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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Leaving Tibet

"And in the stress of modern life, and the progress of man's monopolisation of the earth on which he lives, it is beautiful to some of us, of whom it may be said the highest state of inward happiness come from solitary meditation in unperturbed loneliness under the broad expanse of heaven, to know that there are still some spots of isolation where human foot has never turned the clay and where out of sight and sound of fellow mortals, we may even for a time shake off the violating unnatural fetters of harassing Western life."

Edwin J. Dingle, Across China on Foot, 1910

 

In 1962, as part of Mao Zedong's campaign to expand The People's Republic of China, the Chinese People's Liberation Army built the first road across the Askin Chin. The Askin Chin is a high altitude basin that lies between Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang, China. Before '62 India controlled this area. The basin is so remote that the Chinese built the only road through the area without the Indians even knowing of its existence. Even today, the Indian government does not allow maps to be published that show this land as part of China, it must be labeled as a disputed area that remains part of India. At its height, the road across the Askin Chin stays at 17,000 feet [5182 meters] for more than 150 miles, making it the highest continuous section of road in the world. Needless to say, no permanent settlements can be found for hundreds of miles to the north or the south. When the explorer Sven Hedin traveled in this area at the turn of the century, he did not encounter another human being for eighty days. Every couple of days another of his pack animals would die from the extreme cold and from the lack of food during his crossing of the Askin Chin. Throughout my year of research before this trip, I could only find two written accounts from people who had traveled this area, but I was never able to find any photos of it. Since the Askin Chin remains a untraveled and mysterious region, it has always held a special place in my mind. It continued to be the one part of the trip that I could never fully plan for.Ray cycling in the Aksin Chin, Western China

Since the whole world was my toilet, finding a place to relieve myself never presented a difficult task. As I pulled my pants up one day, I looked down at my legs for the first time in a long while. The last time I had taken all of my clothes off was back in Shigatse, more than a month before. During the course of the last couple weeks I noticed that either my body had shed a few pounds or my belt had stretched. The thinness of my legs surprised me. I knew that at this point that any fat left on my body had been consumed during the previous months. I had spent too many days living in a hypoglycemic state and burning muscle tissue for energy. This did not quite imitate an Oprah weight-loss program but, in the end, it became a little too effective.

Domar marked the last town before the heart of the Askin Chin. I had looked at this town a hundred times over on many maps before I left home. I had followed the line of the road with my finger, out into the middle of the Askin Chin, into the Kun Lun Shan Mountains and then finally to the edge of the Taklimakan Desert (translation: "You go in, but you don't come back out"). But those were all just maps, they were not reality. The reality of crossing this area on bike represented something extremely different. It excited me. This was part of an area that I had never traveled before, that very few people have ever traveled. The refrain from an REM song came into my head again over and over, "It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. Yes, it's the end of the world." I really felt like I was starting a ride that would take me off the edge of the map into a new unknown world, off the edge of the world. After a half day's rest and a couple hearty meals, I started off on another trip to nowhere.

The land around me had a purity that I have never seen before, purity in color and terrain. The rocks that covered the mountains around me shined with every shade of purple, green, brown, orange, and red. Each of the colors carefully blended into the next, with occasional patches of brilliant white snow. The unending line of telephone poles that follow the road created the only intrusion on this landscape. Since Ali, the poles recorded my past and pointed the way to my future. The poles lead to only one place, Kashgar. That was where I hoped my future also lay. At times I could see the black wooden rods off into the distance, I would start to ride cross-country because I knew that I was headed in the right direction, leaving the road to take its own course. When I rode across the desert without even a dirt track to follow, I had an sense of totally unrestrained freedom. There were no lines, no paths, no tracks to follow. Nothing constrained or controlled my movement. It was a different kind of travel, a different kind of freedom.

It was a sure sign that this was a difficult section of road, when so many truck drivers stopped to offer me a ride. Normally most of these guys act like pirates, but on this day many seemed genuinely concerned that I would not be able to complete the trip across the Askin Chin on my own. They cheerfully informed me that they would not even charge me to ride in their trucks. The other mildly alarming sign was the increase in small grayish-black tombstones on the sides of the road. It seems that the Chinese Army just buries their dead on the sides of the road, since it would require at least a few days' journey overland to get out to the "civilized world." During the course of my travels in Western Tibet I had seen these tombstones before, but as I got closer and closer to the heart of the Askin Chin, the frequency of the stones kept increasing to the point where I passed one every mile or two.

I knew I was getting up there in altitude when after the brief descent from a high pass my altimeter read 16,500 feet [5030 meters]. When a truck driver hollered out that the next pass exceeded 6,000 meters (just under 20,000 feet), I knew that he must be wrong. I knew that the highest motorable passes in the world did not surpass 18,500 feet [5604 meters]. After I climbed to the top I spotted the source of the driver's misinformation, a concrete marker with "6700m" (22,000 feet) painted on the side. After closer inspection I realized that it had originally been written "5100m" (16,750 feet) but with the aid of a little extra red paint someone had changed the "5" to a "6" and the "1" to "7", making these truck drivers think that they were truly crossing the highest motorable pass in the world. Even at 5100 meters it remained 2,000 feet [609 meters] higher than the highest mountain peak in the continental US.

Riding on flat ground at 16,000 feet [4878 meters] did not present that difficult of a task, mainly because I had already lived above 14,000 feet [4268 meters] for the last two months. But I knew that the climb -no matter how small it seemed- over the Jeishan Daban Pass would push me to the limit. This pass separates Xizang Province (Tibet) from Xinjiang Province. It stood at just under 18,000 feet [5487 meters]. I had walked higher than 18,600 feet [5670 meters] on the kora around Mt. Kailash, but I had never pedaled my seventy-pound bike that high before. I could see the road work its way up a drainage on the ridge ahead. Even for a Chinese road it climbed steeply. When I began the ascent, a convoy of Chinese Army trucks started working its way passed me. At this altitude the trucks could only climb one or two miles per hour faster than what I crept along at. The big difference was that I had to stop every hundred feet [50 meters] to get my breath back.

In most forms of Buddhist meditation the student starts by watching his or her breath. The purpose of the meditation is to focus the mind on a single object, the breath. When the mind drifts off to another object, as it naturally does, the student gently brings the mind back to the breath. As I climbed these endless inclines at insane attitudes my lungs squeezed the air out my open mouth like a fire hose blasting water, then without a moment to pause I sucked in enough to fill both lungs again, in-out-in-out continuing in a ceaseless cycle. When the saliva filled my mouth it became difficult to break the rhythm of breath just to spit it out or swallow. My mind held no other object other than the breath, not by a matter of choice but rather by a matter of it being thrust upon me. For a moment I would glance up to see if the top of the pass lay anywhere in sight, maybe an hour away, maybe a day away, maybe out of sight, then back to the breath in-out-in-out. No matter how far away the top of the pass lay, there was only the road, my bike and me. When I stopped on the side of the road to allow my breathing and my heart rate to subside, I could rest at the dusty roadside for a long as I wanted, but it never brought me any closer to the top of the pass. Other times I would stop for the day and fall asleep a few yards off the side of the road, but the road and the pass still remained for the next day exactly as I had left them, requiring more climbing and requiring more breathing.

For the next couple of hours I would ride for a hundred feet [30 meters], then stop and rest, ride again, stop again, slowly inching my way higher and higher. Once again the Himalaya worked their powerful alchemy on me, turning my legs from solid muscle into jello. Now I know how boneless chicken are made. Midway up the climb, an army truck stopped. Two good-looking Chinese guys jumped down to discover the nature of the presence. A slight pain pulling at my chest had caused me to take a roadside rest break. I knew that I would have to move even slower. They wanted their picture taken alongside my bike and me. I obliged them and continued the climb. Once I reached the top I jettisoned the bike in the dirt, and kept walking pushing one hip forward then the other to swing my limp legs out in front of me. I kept walking, sucking in the thin air as fast as I could. I knew that my days in Tibet had come to an end when I saw the top of the pass, not a single prayer flag waved in the wind. A small wooden sign stuck in the barren dirt marked the pass, with writing in Uyghur and Chinese painted on the sun bleached wood. Around the bottom of the post hung a kata, a Tibetan blessing scarf. A sadness came over me, because I knew that this signaled the end of the Tibetan part of my trip, I was now entering the Muslim province of Xinjiang.

For a moment I thought back to 1992 atop the Lalung La Pass. This pass marks the top of the largest downhill in the world, a continuous descent of 15,000 vertical feet [4573 meters] to the banks of the Sunkosi River. On the route from Lhasa to Kathmandu the 17,060-foot [5182 meter] Lalung La Pass is the final obstacle before the Nepal border. When my two British friends and I reached the top of this monster pass tears of joy and relief ran down our faces washing the dirt from our sunburned cheeks. After making an offering of incense we recuperated atop the pass. The passing Tibetan travelers toss paper prayers into the air as they cross the pass, yelling "Lha sollo! Lha sollo!", to give thanks for a safe journey. Thousands of these two-inch-square prayer papers imprinted with a written prayer and a picture of a flying horse littered the ground surrounding us. As we took in the splendor of the Himalayan peaks around us, a strong wind started to stir. Seconds later we all lifted our heads to see a small funnel draw the thousands of small pray papers hundreds of feet [50 meters] into the air. This magical event gave us all a few seconds to reflect on what we had survived and what still lay ahead.

I had heard of Sirengou from the road workers back in Domar. They had indicated to me that I might be able to find some food in Sirengou. Of course the exact location stood miles from where the workers had indicated on my map. It turned out that it was just a collection of torn and broken down army tents in the Askin Chin. Three main tents had been erected on opposite sides of the dirt clearing. When I arrived a group of a few dozen Chinese soldiers occupied the area between the tents, they stopped to work on their trucks and satisfy their hunger. Soldiers eating bowls of rice and vegetables filled each of the tents. Outside gangs of men dressed in green army uniforms took apart suspension systems of trucks and rewelded gas tanks with hand-held blowtorches. Taking the remaining portion of the day to eat and rest was the only thing that I needed to do. Since this was a totally transient collection of tents, the authorities had not stationed any police in the area. Even if I did encounter a policeman, they could only send me to Kashgar, which is where I was headed anyway.

While I continued to refill my belly with more bowls of rice, two jeeps from Ali arrived at the tent where I ate. A few schoolteachers and their friends piled out of the jeeps. After everyone sat down at the small tables in the tent, I learned that one member of the group taught math and another taught English. They had all lived in Ali for just two years and they were headed back to central China for a short vacation. The only way out of Ali consisted of driving overland to Kashgar and then flying from Kashgar back to where you really needed to go. The two teachers exchanged friendly conversation with me. They were both Chinese intellectuals stranded in Western Tibet. None of their group really knew how to live out in this cold and barren land. They traveled in light clothes and cheaply made Chinese jackets. After a few hour break their driver informed them that one of the jeeps had broken down and failed to start. I helped them ask around in the convoy of army vehicles for some of the parts and supplies that they needed, but it resulted in a fruitless search. As the sun started to go down it became apparent that they would have to spend the night in Sirengou. Both of the drivers took the one working jeep and headed to a distant Chinese army base that hopefully had the needed parts. This represented their only chance.

After sunset the temperature dropped quickly. I pulled out my pile jacket and my high-tech GorTex sleeping bag. The Chinese teachers from Ali started to get a bit worried about surviving the bone-chilling temperatures of nighttime. None of them had a decent coat or blanket. They tried to collect a good amount of hot water in their thermos bottles to at least have hot tea to drink during the night. The owner of the tent lent one of the men a knee-length sheepskin coat. Almost every truck driver in Tibet carries one of these Chinese army coats. Sheepskin fur lines the entire inside of the heavy-duty jackets that also serves as blankets. Most of the group stayed up for the duration of the night playing cards and walking in circles inside the small army tent. The thermometer dropped too low for anyone to get more than a few minutes of sleep. The heavy coat provided the one man with the luxury of a couple hours of sleep. By sunrise the other jeep returned with the badly needed supplies. The soldiers at the army base fortunately had the required replacement parts. Moments after they got the second jeep running everyone piled in as they took off. They left in a hurry, looking forward to arriving in the warm and "civilized world" of Kashgar.

The heart of the Askin Chin is a massive basin that spans hundreds of miles across. From the middle of this table land, I could clearly see distant mountains in all directions, to the south the Himalaya of Ladakh, India, to the west the peaks of the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, and to the north the Kun Lun Shan Mountains. The Kun Lun Shan, or "Mountains of Darkness," are home to most of the remaining 1000 snow leopards on the planet. While I rode, I noticed that the animals of the Askin Chin seemed to be less afraid of me. Maybe it was just that very few people have ever spent any time in this area. When an antelope saw me riding on the road, he raced me for some distance. To ride in this vacant land side by side with such a beautiful animal brought a great smile to my face. I sprinted down the road at 15 mph [25 kph] with a wild antelope just a few yards away bounding alongside me. In the late afternoon the winds and dark storm clouds rolled in. They brought head winds so strong that I would have to stop riding. The ditches off the side of the road and the small piles of dirt left by the road workers created convenient rest areas. The winds pelted me with small rocks and sand when I remained out in the open. Sometimes the storms also brought flurries of fresh snow even in the months of July and August. The monsoon back on the south side of the Himalaya in India filled the clouds with moisture. The saying that I have seen on Harley Davidson T-shirts, rang through my head. "Ride to Live, Live to Ride." I do not think this is exactly what all of those HOG riders had in mind.

After riding for 2400 miles [4000 km], a distance that in the USA would have taken me from the East Coast to the West Coast, I stood somewhere in the middle of this gigantic basin. I had arrived at the Chinese military base called Tainshuihai. When I rode up, it looked as if this complex of buildings consisted of nothing but a skeleton of something left from the war fought in '62 with the Indians. Just about all the buildings were abandoned and falling apart. Hunks of paint peeled off all the concrete walls, while garbage was piled high around every corner. Fuel tanks the size of automobiles had been abandoned wherever they stood. Like just about all the remote Chinese army camps that I had seen in Western Tibet, it was only at about 5 percent of full staff. Once I tracked down a couple of soldiers, it did not take not long until I found a plateful of rice and vegetables. Literally everything that these guys had at this base, except for water, had to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away. When I finished my meal, they offered me a couple of dark green army ration cans of pears and apples. I removed my SOG tool from my pack to open the cans. My SOG tool immediately impressed all the Chinese soldiers. This small paramilitary tool had saved me time after time on this trip. It contained an assortment of tools including pliers, a knife, a file, and a can opener. After inspecting my SOG, one of the soldiers asked me how much I paid for it. How could I explain that I paid US$45 for this small tool, an amount equivalent to what a Chinese worker would receive for a month's pay. When they pressed me for a price I said something that was high but still less than US$45. None of them understood. They thought that I was foolish for paying such a ridiculous sum of money. They informed me that I could buy the same thing in China for a fraction of the price. I did not try to explain world economies and the relative cost of living in the USA and China. They asked me if the US government paid for my trip in China. What were they thinking, that maybe I worked as a US government spy or something? With China being Communist, the government is just about everyone's employer. They did not understand how it was possible that I did not have to work for so many months. I just did not fit into their model of work and vacation. Well, for that matter most of my friends back in the USA didn't understand it either. It was clear that no one in his right mind would be out in the middle of the Askin Chin on his vacation.

The soldiers surprised me when they reported that the US soccer team was doing well in the World Cup Soccer Match. They were proud of the fact that they possessed a satellite dish, and were able to be part of the "Global Village" by watching MTV and the World Cup Soccer Match from the middle of the Askin Chin. Someone asked me to stay for the evening, so that I could watch MTV with them. I decided to move on. I thought it might have been too much culture shock to watch Madonna and Michael Jackson on MTV.

After another day of riding, I rounded a corner to see what looked to be an empty truck parked on the side of the road. Once I passed the first truck I could just make out another one on the horizon. Only later as I sat inside the cab, did I learn that this second truck was made in Hungary and driven by an older Chinese man, while the first truck was Chinese-made and driven by a Uyghur man from Kashgar. Both of these vehicles had broken down just a couple miles apart. The problem was that they needed replacement parts that could only be bought back in Yechen, Xinjiang, about 300 miles [500 km] away. Both drivers had already waited for five days. They thought that it would only require three more days before a friend returned with the needed parts. This land remains a long ways off from Federal Express and next-day air shipping. Everyone also had a corresponding different level of expectation and stress in situations like these. Just to complicate things more, major road construction blocked the Mazor pass, located 200 miles [333 km] ahead. This pass only opened to traffic three days a month in each direction. I knew that I would not make it to the pass on a day that it officially opened in my direction. Being that I traveled on a bike I hoped that I would be able to make it through anyway.

The older Chinese truck driver went out of his way to make sure that I had hot tea to drink and noodles to eat. I knew that he had an extremely limited amount of food left and little fuel for cooking, so I tried not to consume too much of his resources. The simple meal of noodles with a little chili sauce tasted wonderful. Unlike all the noodles that I had been eating, these had been properly cooked in a pressure cooker. Most all the truck drivers that travel in Tibet carry a full-size pressure cooker with them because they often become stranded on the side of the road for a day or two or spend the night camped out just off the road . They also carry a small blowtorch gadget that can be used to cook with. The blowtorch burns the same fuel as the truck engine. When it is lit, it roars like a demon from hell, with flames a foot [30 cm] long. It is often just aimed at the side of a pot of water or a pressure cooker to make boiling water for tea or noodles. Truck drivers also use the torches to weld metal parts of their trucks that have broken. In times like these I was happy to have my own independent transportation no matter how difficult things got. Each morning when I awoke I decided when and where I would travel, the decisions of other people never constrained me. I controlled my own movement, my own destiny.

 

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All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel