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Come Hell or Heaven: Heading to the Roof of the World

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 14, 2009 with 2 Comments

After many years of traveling, I am always ready to expect the unexpected. That’s part of the adventure.

I travel independently most of the time. So not only do I have the freedom to change my plans when I am on the road, but I can also adapt to those unexpected events without worrying too much.

But for this particular trip to Tibet and Bhutan, hiring a travel agency was the only way I could visit. I was not joining a tour group, though. I would still go by myself, but would have to follow an agenda fixed by the tour companies.

My tour in Tibet started on Monday, and my train to Lhasa—for which the ticket cost almost $200 and was not refundable—was scheduled to leave on November 15th at 9:30 pm.

While on board a flight from JFK to Tokyo, the captain informed us that we had to change planes due to a technical problem. I looked at my watch and quickly did the math. Even with a three-hour delay, I could fly to Tokyo, and from there connect to the next flight to Beijing. I still would be on time to catch the train to Lhasa.

We were ready to depart in another plane when the captain announced that this plane also had a technical problem. The flight was canceled.
Time was running out, and I had to make it to Beijing by Sunday noon at the latest. Missing the train to Lhasa would have had implications; negotiating with the travel agency in Tibet didn’t worry me as much as the high altitude sickness. I learned my lesson about altitude sickness back in 2006 in Nepal. My flight to Lukathe—the starting point for a trek in Everest National Park—was canceled for two days in a row due to weather, so when I finally arrived, I didn’t rest. I hiked straight to Namche. Usually it takes two days to get there, but my guide, Sherpa Phurba, and I did it in one day. We stayed there for the night. At midnight, a sharp pain in my chest woke me, as if a knife plunged into my lungs. That was the first symptom of altitude sickness. I could hear the slow beats of my heart with every painful breath. It was a long night, as I hoped I would make it to morning so I could tell Sherpa about it and see what we could do.

I felt better in the morning. Being such a determined and stubborn person—and maybe a bit irresponsible—I told Sherpa I would keep climbing. I wanted to go as high as we could. The symptoms worsened, and at Tengboche, we had to go back down.

I didn’t want to experience altitude sickness again during my trip to Tibet. Getting to Lhasa by the sky train would be exciting—I definitely wanted to experience the ride on the highest train on earth! But that wasn’t the only reason I chose the train instead of flying. I also wanted to give my body time to adapt to the high altitude, and the 48-hour train ride could help me acclimate before arriving in Tibet.

So when the airline confirmed that the flight was canceled, I immediately checked my Blackberry for alternative routes. I had less than 48 hours to get to Peking. I couldn’t miss my train to Lhasa!

Fortunately, I managed to get on a flight from JFK to Los Angeles. From there, I would fly to Beijing. It was a longer flight, but I would arrive in Beijing at 5:30 am. I would still have time to catch my train.

After a very bumpy flight, I arrived in LA and connected to my flight to China.

“Is this your first time in China?” a Chinese lady sitting next to me asked.

“No, I visited China in 2001. I went from Beijing all the way down to Yangshou,” I responded.

With Ellen

With Ellen


“Where are you going now?” she continued.

“I am going to Tibet.”

“Tibet now? No good! Too cold!” She pointed at my winter jacket, frowning. “That is not enough! Go to Yunnan or Sichan, beautiful and good weather.”

Her name was Ellen Yu, and she was a museum designer from Beijing. She was married with a 10-year-old boy. She was 40, but looked much younger. She had a rounded face and white porcelain skin. Ellen had come to Los Angeles for a shopping spree.

“Gucci, Versace, much cheaper in the US, China too expensive!” she assured me, smiling.

I knew Ellen must be an influential woman. Not every Chinese person can travel abroad, much less afford those brands. Later, she told me her husband worked for the government, something to do with gold coins.

“Not good food in Tibet, better food in China,” she pointed out.

“I am a vegetarian,” I offered.

“Oh no, bad bad bad,” Ellen said.

“So, you are saying that I am going to freeze and starve in Tibet? That sounds like my kind of vacation!” I teased.

Ellen put her hands to her mouth and started giggling.

Ellen told me she liked to go on vacation to places where she could eat well and go shopping. She thought I was brave to go to Tibet.

“Do you have a boyfriend? Husband?” she asked.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“No boyfriend? No husband? What’s wrong?” Ellen asked again.

She seemed so mortified by my trip to Tibet, and then by my single status, that I couldn’t help laughing.

“It is okay, Ellen. I did fall in love with a boy, but he didn’t fall in love with me.”

“He didn’t like you?” she asked seriously.

“I am sure he does like me, but he is not in love with me. We had a romance that lasted for a while. I thought I could handle a romance with him without getting emotionally involved. But I am way too romantic, Ellen. I realized months later that I had fallen in love with him, and I didn’t even know it! There was no future with him, though, so I had to end the romance to open my heart to someone else. But I am okay. I am sure I will meet someone.”

“You are a strong woman, but with a soft heart,” she said. “Do you like Chinese boys? They are good husbands. My husband is not pretty, but his heart is only for me. He cooks. He gives gifts to me. Before we married, he sent me flowers every day.”

“My boy never gave me flowers. Maybe I should try a Chinese boyfriend!“ I said, laughing.

“Take my phone number in case of an emergency. If you feel bad or have a cold in Tibet, come to Beijing immediately. Call me.” She wrote down all her numbers and her email in my diary.

“Do you have any plans for today? I don’t work so I can take you around,” Ellen offered.

I was moved by her kindness, but I wanted to spend the few hours I had in Beijing with a good friend and his family.

“Thanks, Ellen. I have plans with my friend for today. I will call you when I come back to Beijing.”

We arrived in Beijing after a 13-hour flight. My friend couldn’t pick me up at the airport. I was going to take a taxi, but Ellen offered to take me instead. I didn’t want to cause her or her husband any inconvenience. It was 5:30 am, and my friend lived 45 minutes from the airport.

“No problem,” Ellen assured me. “I worry about you. I am your Chinese sister. Changing money is very difficult now. My husband will take you to your friend’s apartment.”

We passed through immigration and went to pick up our luggage. Ellen pushed a cart with her three expensive bags, wearing her designer jacket. Next to her, I pushed a cart with my old battered (and dirty) backpack.

Tou, her husband, was thrilled to see her, waving his hands and smiling. He didn’t speak English, so Ellen had to translate everything I said to him. We walked to the parking lot and jumped in the car.
“We will have breakfast first. You must be strong before you go to Tibet. Good Chinese breakfast for you,” Ellen said.

Beijing never stops amazing me. In 2001, I was surprised that it was such a cosmopolitan city. Now, eight years later, it is more cosmopolitan than ever. The airport is a piece of art—modern, sophisticated, and clean. It looks like a glass stadium. The highways are impeccable and have several lanes. Skyscrapers are everywhere. The thousands of bikes on the streets back in 2001 have been replaced with cars!

We stopped at a small restaurant, where Tou ordered. “Dumplings okay?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said.

Ellen and Tou bought the dumplings, two eggs, and soup. My soup looked like raw egg whites with little yellow dots. I tried it, and the texture and taste were terrible.

“Add some sugar,” said Ellen, pouring some into my bowl.
It didn’t help with the taste, but I ate it because I didn’t want to be rude. The dumplings were great, though, and helped with the bad taste of the soup.

With Ellen and her husband, having a Chinese breakfast

With Ellen and her husband, having a Chinese breakfast

After breakfast, they drove me to my friend’s apartment.

“Take this,” said Ellen, giving me a heavy winter jacket. “You need it for Tibet.”

I couldn’t believe Ellen was giving me her long winter jacket. I gave her and Tou a hug and thanked them again for taking care of me.

“Call if you need anything, please,” said Ellen as I walked toward the entrance of my friend’s building.

And then I finally met my friend, Sherlock.

The last time I saw him was in 2002 in New York City. His parents are Chinese, but he was born and raised in NYC. We met in Boston in 1994 when I moved to the United States to study English. He was studying business. He was like a brother to me. We partied hard that year in Boston, and we partied hard when I later visited him in New York City.
But now my friend is a family man. He has a lovely wife and son. Seeing him in this new role was moving. Slevin is the miniature version of Sherlock. My eyes watered when I first saw the little boy. It’s a shame I can’t spend more time with Sherlock’s family. But the road awaits. Only a few hours left before I take the sky train, crossing high mountains through China to reach the Roof of the World.

I am a step closer to the Himalayas . . .

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2 Comments

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  1. Sounds fantastic Dani! You’re so lucky to make such good friends on your travels. I’m so happy you made it to Beijing on time to catch your train and I hope, wholeheartedly, that you have a safe and fabulous time! Much love and blessings to you, dear. Namaste =] xxxxxxx

  2. Hi Dani

    Had a good laugh reading your encounter with Ellen! Very Chinese! Look forward to your next blog. Cheryl

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