“you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”
When you reach an altitude above a certain point, it becomes ok to drink the water from streams without filtering it or adding purification tablets, the thinking is that as long as there are no animals above you altitude wise, then there is nothing to pollute the water with any harmful bacteria.
Besides, if you are thirsty and the sun is bright in a pure blue sky, purification tablets take far too long to work. So as we were at about 5000m and the stream looked as crystal clear as any water I had ever seen, I filled my bottle and took a long oh so wonderfully refreshing drink. It tasted amazing, so pure and cold.
How was I supposed to know that above me up there in those mountains, on the roof of the world, was lurking some animal that had not been toilet trained?
It took another day and a half for us to complete our circuit of Mt. Kailash, according to over a billion people worldwide, the mountain that marks the center of the universe.
By the time we reached the small village that we had left 3 days before, I was regretting not waiting for those purification tablets.
However, I had no idea then just how much I was going to regret that long cool drink.
After a brief nights rest near the great lake Manasorova , involving smoking a spliff I had smuggled all the way from Pakistan and laying flat on my back staring up at a sky resplendent with more stars than I had ever seen in my life, the milky way clearly visible as a river of stars across the sky, we were again on the move.
As we rattled around in the back of the truck driving us along Tibet’s southern road toward Zhigatse (and I use the word road in its loosest possible sense), I was feeling worse and worse, periodically having to leap from the truck and search the enormous expanse of the empty plateau for anything resembling something to hide behind as I squirted out foul smelling and increasingly watery diarrhea.
My condition wasn’t helped by the fact that being a vegetarian in those parts meant that pretty much all I had had to eat or drink for the past few weeks was the disturbingly easy to procure cans of coca cola (why exactly can I buy Coca cola at 4000m , 2 days drive from the nearest village??) , the acquired taste of Tibetan butter tea and Chinese cup noodles with out the flavor packets added (for fear they contained meat or some pesticide illegal everywhere else in the world).
Four days later when I arrived in Lhasa, having waved goodbye to my brothers with whom I had completed the epic trip from Delhi, up through Pakistan on the Karakorum highway all the way to Khasghar, and then hitched illegally into to Tibet and down to that most incredible of mountains, I was really, quite seriously sick.
However, I was in Lhasa, a city I had dreamed of since I had first read stories of Tibet as a child ,Shangrila nestled high in the Himalayas, cut of from the rest of the world for thousands of years. Home of the Dali Lama and Tibetan Buddhism prior to his flight to India in 1959 when the unstoppable might of the Chinese had decided that actually Tibet was a part of China.
So I fought my body, ignored its insistence that I rest, and wandered wide eyed around the Bharkor and visited the Johkang temple everyday.
I only have a few pictures of myself from that time, but there is one particular picture that if I look at now, despite the fact that I am smiling, scares me at how much weight I had lost. I’m not what you’d call a well built man anyway, but I estimate now looking at the photo that I had already lost 5 or 6 kg of my 73kg body weight. More than you can afford to comfortably lose if you stand at over 6ft tall and are already skinny.
Eventually due to the impending expiry of my Chinese visa I had to leave.
I had made friends with a Japanese guy, who I now realize to all intents and purposes, I owe my life to. Together with him, I left Lhasa and headed towards Kathmandu in Nepal. There was a brief unscheduled stop in Zhigatse and a none too pleasant conversation with the Chinese police due to my stupidity at not properly comprehending that my ‘month’ Chinese visa was in fact a 30 day visa. It was due to expire the next day, and we were a full 2 days drive (If there were no mechanical troubles) from the Tibet/Nepal border.
After a scary few hours in a police station with several hundred dollars hidden in my underwear, telling the increasingly agitated communist bullyboy that I didn’t have the money to pay the $300 fine he was demanding to increase my visa by the 1 extra day I required to get me to the border, after he had taken every single Yuan I had on me (ok, that I had admitted having on me;-) and after he had made me write out a confession and seal it with a thumb print stating that I was a very naughty boy as I had traveled illegally into Tibet from western china (a fact I had let slip due to my worsening physical condition), we resumed our journey.
Finally we arrived in Kathmandu and checked into a guest house in Thamel, the infamous tourist enclave. My room was on the 4th floor of the Green Tara guest house, high enough that the view from my window displayed a panorama of Thamel roof tops resplendent with hand painted signs displaying the names of the hotels they belonged too.
By this time I was severely dehydrated due to the diarrhea , I had lost a further 2 or 3kg bringing my body weight down to roughly 65kg , and I was delirious , too weak to get out of bed.
‘Waka-its-me’ (as he liked to be called) my Japanese friend was bringing me water and food everyday and trying to get me to go to a doctor, but I was just too weak too move.
I slept fitfully, drifting in and out of consciousness. In my waking moments I gazed out across the roof tops of Thamel, seriously wondering if I was going to die.
There was one rooftop sign directly in my line of sight, it proudly displayed the name of the hotel in big yellow letters on a green background.
Every time I fell back to sleep the soundtrack to my crazy weird dreams was The Eagles singing their most famous song, rated as the 49th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Even today, some 7 years later, if I hear that song, and lets face it, its pretty hard to avoid, I am immediately transported back to that Kathmandu guest house room , a shiver runs up my spine and I feel its aural laxative effects loosen my bowels.
Despite what many class as my acerbic personality , there are in fact very few things I would say I truly hate, but I can honestly say I really, really hate that god damn song!!
FUCK HOTEL CALIFORNIA!!
In the end my Japanese brother and savior ‘Waka-its-me’ became so concerned about me that he brought a Romanian doctor who was staying at the same guest house to my room , she informed me I was dangerously dehydrated and that I had severe vitamin B and D deficiencies as well as Calcium deficiency. Together they took me to a Nepali hospital where I was given intravenous antibiotics and massive doses of vitamins B and D and Calcium.
It took me weeks of recuperating in Kathmandu, gradually eating more and more until I finally felt well enough to head down into India again to hook up again with my dear friend who I had completed the circuit of the mountain with. When we eventually met again in Delhi and I told him the story of what had happened after we parted company in Tibet, he simply said, ‘I told you not to drink that water’.
I learnt many things about myself on that trip but perhaps the most important was, for me at least, that its particularly important to listen to your good friends, as they almost always have your best interests at heart.
Oh and the other thing I learnt is that if I never ever hear another Eagles song, particularly the 49th best rock song ever written, as long as I live it will be too soon.
(Originally posted on The Tokyo Beats blog)