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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On the Road Again

From Lhasa my route went south to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. Two different roads connect the towns of Lhasa and Shigatse. One crosses two passes at more than 15,000 feet [4573 meters] high with a road surface of dirt and gravel. The other road had recently been paved. The choice was simple, I opted for the smooth flowing pavement, besides I had cycled the other road on my last trip. Cruising along on the pavement presented new adventures in speed for me. In just a few hours I could cover the same mileage that would normally require eight or ten hours. It took just two-and-a-half days to travel the 150 miles to Shigatse.

Shigatse is the jumping-off point for Western Tibet. This was one of the last places to get supplies and news. I tried to gather all the most recent news on road conditions and the police from people who had just come back from Western Tibet. I heard rumors of an American guy who ran into significant problems with the police on his failed attempt to get to Mt. Kailash.

Tibetan PilgrimI strolled over to the Orchard Hotel and tracked down an American called Jay. With a shaky voice he invited me into his room where he chain-smoked cheap Chinese cigarettes, and paced the room in a nervous fashion. He quickly gave the disclaimer of having not smoked for the previous five years but he was feeling rather strung-out currently. Jay had spent the last few years guiding Western Hindu pilgrims in the Himalaya of north India. He had spent a lot of time in India, but he had never ventured into Tibet before. For the last fifteen years he had dreamed of going on pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash. He was one of the lucky few who had been permitted to cross the border from Nepal to Tibet. For most of the last ten years this border crossing had remained closed to foreigners. Jay had hitched a ride from Zhangmu, at the Tibet border, across a shortcut through the desert of Western Tibet to the town of Saga.

He had never traveled in Tibet before and did not speak any Tibetan or Chinese. The rules of the country and culture were unknown to him. His trouble started early. The first night in Saga a gang of Khampa men invited him to go out drinking. Jay did not know when it happened but somehow he greatly offended the Khampas during the outing. He was more or less chased out of town at gunpoint the following morning. From Saga he started walking west on the "south" road to Mt. Kailash. He brought a decent amount of food and water with him, which he carried in his backpack. He could walk a few stretches of the road, but he would take a ride in a truck whenever he could get one. After walking for a day he hitched a ride to Drongba. The truck driver dropped him at the edge of town during the cover of nighttime. By the next morning, the police had tracked him down. Jay immediately offered a crisp US$100 bill to the policeman to let him pass. The officer curtly turned him down and took Jay to the local police station. Things in Tibet do not work the same as in India. A US$100 bill in India would grease the wheels enough to get anyone passed just about any checkpoint. At some point in time during his few-day stay in the Drongba police station, the chief policeman picked up a pistol and held it to Jay's head. Jay asked him, "Do you want to kill me ? You want to kill me ? Go ahead and pull the trigger. Pull the trigger if you want to kill me. You can't do it, can you ?" The officer put the gun down and walked away. The police released Jay a short while later and sent him back to Shigatse where I met him.

Listening to this story left me with a bad feeling about what laid ahead. All of Jay's problems represented things that I did not want to confront. I could handle the lack of food or water, the bumpy road and the sand, but I did not want to even get close to a situation where someone held a gun to my head. We talked for a while longer. Jay told me about all the places where I could find food and what I could expect to buy. We both thought that the best thing for me to do would be to totally bypass Drongba. He drew me a map of Drongba, the surrounding area, and my possible alternate routes around the town. As I left his hotel room, Jay turned to ask me just one favor. He requested, "Ray, for the last fifteen years it has been my dream to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Mt. Kailash. Unfortunately I was not able to make it this time, but maybe you will be able to complete the pilgrimage. If you do make it to Mt. Kailash, will you please say a prayer for me? Will you please say a prayer that in the future I will have the good fortune to get to Mt. Kailash?"

Later I found two young American women from San Francisco who had just returned from Mt. Kailash by truck on the south road. Road dust, grease, and sweat coated their faces and clothes. One of these women had just spent the last year living in Nepal with a Tibetan family. She came to Asia under a wonderful program run out of the University of Wisconsin. This program allows undergraduate university students to live in either India or Nepal and have it count as one year of college. She had learned enough Tibetan in the last year to enable her to get by competently. They both related a story that sounded familiar to me. They had found a truck just west of Shigatse in the small village of Lhatse. They tossed their packs up into the metal bed and climbed on top of the grain sacks that filled the back of the truck. For the first hour they yelled and hollered as if they were riding a bucking bronco, having a good time. After a couple hours, their bodies grew weary of the constant pounding from the truck bouncing over the dirt road. Unfortunately, they knew that the journey to Mt. Kailash required at least another five days of riding. Once they made the kora around Mt. Kailash, they found another truck returning via the "south" road, a somewhat shorter route. About a third of the way back, their vehicle became stuck in the mud for three days. Toward the end all of the passengers started to run out of food quickly. At least a hundred miles separated them from the closest village. I asked if they thought it would be possible to bicycle on the road they just returned on. They answered with a hesitant "well, maybe." Everything they told me still sounded better then what I had heard from Jay.

The luxury of smooth pavement ended at Shigatse. I resumed the slow pace required by Tibetan dirt roads, but at least it was a route that I knew. I had traveled this section of road a few times in trucks, and one time before on a bike. Even the nasty dogs and stone-throwing kids still lived in the same places, some things just do not change. For some reason that I have never figured out, on the section of road between Shigatse and the Nepal border lives a large number of children who ask for Dalai Lama pictures. When they do not immediately receive a picture they throw stones at you. My guess is that it has to do with the fact that hundreds of foreign tourists travel this section of road to see Mt. Everest. It may also have to do with the fact that until the later part of this century most foreigners who entered Tibet were robbed and killed by gangs of Tibetan thieves. It was not a country that particularly welcomed foreigners. It has always remained a closed land. Only since the 1980s has Tibet periodically been open to foreign travelers.

A couple hundred yards ahead I noticed a truck on the side of the road. As I got closer, it looked like a Westerner was climbing out of the back of the truck. Sure enough it was. On the roadside rested a broken down truck full of mostly Northern Europeans and a couple of Americans who had received a special permit to take a truck out to Mt. Kailash. For the first time the Chinese government issued permits for Chinese trucks to take foreigners to Mt. Kailash. The funny thing was that it was still illegal for foreigners to ride in the back of Chinese trucks, so they traveled in a quasi-legal fashion. We chatted for a bit on the roadside. All of us wanted to get to Lhatse for the night. Their Tibetan truck driver seemed competent, so I took off and left them to sit and wait for their truck to be fixed. Another hour down the road, they passed me again, just as we started to climb a 14,800-foot [4512 meter] pass. Chinese trucks broke down ridiculously often. They all possess underpowered six-cylinder gasoline engines that can just barely make it over the high altitude passes. I said hello again and started the 2000-foot [609 meter] climb. This was certainly one of the easier passes. As I slowly spun my cranks climbing and climbing, the other trucks would barely move a couple miles per hour faster than what I moved. After I made it to the top of the pass and had a little time to rest, my friends in the truck finally caught up to me. One woman asked to trade her place for my bike, since it seemed like I could cover more miles than their vehicle could or at least I had fewer breakdowns. By evening we all had made it to the hotel in Lhatse. Everyone enjoyed a fun evening of eating together and talking about the adventure that awaited us all. While I packed up in the morning, I saw a familiar small blue and white jar of Indian peanut butter in one of my packs. This was one of the best presents anyone could have given me. I thanked them all and started the two-day climb up the 17,000-foot [5182 meter] pass separating me from Mt. Everest.

The last time I climbed this pass on bike I had brought a Frisbee with me. While on that trip I cycled with two English guys who rode Chinese one-speed bikes from Lhasa to Kathmandu, yet another trip that many people insisted was impossible. At the top of the pass we all played a quick game of Frisbee, while two young Tibetan shepherds watched and laughed in amazement. I set a personal record, my highest Frisbee toss ever, 17,000 feet [5182 meters]. The relaxing downhill consisted of a nice easy grade for about 20 miles. Toward the end of the descent, I came around a corner to see the massive sight of Chomolangma (Tibetan for Mt. Everest) in front of me. The first time I saw this peak I did not need anyone to point out to me which of the hundreds of peaks was Chomolangma, it was all too obvious that the highest peak in the world towered before me. I know of only one road in the world where you can ride your bike and look up to see the largest mountain in the world before you, and I was on it.
There is a tiny hotel in the village of Tingra called the "Everest View Hotel." This has functioned as the jumping-off point for most of the recent climbing expeditions up the north face of Mt. Everest and Cho Oyu, another 8000 meter peak just to the west of Everest. The "Everest View Hotel" has what I call the "Everest View Outhouse." It is one of the few hotels in the world where you can go to the bathroom and gaze at the highest mountain in the world all at the same time.

After almost two months on the road, I was now halfway through my trip, just another 1500 miles across Western Tibet to Kashgar. Tingra marked the last place for me to pick up any supplies before I headed out to the high altitude desert that makes up Western Tibet. While I ate my dinner and wrote a couple of postcards, two Americans who I had met in Lhasa showed up. The frigid temperatures of evening had cut through their clothing. They both looked a bit shaken. We all ordered bowls of ramen noodles and tea to get warmed up. They told me how they had taken off a week or so back to hike to the Everest base camp. It is a strenuous hike up to the 15,000-foot [4573 meter] main base camp, which takes a couple of days of walking or a single day in a jeep. At the base camp they met an American climbing team from the Seattle area that had just come down off the mountain. Days before, the peak had claimed the life of one of their expedition members. My friends wanted to get down to Tingra, so they asked the climbers if they could ride in the back of one of the expedition trucks. There were two trucks that had a single seat open in the cab, but they decided to ride together in the back of a single truck. During the descent down the jeep track, the other truck that had the open seat lost its brakes and tumbled down the mountain out of control destroying all the cargo in the back of the vehicle. Fortunately the driver had jumped out of the truck before it started accelerating too fast. The tumble banged him up and sent him into shock, but he was still alive. When the convoy got to the main Tingra road, they told the two Americans that they could not take them any farther. They would have to walk the last six miles. By the time they arrived at the "Everest View Hotel" in Tingra the sun had already set two hours earlier. They could not get over the fact that if they had picked the other truck to ride in they would be dead, that the fact that they were alive came down to such a simple, random and almost mindless act of picking which vehicle to ride in.

When I first noticed this couple back in Lhasa, I sat next to them in Tashi's. I could not help but overhear their conversation. Their voices sounded full of energy and excitement about their first trip to Tibet. They had both recently arrived from Kathmandu. Neither had previously known the other, but they quickly found that they had similar visions of what they wanted to do in Tibet. They were filled with enthusiasm about all the different treks they could do in this desolate and mystical country. When I saw them in Tingra fatigue showed in their eyes, the harshness of travel and life in Tibet had taken its toll on their bodies and their minds. They were returning to Kathmandu for some rest, relaxation and recuperation.

As I walked back to my room I took a moment to look up at the brilliant night sky above me. Since I spent most every hour of the day and night outdoors I became keenly aware of the heavens above me. I always knew the current phase of the moon and how many more days remained until the next full moon. During the day I could tell the time by the position of the sun in the sky. Without the light pollution from big cities, the stars and the Milky Way shown with an intensity that is difficult to ever see in the USA. A brilliant flash of light from the south side of the Himalaya created a fantastic silhouette of Mt. Everest and the entire Himalaya. A few moments later there was another flash and another. Back in India and Nepal the monsoon season had rolled in. Apparently a lightning storm raged back on the south side of the mountains. For the next couple of nights I was treated to images of lightning storms illuminating the highest peaks in the world.


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All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel