A Different Kind of Freedom A Different Kind of Freedom: A 3300 Mile Solo Bicycle Trip Across Tibet Tibetan Nomads in Western Tibet

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Encounters with Dogs, Truck Drivers and a Cowboy

Just after dusk I set up my camp a couple hundred yards from the edge of town, behind some sand dunes. I could hear the diesel generator from town running in the distance. I set my watch alarm for 3 A.M. and went to sleep. I had gone to sleep to the sound of dogs barking in the distance. I woke up in the darkness to the same sounds. Every Tibetan town has its group of wild and stray dogs that roam the streets at night. I packed my sleeping bag up and got my shoes back on. The town of Drongba sat in a saddle between a high ridge and a sandy marsh land just as Jay had drawn it on the map he made for me back in Shigatse. I knew of only three possible ways past the police in Drongba. I could carry my bike a couple thousand feet [300 meters] up a 17,000-foot [5182 meter] ridge. This did not sound like much fun. The other route involved carrying my bike through the sand and marsh land, a seemingly painful detour. The last option was to just try to go straight through the center of town under the cover of darkness. One way or another I had no interest in repeating what had happened to Jay after the police caught him.

At three in the morning I figured that almost everyone would be sleeping, including the police. I started to push my bike in the darkness toward the town. As I approached the buildings on the edge of town, the barking dogs got closer and closer to me. The moon had not risen, so I could just barely make out the shape of these angry beasts. I slowly inched my way forward but the pack of dogs got closer and closer. I picked up a handful of rocks and threw them as hard as I could toward the barking. I kept trying to move forward, but the dogs blocked me. The dogs painfully made me aware that there was no way to get through town. I turned around and started to head back out of town before one of these dogs took a bite out of my leg. After a couple dozen yards, all the dogs gave up and went back into town, except for one persistent dog. I returned to where I had slept earlier in the evening. The damn persistent dog kept barking, 15 minutes, 25 minutes, I just tried to go to sleep and ignore it. The barking picked up, a couple other dogs came out to see what trouble their comrade had spotted. The next thing I knew a group of ten or fifteen dogs encircled me. Looking up the hill, I could barely make out the leader of this wild pack. I reached down and felt through the sand to find some rocks to heave into the darkness. It became apparent that the dogs had no intention of leaving. I put my shoes on, and put my sleeping bag around my neck. I only had a small three-inch knife with me, if they tried to attack me that was the only weapon that I possessed. I threw more rocks and slowly moved in a direction away from town. Fortunately the pack of dogs broke up. The same persistent one pursued me for another 15 minutes, before finally retreating to town. I climbed into my sleeping bag in a ditch off the side of the road. It looked like my trip may be over. I had no direct way through town. I could not deal with it then. I cried for a while and went to sleep. I would do something in the morning.Tibetan father and son

Without a tent to protect me the cold crept into my sleeping bag. Through the small hole in the hood of my bag, I could see the first light of day. I woke up an hour before sunrise. I knew that time was running out rapidly. Once the sun came up, the people in town would start to get up, and someone would see me. I left my bike for a little while and spent some time scouting out what other possibilities existed. The marsh looked difficult, there was no way to make it around the town before everyone woke up. I climbed part way up the ridge. It seemed steep but at least once I reached the top, it looked like I could just travel on the ridgeline and stay out of sight. I hiked back down to my bike and started the climb. I tried to traverse as much as I could to make it less steep. With my bike weighting almost 75 pounds, I was only able to climb about five feet [1.8 meters] at a time before I would be totally exhausted. I would haul my bike up the hill inch by inch, out of breath and out of energy. I raced against the rising sun. I had to climb high enough so as not to be spotted from town.

I collapsed at the top of the ridge. Clouds filled the morning sky. The sun shown from behind the clouds creating a brilliant orange glow across the sky. I moved along the far side of the ridge, out of sight of everyone in town. The path had a good surface, nothing that difficult, it was just that I walking at 17,000 feet [5182 meters] and I had only slept a couple hours. Fortunately adrenaline pumped through my body to make up for the lack of sleep. After another hour I had moved past the west side of town. I came to the end of the ridge. It dropped into another valley that went to the south. In my disorientation I could not locate the town or the road. I knew that I had to go down and west, so I traversed down the slope, sliding in the loose sand and rocks. Halfway down I saw the edge of the town and the road. A short distance separated me from the road. I cut cross-country as fast as I could, rolling my bike wherever I possible and lifting it over all of the rocks and ruts. My body and mind were quickly being worn down by the enormous amounts of energy that I had already been required to expend. As I got onto the road, I could see a couple of people who must have woken up early for a morning walk. I mounted my bike and rode as fast as I could manage. If they wanted to come after me they would have to chase me. I made it around the next corner to find yet another army building. It did not look like anyone inhabited the building, but a thin stream of gray smoke rose out of the chimney. I rode harder, to get past the military compound. With all the struggle to get my bike over the ridge I did not want to be caught down on the road. After another ten minutes, I had cycled past the last building. Just when I thought I was safe, I heard the low rumble of a vehicle coming from behind me. I ran with my bike off to the side of the track, behind a few of the larger sand dunes. The green Beijing jeep flew passed me. They never even suspected my presence. I rested for a while on the side of the road. I had some Chinese flour-coated peanuts to munch on. I needed something to keep me going. It had been the most demanding morning I had ever had in my life.

After the ordeal in Drongba I wanted to get past the checkpoint in Paryang as quickly as possible. I arrived on the outskirts of town during midday with little interest in waiting until dark to get around the police. It looked like there would be enough space between town and the foot of the mountains to skirt through the sand dunes unnoticed. From what I could tell it looked like most of town sat a couple hundred yards south of the foot of the Gangdise Mountains. After a short rest and strategy break, I started working my way from one sand dune to the next, trying to stay out of sight as much as I could. While I rested behind a dune about halfway around the checkpoint, I heard the bells of a Tibetan horse behind me. I left my bike to climb the dune and investigate. A handsome Tibetan sheep herder rode on horseback surrounded by a flock of thirty or forty sheep. A few minutes later he passed right by where I rested with my bike. I nodded and said "Tashi Delag" as I sat at least a quarter mile from the nearest road without a single trail insight. My mind wondered what went though this man's head, for encountering me must have been the Tibetan equivalent of sitting in the back of a pickup truck drinking a few beers while a UFO hovered over head.

It had been another hard day, well, for that matter I think every day was hard. I had been feeling a bit depressed also. Up ahead I saw a truck coming toward me. I pulled off the side of the road to let it pass. When I went off the side of the road the truck headed straight for me. With just forty feet [12 meters] between me and a couple tons of steel I recognized the Tibetan driver, this truck carried the group of Westerners whom I had met back in Lhatse. They had already made it out to Mt. Kailash, and now they were on their way back. I was ecstatic to see them. I quizzed them on all the checkpoints that lie ahead, all the places I could buy any food and what I could get. I heard stories about Chu Gompa (Tibetan for "Water Monastery"), located on shores of the sacred Lake Manasarovar with a hot spring deep enough to bath in. They were all going to the Nepal border, via the shortcut track that I had just come on. The entire group had all made it through the hardships of traveling to Mt. Kailash and now looked forward to the comforts and luxuries of Kathmandu. My friend, who had given me the peanut butter before, produced a small jar of honey and some packages of crackers. A few of the other people handed me any extra food that they carried. I enjoyed a feast that night as I sat inside an old stone sheep pen protected from the cold winds. A can of Chinese orange soda, noodles, honey on crackers, I could not have dined on a more delicious meal.

This section of road between Drongba and Mt. Kailash represented one of the most isolated and difficult parts of my trip. The road itself lies in the massive valley between the Himalaya and the little-known Gangdise Mountain Range of Western Tibet. For hundreds of years the main overland route between Leh, Ladakh in north India and Lhasa ran through this valley. During the summertime, the traders brought goods in from India and took back hand-woven Tibetan carpets and salt. Today none of the truck drivers likes to travel on the "south road" because of the fine sand and deep river crossing. They all follow the newer "north road" that cuts across an equally desolate part of Western Tibet that has less river crossings but more high passes. In Lhasa, I listened to a story told by a Tibetan guide about a time when he crossed one of the rivers on his way back from Mt. Kailash on the "south road." The driver of their Toyota Land Cruiser did not know exactly where to enter the muddy water of the river. He ended up slightly off the main track, with waves pouring over the hood of the vehicle. It took three days before they could locate another truck to pull the Land Cruiser out of the river. Mostly the vehicles that travel this route today are a few Toyota Land Cruisers that carry wealthy tourists to Mt. Kailash with their official guides on organized trips from Germany, Japan and the USA.

From Saga to Mt. Kailash there were no places for me to buy any more food. That meant I had to travel for two weeks, and about 300 miles, without acquiring any additional supplies. I knew that there was no possible way that I could carry two weeks of food. Between cycling eight hours a day and the high altitude I ate at least double my normal food consumption. Fully loaded my bike weighed approximately eighty pounds, the only good part was that the more I ate the lighter it grew. I knew that there were some shops in Drongba but I could not afford to stop because of the police problems. That left me in a situation where I had to ration everything I had. I studied all of my maps and tried to estimate how many days it would be to Mt. Kailash. I then added another two or three days on to that in case I misjudged it. The problem then became that I could not stop for any real rest days, because then I would need to carry even more supplies for any additional days.

The practical result of all this logistical planning basically meant that I went hungry all the time. During the afternoon and evening I suffered from pains in my stomach from the lack of food. My blood sugar dropped as did my mental acuity, but I could always ride my bike in a coordinated fashion even when I found it difficult to walk. I ate enough so that the pains would not be that bad, but I was always hungry and weak.

The trip would not have been possible without my sturdy Katadyn water filter. Whenever I found any water I would first filter all the water I could possibly drink. Once my stomach became full, I spent ten minutes filtering water for all my various water bottles. I carried a few that I could reach while I rode and a few that I stowed down in my packs. By the time I finished filling all my bottles, I could drink some more, once again filling my belly with as much water as I could. In this way it became possible to travel sections of road where I would only find water two times in a day. But, there were days when I passed by a water source because I thought that I already had enough or because I thought that there would be more water farther on, only to find myself a few hours later in desperate need of liquids. On a few different occasions, I was totally dehydrated and would continually search the horizon for any sign of water, looking for plants, nomad tents, reflections on ponds, or ditches left by road construction crews. With my filter I could drink just about anything from mud puddles to the dirtiest ponds. Sometimes I would see some sign of possible water in the distance. When it led me away from the road, I would have to decide if I should walk ten or fifteen minutes each way for the chance I'd find water. I would study all of my different maps to see what lay ahead and which valleys had any markings of rivers. Sometimes there would really be something there to drink and sometimes not. The stream beds were often dry and all the water ran underground, or salt water filled the ponds and lakes.

When I am in the USA logic and reason control my life. It is all part of a way of thought that is integral to life in the Western world. The culture in the US operates on a premise that we can control and manipulate the environment around us to suit our needs and desires. Everything from meetings to TV shows happen at precise moments in time that are scheduled months or years ahead. All of this leads to the illusion that we as humans can actually exert total control on the universe around us.

Three months before I had left the land of the logical. Tibet is most certainly not a land of precision, logical thought and control. Tibet remains a land of mystery and the unknown. I have heard fantastic stories from other Western friends of seemingly supernatural events. But somehow, when I listened to them talk about things like lamas that knew the future, they fit in with my model of what was possible in this part of the world. If I had heard the same stories back at home, I would have instantly discredited any such notions. In the West we have heard stories of supernatural feats that Tibetan monks are capable of, levitation, trance walking, and foreseeing the future. I have been told that when Tibetans first started hearing stories of the magical objects from the West these also sounded like impossible feats. They heard about boxes that have moving pictures of distant lands inside them and of objects that let you talk to people located on the other side of the country. In the West commonplace telephones and TVs produce seemingly supernatural events.

Blue green paint covers about half of all Chinese trucks, light blue covers the other half. China is a Communist country, and in that country all trucks are equal. A German couple passed me in a blue green Chinese truck. They smiled and waved from the cab as they went by. I rode on at a good pace and caught up to them at the next river crossing. Their truck driver had to remove part of the exhaust system for them to make it through the deepest water of the river. The Germans worked in China doing medical research in Shanghai. They traveled to Tibet on a vacation and to scout out possible research opportunities for the future. Their Tibetan guide, from Lhasa, jumped down from the truck. A mixture of excitement and disbelief filled him when he greeted me. I asked him who he worked for in Lhasa, much later I learned that the People's Liberation Army owned his tour company. Recently the PLA has run low on money because of budget cutbacks from Beijing, so they started a few different companies to bring more money in for the army. It seemed ironic that one of the ways that they would make money was by running a tour company in Tibet, the very place that the PLA was instrumental in destroying. The young guide offered me a ride across the river in the back of his truck. When I did not take him up on the offer, he climbed back up into the cab and fetched a can of soda for me. I welcomed the gift. I took my shoes off and crossed the slow-moving thigh-deep water on my own. So far, the ferry full of sheep across the Tsangpo marked the only part of this trip that I had not traveled under my own power.

By the end of the day I made five more river crossings, in the middle of the last one I almost lost my bike. I had committed the mistake of putting my bike upriver from my body. The swift current of the river pounded up against the packs on the bike, the bike pushed against my legs. I could barely keep my footing, but I had to keep moving so my feet would not become too numb from the ice cold water. It took every ounce of energy I had to make it to the far shore. I collapsed in the sunshine on the grassy bank, and tried to thaw out my toes.

Rivers and streams crisscrossed this section of the road, that is why the truck drivers did not want to risk traveling on the "south" road. When I was not struggling through the white water, 20-30 mph [33 to 50 kph] head winds hit me. Head winds on a bike are always worse than the toughest uphills. Passes always have a top, and best of all a downhill, but head winds can go on for days and weeks, they have no defined end, it is just at the whim of the planet that any relief can be had.

While I beat my way into the wind, I lifted my head up to see two pilgrims carrying heavy packs walking toward me. I passed the last small village almost 100 miles back. These two must have come from Mt. Kailash, for there was no other reason to be out here. When I finally reached them, I stopped to exchange a few words. Unfortunately they immediately asked me for a Dalai Lama picture. In my exhausted state I did not want to deal with people that just saw me as an opportunity to get a Dalai Lama picture. After I started riding again, I realized that I had been looking for some kind of respect from these pilgrims, some kind of acknowledgment that we all had a tough trip. It took me a long time to ever fully realize that no one will ever be able to totally understand and appreciate what my trip was all about.

By late afternoon I started the climb up the 16,600-foot [5060 meter] Marium La, the last pass before Mt. Kailash. In the distance up ahead I saw a truck off to the side of the road. As I got closer, I realized that it was the German couple whom I had seen the day before. The Tibetan pilgrims who had ridden in the back of their truck built a fire on the side of the road. They spent their time having a Tibetan "tea party," while the truck driver and guide fiddled with the broken truck. When I stopped, the guide ran over and greeted me, his smile showed that he was happy to see me again. He begged me to rest for a while and have something to eat. He took me over to the fire and made sure that they fed me well with all the hot tea I could drink and tsampa I could eat. When I talked to the older pilgrims around the fire, one man asked me for medicine. He described problems with his left leg. Unfortunately I could not do anything for him, and it required at least a week's trip, in the back of a truck, to arrive at the most basic medical clinic. I often wondered what I would do if an injury befell me in this desolate land so far from modern Western medical care.

Later another truck rolled around the corner. I could see the bright-colored clothes of Westerners inside. I had learned to the tell the difference between Tibetans and foreigners from a long ways off, just by the way they walked and the color of their clothes. With the aid of another truck there was a good chance that the Germans would be able to get their vehicle on the road again. The second truck also carried a few folks who were doing research in China and on a bit of a vacation. I walked down to meet the newly arrived visitors. They said they knew something strange was going on, because back at the last river crossing they saw what appeared to be bicycle tire tracks in the sand at the river's bank. As it turned out, we all decided to camp where we sat and enjoy a dinner together. This was a delight for me, to have a conversation in English with interesting people.

For the first evening in a long time, I sat out and enjoyed intriguing conversations about setting up national parks in Tibet and Nepal, about Chinese politics, and the politics at the United Nations. When I first started talking to the gentleman who just arrived in the second truck, I thought for sure it could only be George Schaller, the famous Himalayan biologist. It seemed that this man worked on all the same projects as Mr. Schaller. He talked about working as one of the original people who helped set up Chomolangma National Park, the new park on the Tibet side of Everest, and the new Chang Tang National Park. I had just seen an article by George Schaller about the Chang Tang Park, in National Geographic a few months earlier. Only much later did I learn that his name was Daniel Taylor-Ide. Daniel had spent a good part of his life doing ecological research in various parts of the Himalaya. Later on in the evening we all shared some excellent chocolate that one of Daniel's friends had just brought from the USA.

By the time I was ten days out from Saga, the last place I bought any food, tiredness sapped most all my remaining energy. I had never had enough to eat since I left Saga. I needed a couple days to rest but I did not have the extra food to just spend even one day in the same place. I had to move forward every day. While I rode I would often find myself singing the same line of a song over and over to myself as sort of a mantra. I would never consciously pick what songs to sing. At some kind of subconscious level, the words would just come out. During this part of the ride my mantra became "I'm so tired, so tired of waiting for you...." as weariness filled my body, speech and mind. Much later in the trip, while riding at 17,000 feet [5182 meters] in the Askin Chin, the words changed to "Knocking at Heaven's door, 'cause I don't think that I'll be coming 'round here anymore", a verbal distillation of thoughts regarding the thin line that separated me from death both on this ride and during all of life.

Some of the only times that I got to talk to any Westerners out in the Chang Tang occurred when their vehicles broke down. The drivers and the passengers do not like to stop out in the middle of nowhere. They would drive all day and sometimes into the night to get to some place where they could stay inside away from the freezing temperatures and howling winds. While I descended from the Marium La Pass, I encountered an American woman and a French woman whom I had met back in Shigatse. These women had originally told me the story of Jay, the American who had so many problems on his way to Mt. Kailash. A clogged fuel filter, in their Land Cruiser, left them stranded on the side of the road. Both of these women showed extreme kindness and compassion toward me. They gave me some extra supplies that they had, and told me where I could expect to buy more food. My life had started to become focused on food, more and more, and staying alive for that matter. They had just left Lake Manasarovar early that morning, I ran into them during mid-afternoon. The distances involved in traveling in Western Tibet are often difficult to understand. They told me, "Oh, you'll be at Mt. Kailash tomorrow." I did a quick mental calculation, I was only cycling about 30 miles a day at that point. "It is four more days of riding for me to get to Kailash," I replied. They had no real understanding of exactly how far they had traveled. "Do you know how many kilometers it is back to Shigatse? We had heard that it was only 300 KM." I pulled out my Chinese maps that had all the distances marked, it looked like it would require about 900 KM or 540 miles. My answer surprised and disappointed both of them. The French woman had felt sick. The high altitude aggravated a heart ailment that she suffered from. They had hoped that they could return to Shigatse in just two or three more days. For the last five minutes the driver tried to start the engine. He had removed the fuel filter and tried to blow the gasoline through it with his mouth. After a few attempts and a spoonful of swallowed gasoline he got the filter unclogged. Once he finally started the truck, no one wanted to sit around and exchange stories if the engine ran fine. Besides, they could not take the chance of it not starting next time and being stuck for another couple of hours, or possibly days until it got fixed again.

While everyone else traveled in trucks and Land Cruisers rushing from town to town, trying to avoid the desolate expanses of the high altitude stony desert, I lived my life in the places between the destinations. I would wake up in my tent by myself in the desert and ride for most of the day by myself through the middle of nowhere. Only maybe once every week or so would I see a road sign or some kind of building. I would fall asleep in the dusty dirt by the side of the road during the afternoon for a nap, or walk five feet [1.8 meters] off the road to go to the bathroom. There was no one else around and nothing to even go behind. On another trip in Tibet, I spent a couple days traveling on a bus with an Australian woman and her wonderful nine-year-old daughter. When the bus stopped one time, Delia asked, "Mom where is the toilet?" "The whole world is your toilet," her mom replied, embarrassing Delia a little.

The first time I traveled to Mt. Kailash during the fall, after the real pilgrim season had ended. I knew that I wanted to get to Kailash but I did not possess the most accurate maps. A few days away from Kailash I flagged down a truck that was headed southeast toward the mountain. I tossed my pack into the back of the truck and squeezed in with the 20 or 30 Tibetans. After about three hours into the ride I realized that this truck was not headed to Mt. Kailash. Instead they moved toward Parang, at the Nepal border on a shortcut track that did not appear on my map. When I realized this, I yelled for the driver to stop, and jumped down from the truck. I could see Kailash out on the horizon, I could see exactly where I wanted to go. I spent the next three days walking cross-country toward the mountain. During this wonderful walk, I would often see herds of hundreds of wild Tibetan asses, khang, and antelope. As I would crest a rise and look down into the next little valley they would all raise their heads to look at me. The small streams and rivers that flowed through this region teemed with countless fish.

I imagined that this is what the Western part of the USA must have been like many years before. Two hundred years ago herds of buffalo filled up the horizon on the lands of the Western US , trout packed the streams, and deer and elk wandered through the forest and plains. I would think that spending a night in a tipi with a Native American family would have been quite similar to spending a night with a Tibetan nomad family in their yak wool tent. Now, just as the American landscape changed, so is the Tibetan landscape changing. I just hope that the changes will not be as devastating as those that destroyed the Native Americans and their culture.


All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel