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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Holy Mt. Kailash and Sacred Lake Manasarovar

I had received warnings from a few different people that the police in Horchu were a pain to deal with. Even people who had official permits had been stopped there for hours on end while the police searched through all their bags. Horchu lies on the north shore of Lake Manasarovar. Pilgrims who walked the kora around the lake often started their journey from this village.

The exact distance to Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar always eluded me because every book and map that I looked at displayed different numbers. I knew that I was close to the town of Horchu but it could have been an hour's ride or two days' ride. While stopped at a small stream filtering water to drink, a jeep pulled alongside me and a Tibetan policeman got out. Uncertain of what to make of the situation, I let him do the talking. He had been surprised to find me there by myself, and impressed with how far I had made it. He said, "Horchu is just over that next ridge and around the turn." Since the late afternoon sun marched toward the horizon that sounded good to me. I needed to camp before Horchu so that I could pass through town early the next morning.

I climbed the next ridge and saw what appeared to be radio antennas, a sure sign that I was close to a town. All of my maps had Horchu in different places, so I could not be sure where the town was actually located. I rode on, only to find a few nomad tents on the banks of a small river. The road along the river made for easy riding, and I could pedal along at a fast speed. When I stopped for more water, I could see plenty of fish about 15 inches long. I have heard a few different reasons why Tibetans do not eat fish. One is that because they believe in reincarnation, they try to take as few lives as possible; the other has to do with the fact that corpses are often placed into the rivers. Either way I was too hungry and not compassionate enough to pass up the chance of eating one of the hundreds of fish that filled the river before me. On my previous trip to Mt. Kailash, I experienced a couple times when I had only a small amount of food left, but I could sit and watch hundreds of fish swim in the streams right before me. The abundance of fish tempted me to just jump in and try to catch some but I knew that it would result in a fruitless effort. Learning my lesson the hard way I made sure that I carried a couple fish hooks and a short length of fishing line with me on this trip. I got out my fishing line and hook and tried a few different kinds of bait, pieces of pork, and bread but nothing worked. I left hungry but without the bad karma of killing a fish.

I rode on farther and farther. I knew that I had to be growing closer. Three hours before I had felt wiped out and ready to stop for the day, but I knew that Kailash could not lie too far away. Finally I came around the last turn, climbed up a little 20-foot [7 meter] rise and before me spread hundreds of small stone cairns, with one large cairn covered with hundreds of prayer flags waving in the breeze. Off in the distance rose the distinct peak of Mt. Kailash. This signaled the first place on the south road where you could see the mountain. Every pilgrim who has come this way before me must have stopped at this point to reflect on his or her journey, and final destination, Mt. Kailash. I did three prostrations toward the lone snow-capped peak and placed a three more stones onto one of the small cairns. I felt thankful to still be alive.

After another 200 hundred yards, I could see down the hill to the town of Horchu. I had come far enough. I set up my tent behind a group of low bushes that acted as a barricade against the chilly winds coming up from Lake Manasarovar. The massive glacier-covered peak of Mt. Gurla Mandhata towered above the southern shore of the lake. This peak roughly marks where the borders of Nepal, India and Tibet all intersect. I set my watch alarm for a little before sunrise. I ate another meal of half-cooked gelatinous noodles mixed with pork fat and watched a sunset that lit the sky on fire looking out over Lake Manasarovar. Tibetan nomad tent near Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet

I never liked to get up before the sun. After being awoken by the electronic chirp of my watch, I packed up everything in freezing temperatures and headed down the hill. The town looked small, only a couple dozen buildings in a flat valley. I stay to the east side of the town to avoid what looked to be the official checkpoint. Horchu means "horse water" in Tibetan. The river, for which the town was named, ran on the far side of the buildings. Since I strayed from the road, in order to bypass the checkpoint, I was forced to cross the river by foot. I decided not to bother with taking my shoes off, I just started pushing my bike across the river trying to walk on top of the rocks. Midstream my foot slipped into the icy water. I took a moment to regain my balance and plot my course across the remaining part of the river. I looked down at my back wheel and saw a large gray fish stuck in between the sliver spokes of my wheel. I reached down and grabbed the slippery fish to toss over on the grassy shore, but it squirmed out of my hand and back into the stream. Once again I was saved from the bad karma of killing a fish.

For thousands of years pilgrims have set out on the arduous trip to Mt. Kailash. Some of the earliest people followed the Bon religion, the Shamanistic religion of Tibet that existed in the area before Buddhism. Today there are just a few Bonpo remaining in parts of northern Nepal and Tibet. They can be recognized today because they circle the mountain and other objects of veneration in a counter-clockwise direction. To the Hindus, Mt. Kailash represents the abode of Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer of the universe. You can see his image in the south face of the mountain while his dreadlocks hang down the north face. Today the India Government holds a lottery to select the few privileged Indian pilgrims who will be allowed to cross into Tibet. The Chinese government controls the number and times when Indian pilgrims to Mt. Kailash are allowed to cross the border for a brief visit to the mountain.

Four of the great rivers of Asia flow from the mountain. With its almost pyramid-like shape, each face of the mountain gives rise to the source of a different river. From the north runs the mighty Indus that flows north and west from Kailash, across Ladakh in north India, and then on to Pakistan and down the length of the country to the Arabian Sea. From the south face comes the Tsangpo or Brahmaputra River, which travels east all the way across Tibet and then south through a narrow notch in the massive Himalaya to India. The sources of both of these rivers created one of the great mysteries of the nineteenth century. Not until 1907 did Sven Hedin discover the source of both the Brahmaputra River and the Indus River at Mt. Kailash.

The road climbed up a couple hundred foot [50 meter] rise as I moved south toward Chu Gompa. From the top of the hill I absorbed the clear view over the plain of the solitary snow-covered peak of Mt. Kailash. Chu Gompa sits up on top of a small red craggy rock on the shore of Lake Manasarovar. Just to the south of Mt. Kailash are Lake Rakshas Tal and Lake Manasarovar. Rakshas Tal represents the moon and all things evil, while Lake Manasarovar represents the sun and all good energy. Between the two lakes runs a small channel that only occasionally allows an exchange between good and evil. Chu Gompa lies where this small channel enters Lake Manasarovar. Just before the channel enters the lake a series of hot springs bubbles to the surface, creating a wonderful place to wash and bathe.

As I pushed my bike up the steep hill, questions ran through my head as to why all the monasteries are built on top of steep hills, it was always such a difficult job to push my bike up the switchback paths. After a bit of poking around, I found the woman who managed the single room they had at the monastery. It was a basic room, dirt floor, no bed and a single small window facing toward the lapis like waters of the lake. She said that it would cost an additional 2 yuan if I wanted a light bulb. As an aside she mentioned that there would only be electricity for an hour or two after dark. I knew it would be a treat to have a place to be inside for the night, out of the icy wind. I spent the extra 40 cents to get the electric light.

As I unpacked my bags, a line of older German tourists wearing neon-colored jackets started to walk past my door. Most carried cameras or video cameras through which they perceived the stark Tibetan world around them. I remembered this group passing me a week before in their convoy of brand new Japanese vehicles. I had pulled off the side of the road to allow them to pass. All the foreigners seemed totally oblivious to my existence while their Tibetan guides and drivers waved and smiled. After the last of the tourists walked passed my room on their way back to their trucks, an older healthy man stopped at my room to say hello and to inquire into the nature of my visit to Chu Gompa. In the dark shadows of the room he recognized my bike. With a touch of surprise he asked if I was traveling on the bicycle. When I told him that I had come from Yunnan, traveling almost 2000 miles across Tibet, his face lit up with a smile. He explained that he worked as the guide for the German tour group that I just seen. With a sadness that came from deep inside of him, he explained that he had traveled to Tibet many times, how he loved the spirit of the Tibetan people, but his clients on this trip seemed to be totally concerned with what kind of food they would be served for lunch, and where they were going to sleep. They had no real interest in what he had hoped to show them and share with them. He showed great enthusiasm for my trip. Before he left he told me, "You have the spirit of this journey in your blood, you are an American. All of your ancestors have made similar great journeys and now they have given you the spirit also." With sadness in his eyes he left to go organize lunch for his clients, for if he arrived late he would hear complaints for the next couple days.

After a nap and a snack of cookies I had bought in the village just a couple miles before, a Swiss man knocked on my door. With great distress, he asked if I knew if any monks resided in this monastery. I directed him toward the main part of the temple where I had seen a couple monks when I first arrived. After almost an hour, he came back muttering to himself that the monks were ignorant fools. I did not understand why he had become so upset, just because a couple of lazy monks attended this monastery. "How long do beings stay in the Bardo ?" he asked me. I was no expert on Tibetan Buddhism, I told him "It was my understanding that after someone dies they can stay in the Bardo for up to 49 days." After a moment's thought he said, "Then right around now will be the time when my wife will leave the Bardo, to be reincarnated as a new being in this universe. I came here to take the ashes of my wife to Mt. Kailash. It had been her lifelong dream to come to Kailash, but unfortunately she died of cancer before she could fulfill this dream." The monks whom he had found upset him because they did not seem to understand exactly what to do with the ashes. His guide tried to translate the nature of the situation but for one reason or another the monks did not know the proper ceremony for this occasion. From the way that he talked about his wife, he had enormous love for her. He told me the story of how they had met, and spent their lives together. Tears poured from his eyes as he held my hand and talked of how beautiful his wife looked when she lay in the hospital bed before her death. "Somehow I knew when it was close to the end of her life. My niece and I made a quick trip to buy some candles and incense. Just before she died, we lit the candles all around her. She knew that the end was near." He told me how in the nights after her death young beautiful images of his wife visited his dreams, she told him that it was okay, and how she missed him.



All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel