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I Never Saw the Milky Way

The first week of September, Doris and I were asked to take part in the making of a tv movie about Mt. Everest. The people in charge of recruiting foreign cast members for the film had approached us nearly a month before, and we were able to set our wage for the film. We were told that we would be taken to Everest Base Camp, and would be filming there for a day and then returning home. The night before we were supposed to leave in August, Doris got a call saying that, due to some problems, there would be a delay, but they would let us know when they needed us.

About a month later, Doris got a call at 10:30 pm saying we would need to be at the hotel where the film cast and crew were staying, that night and we would be leaving early the next day. I was at a nangma with some of the new students (more on them later) and didn't make it home until after midnight, at which time I had to quickly pack what I would need for the weekend at Base Camp. I was tired, but excited. I had never been to base camp and could not afford to go on my own. The rules here require that foreigners hire a car, driver and guide, and have proper permits to travel to Base Camp, and then there is also the ticket that has to be purchased and accommodations.

Anyway, we arrived at the hotel, which was clear across town and seemed a little sketch to us. At the reception desk, we spoke with the "English-speaking" receptionist, who kept asking us which travel agency we were with. We kept telling her we were with the movie people. Finally, she said she understood and knew who to contact, so she called someone, woke him up, and told him, in Chinese, that his two foreign female friends were here to see him. I was laughing to myself, and she was a bit embarrassed when she was told he had no idea who she was talking about. Finally, she figured it out and took us to the other building where we ran into the Tibetan guy who had been translating for us with the Chinese movie people. He took us to the room that had been set aside for us, and to our surprise, was actually quite nice. The bathroom was larger than my bedroom, about the size of my bedroom and kitchen put together.

We woke up at 5:30am to shower and get ready. We were supposed to leave at 6:30am and were ready to go on time, sitting on the bus where the young Chinese guy in charge of us put us. We were quite surprised to learn that the entire cast was Tibetan, the crew was Chinese, the script was printed in Chinese characters, but the dialogue was all performed in Tibetan. As it was, by the time everyone was on the bus and it was all packed, it was after 7am. We got on the road. The trip to Base Camp is quite a long one, and the plan was to make it to Base Camp, film, and return on Sunday.

Not to long into the trip, we stopped, the guys got off to relieve themselves while all the women waited on the bus, then we started again. In our convoy, there was the bus, a minivan, and an SUV. A bit outside of Lhasa, they passed around cookies and milk...our breakfast. I wasn't too thrilled about eating cookies that early in the morning and Chinese milk and I don't agree if we have to meet directly one-on-one. Doris and I spent most of the next couple hours sleeping.

We went up the Kambala Pass, which leads to Yamdroktso, a very large and beautiful lake. We drove around the lake and on the other side, reached a fork in the road. One fork leads toward Everest, the other leads toward another city to the South. This is the fork we took. It crossed over a tiny bit of the lake and was bumpier than any amusement park ride I have ever been on. A couple of times I was sure the bus was going to fall over, the ruts were that deep.

However, we made it safely across and continued, but not to Base Camp. About five hours after leaving Lhasa (and as many stops for guys to pee,) we almost reached our destination. The road we were on was being paved, with the pavers working their way towards us, and the road past them covered in hot asphalt. There was no option but to climb over the base of the mountains next to the road to reach the camp set up for making the movie.

Now, I've been living in Lhasa for a year, so I'm reasonably used to the altitude and I'd never experienced altitude sickness...until that day. The climbing was actually quite easy compared to how it has been in the past. I've gotten in much better shape since I arrived. However, the combination of the climbing and then staying at over 5000 meters (16500 ft) led to some altitude sickness for me. I didn't think much about it at first and honestly it wasn't so bad. By the end of the day though, I had a pounding headache and was close to vomiting, but didn't.

Anyway, when we reached the little camp, we found that lunch was waiting for us, in the form of a freshly killed sheep that had been simply boiled in an enormous pot. The sheep had been purchased from the nomads that live in this small, beautiful place at the foot of a glacier, and killed by the young men from the Lhasa hiking school, who were also serving as kitchen workers, extras, and general go-fers. The sheep, because it was freshly killed, and had eaten wild grasses and flowers, tasted quite mild compared to other mutton I had eaten in the past. However, mutton is not my meat of choice, nor is it Doris'. A short while later, one of the actors, a middle aged man, offered us tsampa that had been given by the nomads. He explained that tsampa is never purchased among Tibetans, but is freely given, and the receiver may give something in return, but it is not a business transaction. This tsampa was very nice and I was given a lot of it to eat.

After lunch, the crew set up and they started filming parts of the movie. Doris and I were left to our own devices. We spent the afternoon sleeping in an extra tent, wearing our heavy clothes and makeup which had been done by the makeup artists for the film. As evening approached, we were awakened and told to go down to the river where filming was taking place. We went down where it immediately started hailing, then raining. It was frigid.

While they decided what to do with Doris and myself, we stood there waiting, and chatting with one of the actresses, with whom Doris had dialogue. Eventually, the three of us ended up sitting together inside one of the tents for nearly an hour, until they determined that their generator was broken, and with no electricity, could not continue filming that evening.

It was nearly full dark by this time, and we made our way back to the kitchen tent, after I had rather ungracefully fallen into the river trying to jump across. We sat for a while in the warm tent, then went outside to wait for the bus which could now come directly to us. It was then that I saw the Milky Way for the first time.

The band of stars stretched across the sky in a shimmering ribbon that one could almost reach out and touch. The nomads who see this phenomenon every night are indeed lucky.

Honestly, I would have enjoyed the experience more if I had not been suffering a bit from the altitude. As it was, it was a moving experience. The altitude sickness however, caused the young man in charge of us to panic a little. He kept trying to force oxygen on me, and I kept insisting I did not need any. He popped up a little later with some Chinese medicine for headache, which I took. Later, while we were still waiting for the bus, the Tibetan actors also showed their concern and one of the actresses provided me with some rhodiola pills. Rhodiola is an herb which grows here and Tibetans use it to help with adjusting to altitude. It is available here in the form of pills and teas, which are quite tasty.

Finally the bus arrived and we made our way through the pitch black night, the path lit only by a couple of cell phones. I nearly took a fall slipping in some relatively fresh yak dung on the side of a hill. Luckily, I caught myself. Once we were on the bus, we were in for nearly an hour's ride back to a small town we had passed on the way. Once there, it was almost midnight. We went to a small Chinese restaurant where we all ate together. While we waited for food, we were all given something to drink which we were told would keep us from getting colds. It was Coke, they said, boiled with medicine. The medicine turned out to be just ginger. Let me say that it is one drink that I will be happy to never have again once I am back in the States--boiled Coke with ginger. It is amazing what people in other countries do with Coke.

Eventually, we made it to our hotel, about 1am. Doris and I shared a room with the two actresses and quickly settled down, since we had to be back on the bus around 7am.

Morning came early and we went back to the camp, where breakfast consisted of our choice of bread and Chinese sausage, instant noodles, and coffee or tea. Doris' scene was the first to be filmed that morning. After, we went back to the warmth of the kitchen tent. A few minutes later, I was called and told to go down to the river. I was to be an extra from Base Camp. The plot of my scene was that the main characters, who had been lost on the mountain, were spotted and I and the boys from the hiking school, were to be rescuers and help them down the mountain.

To this end, we were set to run across the camp. So, we ran, first in one direction, then in another, then in a third. Then, once the proper angle was established, we ran across the camp a couple of times until the director was satisfied. Once that was finished, we moved to the base of the mountain, where two of the actors had already climbed halfway up. The camera was set at the base and the boys and I climbed partway up and waited for the order. Because we were the rescuers, we were to run up the mountain to the actors...that's right...run.

So, we stood there, waiting to hear the order to run from the megaphone. It was barely audible, but we did indeed hear it, and ran, up the mountain. The first two takes I was able to keep up with the boys. The third take, I was a bit behind, and by the fourth, I had to simply stop. There was not an ounce of oxygen left in my body and my legs refused to move another inch.

That was the final take for us. I collapsed on the side of the mountain, too exhausted to move. One of the boys laughingly offered me the oxygen pillow, which I gaspingly refused.

After they shot another scene, we broke for lunch, which consisted of more freshly killed sheep, and instant noodles, or boiled eggs and bread or any combination of the above. Doris and I were told we would not be needed for anything else and just to relax and rest. The rest of the team moved up to the edge of the glacier to film the final scenes of the movie.

Several hours later, it was freezing and raining and Doris and I were bored. So, we got the bus driver to let us on to the bus where we played cards until they were finished on the glacier. Then, we thought we were going back to Lhasa, but there was some final filming that had to happen. It wasn't until 8pm that we started back to Lhasa. I slept most of the way back, mostly because I didn't want to watch the driving, especially across the pass.

When we arrived back in Lhasa, the bus stopped for everyone to eat. Doris and I stayed on the bus, resting and not wanting to eat at the particular restaurant chosen. The young man in charge of us came back on the bus with our pay. We expected to be paid for only one day, but instead were paid for two.

After everyone finished eating and was back on the bus, we all went back to the original hotel in Lhasa, where Doris and I were given a ride back to university, where we arrived filthy and exhausted. While it was definitely a worthwhile experience, I'm not sure that I would do it again. I suppose that qualifies as my fifteen minutes of fame, huh? I can't help but hope that they cut out my scenes. I don't know how I feel about 1.2 billion people seeing me run on television...

Posted by michab3 01:12

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