There is magic in Tibet’s air, they say. Stepping off the flight in Lhasa, the first glimpse of the valley—the varied hues and textures of the mountain slopes, and the misted peaks piercing the clear sky—took my breath away. I felt drawn by an imperceptible mystique to this fabled home of Buddhism, shut to the world for decades. I had held back from it for years, fearing that ‘roof of the world’ may prove fatal for me. The Tibetan capital’s altitude is over 3,600 m, and the imposing Karola Glacier, 190 km from Lhasa and visible from the highway to Shigatse, is more than 5,000 m above sea level.
Magic or not, the air is thin on oxygen. Slow, easy meditative steps, not breaking a sweat and eating light is one way of beating altitude sickness—breathlessness, headache, nausea, giddiness, exhaustion or a collapse—which I did suffer fleetingly. It can happen to anyone: young, old, sickly, healthy. But oxygen is always at hand, in hotels, restaurants, buses, taxis and all tourist haunts; and, so is medical support.