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Cycling through Tibet

As we brought down the last of our bags and strapped them onto our bikes, I noticed that we had a lot more gear than before when we had cycled through China. But now in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, the weather was different and we were at 3850 meters above sea level, so the air was thin and when the sun disappeared it became ridiculously cold. To deal with this we had acquired a sheepskin rug to sleep on at night, in our cheap South Korean tent. This along with many layers of clothing, added to the extra weight of our bikes that we were to cycle down through the Himalayas and into Nepal, to Kathmandu. Some of the passes along the route would take us more than 5200m high, where oxygen seems absent and the icy winds would surely test the warmth of our tolerance. Although now, as my partner, Deirdre, and I manoeuvred our bikes into the traffic flow, the sun was shinning upon us and the layers we had on quickly became sweaty and too hot.

To get out of Lhasa, we passed through the Tibetan side of town, where our hostel had been and we laid our eyes for the last time upon the busy market streets that weave through the tiny alleyways and squares. People selling everything from wooden chests to freshly slaughtered meat, from antique brass bowls to yaks butter. We had emerged ourselves in the streets of Lhasa, it was as though we had stepped back in time, it seemed to me that everything should be in black and white, despite the bright brilliant splashes of colour that gives Tibet its character. Lhasa has enough tourists flowing through it that you can wander about as if you are invisible. A far cry from some of the small Chinese towns we had rolled into, when we would be surrounded instantly and unable to move or see what was happening in the town before we had arrived. But here it was like watching a movie, real life action happening all around us, all the time.

We wanted to visit Jokhang temple again before we left and so jumped off our bikes and joined the crowded streets on foot, which were full of an amazing array of different Tibetans. Locals, mixed with pilgrims from as far as Mongolia, where Tibetan Buddhism is also the main religion, and from places all over Tibet itself. Men wore hair of red thread and the heavy ankle length cloak that was common all over Tibet, and a dagger hanging off their cloth belt. The women wore the same dirty cloak along with a faded coloured apron around their waist and usually a straw hat or a woollen scarf wrapped around their head. Both sexes would undoubtedly be carrying rosemary beads in their right hands, these are sued to count how many times they repeat their Buddhist mantras, which is usually 108, the number of discourses attributed to the historical Buddha, who is said to have been born around 500 BC as an Indian prince. He gave up the throne and all its wealth and lived a life as an ascetic and discovered the path towards true enlightenment (Nirvana) through fasting and meditation and ultimately teaches followers to live their life away from the extremes and follow a middle path.

The market, named Barkhor Bazaar runs in an octagonal shape around the temple and as with all Buddhist monuments and shrines, is followed in a clock-wise direction. We reached the front of the temple which has been Tibet’s main worshipping place for its 1300 years of existence. It holds over 200 statues inside and out, many gilded with gold and silver. The front gates of the temple is the area of worship, which sees seemingly indefatigable Buddhists, prostrating up to 1000 times a day in devotion to their belief, each time repeating their mantra, “OM Mani Padme Hum” which means “OM The Jewel in the Lotus”. One meaning we were told was that ‘Everything has the ability to be enlightened’ – even the lotus flower which blossoms out of the muddy ground in which it grows. At the font of the temple there lies a large open square, built only a few decades ago by the Chinese authorities. After the Chinese invasion in 1959, most of the Tibetan officials and religious leaders, including the 13th Dali Lama, fled in exile to India, where still today they campaign for Tibet’s independence. This left the Tibetans in the hands of the Communist Chinese, who along with invasion involved Tibet in the cultural revolution and all but destroyed a few of Tibet’s 6000 monasteries. This large square was built in order for the Chinese to stop any gathering of Tibetans and/or foreigners in fear of protests and revolution. Indeed we saw many Tibetans being ‘moved on’ by Chinese soldiers when they stopped to talk to us.

We cycled on further through town and reached the centre of Lhasa, the Potala Palace that is the dividing structure between the original Tibetan side of town and the new China town. Potala in the Tibetan language, Sanskrit, means ‘Buddha’s mountain’, and as it had been the home of the Dali Lama’s since 1693, it is rightly named. The 5th Dali Lama was the first to live there, but died before it was completed. Now his body, along with the other past Dali Lamas lies in various sized stupas within the walls of the palace. It is a truly prodigious structure, surrounded with glittering prayer wheels turned by the constant flow of pilgrims walking around the palace, also spinning their own prayer wheels in their hands, only stopping to prostrate at the front. At the top of this multi-layered building flew the Chinese flag, one of the few changes they had made to the Potala, along with the tourists price to enter. The Tibetans themselves had undergone quite more change. We were told by many locals of the tax increase that they had to face, whereas Chinese settlers had little or no tax to pay, which was the reason so many Chinese had made the long journey form their home province to this the highest plateau in the world. We had also learned that just recently the Chinese government had extended their population law to include Tibetans. That is that in the cities, couples are restricted to having one child and in the countryside, two. A law that seemed needed in some areas of China, but Tibet was no the second biggest province in China, but had the lowest population. Tibet has never had a population problem and it seems that more Chinese immigrants were arriving than were Tibetan Children. It’s strange, but as a westerner I think I have a type on longing for the under dog to come out on top. Through sport, we all strive for a good fight or match, and if the weaker or the least expected wins, its a triumphant moment – perhaps because its quite rare. For a horse or team to win after being behind, it produces a great crowd pleaser. For this reason, along with others, I always seemed to take the Tibetans truth form the Chinese propaganda truth.

It took about one hour of riding to get past the Chinese buildings and construction of the new city, with all the department stores and restaurants, also many red light bars. We finally got out of the concrete and into the countryside and space. The road would be asphalt for the first day, but when we turned off the main road south towards Shigatze, the road would turn into a rough dirt track. Most villages would have a school and a road maintenance depot, but rarely a store or restaurant. Which made our load all the more heavier, as we had to carry most of our food supplies, not knowing when our next opportunity to shop would be, when we ran out we would buy supplies from locals, mainly being their locally made tsampa. Tsampa is a barley powder, which when mixed with tea or water turns into a chewable ball, similar to hard weetabix. We mixed ours with sugar and sultanas to add taste. This provided us with enough energy to cycle over the high passes we had to cross in freezing and blizzard conditions. The advantage of travelling on a bike is the speed in which its done. Slow enough ot notice almost everything and fast enough that you eventually get somewhere.

For the next few weeks we cycled almost everyday, slowly and intriguingly. We spent a few days in villages of interest and spent our ‘rest’ days hiking in the mountains nearby. We stayed with locals in some villages, and were invited to stay in some schools along the way, as well as a few monasteries, But we camped most of the time. When we were offered a warm space for the night in a families homes we always jumped at the chance and noticed something unique in each house hold. One thing that was common among Tibetans was the drinking sessions that occurred. Tibetans drink a barley beer, they call Chang, a cloudy liquid that tastes more like flat cider than it does beer. When they drink in a group, instead of everybody getting drunk and acting the clown, they pick on one person and get them very drunk, sot hey would entertain everyone with their drunken silliness. When we camped, we were usually alone at night, but in the morning it seemed as though people came out of nowhere and were were often surrounded by children and farmers, watching our morning ritual like a soap opera. It was usually fun having an audience, as they were truly interested in our actions and more so our belongings, and I loved fooling about and carrying out certain mimes My favourite was to pretend the elastic straps that held our gags ot our racks would suddenly become living snakes and I would wrestle them to the ground, much to the laughter of the children watching.

When we arrived at New Tingri, about half way to Nepal, we decided we would try to cycle to Mt. Everest Base Camp, which was meant ot be a very tough road to cycle, but we imagined it to be very beautiful and isolated and so we went for it. We turned of the small dirt road we were on and headed south on a worse track towards a tiny village called Chay, where we avoided the authorities checkpoint and stayed with some locals in a small room filled with 10 people. The next morning we headed up over the first pass, where after 6 hours of tough uphill riding, we received our first view of the Worlds highest mountain, Mt. Everest or as the Chinese call it, Mt. Qongmolangma. It stands at 8848m, and looks every bit as big as it is, poking up into the sky like a giraffe in a field of sheep. The road the next day was diabolical, barely a flat surface all day as we had to cycle through dozens of frozen rivers and streams all breaking under the weight of the bikes, leaving us with frozen feet and ankles. The scenery was amazing, riding through rocky canyons, with high glaciers and snow covered peaks towering above us and the air was getting colder and colder. Our brakes had long gone, due to ice forming on the rims of our wheels causing the brake pads ot gently slide around the wheels.

Finally at about 6pm we cycled up and over the last slope, and skidding with our feet, looked up to see the huge north face of Mt. Everest and its peak, hovering above Rongbuk Monastery (the highest in the world) to our left. As we both stood in awe, the sun went down on us and slowly the last rays hit the top third of Everest and turned the bright white snow to a brilliant orange. One of those places and moments that the only thing to say to each other was “WOW!”.

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