Pain and Prayer Flags: The Friendship Highway
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, Tibet @ June 25, 2012 - 11:57 am

By Thamar

Day 2: To Yamdrok Lake via Kamba-La Pass

As I lie in our K-Way tent being battered by the wind while our guides drink beers and play a local Tibetan game called Shoo, shouting “Dzzzup” every time they roll the dice, I have terrible heartburn and a mild headache. This wasn’t from cycling however as I couldn’t cycle today which broke my heart. After pushing a bit too hard yesterday I got a splitting headache just before bed, and then felt nauseas and later hot and cold flushes racked my body. I should have taken Diamox yesterday which helps prevent altitude sickness but I was trying to save our few tablets for the higher altitudes and our guide, Tenzin, said we didn’t need to take them yet.

So I spent the whole night running in out of the tent to the bushes – or in this case the rocks. As morning broke, I lay eyes wide open, waiting our guides to wake up – they were sleeping in the van where our medical kit was. When our guide finally got up he made me ginger tea which helped the nausea but I still couldn’t eat anything which meant I couldn’t take any headache tablets. Then I had to watch Richard set off up the pass.

At first I was too ill to care but as the day wore on and he headed for the top I looked on depressed from the car. We didn’t even stop at the top at 4794m (I suspect they were worried I would get sick again). And as we spend downhill I could hardly even get a picture of the stunning Lake Yamdrok below.

When Richard arrived at the Lake where we would have lunch I just about burst into tears. I’d paid all this money to cycle and here I was in the back of the car on the most beautiful section of road. The Tibetan Buddhists believe that the physical journey is equal to the spiritual one and so the more hardship you endure the more enlightened you become, which I guess is true in life. This is a way of breaking me down in order to make me stronger mentally – at least I hope so. I also hope that this is the last bout of altitude sickness as we were only at 3800 metres last night while it looks like we cycle to the foot of the Karola Pass tomorrow at 4750 metres.

Day 3: To 5010 Metres

After not being able to cycle yesterday I was super amped to get up early and almost lay awake waiting for the others to get up. Our guides played their usual Tibetan dice game again last night but this time it turned into a drinking game which was only heightened when a local shepherd joined them for a smoke and a round. Our timid driver was smashed, swaying from side to side and trying to phone his ‘girlfriend’, of which there apparently are a few. Loud music was blaring from the van all the while - so much for a peaceful retreat in Tibet. We didn’t really mind though as it must be hell of a boring following us around all day and waiting for us.

We finally got up at what must have been 8.30am and found our tent lightly sprinkled with snow. By now I was a little agitated and demanded we have coffee as we’d bought coffee but couldn’t seem to get any. We’d also run out of water which was a bit frustrating as you cannot cycle in this arid region at risk of altitude sickness and then have no water to drink?

We set off on a relatively flat road at a slow pace and I felt good. I had to ration what water I had and so sipped meagrely from my half-full bottle every now and then. After about 20km we made it to a little town called Ngastso where our guides bought some more supplies with what little money we had on us. Tenzin said that it was only a slight uphill and then “all the downs” after that. We started to climb through the barren landscape. It was barely a hill but it’s always an effort at altitude – like you’re sprinting and out of breath when you’re hardly peddling.

We passed derelict villages where shaggy cows and yaks kept guard at doorways while mangy dogs scoured the gutters for anything edible – I even saw one dog eating what was either the remains of a goat or perhaps another dog. The fields here were rocky and grey as ash. Lone shepherds roamed with their sheep and goats, farmers carrying ploughs on their backs whistled as they led their horses through the wasteland, little children – their faces already patchy and scarred from the sun – stood waving at us, and tractor loads of workers in traditional dress and masks over their faces said “tashi delek” in unison as they passed us.

Soon we’d climbed a considerable distance and suddenly came around a corner to see the holy mountain Nyenchen Khangsar, standing at 7000-plus metres in full view and drenched in snow. What a sight! And then we continued to climb…

Lunch was at about 40km between looming mountains – two of them topped with glaciers running down like frozen ice cream. We made our own lunch, which had now become standard practice, as you guessed it - stale white bread with peanut butter and jam. I decided to skip the bananas as Tenzin said they were bad for you if your tummy wasn’t well from the altitude and in fact they did give me terrible heartburn. Our guides stuck to their usual lunch of tsampa – the Tibetans staple food. It’s basically raw barley flour, sugar and black tea mixed with water and then dipped in chilli and shavings of dried yak meat. They scrapped the yak meat off the bone while we huddled in the car for warmth – a deathly cold wind having picked up.

We set of on the uphill again after lunch – the persistent headwind cutting into my bones. I was already tired but Tenzin assured us that there were only a few more small hills. A huge vulture soared past us. We stood in awe – its wingspan bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.

Still the wind pelted us and the hills tore into our muscles but mostly our chests – we had to stop every 500 metres or so to catch our breath. When we started up again my legs would scream in agony – I think it’s because your muscles also need oxygen but wasn’t sure. Eventually I’d had it and walked for a bit. Richard didn’t complain – just followed suit. Not long after we saw prayer flags strewn across two massive rocks either side of the road – this signalled the top!

Our guide and driver were waiting for us at the top. “This pass very high – 5093 metres,” exclaimed Tenzin. “Take a quick picture then you go down fast and don’t stop where many tourists stop to take picture,” he said in his Indian accent.

What - 5093 metres? We’d started at 3800 metres this morning! Anyway despite the confusion we were elated – this was our highest altitude yet. A nice long but chilly downhill lay ahead and once we reached our camp I had a bucket shower in what looked like an abandoned stone house which was in fact a nomadic structure. The bright sun was shining on me and the cold wind dried me in no time.

Day 4: Simona Pass to Gyanstse

I woke up with a blocked nose and my skin sore all over – not sure why. Actually the same thing happened to me running Comrades? Maybe it was from the blistering headwind that broke us yesterday as we climbed to over 5000 metres.

Last night the wind picked up and we couldn’t eat outside it was too cold. Even our guides – hardened Tibetans – retreated to the car straight after our noodle soup dish. The food has been really good so far. We bought a whole lot of supplies with Tenzin in Lhasa and he’s been making us egg omelettes on stale bread for breakfast and we finally got him into the routine of making us pungent coffee every morning as well. Lunch as you know lacks imagination – stale bread with peanut butter and honey or jam. Dinner is usually rice with stir-fried vegetables with bits of processed meat thrown in, which is always surprisingly good considering the makeshift gas stove Tenzin has to cook on. The Chinese tour company didn’t give him enough money to get a proper one and we were already paying for gas so refused to hand out any more cash.

So this morning as I ate cold oats with bits of my omelette and stale bread falling in over the door of our tent with dirt under my fingernails, a light drizzle of snow appeared and I felt grumpy. How was I going to manage another day of uphill? On top of that Tenzin said we had 90km to do today when our programme had said 60km. I frowned in disbelief. Clearly our ‘programmes’ were not the same. In fact, all the communication with the Beijing travel agent (funny as we booked with a Chengdu travel agent) has been up in the air and has been frustrating for not only us but also the guides. Mentally if you think you’re going to do 60km you prepare yourself for that and if you’re suddenly told 90km it’s bound to break your spirit before you even begin. Plus we were pretty tired from the camping for three days in a row, the constant wind and packing and unpacking every day.

So I set off with a heavy heart trying to remember not to be a spoilt brat. I stopped to wait for Richard just after we left and turned back to see a humungous mountain covered in snow standing in full glory. Wow! We’d camped underneath that last night. No wonder it had been freezing.

The high only lasted for a few minutes as we cycled downhill – the cold numbing our hands and feet. Thank goodness we’d had the same experience in Beijing as I don’t think we would have coped now in the middle of nowhere if we hadn’t. Thing is as we head closer to Everest Base Camp, I’m pretty sure it’s just going to get colder.

Having started at 10am it only warmed up at 12pm. Our guides met us at one point and told us we only had 75km today and I jumped for joy. The road was undulating through barren countryside. Then we came to the top of another pass at 4256km! This time the ascent wasn’t an effort compared to yesterday and I thanked the Lord as prayer flags fluttered at the top.

The rest of the cycle was either down or undulating and we made good time passing farmlands with women toiling the fields, their braided hair and rosy cheeks framing their pretty smiles and wide eyes. We stopped in front of one house and the mother called to her children to come say hello, which seems to be common practice. A little boy and girl came running out – the little boy clad in a furry Yukon cap already waving and shouting “hello” but in the wrong direction - it was just too adorable.

After lunch the flat road took us past lots of rocky outcrops. Often there would be a broken down structure that looked like something out of Lord of The Rings. They seemed like abandoned castles set against a backdrop of a landscape close to Mars and provoked my imagination. Every so often there were caves visible and I wondered if pilgrims would go there to meditate. Our guide also told us that we were about 160km from Darjeeling in India here – a reason for the heavy police presence.

Day 5: Gyantse to Shigatse

We had a rather pleasant breakfast of fresh Tibetan rolls, eggs and jam and coffee which smelt like yak – well actually everything here smells like yak. It was great to have a clean bed and hot shower last night.

We visited the Gyanste Kumbum in the morning, built in the 15th century, it’s home to the largest stupa in Tibet. You could even climb to the top of the stupa, visiting the caves with either a Buddha or Protector God inside.

Surrounding the Kumbum were very high walls with massive holes in them – a legacy left by the British who had once fought the Tibetan army. We could also see the Dzong Fort perched high on the hill opposite where the Tibetan leadership used to rule from.

We set off on a flat road to Shigatse – the second biggest city in Tibet. The ride was mental agony – the same scenery and flat road for 95km. The only thing that saved me was the constant “hellos” from the little children at the side of the road.

Shigatse is a typical ‘under construction’ Chinese town, like so many we saw in China. Dust clouds engulfed us as we rode towards the ‘foreigner hotel’ – an ok Chinese hotel where all the tourists were staying, presumably to keep them in check.

Day 6: Shigatse to the Middle of Nowhere

After a late start (our guide was extremely hung-over), we headed to the market to buy some fresh produce for the rest of the trip. Trying not to step on puddles of blood from the slaughtered animals everywhere, chickens clucking from their cages as we passed, we headed for the veggie section and managed to buy all the veg we needed for only R70!

After shopping we headed to the Tashilhunpo Monastery which I think is the biggest we visited on our trip. Apparently this is where the ‘fake’ Chinese Penchi Lama is meant to reside – the real one in a prison somewhere. Here there is also an enormous statue of the future Buddha who is meant to bring peace.

When we finally got on the road it was 11.30am. Tired and fragile we really didn’t feel like cycling. Almost immediately we started battling a super strong headwind which made every kilometre feel like a lifetime. After 80km (we were meant to do 75km today) there was no sign of our party and it was getting pretty late.

At 85km I lost it and starting cursing the guides, the situation, the fact that we’ve been completely ripped off by the Chinese company... And then when there was still no sign of them I forgot my tantrum and went into survival mode, my mouth dry, lips chapped and head pounding from the icy wind. We’d also run out of water and my thirst was driving me deeper and deeper into the pit of despair.

At 91km, our driver who speaks no English came to fetch us. Apparently dinner was ready? We were flabbergasted – is that really what they were worried about? When we got back I told Tenzin we’d done more than 90 kilometres today. He was baffled. I then realised that these guys had no real idea what a cycle tour looks like and how tough it is to battle the wind for 9 hours on a bike without knowing where you’re heading or for how long…