Near the Ship-la we crossed the border line of Tibet and India. Here, for the last time, we were at an altitude of 16,300 feet. I remained long, gazing toward Tibet, the land of my victories and my sorrows, the inhospitable land where both man and Nature create obstacles for the traveller, and from whose dizzying heights the traveller returns with a whole world of unforgettable, precious memories, in spite of the difficulties.
Sven Hedin, when leaving Tibet for the last time in 1908
Plains of Silence
Despite last summers suffering and hardship during the Keriya trip, Tibet is a must in 2003 if I manage to collect the money needed. Before going to Tibet in year 2002, my main plan for 2003 was a biketrip in the highlands of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This trip has been delayed at least one year.
I mainly think in northwest Tibet's 298.000 square kilometres Chang Tang ("northern plain") nature reserve - nearly 7 times the size of Denmark and secondlargest on earth after ice-capped northeast Greenland nature reserve. Snowstorms are normal during the 4-season weather summer days at the arid windswept 4500 - 5000 meter northern plateau where saltine muddy sumps and lakes in-between the waste numbers of mountains are common due to internal drainage. Annual average temperature lays between 0 C and -6 C and the whole northern area is basically one large-scale permafrost zone, hidden just beneath ground on the alpine steppes. Wintertime is cruel, Bonvalot had a record of -44,5 C in January 1890. Sven Hedin measured average wind speed between 32-39 km/hr throughout February 1908 and called it "30 days of storm". During one Chang Tang crossing, Hedin and his caravan people didn't see human beings for 81 days.
The reserve contains a wide range of unique wildlife, among them are; Tibetan bears (in reality, the Yeti is probably this beast), wolfs, snowlepards, Tibetan antelopes, wild asses, Tibetan Gazelle and Yaks.
The remoteness of Chang Tang is maybe best illustrated by the long ongoing debate on the location of the Mekong river source. In winter 2002-03, at a time when most geographical mysteries has been finally solved decades ago, it was announced that satellite photos had revealed Mekong to be amazingly 700 km longer than former assumed, the source presumably laying deep inside the eastern part of Chang Tang. The more I learn about this ultimate remoteness, the more it scares me - especially after the Keriya pass experience but somehow it punched its way into my heart.
Sadly, massive amount of oil has likely been discovered in Chang Tang and now it only seems like a matter of time before big bang oil industry will penetrate this ecological fragile region in order to ensure energy to booming Chinese economy. If I hesitated before, I am now more eager than ever before to experience this place in its true spirit before economic progress cuts its way into the heart of Chang Tang.
Here some thoughts, but nothing is certain yet.
Plan 1: Cycle 776 km. from Xining to Golmud in the Chinese Qinghai province. Then bike 701 km. south down to Amdo at the beginning of the northern route in Tibet. Continue cycling 841 km west on gravel road, mostly in headwind along the southern border of the Chang Tang nature reserve. Then starts a three weeks approximately 550 km. off-road ride into the wilderness from Gerze up to the place I entered the Chang Tang natural reserve last year. Cycle back down to the northern route in a loop, head down to Lhasa and cycle together with my sister to Kathmandu. The trip might end up including a visit to the incredible east face of Everest in the the remote Kangshung vally, if energy and spirit still is intact.
Advantage: This also serves as reconnaissance trip before deciding in favour for or against an attempt to cross central Chang Tang later and simultaneously determine the best time of the year.
Plan 2: Alternatively, cross Chang Tang's west part in latitude direction is on my mind. This trip is identical to plan nr. 1 until some two weeks into the Chang Tang - instead of turning west near Bangdag lake as according to plan 1, turn northeast deep into uninhabited Chang Tang instead, following a migration route for Tibetan antelopes and maybe spend a day at Shor lake, a magic place which conservation biologist George Schaller in 2001 finally determined as the main calving ground for the Tibetan antelopes (also named Chiru). From the lake, ascend 650 meters over an easy 5141 meters pass and enter a fault formation separating the West and East Kunlun range, also birthground to Selektuz river. Then descend down this nearly 100 km. long and sometimes narrow gorge until reaching Karasai village at 2960 meters at the edge of Taklamakan desert. In all, more than one month in mainly uninhabited territory. This traverse has probably never been done before, surely not solo and unsupported. I give it 50% chance to succeed. The trip might end up with an easy bicycle crossing of the Taklamakan desert on the paved desert highway.
(Plan 3): Cross Chang Tang's central part solo. The thing is: Two Germans, Steffan Simmerer and Frank Kauper did the crossing together in June/July 1999, using modified titanium horse sulkies for food and gear transportation. I fist came to hear about them when a hotel manager in a Taklamakan desert town called Qiemo, suggested I tried the road "two Danes with bicycle wagons" had used across central Chang Tang. They ended up at his hotel after their trip. I had been trying to get into west Tibet, but was stopped by severe flooding, and now this manager told me two people had done a trip across central Tibet short time ago on road. Two Danes! - and cycling on rickshaws as I understood it - too fantastic! I ended up turned my tump down for an attempt. I felt lucky when I later learned the real story about the Germans and Chang Tang. It took them 51 epic days to walk the 1000 km route during which they didn't see human beings for 35 continuous days. They even had the energy to make a first ascend of Mt. Saser Kangri in central Chang Tang. Their astonishing achievement finally proved that crossing Chang Tang not necessary needs to involve large animal caravans or sophisticated terrain vehicles.
Similarly, but under much more dramatic circumstances did American Frank Bessac, Douglas Mackiernan (CIA's first atomic spy) and three Russians cross south through Chang Tang in 1950 when they fled the Communist army in the Xinjiang province. Three of them were shot to death by Tibetan border guards near Silling Lake. Bessac and a Russian survived the encounter and the two refugees eventually reached Lhasa, finally accomplishing what Hedin, Littledale, Bowler, De Rhins among other great explores attempted, but failed to do. Bottom line: The only real challenge the two parties left behind in non-climbing terms is a solo crossing of Chang Tang. This massive challenge has no room for mistakes in central Chang Tang and I have basically not knowledge or experience enough to make an attempt here yet nor am I willing take the risk the time being.
Here a quote from Sven Hedin's book "My life as an explorer", at a time when he nearly one century ago was turned back by Tibetan border guards just before reaching his ultimately goal in his explorations of Tibet - reaching Lhasa:
"Listen... do you really think I am so mad as to go back to the wastes in the north, where I already lost half of my caravan? Wherever we may go, I shall never go there!"
On the other hand, George Schaller:
"With its ecological wholeness, stark beauty, and sense of unfettered freedom, it is a place where mind and body can travel, where one's soul can dance. It is the essence of the Chang Tang."
This place I need to experience again.