Alex Toh, 32
Toh got into the swing of it as soon as A-Listers started. After two months of training and climbing stairs in HDB blocks, he jetted off to Tibet to embark on his challenge to trek 80 kilometres in Tibet between two monasteries in Lhasa. Unfortunately, Toh had to pull out of the trek after the third day due to his girlfriend falling victim to altitude sickness. But he insists the sights and lessons he picked up were enough to change his outlook in life. Toh shared with us his experience in Tibet and how he hopes the CARE students can learn from it.
How was the trek?
It was beautiful. The climate was harsh but the view at any time was well worth the trouble because it was unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before. It was interesting to meet the local people as well. They are very religiously Buddhist even though, or maybe because, they are politically oppressed. Every part of my trip has been an eye-opener.
How long was it?
It was supposed to be four days. Unfortunately, my girlfriend came down with altitude sickness toward the end of the second day. We tried giving her oxygen the next morning to see if she’d get better enough to continue with the trek. But that didn’t help and she had to be brought down on a yak. So we didn’t complete the trek but we certainly gave it our best shot.
What were some of the highlights of the trek?
I got to experience the ever-changing climate of the mountains. Within a few hours of the second day’s trek, we experienced a desert-like climate to snow and icy conditions. That was fascinating for me. Just going on the trek itself was a highlight because we got to visit Ganden, which is where the Dalai Lama sect was founded, as well as Samye, which is the seat of Tibetan Buddhism. It was especially rewarding to learn about the monks of Tibet. They start training and studying from a young age in a system that demands a great deal of intellectual rigour. These monks memorise text and attend classes in the morning, and debate in the afternoon.
What was the food like?
It started out fairly interesting. But after a while, you begin to realise that you are simply eating variations of the same thing – yak. Yak is a very useful animal out there and its meat has an intense flavour. It’s a slightly gamier version of beef. I also tried yak butter tea, which to me, felt like drinking liquefied butter.
How did you prepare for the trek?
It took about two months. It was mostly climbing the stairs in HDB blocks with backpacks. (laughs) There was no way to acclimatise ourselves while we trained in Singapore so we had to do it along the way. We flew in to Kathmandu, which sits at 1,500 metres above sea level before moving up to Lhasa, which is about 3,600 metres above sea level. The whole altitude acclimatisation process took about a week.
What did you learn from it?
Apart from it being a thoroughly enjoyable experience, I learnt a lot about the nomads’ way of life. They have a very intimate relationship with their surroundings and rely heavily on the yak for their survival. They eat yak meat, they make use of yak fur to build tents and make clothing. I learnt that people don’t need a lot to be happy. Camping in the mountains brought me back to basics. Watching the people around me carry out their lives in rudimentary ways really made me appreciate the luxuries I have back home in Singapore.
What do you want the CARE students to learn from your trek?
I set out to demonstrate perseverance and patience. I wanted the students to understand that there’s something different about the kind of satisfaction you get after working hard for something. These days, it’s easy to post a nice photo in Instagram and have people pat you on the back for it. I want the kids to learn the value of hard work.
How do you feel about CARE Singapore and what it does after interacting with some of its students?
It’s important to have places in the community that provide opportunities for youth to participate in various activities. It gives them direction. I partnered one of the kids for laser tag to take out a target, and I witnessed how much confidence it gave him when he succeeded in the task. There wasn’t much I could do with the CARE students in one afternoon but I’m glad I did my part. I think it’s great that CARE Singapore is nurturing the students and pointing them in the right direction.
Alex Toh, 32