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Cycling Lhasa’s pilgrim route

At four o’clock in the morning the border was quiet.  I pushed my bike under the half-raised barrier, past the dark police post, and on along the gravel road.  A few village dogs barked, but no one came out.  By the time it was light enough to ride, I was several miles inside Tibet, with a thousand miles to go to Lhasa.

When daylight came, I found myself on a road clinging to the side of a deep gorge, the brown water of the Mekong – the Lancang Jiang to the Chinese, Ngom Chu in Tibetan – thundering through hundreds of feet below.  Here and there villages of whitewashed mud-walled houses were surrounded by bright green oases of irrigated barley fields, gems set in the arid rocky mountainsides.

The valleys of the three great rivers that flow out of Tibet to the East – the Yangtse, the Mekong, and the Salween – are desert canyons cutting deep gashes through this end of the Himalayas.  They run parallel here, their valleys separated by ridges twenty thousand feet high and barely twenty miles apart as the vulture flies, before turning to follow their diverging, meandering courses, the Yangtse east through China towards Shanghai, the Mekong south to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Salween into Burma.  But by road, it’s a hundred miles or more, over passes up to 16,000ft, from one river to the next.

It was in the Mekong valley that I met Mr Ko, on his forty year-old one-speed Flying Pigeon.  Or rather, he was at the side of the road replacing the bearings in his bicycle’s rear wheel when I came across him.  When he’d finished, we rode together for a few miles.  Mr Ko told me he was fifty five.  Every year he takes a break from his job as a bicycle mechanic in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, to pedal some new route through Western China.  This year he was going to Lhasa.  He camps every night, and carries his things in home-made bicycle bags.  He gets water from streams, filling old plastic drink bottles that hang from his handlebars and frame.  Every time we came to a hill, even a minor incline in the road along the river, he had to get off and push.  He’d been on the road nine days so far.  When I asked him how long it would take him to reach Lhasa, he said he hadn’t thought about it.  “I just go one day at a time”, he explained cheerfully.  Some of those days were going to be over enormous passes, and I could hardly imagine how he’d make it, pushing his one speed bike over some of the highest – and probably roughest – roads  in the world.  But he’d already crossed one pass 14,000ft high – a forty mile climb from the Yangtse, at about 7000ft, that took me nine hours using the lowest of  my bike’s twenty one gears.  After an hour together, when Mr Ko had to get off and push again, he told me not to wait.  ‘Ni xian zou’ – “You go first”, he urged me, “You’re much faster.”  “See you in Lhasa!”, I said, shifting into low gear and leaving Mr Ko in the dust and stones of the Tibetan road, but trying to take with me some of his one-day-at-a-time philosophy of travel.

Ahead, the valley narrowed into a canyon, the Mekong rushing between nearly sheer mountainsides of broken rock, so the road turned up a side valley to the East – away from Lhasa, which lay far on the other side of the river.  I knew from the map that I’d have to climb out of its valley, over a 14,000ft pass, and back again to cross to its West bank, but there are few roads through Tibet, and I had to accept that if that’s what the road did, it was the only possible route. Halfway up to the pass was a village with a little row of wooden shops selling packaged noodles, bottled drinks, cigarettes, cheap shoes and a few clothes from factories in China.  Donkeys and pigs stood around or scavenged for edible scraps, while young men and boys played pool at a table in front of the shops.  They had to play around a bare-bummed and very grubby baby that had been deposited on the green felt.  One man, whose shaved head and leather jacket gave him an urban look, perhaps acquired working in a Chinese city, spoke Mandarin.  He told me it was only 10 miles to the pass.  I bought something sweet and packaged and sat on a wooden bench, while a group gathered to inspect my bike, trying their feet in the toe straps and moving the gear shifters. 

Near the top of the climb was a short row of shuttered wooden buildings, two old women sitting outside spinning hand-held prayer wheels, a constant activity of older Tibetans.  Azaleas bloomed nearby, and there were views of snow-capped peaks on the other side of the Mekong.  I stopped for another rest, and the old women showed interest in the dried peas I snacked on.  I’d bought them several days earlier in Shangrila, a town formerly known as Zhongdian (‘last stop’) but renamed a few years ago to promote tourism.  They tried the peas, and went back to spinning their prayer wheels, occasionally saying something to each other in Tibetan, looking at the far mountains.

The valley on the other side of the pass was higher and more open, with farm houses scattered among fields of stubble.  I camped at the roadside, joined as I made my supper of instant noodles by a local man with long black hair wound around his head and tied with a red ribbon, and a dagger in his belt.  He spoke no Chinese, but smiled readily and showed a friendliness I found typical of Tibetans I met.  He inspected my lightweight pressure stove.  Tibetans cook on fires of wood and yak dung, and he could obviously see the advantages of a camping stove.

I started early in the morning, smoke rising from the farmhouses near the road, a pair of eagles soaring overhead.  The road was unpaved but reasonably flat.  Near villages I passed small groups of children walking to school, often running to keep up with me or grab hold of the rack on the back of my bike.  I’d read that Tibetan dogs can be very aggressive, but I was only chased by them two or three times in 1500 miles, whereas the children were a frequent nuisance – not usually with any malicious intent, but a hazard nonetheless.  Dervla Murphy, the Irish author of classics of travel writing such as Full Tilt, about her solo bike trip from Ireland to India in 1963,  in her account of working at an orphanage for Tibetan children in India (Tibetan Foothold), calls them ‘Tiblets’, and apparently found them utterly endearing.  I learned to look out for moblets of Tiblets, and take evasive action.

On a quiet stretch of the road, I saw coming towards me a man on a bicycle with a large box on the back.  He was pedaling slowly and calling out as he went, “Baozi!  Mantou!”  A Tibetan woman came across the fields from a farm and the baozi-peddler stopped to sell her some of the steamed buns.  Baozi and mantou are balls of white dough, the former with a little meat or vegetable filling, the latter solid, popular for breakfast throughout China.  They are a taste not all foreigners acquire, but to a hungry bicycle tourist more or less anything edible is welcome.  I bought a bagful, and stopped to chat with the peddler, a Chinese man from Hunan who seemed delighted to find I spoke some Mandarin and treated me like a compatriot in a strange land, which is to say he spoke Chinese roughly twice as fast as I could understand it.  I did gather that he’d been living in the Tibetan town of Markham for a year, having arrived – I think – by bicycle from Yunnan, and that every day he rides out 25km on this road selling his buns.  “Your Chinese is very good!” he told me, although I’d hardly got a word in edgeways. 

An aside about Tibetan place-names:  Tibetan uses an alphabet derived from Indian languages, ultimately from Sanskrit.  This written language was devised to translate the Buddhist scriptures brought to Tibet from India beginning in the 7th or 8th century.  So a Tibetan name is originally a spoken sound, then represented in this alphabet. Tibetan is represented for Westerners using the Latin alphabet, but there isn’t a single, consistent way of doing this, so names often get various different transliterations on maps and in guidebooks.  Matching these different Latin alphabet versions of Tibetan names, say in comparing two maps or a map and a guidebook, can be a challenge.  Furthermore, places often seem to have two (or more) quite different names in Tibetan.  But that’s only half the problem. 

The Chinese represent Tibetan names with characters, more or less matching these phonetically with the Tibetan originals.  But when spoken, the Chinese and Tibetan names don’t sound the same. So places in Tibet have (at least) two names: one Tibetan, the other Chinese.  Then Chinese characters are represented with the Latin alphabet.  The standard modern system for doing this is pinyin, but the old Wade-Giles system lingers on, so there are two (or more) possible transliterations of a Chinese place-name.  Chinese is tonal, meaning that the rise or fall of a sound is as important for meaning as the sound in our sense.  Mandarin has four tones, or five if you include neutral.  Pinyin uses accent-marks to represent these tones, but maps and guidebooks rarely bother to add them.  (The Lonely Planet guides are honorable exceptions, much appreciated for this.)   Confused yet?  To illustrate, the town I was approaching is called ‘Markham’, or something that sounds more or less like that, in Tibetan, ‘Mangkang’ (in pinyin, both characters second – rising – tone) in Chinese.  Back to the road.

I knew I was getting near a town when I started seeing rubbish along the road and in the river, and then a tuk-tuk motor-rickshaw puttering out to a nearby village.  These vehicles are in every town in Tibet, but must be brought in by truck as they’d never make it over the passes – unlike Mr Ko’s Flying Pigeon, they could not be pushed uphill.  At any rate, I never saw one more than a few kilometers from a town, and even then they seemed incongruously urban in the Tibetan countryside.  Markham is at the junction of the roads from Sichuan and Yunnan, and websites name it as a high risk for illegal cyclists, to be passed through at night.  But it wasn’t yet midday, and no pleasant spot to spend the next fifteen hours presented itself – as usual in Tibet, the land was all dust and stone – so I decided to take a chance. 

Foreigners in Tibet are supposed to have an Alien Travel Permit, a sort of internal visa, as well as a visa for China.  But these permits are not issued to individuals for travel through Eastern Tibet, only to groups in hired vehicles with authorized drivers. I’d been advised to pass through checkpoints at night, not staying in towns, where the police may check hotels, and not stopping at all in county capitals where the authorities are especially vigilant.  So I crossed from Yunnan into the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the middle of the night, while the border guards were sleeping,  and approached Markham with some trepidation

I reached the paved road that stretched a mile or two on either side of town, and pedaled straight on, willful tunnel vision giving me the illusion, probably inaccurately attributed to ostriches, that I was less visible because I saw less.  I could see nonetheless that heads turned to stare as I went by.  It was a drab town, but a busy commercial centre with lots of shops.  It was three days since I’d left the last town before the border, and I could see apples and oranges and watermelons, a strong temptation to stop, but my fear of the authorities – of being fined and turned back, or worse, having my bicycle confiscated – was at this point stronger, and I kept going.  On the far side of town I passed a troop of soldiers carrying shovels on their shoulders like rifles.  A few waved to me in a friendly way.  I rode under a half-raised barrier, not looking to see if the checkpoint was manned. An army barracks on the outskirts gave me another moment of nervousness, but an officer at the roadside just replied to my greeting, ‘Ni hao’, and Markham was behind me.  I felt elated.  For the first time I was confident I’d get to Lhasa.  The Chinese authorities didn’t seem to care much about a lone cyclist, and from then on, I didn’t take them very seriously either.

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