of those absolutely perfect travel days?
The kind that you wish you could go back and do over again, in exactly the same way?
I had one of those days when I crossed the China/Nepal border, on the road to Kathmandu from Tibet.
And it was all because I was drunk.
Struggling to breathe
Most of the Tibetan plateau lies at 4,000m (13,000 feet) and above.
While at this height the concentration of oxygen in the air is the same as at sea level, reduced barometric pressure means that with each breath you take in at least 40% less oxygen molecules than you would at sea level.
Deprived of adequate oxygen, this is when hypoxia can kick in.
It’s a little bit like being drunk. Your reactions are slower. Playing cards or making basic calculations or decisions takes longer. You might have a headache and you’ll definitely feel short of breath.
You might feel nauseous and sometimes even euphoric.
The only way to alleviate the symptoms is to rest at the same altitude or to descend.
So I blame hypoxia, and then intense oxygen saturation, for my perfect day.
Leaving the Tibetan plateau we crossed one last high pass where the Himalaya and Annapurna mountain ranges stood before us like a line we had to cross.
It’s so high barely anything grows and there are two dominant colours: icy blue and icy grey. The exterior of buildings in Tibet are usually white-washed – it’s only the interior where bright colour is allowed free reign.
While in Tibet a few people in the group had come down with AMS, and we were all looking forward to a night’s sleep that wasn’t broken by the kick-starting of our hearts or breath. Waking up every hour on the hour feeling as if you’re suffocating isn’t really a pleasant way to spend your nights.
Although we had spent several weeks living above 4,000m, we discovered that your body never entirely adapts.
From Everest Base Camp at Rongbuk it had been almost a full day’s drive to the border town at Zhangmu.
Almost 2 vertical kilometres lower than the rest of Tibet, the town is built into the hillside on the China/Nepal border. It was here that we slept in proper beds, ate real food and used western-style toilets for the first time in two weeks.
The drunken descent to Kathmandu
The following morning, we said goodbye to our Tibetan drivers, got stamped out of China and into Nepal and began the descent to the Kathmandu valley, another 1,000 metres lower than the border town.
I was sad to leave Tibet behind but reminded myself that I wasn’t leaving the mountains – Nepal is still smack-bang in the middle of the Himalaya and Kathmandu is still well above sea level.
I’d just finally be able to breathe.
The first thing I noticed once we began our winding and precarious descent was the colour, the noise and the heat.
The second thing was how strange noticing this made me feel.
There were trees – thickets of them. And they were green.
The sun climbed high in the sky and a warm wind came in through the open windows, whipping my hair about my face as we barreled blindly around corners.
I could hear insects and the squeal of brakes and crazy car horns. The road dropped down into a gorge and for a few hours we travelled alongside a river, stopping to watch bungee jumpers throw themselves off a bridge.
I had my first thali of the trip when we ate lunch beside the river. Although winter was coming it was hot, and we stripped down to our t-shirts. For the first time in weeks, I felt sun on my skin.
And here’s where it gets a bit strange.
I wanted to run around like an idiot or roll over and over in the grass – because I could. As an Australian, sunshine is usually no big deal to me. But until that moment, I’d had no idea how much I’d missed the heat. I was uncharacteristically giddy. Exhilarated, even.
And I realised why.
The air was full of it and my lungs could breathe it without struggling. I was drunk on it.
If hypoxia makes you sluggish, all this extra oxygen had given me a burst of energy.
In the coming days I would have to deal with the emotional and physical stresses that my high altitude experience had placed on my being.
But for now, my red blood cells were doing some kind of happy dance and the rest of my body wanted to do it too.
I wanted the bus ride to last forever.