South China Morning Post   SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 21, 2002

A new decade, a new challenge for Ruth Lor Malloy, who muses on the process of ageing
from a sacred mountain in Tibet

Life as a journey of learning

HOW DO YOU WANT to celebrate your 70th birthday? asked my husband. ‘‘Kailash,’’ I answered without
hesitation. Then added – since I thought they were in the neighbourhood
– ‘‘Guge Kingdom, Everest Base Camp and Rombuk.’’
   Mike shook his head, dismissing the idea as crazy. ‘‘Can a 70-year old hike at an altitude of 5,700 metres?’’ he asked.
 ‘‘But I’ve already been to Tibet three times,’’ I argued. ‘‘I know I can take the altitude.’’
‘‘Yes, but not 5,700 metres.’’
  For decades, I had felt drawn to Kailash. It was my ‘‘Bali Hai’’,the mystical place with the strange-sounding name.
  Buddhists, Hindus and Jains consider it the navel of the world;
it is the source of four major rivers. They believe that the sins of pilgrims who walk around it are forgiven. I didn’t believe the
part about the sins, but wondered if I should.
   Getting old doesn’t frighten me. Each new experience – arthritis,body immune disease – is an opportunity to learn. I didn’t really start celebrating milestones with events until I was 70.
   When I was 67, Mike and I trekked 10 days in Mustang, in Nepal, a trip we prepared for by hiking 10km to 15 km a day on weekends. I have always been quite active but at the age of 67 I started to work out in a gym twice a week. As a result, I felt fitter than ever. Stairs became  opportunities,  not burdens.
   Age is not the end of learning, but a chance to learn from another perspective. I was born with an insatiable curiosity, always anxious to see what lies around the next corner and to find out why things happen.
    The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go – this year – before my ageing Chinese-Canadian body would stop me.   Seventy was old. Up to 69 was only ‘‘middle-aged’’. Besides, I felt great from the gym workouts. 
    If the three-day trek part of the trip proved to be too strenuous, I argued, of course I wouldn’t at-tempt it. I knew something about altitude sickness. I write guide books on China and had researched a large section on it.
   Money was available, my money, a legacy from my mother. Mike, by then resigned to my trip, suggested that our 31-year-old son Terry go along ‘‘to take care of you’’. It was an opportunity to get to know Terry better. I also asked friends to join us. Everyone wanted to go, but only three others could. One friend wrote back: ‘‘The Karmapa Lama says next year would be a better year.’’ Worried, I telephoned the Dalai Lama’s office in New York. ‘‘Which Karmapa? There are two,’’ said the nice lady who answered. ‘‘We haven’t heard any-thing like that. Yes, you should go.’’

Ruth in Tibet

POSTCARD FROM THE EDGE: At 70, Ruth Lor Malloy's enthusiasm for life let her to Tibet - the land of mystical peaks, high altitude and the sacred, snow-covered Kailash mountain 
   We arrived in Lhasa on July 1 and spent the first three days
there at an altitude of 3,600 metres. My sister, Valerie Mah, a
Toronto public school principal, had brought along a golden-haired, blue-eyed baby doll, and children and adults everywhere beamed with delight upon seeing it. It made us a lot of new friends.
   Some of us tried to follow the rules – drink plenty of fluids, walk
in slow motion, and don’t overly exert yourself. No jogging. We postponed the scheduled trip up the many stairs of the Potala Palace to day three. Some of us downed Diamox pills and altitude tea, said to help our bodies adapt. In hindsight, a fourth night in Lhasa would have been better, though three years before I had seen a traveller collapse just off the plane.
    We started out by Jeep to visit the monasteries and forts in
Gyantse and Shigatse, about 200 km from Lhasa, and enjoyed
our first 5,000-metre pass without mishap. We photographed our
first yaks and a glacier. Multi-coloured prayer flags snapped
loudly on top of the passes. Worshippers take advantage of the
funnelled winds to continuously send prayers to the gods.
   We marvelled at the gold-trimmed chapel built for the remains
of the most recently deceased Panchen Lama. In Shigatse too, we loved the Manasarovar Hotel and the Indian restaurant next door.
    Our trip was 26 days long and covered 2,600 km west to Zanda (Tsada), south to Everest Base Camp and then north to Lhasa on bumpy, unpaved roads. We also needed time to get used to the rising elevation. Except for one night, we did not sleep more than the recommended 400 metres above the night before.
We stayed in hotels or tents. Beyond Shigatse, we usually
camped. We had a cook, an English-speaking guide, two Toyota
Land Cruisers, a back-up truck and three drivers, all Tibetan.
    With a dining tent, a kitchen tent, and a toilet tent, we were exceptionally comfortable. Other tourists envied us, especially our yaks, on the kora – the walk – around Kailash.
    Despite the hard ground, the occasional frosty mornings, and
lack of hot showers and laundry, tents were much better, and our
own kitchen much cleaner. Twice we crawled into sleeping bags
within sight of snow-covered Kailash, and once we spent the
night beside sacred Lake Manasarovar.
    Great herds of yaks, sheep and goats sauntered by us sometimes at dusk and at sunrise. One morning, we awoke to find hundreds of pilgrims walking briskly past our
tents, bent on covering the 53 km around Kailash in one day.
Terry, who felt he was in the best shape of his life before the
trip, was the first to get really sick.
    On day five, his arms and legs felt prickly, as if they were asleep. When the tingling moved to his heart and lungs, he began to fear for his life.  
        Maybe it was his 1.8 metre frame, the soccer, or the hill he had climbed very, very slowly, much too early in the trip. His body was not adjusting.

    Feeling  better after a dose of Diamox and tea, he headed back to Lhasa while the rest of us continued westwards and upwards. 
    He later told us that his taxi driver stopped at a clinic which treated him with oxygen and acupuncture. Back in Lhasa, it took him three days to recuperate. 
     Walter Lai, our 38-year-old taekwando black belt, was the next to feel the elevation. At Darchen, at the base of Kailash, he had diarrhea and felt chest pains. Our guide took him to the Swiss Red Cross clinic where a Tibetan doctor said his heart was beating too hard.     
    After treatment, lots of meditation, and two days’ bed rest, he was fine.
  Without the men, we remaining three old ladies started our 11th day in Tibet out riding yaks along the path circling the base of the holy mountain. 
    We covered about 12 km. Guide books had said the first day was easy but we found when we hiked that even the slightest slope was still difficult. 
    By then we knew we could not even ride
around it in the scheduled three days, nor was that important to us.
   What was important was that we had seen the sacred and beautiful mountain, a natural pyramid, and the magnificent scenery.
    I left Tibet feeling that 70 wasn’t the end of strenuous travel after all. Maybe next year I’ll try to go all the way around Kailash.
    When Terry said he also wanted to go back to Tibet, I remembered what I had written in my guide book.         
    Altitude sickness
‘‘seems to hit the young and strong more than the old and weak’’.
‘‘Maybe you’d better wait until you’re 70,’’ I said.

Ruth Lor Malloy is the author of China Guide, now in its 14th edition

Ms. Malloy is author of "China Guide" a regularly updated travel guidebook on China.


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