I had spent probably far too much time than was healthy staring at square D4 towards the bottom left of the pastel green swathe of China in my Times Concise World Atlas, at an area known as Xizang Zizhiqu. This was not because of its tongue twisting dyslexic moniker but because this overtly contoured region was better known to me and the world at large as Tibet.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region (to give it’s full, Chinese approved name) has held many in curious awe for centuries, initially seen as an impregnable plateau of riches and spirituality, latterly a tumult of occupation, oppression and a point of strategic strutting for different world powers through the ages.
When a friend who runs a small cycle touring company announced his intention to run a trip of a lifetime to the mysterious region, I was already oiling my chain...
Our trip would take us from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, snaking easterly on the Friendship Highway and down to it’s Nepalese cousin Kathmandu. A thousand kilometres dominated by 5000 metre passes across the backbone of the Himalaya, including a trip to the fabled Everest Base Camp.
Flying from the relative hullabaloo of Kathmandu, we were plonked onto the tabletop of Tibet at 3600 metres and whisked to the mist shrouded capital Lhasa, the former Forbidden City and self-styled soul of Tibet and for centuries the home of the ruling Dalai Lamas.
Surrounded by protective snow sprinkled peaks, Lhasa is undergoing dramatic changes under Chinese rule. The surrounding streets have become wide, slide rule thoroughfares flanked by identikit buildings coated with burnished tile facades and blue tinted glass, like a post war Lido theme park.
However, behind the buffed plastic veneer, the traditions of Tibetan life lives on through the swirl of market life at the Bakhor, and particularly by the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims that come to pay homage at Tibet’s most revered religious structure The Jokhang. A mumbling sea of devotees finger their religious beads, sliding onto their knees and then onto their bellies in front of the whitewashed walls before squishing inside the maze of tiny candle lit rooms.
The Jokhang is an invigorating place, far away from the order and reverent hush of our western religious experience. Men in battered suits and leathered weathered faces revolve dented prayer wheels, nomads in impeccable traditional dress proffer small denominations to the assembled buddhas, kids trussed up in fake North Face puffers and oily Nike caps spooning yak butter into the candle basins under the gaze a few monks attempting to keep some semblance of order with a mixture of kindly smiles and a firm hand. Their devotion is quite humbling, some having travelled unaided for thousands of kilometres to pay their respects. Considering the generations of turmoil, poverty and oppression, perhaps their faith is the only constant in their lives.
Lhasa remains dominated by the Potala Palace, once the world’s tallest inhabited structure. Despite its imposing presence, a visit encapsulates the struggles of recent times in Tibet. Once the epicentre of a nations strength and faith and home to its now exiled leader, the Palace’s dark and run down chambers, stale air and shrouded stupas and effigies gives off the air of a museum rather than a living and breathing monastery for the few monks that remain. The large piazza constructed opposite houses a non descript grey monument to celebrate the ‘liberation’ of Tibet by the Chinese in 1959, like a colossal one finger salute to the historic Buddhist order. The Potala remains an epic sight that should be more than a stock photo for the tourists.
Lhasa is an evolving city, the temperate ways of the past being replaced with the pace and vigour expected of a modern day capital. Gleaming Toyotas battle with Cyclos for road superiority (and guess who wins that David & Goliath dust up) entrepreneurs fight the hourly battle with pervading dust from their open fronted stores, local folk haggle for hooky Berghaus and the best Yak cuts in the markets. The sight of four monks emerging from a taxi seemed like the opening line of a joke that has yet to be written.
After three slothful days acclimatising to the rarefied air in this beguiling city, it was time to get our trip underway, heading south west with a flat ride to the foot of our first big test The Khamba La Pass, which tailed off into wisps of clouds high above our campsite. We would be climbing nearly a vertical mile in 4 hours of attritional pedalling to a head spinning ten shy of 5000 metres (16 371 feet). After a slow, airless, banana fuelled ascent we were rewarded with a stunning vista of auburn mountains; down below the gash of shimmering still blue of Yamdrok Tso, one of Tibets four holy lakes, filling the valley. If the oxygen light air hadn’t already robbed me of it, it would have taken my breath away.
A night camping on a marshy outcrop near Nakartse in the valley below introduced us to our first set of curious local kids and nonplussed dogs and our first hard slap of the relative dangers of high altitude riding. With one of our flock suffering acute mountain sickness and taken to a lower level for a crash course in pure oxygen we awoke to find one of our party blue lipped and unconscious, being rushed back to a Lhasan hospital with hypothermia.
In the light of these events, the days cycling was characterised by grim determination. The arid landscape browned, the road petering out into a rock-strewn bumpathon, and dust squalls that embodied the grit of the riding. Karo La’s elevation of over 5000 metres did for most of us. A night in a blowy dry riverbed did little to raise our spirits as we supped sweet tea to keep the cold at bay.
If we were learning one thing already, it was to expect the unexpected. The following day, as the sun made its lazy way up the valley, it opened up a golden path that would give us a riding day to remember. With the wind at our backs, we breezed along the flank of a jutting arm of the Tsangpo, serene and still due to yet another damming project. Mud baked settlements sprinkled the shoreline, the waters breathing life into an otherwise uninhabitable gorge.
The perfect reflections of the brown mountains plunged into the cool waters as we took it all in over cold rice on a prayer flag infested col. With only a light breeze, clear sky and tranquil landscape, this was the first taste I had experienced of the spiritual calm that has intoxicated visitors to Tibet for centuries.
News came that our sick brethren were on the mend and gave us the fillip to whisk into the city of Gyanste. Again, the plastic front of Sino Triumphalism was immediately apparent at a newly formed crossroads. To our right the original cragged dirt road, teeming with scuffed peasants, scraggy goats and the increasingly ubiquitous low-slung Yaks and Dzos, leading to a postage stamp corner of the town that is the Tibetan Quarter.
To our right a hastily constructed paved road running to the horizon, regiments of lurid street lamps bolted with communist liberation propaganda and an already fault ridden pavement, the shells of symmetrical housing midway through construction. A short ride up this eerie street confirmed it was empty, but I guessed it would not be too long before this would be filled with immigrant life.
Gyanste itself has little to offer unless you have a penchant for truck tyres, carpets or industrial sized bags of rice, and the following days’ flat straight and mercifully tar macadam stretch had us eating up the kilometres to Tibet’s second city, Shigatse, home to the Panchen Lamas (the right hand order of the Dalai Lamas) and traditional capital of the Tsang region.
Befalling the same identikit hurried adjustment as Lhasa but with none of the capital’s aura, Shigatse is notable only for the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the erstwhile seat of the Panchen Lamas. A more modest affair than the Potala, the monastery is a sprawling affair, with narrow concourses connecting a multitude of buildings that separately housed the stupas of bygone Panchens, or led to long time deserted monks quarters.
More homely than regal, the remnants of a bygone era of work-a-day monks, unhurried in their quest to build their utopia made this the most spiritual experience so far. Even the sight of an agitated monk bawling into a mobile whilst his bretheren cooed misty eyed over a Kawasaki did little to effect the venerable ambience.
Due to construction, we detoured over the top of the Friendship Highway, creaking across more gargantuan passes, through crossroad hamlets and slopping through bubbling fords dribbling out the last remnants of glacial run off. Camping had settled into a routine of unpacking in the fading daylight, snot crusted kids in a state of continual over excitement and quick fire ablutions before freeze time.
The road and passes ahead were under intense redevelopment. Unfortunately for us, we had arrived at the ‘dig massive holes and make piles of rubble’ stage, which added a few extra mechanical diggers, craters and a whole heap more dust to proceedings. As if in sympathy with the stick thin spaders on every brow, we too were now digging deep. Heavy legged and hearted, we squirmed our way up the desolate passes, grinding our granny rings into submission. On a short and juddering descent, I put the buzzing in my head down to the elevation, tiredness and cold, only to learn that I was living out the literal translation of having a Bee in your bonnet. My tomato coloured helmet must be a tempting diversion for any insect in the beige and arid moonscape, and one such buzzer had found refuge through the vents. As with was no bicycle made for two, said bee was dispatched in a comedic flail of limbs and hollers much to the hilarity of some doubled up trench diggers.
The next obstacle in our pedal pilgrimage would be the the lofty perch of Pang La. After a murderous 50 switchbacks, the top of the pass gave us our first uninterrupted view of the snow clad Himalaya striping the horizon like a wiggle of serrated toothpaste, the tallest peaks in the world clustered together like a medal rostrum, Makalu to the left, the thunderous wall of Cho Oyo muscling into stage right and there in the centre the unmistakable skyward arrow of gold medallist, Mount Qomolangma…Everest. A truly wonderous sight for sore eyes and much needed rest for sore knees.
The reward for the aching ascent was a zigzag drop, the wind so strong that it in turn propelled you at breakneck speed and then on the turn into the next switchback asked most impolitely if you would mind pedalling downhill. We huddled together in a single file death march, focussing only on the yellow domes of our (mercifully) pre-erected tents in the gorge ahead like yolks on a bed of withered Dzaka valley spinach.
Next day, we continued our southerly procession past the trekking base village of Chodzom, to the outpost of Rongphu, home to the world’s highest monastery, once a lively centre of the nomad community, now another ghost of its former glory. The adjacent guest house was rustic and run down but does offer respite from the biting cold and wind and sports one of the most hazardous toilets on Gods green (and in this case, brown) earth.
The redeeming feature is of course the view. Everest stands menacingly, filling the entire vista, the west side an angry fizz of snow like a steam eared cartoon character raging at the antics of their nemesis, the east the epitome of tranquillity, basking in the mid afternoon sun, giving Everest a truly schizophrenic aura. Just a few kilometres down a crumbly track lay Base Camp, the launch pad for attempted summits via Everest’s North face, and for us the summit of our two wheeled trip.
After an uncomfortable night thanks to the high elevation and an unwise foray into the world of Chinese Brandy in the adjoining teahouse, we made for the final push. With the sun not yet anointing the valley, the temperature plummeted as we trundled down the final crevice, made all the more uncomfortable by numbed digits and in my case a washing machine stomach, probably caused by the ungodly beverages the night before.
The Base Camp itself is a rather uninspiring place, a slew of frosted tea tents surrounded by rubble and remnants of expeditions. The spirits of Mallory & Irvine hang heavy, boulder constructed graves marking the memories of those who have perished in their attempts to tame the mountain and failed, giving the area an even colder feel, if that was at all possible.
This would be as close as we would get to Everest itself, and for the first time I experienced the extraordinary pull of the ultimate mountain. I had often wondered what possessed so many to risk their lives in the pursuit of its apex, just to stand on the highest place on earth. As the sun bathed the mountain in a comely orange glow, I checked myself as to the pure insanity of it, like a huge siren tempting climbers onto its bitter crags and rocks…come and have a go if you think you’re mad enough.
Clumsy snaps were taken with over gloved fingers and with a heavy frozen sense of ‘we made it’, we trundled back to the relative metropolis of Rongphu.
The next day followed another rock strewn path through tiny parched villages. Encounters with locals had so far been few and far between, but our slow progress and the relative high population along this artery introduced us to a plethora of gawping shepherds, cheery dry grass bundlers and stone throwing kids.
Ploughing through our customary mid afternoon wind tunnel before opening into a dust festooned plateau, piggeldy brooks of glacial water allowing tufted grasses to flourish and feed shepherded flocks, as we settled on a camping spot on the outskirts of Tingri, a one road settlement whose market speciality seemed to be Head of Goat. A thick haze shrouded what would have been a perfect and final view of the jutting peaks, and by the morning this had developed into a blanket of snow.
After deliberation over thick pancakes in the mess tent, the decision was taken by some of the party to continue riding despite the treacherous conditions, over the final major pass, the aptly named La Lung . As we climbed through slush and mud, the oncoming traffic had dried to a dribble, and word from those who did come through was that the pass was on the contrary almost impassable, and definitely impossible by bicycle. At the risk of being cut off, we decided to abandon the rest of the days’ riding and high tail it over in our support jeeps. Once on the pass, it was clear this was the right thing to do, as the weather continued to close in. Snow slathered the bumps and peaks as we spun and slid, lines of Yak thundered past in search of non-existent shelter from the rising storm, as we rounded a bend and into a traffic jam. Two trucks had wedged themselves on either side of a narrow stretch, and now a stream of identical 4x4’s housing perplexed Chinese tourists were building up on either side of the stricken pair. As the drivers gamely tried to dig out their vehicles, an hour passed, and then another. Soon, the sun would fall, the snow would freeze and we would be going nowhere. Perhaps ever!
As the temperature dropped, this has the opposite effect on our driver who had up to this point displayed an ice cool ‘seen it all before’ nonchalance towards our impending doom. His increasing concern at our predicament led to a quick burst of Chinese and excitable hand gestures aimed at us huddled in the back. Assuming this was a general rant about crap lorry drivers and not wishing to agitate the only man who could get us out of here any further, we all nodded in resigned agreement. In a flash he started the motor and plunged us off the road and into the white duvet of snow towards the biro line of open road below us! So that’s what we had agreed to…a final Landcruiser rollercoaster ride and an untimely end on an unpronounceable escarpment!
Through finger shrouded eyes, I felt the bump as we emerged back onto the road, triggering whoops from the back seat, and made our way gingerly to the soulless outpost of Nayalam, a name aptly translated as Gateway To Hell. Drained, we booked into a concrete building that by dint of having a colourful sign felt it could masquerade as a hotel, but by now we didn't care. Noodles and and a revisit to the local brandy to numb our jangled nerves, added a celebratory but muted end to the day.
With slush riding over or boots, it was clear that a final dash to the border was our only option, a 30 plunging kilometres off the edge of the plateau and into the revitalising sub tropica of Nepal. The pallid jags of the surrounding massif began to give way to a verdant vista as we careered towards the border town of Zhangmu, cascades careering off the tree festooned bluffs and pointing the way to what was increasingly looking like a paradise.
As with all border towns, Zhangmu proffers an air of Just Passing Through. Miles of parked trucks snaked down to the border awaiting the famed slew of Chinese officialdom to allow them to cross into Nepal. Once through, we weaved through the mania of Kodari, as mad and as frenzied as any settlement would be when at the sharp end of a two culture clash.
This soon petered out into a succession of roadside encampments where the warmth of the weather was mirrored by the cheery faced, laid back inhabitants, whose two main pastimes seemed to be picking their toenails on steps or cruising in one of the ubiquitous Toyota Corollas. Under renewed steam, we reached Kathmandu in two days, and the opportunity to reflect on our Tibetan journey.
Whilst the Chinese do their efficient utmost to turn ‘The Roof Of The World’ into 'The 70's Style Loft Conversion Of The World', once out into the high peaks and plateaus, Tibet is more like your Grandmother's attic - cold, eerie, badly insulated and tricky, with the interesting bits only accessible by negotiating mounds of dust and stale air. It takes perseverance to get under the surface of Tibet, which remains a region of mystery, majesty and monastery, clinging to its roots in the face of relentless modernisation like a shop of curiosities trying to stay in business on a chainstore high street. For a country that has only relatively recently opened its doors to the wider world, the closing down sign is poised before its final refit, and the completion of a new era. It is unclear was to whether the rapid updating of an ancient way of life is a good or bad thing, but I suggest you take a browse now before the revolution is complete.