In Tibetan Buddhism there is a mountain called Mt. Meru at the center of the universe, the center of the Buddhist mandala. It is the connection between the physical world that we live in and the spirit world. Tibetans believe that the mountain called Kang Rimpoche, or Mt. Kailash, in Western Tibet is Mt. Meru. An arduous 32-mile path encircles the mountain. It is said that if you walk this circuit 108 times you will achieve nirvana or enlightenment. To make a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash and walk just one kora is a once-in-a-lifetime event that every Tibetan wishes to do.
Two roads cross Western Tibet, the "north road" and the "south road." In 1992 I hitchhiked and walked on the north road to reach Mt. Kailash in mid-October. I struggled through a cold and brutal, month-long trip. Sitting in the back of Chinese cargo trucks day and night, the metal frame of the trucks pounded against my bones for days on end. At least on the bike I could decide when to stop and rest. I would no longer be at the mercy of a crazy Khampa truck driver. On this trip I started out for Mt. Kailash on neither the "north road" nor the "south road." I traveled on a track that marked a shortcut between the road to Kathmandu and the "south road" to Kailash. During my research, I had looked for the track, some maps showed it, some had nothing. In 1992 I had cycled the road from Lhasa to Kathmandu. I remembered seeing the turnoff for the path at the time. I just thought to myself, "I think that I am in the middle of nowhere, that path REALLY goes out into the middle of nowhere." This time I did not cycle past the turnoff. A few yards off the main road, a young Tibetan boy on horseback looked at me as if I had most certainly taken a wrong turn. No one in their right mind would leave the main road and head northwest into nowhere.
I lost the track a half dozen times. I knew that I had to go west toward Paiku Tso Lake, so I would just head cross-country until I hit the braided path again. On the hard surface of the stony desert the difference between riding 'on the road' and 'off road' disappeared. The track would split into two and three different paths. My mind raced with thoughts of which one to take. The last thing in the world I needed was to spend a day riding in the wrong direction. West, west toward Paiku Tso Lake, I checked the US military maps, the Chinese government maps and my compass. By late afternoon, I spotted the turquoise blue waters of a large lake. I knew that I had made the right choice. From where I stood, I could follow a line up the north ridge to the top of the 26,397-foot [8047 meter] summit of Mt. Shishapangma. I watched the massive moisture-laden monsoon clouds of India and Nepal push up over the tops of the Himalaya. Back in San Francisco I used to watch clouds similarly push over the forest green tops of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I climbed inside my sleeping bag, listened to the short-wave for a couple minutes, ate a piece of chocolate, and laid down to sleep. This evening I knew that everything that I had ever done in my life, every bike ride, every book and map I read, every trip, had led up to this exact day, to this exact moment. Everything I had done before was just preparation for this ride across nowhere, for a dinner of ramen noodles and flat bread by myself in front of the biggest peaks in the world.
The Buddha's first noble truth states that "Life is suffering." On this day I started to come to my own understanding of the first noble truth, "Everyday is a struggle." The day started easily, I cranked out six miles with no problems. The next 12 miles took eight hours of pushing, pulling and hauling my bike through fine yellow and white sand speckled with small tufts of green grass. When I tried to push the bike from behind, the front wheel would plow into the sand, when I tried to carry it, I could only get about ten feet [3 meters] before exhaustion prevented me from going on. Fellow travelers had informed me that there would be many more miles of thick sand on the south road to Kailash. On days like these I was Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology burdened with the task of pushing a large boulder up a steep mountain hillside everyday, at the end of the day the rock would roll back down the hill and he would have to repeat his struggle once again the following morning. I knew that everyday I continued moving closer and closer to Mt. Kailash, but on days like this the mountain seemed an interminable ways off.
I remembered a time back in Shigatse, when I talked to a woman who had hitched a ride in the back of a truck from Mt. Kailash to Shigatse on the south road. I asked her if she thought it was possible to travel the road on a bike. She replied, "That truck ride was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, during one of the bumpiest parts of the ride I just thought to myself, it could be worse, I could be on a bike."
I knew that roughly 90 miles remained to the next town, Saga. Everything I ate or drank I had to carry with me or find along the way. The more I carried the heavier my bike became. I had to ration my food to make it last. It would be a long time before I could find things like good chocolate or dried fish. To continue I needed to find fresh water at least once a day. My water filter made it possible to drink from a mud puddle on the side of the road. The only thing that I could not drink was salt water. Unfortunately salt water fills a large part of the lakes in Western Tibet. Hunger tugged at my mind all the time. I could eat enough so that my stomach would not be subjected to really strong physical pains, but I could never eat enough. I carried food in my packs but I knew that I had to save rations for the remainder of the trip to Saga. Since this marked the beginning of my journey through the desert terrain of Western Tibet, I did not know exactly how many miles I could travel in a day, or how much food I would need at these extreme altitudes. I thought to myself, maybe I should be eating more food, but if I had miscalculated I would run out of supplies before I arrived at Saga. During this part of the trip my logistical planning became one of my most important skills. For the next few days I kept riding toward a distant peak that from the ONC maps looked to be near my next destination.
Tibetan nomads are some of the toughest people whom I have ever spent time with. These people live in one of the most remote and harshest environments in the world. They make up about half of the population of Tibet. Only a few nomads lived out in the area surrounding Paiku Tso Lake. I always knew where I could find fresh water by looking for the black yak wool nomad tents. In this area the nomads lived in groups of two or three families. Each family had one tent. In the center of the tent stands a charred metal frame to hold a cook pot over a smoldering goat-dung fire. All the family's possessions would be stored around the edge of the tent. On one side would rest a tall wooden churn to make butter tea in, and on the other side would always be a small altar. It would have a couple images of the Buddha, three water bowls for offerings, and maybe if the family was lucky, a picture of the Dalai Lama. They wore clothes that were dirtier and more torn than those worn by most homeless people in the USA. Their clothes are often covered with enough multicolored patches that it becomes difficult to identify any of the original material. When the temperature drops, they wear sheepskin robes that are crudely made knee-length coats, tied at the waist with a sash. This is all that keeps these folks warm in winters of -20F and -30F. I believe that one of the main reasons that in 35 years the Chinese still have never been able to crush the spirit of the Tibetan nomads is that they are survivors. Their ancestors for hundred and hundreds of years have been survivors and their children will continue to be survivors.
As I neared the top of the pass, I spotted a lone black nomad tent in a lush grassy field. For the last couple hours I had been searching for fresh drinking water, most of the sources I had found that morning were contaminated with salt. Two young children near the tent pointed me toward their favorite creek for drinking. The ice cold water refreshed me, as I sat on the soft green bank. When I climbed back up the hill to my bike, the child's father popped out of the tent. The strong Tibetan man with two long braids of black hair called for me to come up to their home for a drink of tea.
It took me a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Shafts of light came through the holes in the tent illuminating various spots around the floor. The entire family came in and sat around the edge of the fire pit. The mom immediately offered me a cup of butter tea and a couple of handfuls of tsampa. I handed her one of my water bottles to put the tea in, Tibetans always offer tea to their guests but they assume that they always carry their own cups. This family lived at least 80 miles from the nearest town. The closest nomad family resided more than 20 miles away. The grandmother, mom, dad and two small children enjoy a scenic location high in the mountains where the water runs cold and their sheep feed on hearty grasses. I appreciated the genuine kindness and compassion they showed toward me. After we talked for 30 minutes, I indicated that I needed to move on. Before I left I offered the family a color picture of the Dalai Lama. They happily placed the photograph on their small altar beside a picture of the Buddha. With a little sadness in my heart, I left this wonderful family and their beautiful hilltop location to continue my journey.
Saga! I caught a glimpse of the shabby town as I came around the last turn. It was a military camp, truck stop, and small village. This last part of the trip represented a test in my mind. I knew that if I could survive this section of road to Saga, then I would have a decent chance to make it all the way to Mt. Kailash. With a renewed energy, I cranked out the remaining bit of road before the river. When I came over the top of the last little hill on the banks of the wide flowing Tsangpo River, I saw the small ferry just starting to leave for the opposite shore. I yelled out to the ferryman, for him to wait just a moment longer. The ferry consisted of a 20-by-30-foot [7 by 10 meter] rusted metal barge tied to an old cable that spanned the river. Dozens of dirty sheep covered the entire top surface of the ferry. The Tibetan nomads pushed a few sheep out of the way so I could squeeze my bike on board. The ferry operator was headed to the other side for lunch. If I missed the ferry it would have been a few hours wait. I was glad I made it.
My stomach hurt from the pangs of hunger that were all too familiar to me. I knew that I could purchase all the food I wanted in Saga, so I stopped at the first place I could find. It appeared to be the biggest restaurant in town. Four young Chinese from Sichuan Province in Central China ran the place. Most all the customers looked to be Chinese soldiers from the army camp in town. I walked over to the kitchen table to check out what I would consume first. I spotted all the possible meats and vegetables sorted out in different large white enameled bowls. At first inspection it looked like I had a choice of charred pig tails, chickens' feet, cauliflower and something I could not identify. The choice looked easy. While my cauliflower and fried pork fat cooked, I checked out the decorations covering the walls of the restaurant. They mostly consisted of large posters of scantily clad Western women. One poster in particular caught my eye, a photo of the rugged California coast line. In California I had lived near the scenic beach in the photo. What a contrast of worlds! I am sure that these Chinese Army soldiers had almost no idea of what life was like in California, while I am also sure that my friends back in California had almost no idea of what life was like on a Chinese Army base in Western Tibet.
Once I got out of Saga I realized that I had begun the entry into the heart of the Chang Tang. The Chang Tang is the high altitude plateau that makes up most of Western Tibet. Just standing on the ground the average altitude is 14,500 feet [4420 meters]. The Drokpa, or Tibetan nomads make their home in this isolated place. I knew that it would be another two months before I ever descended below 14,000 feet [4268 meters] and at least as long before I ever saw another living tree. Just standing on the ground brings you to about the same height as the highest peak in the continental United States. The scale of everything in the Chang Tang is enormous. During the time that I spent traveling in this area, I came to understand space and distance in a vastly different way. I would glance at what looked to be a small hill off to the side of the road, when I located it on my maps it would often turn out to be a 18,000-or 19,000-foot [5487 meters or 5792 meters] "hill." Meanwhile the mountain peaks that surrounded me stood 25,000 to 26,000 feet [7621 meters to 7926 meters] high. I could often clearly see a couple hundred miles to the south to the main mass of the Himalaya. The 26,000-foot [7926 meter] peaks from the Annapurna Range and most of the Dolpo region of North Central Nepal hovered on the southern horizon. I quickly came to realize what an insignificant speck I was on the face of the planet Earth as I spent my days slowly moving across the Chang Tang making 30 or 35 miles during the course of entire day. It was sometimes hard for me to believe that I could always keep moving, inching my way toward Mt. Kailash.
Most days I would crawl out of my sleeping bag about an hour after sunrise. If my tent sat down in the shadow of a ridge it would be a bit later, but most nights I carefully set up in a place that would be warmed by the early morning sunshine. By the time I rode through the Chang Tang, I had my routine down pretty well. I would start packing up my sleeping bag, and sleeping mat, then the tent. Once I strapped these on the rear bike rack, I would deal with the stove, radio and food. I would munch on raisins and peanuts for breakfast mixed with some tsampa. A quick check over the bike for any loose parts and I got rolling. Eight to ten hours a day of bouncing over gravel roads will loosen up just about any nut or bolt. I would ride for a couple of hours, then stop for another treat of peanuts, tsampa or biscuits and rest. During the course of the day I constantly kept an eye on how much water I carried and where I could fill up with more drinking water. Whenever I went to the bathroom I always checked the color of my pee, to see if I was becoming dehydrated. The darker the color of the urine the more my body needed additional water. In order to survive at such high altitudes I had to exercise diligence to make sure my body always had enough liquids.
By afternoon I would be beat, I often surrendered to a nap just a couple yards off the side of the road. It was not as if noisy traffic flowed by to wake me up. I often woke up disoriented for a moment or two, having forgotten exactly where I had fallen asleep. By the end of the day I would have put in eight to ten hours of riding, my butt ached from the constant pounding against the leather bicycle saddle, and my blood sugar levels most certainly resided in the "empty" range. Dismounting my bike I would try to set up camp. Camping near drinking water always made life easier, but if that were not possible, I rationed out what water I had left for cooking and drinking the next morning. Walking without tripping over rocks became a difficult task. I struggled against the hypoglycemic stupor just about every afternoon and evening. I struggled to pull things together enough to cook up a big cup of gelatinous noodles that would never really cook properly because of the extreme altitude. The high altitude lowers the boiling point of water enough that a pressure cooker is required to cook rice or noodles properly. With the extra weight of a pressure cooker being too much of a burden, my noodles always turned to mush. I chopped up pieces of pork fat to throw in with the boiling noodles because I knew that I needed whatever calories I could get. By the time that I had eaten the first half of this mixture, I could not stand the taste of the remaining portion. The problem was that I did not have a whole lot of choices when it came to what I had to eat, selection was limited and what I could carry was even more limited. While the water started to warm up for the noodles, I would set up my tent and roll out my sleeping bag. After I cleaned up a bit, I would slide into my warm sleeping bag. If I was lucky I would have a small piece of chocolate to eat, then listen to my Walkman-size short-wave radio for a bit. I had learned on a previous trip that "Happy Chocolates" were the premier chocolates of China. They came in small bars that I bought by the case, when I could, and rationed out during all the times in between. The Voice of America or the BBC often offered the only English language that I would hear during the day. I listened to World News, British News and cricket scores on the BBC. One night I listened to stories of how President Clinton wanted to renew Most Favored Nation trading status with China. The President talked about how MFN should not be linked to the human rights problems in China and Tibet. This was difficult for me to listen to after I had heard so many stories firsthand of how the Chinese police had beaten and imprisoned an extraordinary number of Tibetans. This type of news took on a whole new perspective when I lived in the area that was being debated.
I always tried to position my sleeping bag so that the tent door opened to the sky above my head. In this way I could fall asleep while gazing at the nighttime sky, ablaze with stars. Most nights while enjoying the coziness of my warm sleeping bag I looked above for the familiar constellations I knew from home, The Big Dipper, Pleiades, Virgo and Orion the Hunter. These figures linked me back to the land I had left behind so many weeks before.
All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel