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Tibetan Revolutions

I had spent probably far too much time than was healthy staring at square D4 towards the bottom left of the pastel green swathe of China in my Times Concise World Atlas, at an area known as Xizang Zizhiqu. This was not because of its tongue twisting dyslexic moniker but because this overtly contoured region was better known to me and the world at large as Tibet.

The Tibetan Autonomous Region (to give it’s full, Chinese approved name) has held many in curious awe for centuries, initially seen as an impregnable plateau of riches and spirituality, latterly a tumult of occupation, oppression and a point of strategic strutting for different world powers through the ages.

When a friend who runs a small cycle touring company announced his intention to run a trip of a lifetime to the mysterious region, I was already oiling my chain…

Our trip would take us from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, snaking easterly on the Friendship Highway and down to it’s Nepalese cousin Kathmandu. A thousand kilometres dominated by 5000 metre passes across the backbone of the Himalaya, including a trip to the fabled Everest Base Camp.

Flying from the relative hullabaloo of Kathmandu, we were plonked onto the tabletop of Tibet at 3600 metres and whisked to the mist shrouded capital Lhasa, the former Forbidden City and self-styled soul of Tibet and for centuries the home of the ruling Dalai Lamas.

Surrounded by protective snow sprinkled peaks, Lhasa is undergoing dramatic changes under Chinese rule. The surrounding streets have become wide, slide rule thoroughfares flanked by identikit buildings coated with burnished tile facades and blue tinted glass, like a post war Lido theme park.

However, behind the buffed plastic veneer, the traditions of Tibetan life lives on through the swirl of market life at the Bakhor, and particularly by the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims that come to pay homage at Tibet’s most revered religious structure The Jokhang. A mumbling sea of devotees finger their religious beads, sliding onto their knees and then onto their bellies in front of the whitewashed walls before squishing inside the maze of tiny candle lit rooms.

The Jokhang is an invigorating place, far away from the order and reverent hush of our western religious experience. Men in battered suits and leathered weathered faces revolve dented prayer wheels, nomads in impeccable traditional dress proffer small denominations to the assembled buddhas, kids trussed up in fake North Face puffers and oily Nike caps spooning yak butter into the candle basins under the gaze a few monks attempting to keep some semblance of order with a mixture of kindly smiles and a firm hand. Their devotion is quite humbling, some having travelled unaided for thousands of kilometres to pay their respects. Considering the generations of turmoil, poverty and oppression, perhaps their faith is the only constant in their lives.

Lhasa remains dominated by the Potala Palace, once the world’s tallest inhabited structure. Despite its imposing presence, a visit encapsulates the struggles of recent times in Tibet. Once the epicentre of a nations strength and faith and home to its now exiled leader, the Palace’s dark and run down chambers, stale air and shrouded stupas and effigies gives off the air of a museum rather than a living and breathing monastery for the few monks that remain. The large piazza constructed opposite houses a non descript grey monument to celebrate the ‘liberation’ of Tibet by the Chinese in 1959, like a colossal one finger salute to the historic Buddhist order. The Potala remains an epic sight that should be more than a stock photo for the tourists.

Lhasa is an evolving city, the temperate ways of the past being replaced with the pace and vigour expected of a modern day capital. Gleaming Toyotas battle with Cyclos for road superiority (and guess who wins that David & Goliath dust up) entrepreneurs fight the hourly battle with pervading dust from their open fronted stores, local folk haggle for hooky Berghaus and the best Yak cuts in the markets. The sight of four monks emerging from a taxi seemed like the opening line of a joke that has yet to be written.

After three slothful days acclimatising to the rarefied air in this beguiling city, it was time to get our trip underway, heading south west with a flat ride to the foot of our first big test The Khamba La Pass, which tailed off into wisps of clouds high above our campsite. We would be climbing nearly a vertical mile in 4 hours of attritional pedalling to a head spinning ten shy of 5000 metres (16 371 feet). After a slow, airless, banana fuelled ascent we were rewarded with a stunning vista of auburn mountains; down below the gash of  shimmering still blue of Yamdrok Tso, one of Tibets four holy lakes, filling the valley. If the oxygen light air hadn’t already robbed me of it, it would have taken my breath away.

A night camping on a marshy outcrop near Nakartse in the valley below introduced us to our first set of curious local kids and nonplussed dogs and our first hard slap of the relative dangers of high altitude riding.  With one of our flock suffering acute mountain sickness and taken to a lower level for a crash course in pure oxygen we awoke to find one of our party blue lipped and unconscious, being rushed back to a Lhasan hospital with hypothermia.

In the light of these events, the days cycling was characterised by grim determination. The arid landscape browned, the road petering out into a rock-strewn bumpathon, and dust squalls that embodied the grit of the riding. Karo La’s elevation of over 5000 metres did for most of us. A night in a blowy dry riverbed did little to raise our spirits as we supped sweet tea to keep the cold at bay.

If we were learning one thing already, it was to expect the unexpected. The following day, as the sun made its lazy way up the valley, it opened up a golden path that would give us a riding day to remember. With the wind at our backs, we breezed along the flank of a jutting arm of the Tsangpo, serene and still due to yet another damming project. Mud baked settlements sprinkled the shoreline, the waters breathing life into an otherwise uninhabitable gorge.

The perfect reflections of the brown mountains plunged into the cool waters as we took it all in over cold rice on a prayer flag infested col. With only a light breeze, clear sky and tranquil landscape, this was the first taste I had experienced of the spiritual calm that has intoxicated visitors to Tibet for centuries.

News came that our sick brethren were on the mend and gave us the fillip to whisk into the city of Gyanste. Again, the plastic front of Sino Triumphalism was immediately apparent at a newly formed crossroads. To our right the original cragged dirt road, teeming with scuffed peasants, scraggy goats and the increasingly ubiquitous low-slung Yaks and Dzos, leading to a postage stamp corner of the town that is the Tibetan Quarter.

To our right a hastily constructed paved road running to the horizon, regiments of lurid street lamps bolted with communist liberation propaganda and an already fault ridden pavement, the shells of symmetrical housing midway through construction. A short ride up this eerie street confirmed it was empty, but I guessed it would not be too long before this would be filled with immigrant life.

Gyanste itself has little to offer unless you have a penchant for truck tyres, carpets or industrial sized bags of rice, and the following days’ flat straight and mercifully tar macadam stretch had us eating up the kilometres to Tibet’s second city, Shigatse, home to the Panchen Lamas (the right hand order of the Dalai Lamas) and traditional capital of the Tsang region.

Befalling the same identikit hurried adjustment as Lhasa but with none of the capital’s aura, Shigatse is notable only for the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the erstwhile seat of the Panchen Lamas. A more modest affair than the Potala, the monastery is a sprawling affair, with narrow concourses connecting a multitude of buildings that separately housed the stupas of bygone Panchens, or led to long time deserted monks quarters. 

More homely than regal, the remnants of a bygone era of work-a-day monks, unhurried in their quest to build their utopia made this the most spiritual experience so far. Even the sight of an agitated monk bawling into a mobile whilst his bretheren cooed misty eyed over a Kawasaki did little to effect the venerable ambience.

Due to construction, we detoured over the top of the Friendship Highway, creaking across more gargantuan passes, through crossroad hamlets and slopping through bubbling fords dribbling out the last remnants of glacial run off.  Camping had settled into a routine of unpacking in the fading daylight, snot crusted kids in a state of continual over excitement and quick fire ablutions before freeze time.

The road and passes ahead were under intense redevelopment. Unfortunately for us, we had arrived at the ‘dig massive holes and make piles of rubble’ stage, which added a few extra mechanical diggers, craters and a whole heap more dust to proceedings. As if in sympathy with the stick thin spaders on every brow, we too were now digging deep. Heavy legged and hearted, we squirmed our way up the desolate passes, grinding our granny rings into submission. On a short and juddering descent, I put the buzzing in my head down to the elevation, tiredness and cold, only to learn that I was living out the literal translation of having a Bee in your bonnet. My tomato coloured helmet must be a tempting diversion for any insect in the beige and arid moonscape, and one such buzzer had found refuge through the vents. As with was no bicycle made for two, said bee was dispatched in a comedic flail of limbs and hollers much to the hilarity of some doubled up trench diggers.

The next obstacle in our pedal pilgrimage would be the the lofty perch of Pang La. After a murderous 50 switchbacks, the top of the pass gave us our first uninterrupted view of the snow clad Himalaya striping the horizon like a wiggle of serrated toothpaste, the tallest peaks in the world clustered together like a medal rostrum, Makalu to the left, the thunderous wall of Cho Oyo muscling into stage right and there in the centre the unmistakable skyward arrow of gold medallist, Mount Qomolangma…Everest. A truly wonderous sight for sore eyes and much needed rest for sore knees.

The reward for the aching ascent was a zigzag drop, the wind so strong that it in turn propelled you at breakneck speed and then on the turn into the next switchback asked most impolitely if you would mind pedalling downhill. We huddled together in a single file death march, focussing only on the yellow domes of our (mercifully) pre-erected tents in the gorge ahead like yolks on a bed of withered Dzaka valley spinach.

Next day, we continued our southerly procession past the trekking base village of Chodzom, to the outpost of Rongphu, home to the world’s highest monastery, once a lively centre of the nomad community, now another ghost of its former glory. The adjacent guest house was rustic and run down but does offer respite from the biting cold and wind and sports one of the most hazardous toilets on Gods green (and in this case, brown) earth.

The redeeming feature is of course the view. Everest stands menacingly, filling the entire vista, the west side an angry fizz of snow like a steam eared cartoon character raging at the antics of their nemesis, the east the epitome of tranquillity, basking in the mid afternoon sun, giving Everest a truly schizophrenic aura. Just a few kilometres down a crumbly track lay Base Camp, the launch pad for attempted summits via Everest’s North face, and for us the summit of our two wheeled trip.

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