Over a decade ago, which in that paradoxical way seems like another lifetime and also just yesterday, I made a pilgrimage to Tibet. It was the trendy new age thing to do, for moneyed, jaded, guiltily successful and therefore spiritual people (actually I was the only one like that on this particular journey, everyone else was really cool). Follow the path clearly marked by Hollywood truth seekers like Richard gere and take your rich ass to Tibet. It costs a bundle to even consider it, the long flights and the multiple layovers and tariffs and visas and expensive hotel rooms which don’t really see that many tourists, not then anyway and not now certainly.
The best that lhasa offers is a bleak corporate Holiday Inn, which featured delicious yak burgers on the menu, of which during the duration of my Tibetan sojourn, I ate at least a good two dozen, and the room and the burgers were pricey. At least the oxygen that I ordered in two industrial rubber pillows each night was free, however I paid through the nose at the hotel room minibar for portable Japanese-made canisters of oxygen shrinkwrapped and enticingly displayed next to frighteningly ancient and whitish Pocky sticks and other odd foreign sweets.
You have to supplement your air there. It’s not enough to breathe, at least for an air hog with giant lungs like myself. Upon arrival in lhasa, at an elevation of 10,000 feet I developed an intense migraine, which rose over my left eye and stayed throughout my trip like a reallycloseroommate. Taking in huge lungfuls of the rubber tasting room service air or the clean flavored but stingy japan can air I would be relieved of the pain for just a moment, only as long as it took for the oxygen to pass through my lungs into my heart and throughout all of my circulatory system. The pain would be back as soon as the cells concerned had exchanged the o2 for co2. That makes for one shit vacation.
You go to inhale and nothing happens, and I can’t tell you how fucked and weird and scary that is, and I don’t know how the locals managed it, the people who looked so like me, with their round faces and red cheeks. The only difference is that their eyes were green but other than that they looked totally Korean. The people were beautiful and poor, as I am sure they still are, and their impressive and captivating smiles faded the further we travelled from the cities, when our appearance as loudly present and soulsearching American tourists became more of a burden than a fortuitous and profitable ingress.
I look back on my trip and the one souvenir I still have is that headache, that will return to me now and again, especially when I haven’t eaten or slept enough. I feel it rise again above that eye and I think, “ah, Tibet.”. The souvenir left behind in my hotel room, perhaps in gyantse, as I didn’t think I could have smuggled it through the tightly and tensely guarded Chinese borders, was a ceremonial bowl made from a human skull I had impulsively purchased outside one of the stupas when I was high from near suffocation and oxygen deprivation. I bought it thinking the pain in my head would be sympathetically relieved by the acquisition of someone else’s head, which may not make sense to you but you have all that air around you and then I had none so you can’t judge me.