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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Entering the Mountains of Darkness

As I climbed out of the Askin Chin, I entered into the valleys of the Kun Lun Shan Mountains. This range forms the northwest edge that separates the Tibetan plateau from the great Taklimakan Desert. I had shown my Chinese maps to many people along the way, trying to find out where I would be able to buy food and supplies. I knew that reality and maps often did not match. Some of the towns shown on my maps had been deserted many years before.Kun lun Shan mountains, Xinjiang, Western China

Hongliutan was the first settlement I entered after the Askin Chin. It consisted of more of an abandoned military base than an actual town. Most of the buildings were falling down, with windows broken and doors missing, but most importantly there was a place that I could buy food and get a bed to sleep inside. What passed for restaurants looked like broken down third-world shacks, a mix of plywood, sheet metal, and sheets of plastic all held together by a few strands of wire. Despite the run-down appearance I was interested in only one thing, a bowl of rice and some cooked vegetables. Han Chinese women from Sichuan Province ran both of the two eating establishments in town. For the last few weeks I had seen only a couple of women, this part of Western China was a land of male military personnel and truck drivers, not one of women, children and families. One of the things that I enjoyed the most about places I have traveled in the third world is the dirty snotty-nosed kids who run wild in the streets and villages. With kids it does not matter what language you speak as long as you can juggle or balance a stick on your nose.

"Lung" was one of the Chinese words that I did not know. Two Uyghur road workers tried to explain to me why it was a bad idea to sleep by the side of the road. I had stopped by a small stream to fill up my water bottles and take a break, when I met two young guys who spent their days fixing bumps and potholes on the roadway. Each member of their crew has responsibility for maintaining a few kilometers of the road. It looked like these guys were just relaxing by the creek and snacking on their daily lunch ration, a couple of pieces of hard bread in the shape of bagels. When I told them that I felt tired and was thinking about camping on the side of the road, they insisted that I must keep riding my bike, because the "lung" would descend from the mountains during the nighttime. They described some sort of animal that lived high up in the mountains. During the nighttime it descended to the valley to eat the sheep that grazed by the river below. They finally said that it would be okay as long as I carried a gun to shoot the "lung." They seemed surprised when I told them that I did not own a gun. I had a feeling that I destroyed their image of the rough and tough American who carried a gun wherever he went.

A few weeks later I discovered what kind of animal a "lung" is. Kashgar is famous for its fur market, where you can buy a pelt from just about any animal in Central Asia. The shopkeeper happily showed me his "lung" pelts. The size of the wolf skin that he brought out shocked me. From the nose to the end of the tail, it must have been at least eight feet [2.5 meters]. It was now all too clear why the two road workers did not want me to sleep by the side of the road. When I finished looking at the wolf pelt, the shopkeeper pulled out half a dozen new snow leopard furs. Of the estimated 1000 animals that remained on the planet about 70 had been killed and sold to the shops in Kashgar. When I asked, the shopkeeper told me that he sold the snow leopard furs to people from every country: USA, Germany, Japan, France, England, etc.

Since Ali I had heard that major construction was taking place on the Mazor Pass. Mr. Lee had informed me that the construction crews only opened the road three days out each month in each direction. By the time that I reached the foot of the pass, I knew that the official days for traveling remained at least two weeks away. I figured that since I traveled by bicycle I could haul my bike around any missing sections of the road, besides I had no interest in waiting in the road construction camp for an extended period of time. By late afternoon I had stopped in a small shack near one of the camps to grab something to eat. A few of the workers told me that only five miles [8 km] separated me from the top of the pass. With this in mind I took off for the pass, I figured that since the sun had started to sink low in the sky most of the road workers would be finished for the day. I pushed my bike under yet one more turnpike that blocked the flow of motorized traffic and started the ascent. As I had expected most of the workers passed me by on their way back down to the camps. A quick climb brought me to the top, where I saw that the entire far side of the pass had been torn out, with shovels, picks, and bulldozers. From the top I plotted a course down the small foot trails and dozer tracks. As I gripped my brake levels with all the strength that I could draw on, I slowly made my way through the ultra-steep mounds of loose dirt and rubble. A little ways off to the right side of the canyon a large explosion rang out, shortly followed by a small trail of debris that slid down the mountain side. Thoughts flashed in my mind of the other times when I wandered into blasting areas on a roadside. I yelled down to a gang of workers below me, asking if they planned any more dynamiting for the sections of road farther ahead. Fortunately they reported to me that it looked all clear, there was nothing else going that afternoon. For the remainder of the descent I dodged a few bulldozers, wound my way through construction workers and hauled my bike across a couple landslides, all straightforward obstacles.

When I heard the thunderous sounds of large rocks being tumbled downriver by the enormous forces of the white water I knew that the river crossing would not be a trivial one. Leaving my bike behind I removed my socks and carefully placed one foot at a time deeper beneath the muddy brown water. By mid-stream it became difficult to keep my feet planted on the bottom of the river bed, the swift current wanted to wash me downstream. I made mental notes of my planned course and returned to my bike. The tougher the river crossing the more loads I had to ferry across the river, I just could not carry as many packs in the deep white water. I pulled all the packs off of my bike except one. The first trips to the far side of the river went slowly but successfully. Once more I returned to get my bike and the final pack. I slowly worked my way through the water, first positioning the bike ahead of me, then moving one foot at a time forward. Once I reached mid-stream the deep water poured against the last remaining pack on the bike, the force pushing the bike downstream was more than I could handle, it started to knock me off balance. Once the water started to flow under the only part of the tires touching the ground, the bike floated up. I held on tight to the handlebars as the back end of the bike swung violently downstream. For a moment I thought the river would wash me, the bike and one of my packs down with it. I struggled to regain my balance and kept a tight hold on my bike. I hoped that no rocks would come tumbling downstream rolling over my feet or smashing into my legs. I surely had to move quickly in order to not get hit. With all the strength I had I managed to slowly make a couple more steps to higher ground and dragged the floundering bike behind me though the water. Once I reached the far side I dropped the bike in the middle of the road, unzipped the pack to empty the water I collect during the crossing, and collapsed on the dusty road surface. After the blood started to recirculate in my feet and toes, I began getting my bike and mind back together again.

Just before the village of Kudiyah I saw my first tree in two months. Kudiyah is a small Uyghur town, on the banks of a desert river. It was my first Uyghur town. I missed the spirit and magic of Tibet and the Tibetan people. I missed the prayer flags, the prayer wheels, and chanting monks. The Uyghur people lived in the desert for centuries. They did not like the mountains and did not know how to live in cold harsh climates. They built homes of adobe and surrounded them by small groves of poplar trees. The villagers planted each tree by hand, carefully maintaining each one. Any natural forests had been cut down long before, only cultivated ones remained. These practices have gone on for hundreds of years. Since Uyghurs follow the Islamic religion all the women keep their heads covered. In China this is usually practiced by wearing a light scarf over the top of their head, whereas in Pakistan where there is much stricter enforcement women cover most of their face. One of the byproducts of the hard life Tibetans live is general equality between the sexes. A young Tibetan woman can carry an 80 lb. sack of grain on her back just as easily as a young man. With the easier environment and the Muslim religion, this equality of the sexes disappears among the Uyghur people.

All day long I worked my way down out of the mountains. The valley grew wider, while the sand started to cover more and more of the tan and brown landscape around me and of course the temperatures grew hotter and hotter. Uyghurs on camelback replaced the Tibetans on horseback. The camels that I followed down the road seemed to let out an almost continual stream of farts as these seemingly awkward beasts moved along.

When I approached the desert, the sky filled with a thick gray haze, and I left behind the high-altitude deep rich blue skies of Tibet and the clear running streams and rivers. As the Kun Lun Shan Mountains faded away, the desert consumed all the horizon with flatness. The town of Pusar marks the location on the road where the transition takes place. It was the first town that had shops selling almost everything I wanted, peanuts, candy, noodles, and dried fruit. The town even had a local TV station. This was civilization. My reentry into the world that had I left behind months before had begun.

Riding on a flat road does not have the same kind of challenge that a mountain road has. Riding on the flat is just a matter of putting in time turning the pedals. I would check my maps, my speed on the bike computer and look at my watch, it all became predictable. As the temperature went up and up, so did my water intake. I drank gallons of the bad-tasting brown water that flowed in the rare desert streams, but I would only pee out a couple cups here and there. With the thermometer at 90F and higher, I would stop in the shade of the rare tree, or under a bridge. I would do anything to get out of the direct rays of the sun. During the middle of the day I would try to find a spot of shade to sleep in, preferring the somewhat cooler hours of the morning and evening to ride in.

Yarkant is the old name of the city that the Chinese now call Yechen. This oasis marked one of the main stops on the southern silk road to Xi'an in North Central China. Today a large military base, with ubiquitous concrete buildings that stretch for miles in every direction, sits on the edge of town. Most of the women wore the latest in Uyghur Muslim women's fashion -bright red, blue, and pink sequin encrusted dresses, making the women easy to spot in this bleak desert environment. But the main thing that interested me was the ice cream for sale. With an unending 24-hours-a-day supply of electricity came certain luxuries, like refrigeration. The shops carried an assortment of ice cream in flavors from a tropical fruit bar, to a frozen block of brown ice with baked beans embedded in it. Unfortunately I had mistaken the latter for some sort of chocolate ice cream bar.

Yechen marked the first turn I had to make in 1200 miles [2000 km] of ridding. It did not require anything too tricky. I watched the kilometer markers on the side of the road count down to zero and made a left hand turn on to the last piece of road that would take me to Kashgar. From a little before Yechen the road surface had changed to asphalt. With a slight tail wind and paved road I could cover 100 miles [166 km] in a single day. That same distance in Western Tibet would have taken three or four days. The miles on this paved desert road became mind-numbing. For the first time on this trip, I just wanted to get to where I was going. For the months before, I enjoyed the process of moving ever closer to Kashgar even though it remained some 3000 miles [5000 km] ahead on the road. With Kashgar only a couple days ride away, I lost track of where I was and only watched the kilometers to Kashgar rapidly count down. I kept an eye on my bike computer to make sure that my average speed stayed high enough to keep on schedule. I stopped in the small villages for slices of watermelon and peach soda, doing everything I could to stay hydrated in the 90F heat. I was tired of riding, my entire body ached and I knew that Kashgar meant a place to rest and relax.


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All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel