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A New Zealand Cyclist in Tibet (John Rhodes) PDF Printable Version E-mail


A New Zealand Cyclist in Tibet 

John Rhodes

October 2005

Now enjoying an active retirement, John regularly takes time out from his smallholding to sample the pains and joys of cycling and walking in the more challenging parts of the world. And that includes the mountains and gorges of their native New Zealand, where John edits a magazine for walkers (or 'trampers' as the Kiwis call them).

In this article, based on emails as John sends them from Tibet, we have an up-close description of cycling in what is, perhaps, the most challenging country in the world for the independent, NZ11_(109)_Goodbye_to_John_and_Ann.JPGself-propelled and self-motivated traveller.NZ11_(106)_Johns_Tandem_Apollo.JPG

In the photograph, Margaret (centre) says farewell to Ann and John in their home town on the North Island of New Zealand. The tandem 'Apollo' is seen at rest in John's well-equipped workshop.

Click here to get to John's accounts of cycling in India, Pakistan and China.

In 1903 Colonel Francis Younghusband set out from Sikkim to invade Tibet with sixty shirts, probably the minimum for a well-presented British officer. Somewhere in one of my books on Tibet is a photo of his troops in their puttees, entering Lhasa by its western gate. This morning I was at the same spot at eight o'clock, which (because Lhasa is on Beijing time) is just before sunrise.

Trucks, cars, buses, bikes and trikes poured past on wide tarseal. A rock outcrop above the road offered a view of the Potala. It cost 2 yuan to get in and jostle with a dozen others ready with Nikons, Canons and tripods for the first light on the forbidden palace. It was hard to compose a photo without the kiosks selling film and disposble cameras; and my best result will probaly show a Japanese photographer with his eye to the viewfinder and a distant wide-angle Potala in the corner of the frame.

When the airport bus brought me two days ago to the centre of this sprawling city, with glitzy department stores in the architectural style "China Modern Dreadful" and roller-shuttered shops cloned from any Chinese city you care to name, I realised that pleas for Chinese withdrawal are a waste of breath. The Chinese outnumber the Tibetans and they are here to stay. The races are in the second generation of contact, which perhaps explains the lack of openly expressed dislike and that there has been no violence since 1989.

My hotel is on the edge of the compact Tibetan quarter, and here one feels inescapably that one is in Tibet. Brown-faced people in  dark clothing carry whirling prayer wheels, and a stream of pilgrims flows clockwise around the streets of the congested Barkhor circuit enclosing Jokhang Temple, described by the guidebook as the most revered religious structure in Tibet. Before it the devout prostrate themselves or press their foreheads to prayer poles layered with flags. Others, with hands protected by wooden clogs, make the entire kilometre circuit by repeated prostration.

Chinese occupation might change Lhasa, but it cannot alter Buddhim. In Barkhor Square near the temple, three bored Chinese policeman loll under a sun umbrella near the souvenir stalls; and the Buddhist feeling here is so intense and all-pervading that it would be little surprise to see them get up from their plastic chairs and walk past the huge incense burners and the myriad flickering butter lamps to fling themselves down before the Jokhang with the Tibetan faithful.

Photography on the Barkhor circuit is simple: frame a random portion of street and wait for a composition to present itself. If you miss one shot, infinite opportunities follow. I am looking in from the outside, though - as one must unless one has more Tibetan than "tashi dele" ("hello") and "thu je che" ("thank you"). But even this is rewarding; and occasionally an opportunity for closer contact offers, as when I played Chinese checkers with a Tibetan girl. She won.

I cycled with Paulo, a young Italian doctor who was in the same compulsory "tour group" as me for entry to Tibet, to Drepung Monastery on the edge of the rapidly expanding city. We wheeled our bikes (Paulo had a rented single gear monster, and exertion at 3600 metres is difficult) up the hill. In front of the monastery, refreshment and souvenir stalls and parked tour buses triggered fears of a highly commercialised experience; but it takes more than a few score tourists to deter 800 monks from their routine; and anyway the tourist yuan help support them.

Direction arrows directed us through a ramble of buildings to countless temples with red-painted pillars, butter lamps, colourful hangings, Buddhas and holy books in tiered pigeonholes. At the kitchen, monks rushed about with containers of food and tea. The cooks prepared the main lunch dish, a yak(?) plus vegetable stew, in a cauldron two and a half metres across and nearly a metre deep, and dished it out with a ladle the size of a garden shovel.

We heard raised voices, looked over a parapet to see hundreds of young monks in verbal altercation in a treed courtyard below, and hurried down to watch the debating practice. One of each pair stood to expound his point of view or philosophy, emphasising every shouted point by flinging his arm in the face of his seated partner, who gave feedback on the performance. They were still at it an hour later.

Tonight I met two Danish cyclists who have been from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp and back over three weeks, partly under their own steam and partly by jeep and bus, covering much of our intended route. They say the first 130 km of our ride (including the 4700m Kampa La) is newly paved. That's the good news. However, at Shigatse we shall face a choice: either stick to the main road, which is closed to motor traffic for reconstruction, or make a 200 km detour to the north along the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) Valley. Either way we end up at Lhatse, with another 80 km of unavoidable road reconstruction over Lagpa La (5105m).

Younghusband's men would have tackled such a challenge without question. But the thought of it makes me tired, and I have only two shirts.

21 Oct 2005: Gyantse

We left Lhasa on Sunday, 16 October, soon after 10am. We should have had only 70 km to ride all on paved flat road to our camp at the foot of Kampa La; but bridge repairs necessitated a 30 km (19 miles) detour. We made it to Genda village at the start of the hill about 7pm. It gets dark 7.30 (Beijing time). A woman in charge of a road workers' compound allowed us to get water there, because the Tsangpo (= Brahmaputra), near which we camped among willows (and rubbish), was silty. In the morning yaks came down to the river to drink.

The camp was at about 3600m (11,900 ft), the same height as Lhasa. The 1100 m (3,630 ft) climb to Kampa La (4700 m or 15,500 ft) was all on excellent road, more than 25 km (16 miles). It got harder as we went but we made it in about 6 hours including rests. Near the bottom some kids pinched water bottles from the back pockets of Chris's panniers. Adam walked some because of a bad knee, but went as fast as we could ride anyway. Glynne and I walked bits too, but rode most. The road was much better than last year in the Indian Himalaya, and the trucks and buses mostly had clean exhausts. It might have been a bit steeper. There were markers every kilometre. The terrain was arid, with a discontinuous ground cover of low herbs and shrubs. Chris was out in front most of the way, even though he hasn't ridden his bike since 2000. The last 3-4 km was an effort of will.

The pass gave a great view of Yamdrok Tal (tal means lake), with snowy mountains beyond. Some people were semi-permanently encamped with the main purpose of getting tourists to photograph their yaks for money. One man was so insistent I ignored him and photographed someone else's yak. I was at the end of my tether. We descended about 300m (990 ft) to the lake, rode a few km along it and camped. As soon as my Chris's and my tent was up I got in and lay down and made a brew of lemon tea for everyone. That night accounted for the second of our 4 lots of camping food from NZ.

Tuesday we slept in as we planned to ride only 38 km (24 miles) to Nangartse, level going mostly beside the lake. We had 2 nights there in a decidedly seedy hotel of which the toilet was the most undesirable feature. After Kampa La we all wanted a break and it seemed a good idea to do some acclimatising to the new altitude.

On Weds afternoon Dror (from Israel) and Antoine (from Quebec) came through Nangartse. They had started from Lhasa the day after us. Dror has biked from Istanbul over nearly 8 months, and Antoine from Beijing over 2 months.

Thursday (yesterday) we made our own breakfast early using food from the Nangartse supermarket and left at 7.45 am when it was just beginning to get light. The tarseal ran out after 5 km but the surface was mostly good - except when vehicles came past (DUST). We caught Dror and Antoine, who had camped but started later than us. The climb was about 600m (1,980 ft) to Karo La (4940m or 16,300 ft); and though I got there last of the 6 of us, partly through stopping for photos, I was pleased to feel better than ever before at that altitude. We travelled through bare country but passed through many villages with people getting in the last of the winter feed for the animals. A second pass (Simi La, 4330m) was an easy short climb, but it was 5pm when we got to the top and we still had 30 km (19 miles) to reach Gyantse.

We made it here about 7.45 last night after 103 km (64 miles) on mainly unsealed roads. We're staying in a hotel several notches up from the Nangartse one, run by a Tibetan doctor. Gyantse lies in a fertile valley, down which we will cycle to Shigatse.

Today I have visited the huge old (15th c) dzong (fort) above Gyantse, and the monastery, which has the largest chorten in Tibet - 9 stories and about 35 m (115 ft) high.

Glynne has been off his tucker and has had diarrhoea, so has had a quiet day in bed, as advised by an English doctor in a tour group. He's drinking plenty and has graduated to eating bananas (expensive here). We shall move on tomorrow if he's OK, otherwise the day after.

We've had no bike problems apart from a puncture (Glynne) on day 1. The bikes and panniers are covered in dust. I oiled my chain today before biking to the monastery. My new front panniers and racks are excellent, but a short way out of Lhasa I found a fixing bolt was missing. I had a spare.

We've had no rain since the day I arrived in Lhasa and a few drops the day after. However when the sun goes it can be cold - not surprising considering the time of year.

We still have a long way to go, and difficulties lie ahead in avoiding or coping with road reconstruction. However, we all seem to be acclimatising well.

Sorry about the spelling, I won't check it - have had enough of the chain-smoking next to me.

26 Oct 2005: Lhatse

We're in Lhatse, about 500km (310 miles) into the journey, only 350 or so km (220 miles) to the Nepali border and the big downhill. We've crossed 5 of our 8 passes.

The last 140 km (87 miles) from Shigatse were very dusty, road under massive reconstruction, most traffic diverted to the north but enough construction traffic and local vehicles to raise clouds of dust. Last night we were in a "hotel" 24 km (15 miles) back from here, mud walls and floor; and noodles the only fare for dinner. But the proprietor's daughter Sonam is very good looking (maybe I've been in Tibet too long?) Crowds of noisy children mobbed us after we arrived, wanting sweets. Chris and Adam are very good at coping with them. I went to bed! We had tsampa for breakfast - it's very nutritious and sticks to your ribs.

We have checked into a friendly hotel in Lhatse and washed our clothes. I'm on my way to the bath house if I can find it.

Most days are cloudlessly sunny and it's hot outside now (2.30 pm) - I'm in singlet and cotton shirt. Things freeze at night but the Tibetan houses stay warm having soaked up heat all through the day like night-store heaters. Tenting is a different story.

The next 80 km (50 miles) (over Gyatso La, wrongly shown as Lagpa La on Kym McConnell's maps) will be possibly the most difficult part of the trip. It is also under reconstruction, but there's nowhere to divert the through traffic. After that the others are keen to visit Everest Base Camp; but I'm not so sure unless we do it by jeep or bus. I've heard nothing about it that makes me want to ride the 90 km (56 miles) in and 90 km out.

This trip is not recommended for cycle tourists with small children - or possibly even their grandparents. Scenery-wise it doesn't compare (so far) with the KKH or the Manali-Leh highway; and of course communication is more difficult than in Pakistan or India. I am looking forward to getting down into Nepal and greenery.

Acclimatisation has been better than on any other trip, which I suppose is to be expected considering I've been at or above 3600m (11,900 ft) for 18 days now. I've had only one night with breathing difficulty (apparent failure of my respiratory centre?) but not nearly as bad as at Kara Kul (KKH 2000) or Kaza (Spiti 2004). I'm last most of the time, but the others are patient.

No bike troubles apart from the odd loose carrier bolt and puncture.

5 Nov 2005: Zhangmu

The ride is almost done - we're on the border with just 125km (78 miles) to go in Nepal.

I've never been so cold in my life as in Tibet in November - but when Sven Hedin came here in a January a hundred years ago his horses froze standing up at night, so I should count myself lucky.

Yesterday we crossed our last pass, Yarle Shung La, about 5000m (16,500 ft), which was our crossing of the Himalaya (all the previous passes were within Tibet). It brought us into a Nepal-draining valley, a tributary of the Sun Kosi and ultimately the Ganges. Approaching the pass it was bitterly cold with a penetrating west wind, and existence on the peaks could not be contemplated. Maybe they are somewhat more friendly in May, when most of the high climbing is done.

From the top it felt as though we were part of a gigantic wide-screen movie with high peaks strung out before us including Shisapangma (8013 m or 26,450 ft) the world's 14th highest. The ride down was easily the most spectacular of my cycling life. We slept in Yarle, at 4200m (13,900 ft), a regular height for us the last 3-4 weeks. Water in my bottles froze inside the "hotel" room.

Today was no less amazing with a bumpy descent over 33km (21 miles) down a gorge to this border town at 2200m (7,300 ft). We are among the first trees we've seen for some time.. Tomorrow we shall lose a further 1500m (5,000 ft) over 67km (42 miles); and after 35 km (22 miles) we shall be on tarseal (of the Nepali kind). Here in Dram it's pleasantly cool (not freezing) and we can breathe properly and climb stairs without difficulty.

I did not know whether my body could handle this ride but it did (just). I have had no sickness.

The others are all well. Chris has a badly chafed crotch but my cycling shorts helped him greatly the last 2 days. Adam, who had a day in bed after a vomiting episode a few days back, is fine now. All have had coughs which are now vanishing. Chris's carrier snapped in two places on the way to Everest Base Camp (a major side trip which I omitted). Adam strapped it expertly with bits of inner tube and it has held up well.

Accident near Barabise

On Sunday we started late from Dram and crossed the Friendship Bridge from Tibet into Nepal at about 1pm.

Suddenly colour and life surrounded us. The greenery, after three weeks among dry hills and dust, was unbelievable. Ramshackle shops and houses with bright flowers lined the "road." The women in their saris were like colourful angels. Naked toddlers (unimaginable in freezing Tibet) waved while their families washed clothes and dishes at the "road" side. Most would never see the brown trans-Himalaya from which we had descended, and the sea is to them an abstract concept. "Road," because the international highway between China and Nepal, a bouldery cart-track, took all our mountain-biking skills to negotiate.

About 3pm we had reached sealed road and stopped in the town of Barabise for a late lunch. The restaurant proprietor strove to delay us, forcing a stay in his guest house. However, we wanted to reach Dholalghat, 33 km (21 miles) away and one more day's ride from Kathmandu. We were now on Nepal time, 2.25 hours ahead of Beijing time, and it would get dark about 5 pm, not after 7 as we had been accustomed. We considered taking one of the buses roaring past with passengers packed on the roof.

After nearly an hour the meal appeared. We bolted it and departed, weaving among a crowd of hundreds walking expectantly in the same direction, out of Barabise. Imagining some festival or celebration, we asked where they were going.

"A bus has gone over the side," he said.

Three kilometres (2 miles) down the green valley several buses were stopped and a crowd of a couple of hundred looked agitatedly over the edge. Broken glass and a piece of ornamentation from the bus lay on the verge. We pushed through the throng. Several injured passengers had already climbed or been helped back to the road and lay moaning. Others were being carried up the hillside through the wild vegetation. Of the wrecked bus, fifty or more metres below, little was visible; but evidently it had rolled several times. Perhaps those on the roof were the lucky ones, jumping or being thrown clear at the beginning of the awful plunge.

After agreeing that we could do nothing that was not already in hand and that our lack of Nepali language would hamper any effort to help, we rode on through the warm dusk. Half an hour later a small ambulance hurried past.

A small front page item newspaper item next day reported that five people had been killed and 27 injured in a bus accident near Barabise. 62 pilgrims were on the bus. For those 27 hurt people, just one ambulance came up the road.