S'porean whose friends died in Tibetan trek: I had to keep moving or freeze to death

It was the most difficult decision that they had ever made.

Two of their friends died while trekking around Mount Kailash in Tibet. But the trio had to leave the bodies behind as they feared for their own safety.

Madam Jenny Tan, her eyes brimming with tears, said: "Concerned passers-by - local Tibetans - told us that if we didn't move, we would die because the weather was freezing. It was the most difficult part of the journey."

The exhausted trio pressed on lest they too perished amid the snow-covered slopes.

The 47-year-old housewife is one of the eight Singaporean pilgrims who survived last year's ill-fated trek around the 6,638m-tall mountain. Sadly, two others did not survive the gruelling 52km trek.

Ms Alice Sim, 61, and Mr Raymond Chan Lay Ho, 66, died after developing altitude sickness at the 5,500m Dolma-la pass, the highest point of their journey.

Mount Kailash is considered sacred by Buddhists and Hindus. The holy site is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year.

According to Buddhist beliefs, completing a circuit around it would wash away a lifetime of sin. Hindus believe that the mountain is the abode of one of their deities, Lord Shiva.

Located in Ali prefecture, some 1,200km out of the Tibetan regional capital of Lhasa, it takes 19 hours by road to reach the mountain.

On Sunday, five of the survivors - all friends who had worked with Ms Sim on charity events - broke their silence to The New Paper about their trip which started on May 1 last year.

Company executive David Tay, 55, said that on the seventh day of the trip, he and five others - Ms Sim, Mr Chan, Madam Tan, a patient service assistant who only wanted to be known as Miss Tang and a woman named Mary - managed to reach Dolma-la pass first because they rode horses there.

But the steep incline at the pass forced them to dismount and trudge on foot.

On the way up, because they felt lost, exhausted and "desperate for help", Madam Tan approached 10 young locals who agreed to help them walk up the slope by supporting them.

The remaining four pilgrims - Mr Tay's daughter Apple, 20; his wife Lilian Tan, 53, and a married couple known only as Mr and Mrs Er - were further behind.

They were accompanied by their tour guide who had earlier met them when they first reached Lhasa.

Slippery

"The snow-covered slope was very slippery and we had a hard time walking. My nose started bleeding and I felt ill," said Mr Tay, who added that Mr Chan moved ahead first while the others followed.

Madam Tan said: "After eating some dried figs and giving Alice some, David and I moved ahead, leaving her behind. As I was halfway up the slope, a local passer-by, who was coming from the opposite direction, yelled at me, 'Your friend died'.

"I was shocked. I thought it was Miss Tang who had also walked ahead of me.

"But when the passer-by said that the one who died was a man, I immediately knew it was Raymond. I couldn't walk but pushed on to see for myself.

"I knew I could be next."

Miss Tang, 41, was the last member of the group to see Mr Chan alive. She recalled seeing him sitting on a rock.

She said: "I was disorientated and I didn't talk to him. I was too tired to even speak. I just continued walking. No one expected that he would die."

After reaching Mr Chan's body, Madam Tan and Mr Tay waited for Ms Sim and Mary, who were behind.

Madam Tan said that she could see the two women following them in a distance, helped by four of the young local men.

She asked the local passers-by about Ms Sim's progress periodically.

Madam Tan and Mr Tay waited for an hour when one of them came with distressing news - Ms Sim had also died.

Continue

As much as they wanted to stay and look after the bodies, Madam Tan, Mr Tay and Miss Tang had to continue in order to survive.

Madam Tan said the locals told her to empty Mr Chan's pockets of valuables as thieves were known to target the dead.

She recovered items, including cash and a mobile phone, which she used to call her husband in Singapore.

He later informed the authorities about the group's predicament.

The trio arrived at a tea house about four hours later and spotted three motorcyclists who took them to their next checkpoint - a temple where they were supposed to spend the night.

At the temple, a man gave them a lift to a hotel - the final checkpoint of their trek, which was supposed to take three days and two nights.

Village chiefs and local police officers turned up at the hotel shortly afterwards and tried to help the group.

The remaining five survivors were rescued later that day. All eight were reunited in the hotel.

Said Miss Tay: "We were relieved to see that no one else had died in the mountains."

It was reported that the bodies of Ms Sim and Mr Chan were cremated in Tibet. Their ashes were flown back to Singapore by their family members.

Mount Kailash tips

May is one of the best times to visit Mount Kailash, according to travel agents The New Paper spoke to.

However, the weather in the mountains can change for the worse "very quickly".

Eco Adventures founder Timothy Tan said the only time trekkers can visit the area is between May and October - when the passes are clear of snow.

He added: "The weather can be very unpredictable. A sunny day can quickly turn bad with snowstorms."

X-Trekkers Adventure Consultant manager Yeo Ching Khee, 44, warned that the landscape near Mount Kailash is very barren with not much shelter.

"Should the weather get worse, trekkers can set up tents, hunker down and wait for the storm to pass," he said, stressing the importance of acclimatisation when trekking at altitudes of 2,500m and above.

"Anyone can get altitude sickness - even experienced mountaineers. Warning signs include nausea and headache.

"To lessen altitude sickness, ascend only about 500m to 800m a day. After that, rest at least overnight at that altitude before going any higher."

So what are the tips for travellers who wish to visit Mount Kailash?

Mr Yeo said: "Train before going there. You must be physically fit to trek around the mountain."

Mr Tan said travellers must be mentally prepared for the worst.

"Besides packing enough warm clothes and the right trekking gear, they must also be prepared to turn back should the weather become bad. To be mentally prepared is just as important," he said.


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