BOOM… BOOM… BOOM…!
I sat motionless, as the slightest movement caused internal explosions in my head.
A voice permeated my foggy consciousness. BOOM.
I refocused my eyes and slowly gazed sideways. BOOM.
“Have you had enough to eat?” asked my Tibetan guide Kunchok.
I shook my head. BOOM. Ouch.
I lifted the fork to my mouth, but the two didn’t seem to connect. I’d attempted to eat some fried rice, but still felt vaguely hungry. Must be that sledgehammer in my head.
“I think I need to go back to my room, ” I said. BOOM. And stop talking.
It would’ve been less painful if my head did explode.
I slowly stood up, unsteady on my feet. BOOM.
Something fell off my lap; strewn on the floor around my chair was the fried rice I thought had made it into my mouth.
“I just need to lie down,” I told Kunchok.
And take another Diamox tablet, I thought. BOOM. Okay, and stop thinking.
I lay on the bed, eyes shut. BOOM.
Bugger, I’m feeling nauseous, must go to the bathroom. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
Within an hour of flying into Lhasa, which is perched at 3500m, altitude sickness announced its arrival with an explosive headache.
But I was spending three days here to acclimatize before setting off for higher altitudes on the Tibetan plateau.
Get thee to a nunnery
The nun motioned me over, shuffling across the large cushion.
Several shaved heads turned towards me as I stood against the back wall in the dimly-lit chapel.
The nun smiled and renewed the invitation to join her among the chanting nuns, who greeted me with warm smiles as I sat down on the cushion. I smiled in return.
Tiny butter lamps flickered in the semi darkness, temporarily illuminating the glass cabinets jam-packed with Buddha images, statues and revered relics.
A nun sitting opposite me reached over and took my Lonely Planet guidebook out of my hands, curiously flipping through the pages containing English words.
When she discovered photos of Tibetan monasteries and Buddha images, she showed them to her fellow nuns; my guide book was passed along the rows while the nuns were chanting prayers.
The book made it back to the nun sitting next to me. She found the "useful expressions" section and started reading out the Tibetan place names for me, while I read out the English versions.
Yes, Kang Rimpoche (Mt Kailash), Sera Monastery, Dalia Lama…
I pointed to myself then to the picture of Mt Kailash - that’s where I’m going, I explained with sign language.
The other nuns were asking me questions in Tibetan. I shrugged and continued smiling; Australia, I offered.
The curious foreigner
After the prayers finished, I headed outside and sat on a bench, enjoying the sunshine and incense smell which wafted lazily across the courtyard.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two Tibetan men at a nearby bench staring at me intently. I looked up and smiled, but they turned away shyly.
Tibetans are generally weather-beaten due to the high altitude and harsh environment they live in, so the men's faces were deeply-etched. They had braided hair with red wool through it, tied up above their heads. Both sported turquoise earrings.
As I continued reading my book, I saw them leaning over again to have another look at me. I looked up, and again they looked away.
I offered my guide book to the father who passed it over to his son – they didn’t really know what to do with it.
Their dilemma was resolved by a nun who took possession of my book. She sat with two other nuns in the shade, leafing through the pages.
Without warning, she disappeared into the kitchen, taking my guide book with her. She was gone for some time, so I poked my head through the door to keep an eye on my book: I was at the start of my three-week visit to Tibet and I was still reading it.
Inside the kitchen, one of the nuns offered me a piece of dried yak cheese, while the nun with my book took off upstairs.
Like karma, I realised my book would eventually make its way back to me, so I went back out into the courtyard where another nun joined me. She spoke some English and we had had an enjoyable conversation until my book re-appeared.
After a wonderful hour at the Ani Sangkhung nunnery, I meandered back to my hotel room in Lhasa's Tibetan quarter.
As I passed through the narrow streets Tibetans went about their activities with prayer wheels and beads in their hands, while devout pilgrims continued their circuit of full prostrations around the Jokhang, the most revered religious structure in Tibet.
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I acknowledge the traditional Custodians of the land on which I work and live, the Gubbi Gubbi / Kabi Kabi and Joondoburri people, and recognise their continuing connection to land, the waters and sky. I pay my respect to them and their cultures; and to Elders past, present and emerging.
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