This is chapter 34 of my Tibet memoir in which I was laid low (I thought I was dying) by hepatitis, for which western medicine has no cure.
A few days later I got hit by a shockwave of illness and it was so bad that I was convinced I was about to die. All I could do was lie in bed and drink water. Fortunately Joga’s place was empty that day and I tried desperately to convince myself that I was fine, but the signs of hepatitis were hard to ignore: brown urine and yellow eyes. For two days I lay there, trying to get used to the feeling of being so ill, trying to accept it, trying to convince myself there was nothing wrong with me. This was the worst possible time to get sick: Roger and Isabella were both going off on a trek together and they had asked me to be Roger’s replacement teacher; it was the best job opportunity that had come up yet so I couldn’t stay in bed. But I was too weak to get up.
A day before the appointment at the class I staggered up to the Chinese Hospital – a Herculean feat – and sat by the window of my student’s room. I was too exhausted to teach and could barely talk. She assumed I was hungry and offered a plate of thick curry and pickles, but the smell turned my stomach even though I hadn’t eaten for days:
– You no eat?
– I can’t eat. Today I can’t teach! I feel very sick. I must see a doctor.
– Okay, we go see best doctor man in hospital.
With a sense of purpose that I found exhausting, she led me out of her block, up the road and into the Chinese Hospital – which I hadn’t actually visited thus far. It looked modern enough from the outside but inside it looked terrible: dirty, chaotic and with a cold, unwelcoming atmosphere. The doctor took my pulse, told me I had a common cold and gave me some aspirins. I returned to Joga’s, feeling like it had been a wasted journey and was so burned out by the exertion that I spent the rest of the day asleep. Joga’s place was full of her middle-aged lady friends who made sympathetic noises, but Joga was both sharp and sensitive and she knew what was needed: she shooed her friends out and banned others from coming for the next few days, giving me some welcome relief. I still couldn’t accept the fact that I had the dreaded hep. I was in denial: This can’t be happening to me!
The next morning was the job test and I dragged myself over to the Shata building, an ancient courtyard where Isabella and Roger lived and where the classes were held. I slowly made my way up the stairs, knocked on their door and was invited in to join them for breakfast. The smell of frying food was too much; I went straight to the toilet, located at the end of the landing and puked violently into the slit in the floor, inhaling a terrible smell from the cesspit that filled up the room below. Nothing came out. My body went through the heaving gesture of vomiting but there was nothing to puke except some watery gobs of sticky phlegm.
– You look rough, said Isabella back in the apartment. You don’t have to do this you know?
I didn’t know her well enough to know that she meant it. I had spent days working up the energy and determination to go through with this test, which was crucial – I was convinced that my very survival depended on it.
Downstairs in the big classroom the students were lively and pleased to see me. They were laughing and expecting me to join in but I just slumped into a chair, croaked out some words to explain my state and asked them to be quiet and read their books. They understood immediately and settled down to read. I felt they were on my side and that maybe I could actually pass this test. Towards the end of the class the head teacher came in and I stood up and started teaching some parts of the book. This seemed to satisfy him and he left. I slumped back down again thankfully and the rest of the class passed by uneventfully. For a moment I thought I was beating this illness but when I got back to Joga’s place I felt worse than ever and I knew there was no way I could maintain this charade of pretending to teach. On the way back I bumped into Paola who noticed the yellow eyes immediately and said:
– You look horrible. You go to Tibetan Hospital. They will help you.
I had considered going to the Tibetan Hospital but I was sceptical. Wasn’t it based on the medieval system of wind, bile and phlegm? How could it possibly help? But Western medicine has no cure for hepatitis so why not try Tibetan medicine? I was too exhausted to even think about it. I had seen the Tibetan Hospital and it was big and crowded. I didn’t have the energy to hustle my way in there and I would need a translator. I tried to think about these problems in Joga’s place which was now deathly quiet, but I couldn’t focus and I drifted off into a long state of delirium.
Joga took action. She had met my Chinese friend Je Yang, who had come round to see the place, and she was impressed with him. While I slept she sent out her lady friends to search the town and locate him. I was awoken by a series of prods and there he was, Je Yang, sitting at the end of my bed rather sheepishly, refusing Joga’s offer of tea or chang. He said:
– I’ve come to take you to the Tibetan Hospital. Let’s go. I laboriously got up and followed him across the old town.
There was a big crowd in the Tibetan Hospital and we both took up our positions; me by the bike rack where I was dry retching into the undergrowth and Je Yang inside, arguing with the doctors and nurses, trying to get an appointment. Eventually we got to see a doctor, a young man who was speaking in rapid Mandarin to Je Yang. I was told to roll up my sleeve and he took my pulse with three fingers on each wrist, concentrating hard for what seemed like ages. Then he asked about symptoms and everything I said he would just nod as if to confirm his diagnosis. Je Yang translated:
– The illness you have, what you call hepatitis, is a typical illness that comes up at this time of year, at the change from autumn to winter. A lot of people get ill when the seasons change. This one is to do with the bile, you have a bile imbalance. He says your illness is well-known to them and common for this time of year.
The doctor then gave me some evil-looking black pills, which looked suspiciously like dried sheep shit, and sent us on our way. As we were leaving I asked if I needed to follow a particular diet and he said no. I was willing to try the sheep shit pills, I would have tried anything, but I was still sceptical about Tibetan medicine.
Back at Joga’s place I sat with my glass of boiled water and chewed the first of the black pills. They tasted horrible – musty, gritty and sharp – but they didn’t make me vomit and I swallowed them down faithfully. I lay down on the bed, expecting nothing, and wondering what I could do next; no health insurance, no western doctors here, no hope? Three hours later I woke up feeling fine and by evening my normal energy levels were back. I couldn’t believe it, the Tibetan medicine was working – and I had only taken one pill. Was this a dream? Was this possible? I was still sceptical and expected to wake up the next morning feeling as ill as I’d felt all week, but by morning I was better than ever. Complete recovery.
And good fortune had smiled on me on the work front too. I got the job as Roger’s replacement. Also – against stiff competition from their old friends – they asked me to look after their apartment which was the ideal convalescence home. Their flat was upstairs at the Shata courtyard which was, I learned, a former palace. The courtyard had been turned into simple flats and the whole place was rather run down, but Roger and Isabella’s flat had some of the elegance of the old days; curious wooden beams and a long sweep of windows that stretched the length of the apartment itself. It was spacious, comfortable, full of interesting books and, best of all, private. I couldn’t understand why they had gone off on a trekking trip in winter but it was the ideal place to cook the only thing I was able to hold down – boiled vegetables.
There had been a lot of debate about who would be the replacement teacher for Isabella and I had pitched in with my view that Frenchy would be ideal; although I knew him as a reprobate he could make himself look respectable if he had to, and he was great with the students. I had seen him with them at the party and he’d been lively and stimulating. But they chose Big Jack, another depraved American. Big Jack was a pain in the neck and I didn’t like him from the start. He styled himself as an intellectual and had spent time studying Tibetan culture at Dharamshala, the capital of the Tibetans in India, seat of the Tibetan Government in exile and home of the Dalai Lama. He was a far bigger know-it-all than any other traveller I had met. He claimed to have trekked across large parts of Tibet and he considered himself the font of all knowledge regarding the country. What made it worse was that he was also a macho man; he was big, had a beard and he wore a Tibetan Khampa cloak, belted at the waist, and a brown woollen Pakistani hat. I think he tried to imitate the style and swagger of the Khampas. Big Jack’s problem was that he had no sense of humour – the saving grace of the real Khampas. He was also a bad teacher: rigid, impatient and liable to fly off the handle. I was sure the students hated him, but they were far too polite to say so.
I do have to thank Big Jack for giving me an introduction to Tibetan medicine, one of the many subjects he could drone on about for hours. I was thirsty for knowledge of this mysterious science that had cured me of the dreaded hep. What caught my imagination was the idea that wind, which is one of the key elements, is believed to be a horse which carries the body. A week earlier I would have mocked such an idea but now I was open to it. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tibetan medicine is the way they diagnose illness, by reading a pulse. When westerners read a pulse they are simply counting the heartbeats, but it takes a Tibetan doctor years to learn how to read a pulse properly. The Tibetan doctor use three fingers and they develop a sensitivity so fine that each of their fingers picks up two separate pulses. In other words, they are reading six pulses at the same time.
When I first heard that they use the ancient classifications (or humours) of wind, bile and phlegm as the basis for their medical system I couldn’t take it seriously – this approach to medicine went out in the Middle Ages. This is their method of diagnosing illnesses. When they take a pulse they are reading the wind, bile and phlegm levels of a patient and they detect illnesses by spotting imbalances in one of these humours. The pills are interesting too. I had assumed they were some kind of herbal remedy but their main ingredients are minerals. Traditionally, Tibetan doctors would spend several weeks a year on horseback gathering rare plants, roots and minerals. Mixing the ingredients and making the pills is an ancient science.
I later found out that Tibetan Medicine dates back to a mythical age when eight Medicine Buddhas wrote down about 80,000 different illnesses – from the past, present and future. Tibetan Medicine is well developed in India, where they teach it in monasteries, and where it has been credited with successfully treating cancer and also AIDS, a disease they claim to have known about for hundreds of years. In India and the in the west Tibetan medical practitioners keep a low profile and make no public claims about its effectiveness.
I went back to the Tibetan Hospital a few times to try to garner more insights, but nobody spoke English. One day I came across an old doctor in robes who must have been in his nineties. He had a spring in his step and a sparkle in his eye. He stopped me in the corridor, greeted me, introduced himself as Dr Puntsok and asked where I was from. When I told him he smiled enthusiastically and beckoned me to follow. We went through corridors, up stairs and into a distant storeroom where he rummaged around and pulled out a little glass bottle that he showed to me proudly. It said Bicarbonate of Soda and was obviously very old, perhaps dating back to colonial times. I took the bottle, looked at it and wondered what I was supposed to do. Translate the label? Maybe he had heard me say I am from Bicarbonate of Soda? I looked round but he was gone.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.