Tibet's Chang Tang 2005
"I can hardly conceive a more dreary country to be alone in than Northern Tibet. The desert could not be worse. One might get through the days- but the nights! When the cold freezes you to the marrow, and the dark mountain ranges shut you in and menace you with all sorts of imaginable evils! (…) I was surrounded by everything I needed- servants, a bodyguard of Cossacks, nightwatchmen and watchdogs- and yet, when the snowstorms raged around my yurt and the wolves howled in the mountains, I often felt a sense of utter loneliness steal over me."
Sven Hedin ”Central Asia and Tibet”, 1903
Trip report - part one:
A small travelupdate.
I am right now in a town called Gerze in northern Tibet, about to start an
unsupported south-north solo crossing of Tibets Chang Tang, a 1000 kilometer
biketrip through a vast high-altitude environment mainly situated above 5000
meters. This area, more than 600.000 km2, is one of the least explored places
on earth due to its remoteness and the harsh living conditions. Even the
sturdy Tibetan nomads only live in the southern rim of the area where
temperatures occasionally drop below - 40 C during wintertime.
There have been two unsupported expedition crossings of Tibets Chang Tang
before, the first was done by two German pioneers, Frank Kauper and Steffan
Simmerer who crossed central Chang Tang in 1997 in 51 days where they didn't
see people for 35 days. They climbed 6400+ Zangser Kangri in the middle of
Chang Tang as well. The second was in 2003 when Swedish Janne Corax and
Nadine Saulnier in 47 days crossed eastern Chang Tang without seeing people
for 37 days. National Geographic Channel has broadcasted a documentary
called "Too tired" on the last crossing.
I have spend four days here in town, resting a bit after cycling more than
1200 kilomteres to here from Lhasa as warm-up. For the forthcoming challenge
I have here in town
bought more than 35 kg. of food, 13 kg of instant noodles, 9 kg of
milkpowder, 2,5 kg. of Dove chocolate, 7,5 kg. Chinese moon festival cakes,
2,5 kg. candie, ect... To this I have to add between 6 and 7 L of gasoline
for cooking and for melting ice during the later part of the trip when
temperatures begin to plunge below - 30 C at night. Yesterday, I did a 25
kilometers recoinnance bike trip north of town and it seems like the
surroundings right now are rather dry which means I might have to start out
with 10 L of water as well.
I also burden
my poor bike with everything nessary for crossing through Chang
Tang safely. I have a - 40 C sleeping bag, high altitude mountaineering tent,
down jacket, two stoves (one extra if the first fails), satellite phone, 2 gb
flash mp3 player against solitude, ice axe, ski gogles, etc. etc...
If things go well and I get unnoticed through the settlements north of Gerze
and enter the nature preserve without being caught by the Chang Tang nature
patrol service men guarding the southern area, I hope I have the time, food
and spirit to climb a
relatively easy unclimbed 6100+ meters mountain some 14 days from here. If
things really turns out well, I also hope to be able to climb a 6300+ heavy
glaciered mountain massive on the border between the xinjiang and Xizang
(Tibet) province before crossing the Arka Tagh range and the altun Shan range
to a small settlement called Tura north of Mt. Ulugh Mustagh From here I
will probably try to hitchhike to a town called Qiemo on the southern route
in the Taklamakan desert.
There will be trucktrails the first 150-200 kilometers north of gerze, then
starts the off-road cycling where the ground most places will be to soft for
cycling forcing me to push and drag the bike. This minimise
distance travelled to between 20-25 kilometers per day accoding to my
experience during my last two bike trips in Chang Tang. There are wolf and
bears in the area, but they are normally scared of people. If this also is
the case with the Yeti, I don't know...
The journey to here has taken longer than expected. From Denmark I flew to
Hong Kong where I ended up staying unexpected 12 days waiting for a front
rack for my bicycle which a company failed to deliver to me in Denmark before
departure which they had promised. The reason for travelling over Hong Kong
was to get a 6 months Chinese business visa which I got in 4 hours. I liked
staying in Hong Kong because I love
its 'Blade Runner' atmosphere, the etnic and cultural mixture - e.g. in
central Kowlon lays a mosk which got a banner for McDonald on a sidewall.
>From Hong Kong I flew to Chengdu where I was shocked when told by two travel
agencies that I could earlies fly to Lhasa in 10 days. Normally it only takes
two or three days to get the nessary Tibet permit in order and fly to Lhasa.
The problem was the 40 years aniversary for establishment of the Tibet
autonomus region on the 1. september, which created long delays for
travellers trying to get into Tibet due to political reasons. I was however
lucky and found after a intense search a travelagent (Sams Guesthouse)which
seemed to be better at corruption than the competitors.
with a group of backpackers I flew to Lhasa Airport onbord a flight
with less than 25% of the seats full. After a 90 kilometers busride we
arrived in Lhasa only to smell the remains of the massive amount of fireworks
from the day before when the celebration took place. I spend four days in
Lhasa for acclimatising and sightseeing. I only wanted to stay three days,
but a mild altitude headage and singing sirens in the shape of backpacker
girls keept me in bay for a landcruiser trip to Gandan monasty and Yamdrok
Co. The road up to the pass before the lake has now been paved, a stark
contrast to 1998 when I used 9 hours to cycle up the gravel road to the pass-
top with a 40 usd mountain bike bought in Lhasa.
I started cycling which was rather hard after not cycling for one month
except for a sucidial 5 kilometers ride on Natan road in central Hong Kong.
Somehow I forced my old body into the bikerytm again and reaced Shigatse, the
second largest city in Tibet after three days of cycling. Here I stayed at
Tenzing Hotel where I was spectator to a rather unorthodox cyclist behaviour.
A dutch couple, who apparrently had been on the road for 1 1/2 years had hung
a couple of trouhers out on the balcony in the hotelyard for drying. The
trousers had gone missing and when I arrived the Dutch guy had begun to throw
50 cm wide old flower vases down into the hotel yard threatning to throw one
more down every 5 minuts until his thrusers turned up again. I walked away
shaking my head wondering if that was his normal behavior or it was the
frustrations from 1 1/2 years of cyling coming to the surface.
Walking over the a small turist market just opposite the hotel, I kept
shaking my head. Here I could buy horns for about 5 usd for a set of horns
from threatended Tibetan Antelopes, even whole heads I could buy - I counted
31 horns including two whole heads. The number was about the same for Tibetan
Gazelles. These elegant animals belongs to the vast emptyness of Tibets Chang
Tang, not in a dirty souvenir market.
>From Shigatse I biked to Lhatse on a highway under constuction. It wasn't
too bad for cycling except for a pass which looked like it had been invaded
by ants on distance. However, it was an invasion of engineer mashins which
forced me to push the bike most of the way up the pass through mud and
inbetween workers and landcruisers.
Well down from the pass, I met better roadconditons toward Lhatse and
frequent yelled "tashidalay" (hallo) to the kids I passed along the way. A
group of three kids were not satisfied with only a greeting, but wanted me to
stop to hand out candy. When I continued, I was hit by a rather big stone on
my right hand and I squeezed the brakes so hard the bike turned sidewise when
it came to a standstill. After a hot pursuit across two fields I felt pretty
confident the kids were terrified to death and wouldnt throw stones after
other cyclist in the near future. I let them run and biked the last stretch
of road to Lhatse which was about to be paved.
In Lhatse I was taken by a Tibetan to a dirty hotel room where Johannes was
sitting. Johannes, a young 19-old German bought a 200 usd bike in Lhasa and
started out on a bike trip to Kathmandu the day before I. He had been vise to
take another road from to Lhatse and avoided the road construction fuss. We
shared the room together before he took off early the next morning to try his
strength on a 5000+ meters pass on the way toward Nepal.
I passed an easy checkpoint just after lhatse by cycling though it while the
guard was busy checking a drivers licience. After turning off to West Tibet,
the road became rather bad while going up the first of a serie of passes
around 4500 meters high. The weather also detoriorated and I spend one
afternoon in purging rain while going over a pass, the desent very prone to
landslides. Lukely, I found a small Tibetan restaurant where I spend the
night. Here I wondered how the future looked for the owners small child, here
in a place where any school was very distant away.
Slowly I worked my way up into a landscape in the proximity of 5.000 meters
where I came to Raka, a depressing soul-less truckstop with the mandatory
restaurants, shops and truck workshops. He I talked a bit with a truckdiver
in a Hui-restaurant - a muslim Han-chinese restaurant - the best restaurants
around. I showed him on a map where in Tibet I had cycled and he seemed very
puzzled. In a way I understand. For him the roads in Tibet only represents
hard work, but for me they have a higher meaning. They give me access to
unfenched freedom and the opportunity to enjoy one of the most amazing places
on earth - experience the uniqueness of the Tibetan plateau.
There was supposed to be a checkpoint at Raka, but I meet nothing when I
passed the normal turnoff from southern route to the northern, a route which
would bring me fast to Gerze, but I had other plans. A friend of mine, Janne
Corax, had been so evil to mail me pages from a Chinese road atlas over
Tibet. According to these maps I would by going futher on in the southern
part of Tibet run into roadpasses which should be the highest on earth, even
5800+ meters roadpasses might be possible. That was too irresistible for a
thoroughly dreamer, pass-hater by heart, but always ready for a challange how
ever obscure it might be.
There was one backdraw with this plan, a heavy manned checkpoint before the
next town called Saga. I had talked with two backpackers who had been caught
and turned back at the place, also some truckdriver warned me but there was
no way around it. When coming down
toward town from a 5100 meters pass, I was in a I-will-show-the-
gongan/psb/police-mood and cycled right into the heavely
manned checkpoint - they had military uniforms. They called the police in
saga and a police landcruiser came to the checkpoint and told that I had to
get a permit in shigatse. I said there was a bit long to shigatse on a bike
and why getting a travelpermit here was problem since I got one in Ali three
years ago and got one in Darchen last year. They talked forth and back about
this and in the end they took me to the police station in town and told me
that if I paid a fine of 300 yuan (30 USD) I would get a receipt I could show
in Ali as proff for paid fine. Ali psb then would have to give me a permit...
I belive they only were thinking into the money since when I left the room
the 5-6 police men started laughting like mad men - maybe they just got the
money the ali police normally get... I dont know and don't really care
because I don't go to Ali.
In Saga I met a lot of Indian pilgrims going to Mt. Kailash in West Tibet.
Somehow they didn't fit into the street picture walking around in thick down
jackets while local were wearing t-shirts. I left Saga and while heading up
the first pass outside town I met two swiss bikers who had made it to there
from Kashgar in the Xinjing province. To my amazement they told that one of
their biggest problems had been high-altitude mosquitos. In Chinese Kashmir,
Aksai Chin, they had to bike with their mouth covered in order not to swallow
the small bastards. In Aksai Chin they also stopped at a military camp to ask
for water - water is scare in the area - and some soldiers were about to fill
up their fancy bicycle bottles when a military vehicle came to the base and
out jumped a group of officers with raised maskinguns. They thought the Swiss
werer threathing the soldiers with fancy weapons - the bicycle bottles. In
the end they had to leave without water.
We separeted after talking for an hour. On the other side of the pass worked
Chinese soldiers on leveling the road with shovels. The commander of one of
the groups invited me to stay at their place overnight which I could say no
to. I did so four years ago in Aksai Chin because I would have had to break
rule - cycle every centimeter of the road. I have now grown older and have
become a bit more pragmatic and in the end I drove with them for 15
kilometers to their road construction camp on a road I have cycled before. A
whisle blew soon after arrivial and everyone ran to the dinnerroom and I was
placed next to the commander, a odd character who seemed to be respected
mostly by age and the strange things he could come up with if the soldiers
didnt obey immediately - like throwing a rock after them. Then a officer
tried to explain me what to exect of the small roads I wanted to bike, the
commandor just cut him of, in practise telling that it would be nut for me to
be biking there.
The next day I turned off north into the Gangdise mountains where there
golden high passes according to the maps were suppored to be. After a long
uphill, I slept outside a shepards house. He told that there were two big
passes in front, Shaksha La and Sanmir La. I was also told the road would
anything but good. The first pass, 5215 meters wasnt bad but I was
disappointed in the sense that a shepard I talked with punctured the dream of
one of the possible 5800 meters roadpasses. There simply wasn't any road up
the pass I considered going over - not a truck - not a bike could go there -
I would have to walk I was told!
After eating some Tsampa (barley with buttertea) I was offered in the
shepards home I went for the Sanmir La, quite big I was told. It certainly
was! The road was very stony and the pass itself, 5504 meter laying in the
shadow of a 7095 meter mountain was extremely flat pass - it took ages to get
over it. While going over it, I had several memory flash back on the kerriya
shankou pass (5604 meters)in Nordwest Tibets uninhabited Chang tang.
Fantastic landscape where six Kiangs (wild Donkies) wondered what I were
doing there. After another 5467 meters pass, I went down into a greenish and
lushish valley after a crazy descent where I had to stop because I feard the
tires would explode from the heat from the rims, so hot I couldn't touch it
with my bare fingers.
After a few minor rivercrossings which demanded taking off my boots I
followed the valley toward north while big towering mountains to the west
should contain what I had been dreaming about for a while, the highest
roadpass on earth, 5746 meters acccording to the Chinese road atlas.
Unfortunately, despite looking intensely for a road up into the mountains, I
only found some very weak trails a few places and I simply didn't believe
there was a road up to a place 40 km away in direct line
in the mountains north of sengli lake. For truck drivers it makes more sense
to drive around the whole mountain complex on the road there.I could have
gone up there, but in my eyes there is not a road up there.
Unfortunately, I missed a tempting and very easy 6000+
meters peak near the 5504 pass since the the 5746 meters roadpass was higher
on my list
After a long haul through some places where the road took kilometerlong
detours when dealing with big riverbeds, I came to Lunggur, a place several
Tibetans had talked about as if it was a major town. I was very disappointed
by this town, only small shops and a few bad tibetan restaurants. The next
day I hurried toward north - Gerze should be three days away I had been told,
unfortunately I wasted 11 kilometers on taking a wrong way and when I got
back on the right track I had to go over a ridiculus steep pass I was barely
able to push the bike over.
After cycling a whole day where Kiangs were seen
in large numbers, I came to a huge building complex under construction next
to a lake which turned out to be a Lithium salt plant. I was dragged in there
by a delegation of engineers from Beijing on a inspection visit. They were
about to leave for Lhasa the next morning and had a small social gathering in
the evening where the chef engineer, a distracted older man tried to get me
drunk while I told him about the places in Tibet I had cycled on road he
claimed didnt exist.
The next morning I was invited for breakfast by one of the engineers, a
Tibetan who had grown up in Rungbuk in the shadow of Mt. Everest where his
brother now is munk in a local monasty.
From the Lithium plant, I used two day to bike to Gerze on confusing roads,
roads going in different directions but ending up the same place.
Staying her has been pleasent, but somehow I am now fed up with this place,
just want to get on and face the Chang Tang after a four days food party
here. Also, the hotel staff begin to wonder what I am going to use all the
food I drag to the hotel for. Official I just tell people I go to Ali, the
main town in west Tibet, but that 35 kg. of food is a bit much food going to
All right - no more writing - I leave tomorrow for the big adventure and
hopefully I will get though it without too many problems.