Cycling the Roof of The World: Hello Tibet
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, China, Tibet @ May 31, 2012 - 1:33 pm

by Thamar

After the frenzy of almost three months in China we found ourselves on a plane to Lhasa, Tibet. I say found as we had no idea how we were going to get in initially. If we took a train or tried to cycle in we could be turned back and in any case we couldn’t book a train ticket without a Tibet permit. And then again we couldn’t get the permit without booking a ludicrously expensive tour as foreigners may not travel alone in Tibet – only the Chinese can.

After months of negotiating with a Nepalese company who we’d already paid about R8000 deposit to, we were still waiting for our permits to arrive at our hostel in Xi’an a few days before our flight - which we’d ended up booking hoping that they would arrive soon - when they told us that out of 12 people on our tour we were the only two people to have our permits approved. Lucky yes, but also unlucky because now we would either have to pay a whack more each for a ‘private tour’ which would come to about R39 000 for three weeks of cycling or cancel the tour completely. Besides the fact that we’d overspent in China and couldn’t afford it, on principal we were not prepared to pay this kind of money.

Stuck without permits five days before our flight we scrambled to find another tour, and while doing so our permits arrived! This meant that at least we could get on the plane.

With the help of the Han Tang Hostel in Xi’an we managed to find a very basic private tour for the same price but we’d still have to pay for food, bring our own camping gear and our own bicycles along. So essentially they would provide a guide and a driver and a vehicle as well as petrol for the 1000-kilometre stretch along the Friendship Highway from Lhasa to the border of Nepal via Everest Base Camp for a neat R30 000.

We did contemplate going alone but I wasn’t prepared to do something illegal and not ever be allowed back into China and possibly be deported; get bitten by a rabid dog or face injury in the middle of nowhere without any backup; and risk altitude sickness alone. So we put our frustrations aside – and China was very frustrating in many ways- and decided to suck it up and pay.

The rickety flight was a little unnerving – the plane being tossed about by a heavy wind. We seemed to be trapped between a blanket of cloud above us and endless razor-sharp peaks covered in snow below. We landed beneath a bubble-gum blue sky in what seemed like the middle of the desert, save for a few almost luminous green trees lining the perimeter of the airport with a narrow turquoise stream meandering past them. It was a stark kind of beauty – unlike anything you would think of as conventionally beautiful – almost surreal in a way. As we exited the airport, already short of breath, the bright light outside almost blinded us. Our Tibetan driver and guide were waiting for us and greeted us with the traditional white scarves to wish us long life and good luck. Apparently these scarves are used for all occasions, including death.

We thought it was very fitting that our guides name was Tenzin (only to find out later many people in Tibet are called Tenzin). Our driver who seemed very shy was called Tanuk. Tenzin looked like a dark-skinned Chinese person, perhaps with bigger eyes and spoke with an Indian accent and I asked him if he’d been to India. “Yes, I studied English in India”, he replied. Looking back on our meeting now, I realise just how naive we were…

Thank goodness we’d booked a guide as we passed two checks entering the airport and there were another two police checks on the road leaving the airport to Lhasa. One of the first things Tenzin said to us was: “I must keep your permits, don’t speak to any Tibetans – just me.” And then when we went to the train station to collect our bikes he told us not to take pictures there. We’d read some of the book Last Seen in Lhasa and so knew what to expect in some regards but it’s always different experiencing it first-hand.

Discovering Tibet

For those who don’t know Tibet is an autonomous region of China which technically should mean it’s like Hong Kong – now run by the Chinese but with a certain amount of freedom. In essence Tibet is a police state of China in which the Tibetans are prisoners in their own country. They may not get a passport or leave the country until they are 65, they have to study in Chinese - although there are a few Tibetan language schools and they are not taught English as far as we know. One person later told us that this was so they wouldn’t speak to foreigners. Tibet is rich in tourism – mostly Chinese tourism and is a goldmine – being home to the highest peaks in the world including Everest and K2. So you can see why the Chinese have ‘invested’ so heavily in the place, including having built roads and cities in this very desolate region. Still the people are as poor as they’ve always been and continue to live out their rural lives in the fields, as nomads and occasionally if they can speak another language – tour guides. Before Chinese occupation Tibet was said to be characterised politically by feudal serfdom where the monks ruled and uneducated lay Tibetans not knowing any better were just 'slaves' to the system, but this is what the Chinese claim and is contested by many.

I liked our guide on our initial meeting he had a relaxed ‘cool guy’ attitude about him and I noticed that he was very different to the rather static Chinese – believing things like “altitude sickness is in your head so if you think you will get it you will” and telling us to “have nice dreams”.

Lhasa is a desolate city even though it’s quite built up and there are loads of Chinese people everywhere. All the food we bought with us from China on the plane is available at the shop across the road – only at almost twice the price. Anyway it’s really refreshing being in a new ‘country’ with new people, culture, food and scenery.

Two Days of Acclimatising in Lhasa

We now had to spend at least two to three days acclimatising here at 3600 metres above sea level before getting on our bicycles. Our first night in Tibet I had a very curious sleep. I woke up after an hour at 11pm and felt like I’d been sleeping for hours. I roused again at 1am and thought: “Surely it should be morning by now?” I think this could be because technically Tibet should be on a different time zone altogether but it’s the same as China. The next morning I woke up excited, looked out the window and saw snow drizzled all over the mountains and shrieked with childlike excitement. It was about 10 degrees during the day in Lhasa with the sun making it hotter than that, so it was strange seeing snow not far off.

After breakfast we headed out to the Potala Palace with our guide – little droplets of rain spat on us as we waited with the throngs of people outside the sturdy red wooden doors. There was a lot of police presence and I had to try not to stare too hard for fear of suspicion. Tenzin said he would tell us when we could and couldn’t take pictures – alluding to the fact that he wasn’t allowed to tell us certain things. He did however refer to the magnificent Potala Palace as a ‘business palace’ not a ‘working palace’.

Hundreds of devout pilgrims circled the temple during the morning Korum giving off an air of silent defiance and seemed as though they must be praying for freedom. Police officers stood deadpan at every corner.

The Potala Palace is a huge monastery which stands over Lhasa like a king on his thrown and was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until he fled to Dharamsala in India, during the1959 Tibetan uprising. Its whitewashed exterior with hints of red and yellow is contrasted with the forever blue sky and highlighted by the ultra-bright sunlight.

We also visited Jokhang Temple which for Tibetans is the most sacred place; built in the 7th century by King Songtsän Gampo for his Nepalese wife (he had five wives – Mongolian, Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan according to our guide). Here Buddhists were prostrating (they stand up and bow down on their knees and hands repeatedly) in front of the temple on thin mats, covers on their hands for protection.

Afterwards we visited the Barkhor Bazaar - a lovely marketplace selling all sorts of Tibetan antiques, jewellery and clothing. I couldn’t resist buying a turquoise bracelet for my mother – the Tibetan woman insisting that it was real unlike the fake Chinese ones…

Our last day in Lhasa I woke to the shouts of military training outside, the insistent wind banging on the windows and felt Lhasa to be almost deathly – as if all the life has gone out of it, the Tibetan people having been subdued into a comatose sort of existence.

Today we visited Dregung Monastery which used to be home to over 7000 monks but now has only 400 although it is still a working monastery. A place which used to be filled with the sounds of chanting and prayers is now eerily quiet – interrupted only by the sounds of birds fluttering around the decrepit buildings, police officers smoking and chatting, or the occasional beggar child rattling off some plea for money to the few passers-by.

Our Journey Towards Everest Begins…

Today we’re meant to “head out across the plateau, leaving Lhasa behind and cycle along the Tsangpo River to the foot of the Kampala Pass”. I was a little nervous this morning as even though I had an idea of what lay ahead I hadn’t cycled for 11 days now and didn’t know how 85km would feel at altitude, even if it was meant to be relatively flat.
It was a brilliant blue-sky day as we headed out of Lhasa – our guide vehicle leading the way. Thank goodness they were as there were numerous road blocks where they had to show our permits to the police – we wouldn’t have got very far without them. We also saw about 20 military trucks towing what looked like huge guns behind them. Were they preparing for a war?

As soon as we’d left the city we were headed for some ominous clouds and soon it started to snow which was bizarre! The scenery was arid on the left side of the road with the almost florescent blue Tsangpo River running through it and on our right red-tinted boulders peered down on us from a dizzy height.

Along the way Richard got the first puncture of the trip which we managed to fix easily enough.

After 60km I was already pretty zonked even though I wasn’t carrying any luggage and the road was flat. We stopped for lunch at this point – our guides made us peanut butter sandwiches and we had some bananas. All of this perched on the side of a non-descript dusty road near a school yard. At this point Tenzin told us we still had roughly 45km to go. I had mentally prepared to do 85km so felt really demotivated after I heard this – the heartburn from lunch didn’t help either.

Soon enough we headed off the main road and towards the pass. It was spectacular – we rolled past clusters of Tibetan houses which are flat-roofed white structures with intricate details on windows and doorways, a yak-skull above the entrance with nothing other than a Chinese flag sticking out the top. We could also see snow-capped mountains not too far away and the Tsangpo River was so striking compared to the sand and dust that engulfed it and specs of lime green trees caressing its banks from time to time.

Then we started to climb. Our guide said he’d meet us not too far where they would set up camp for us. After about 10km up the pass, us going at snail’s pace not being able to breathe too well, I was seriously at my limit. And then we spotted them – we would camp halfway up the pass? I was a bit disturbed by this but thought it made sense as we would have less to do the next day. I felt pretty dehydrated at this point and suddenly a throbbing headache manifested. At the time I had no idea that this was the first sign of altitude sickness…