As Brig stepped onto the gangway and exited the plane, he felt his lungs being forced to work harder to get air. The city of Lhasa sat at such an extreme altitude that Brig instantly felt the scarcity of oxygen. By the time he reached the top of the gangway, he was huffing and puffing as though he had just run a one-hundred-yard dash. Although he had grown up in Salt Lake City, at approximately 4000 feet, Lhasa, the highest city in the world, towered 12000 feet above sea level. Brig had climbed mountain peaks as high as 13000 feet, but he had been in much better shape back then. His appreciation and respect for climbers that reached the 29000-foot summit of Everest renewed.
Regaining his composure, Brig marched on, feeling stronger with every step. “I’m acclimatizing!” Brig rejoiced, somewhat sarcastically. Brig knew strolling through Lhasa International airport couldn’t compare to the hike he would make to Everest Base Camp (EBC), but the positive mental attitude couldn’t hurt.
Brig made his way out of the airport and scanned the area for a taxi. It was a cold, windy day, and Brig’s coat provided little protection. Brig saw what he was looking for. A big blue sign with white letters that spelled out the word “Taxi.” Brig took his place in the back of the fifteen-person line, stamping his feet trying to stay warm. Everybody else in the queue was smoking and seemed to be intentionally blowing their cigarette smoke into Brig’s face. Brig was unfortunately downwind of a group of nicotine addicts that had been in airports and airplanes all day and not allowed to smoke until now. Aircraft and airports were one of the few places in China that enforced a no smoking policy.
Cold, tired, irritated, and struggling for breath, Brig was eager to get into a cab and optimistically estimated his wait to be fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, the cold weather had made airport taxis scarce, with only one taxi pulling up to the queue every five minutes. As luck would have it, only one person was entering each cab at a time. Brig ended up having to wait almost forty-five minutes to get his taxi.
“Neih hao?” Brig offered two of the few words of Mandarin that he knew.
The taxi driver said something fast and furious that made no sense to Brig. The driver was gruff and was not nearly as helpful as his Xining driver. Fortunately, Brig had prepared for such an occurrence by holstering the name and a picture of his hotel on the web browser of his iPhone. His driver took a quick look and nodded, confirming he knew where Brig wanted to go. Earlier that day, Brig had called and made a reservation at the Shangri-La Lhasa Hotel on Norbunglika road.
Of what Brig could see, which wasn’t much, Lhasa was beautiful. The clouds made visibility poor, but that didn’t stop him from staring intently out the window, hoping for a glimpse of Chomolungma. He held up the phone to his mouth and asked, “Can you see Mount Everest from Lhasa?” Xici did the translation, but the driver mumbled something that Brig didn’t understand, and was too slow with the app to have Xici translate. Brig thought better of trying to get the driver to speak more clearly into his phone. He was getting better at reading body language.
The phone dinged, and Brig saw he had received a message. He opened the app, and his heart skipped a beat when he saw that the text was from Happy.
“Tommy woke up this afternoon and is asking about you. Where are you?” the message read.
“Oh, hi. (smiley face). That’s wonderful news about Tommy. I arrived in Lhasa. It’s beautiful!”
Minutes passed without a response. The driver yelled out, shaking Brig from his thoughts. They had arrived at the hotel, and the driver was telling Brig how much he owed. Brig placed his phone down on the seat next to him and groped for his wallet inside his backpack. Brig paid the driver and walked into the luxurious hotel lobby.
Brigham knew hotels. His name adorned some of the most upscale in the world. Perhaps it was because of the contrast to places Brig had been sleeping in recently, but at that particular moment, this hotel surged its way to the top of Brig’s list of the nicest hotels in the world. The lobby’s decor was beautiful with unique Tibetan architecture designed into every aspect and detail of the room.
A tall Chinese man, wearing a dark suit, approached him. “Checking in, sir?”
“Yes. Please,” Brig responded.
“It is our pleasure. Please follow me.”
Brig followed the man to an ornate wooden desk staffed by a young woman. Brig ranked her a seven. Old habits died hard.
“Good evening and welcome to the Lhasa Shangri-La, may I have your passport and credit card?”
Brig produced his passport but informed the woman he would have to pay in cash.
“I’m sorry sir, but I will need a credit card for your room deposit.”
“I would, gladly. But I don’t have a credit card. All that I have is Chinese renminbi and U.S dollars.”
The woman looked confused and sought help from her coworkers, who were all busy assisting others. “One minute, please.” She locked her desk, stood up, and walked away with Brig’s passport in hand.
Brig felt the early symptoms of a migraine forming behind his eyes. Exhausted, he took a deep breath, subconsciously trying to suck more oxygen into his lungs. The receptionist returned with an officious-looking gentleman whom Brig correctly determined was the hotel manager. The woman took a seat and unlocked her desk, placing a copy of Brig’s passport and visa carefully in front of her.
“Good evening, sir,” the hotel manager began. “My colleague has explained that you do not have a credit card for the deposit on your room. Is that correct?” the hotel manager asked.
“That’s correct. But I’m happy to pay up front. In cash.”
“Unfortunately, it is our company policy to only accept major credit cards to secure our rooms.”
“You’re saying that you can’t accept cash?”
“I cannot. It’s against…”
“I know…hotel policy,” Brig finished the sentence for the man. “Look. I’m not feeling well, and I need to lie down. I have nowhere else to go. I’m stuck.”
The manager could see the Brig’s desperation, but he also saw how oddly dressed and emaciated he was. Brig reached down and unzipped the top of his pack as the manager and the receptionist spoke Mandarin, looking hard at the computer screen as if it might provide them with an answer. In a typical city, in warmer weather, under different circumstances, it might’ve been easy for the hotel manager to send Brig out the door and on his way. But this was Lhasa. 12000-feet-above-sea-level Lhasa. It was now almost dark outside, and temperatures would soon fall to below freezing. Sending someone out in these conditions would probably kill them, something that Shangri-La management probably frowned upon.
“Mr. Young. I’m sorry to keep you waiting. It looks like you’ve reserved your room at a very favorable rate, and that you’re planning to stay with us for one week. Is that correct?”
Brig nodded his head “yes.”
“The normal rate for your room is ¥4800 per night (~US$700). Our records show you will stay with us for seven nights. We require a deposit of…” The manager reached for a calculator, sitting on the desk, “… ¥33,600.”
“That is acceptable.” Brig pulled his backpack onto his lap and placed stacks of Chinese ¥100 notes onto the desk. The manager and the young woman looked nervously at each other as Brig counted out the money. Chinese banks bundled ¥100 yuan notes in groups of one hundred. Placing three bundles to the side (¥30,000), Brig broke the paper band on the fourth stack of money and counted out another thirty-six red notes, adding them to the pile. “Done and done.”
The hotel manager, now satisfied with the deposit and Brig’s ability to pay, suggested, “The rest of the check-in procedure is tedious, and given the large amount of cash, will take some time. I can see that Lhasa’s altitude is causing you discomfort. If you would like, I can show you to your room while we finish up the details.”
“That would be marvelous. Thank you.”
On the way to his room, Brig learned that the hotel manager’s name was Steven, and he had recently graduated from a college in England studying hotel and hospitality management. Steven had worked at the Lhasa Shangri-La for six months, and would soon transfer to a different hotel property as part of a Shangri-La management rotation program. As they reached Brig’s room, Steven advised Brig to lock his valuables in the room’s safe deposit box. The property was very secure, he assured, but you could never be too careful. Steven also gave Brig some advice on where he could buy new clothes that would fit him.
“Are you sure you’re okay? We have a wonderful oxygen room on the fifth floor. Lhasa’s altitude is most likely causing your headache, and the oxygen will give you a nice boost of energy. I had a headache for a week when I first got here.”
“Thank you, Steven, you’ve been very kind. I really just want to get some sleep.” He reached out his hand to give Steven a tip.
“Thank you, sir. If you need anything else, please contact me directly. Here is my card.”
After Steven had left, Brig shed his clothes and climbed directly into the king-sized bed. He kicked out the crisp, cool sheets tucked tightly under the mattress. Brig was a no-tuck guy.