Tibet Autonomous region is the westernmost region of China, which lies on the high-altitude Tibetan plateau, the highest plateau in the world with an average elevation of more than 4,800 meters, or around 15,800 feet. A trip to Tibet is like no other vacation in the world, lying on the roof of the world, high above any other land on the planet. And with its unique version of Buddhism being the primary religion of the region, which can be seen in everything the people do in their daily lives, there is nothing like when you visit Tibet to help you understand how different people around the world can be from one another.
A basic knowledge of the issues that you can be faced with when traveling to Tibet is essential, as you do not want anything to spoil your trip. From the hazards of altitude sickness to the risk of snow blindness, these are all things to know about before you travel to Tibet, so that you can do something to prevent them from happening, and so that you know what to do in the unfortunate event that they do happen.
How to Adapt to the high altitude on lofty Tibetan Plateau
Tibet lies on the planet’s highest plateau, fringed by the high Himalayas to the west and south of the region. At altitudes that can reach as high as over 5,500 meters, altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), is a real concern for tourists to Tibet from lower parts of the world.
Altitude sickness is caused by the reduced barometric pressure of the atmosphere at high and extreme altitudes, which gives rise to a lower volume of oxygen per breath than at sea level. This reduced oxygen content in the air means that your body cannot get enough oxygen to maintain the internal organs and the brain, and during the period of acclimatization, while the body adjusts to the conditions and produces more red blood cells to accommodate the lowered oxygen levels, you can feel some of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The main symptoms of altitude sickness are headaches and nausea, with an increase in dehydration that feels very much like a hangover, without having the enjoyment of having been drinking first. A general feeling of tiredness and lack of energy is common as a symptom of altitude sickness, and you can also feel dizzy and unsteady at times, which is the brain not getting enough oxygen fast enough to keep you steady.
Not everyone actually suffers from altitude sickness for Tibet travel, and while some people may not get it at all, it is no guarantee that they will not get it the next time they travel to a high altitude above 3,000 meters. Age, fitness, and health also have no bearing on who will feel the effects of altitude sickness, and there are few drugs that are recommended for travelers to high altitudes that are safe to use.
One of the ways to prevent altitude sickness is to take Diamox, which has been found to have some benefits on preventing and treating the symptoms. However, this is not guaranteed to prevent or cure to, and it has been known to have side effects in some people after taking it. It is best to check with your own physician before taking the drugs.
The best way to try and reduce the risk of altitude sickness when traveling to Tibet is to travel first to a lower altitude that is within the range of elevations for intermediate acclimatization. Areas such as Xining, in Qinghai Province, are ideal for intermediate acclimatization, as it is above 2,000 meters, and is within the range where altitude sickness can first affect your body. A day or two in this elevation should allow your body to acclimatize to a lower oxygen level, making it easier to acclimatize to the even higher altitude of Lhasa.
It is also a good idea to avoid strong coffee and alcohol, as they cause dehydration which can bring on the symptoms of altitude sickness. You should also avoid strenuous exercise, and this causes the body to need more oxygen, and exacerbates the symptoms you may already have. A good and nutritious diet is essential for better acclimatization, and plenty of protein-rich meats and vegetables can help to reduce the risk of altitude sickness when you reach Lhasa.
How to Deal with Sunburns, snow blindness and Huge Temperature Change
Believe it or not, sunburn is a major problem on the plateau, as the thinner atmosphere allows more of the sun’s harmful UV radiation through to the surface, increasing the risk of sunburn whilst traveling across the vast open plateau. Sunburn is not caused by heat, but by high levels of UV radiation, which affects the skin and leaves it burned and red, making you feel itchy and irritated. It is a good idea to bring a sun cream with an SPF of around 30 to counter the high UV rays of the sun and keep your skin from burning. A wide-brimmed hat can also be helpful, as sun cream does not stop the harsher UVA radiation which can cause melanomas and skin cancer.
Snow Blindness is a condition caused by the bright sunlight reflecting off the light ground of the desert areas and the whiteness of the snow in Tibet, and can be extremely painful. Effectively, snow blindness is a mild sunburn of the retina, which leaves you partially blinded with very blurred vision for a long period of time, although it can be treated easily and quickly, if caught in time. A good pair of sunglasses with a high UV filter can help to ensure that this does not happen while you are in the region.
While Tibet can be a very warm place to visit in spring, summer, and even autumn, there is a massive temperature difference between night and day that can leave you freezing cold and shivering. The lower air pressure at the higher altitude means that the heat of the day is not trapped into the atmosphere once the sun goes down, and escapes through the thinner atmosphere, leaving the air cold and frigid. Temperatures in the summer can drop from around the mid-20s to as low as freezing once the night falls, and in the spring and autumn months, it can reach well below freezing, to around -2 degrees in the area of Lhasa. In the west, it is even colder at night, and can reach double minus figures, especially in the winter months. Take some warm clothing with you, even if you are traveling in summer, as the nights will be cold and many hotels do not have central heating.
Take Your Personal Medicine and First-aid Kits
Anyone traveling to a third-world country should prepare themselves a first aid kit to cater to the minor ailments that can sometimes not be avoided, and travel to Tibet is no different. Your first aid kit should consist of headache tablets and diarrhea treatments, as these can be a major part of altitude sickness, and you can get diarrhea just from changing the type of drinking water you are drinking. A few band-aids and small platers and bandages should also be included, for minor scrapes, as well as alcohol or alcohol wipes, antiseptic cream, and iodine, to treat minor abrasions and cuts that can happen anywhere.
Major first aid treatments are not necessary, as any major medical treatment would require a hospital anyway. However, if you take a regular medication prescribed by your own physician, then you should bring enough with you to last you for at least a week or two beyond your expected length of stay in China. Most prescription drugs are not available in Tibet, and even if they are, you may not be able to buy them unless you can provide your medical records to show that they are needed for your continued existence. Better to be safe than sorry when traveling.
Travel Insurance and Emergency Call in Tibet
Travel insurance should really be the main thing on your mind when planning a trip to another country, and many international tourists are required to have it when traveling to countries around the world for their own benefits. However, many forms of travel insurance policies do not cover traveling to high altitude regions such as Tibet, as the risks are too high for them. If your travel insurance does not cover Tibet, then you will need to obtain a specialist cover to make sure you are insured for the duration of your Tibet tour. You can also opt for a cover that will give you emergency evacuation to a lower altitude if the need arises, as it is a long trip overland to the lower altitudes of Qinghai, Nepal, and Sichuan.
You should also have an emergency call number in case of emergencies. This should be a family member of close personal friend that can be contacted in case of emergencies while you are traveling on the plateau, and who can contact you if anything happens at home while you are away.