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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At the Mountain

"Pilgrimage in Tibet is as much a part of the Buddhist's lifestyle as summer vacation is in Europe."

Keith Dowman, The Power-Places of Central Tibet


Mt. Kailash, Western TibetAt the base of Mt. Kailash lies the transient village of Darchen. It consists of a small Chinese-built hotel, a few Tibetan adobe buildings owned by traders and vendors, and a chaotic tent city of pilgrims from all over Tibet. I could see Mt. Kailash from more than 30 miles away as I rode across the great plain in front of the mountain. With a flat road and a strong wind at my tail it made for an easy ride. When I crossed the rivers and streams that came down from the snows of the Gangdise Mountain Range, hundreds of fish swam away in every direction. By the time that just five miles remained, I could see the village of Darchen at the base of the mountain. In the southwest, large black clouds from a thunderstorm moved straight toward the lone peak. I raced against the rain for the remaining portion of the road leading to Darchen. If caught riding in the heart of the storm, I would become soaked, and stood a good chance of becoming hypothermic. Once again the lesson I learned much earlier in the trip came back into my head, "every day is a struggle." Even with only five miles to go, on mostly flat ground, it would not be an easy ride.

I knew that endless plates of hot food awaited me at Darchen but I also knew that a policeman would most likely accompany me at dinner. I had no other choice but to take my chances. I felt far too tired and hungry not to stop. As soon as I pushed my bike through the metal gates of the hotel, I started to look for the kitchen. A young Tibetan man and a older Chinese cook ran the kitchen. My journey astonished both of them but they gently told me that there would not be any meals for another hour. The wait for the rice, vegetables and steamed bread sped by quickly. I gorged myself on a few platefuls of food. Since only a dozen people resided in the hotel, it did not take long for the policeman to get word of my arrival, fortunately it happened after I had gotten a chance to stuff myself.

The policeman stationed at Darchen for the summer looked to be a small strong Tibetan man. We both walked back to the small hotel room where he lived with two other men. We sat down on the bed. He offered me a cup of tea and asked to see my passport. As he looked through my well-used passport he asked where I came from, and if I had been traveling by bicycle. When he heard that I cycled by myself on the "south road," his face registered his disbelief. He had obviously traveled that road many times, but I think my ability to survive the difficult journey surprised him. "Do you have a special permit ?" he asked. "No I am sorry I don't." "Then you will have to pay a fine, it will be 110 yuan," he told me with a stern voice. I paid the fine of about US$20, I had no reason to argue. I again apologized for not having a Alien Travel Permit and got the money from my money belt to pay the fine. It was not possible to receive official permission to travel in Western Tibet, but for US$20 I covered the price of my fine and got a document stating that I could officially stay in the Kailash-Manasarovar area for the next two weeks. This temporary permit-fine was important, I knew that the next tough police checkpoint was in Ali, almost 200 miles to the northwest. As his assistant carefully wrote out the paperwork for my fine, the head policeman told me, "Under Chinese law I should have confiscated your bicycle, but I think that your bike is very valuable, so I will allow you to keep it. But you cannot ride your bike anymore. From this point on, you must put your bike in the back of trucks, until you get to Kashgar, where it is legal for foreigners to ride bicycles." I politely agreed with what he requested of me and left to get a room for myself.

I had arrived in Darchen on the day before the full moon. More than a month before in Lhasa, I had met a Swiss German woman name Evon who was also headed to Mt. Kailash. She had told me that she would arrive there on the full moon of June. To make a kora on the 32-mile path around Mt. Kailash during the full moon has the same merit as walking the circuit three times on normal days. Evon had traveled to Kailash before and returned again this year to walk the kora on the full moon along with making pilgrimages to other sites in Western Tibet.

True to her word, Evon and a truckload of lively Westerners showed up. Once again, it pleased me to have a few other people to speak English with and exchange stories with. Some of the differences in our trips quickly because obvious. It seemed that almost all the problems on their journey had to do with getting their truck driver to go where they wanted to go and having all the members of their group get along with one another. On the other hand, my problems seemed to center around getting enough food to eat, staying alive and avoiding the police.

I first came to Mt. Kailash in the fall of 1992, after the summer pilgrim season. During 1992 the only foreigners permitted in Western Tibet traveled as part of US$15,000 tour groups. Since I traveled on my own with just a backpack, going into Darchen created too much of a risk for me. With a heavy pack that had to contain supplies and food for more than a week, I took four days to travel the 32-mile path around the mountain. Most of the Tibetans who walk the kora make the trip in under 24 hours. In Tibetan, walking this 32-mile trail in less than 24 hours is referred to as a "dog kora." Evon told me how just a week before she also walked the kora in a single day.

After a day of rest in Darchen, Lauren, a woman from San Francisco, and I woke up at the ridiculous hour of five in the morning. We both bundled ourselves in heavy hats and gloves. Even in June, the nighttime temperatures at 15,500 feet [4725 meters] drop below freezing. We made our way out of the hotel gate, on to the beginning of the path. The illuminated disk of the full moon shown out over the plain to the southwest. A couple of other foolhardy pilgrims stood silhouetted in the moonlight up ahead of us on the trail. With our small flashlights and the brilliant light of the full moon we worked our way down the stone covered pathway.

Like many times before on this trip I became part of something ancient, something that transcended my lifetime and the lifetimes of everyone whom I had ever known. I walked the same path that Milarepa, the great Tibetan saint who helped firmly establish Buddhism in Tibet in the eleventh century, had walked. The same path that Sven Hedin walked in 1907 to became the first Westerner to make the kora around Mt. Kailash. I myself traveled this identical path two years before, as a solitary pilgrim in the beginning of winter in Western Tibet.

As we walked on the west side of Kailash, steep canyon walls came up around us, shielding us from a view of the peak and the great valley to the south. As I walked past the large boulder that I had slept behind two years before. I recalled images of myself huddled under a thin sheet of plastic, while snow fell during the night, not knowing if I would suffer the same fate as a British traveler who froze to death while walking the kora a few years before.

Ever since my return from my first trip to Mt. Kailash, I would occasionally pose a question to my friends back in the USA, "What are the places of pilgrimage in this country?" Over and over it seems the most common answers I received were Disney Land, Disney World, and Graceland. Somehow these do not seem like appropriate answers. Infrequently a friend answer with, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon or the great wilderness areas of Montana and Alaska. In large part the USA is not a land of journeys of the spirit, but rather a land of immense material wealth.

As the trail starts to turn to the east, the valley opens up exposing the rich deep blue sky. At this point the trail starts the ascent up the 18,600-foot [5670 meter] Drolma La Pass on the north side of Mt. Kailash. Just after the trail turned to the east, we stopped in a small yak wool tent where a Tibetan man sold hot tea and noodles to passing pilgrims. When I walked the kora two years before, I found no such luxuries. Arriving at the beginning of winter, I only saw a couple of other pilgrims during the entire four days that I walked the kora. Half a dozen other hungry and thirsty pilgrims crowded in to the tent. All the noodles and fuel for the fire had to be carried in on the back of a person or a yak, so even a cup of boiled water cost a few cents but both Lauren and I happily paid for this luxury.

A quarter mile farther on you can start to see the sheer rock wall of the north face of Mt. Kailash. When snow hangs on the edges of this face, you can see the lines that make up Lord Shiva's dreadlocks. At the base of the north face lies a small stone pilgrim hut where I slept before with two old Tibetan men. I felt like I moved in fast-forward. In just half a day I had already traveled what consumed two long days of walking previously.

Midway up the climb to the Drolma La Pass lies Shiwa Tsal. For a few hundred feet [50 meters] in every direction clothing covers all the rocks and boulders. The Tibetans who pass this place will leave a piece of clothing or hair from a sick friend, a family member or themselves. When these physical objects are left at this special site, it will create good merit or good karma for the owner of the object. A subtle link is established with the mountain. So, when you look out over the surrounding rock pile, there are shirts, pants, pieces of fabric, and hair covering almost every rock. I pulled out a few strands of my own hair and placed it down between two of the rocks. I knew that I could use all of the help and good merit that I could get.

During the last part of the climb up the Drolma La Pass, the trail turns into a staircase-like path that climbs steeply. Since I had cycled at high altitude for the last few months and I did not carry a backpack, climbing up the Drolmala seemed pretty straightforward for me. A large rock covered with prayer flags and offerings marks the top of the Drolmala Pass. When I spotted the prayer flags, once again I felt happy to be alive for yet one more day, I stopped in front of the rock and like thousands of pilgrims before me, I did three prostrations to the mountain that connects this physical world to the spirit world. Before I left the USA a friend had given me a small yellow seashell to remind me of California and to protect me during my travels. I placed the shell on the rock alongside hundreds of other offerings from the pilgrims who had come before me. I took a few moments to think about Jay and his 15-year-long wish to make a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash, I was thankful for the aid that he had provided me with and grateful that he helped enable me to complete my pilgrimage to this mountain. Lauren arrived a few minutes later, we both needed a break and some food to give us strength for the next 15 miles of walking.

Just down from the Drolma La lies the frozen Lake of Compassion. At 18,400 feet [5609 meters] it is one of the highest lakes in the world. This small lake, which remains frozen for most of the year, marks a sacred place where some pilgrims will immerse their bodies three times in order to become more compassionate or merciful. I am such a wimp, when it comes to cold water, that I have never succeeded in convincing myself to actually break a hole through the thin ice, take my clothes off and plunge my body under the water.

Just past the lake I spotted a pilgrim prostrating around Mt. Kailash. He wore a rough cut leather apron and crude leather mitts to protect his body and hands. Tan dirt stained his forehead from daily prostrations. For the entire kora he would make a prostration and then walk forward two or three feet [1 meter] to the point where his hands and head had just touched the earth and then start over with another prostration. In this way he slowly made his way around the 32-mile circuit taking a week or more to complete the course.

We continued to pick our way through the boulder field, moving down, losing altitude quickly. I knew I had completed about half of the 32-mile walk, when my body started to feel the first 15 miles. Once we cleared the boulder field, the trail turned south and followed a straight southerly course, along a clear flowing river. I could feel my body growing weaker, after all, this was supposed to be my day off. I laid down in a small grassy section near the river to wait for Lauren, and within a couple minutes I had dozed off. With a great amount of reluctance I finally stood up and continued to move on closer to Darchen. To keep moving I followed the example of all the pilgrims around me and started to recite "Om Mani Padme Hum," the most powerful Tibetan mantra of Chenresig, the Buddha of boundless compassion. The Dalai Lama is the living incarnation of Chenresig, a Buddha that practices objectless loving-compassion, kindness equally directed toward all living beings. This mantra translates to "The Jewel of the Lotus Flower," which refers to the teachings of the Buddha, or the "jewel." The mantra gave me a rhythm to breath to and walk to, it allowed me to keep moving on and on.

Fourteen hours and 32-miles after we started, Lauren and I dragged our aching feet in to Darchen. In our exhausted and thirsty stupor we walked into a tent set up in the courtyard of the hotel. Inside the tent a young Tibetan woman sold cups of sweet tea and cans of soda. At the front stood a VCR hooked up to a TV powered by a small gasoline generator. When we walked in, Tom Cruise spoke in dubbed Chinese as the movie "Top Gun" played. The images and culture of the Western world were starting to impact even the most remote reaches of Western Tibet.

One of the women who worked in the hotel told me that the police had taken a couple day trip down to Purang at the Nepal border. With the police gone for a few of days, I figured it was a good time to get out of Darchen, especially if I wanted to ride my bike out of town instead of putting it in the back of a truck. For the first time in a while, I cycled on a road that I had traveled before. The familiarity of the bumps and turns of the road made traveling the route to Ali a little easier.

After a couple days I got back into the rhythm of riding all day by myself. I had traveled the roads of China and Tibet for more than three months but it seemed as if a year of my life had gone by. I tried to think about my friends back at home and what events they had lived through in the last couple months. I know for them it had just been a couple of paychecks, a few new movies, or maybe a change of seasons. I knew that if I was to be transported home after only three months that everyone would tell me how it seemed like I just left a couple weeks before. Time passed in a vastly different way for me when I spent ten hours a day feeling every bump on the washboard dirt roads of Western Tibet.

There was nothing special about coming around a turn in the road to see a Chinese army camp, but when I saw three people sitting at the main gate with backpacks next to them I knew that there was something out of the ordinary going on. The stretch of road from Mt. Kailash to Ali is not one in which even Tibetans usually stop. Once I pulled over, I learned that Damien and Dominique lived in France and Ray in Hong Kong. The French couple had sailed from France to the South Pacific by hitching rides on small 30-to-40-foot [10 to 15 meter] sailboats. They were on an extended trip around the world. When she was back in France, Dominique had drawn inspiration from one of the same books that had inspired me, Sorrel Wilby's Journey Across Tibet. This book told the tale of a young Australian woman in her twenties who walked 1800 miles across Western Tibet in 1987. When I met them they had just finished walking a 150-mile portion of the same journey that Sorrel had made. They had followed the Indus River southward from Ali, heading toward Mt. Kailash.

During our conversation I mentioned something about the problems I had with dogs along the road, especially in Drongba. When Dominique heard of my problems she told me of a horrific incident that happened to her in Shigatse. For one reason or another, Dominique had been walking alone outside town at 2 A.M. As she strolled down the road, a pack of wild dogs started to surround her in the darkness. She stood far from any Tibetan homes, and only a single light shown far in the distance. The dogs moved closer and closer until they finally started attacking her legs. She tried to beat them off as she ran down the road. After more than half a dozen dogs bit through her pants and into her flesh she finally escaped from the angry pack. A short while later she arrived at the building where she had earlier observed the single light. Upon walking inside, she realized that the dogs had shredded her pants, leaving her with practicality no clothing below her waist and at least 15 different bites that had punctured her skin. The people in the building gave her a pair of extra pants so she could return to the hotel room where Damien anxiously awaited her arrival, wondering why she had not returned much earlier.

The next day, they went to the medical clinic in Shigatse. When they finally tracked down a doctor, he assured them that there had not been any documented cases of rabies in the area where Dominique had been attacked, but in Sakya, which lies only 100 miles to the south, there had been a few cases. The doctor advised them to return to Lhasa where they would be able to find the rabies vaccine. The problem with rabies is that once you are bitten there is about a 7-to-10-day window before the symptoms develop. If you receive the vaccine before the symptoms develop then you should be okay. Otherwise, if you see any sign of the symptoms it is too late and because no known cures exist, death will follow shortly. So, this means that even if there is a remote chance that a rabid dog bit you it is advisable to get the rabies vaccine. But, like everything else in China and Tibet, resources are often difficult if not impossible to find. The doctors at the main hospital in Lhasa told them it might be possible to locate the vaccine in Lhasa, but to be sure they should get on the next plane to Beijing where they would be guaranteed to find the vaccine. Neither Dominique nor Damien wanted to fly all the way to Beijing. They took their chances and spent the next couple days tracking down the vaccine in Lhasa. Finally after a long and protracted search they located a full course of the vaccine. The doctor showed Damien how to administer the injections to Dominique and off they went. When I met them in Western Tibet, only the fifth and final injection remained.

The ability of my bike to withstand the never-ending pounding that I put it through pleased me. So far I had replaced a couple of the bolts that held the front rack in place, the constant shaking had sheared the steel bolts in half. I also patched a few tires and tightened most every nut and bolt on the bike at least a few times. So when I felt something wrong in my right pedal it did not surprise me. I pulled my bike off to the side of the sandy track that I rode on and broke out my tool bag. When I put pressure on the pedal and turned it, I could feel something broken inside, it did not turn evenly or smoothly. I removed the dust cover on the end of the dirty pedal and proceeded to open up the bearings. As I turned the pedal up on end to dump the bearings into my hand, I saw the fractured and broken bearings shine in the brilliant sunlight. While I cleaned the remaining bearings, I accidentally knocked a couple in the sand beneath me. I cringed as I realized that there was no possible way of recovering the bearing from the fine sand that I sat on. Carefully I put the few bearings that I had back into my tool bag and hoped that my one and only chance for a successful repair would work. Before I left the USA I made sure to purchase a complete set of bearings for the headset. I had no idea if the pedals used the same sized bearings or not. When I held two of the bearings side by side and saw that they were identical a giant smile stretched across my face as I laughed to myself. I carefully put the pedal back together with the new bearings and continued on my way.



All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel