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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Lone horse rider near Markam, Eastern TibetOnly a couple of roads cross the region of Tibet. Two of the main routes through Eastern Tibet come together in Markam. Markam is one of the old-time trading posts where the Tibetans from Kham would come together to meet and trade with people who brought goods in from China. It is on the main road that goes on to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Markam lies inside the Tibet Autonomous Region, TAR. This represented my first police checkpoint in Tibet. A former Lhasa policeman informed me that foreigners could freely pass through Markam, he assured me that the security police would not be interested in me. For most of the last six months I had heard mixed stories from other travelers. I did not have a choice. I had to stop in the town either way. I was tired and running low on food, and Markam would be the last place to resupply for a while. The sun sat low in the sky, descending toward the horizon. I decided to buy my food and leave in the morning. I had to take the chance.

A Tibetan man, from the truck-stop hotel, called to me in the street, "I have a room for you in my guesthouse." I figured that maybe he would not turn me into the police as quickly as a Chinese man would, since there is always a bit of animosity between the Tibetans and the Chinese. I was too weak and the stairs too steep to carry my loaded bike up to the room. I unpacked a few things to lighten the load, but still I struggled while hauling my bike up the steep stairs to my room. I immediately headed out to look for a meal and food supplies. Since China is a Communist country, almost every shop is a government store. Most look like a bomb had blown up inside. Glass cabinets line the walls, filled with items that look to be one hundred years old, covered with dust and in some sort of totally random order. I found some jarred fruit sitting next to crescent wrenches. The fruit looked good, but I skipped the foot-and-a-half-long crescent wrench. The only way to find anything in a town like Markam is to inspect every store. After a couple hours of searching, I found packs of dried fish, dried fruit, ramen noodles, and cookies- everything that I needed.

Tibetans call the eastern part of Tibet, Kham. The people that live there are referred to as Khampas. The Khampas are the toughest of the lot. All the men wear their long black hair braided with a 2-inch-thick bundle of thick red strings, wrapped up around their heads. The classic image of a Khampa man shows him with a bottle of chang, local barley beer, in one hand, a foot-long [30 cm long] knife on his belt and an entire leg of yak meat in the other hand. If motorcycles were readily available throughout Tibet then Khampas would be riding Harleys.

Dirt roads run through town covered in mud puddles and horse crap. Most times these small towns remain far enough away from the law that whatever the local police say goes. Huge timbers about eight-feet [2.5 meters] long and two-feet [0.75 meters] in diameter filled the courtyard behind the truck-stop hotel. Piles of logs sat stacked six high. It seemed that someone needed these trees moved to the other side of the courtyard. Since no one owned a crane in town, the hotel owner called the local gang of thugs. The leader was a small tough guy, wearing a calf-length denim coat. He carried a small silver pistol on his belt. Chinese law says that citizens are not permitted to carry weapons, this guy was an exception and I did not want to know why. He sent his crew out to relocate all the logs to the other side of the courtyard, and then ordered up a meal. The cook said something about being out of food, so then the gang leader drew his gun in a half-joking, half-serious manner and said, "I think you can find some food for me." With that I called it an early night and went back to my room to do a bit of writing and packing. I could not afford to have a rest day in Markam. I knew word would spread quickly that a foreigner had arrived in town.

As my body grew ready for sleep I heard a knock at my hotel room door. Two Tibetan men wearing clean Western style clothing entered the room. They said a friendly "ni hao", while they sat themselves on the empty beds in my room. They both asked me the standard questions, "What country are you from?", "Where are you coming from?", "Where are you going?". My nervous mind wondered exactly what these guys were doing in my room? Neither of them carried any baggage. Finally one of them told me that they both worked as policemen. He reiterated, "Do you understand? We are both police." This definitely worried me, why were two police in my room? I carefully answered each question that they asked. As the discussion continued they did not seem concerned with my travel plans. When they finally explained to me that they needed to spend the night in Markam in order to catch an early morning bus, my body relaxed with relief.

A slow but continual climb filled most of the day as I made my way to the top of a 14,200-foot [4329 meter] pass after Markam. Afterward I cashed in on my reward, a 27-mile downhill that brought me back to the banks of the mighty Mekong River. In the course of a couple hours I transitioned from ice and snow at the top of the pass, to basking in the warm sunshine at the banks of the Mekong. Then I crossed the river to a small broken-down shack for a warm meal of rice and vegetables. The Chinese army guys I had seen walking on the road a week before had finally caught up to me. They had been hitchhiking, trying to get to Lhasa, but their trucks would always break down. I ended up leapfrogging them for a couple weeks. It became apparent that travel through this land created difficulties whether on bicycle or truck.

I crossed another pass and still one more pass stood at 16,500 feet [5030 meters]. The highest one I had crossed so far. The lack of oxygen crippled me. I crept along slowly on my bike. At this altitude my legs could move much faster than my lungs could take in oxygen, so I had to learn how to slow down everything I did. By the time I reached the top, a sudden snowstorm had pushed in from the other side of the ridge. I had to move on to get down below the howling winds and blowing snow of the storm. I would freeze if I stayed up this high in a storm. With snow blowing in my eyes making it impossible to see, I put my sunglasses on to give me some kind of protection from the winds and the snow. I stopped to take a picture of a couple of yaks walking across the frozen snow-covered river beside the road. By the time I returned to my bike, the snow had piled up inside my open pack, reminding me that I could not spend much time hanging about. Gravity did its work creating a speedy descent for me. I only stopped occasionally to thaw out my frozen fingers and clear the ice off my sunglasses. A few hours later I enjoyed the warm sunshine at the riverside while I ate a few sweet tasting oranges that I had carried from Markam.

Over the course of the previous couple days, I had been hearing rumors about other Westerners also riding mountain bikes to Lhasa. When I stopped and talked to the road construction workers, they would ask me if I was riding with the other foreigners whom they had seen. When I inquired, I heard that they rode from two days to ten days ahead of me. Every now and then I would spot some tracks on the road that looked to have come from another mountain bike. Once I knew that someone else might be out there making the same trip that I was attempting, everything seemed different. I wondered if there was someone else crazy enough to attempt this same journey. The idea of meeting other Western cyclists intrigued me, but I also felt hesitant to give up the comfort of solo travel.

I had heard that Zogong was a safe place to stop for a rest, no problems with the police. It appeared to be a town of a few thousand people, which meant I could eat well and resupply. By the time I arrived in town, my stomach ached from the lack of food. The day's riding had worn me down to the bone. I stopped at the first place that looked like it served a reasonable meal of rice, noodles or vegetables. Peering in through the window I spotted a couple of cooked chickens and a few bowls overflowing with fresh vegetables. Once I got off my bike, half the kids in town decided that I was going to be their entertainment for the afternoon. Whether I was waiting for my food to be cooked or eating, I was without a doubt the most popular attraction in town. Certainly other foreigners had visited the town before but most likely not more than a dozen or so a year, with few ever spending more than a couple minutes.

Later in the evening I noticed a black chalkboard sign advertising a video at 7 P.M. It was just outside a small room containing a VCR and a color TV with a few beat up wooden benches for people to sit on, a third world movie theater. It sounded good to me. I could use a little brain-dead entertainment. It turned out to be some kind of shoot'em up blow'em up movie, where a motorcycle gang tried to assassinate a US Supreme Court justice-- an American movie that had been copied a few dozen times and dubbed into Chinese played on the VCR with the volume turned up to "11". The film tried to imitate a Schwarzenegger/Rambo-style movie, but failed. The audience consisted of mostly young Tibetan men and a few Chinese guys. During the middle of the movie a young man asked me if the images came from my country. I answered with a reluctant "yes", not taking the time to explain that this film did not actually portray normal life in the USA. It embarrassed me to have any kind of association with what I saw in the video. When the movie ended, I walked out to the street. I looked up to see the jagged peaks that I had just descended from, silhouetted in front of the round disk of a full moon. This was Tibet, land of extremes.

This trip was about extremes, about extremes of thought, extremes of feelings, extremes of physical effort and extremes of the environment around me. One day I would be baking in the heat of the sun, the next day snow would be freezing in my beard. One day I would be happy as can be, on top of the world, the next I would be scared, depressed and wondering why I was doing the trip. One day I would be strong as can be and climb the mountain passes as if nothing could ever get in my way. The next I was weak, slow, and I would fall asleep lying in the dirt on the side of the road.




All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel