Altitude Sickness in Lhasa, Tibet

My left arm is connected to an IV as I lay in my hotel bed at the Saint Regis in Lhasa, Tibet.  The resident hotel doctor has determined I have altitude sickness and announces that after urinating twice I’ll feel better.  Even in my misery, her words are registered, as bizarre as they sound.  I pray they are true. This is not how I expected to spend my first day in Tibet. 

I should be with my tour group visiting the monastery not having needles poked in my art.  My body aches.  I have a fever and feel like I have the flu.  My hotel room is bigger than some people’s homes, but I’m not enjoying any part of it.  At least the bed with luxury sheets and down pillows is comfortable. Apparently even seasoned athletes are not immune to the effects of being at a lofty 3.2 KM high (2 miles).

Lhasa, Tibet
Lhasa, Tibet

A fellow traveler who happened to be a nurse offered us some Diamox pills the week before which help prevent altitude sickness.  Since she had a limited supply to go around, I declined due to my ignorance.  I was jogging several days a week and in great health.  Yup, I’m pretty much an idiot.

The minute I stepped off the plane in Lhasa I began to gasp for air.  Having little energy, even walking was a chore. It’s quite a strange sensation psychologically when something so essential to human life like air is in such short quantity.   Thankfully due to a bit of patience I was gradually able to acclimatize enough to make it through customs, immigration and eventually to my hotel and to bed.  I hoped after a good night’s sleep I would recover and be ready to go early the next morning.

Lhasa, Tibet
Lhasa, Tibet

Unfortunately at 5am the next morning I woke up more miserable than before.  It felt like I had a bad case of influenza with a headache, pain and pure misery. Luckily my hotel, the Saint Regis, not only has a doctor on staff, it also offers an entire medical wing.   Who would have thought?

Apparently altitude sickness is very common in Lhasa. So regular, the physician predicted my exact recovery time.  After one hour on the IV and two trips to the toilet I was mostly back to normal.  Amazing.  Only half a day was lost, thus allowing us to explore one of the most unique places on the planet.

Never again will I take for granted the risks of altitude sickness.  In some cases it can be fatal if not timely and properly addressed.  Next time I will certainly get a prescription for Diamox before traveling to over 10,000 feet.  IV therapy is one the best ways to hydrate your body and replenish your system with needed vitamins and minerals.

I wonder how these sherpas climb Mt. Everest which is also in Tibet.  They have acclimated to the lack of oxygen, but how to you combine little breathable air and freezing temperatures?  I think I’ll stick to less strenuous activities at high elevations.

Trying on a Robe in Lhasa, Tibet
Trying on a Robe in Lhasa, Tibet
Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet
Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet
Visitor to the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet
Visitor to the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Happy travels,

Matt Weatherbee

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Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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