THE NEXT HOME LEAVE, two years later, and Dad has another exciting trip planned: an arduous journey to Tibet! Not that he’s discussed it with me; boarding a plane to Lhasa was unexpected, and I have had no preparation for what I am about to experience. Flights have only recently been made available to tourists, flying out of Chengdu. To get there, we flew a small commercial prop from Beijing, the loudness of the engines leaving a dull roar in my ears as we manhandled our bags through the small airport.
Dragging our luggage out to the tarmac for our next flight, my heart sinks. What we are to board looks like a retrofitted military carrier plane. Intimidated, I scale the ladder onto the plane. The seats are hard and flimsy, set up in short rows in an otherwise undecorated interior, bare metal walls and floor, no windows. The overhead bulbs stingily give away as little as possible. Gingerly finding our seats and strapping in, we are greeted by a stewardess doing her best to make the flight seem normal, her fingers trembling slightly as she tucks her loose hair back into her tight bun.
The inevitable time arrives to see whether this junker will fly. The engines crescendo into their all-commanding power. The metal sheathing protests in syncopated rhythms, and we feel the air catch and lift us beyond the limitations of land.
“Once you leave the plane, you may feel faint, lightheaded or experience chest pains. This is because Lhasa is very high up, and the air is very thin. We have oxygen tanks for you. Please let us know right away if you need assistance.” The stewardess delivers the most unusual “You have landed” speech I have ever heard. Her voice is tinny after the long, deafening flight, goosebumps from the cold, uninsulated plane show on her bare forearms, but relief floods her face after the safe landing.
With a little trepidation, I descend from the plane, acutely attuned to my breath. At only eleven years old, I have no idea what to expect. Mmm, no pain, I note. Chilly, but I can breathe.
Dad inspects me for a moment, his breathing equally unaffected. “Nairobi is high also, about a mile high. Lhasa is double that, about two miles high, but we are probably more used to it than most.”
Our small group deplanes slowly as an airport security guard points us toward two beaten-up Land Rovers, caked with a generous topcoat of white dust. They are a familiar sight, as Land Rovers are also the favored vehicle for Kenyan safaris—though there the dust is red.
As the smallest in our party, I am volunteered for the position of squeezing into the passenger seat amidst the heaped luggage of our cohort. A good thing, too, as I am prone to backseat car sickness. Never a problem on a plane, in a car the nausea can be uncomfortable enough that even my parents will notice and try to comfort me. From the looks of it, the ride is going to be dusty and hard, and I can use all the help I can get.
Though it is just over a two-hour drive, my mind processes it as an eternity. What passes for road in most places is simply bare rock, newly hewn from mountainous plains that traverse between the airfield and Lhasa itself, wending a lifeless path in the dry, cold desert. Larger boulders throw me off my seat, a bag poking at me here or there as I land again, my stomach thankfully empty. Grabbing onto the door handle for support, I am reminded of the Jeep that took us to Lake Turkana, in the north of Kenya. There, the road had also been merely a known track over unadulterated volcanic boulders.
The Tibetan driver occasionally gets chatty, explaining in poor English that the airfield has only recently been opened to the public. Only a handful of hardy souls are even allowed to brave the primitive conditions due to the Chinese government’s heavy-handed control over visitors to the area.
“That’s rape,” he suddenly spurts. Startled, I turn to find him gesturing to the swathes of bright green fields passing by out the window, plants stunted from the cold and altitude. I puzzle over that for some time. Years later, I discover that “rape” is an alternative name for rapeseed, a kind of canola.
The driver refuses to stray from English—even at the attempts of Chinese from my father. Soon, the road becomes too uncomfortable for anyone to speak, the clattering noise of our vehicle being too loud for easy conversation.
Arriving at the guest house, battered and numb, we pile out of the Land Rovers, grunting and groaning and reaching for our respective suitcases. I help get our bags out, handing them to my parents, and noticing as I do a young Chinese man with a long neck and a prominent Adam’s apple standing by to greet us. He is wearing a neatly pressed army jacket and a red-starred beret, but accompanied by regular slacks. In precise Beijing Chinese, he informs us that he is our cultural attaché.
“You must stay with me. I will be your guide while you are here in Lhasa. Please let me know if there is anything special you wish to see, and I will make arrangements. Tomorrow we are planning a visit to the Potala Palace. Dinner will be in an hour. Wash up and get comfortable, but do not be late to dinner. We serve at only one time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you miss a meal, it is not easy to find food elsewhere. Meal times are posted in your rooms.”
Dismissed, we are handed our room keys, leaving Mom, Dad, and I to grab our bags and find our bearings. In our room, the air is cold, as are the bare concrete walls, but the simple beds are nonetheless welcoming. It registers that the cot has been set up for me. I drop my bag on it and begin changing out of my dusty travel clothes. Behind me, I hear Dad muttering.
“Cultural attaché. Ha. Let’s see what we can do to lose him.”