In the summer of 2000, after a mountaineering expedition in West China, my mind was hungry for new adventures to deal with. I didn't have the time to bike through West Tibet in order to join up with the team as I originally planned, making West Tibet a must in 2001. Digging through loads of Tibet maps and inspiration from hard-core Tibet biker stories made me dream of cycling all the way across Tibet, but in the end, things being very hot in Denmark combined with the tiredness of cycling alone made me stop after completing West Tibet. Hopefully it will be possible for a revenge trip next summer, cycling from Golmud to Kunming.
I arrive by flight into Bishkek Airport in Kyrgyzstan on the 13th June in the surroundings of the nearby awesome Tien Shan mountains. The vast numbers of disillusioning villages seen from the air clearly indicated the economic situation of this former Soviet republic. The amount of uniformed men hanging around meant a lot of paperwork, registration of passport, registration of being in the country, clearance of luggage, X-ray of luggage, the latter being completely inefficient because not everyone wanted to try out the soviet era car-sized x-ray machine and just walked unnoticed around it.
Outside waited the gang of taxi divers for a good lunch - in the shape of a naive tourist and he paid $10 for an English speaking 20-years old Kyrgyz and his father. The 30 km trip to the center of Bishkek is rushed at high speed in a bad smell of half-burned gasoline smoke from the worn-out Lada with cracked windshield. The gravel highway marked with poplar trees, fields and the Tien Shan mountains south of Bishkek, remind me of my trip to Russia in 1994.
The massive presence of Russians who didn't escape into Russia after the collapse of the USSR, makes my status of tourist disappear immediately, as I am not the only white-colored person. At my hotel I share a hotel room with a 38 year-old Swiss, a passionate traveler who hitchhiked through West Tibet in the mid'80s with a dead wind-dried sheep in his backpack as provisions. Somehow we feel comfortable in each other's company. We hang around in town for five days with his just-arrived brother until I get the chance to join up with a Swiss couple crossing the formerly heavily-guarded Torugart pass into China on a tour - the only existing way at this time to do it. We use one day to drive to Naryn in an old Lada, driven by an old man who really knows his car and the road. The Swiss stay at a local hotel, while I choose a home stay with a local family, where I try alcoholic horse milk. The next day is dedicated to a surprising easy and nice farewell to Kyrgyzstan, but Murphy rewards us with an hour long wait for our Chinese minibus at the actual border and two hours (!) wait for stamps at the Chinese immigration center.
Xinjang province, China
A long drive bring us to Kashgar, old and central point on the ancient silk road. We pay Caravan Cafe for transportation from the border on arrival in town, before we split up. I search for an hour at Seman hotel, the old Russian consul, for my two bicycle companions, Erik and Stephane . It turns out they are becoming fat and drunk at John's Cafe. Stephane has bicycled all the way from Switzerland and met American Erik on the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. They have been intown for some four days, waiting me to arrive and are quite impatient to get out of town because of their short two months Chinese visas. We agree that I unpack my gear, send my emails, buy my supplies and prepare my bike the next day, making it possible to leave the day after.
A late breakfast at Oasis Cafe marks the beginning of the West Tibet trip. We start out in the cruel hot sun, and to my horror it seems as though my trip is over before we start. My handlebars are shaking uncontrollably and nothing seems to stop it. Even Erik, who used to work at GT bikes, doesn't know how to stop it; somehow the front suspension and the heavy front bicycle panniers are creating the problem. We cannot solve it and I have to continue in shaky style until the road becomes gravel and the problem stops.
Erik is American by heart and the two of us start a silly little competition of who is the fastest biker, while Stephane has a more relaxed attitude toward our competition. My lack of training in Denmark quickly makes me tired like a dog, and I also begin to have problems with the brand-new saddle I am using. A long day ride along the edge of the Taklamakan desert bring us to a big salt lake where we camp for the night. The next day is a 120 km long journey taking us through oasis towns till we end up in Yarkand, which turns up to be the perfect place for stocking up with delicious supplies. We celebrate our catch of one week of supplies with long hot showers next to our hotel, before eating at thelocal restaurant. We leave late next day on overloaded bikes, and are punished with plenty of rain, making it necessary to cover up in rainwear for a long stretch. Later, we become quite scared because a police landcruiser from time to time stops without reason a few hundreds meters in front of us, but they don't try to stop us. We caught Yeching phobia not only because of this, but by the knowledge that some cyclists had big troubles at this place last year. We choose to rush through the place without even stopping for a restaurant or photographing the beginning of the hell road we are about to cycle on for 1½ months, route 219.
A middle-aged character from Ireland (or Scotland?) told us in a restaurant in the central Kashgar market that he wanted to bike this road and did so for one day after Yeching, before he realized he wouldn't have time enough to make it to Nepal and abandoned the trip! Strange guy. More interestingly, he also told us that he met a mobile checkpoint some 30 km after Yeching, but the police didn't stop him for some reason. Suddenly this checkpoint shows up in front of us and we start biking very fast trying not to look too guilty, and we are lucky as the policemen just keep sitting in their land cruiser even though they have seen us for sure. The landscape becomes very dry as we move our way up the gradually steepening road and finding a campsite out of sight takes quite a while. Stephane and Erik start up their kitchen work, which is ever more complex, time-consuming and gives better results than my fast "instant noodles with meat taste" cooking. This day is really hard even though I try to take it easy during the day, and it is pretty clear that the coming days will be hell, moving up into real altitude.
I am awake one hour before the gang of two and use some time mounting mudguards on my bike - one day in Kashgar for assembling the bike wasn't enough. Passing alongside a distant oil field, we soon leave the asphalt road and after only ½ km on gravel road, I am thrown into a state of shock, when my aluminum front rack falls apart on the left side. This is probably because of the "shake it baby" cycling style during the last 311 km, which stops on the gravel road, when my front suspension fork starts jumping up and down. How on earth is this rack going to last all the way through Tibet?? We make a fast repair with metal wire before eating in a very basic restaurant in a Uigur village, for sure not a bulletproof solution, but nothing else can be done.
After cycling several hours we suddenly run into a Japanese cyclist, Mura, who Stephane met in Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway. His wheel has just blown out and the repair leaves him without a spare tire. He tells that he had been joining up with another Japanese, but his partner chose, due to the widespread police-paranoia among Tibet cyclists, to try out another road into Tibet near Hotan. The problem is that I attempted that road two years ago and it could not be done, because of sand (dunes) and flooding(!). Mura tells us that he prefers to cycle alone, and after some chitchat we leave. I begin to have problems with altitude here around no more than 2500 meters, gasping for air and to make things worse, Stephane and I begin to have some serious stomach problems, which turn out to be giardia. Erik on the contrary is going really strong and seems quite irritated by the frequent breaks I take, but I cannot help it. We camp seven kilometers short of the real steep part of the first major road pass which is 3300 meters high. I have a complete lack of appetite - cannot eat anything even though I know I need energy for tomorrow's ascent- and just go to sleep right away. It rains throughout the night, making my frequent runs for the toilet even less pleasant.
The first pass
The next morning is a competition between Stephane and me, running for toilet matters and we wait to startup until the rain has stopped at 10 a.m. Erik offers to carry some of my gear, which he doesn't need to ask twice for, and also makes food for me, but I still cannot eat anything, a clear sign of altitude problems, but this is not dangerous as long as we move over the pass into lower altitude today. The day turns into a hell for me after passing a convoy of 50 army trucks, and while the gang of two actually can bicycle most of the way up the pass, I push the bike nearly the entire way. Several times comes the "why the hell are you doing this" thoughts while I slowly move up the switchboard road, thinking of the altitude adjustments Stephane and Erik have the advantage from their trip on the Karakoram highway. Alone on the top, I know from last time that all the efforts of the last many hours of pushing will be wasted on the 21 km steep downhill. A high-speed ride brings me to the bottom of the pass where Stephane has got problems with his wheel. After this short break we continue, but I soon have to give up hanging on. This is the last I see of Stephane and Erik before Mt. Kailash.
I stop for every half kilometer, exhausted and frustrated. By the time the sun starts disappearing from heaven, I haven't caught up with Erik and Stephane . I camp in the cold darkness and try to eat something, but still the complete lack of appetite.
I only make 32 km the next day, filled with breaks for toilet visits. I have started a course against Giardia, but it does not seem to work. The landscape is fantastic, but I cannot enjoy it and am about to run out of water at one stage, because the last I have, tastes so odd that I don't want to drink it. I wait instead till I arrive in a small village there I eat and stuck up with Jian Li Bao soft drinks, boiled eggs, instant noodles and more. Stay at the place for a couple of hours, reading the letter Erik left for me at the village restaurant, explaining they cannot wait for me because of their short visas and that they want to go for Mazar tonight, completely impossible for me. I am being ripped off in the village, but felt much better after I have begun to eat something. I meet an old shepherd hours later and by hand signs, he expresses his worries for my apparently insufficient clothing. I explain in the same way about my tent, sleeping bag, but he doesn't look convinced then I leave. He actually invited me to stay at his place, but how can I tell him I got giardia and don't want to drink butter tea and eat Tampa with the stomach I got. I leave with the knowledge of an experience lost forever, but don't care in my selfishness and depression. I camp one kilometer later next to a river behind a big stone.
I am very weak in the morning and become deeply depressed and angry, then giardia sends me a message of it's strength in my bicycle pants. I begin to fully understand my German friend Christoph who had the same problem most of our trip together on the Friendship Highway in central Tibet in 1998. This cannot go on - something radical has to be done NOW. Too tired to bike and push the bike nearly all the impressive 13km I accomplish during a day of deep thoughts of giving up the trip. Even "Enigma" music cannot change my sad state of mind. I find a find a campsite in shape of an old sheep yard with high stone walls - good place for resting before the impossible-looking 5.000 meters pass in front of me. I have to adjust to altitude, because becoming severely altitude sick being on my own could be fatal. Reading through my minimalist medicine book makes me decide to take a strong course of antibiotics against giardia. Throughout the afternoon, while eating snacks, I begin to break down the deep depressive mood I have been in for the last few days, splitting up my situation into each of the problems I got:
1) Giardia. I have begun to fight it with radical means and it will disappear soon 2) Altitude. I am for sure beginning to adapt. 3) The mighty pass in front of me - can be done tomorrow. The last one is about being on my own, but somehow I give a damn about that, because giving up now after attempting the same route in 1999 will really be a blow for years. Somehow my mind has turned 180 degrees before I fall asleep.
The Second pass - the first 5000 meters.
While beginning to work my way up the 23 km steep pass, I notice the print of bicycle tires on the gravel road. It is not a local, because they will for sure not cycle up a pass and the gang of two it cannot be - they are long gone. I begin to realize it must be the Japanese we met some days ago and I become obsessed with catching- and joining up with him. I meet him one hour later and we work our way up the pass together. The first 13 kilometers are easy, and the road is surprisingly good. The last 10 km is a real struggle with frequent breaks and the road turns into a bitch near the top. A friendly truck driver gives me some bread and a soft drink and I become like a newborn. The Chinese soldiers on the passing military trucks look very friendly and wave hands as if there is no tomorrow. Mura arrives first on the top and we enjoy not only the incredible view but also the fact that we have passed one of the biggest obstacles on the route - reaching the Tibetan high plateau. It's not completely true, because a similar pass is waiting some 93 km ahead, but who cares right now with a gigantic downhill in front of us. I measure the altitude as 4993 meters by GPS before we leave for the 24 km downhill to Mazar. We pass several trucks on our high speed descent and arrive just outside the city in less than an hour, losing more than a vertical kilometer. Mura has heard about a checkpoint just outside Mazar, and we take a close look at the village from behind some rocks. We cannot figure out if there is a checkpoint, and choose to cycle into the town simply because we are dead tired and hungry. It turns out that a shelter we suspected of being a checkpoint is a restaurant and we end up eating and sleeping there. Well, we didn't sleep much because at 12, two highly talking Tibetan truck drivers tumble inside our room and go to sleep after half an hour of talk. I felt like I have slept for 5 minutes when another guy tumbles in at 5 and starts a huge argument with the two, apparently because he is their boss and it seems like they not are supposed to sleep. In the end I become really pissed off.
The Han-Chinese couple managing this small shelter are quite funny as we try to make our mind clear on what to eat and bring with us the next morning. This young couple must have emigrated from east China, choosing a life on the edge of eternity here in nomads land which must be one of the last frontiers in China. We turn left after a few hundred meters of cycling - the road to the right leads to the Mazar military base and the most difficult 8000 meter peak on earth, the deadly K2. Tempting to use a week on this road, but it is impossible to walk in to base camp from July to mid August because of high rivers.
The road becomes washboard as we cut our way through the sharp headwind and dust from the military trucks passing us along the road. We rent a bombshelter of a room with half the roof missing next to a roadworker house for 15 yuan each in the evening and Mura cooks a gigantic meal of vegetables on his Whisperlite stove and swallows it in no time. I begin to become used to the different kind of privacy which exists here in Western China - the locals are very curious and cannot understand why a door sometimes is closed, and I slowly accept this two-way tourism.
We start out early at 9.30 knowing that the day will be long and hard, climbing up to a 5000 meters pass 20 km away. It quickly becomes switchback after a very steep straight road section and to make it better, loads of military convoys make the air dusty. Several hours later I run into a truck with civilian Chinese which has broken down and am offered watermelon while waiting Mura to catch up. Suddenly he comes racing past and I leave the place as sudden as I arrived. We both underestimate the length of the pass and it takes most of the day to reach the top at 4955 meters by GPS. I wait 20 minutes for Mura to arrive before we start the descent down the sandy switchback road. My hydraulic disk brake works like a dream and makes me cycle faster than I should. Suddenly the road becomes very sandy and I weave from side to side while desperately trying to brake, but too late. Strange so slow time goes as one flies over the handlebars and lands on the road - it takes forever. The landing pushes all air out of my lungs, and I felt how the skin on the left knee brutally is ripped off, while I glide down the road. Still, I am very lucky only to get big wounds on the knee and my left elbow. Mura takes my bike off the road and smokes a cigarette while I take care of my wounds. We have been hoping to reach Xaidulla by the end of the day, but because of the flat downhill slope and the crash, it is obviously not possible. Mura wants to camp in the hilly surroundings while I want to cycle 5 km more in order to reach a road worker house which according to my notes from a German who did the road last year should have very friendly inhabitants.
And friendly they are, the 10 people - half Han-chinese, half Uighur. We play Chinese chess for hours before they invite me to watch an American karate movie They've got on laserdisk. It feels unreal. Here I sit in a movie room in the isolated Kunlun mountains and enjoy (actually) what I have traveled thousands of kilometers to avoid. Technological progress has even reached the most isolated mountain areas. A Han-Chinese takes a close look at my wounds and smears antibiotic ointment on it to prevent infection.
They don't want me to pay for staying as I leave the next morning. The 23 km. to Xaidulla turns out very sandy and the sun makes the temperature rise up to more than 30 C. I arrive in the town a few hours later and wait for Mura to arrive. It takes three long hours, mainly because he starts out late and has to pack all his gear at his campsite. Still, the hours come in handy when hanging around and a Chinese officer takes a look at my bike and points out a broken spoke and of course I manage to puncture the inner tube during the repair. When Mura arrives and we eat together at a local landcruiser restaurant, he suddenly declares that this is his destination for the day. I am amazed - I've been waiting for him to arrive and we are only in the middle of the day. But I don't want to continue on my own and choose to stay for rest of the day. After the trip, I come to think of the differences between him and me. While I want to race across Tibet as fast as I can, his nature is more like taking things easy and enjoy the trip.
Losing contact - again
I am wild as a lion the next morning, not only couldn't I sleep much because the Chinese owners partied most of the night, but also because I am in for some real cycling action. We are today going to cycle this road like it never has been done before. Well, at least that's my opinion. We follow each other for some kilometers until I lose contact with Mura while riding like hell. I find a bicycle rhythm which keeps me going on for hours without stopping, and am suddenly halfway up a pass I considered impossible to reach this day. I want to wait out Mura to come, but cannot see him below. A landcruiser group stops and a French seismologist explains that Mura is some 30 km behind. 30 km!! Loads of thoughts fly across my mind as they leave again. I feel treacherous if I continue on my own, but this simply cannot continue if I want to be across Tibet and home again before mid September, only 2½ months from now. I have to continue on my own and feel like doing what the gang of two did to me as I continue over the pass, bicycling until darkness falls.
I eat plentiful in the morning as I simply was too tired to eat last night. The road is the worst I have experienced yet - big stones everywhere. A roadworker tells me that the gang of two only is two days ahead, making me begin a catch-up race which lasts until Mt. Kailash. Strong side wind makes the ride anything but pleasant while I try to pup up my mood by listening to music. Dark shadows followed by heavy rain makes me only think of reaching the next city, Dohongliutan. A group of truck drivers offer me all the tea I can drink and while I cycle again I come to think of the incredible Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who walked through this place less than some 100 years ago. He would be shocked if he saw the place today. Broken glass bottles lying along the road, the missing wildlife because of hunting, the depressing truck stops along the road, and military music blaring through some towns. West China is changing like everywhere else.
The ride goes smoothly the next day after stocking up on supplies and a long undisturbed sleep in Dohongliutan. Ahead waits Aksai Chin, the area China occupied and built this road through without India discovering it, before it was built and it ended up in a war between the two countries in 1962, which China won. I have to cycle over a 5200 meters pass, before entering this notorious high-altitude area and leaving the lazy moraine tongues hanging down from the mountainsides brings me into a steep road section. The kilometer stones which have been following me for each kilometer until now, suddenly change into 5 km stones. Inspecting the front rack during a short rest gives me a shock - it is broken in several more places and I use some time to make some bad repair on it. The rear rack of steel, on the other hand, seems to withstand anything on. The clouds become really dark as slow trucks pass me and cold rain starts just as I pass a broken truck. A young Uigur yells after me and I end up sleeping in the truck cabin. The guy explains, using my phrasebook, that he has been sitting here for three days, waiting his father to come back from Ali with space parts. He also explains that I shouldn't sleep outside in Aksai Chin because of meat-eating animals. At first I get the impression that he is talking about the Yeti, but it soon becomes clear to me that he refer to wolves. I don't really take this seriously until I later meet an English-speaking officer who claims the threat is real.
I continue up the pass the next morning, while dark clouds gather in front of me and have to make a standstill a few kilometers before the pass itself because of thunder and intense rain. This does not, however, make the soldiers working nearby come down from the telephone poles they are adding a new line to. Disciplined they must be! The head wind is immense and I have to push the bike up the pass. Suddenly curious soldiers surround the strange cyclist and I even get a photo of the event. Walking over the windy pass brings me into the immense Aksai Chin area, the most wild, deserted, barren infertile landscape I ever have seen - it looks like being on the moon.
I immediately run into a brand-new highly sophisticated military terrain vehicle after the short descent to the flat plateau, a strong indication on the modernization of the Chinese army. The English-speaking officers driving this vehicle are really friendly and very interested in changing US$ and buying the GPS they sense I've got. They give me a day's ration of newly developed food for the Army which is filled with energy and tastes very good, before I have to decline their very generous offer of driving me some 30 km to the nearby military base. This trip is by bike and not in something on four wheels. Doing this by bike has become a mantra for me and this is not the only time friendly Chinese soldiers offer their help. Most don't seem to understand traveling this place not designed for humans on a bike - but they always express their admiration and this is really a big kick for keeping on bicycling. The same goes for Truck drivers, who seem to fear Aksai Chin by heart.
I stop for a short eat at a shelter of a restaurant in the middle on nowhere, a place apparently very popular, and at least 40 people are at the place by the time I leave. Distances cheat one here. What looks like a five minute ride to the mountains in front of you, often becomes a 45 minute ride. This place both scares and fascinates me, and I fell quite sad when I later leave Aksai Chin. Somehow this wilderness is what I have been searching for and knowing that the gigantic Chang Tang nature reserve lies on the left of the road only makes the place more interesting. "Tibet's empty quarter" as naturalist George Schaller wrote in an article in Natural Geographic on his field work in Chang Tang. I camp near a salt lake with huge salt formations late in the day and keep my ice axe ready for action in case of a wolf. Somehow the wolf story scared me off.
The wind is gone in the morning and the missing clouds make a brilliant and splendid sight of the surrounding mountains. If only one could build a house here. Today is really hot even though most of the area is above 5000 meters and finding water is bit of a problem until I run into a river crossing the road. It is quite deep and cold and it takes some time before I have passed it. A landcruiser passes me near the military base the Chinese officers wanted to take me to. It stops and out steps a giant, seen from a Chinese point of view. Edwin and his girlfriend Inti are from Holland and seem astonished by the sight of a cyclist in this region and give me loads of drinking water, while I talk about everything and nothing. They are on their way to Lhasa and tell me what to expect further on. They are suddenly gone as fast as they showed up. I find a small restaurant minutes later. The rest of the day is a long ride along a straight road, which is so bad that it is better to cycle next to it in the trails from trucks.
Discover a broken truck near darkness - wake up the sleeping guy in it and end up sleeping there myself. The alternative was to put up the tent in the strong wind without any protection, because everything is flat along this road. The young guy explains that he has been waiting for 5 (!) days in the truck for his father to come back from Ali with spare parts. As in the case of the other guy, someone has to be in the truck to make sure the load does not suddenly disappear. Had a bad sleep on the front seat and to make things worse, the stove is gasping for air -I have big problems making it work and end up eating canned instant beans some nice soldiers gave me. Today I have to reach Tielong, catching up on the gang of two, again a long road without interruption, again telephone pole soldiers. A truck with Han-Chinese surprises me when it stops to chat with me in exchange for some watermelon. A tall Chinese actually digs down the leftover of the watermelon we just have enjoyed. Maybe there still is hope for the environment in Tibet. I must admit my morale on garbage has been falling just a much as the loads of dumplings in the small cities. The road becomes very muddy and gigantic holes make it possible to overtake a truck and keep it behind for 10 kilometers until I reach Tielong, a partly flooded truck stop from the nearby lake. I even see a Tibetan Antelope just before town. A Chinese guy speaking worse than bad English informs me that the gang of two was in town two days ago. Suddenly a guy runs like hell to catch me while his arms fumble around in the air, trying to explaining something. Foreigners in town must be the message while he drags me to a dirty little tent I avoided at first place. For a moment I get the impression that it is the gang of two and become disappointed when it turns out to be a hitchhiking Spanish guy with altitude problems, but nothing serious it turns out. Impossible to see anything in the darkness and we soon fall asleep while trucks passes on the road next to the tent.
The Spaniard sounds and looks much better the next morning and turns out to be a hardy traveler - more than two years on the road. He has minimized his gear to nothing, except for an enormous guitar he has been hiding behind his bed. I start cycling up the 5356 meters pass just outside town soon after the Spaniard catches a truck ride to Ali for 250 yuan after some bargaining. I cycle around a lake after the pass and some road workers inform me that the next pass is some three kilometers ahead. I reach it after a hard pushing experience on the muddy road. I pass a truck which is covered in mud near the top of the pass. This pass is special not only because of the prayer flags but also because it the end of Aksai Chin and marks the official border between the Xinjiang and Xizang (Tibet)provinces.
I begin the descent happy as a little boy who has just received his Christmas presents, but soon my mood changes. The downhill according to my notes turns out to be another climb to a pass some 5 km away on a VERY muddy road where trucks are struggling to get through. It is becoming dark as I make my way through this mess (later the gang of two tell how they took hours for just three kilometers in this place). I don't have any food and just want to have a roof over my head and I start cycling without breaks in the darkness now on a long straight road made in what looks like the middle of a long lake. I begin to see some light in the distance after some demanding cycling and cannot help thinking of food and rest while approaching the light. Of course, just 100 meters in front of town is a goddamn river I have to pass and it is nearly too much. But my guardian angel is holding her hand over me in the shape of a soldier suddenly offering his help to carry the bike over a very narrow bridge 100 meters upstream. Problem is the guy seems to like being in a hurry and to avoid the bike falling down into the river because of his hard dragging, I have to jump down into it with my trekking boots on. Jesus - this really completes the day, my boots will now be soaking wet for days. Yes, I still got my SPD - cycling shoes, but they have turned out to be no good for me because of pain in the knees.
The small restaurant is crowded with people escaping the mud hell and I don't look forward to sleeping here. I soon forget that when I see a man who obviously doesn't feel good and it looks like serious altitude problems. The people with him are not sure about this, but I don't like the situation and use one hour to make it clear to them that this guy has to be taken down NOW. The driver, happy of being out of the mud just ignores my advice while the guy is being taken care of by others. I never know what happened to him, because the group had gone by the time I woke up the next day. I could have helped him more than I did, because I carried Diamox against altitude sickness, but I didn't know at that time that not only can it be used as a preventive, but also as a treatment.
I am very tired in the morning and really become pissed of by the ridiculous 150 yuan the Tibetan owner wants for plain basic food and shelter. I start a huge argument and end up paying an incredible 120 yuan before I leave the place without a word (Warning: the gang of two had a similar expedience with this bastard). Felt a complete lack of strength this morning and have to push the bike up what according to the notes should be a long downhill to Domar. Something is very wrong and a closer inspection of Janne Corax's altitude map makes it clear that the normal excellent road notes got a huge error here. The next hours reveal the highest pass on the southern west Tibet route with an altitude of 5399 meters by GPS (cycled two meters higher just for the sport of numbers). The last pass was bad in terms of stopped trucks, but this one easily beats the former. Tipped-over trucks are lying everywhere in the mud, but my mountainbike easily avoids what the trucks got into days before and I suddenly find myself on a big downhill just in front of a thunderstorm. Wait it out and end up camping some hours later. The goddamn stove is again making life hard, but somehow I manage to boil a pot of instant noodles.
Domar now looks within reach of one day of 53 km downhill cycling , but as usual in Tibet "expect the unexpected". When one expect things to be easy and it proves the opposite, one tends to end up in bad mood. I felt great in the morning and end up seriously considering catching a truck in order to join up with the gang of two again, but somehow I cannot make myself do it. The promise of cycling all the way has become holy. The road becomes very sandy and washboard like during the day, soldiers photographing me, but I am told not to photograph them by an officious army officer, a thunderstorm catches me and worst off all - the front rack looks like something from the second world war. I wonder if I have committed hubris believing West Tibet was that easily done by bike. I arrive in Domar late in the day and quickly find the best restaurant in town and being told about the gang of two at the same place two days before.
A woman comes into the kitchen with a less than happy chicken. And happy it shouldn't be - it has 15 minutes later become a pot of food for soldiers flowing in from the nearby military base . I fix the rack with a stick while the soldiers are becoming drunk, losing their shyness and everybody wants to talk with the "American". They are funny guys and I like them, but it has been a really bad day and I soon choose to go to sleep in a hard bed.
My eating party makes me feel quite strong the next day while I cycle nonstop 16 km uphill to the pass- according to the notes, 5000 meters. Too easy it turns out, it was only 4664 meters by GPS, but who cares - I am in a good mood and ready for some cycling action. Obsessed with catching up with the gang of two. A downhill ride brings me to the bank of Nyak lake stretching far into Indian Kashmir. I eat watermelon with truck drivers before I decide to use the last hours of the day to reach a fisherman's place opposite the lake, looking pretty close. The joyride ends as dark clouds gather over the lake and strong winds begin to make the ride difficult and I end up cycling in darkness and rain before I find the place.
Dead tired and starving like a Yak in wintertime after 90 km. of cycling, but the fish they serve is really badly made. They don't have a clue how to prepare it, and have just cut it in pieces and made soup of it. I struggle not to swallow the bones, while watching a young Tibetan who looks like he is eating fish for the first time - he cannot understand why it has bones.
Encounter with the police
I start early the next morning, leave the ocean-sized lake and enter a big grassy plateau. Cycling in a half circle on the left side brings me to a gate at the top of a small hill. Below lays Rutog Xian, marked with an army of antennas. I can see a checkpoint at the beginning of the quite big town, but it looks deserted and the couple from Holland told me that according to their driver this wouldn't be a problem to pass. The naive cyclist enters town, makes his purchases at a well equipped store and takes a fast look at China Telecom, hoping for an international line, but apparently not possible. Outside again, while considering which restaurant to eat at, a small Han-Chinese man with glasses suddenly asks for my passport in bad English.
Shit! The guy is obviously a police man (PSB) in civilian clothing and several policemen in uniform quickly form a small crowd around me, while I desperate try to figure out how to get away. The best I manage to come up with is asking for a good restaurant. Sure, just across the street and instead of just handing back my passport, the crowd follows me and walk inside the restaurant. Oh man, no good. I end up being interrogated during half an hour for my "travel pass", the best they find in the phrasebook they saw me using in the store. I play plain stupid and keep on pointing at my passport with a big smile even though it is ever so obvious a travel permit they want to inspect. I will first be able to obtain such one in Ali and have in effect been traveling illegally. My food is served and suddenly the crowd of policemen with glasses realize their own hunger and leave for a small room where they apparently are used to eat.
I swallow the delicious food like a cheetah with a lion approaching, grab my bike and hastily push it outside and ride like hell out of town, wondering for hours whether a landcruiser stocked with police will show up from behind. But nothing happens and I begin to relax. My biggest problem becomes whether I took the right road by turning left just outside town, but again I am lucky. I take a break near some nomad tents and quickly a crowd of curious people gather to inspect the bike and me. I end up pumping bicycle tires for three kinds in exchange for photographing them.
The valley narrows and the rising road becomes so stony in some parts, that riding is not possible. Thinking to hell with this, to hell with that, my mood quickly deteriorates. I want to cycle as long as possible today to shorten the distance I need to do tomorrow to reach Ali. This major city is one of the midway goals on the trip. I did the mistake of focusing on the whole 5100 km trip as one unity at the beginning of the trip, but while lying ill with giardia I realized by focusing only on the next small goal is it possible to accomplish the whole trip. Camp in darkness just before a small river, hoping water level drops by morning, but it rains throughout the night and the crossing becomes more difficult. Much worse is the condition of my back. Felt like being electrocuted when trying to change sleeping position and I begin to wonder whether I have to give up riding to prevent permanent damage in my back. Somehow the pains are gone in the morning but the problem is the same again at the end of the day. The damned stove again makes it impossible to cook breakfast and I leave hungry, thinking of all the food waiting in Ali at the end of the day. The sun burns down on the valley and the temperature must be more than 30° C while I slowly make my way toward food heaven. A small normal easy pass some 40 km before town becomes a nightmare as I drag the bike up. Drink my last water on the top, where some Tibetans try to load a truck on another truck for some reason. The downhill is very sandy and suddenly a spoke breaks. Jesus Christ man - just too much, but it is soon fixed. I cycle the last 40 very sandy kilometers without water because I am to focused on Ali to stop for filtering water. I know for sure I am close, when I see a military convoy followed by a taxi with soldiers.
I stop short of town. It looks like a Salvador Dali picture, something is wrong with the composition. Here in the middle of this place not designed for humans, is a metropolis-sized city with tower blocks. It doesn't fit in. I drink two Cokes within a minute on arrival and quickly find a worn-out Chinese style hotel at the corner of the central crossing in town. The Japanese I share room with turns out to be a very enthusiastic amateur photographer, dragging 10 kg of camera gear (4 cameras). His concept is "I travel until I run out of films" and is a really nice guy and we have a long chat, before I tumble down to the PSB (police) at 9 in the night in the hope of being issued a travel permit, but the place is closed.
I try to find the public shower in the evening, but can't. Instead, I find it in the morning and use more than half an hour rubbing away three weeks of dirt, and repeat the process again in the evening. Someone knocks on the hotel room door, just after I arrive back in the hotel room, and a strange looking Chinese guy informs me to go directly to PSB in order to register myself. I am pretty amazed and cannot help feeling under some kind of surveillance the rest of the time I stay in town. The PSB headquarter is a huge building hidden behind small shops and I felt like Josef K. in Franz Kafka's "The Process" while walking through a long corridor, entering a place where my destiny is determined without my influence. I turns out not that bad, even though the Tibetan police officer is less than happy about my 5 months visa and mumbles "visa too long". Paying 350 yuan covers a fine for traveling in a forbidden place and a 50 yuan travel permit which nearly will take me to the Friendship Highway (Saga) in Central Tibet. I still got a naive hope that the gang of two are in town, especially after a truck driver told me I was one day behind, and I ask the officer if he knows of my two cyclist friends, but he don't know.
I begin to go through my belongings back at the hotel and pick out nearly 3 kg. of gear I won't need on the rest of the trip, including my SPD bicycle shoes. But one hour at the post office reveals that the place don't have any international package connections. I have become paranoid about carrying as little as possible and ask the Japanese if he can send it from Lhasa when (he according to plan) arrives there in two days by bus. He makes my day and I begin to search for an international call place, but soon run into an internet place with satellite link instead. The place, the only one in West Tibet is more than popular, less than 14 days old and I use the rest of the day surfing and mailing, while some 5-10 curious people are watching. Also Tibetan nomads come in and they cannot help staring with open mouth at technological evolution.
Later after eating with the Japanese, I help him carrying his (and my) luggage down to the bus pickup place, before I go to bed. The pains in my back are now gone and don't come back after changing the position of the handlebars. My sleep is interrupted by the Japanese who comes back after a few hours and talks for hours because the bus (of course) is delayed from Lhasa and first leaves late in the night.
I don't feel good the next day and put off the restart of the trip one day. Make a 8 yuan a minute call to Denmark, there everything seems ok and I am told that a Poste Restante letter waits at the post office. At the post office they tell me that I have to go a small branch in the other end of town, but at that place a newspaper-reading fat woman keeps repeating "post office closed" even though I beg her to find the letter for me. Man, China has for sure not entered a market economy status yet. Later, someone starts yelling in the corridor outside my room at the hotel and it sounds like some kind of a fight starts, but I have seen it before in China and probably just the usual non-dangerous fight about nothing, and I choose to stay in bed, not feeling good.
Sick in the mountains
I leave Ali the next day even though I feel weak. The dry plain outside Ali is better to cycle than the road and I find myself further and further away from the telephone poles along the road, which turns to the right in the horizon, while the road I suddenly run into turns left. Strange, because the road normally always follows telephone poles, but the road here seems trafficked and I cycle for one hour before I realize something must be wrong, because this road leads up into a pass which the notes don't mention. My map shows a road following the telephone poles and I stop several vehicles to find out where this road leads to. A Tibetan truck driver draws a map showing this road as a shortcut to the main road following the telephone poles and I take the chance and continue. I have no idea of how high the pass is and feel really bad while dragging the bike up the road. I am complete exhausted hours later and end up camping next to a roadworker tent. The guy and his young son are really nice to me and I stay there one more day while they give me bread and water. In-between, they leave for short working session on the road with their small tractor. I got fever and have stomach problems again and just the suspicion of giardia makes me eat the medicine the Chinese-speaking Japanese helped me pick up at a pharmacy in Ali against giardia It turns out to be strong stuff and kills my stomach for whole week.
I leave the place feeling much better and am surprised by the short way to the top of the pass, marked by prayer flags. Choose a very steep and sandy shortcut downhill to the grassy green valley fed by the river in the middle of it. It marks a complete change from the time before Ali where most places were brown and empty. Small houses lay along the road and I stop for dinner in a truck stop place, usually easily recognizable by the mountain of beer bottles outside. The sad Tibetan song from the radio makes everyone in the room silent while I eat the instant noodles they offer along other small things. The road is marked with stones in small towers along it and must be for protecting the pilgrims against demons on their way to Kailash. The shortcut ends at a new bridge which brings me to the old road again (later, the gang of two claim that I was a lucky guy not trying out the old road, because they had a real hell time with rivers and missing road sections, and lost a whole day on it). I reach Namru while dark rain clouds to the south force themselves over the Himalayan range marking the border to India. I find a restaurant and am happy to hear it is possible to sleep there.
The good night's sleep in Namru is suddenly interrupted in the morning when a young Tibetan woman forces the door open and four truck drivers rush in and immediately start playing Mahjong on the table next to my bed. Stakes seem high - 100 yuan notes are soon laying on the table. Astounded and completely taken by surprise, I don't complain, but fix a spoke, pack my bike in no time and get out of the place. I have not become used to the Tibetan way of privacy yet. The small pass just outside town turns out to be a killer, because I choose a very steep shortcut up instead of the switchboard road. Some 25 men are studying my lack of progress from the top of the pass and turn out to be measuring altitude of the road all the way from Ali. They show me their drawings, which look like Sisyphus' work, but could very well be part of an infrastructure project to upgrade the road with asphalt or a railroad, like the forthcoming Golmud - Lhasa railroad. Who knows - progress is also coming to Tibet.
The deep green landscape in the wide valley behind the small pass has clear marks of former intense rain in terms of dried out riverbeds and I am happy the rain season not has arrived yet. Keep on cycling until the twilight covers the area like a carpet and I choose to camp less 5 kilometers from a military camp with sleeping possibilities but also with unending opportunities for a spoiled sleep.
Packing the bike the next morning is now a fast process, due to a changed routine of how to pack things and by learning not to make a big mess inside the tent. I don't even consider attempting cooking on the stove, but just ride 6 kilometers to where the notes inform me about a small restaurant. The two old Tibetan women are at first shy, but quickly relax and the fat and oldest soon falls asleep on a carpet-covered bench accompanied with high snoring sounds. I start working my way up a small stone pass after a quick meal and follow for a time a small river, with nomad tents doted along it. The road continues over another pass, more than 4800 meters and narrows abruptly into a gorge-like place with really bad road, and opens outagain just as sudden. This place is paradise for yaks and small communities of nomads are found along the road. I end up passing the same ever-growing river four times in sandals before I reach Mizar and a checkpoint for which only now do I formally have a travel permit.
The best sight for a long time turns out be a group of five backpacker girls arriving in town just before me. Especially the two Mexicans are really gorgeous, but somehow all my basic instincts in that direction vanished one month ago then my body suddenly realized a desperate need for energy, and food became the concern of everything. Still, then they tell they partied for two days with the gang of two in Ali, I consider for a moment to give the gang of two a treatment similar to the one the Chinese gang of four got a long time ago. Soon returning to reality in the local restaurant where we are, I discover that the food I ordered one hour ago is still missing. I complain in the dirty kitchen, but they just pretend not to understand until I give up and grab a package of instant noodles instead. The girls also tell me that the gang of two are now at Mt. Kailash, still doing their Kora and will leave the day after tomorrow. This is really big news and I decide to throw all efforts into reaching Darchen, the city lying at the foot of the mountain, by tomorrow. I have already found a guesthouse room, but the girls are traveling low-budget and use all their charm to make the owner of the restaurant soft in his knees to allow them to sleep on the floor for free. He tries to signal a no by ignoring them for a while, but it's an unequal game and he soon accepts with shifty eyes. Walk full of thoughts back to my guesthouse and have to kick a drunk landcruiser driver out of my room before I fall asleep dead tired.
Mt. Kailash - center of the universe in Asia
Quite sad to realize that the girls are gone when I rush to the restaurant for food the next morning. No need to stay here anymore and I soon start cycling after stocking up with supplies from the nearby well-equipped store. A long ride through a dry landscape brings me to a gigantic riverbed which is more than 20 meters deep. It looks like a demon has used an enormous knife to cut a mortal wound through the valley But the establishment of new bridges on the southern road in Tibet has made this and the next similar place unproblematic. Still, things are not perfect yet and I have to cross the next gushing river with the bike on my neck while using my ski pole to prevent a dangerous fall in the river. I eat in a small restaurant with a bunch of staring Tibetan pilgrims while a thundercloud darkens the light before making my way up to the last pass before Mt. Kailash. The view of the mountain is staggering here and I try for a long time to catch a good photograph, but weather is just as bad as it has been the last days. Still, I am happy as a naive dog - only 21 km to Kailash, but the downhill is frustratingly stony and another wide river just makes things worse. Darchen emerges up on the horizon after I turn left and ride fast to avoid the approaching darkness.
The city looks like I can reach out for it when I discover a huge wild river just outside town. Not again - this one looks completely uncrossable, and common sense would be to camp and cross this glacier river in the morning, when it will be much lower for sure. Problem is I have put common sense out of order, and am totally focused on finding Erik and Stephane again because cycling alone is for sure no fun. Two Tibetans with horses watch the mad cyclist cross the river three times, almost losing foothold several times in the angry river. How can such anger come from Kailash? The horsemen leave for Darchen with big smiles when they realize I won't drown. I lose half an hour here and have to kick my way through the hordes of barking wild dogs in the darkness. I completely lose orientation and start walking around in town until a friendly but choked Tibetan leads me toward a guesthouse after I walked straight into to his living room, looking like a Yeti. Suddenly a woman yells after me in the darkness - Oh no - more problems I think, but it turns out to be a very friendly PSB woman who leads me to the place there the gang of two already are gone to bed.
The reunion looks like something take out of a movie and we end up talking half the night about our adventures until now. It is difficult for me to sleep, because I have to choose among joining up with them now and giving a miss to the Kora (cicumambulation) or rush around Mt. Kailash and start the sick catch-up game again. Whatever the disadvantages, I have to choose Kailash and we separate early in the morning after eating breakfast together. I cannot help thinking how bumpy we have all turned into, worst of all Erik, who with full beard and tourist-hat looks like a potential rapist.
I have packed only the most necessary things including two kg of camera gear in a daypack for the 53 km. Kora, but the start at 10 in the morning means I have to cross the 5600 meters pass half around the mountain today in order to reach some small dinner and sleeping tents. I overtake three Japanese with camcorder at high speed and find myself in the company of two Germans on the west side of Kailash, shortly after crossing a small hill. They are on a commercial tour and turn out to be mother and son and we chat while walking for one hour. Reality forces me to leave them and I find a steady pace, but cannot keep up with the incredible pilgrims who are unbelievable fast. Most of them do the Kora in a single day, while tour groups (and the gang of two) use three days. The Lonely Planet guidebook mentions the Mt. Everest phenomenon, Reinhard Messner's 12 hours kora as an outstanding achievement, but old pilgrim women do it much faster every day in the high season.
I walk through a grassy valley with steep mountain walls on both sides and small waterfalls looking like they are coming from heaven. It is easy to find the way - a well-walked path is the highway around the mountain. One kora walk eliminates the sins of a lifetime - 108, the holy Tibetan number is the straight way to nirvana, the enlightenment. I take a short break at one of the few well supplied dinner and shop tents and prices are surprisingly low taking the transport up to here into account. The surroundings open up as I pass a small monastery and the valley leading up to the source of the Indus river two days away, discovered by Sven Hedin. I cross a tiny bridge over a small glacier river and begin the exhausting ascent up the pass. It is becoming late in the day and the altitude begins to take it's toll on me when I reach a place covered with cloth. This is the symbolic place where sins are lost by throwing away some of your belongings. I need all I got because the cold is intense here and I realize it still is a long way to the actual pass. Keep on going while the day quickly passes away and I become increasingly aware of the problem of where to sleep. Finally I see the prayer flags, but cannot enjoy the moment and just walk fast over the Dolma- la pass. I have arrived far too late for any proper descent from the mighty pass.
One hour of daylight is all that is left for the now less self-confident cyclist to find shelter in and I begin to rush down the steep wall of rocks. A white tent appears to my relief in the fading light just some few 100 meters below. Coming closer, I am ready to do anything to stay there tonight. An old woman looks anxiously at the stranger coming to her place while she cooks water for butter tea outside the tent. Two women in their thirties appear from the small tent. Hopes fading, will there be any room for me anyway? They invite me inside, but the old woman seems to dislike this hospitality and suddenly rips her sleeping gear outside while arguing intensely with the others. Honestly, I don't care, because now I got a shelter against the cold night and there is room enough for all four of us for sure. The two women give me butter tea and Tampa and arrange a little bed place for me with some of their clothes. Still, I have a horrible night without sleeping bag and wake up at least 10 times. In the end I just wait for light to come and end this. The women become very active at the first rays of light, and urge me to rush also. They begin to bind my bed place around their knees and take on heavy aprons. Now I begin to realize how things are. They are nuns doing the kora by prostrations, throwing themselves to the ground all the way around this awesome mountain, their center of the universe.
I suddenly feel very humble. The old woman obviously feared that there would not be any nuns left in the tent with the sunrise, if I slept there. Somehow, to prove my good intentions after all, I pay 100 yuan for staying in the tent. A lot, but also expression of my admiration of what they are doing and a stay in one of the commercial sleeping tents would according to the guidebook cost me 50 yuan anyway. This (bribing) immediately makes the old woman change mood and they led me down to a chorten, where they start their prostrations, while I continue my kora.
Of course, only a half hour later I find a dinner tent with sleeping possibilities. Here I eat together with a lama who reached here going the opposite way in an impressive three hours from Darchen. The young Tibetan guy staying here is on drugs, takes it in front of me and runs around from tent to tent as if the devil himself has taken place in him. I soon got enough of the show and leave the place. Sleepily I walk fast and steady down the valley,passing bon-pilgrims on their one-day kora the opposite way. Kailash itself is hidden by mountain walls here and I just want to get back to Darchen now, also because the straps on the bag really hurt my shoulders. Distances surprise me and finally at 3pm Beijing time I arrive in Darchen, eat a quick meal at a good Chinese restaurant and go directly to bed. Catching up with the gang of two seems now more unrealistic than ever and it looks like I have to do the rest of the grueling trip alone, something I don't look forward to. Short meetings with people you are not really able to communicate with, leaving you to your imagination, daydreams and reflections on life most of the time.
Depression in a landcruiser
The middle-aged Japanese I share room with has got big difficulties finding a truck heading to Lake Manasorovar and is filled with frustrations when I leave town. I immediately run into a walking middle-aged Frenchman, who claims I met him between Ali and Kashgar, but I cannot remember him. The first 6 kilometers of cycling after Darchen is a cobweb of small river crossings, exactly big enough to make it necessary to use sandals. A quick ride brings me to a turn off to Purang, marked with a checkpoint. I become a little surprised in the next village, where another checkpoint awaits and I end up talking with 5 young landcruiser girls for 20 minutes before bureaucracy is over and I am a lot more clear as to where the gang of two are. More important: the ferry over the Tsangpo river at the shortcut to the Friendship Highway is still operating, but water on the rise will soon close it. One more incentive to go long and fast everyday. The next village, Horqu has everything a pilgrim from Nepal or India can adore, but is completely useless for cyclist searching for really good food. I don't like the commercial atmosphere in town and cycle a few kilometers up a pass after town and camp just out of sight of fabulous Lake Manasorovar, also one of the important places in Tibetan mythology.
The camp site is full of holes, made by cute rat-sized rodents, but they don't seem to like the taste of four season tents and leave my stuff unharmed throughout the night. Leave early at 8 and soon run into a depressive mood when the road turns from bad into completely impossible to cycle due to sand everywhere along the bank of a long lake I use half the day to pass around. I only remove my attention from the hard work the few times I pass a bridge over small rivers filled with fish, but I know they are near impossible to catch from a travelogue I read long time ago. This place is beyond civilization of any kind and I feel quite lonely making my way up the rising road, but I won't suffer in terms of food, because I carry supplies for three days on this deserted stretch. I cannot find a decent camp site and end up setting up my tent next to a bridge in an useless attempt to avoid the strong wind. When I later catch up the gang of two again near Nepal, they claim they saw foot prints from a Tibetan brown bear here near the lake, the chamber of food. I am ever so lucky not to know about this then I fall asleep.
Luck is with me when the stove brings me hot milk made by milk-powder without problems the next morning and I soon ride up a steep alley toward the 5215 meters Mayun pass, while gasping for air. Somehow the best way I manage the big passes is to take the struggle with them in the morning, and so I always try to camp just in front of them. A sharp descent brings me past nomad tent where a dog goes completely wild (not in happiness) by the sight of a Danish cyclist. A long ride brings me over a river, which could be the Tsangpo river ending up in a gigantic river delta in Bangladesh, where it unifies with the Bay of Bengal. Another convoy of landcruisers drives past me, but stops only one kilometer away just outside the nomad camps I am passing. It turns out to be the Germans from Kailash and they actually did the kora even though the mother didn't look too good at the time I met them. I end up eating everything they have including marmalade and delicious biscuits. Feel like I run into a small miracle here at the end of the world. I end up camping in a small sheep yard on the edge of a formidable sublime plain stretching from the mountain chain behind me to the one in the horizon, marking the border to Nepal.
Not a breeze as I use most of the morning to cycle across the grassy sandy plain with small rivers winding through the hot landscape with starring sheep. I reach a small forest of tents which without reason lays isolated around a small river. I eat and stock up with supplies as dark clouds overtake heaven; the monsoon is for sure fighting it's way across the holes in the Himalayan range of defense. Catastrophe strikes after four more kilometers of cycling. A spoke comes off and I fix it, just to realize I have punctured the inner tube in the process, while heavy raindrops hit me. Annoying, but also soon repaired and I put on the back wheel again and tighten the screw spanner. Without notice, it breaks off. My mind is completely empty while staring at the broken part I am holding in my hand. My first thought is "this is the end of your trip". I don't have such a spare part, have never heard about problems with such things and end up walking around the bike in heavy rain for half an hour in frustration, trying to find a solution, but cannot see any. This is the most depressing moment during the entire trip and it is difficult to control my feelings. I only see one chance - that Stephane , riding with nearly a whole extra bike in spare parts, has got one.
I flag down a group of landcruisers and end up breaking my holiest principle of all - cycling all the way, but try to convince myself that the breakdown is a valid reason. 60 too fast kilometers bring me to Paryang after passing a checkpoint a few kilometers before town at a bridge. This is too easy and I really hate it maybe because it's too comfortable. In town, I am told that the gang of two already have left as members of the tour group I drove with start a big discussion with the Nepalese guides, demanding to camp outside town. Sick of discussion, I soon find a room where I can feel miserable. I take another look at the inner screw and realize that it also has been bent on the middle, surely by bumps from the stony parts of the road. A closer inspection reveals a tiny platform on the remaining part near the end which broke off. I see the solution right away and search through my spare parts and somehow build-up a creative end including a spare gear wheel (gear pulley wheel). I am back in business! It never becomes the perfect solution, but it makes it possible to ride the bike again. I find a restaurant and write my diary while two curious kids watch Latin letters being mistreated by a bad handwriting. It rains again then I walk back to the guesthouse, the monsoon has for sure arrived.
I think another Kailash group has arrived in the morning, then I see a small man fully dressed up in GoreTex gear, but it turns out to be a Taiwanese businessman attempting to cycle across West Tibet the opposite way of me. He is really friendly, but it turns out the "bastard" got a magic stamp from the Chinese authorities allowing him to cycle wherever he wants in Tibet. I would give half a leg for such a stamp, but he only got it because Taiwan is considered part of mainland China. An old worn-out Tibetan man speaking a few phrases of English later leads me to a small Chinese restaurant and the two young Chinese girls don't know what do with themselves at my appearance. The place quickly becomes crowded while I eat a bowl of more than spicy instant noodles, everyone staring at the phenomenon.
I climb a 4777 meters pass just outside town, while a Tibetan on horseback struggles to keep in front of me and yaks on the road run in all directions. I am pretty amazed and then I run into 10 meters sand dunes next to the road on the downhill section, before I have to climb another pass in competition with a thunderstorm. I end up camping on a hill side near some shepherd houses, but they cannot see me in the deteriorating light while I eat a can of instant beans.
Everything is soaking wet in the morning, when through the open tent I see a small shepherd girl coming up toward me with a huge amount of bleating sheep. She seems shy at first, but soon curiosity takes over and she nearly crawls into my tent while I sit inside, packing down things into the panniers. Slowly the sound of bleating sheep disappears and she suddenly jumps up and runs some two kilometers to catch the sheep again, while I start biking. I reach what I first believe is a lake, but soon realize is the mighty Tsangpo river and follow it until I reach a huge moraine plateau. I continue in rain for two kilometers more before I realize I should have turned left at the entrance to the plain in order to make a visit to New Zhongba. It takes a long hour before I can eat at a good restaurant and stock up with supplies. A friendly Chinese in the restaurant makes it clear to me that international calls are possible from here and I kill two hours before the local China Telecom branch opens again in the afternoon.
The call to Denmark marks a total change in the purpose of the whole trip. Things are hot in Denmark. I am not only a student, but also own a small company renting out real estate and now has a leaseholder (illegally) broken a big contract and my old folks cannot rent it out again. Jesus man, reality cannot escape me even here in West Tibet. I think a lot about this during the next three - four days of cycling and I cannot see any meaning in continuing while things are blowing up at home. Besides, even when I catch up with the gang of two, it will only give me a few days together with them before they go to Kathmandu and I continue alone to East Tibet after a long east face trek on Mt. Everest which now seems completely unrealistic with a stove I cannot trust and a bad daypack. While this decision evolves, I promise myself at the same time that next summer will include a trip down through Northern Tibet from Golmud ending up at Kunming at the end of east Tibet, the planned destination of this trip. My goal has now become Kathmandu, tourist hell.
Sleeping in a monastery
I take a shortcut out to the main road again on a bike weighed down with chocolate and other good stuff from the well-equipped stores in town. A long ride along a new road with concrete telephone poles brings me around the big plain up to a small hill. I bicycle up the hill to the entrance to old Zhongba and see a young Tibetan with baseball cap running down toward me from the impressive monastery on my right. I stop and he invites me in surpassingly good English inside the monastery to stay there for the night. I fell very honored and don't care about the last two hours of daylight in which, according to the catch-up plan, I should use for cycling. But what a splendid place to stay after receiving bad news.
The young monk tells me that there only are six monks attached to the place and four of them are on a pilgrimage at the moment. I get inside the living room where the fireplace is surrounded by 5 beds in the low colorful room, just as it starts to rain outside. Later a tall monk comes inside from the darkness, just finished with a day of work at the local monastery store selling everyday products in the nearby town. This older monk tells me about the Cultural Revolution which caused this place to be burned down to the ground, but now rebuilt again. He also tells how he has to sleep in a room next to the inner part of the monastery to prevent thieves from breaking in to steal small old Buddha figures from the beginning of the 1400 century when this place originally was built. To underline reality, he explains how they actually have been scaring thieves away on several occasions.
The two monks take me to the well-locked inner part of the monastery before I leave the next morning and a calm three-meters tall Buddha-statue awaits me inside, made just 5 years ago. They also show me the small Buddha-statues which a gallery owner from USA I meet in Kathmandu, searching for antiquities, estimates is worth $10,000s each. He claims he would never buy such things, but someone must to make it attractive to steal Buddha-statues, stealing the past of Tibet. I follow the older monk down to the city soon after and want to buy a package of instant noodles, but he gives it to me and insists I don't pay.
I start riding up a 4912 meters pass and am overtaken by a truck with a load of pilgrims waving their hands at the sight of the cyclist. A thunderstorm follows me into the small valley after the pass and I end up waiting it out after nearly being bitten by a mad dog at a road worker station, which didn't care about my stones. I reach Nuigu consisting of only two restaurant houses and I wonder why it is on a 1:2,000,000 scale map. They turn out to be funny people and I take some time off to show an old man my maps, and they give me three sausages for free before I leave for the wide road. The road is much better here in the area with roadworker houses, but doesn't prevent my back wheel from exploding 10 km. later. It's late and I choose to camp behind a stone wall near the road.
Three Tibetans by horse come to my place the next morning, just as I have finished packing and we end up following each other for nearly 3 kilometers while I study their Arabian looking horses and they study my bike from close range. I pass a bridge after some hours of cycling and suddenly run into three Han-Chinese by bike coming from the opposite direction. They have really bad bikes (one of them is one-geared) but have actually bicycled all the way from Lhasa and want to continue to Kashgar. Well, I like what they are trying to do, but having been through West Tibet, I don't believe a second their bikes will last all the way, despite all their enthusiasm. Their big advantage is speaking the language and they can always take a truck in case of problems. One kilometers of riding brings me to the last Han-Chinese, who's got problems with his chain. He tells me that the gang of two was in Saga this morning, the city I am heading for.
It begins to rain while I move my way toward Saga and I seek shelter in a Landcruiser tent for one hour, before I realize the rain won't stop. The Swiss tourist group explains to me about the situation in Nepal which I know nothing of, except the death of the king. I ride three long hours in heavy rain, while I find out the road is 10 kilometers shorter than in the notes and suddenly I find myself in Saga.
This city must be the biggest in West Tibet after Ali and lies on an intersection of a shortcut to Nepal and the main road to Central Tibet. I find a landcruiser guesthouse and a Nepalese guide helps me haggling down the room price before he gives me Nepalese style food for free from their own supplies. I eat it while watching television in the "reception", the owner's living room. It turns out that Tibet now has three channels transmitted from Lhasa, nearly as much as Denmark! Tibet is indeed changing and the guide also claims I won't recognize the Lhasa I visited three years ago before cycling the Friendship Highway to Nepal.
I stock up with supplies for the next three days cycling in wilderness on the shortcut to Nepal the next morning including the usual 8-10 boiled eggs. I make a visit to the Bank of China before leaving town, being low on money, but they don't have a clue of what a traveler's check is and my Visa card just makes them laugh. I cycle down to the ferry and it turns out my long worries of whether it had closed or not, was quite in question by the sight of a very high water level, more than half a meter higher than the loading platform. It will for sure only be a matter of a few days before water level is too high due to all the rain in the area. The ferry staff don't charge me for the crossing and even bring the bike up and down from the ferry and I am suddenly on the right side of the river. I ride up a valley that brings me past a village which has fully adapted to the stream of landcruisers and people beg for anything, something completely uncommon further west. That is the problem of tourism - people around here have been living selfsufficient for generations unaware of their low level of material living. Suddenly rich people begin to travel the area and hand out money if asked, turning nomads into beggars. Hmm. Maybe I did the same at Kailash.
I ride over an easy pass and run into the hardest rain on the entire tour in the valley below. I sit down and watch the rain throwing mud half a meter into the air turning the colors into brown. It suddenly stops and I start pushing the bike up a severe steep pass, which must have been created by the devil himself. The road is completely washed out and consists of big stones and I even reach a landcruiser which was on the ferry - I am not the only one with problems. I cycle around a lake I first think is Pelku Tso, but it is too small. There are no telephone poles to guide me on bad road stretches, because the Chinese have digged the cable down! A strong tailwind hits me as the road turns east and I use most of my clothes to keep the cold out as I ride until I cannot see any more. I must have been doing some serious catching up on the gang of two now, because it has been a really long and tough day since a landcruiser just after the ferry told me that I was some 30 km behind. I set up the tent in darkness and eat half a kilo of canned meat, too tired to start a fight against the stove.
A landcruiser stops just in front of me as I begin to cycle early the next morning. I come up with the usual story of cycling across West Tibet but this time I impress the landcruiser women so much that they end up handing over Power Bars to me, a gift from heaven. I ask them (as usual) to tell the gang of two that they should shake in their pants because I am about to catch them. It is however unnecessary because just after crossing a pass, followed by a high speed ride in a gorge leading down to Pelko Tso, I find them in the camera lens a couple of kilometers away. I rush down to them and a film-like reunion occurs again. It turns out they camped only 8 kilometers in front of me last night.
Their trip has now turned into a leisure cruise after they have crossed the river, eliminating any possible visa problems. Erik's rim is falling apart which makes it necessary to slow down on the forthcoming section until we reach the asphalt in Nepal. The 8000 meter peak, Shishapangma on the border to Nepal to our right, keeps all monsoon clouds effectively away the rest of the day until we set up an early camp next to a small brook. The gang of two have developed a sophisticated routine of splitting up the camp tasks while I was missing, but it ends up in a chaotic rice cooking anyway and they wait in the cold wind for more than one hour before their food is finished. I am too lazy for this and cook noodles in the apsis of my tent while resting in my sleeping bag and soon go to sleep.
I am impressed by Erik, already walking around next to my tent at sunrise the next morning and I yell "good morning" to him, but he must be in bad mood as he doesn't answer. It turns out to be a gang of yaks on the search for food in our camp. Cycling again brings us to a natural reserve center which at first scares me because it looks like a checkpoint. A look into the yard reveals a huge amount of sheep all around and one is the unlucky one to be picked out for dinner at the place. We leave the big plain just as a thunderstorm conquers the place and start cycling up a long steep shortcut to the Friendship Highway. It is different than the one described in our notes and this shortcut ends up between a double pass on the Friendship Highway instead of in front of it, saving us some 10 kilometers. Here a small Tibetan nomad girl follows me for more than one kilometer, begging for pens I don't have, but cannot make myself tell her to get lost. Stephane helps me, yelling at her to fuck off. That works.
The long downhill from the first pass of the double pass brings us to a populated place and we have to continue up the next one to find an undisturbed campsite. Erik and I stop for some small shopping, while Stephane begins to cycle his way up the windblown pass, and we end up trying to stop Stephane for more than one kilometer, yelling like madmen while cycling, because darkness is falling and we have found a campsite out of sight.
On the top of the last pass in Tibet
We climb the pass early the next morning before the wind becomes too strong and run directly into a traffic jam of landcruisers next to the prayer flags on the top. We soon choose to flee the tourist spot and start on the biggest road descent on earth, from 5120 to 640 meters, an incredible 139 kilometers from this pass, deep inside Nepal. I want to test my disk brakes for fun on a wild downhill shortcut and before I know it I see Stephane following me with ordinary brakes and he has wide open eyes when he is down from it. A headwind starts to become ever stronger and we end up doing hard cycling even though it's downhill. I realize one kilometer after passing a small city that we just passed the last opportunity for food for hours, when a tourist bus stops with screeching brakes in front of Stephane and me and a crowd of Taiwanese starts a wild photo session. Our price is chocolate, loads of bread, nuts and much more which really falls on a dry spot as we celebrate the catch with Erik moments later.
The landscape slowly changes character, green colors replace brown and we start stripping off our clothing. We see trees for the first time in 1½ months and the rising temperature is made stronger by rising humidity. Stopping continuously to inhale different thicker air, to become used to sounds and suddenly find ourselves outside Nyalam, which is a problem because of its' checkpoint. Our travel permits are not valid after Saga and I make the gang of two just as paranoid as myself. But the checkpoint just after the bridge leading into town is deserted and we just lift our bikes over the thick chain across the road and soon find a guesthouse in the middle of town. It really makes my day when I find a public 10-yuan public shower, while the gang of two want to keep smelling until Kathmandu. But the best part of town is the local landcruiser restaurant, extremely expensive but we have not had proper food for a long time. I cannot help cycling like a mad man over the small pass just outside town the next day, because I had a hellish time here three years ago on a cheap Chinese mountain bike I bought in Lhasa. Now on quite different gear, the riding is almost a pleasure. The surroundings are like a jungle when we reach Zhangmu, the Chinese border town a couple of hours later and here waits another checkpoint, for sure not deserted. We cycle to the place together and hand over our invalid travel permit to the officer in charge, and he study it for minutes while, more than excited, we wonder if we are about to pay a huge fine or just run into a lot of hassle, but nothing happens. We make our way down the two kilometers town lying on a mountainside, searching for a bank for changing money but end up using moneychangers, creating a chaos of people in the street.
The border crossing from China is just as easy as three years ago and the young beautiful Han-Chinese woman stamping and registering our passports on a computer expresses her admiration for what we accomplished, believing we have come from Lhasa. She also tells me that she talked with a Frenchman last year who did Kashgar -Shigatse - Zhangmu by bike, but I don't tell her we almost did the same. I feel sad as we wind our way down through the 8 km muddy no man's Land, leaving Tibet with the mountains and the ultimate silence, now awaiting traffic hell in Nepal. The Nepalese bureaucrats at the border are really rude and arrogant, very different from last time, and make small things problematic. I am happy to get out of the place as we check in at a guesthouse just next to the registration office. The lack of tourists, due to the Maoist situation in Nepal makes it easy to haggle down the room rate, and we soon enjoy the food in the restaurant beneath our rooms. But best of all is Carlsberg, the Danish beer which they have got and of cause the Snickers.
Nothing has happened in Kodari, while big changes have happened in Zhangmu, maybe a sign of the very different economic developments in both countries. Kodari is the same dirty muddy spot with rusty roofs as we leave town the next morning after kicking Stephane out of bed. We now strip down to nearly nothing and I still feel very hot in sandals and shorts, which is very practical for crossing a number of small rivers coming down the mountain walls. A long ride on a bad road brings us to real asphalt road for the first time since Yeching, some 2068 kilometers ago. We reach a bridge marking the lowest point on the Kashgar - Kathmandu route and a long climb awaits before the end of the trip for me. Monsoon rain hits us as we make our way up it, making us completely wet, but feeling somehow pleasant due to the high temperature.
My mood quickly deteriorates as I realize we are about to repeat the hell climb in darkness same as the last time. Hordes of mosquitoes held a party on my back while I dragged my damn Chinese bike up this pass at night time. We end up asking the price for staying at a glamorous hotel that was out of the question last time, but the situation has changed radically because of the missing tourists. We get a room with shower for $1.50 each, next to nothing for such a place. It turns out we are the only tourists at the place and we eat alone at the restaurant, before a long well-deserved sleep.
Kathmandu - the paradise for tourists?
We quickly make the last 5 kilometers to the top of the pass with an increasing traffic of big trucks and busses sending out clouds of half burned gasoline into our faces. A long range of small hills bring us to the outer part of Kathmandu, finishing the 2520 km trip after 48 days. The traffic is beyond a nightmare and we still take a long time to find the tourist quarter, Thamel, because the Nepalese point in different directions then asked for Thamel. I lead the gang of two to the hotel I have stayed at for the last two times I have been in Kathmandu, but they are both going to stay in town for a month and want to check out other places. I wait for a long half an hour outside another hotel, guarding our bikes while they inspect it until I have had it and tell them I take my usual hotel, which I later realize has dropped several stars from past experience (to none).
For example: 1) The bathroom door can not open after taking a cold shower, however much I ever try. Result: people outside suddenly see a half-naked man hanging out of the small window in the bathroom, yelling for help. Eventually a motorcyclist feels sorry for the guy and walks into the hotel to alarm the staff, who come out staring at the phenomenon. They are in my room moments later and begin a 10 minutes fight with the door, and it eventually ends up with a big hole there the lock was before. 2) The manager suddenly realizes a few days later that the rotten bathroom door needs to be fixed up and starts installing an iron plate on it while I am in the room and 3) as goes for the curtains a few days later, but now they take care of me and kick me to another room. 4) There is no fan in the room and I usually wake up in the middle of the night under a massive attack of swarms of mosquitoes. The fight is unequal and hopeless, a biological version of Pearl Harbor and my only defense is to bury myself under the sleeping duvet, while the massive attacks take place. I swear to launch a massive counterattack in the shape of insect poisoning, but somehow biological diversity leaves some mosquitoes unharmed to make life miserable for me.
The stay in Kathmandu is just waiting time before catching a flight to Denmark Unfortunately, the Nepalese branch of Kilroy Travels in Denmark, the place I picked up my flight ticket, needs a confirmation from Denmark, that changing the ticket from Beijing to Kathmandu as the return flight to Denmark can be done. It takes unacceptable long time and the Nepalese accuse Kilroy in Denmark of screwing up things, but it turns out to be a lie. It takes incredible 10 days before I fly out of this overcrowded, noisy, polluted third world capital city and I don't miss it for a second.
Waiting time was killed by hanging around with the gang of three, walking around in the Thamel tourist trap on the search for restaurants in between hanging around doing absolutely nothing. We meet the couple from Holland I ran into in Aksai Chin and hang out together in restaurants and have a lot of "happy hours" in a local bar. We even meet a German Kailash pilgrim, Franz we talked with in Kashgar before the start of the trip. All funny experiences, but I still don't like Kathmandu, while the gang of two feel like they are in heaven. Maybe the difference lays in mentality - this has been their goal on their trip across West Tibet, while I feel it is a depressing end of my Tibet trip, planned for more than a year. I want to do more in Tibet and I am for sure going to, but sadly not this time.
The only really travel related theme in Kathmandu I experience, is while working my way through loads of emails, and open a strange looking one. It turns out I almost have reached world celebrity in Denmark. A Danish journalist wants to interview me. Wow - on the edge of being discovered, sponsors will soon hang around my apartment, waiting for an opportunity to give me some of their gear. I am very flattered until I come through the rest of the email and it turns out he is a journalist on the biggest Danish pornographic magazine and probably searching for fill-in stuff between the girls. The highlight of my travel career.
No - this place is no good for me. While walking back to my hotel from a visit to a restaurant I realize that all the street dealers claims for attention have made me immune from contact with the Nepalese. Here I walk with my $2000 camera gear and this one-legged man asks me for money for food, and my reaction is to completely ignore him, despite his obviously miserable situation. I was helped in West Tibet by nearly everyone, offering me free food and water even though didn't ask for it. Here I don't even have the energy to listen to people because too many people claim my attention - Kathmandu has made me act like a zombie and I want more than ever to get out of the place immediately. I am a happy man when it happens, even though it means back to problems in everyday life.
What did the trip teach me?
1) Mental strength is almost the only factor determining whether one accomplishes such an expedition or not. Anyone can endure it if she/he really wants - like the Norwegian who walked to the South Pole without arms.
2) I have to enjoy future trips more, relax and avoid mental exhausting catch-up games.
3) I want to go back to the Tibetan high plateau again - more than ever. This is only the end of the beginning.
Mura's different perspective on cycling Tibet caused him to use one month more than us before reaching Kathmandu. The gang of two really sank into the tourist dirt in Kathmandu and it took them two(!) months before they resumed their bicycle trip together heading toward India on their leisure cruise.
May god save their souls!
© Martin Adserballe 2001