One question I have had to answer a thousand times on the journey is “Why by bike?”….ok fair question. Well basically I’m done with the whole backpacking thing, traveling from one hostel to the next meeting “Been there done that” tourists on the same well trodden Lonely Planet trail. Traveling for me is about meeting the local people and experiencing their way of life. I’ve spent long enough in front of a computer screen to deserve some human interaction. Traveling by bike seemed to come with a lot of hidden advantages and I value the insight that a bicycle brings. For one it’s far less stressful than trying to decipher the Indian train system or the endurance of a back jerking Chinese bone rattler mini-van. You are never alone when you travel by bicycle in a country where the bicycle is the common mode of transport as everyone is interested in your journey. For poking about, meeting people and learning real culture I find the modest bicycle is the most effective introduction. This is more a travel journal with a cycling twist than a pure cycling journal. My bicycle frame is by a brand called "missile" but sadly I think she will not be living up to her name for some time yet! I won't be blowing you away with Kilometre statistics, the bicycle is simply the vehicle from whose saddle I have taken a free-wheeling personal view of the world. For anyone contemplating a bike ride big or small I can highly recommend a book called “A bike Ride” by Anne Mustoe. Any doubts I had were quashed after reading this book. If an unfit woman at the tender age of 55 can cycle around the world well then I guess I can do it too!
Spinning prayer wheels.
I’m now sitting in Kathmandu surrounded by an excess of services that I have learned to live without in Tibet in general. I’m wearing a few hippy style rags I got from one of the numerous tourist stalls in the Tourist centre of Thamel as I wait for my clothes to be washed as I think if I left them one more day they would have walked to the laundrette by themselves! I think I have never enjoyed a shower more than the one I did last night when I first arrived in Thamel. It took 2 showers to get rid of the smell of yak butter that I have grown to miss during my time in Tibet. Showers are thin on the ground in these parts and in particular in Tibet. The cold bucket shower was less than appealing on a frosty morning after a night of temperatures reaching up to -10. A friend from Lhasa has insisted that I stay with his friend in Kathmandu so I will move to his place tomorrow but fearing he would mistake me for a beggar I opted first for a night in a hotel in touristy Thamel with a shower and access to a laundrette!
The 1200km ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu is in the top ten epic world bike rides and justifiably so. My reason for starting my journey here is simply when given the choice you may as well start at the top! Sadly my timing wasn’t optimum leaving me no choice but to grim and bear the winter elements. On the down side I essentially had to pack for all seasons, bitterly cold in Tibet and temperatures up in the thirties in Nepal. Not the most practical of routes but definitely an epic start.
The open road.
It’s hard to sum up the journey so far as it all happened so fast. One minute I was beavering away working in Yushu and then with less than 2 weeks left on my chinese visa I was left with a mere 12 days to make the Nepal border. With my bike sitting waiting for me in Lhasa I had no option but make a dart for the border. I was in a frenzy trying to tie up loose ends in Yushu and somehow sort out my permit for the journey. I adopted a typical ‘well see’ Tibetan attitude and somehow everything worked out fine in the end allowing me cross the border to Nepal with 30mins left on my Chinese Visa. That’s Crinion punctuality at its greatest!
Child taking a break from prostrating.
Monks shoes outside a temple.More open road
For me the journey was never about the ride it was about the adventures that the ride allowed me to experience. If I had traveled the traditional Land Cruiser way I would never have met the people I did or the dogs for that matter…the real hounds however were the Land Cruiser tours who do a Japanese style speed and snap escort tour to the border. The Chinese government forces this through their permit restrictions which sadly gives tourists no other choice but to join a frantic organized tour.
Elf...sorry monk shoes.
Now some of you reading this may be wondering how I got into the whole cycling game. Well to be honest I never did and I could barely tell you a spoke from a sprocket. I caused a lot of amusement for the hotel staff in Lhasa as they saw me unsuccessfully try to put my bike together. Then when I told them where I was going I had them in hysterics….the doubting Thomas of Buddhism! That said it’s not fair to say that I am a total novice…I mean I did cycle to my local tennis club every now and then as a child!
I cycled the journey with 2 other cyclists Bart and Brad and our Guide and driver. In a word our guide was useless and was merely a timekeeper. His pigeon English was pathetic and beyond me as to how he became a guide. His notorious phrase was “I don’t know” so we nicknamed him “dunno” to which he took as a term of endearment. He knew so little that I asked him was he even a Buddhist to which he replied on queue “Dunno”.
Temperature wise I was actually pleasantly surprised and feared much worse. The mornings were cold and icy but by 11am I thawed out and had stripped at least three layers and was applying sunscreen against the relentless sun. Towards the end of the journey and the higher we went the temperatures were less kind. As Tibet is so remote you have no option but to camp a few nights in between towns. My hands were the weak point in my armor against the cold and I endlessly wished I had put a bit more thought into my cheap fleece gloves. One morning at over 5000m after having washed my face with a face cloth I went off to the open lavatory (the grasslands) on my return I found that the facecloth was now totally frozen!
Being a novice at bike camping I was informed that normally bikers try to find a secluded spot off the road to pitch their tent. In Tibet there is no such thing as a secluded spot. You may think you are in the middle of nowhere but then along comes a Sheppard, nomad and countless animals to have a sniff around.
One of my main fears about cycling in Tibet was the Tibetan trained killer Mastiff dogs. Having failed at my attempt to buy pepper-spray in Lhasa I did what all Tibetans seem to do and carried a few rocks for protection. Apparently the throwing action alone is enough to scare them away…..if so how do these trained killers command such a high price if raising an arm will scare them off? I was skeptical to say the least. Doubts aside I have no complaints to report from the dogs as all they seemed more interested in scavenging in the rubbish for food than chewing my tyres. As dogs don’t provide any fuel or meat unlike the beloved Yak they are mainly strays that have to fend for themselves. Were they not Buddhist I reckon they would have killed the poor mangy things! As in Yushu I went to sleep every night to the barking lullaby that I have grown accustomed to and may even miss when I reach Nepal.
I had been warned the ride to Kathmandu was not easy and they didn’t lie. No fears of me not sleeping in the freezing cold as I was so exhausted every evening my only fear was that I would be found frozen in my tent in the morning! Brad and Bart were far more experienced cyclists than me….that’s not saying much admittedly. They were happy enough to plough on at their own pace and meet up for scheduled stops and food breaks. This suited me perfectly as I could go on in my own shall we say “peaceful” pace and not feel like it was a race….that I obviously would lose. I must admit I threw in the towel once. It was nearing the end of the day and I was struggling up a 5600m mountain pass. The weather changed dramatically as I neared the top and was practically wearing every item of clothing I had to protect me from the hailstones that were pelting against my face. As if that wasn’t enough the wind changed and was doing a very good job at pushing me down the hill. In the distance I heard a vehicle coming and was preparing to get off the road to give it space when all of a sudden I noticed it was a pick-up truck. It was as if my body took over and suddenly started flagging it down. Before I knew it I was sitting in the front among a Tibetan family imagining the damage being done to my bike as it bounced around the back of the truck. After about 8km of thawing I spotted the guys on one of the switchbacks ahead and asked the driver to let me out here. Nicely rested I set a blistering pace and caught up with the guys who were baffled as to how I caught up with them and followed with a long string of compliments on my improved cycling ability. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the heart to tell them that their little apprentice cheated!The Tibetans are a little materialist sometimes ...
My most memorable nights accommodation was in a nomads tent just 3km outside Tingri the planned stop for the evening. I got off my bike to check the pressure of my tyres and as it was nearing dark I didn’t spot a nomad coming up behind me. We did the usual “I mean no harm” smiles and he did the usual “ oooh by bicycle” expression. Before long I was nestled in the Yak skin tent with a cut of yak butter tea in my hands and his wife was busy preparing some tsampa for me. The longer I stayed the more I lost the will to cycle the last 5km into Tingri. Out came my mobile and I phoned the guys to say I was stopping in the tent for the night and would meet them in the morning at 7 for breakfast in Tingri. I’ve grown to love the Tibetan hospitality and although my Tibetan is little more than a few phrases we never seem to run out of conversation. I never feel like I’m intruding as they go about their business and chat away to me as they work churning butter and making cheese and yogurt. I know nomads rise early so there would be no chance of me missing my 7am breakfast date. Next morning I was off before 7 but not before I had a stomach full of tsampa, fresh yak yogurt with whom I shared the tent with that night and of course a few cups of yak butter tea. Shortly I met bleary eyed Keegan and Bart who said they couldn’t sleep because of a dog fight outside their room all night…..I guess I made the right decision in the end!Well after a 5 hour climb you may also have a similar reaction!
Cyclist Talk of Kathmandu as a paradise after the endurance of Tibet. Yes Tibet is harsh not only the climate but the barren landscape, the lifestyle, the road conditions and the bland diet. All its harshness is balanced by it’s immensely rich culture. As I crossed the border to Nepal from the prostitute town of Zhangmu the difference was very strong. Suddenly the streets are filled with Indian and Nepalese traders, animals are wandering about with no sense of direction and the smell of rubbish is overwhelming. (It freezes before it rots in Tibet). It was disorientating at first and I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not. I entered a café in the town of Kodari after collecting my Nepalese visa and once again I started doing my gesturing of all types of food to see what was available. I felt like a proper idiot when he replied “ I’m sorry madam I don’t understand, what exactly would you like to order?”I’m leaving Kathmandu as soon as I have an Indian Visa in my possession and a few adjustments made to my bike racks. Not before time too, as I witnessed a man getting shot in the arm last night after he came out from an ATM. The population of Thamel has now doubled with policemen armed with batons on every street corner. Next time you hear from me I should hopefully be near New Delhi in India. I shall leave you with my top most annoying phrases from Thamel:
Yes, Rickswaw? Yes, Taxi? Yes, Trecking? Yes, Marajuana? Tiger Balm?Special Price? Looking is free,free looking? Discount for you? Lovely lady, lovely tea?