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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Mountain peril

July 22, 2009

By HILARY CHIEW
Malaysia Star
Wednesday July 22, 2009

Tibet is becoming a popular holiday destination for Malaysians but are
travellers equipped to handle ailments that can occur at high altitudes?

BEIJING, Chengdu and Hangzhou ? move aside. Currently, the hottest
destination in China is Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Notwithstanding that it is still experiencing a separatist movement, the
Himalayan region in China is arguably the most popular place to visit
currently for the Chinese populace of Malaysia who have ?seen everything
there is to be seen in China?.

?Now, they are excited over mystical Tibet,? says Ong Oon Lai, general
manager of Yangtze Cruise and Tour in Kuala Lumpur.

With greater air and land access, travelling to Tibet is no longer a
problem for the average traveller.

The only problem is the thin air. With more Malaysians ? who are not
typical alpine mountaineers who are well-informed of the perils of low
oxygen levels above 3,000m ? trooping into Tibet, many can expect to
have their first encounter with altitude illness or acute mountain
sickness (AMS).

Popular destination: A tourist having his picture taken with Tibetan
monks outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Tour activities are designed
for visitors to gradually adjust to higher altitudes.

AMS is a set of symptoms caused by the lower pressure and reduced amount
of oxygen at high altitudes.

The symptoms are headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue and
nausea, and in serious cases, extreme fatigue, impaired motor control
and fluid accumulation in the brain and lungs.

At the severe stage, one can develop high altitude cerebral edema
(HACE); this is when the brain swells and ceases to function properly.

HACE can progress rapidly and can be fatal in a matter of hours to one
or two days. Another form of severe altitude illness is high altitude
pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs.

Yangtze Cruise and Tour, which has been specialising in tour packages to
mainland China for 15 years, prescribes AMS guidelines for its clients.

?There are no activities planned for the first day of the tour. Upon
arrival at Lhasa, our clients are advised to rest and allow the body to
adjust to the change in altitude. Before departure, we give a briefing
on AMS to prepare them mentally and we provide a list of medications
that are commonly consumed to alleviate the symptoms,? says Ong.

Ong says the itinerary is planned in such a way that initial sightseeing
is confined to the 3,600m elevation.

The group, averaging 25 people, will only venture above 5,000m on the
third day and gradually push into the higher passes of 7,000m once
everyone is acclimatised.

Xining is the place to board the 1,956km Qinghai-Tibet rail service
which opened on July 1, 2006. Called the Lhasa Express, the world?s
highest railway line is an engineering feat as it passes through high
mountain passes and Qinghai Lake.

The most breathtaking scenery lies within the Golmud-Lhasa sector where
the train passes the highest railroad tunnel at 4,905m and half of the
track sits atop permafrost.

Ong says the rail service to Lhasa is a major attraction for many
Malaysians who are fascinated by the engineering marvel.

It was reported that more than half of the 1.5 million passengers who
rode the train to the ?roof of the world? in the first year were tourists.

The train is equipped with oxygenated air pumped into its carriages and
oxygen tubes beneath seats for passengers who suffer altitude sickness.

Ong, who guided his first tour group to Tibet more than 10 years ago,
says there was little knowledge about AMS back then.

?Luckily for us, there were a few doctors in the group and they educated
us on the illness. Over the years, we learn through direct handling of
AMS cases and I would say we have been able to manage our tours without
any untoward incidents.?

Tourists are not the only one exposed to the risks of AMS. Buddhists,
especially followers of Tibetan Buddhism, are flocking to the Himalayan
region for pilgrimage and social outreach programmes.

But with sound local connections and resources, these groups are
well-prepared for AMS and precautions are taken seriously.

Buddhist Gems Fellowship in Malaysia which organises social services
like installing water pumps and solar-powered generators in remote
Himalayan villages says volunteers are told to follow the prescribed
acclimatisation programme, which is to take things slowly when they
arrive at high altitudes.

Recalling a trip to Ladakh in the Indian Himalayan which he headed last
year, Fellowship president Datuk Dr Victor Wee says despite
acclimatisation, one-third of the group developed signs of AMS when they
moved to a higher altitude,

?However, the headache and nausea disappeared once we descended. At all
times, we advise members to be alert to the symptoms and perform
self-monitoring as some cases can become life-threatening.

?We have encountered a couple of acute cases which required
hospitalisation. Our local partners are also prepared portable oxygen
tanks for emergencies,? he adds.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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