Destinations, Nepal, Tibet

Getting drunk on the road to Kathmandu

May 8, 2011

The last town in Tibet on the China/Nepal border

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 Tibet

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.

Overlooking the Annapurna range from our last high point in Tibet
The Tibetan plateau is like the moon.

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.

Leaving the Tibetan plateau for the thicker air of Nepal

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.

Crossing our last high pass on the way down to Kathmandu from Tibet

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.

Zhangmu, on the Tibet/Nepal border is almost two kilometres lower than the Tibetan plateau

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.

Lush and green on the road to Nepal

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.

Several thousand metres closer to sea level in Nepal on the road to Kathmandu
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.

Oxygen.

The air was full of it and my lungs could breathe it without struggling. I was drunk on it.

At a lower elevation in Nepal, the Himalaya finally looks the way it's supposed to - big!

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.

Have you ever had a perfect travel day?


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16 Comments

  • Reply Adrienne @Shenventure May 12, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I love your recap of this experience. Very vivid and I can imagine being there…even down to the part where I’m struggling to breathe! I’ve had great travel days so far, but probably none as memorable as this was for you =).

    • Reply MeganRTW May 13, 2011 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks Adrienne. This really does stick out in my mind as one of the most fun and all-round-awesome days of my trip. Am sure there are plenty to come for you guys!

  • Reply Evan May 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Agh. This is amazing. I have wanted to travel this area for as long as I can remember. Subscribing to your RSS!!

    • Reply MeganRTW May 16, 2011 at 7:11 pm

      It was an incredible experience – I’d wanted to visit the region for a really long time and once I was there I had a hard time fathoming that it was actually happening. You guys are pretty close to the Himalaya there in Korea – you should hop over there for a bit!

  • Reply Peter West Carey May 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for the view. I hope to take that road some day. And yes, it can make you very sluggish, can’t it?

    • Reply MeganRTW May 16, 2011 at 7:07 pm

      It really is an amazing trip, if you get the chance you should definitely take it.
      I found the effects of altitude so bizarre. I did a three day trek above 4,900m and we only walked 56kms in total! I was just literally unable to go any faster.

  • Reply Tricia May 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    What a great blog post! I live in Shanghai but am currently planning my summer trip to Nepal and will be taking a similar journey hopefully! Thanks for the information and post! 🙂

    • Reply MeganRTW May 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks Tricia. So jealous that you’re living in Shanghai, I’d love to live in Asia.

      Nepal is an amazing place – it’s one country I know I’ll continue to go back to throughout my life. Let me know if you’d like any tips and I’d be happy to help 🙂

  • Reply Vishal May 19, 2011 at 2:09 am

    I’m glad you really liked Nepal. It should be made visa-free. It has the potential to be a great destination and contribute much more to the national economy. Glad it was fun though. One European girl I met told me she didn’t like Pokhara because it reminded her of Europe! Weird.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm

      Hi Vishal! Nepal doesn’t have the potential to be a great destination – it IS a great destination 😀 Having to get a visa doesn’t deter me from travelling there – as an Australian it’s very easy to get up to 6 months on arrival by land or by air.

      Can’t believe that girl told you she thought Pokhara was like Europe…maybe she’d spent a little bit too much time smoking in one of the reggae bars… 😉

  • Reply Vishal May 20, 2011 at 7:24 am

    Ha! I should have asked her. 😛

  • Reply GRRRL TRAVELER May 27, 2011 at 2:39 am

    Wow Megan, your hypoxia sounds like a blast compared to mine. Funny, I was at the Tibeto-Indian counterpart– Leh/Ladakh area when you posted this! I had difficulty acclimating too. When I went to sleep at night, I’d find myself puffing like I just ran a marathon. I’m totally envious that you went to Tibet tho!

    • Reply MeganRTW May 28, 2011 at 9:05 am

      Hi Christine – oh believe me, I had some pretty miserable nights, too! I had to sleep with my head and chest elevated and I still woke with that suffocating feeling every couple of hours. How was Leh?? I would have loved to go up there when I was in India, but it was the dead of winter so probably not the best time…! Did you fly up or take the bus? It’s the first place I’m going the next time I go back to India.

  • Reply Bill Raney March 7, 2012 at 5:58 am

    Does anybody know about that ttrail up from India all the way up to Mt. Kailash in Tibet? My wife and I took a truck up to there, on a different route, back in the mid Eighties.

    • Reply MeganRTW July 14, 2012 at 7:01 pm

      Hi Bill, thanks for commenting. That must have been an amazing trip – I’m not sure what the route from India is like today – most people either come up from Nepal or across from Lhasa these days (I travelled by landcruiser for four days from Lhasa).

  • Reply Bill Raney July 15, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Wow, Megan, getting drunk at that altitude must have been a truly weird experience! Speaking of weird, it is also weird that you and I have both been to so many of the same off-the-beaten-track places. My wife and I went to Tibet back in the late 1980s, I believe it was. We hooked up with a bunch of Budhist-American types in Katmandu who were about to join one of the annual pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash for Saka Dawa, the Buddha’s birthday party. We took a truck up over that pass to the Northeast of Katmundu that climbs up into Tibet on the road to Lhasa, where we spent a few days before continuing eastward to Kailash, from where we visited those two small lakes, the names of which I cannot remember. My wife and I were both in our sixties back then, but the people we were with were much younger, and had gone there to do a kora–I don’t think I have that word right–by trekking around Mt. Kailash. At the end of that road, there were supposted to have been some Yaks waiting for us so we could ride around Mt. Kailash on a Yak, although I am sure you would not get nearly as much good karma if you did your kora that way. So we had to stay in our little pup tent on the edge of a litttle village until everyone returned. Oh well, it was an unforgettable trip, not because it was so easy, but because it was such a fine adventure. I am certain you know what I mean.
    Bill Raney
    Santa Cruz, California

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