A whiff of Yak Butter

In 2001, we toyed with the idea of going to Afghanistan, piqued by awesome mountain ranges depicted in National Geographic magazines. We procrastinated. The rest was history. So when our long-time friend said he was planning to go to Tibet, we asked to tag along. Something to do, before our knees grow weak.


The plan was to fly from Chengdu, and meet our Chinese friends in Lhasa. As usual, we procrastinated in arranging for a travel agency, and our Chinese friends decided to take over. Good decision:http://xizangzhonglv.cn

Not only was it cheaper to book from China, but easier to get a visa. This is not the cheapest, but probably one of the more reputable agencies as safety was key. We had a Chinese driver who was very experienced and a safe pair of hands as the roads along the mountain ranges prove treacherous. He made the right decisions on when to slow down given the weather conditions (hail storms), even in June. He was very knowledgeable. Our only peeve was that he brought us to touristy restaurant on the first day, a Mao themed mushroom hot-pot restaurant, against our instructions not to go anywhere near tourist spots. At times, he was dismissive of the local Tibetan guide.

We were happy with our Tibetan guide. A single man in his late twenties, he appeared sincere. Originally a writer of Tibetan books, he is now a tour guide to share aspects of Tibetan lifestyle. (The real reason could be that tourism is possibly one of the more economically viable professions in developing economies.) But at times, it was difficult to understand him and his interpretation of Tibetan rituals and symbols. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t understand my and Wikipedia’s anglicised Tibetan words.

1. Get an altitude sickness pill. You need a prescription note from your doctor although his clinic (mine doesn’t) may not carry it. The larger pharmacies such as Guardian carry it but will only dispense the right amount indicated by the doctor.

2. Take the altitude sickness pill one day before your arrival. [The GP I got the note from, didn’t believe in the altitude sickness pill, thinking it was possibly a placebo. I just wanted to be careful. My husband and I didn’t get any side effects. But a young Chinese friend who was fit and very tenacious suffered very badly, with daily vomiting until she had to be admitted to a local hospital and put on drip. We were told that altitude sickness affect the fit more than the lazy. I can’t confirm this theory, or if it was the pill that saved us. Some Caucasian tourists we met at the hotel, got it the same night they arrived in the city.

3. The pill doesn’t work, once the altitude sickness sets in. Check immediately into the local hospital. Our friend recovered one hour after she was hooked on the drip, that we wondered why we allowed her to suffer 3 extra days.

4. If you can afford the time, spend a few days at a slightly high altitude place like Lijiang. If we had more time, we’d have wanted to take the slow train up from Chengdu, to acclimatise better, but were told by others that it didn’t make a difference.

5. Keep warm and drink plenty of warm water. The oxygen inhaler tank doesn’t work for those seriously affected. Temporary alleviation of discomfort. We used it only because we bought it.


Oxygen tanks in room

6. Drink warm ginger tea. Wear warm clothing. Altitude sickness affects people differently. A group of Singaporeans in their 60s on a Buddhism pilgrimage died of altitude sickness. While the PRC Chinese tourists bring their young children who’ve no problems.

7. Avoid making comments about the PRC-Tibet relations. We are guests afterall.

8. Some Asian people have aversion to butter. Be warned that yak butter candles are constantly lighted.

9. Carry your passport with you as some tourist sites demand to see your passports.

10. Be respectful towards Tibetans. Do not use aggressive hand gestures such as pointing your fingers to emphasise a point. Many will not like you to take their photographs.


Cheese made from yak butter.


Diluted yak tea. Sign of gracious hospitality in harsh conditions where you walk very far before you run into your neighbours.


Yaks. Now a photo opportunity rather than beasts of burden.



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