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Tibet Blizzard Ordeal Described by Travelers

October 30, 1987|Associated Press

BEIJING — Some of the 250 foreign travelers trapped on a remote Himalayan highway by a freak blizzard returned to safety Thursday and said they endured nearly a week of numbing cold and dwindling food supplies.

Susan Johnston, 27, of Seattle, said the five days she spent with 100 Americans, Europeans and Japanese stranded at a Chinese army truck stop 14,432 feet above sea level in Tibet was "a personal trauma for everyone."

The group lived on turnips, cabbage and rice, huddled together in an unheated building with the outside temperature at 4 degrees below zero, she said. Many people were ill-prepared for the cold.

Mary A. Medicus, 28, of Boulder, Colo., was with another group of 150 aboard five buses that had stalled at an elevation of 17,056 feet on the Tangla Pass about 43 miles north of the Nepal border.

The group spent six nights--"probably the coldest nights on earth"--on the buses before walking to the border, she said in Katmandu, Nepal.

There were apparently no serious injuries to foreigners, but Tibet officials said 11 local residents froze to death in the Oct. 19-21 snowstorm, rare this early in the season.

t Johnston had organized a bus tour of 16 tourists from Lhasa, Tibet, to Katmandu. She spoke from Chengdu, in China's Sichuan province, where she arrived Thursday on a flight from Lhasa.

The tourists were stranded trying to make their way over the pass Oct. 19 when the storm made further travel impossible.

"We couldn't see the road at all," Johnston said. The 16 passengers on her bus had to get out several times to push when the bus slid off the road. "We were soaking wet and the wind was blowing like crazy."

At Army Truck Stop

Her bus and several others turned back to the army truck stop, where about 100 people from North America, Europe and Japan waited five days before deciding to turn back toward Lhasa.

Trucks, horses and yaks that tried to cross the pass during that time all turned back. "A Tibetan man said that to try to go across that pass was death," she said.

The rest stop was on a barren plain covered with 10 inches of snow and spreading out below Mt. Everest and other Himalayan peaks, Johnston said.

Johnston, a student of Tibetan architecture at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said the building's generator broke on the second day, cutting off all heat, and people shared beds to ward off the cold.

It was worse for those up on the pass, who put towels in the windows of the buses and used their packs to keep their feet warm, Medicus said.

"We had little food . . . (and) had to live on only half a cup of champa (millet flour) each day as a ration and split the meat of half a sheep for the day for 30 people," she said.

On the sixth night, "two Chinese soldiers came to us with an old lantern and told us that if we walked down for six miles we could have a new bus.

"We were so happy to hear this, you can't believe it. . . . We sang songs, and those people who had kept food hidden brought it out and shared it with others on this joyous occasion."

But the travelers later learned there was no bus, and began walking toward the Nepal border. Medicus said they stayed with a poor Tibetan family, sleeping horizontally for the first time in a week. She said they had to beg for food.

At Zangmu, the last Tibetan village before the border, "We saw cases of Mandarin oranges in a small store. We rushed there and grabbed them," she said, adding that she and seven others reached the border after a three-day trek.

China's official New China News Agency said Thursday that a helicopter was used Tuesday to rescue foreigners stranded on the pass.

But neither woman knew of any rescue operations and both complained of bureaucratic hassles connected to recent pro-independence disturbances in Lhasa.

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