Xinjian - Tibet hwy 4

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The next pass was the Khitai pass, which led up to the barren plateau of the Aksai Chin. The Chinese grabbed this desolate plain from India in 1962. It wasn't until after the construction of Highway 219 that anyone noticed the invasion, but eventually a stray dog-walker spotted it and India declared a war. This arguably resulted in thousands of pointless deaths, humiliation for India, 50 years of strained diplomatic relations between the two largest countries in the world and nuclear proliferation in Asia. No-one likes being robbed, but the land itself really wasn't worth it. The only occupants of the land are still the Chinese army, quietly dumping toxic waste.

I only climbed half the pass on the first day; towards the end of the day I caught up with the Swiss tourgroup. Their leader, Beatrice, warned me that the river by their camp was the last water for a fair while, so I followed their lead and pitched my tent. (Since they had occupied the best available ground, I pitched up right next door, a little blue oddball in 2 ranks of identicle green tents). This proved to be a genius strategy. Beatrice asked if I'd like to have some dinner, though I'd have to eat in the 'kitchen tent', the 'dining room tent' being for the exclusive use of those who'd paid ten grand for the privilege. I'm not proud, and since the kitchen tent was where the huge gas burners (warmth), leftover food and the beer stores were located, along with the friendly and generous Nepali and Tibetan cooks, guides and translators, I was delighted with the arrangement. While I sat chatting away and eating a bucket of soup with leftover chips (Chips! Of all things! I was in heaven) Beatrice went next door and loaded up a plate in the dining room. European-style spring rolls (bready, rather than crisp) and boiled veg with more chips, washed down with cold Lhasa beer. Apart from the chips, which were the best I've ever had, anywhere, ever, the chefs' true culinary skills were not really represented in the 'Swiss' food. After the Swiss had eaten, and retired to the 'smoking room tent' (mebbe), the nepalis were free to make their own dinner- steamed rice, chicken curry, daal, tomato-based vegetable curry, something green and delicious. So I had another dinner, with another beer.

This may seem excessive, perhaps even impossible, but all that food barely even filled me up. Simply existing at over 4500m requires a fair amount more energy than at sea level- even tourists in 4wds tend to lose weight; Cyclists need more calories than normal people; cycle tourers, riding 8hrs/day, everyday, with luggage, need more calories than normal cyclists; While riding, the limitation on how much food I could carry, combined with the distance between shops, (and the size of my pot), meant that it was usually not physically possible to eat enough food. I was a very hungry man.

I asked the Nepali guide what the Swiss group were like;
-I don't know really. They have their language. Don't talk much to us.

Since they all spoke fluent English, this seemed a poor effort. I'd have thought the best advantage, (alongside chips and beer) to the organised tour, was that there were bilingual locals around, willing and able to share, if not academic histories and geological analysis of the terrain, at least their life-stories, latent prejudices, political views, all that 'cultural immersion' that such tours are sold on.

In the morning I witnessed the true extent of the Swiss pampering, as Beatrice went to each tent with a plastic basin, and filled it from a thermos of hot water. Possibly in a selfish effort to reduce my smell, I was similarly provided. Never has a bowl of hot water seemed so luxurious, nor, by the time I was finished, has one been so grim.

As I crested the pass I saw two more cyclists ahead. Germans this time: Detlev and Kristin. Veteran cycle-tourers, with Cairo-Cape Town and many smaller tours under their belts. They were friendly, but over the years of riding in each others company they'd developed a tandem riding-style, one tight behind the other, which didn't naturally admit a third. Their efficient formation, combined with their preference for short, fast days, meant that we only hung loosely together on the road- they were faster than me, but covered about the same distance in a day.
The weather was fine, warm and clear with a few small clouds. The rainy season was supposed to have already started in the west, so I was delighted with this. The landscape was dry, sandy, red earth. At this altitude the sky seemed almost surreal- it was a deeper, cleaner blue and the clouds appeared side-on; this was reflected in the two large, glassy lakes interrupting the moonscape plateau; it was an inspiring panorama.

The following morning we made a fairly late start, and within 200m of setting out we ran into two more Swiss, Claude and Natalie. Peter had mentioned these two to me ages ago when I was planning on riding through Nepal to Tibet, because Claude had hoped to defy conventional wisdom and obtain permission to do this. In the end they'd flown to Lhasa. (I was pleased to have my long Pakistan/W. Tibet detour vindicated). Claude was a minor celebrity in the world of French or German speaking cycle-tourers (not a huge world, I'll grant you). He'd previously completed a 7-year solo tour around the world. Detlev and Kristin were starstruck. I asked him about Australia.
-I've never been there.

Never been! 'Around the world' my foot! And he's published books and everything. Big phony. He redeemed himself however, when, in the midst of a story about another cyclist he'd met, a mad German woman, he described her as 'fat', and then clarified
-well, ok, maybe not fat, but for a cyclist! Look at us, we are all like this (holding up a bony fingure).
It will take a while to get used to being included in the class of people who might be called skinny, and until I do, this will continue to make me smile.

We chatted for most of the morning; the afternoon's ride was a continuation of the bleak plains. We spotted a rare Tibetan donkey at one point, grazing on the sparse grass. This stretch of road was one of the worst for corrugations, so often we tried riding off-piste on the sand. There were usually tracks of compacted sand made by trucks equally frustrated with the bouncing. That night we camped on an embanked ledge above the road, with an awesome, sweeping view of the plateau, across a huge lake to 6000m peaks in the distance. We pooled our resources and ate rice with tomato sauce and vegetables together (I discreetly munched on a shrink-wrapped chicken leg out of sight of the vegetarians). We finished this just before dusk, when a wind picked up which became a gale until the small hours, forcing us to retreat to our respective tents.

The following day's ride was similar, but didn't end in quite such convivial circumstances. We'd covered a fair distance- 80km odd, and the Germans were tired. The symptoms were clear: they were having a 'domestic'. Eventually we reached a river, which Detlev unilaterally deemed to be the day's end, and turned off the road. Most of the area was stony, uneven ground; my notes suggested a beautiful lake lay just around the next corner, and the couple clearly had some making up to do, so I said goodnight and pushed on.

There was indeed a lake around the corner, and I found a sheltered pitch. In the morning I hit the road just as Detlev and Kristin appeared, so we rode one more day together. The corrugations were still horrendous, but there was more grass around. We climbed the highest pass on the road- 5213m, without too much trouble (we were nearly at 5000m when we started- I've done bigger climbs than that in Holland!). It was an exciting milestone though, which perhaps explains why I took the hill somewhat over-zealously and, 100m from the top, went for a sprint finish. At 5000m, there is 50% as much oxygen in the air as at sea-level. Grinding slowly along this is not much of an issue, but you do not, cannot, sprint. 20seconds of exertion, 5 minutes to recover. It was like being nineteen stone again.

After the passes, wary of going too far again, the Germans were keen to stop. I was enjoying the descent. This side of the pass was a long, shallow gradient which would have been pure bliss on a sealed road. Even over the bumps it was fun- 30km/hr, with no need to pedal or brake. Perfect. The strong tailwind was almost a waste. After 110km, 20minutes from dusk, I told myself I simply had to stop. I was probably right, but I regretted it. The land was totally exposed, and the tailwind that had been helping me ride was a hindrance once I stopped. To make matters worse, the ground was loose stones over rock-solid earth (possibly 'rock'), which was not only uncomfortable but a total bastard for making the pegs hold fast. I eventually managed to persuade the tent to stand up, albeit flapping wildly, and spent 10 minutes just watching it, circling around pushing pegs back as they worked loose, until it successfully withstood one of the strongest gusts.
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