|Twelve days later, everyone is suffering. Apart from the Tibetan contingent, the rest of the crew is wandering around with a slight daze in their eyes, if not lying flat out in bed recovering from the day’s filming. Earlier, I’d attempted to do t’ai chi, hoping to improve my circulation. But the body gave out completely about three-quarters of the way through the set of exercises, just as I was ‘fishing for a needle in the bottom of the sea’.
Half an hour later, I’m still trying to catch my breath. Inside the courtyard of the Rongbuk Guesthouse, Migmar walks by with an enormous dried leg of yak on his shoulder and a big grin on his face. A herd of 15 yaks is packed helter-skelter in between the Land-cruisers, while the nomads gamble with the cooks in the kitchen. As I sip my tea on a broken bench, waiting for the light to be right, it occurs to me that altitude sickness is a bit like jet lag in reverse. Instead of the physical being waiting for spirit to arrive like a piece of lost luggage, up here, it is the soul that has to loiter around while the body is out somewhere searching for oxygen. The realization depresses me; this kind of disconnect is surely bad news for photography, where a split-second can be an eternity. I worry about leaving Tibet empty-handed.
The wind picks up and the temperature drops dramatically, a grim reminder that we have chosen to be in Tibet at the onset of winter. In the distance, the north face of Everest catches fire in the evening sun, as a tongue of orange cloud peels away from the mountain to reveal the highest peak in the world.
‘How are you feeling, John?’ ‘Oh fine, fine, absolutely fine.’ He croaks; his face is grey in the fading light. It is obvious that he is anything but fine. But that’s just John’s way of coping, not wanting to be any trouble to anyone. He would have said the same thing had I asked him if he would like to have Rat and Kidney Pie with a glass of 1968 Bat’s Piss for supper. Outside, night is falling as our convoy winds its way up another set of dirt tracks. The 200-mile journey from Shigatse is, as usual, taking a lot longer than what we’ve been told, and we’ll be lucky if we make it to Lhasa before midnight. John’s date with the doctors will have to wait until the morning.
‘Are you sure you’re alright, do you want a green-job? How about some oxygen?’ ‘No, no, I’m fine. I think there’s still some left in here.’ He lifts his head towards me as he holds up the aerosol can. I catch a whiff of his breath and a shiver runs up and down my spine. It is a smell that you never forget. The last time I was so close to it was at the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, where my grandfather whispered his last words into my left ear 30 years ago. It is the unmistakable sickly-sweet aroma of death.
If the Sahara was about survival, then the Himalaya was about coming to terms with mortality. It was not so much that this journey was any more dangerous or life-threatening than the previous ones, because it wasn’t; we had been in more difficult places and stickier situations. Apart from the unpredictable effects of prolonged exposure to high altitudes and travelling around the Afghan-Pakistan border during the Iraq invasion, we were familiar with all the different risks involved. And having travelled together for all these years, we knew that there are least two certainties in this life on the road where change is the only constant: asparagus will make your pee smell funny, and death will come to us all some day. So, psychologically, we were prepared.