Biking from Lhasa to Kathmandu...
Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
38Trip End Jul 23, 2004
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DAY 1: 64 km/49 mi. 3 hr 20 min riding time/4 hr total time (riding plus breaks).
After a restless night's sleep (filled with dreams of my incredibly painful death by heart explosion), we headed out of Lhasa with both eager anticipation (Phil) and boundless depths of dread (guess who). It's not that I wasn't excited about seeing Tibet in a way most people don't (of the relatively few tourists to Tibet, most travel by Land Cruiser), it was my fear that 9 months of fairly lax physical exercise (minus the food poisoning episode in Darjeeling; that was entirely too strenuous) would keep me in total personal agony
DAY 2 or The Day Mr Altitude Kicked My Sea-Level Ass: 70 km (53 mi). 7 hr 20 min riding/10 hr total.
We got an early start, anticipating a long day. I had no idea...The pass normally taken between Lhasa and Nangartse is Kampa La, a beast of a climb, 23 km (18 mi)up and up and up on a road that can be packed gravel but is mostly stones in sand. But wait! The road to Kampa La is closed, part of the Chinese plan to pave every flat surface in Tibet so that tourists may more quickly whiz to their desired destinations, and we are instead going to take the old road, which also includes a mountain pass, Chorong La, but it is much much easier, our guide reassures us. I am reassured. I am a fool. The road to reach Chorong La, after splitting from the turn to Kampa La (blocked now by some serious-looking guards and several large dump trucks), is 16 km (12 mi) of rolling paved road, then 20 km (16 mi) of rolling sand road, then another 5 km (3 mi) of "gradual" uphill
DAY 3: 60 km (46 mi). 7 hr (Phil) 6 hr (Sarah) riding/10 hr total.
The winds as we left Nangartse were strong, an almost constant headwind supplemented by gusts from the sides, but we were expecting this (kind of) from reading our 'Tibet Overland' book, which is what got the evil seed of this idea planted in the first place, thank you very much Mr Kym McConnell. To be fair, he does warn that spring (April to June) is not a great time to be doing this trip; the weather is fair, if a little cold in the mornings and at the higher altitudes, but the real problem is the wind/sand storms, as we were to learn firsthand. This day also included a pass, Karo La, but it was shorter and more gradual than Chorong La, and was really only complicated by the winds which come from the glaciers perched over either side of the peak, and send a brutal headwind down into the valley we were now (attempting) to cycle up
DAY 4: Rest day in Gyantse.
Gyantse has a beautiful monastery, the Pelkhor Chode, which contains the Kumbum, a nine floor chapel in the shape of a chorten, and filled with incredible Buddha statues. It was an especially interesting experience because we got the tour from Gompa, so he could explain the differences between the statues that are virtually indistinguishable to us. This is Niyma's, our driver, first time out of Lhasa, and he races around the monastery like an excited puppy. This is not only cool for us (he's here because we are doing this trip, which makes us feel good) but also astounding since Nyima seems to smoke about 300 cigarettes a day. We also got to eat some real food; a nice change from the standard fried noodles or fried rice that is available in the villages. Well, there is also the windcured yak meat option, but I'm not that hungry. Yet.
DAY 5: 92 km (55 mi)
This day should have been so easy. The road between Gyantse and Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, is paved and has only small, gradual climbs; a gimme day on this trip. Except it was a struggle for me, made worse when the headwind started about halfway there. We met up with Markus again, and he and Phil blocked the wind for me for 20 km or so, before I couldn't even keep up and had to stop. I wasn't sure what the problem was until we got to the hotel; I'm sick again. I've got a fever, the cough is worse, the gut is worse, and now it's made worse by the start of a cold. I can console myself with the fact that at least Phil is feeling OK...
DAY 6: Rest day in Shigatse.
Phil is sick. Not as bad as I am, I'm stuck running the bed-to-bathroom-route, but he's glad it's a scheduled rest day today. He and Gompa go to visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama, which includes the largest statue of the Maitreya Buddha (the Buddha of the Future) in the world. Phil brought back lots of pictures of the complex, but I'm disappointed at not being able to go, and having a hard time looking at it in a Buddhist way and trying to be glad for this chance to practice nonattachment to desire. What I want to do is have a temper tantrum complete with dramatically noticeable pouting
DAY 7: Rest day #2 in Shigatse.
We're both feeling better, but we decided to take an extra day in Shigatse to rest. I've started taking Amoxycillin (about the only antibiotic available, but it's available by the truckloads) in the hopes it will kick this upper respiratory thing, and I'm thinking an extra day will get me back to fighting form. The tradeoff is that we don't get to bike up the side trip to Everest Base Camp, we'll have to drive, but we still get to bike out and do the whole Friendship Highway, so it seems like the best option. Markus has food poisoning, so we don't have dinner with him again, but make plans to meet up in Nepal. We feast on our last non-fried noodle meal and drink gallons of water in the hopes we can float all the way to Jiding Qu.
DAY 8 or The Day We Realized We Were Riding Through The Tibetan Plateau On Cracker Jack Toys: 98 km (75 mi)
Based to our itinerary, we anticipated an easy day's ride, 57 km to Jiding Qu from Shigatse, over a fairly flat, well-packed dirt road. About 10 km before Jiding Qu, my bike progressed at lightning speed from poor shifting to a light metal-on-metal rubbing before launching into crushing-glass-with-a-hammer sounds, and no gear changing at all. Phil cleaned off what he could from the chain, but further exploration of the problem had to wait until we'd limped into Jiding Qu, which is hardly a mecca of bicycle repair, being what I would classify as a one-goat town, but Gompa located some yak grease (made from the yak, not for it) and Phil cleaned and refit the cogs on the rear derailleur. Tibet's roads are continuously dusty, except during the rainy season when they're rivers, so it's a good idea to clean and lubricate your bike chain every day after riding. We had been sent no maintenance supplies along with the bikes we rented, and so we'd been hoping that these were ultra-tough biking supermachines that could survive the trip without the daily dose of chain lube. Unfortunately, no, they were about two steps up from Meijers brand. Thank God they took off the training wheels, first. This, however, is where our guardian angel, Jose,entered our lives. He was the guide for another biking group through KE Adventures, and chatted casually about biking the Atlas mountains in Morocco; in short, a REAL biking guide
Day 9: 54 km (41 mi). 4 hr 30 min riding/5 hr 30 min total.
This was another mountain pass day, but it was actually the pre-pass, 10 km of a barely noticeable uphill, that felt like biking through quicksand. The pass itself, Lagpa La, was only about an hour climb, and (fortified by a Snickers) we only stopped a couple of times to catch our (sucking air through a straw) breath. After hitting the top, we were rewarded by a nice fast downhill for a few miles, then back to my old friend, rutted mushy gravel for the last 30 km. Not a bad ride at all, although it would have been a truly perfect day if only our guesthouse didn't inexplicably padlock the bathroom doors. Hopefully anyone watching thought I was doing a complicated yet graceful native dance as I ran around the parking lot searching (unsuccessfully) for an unlocked toilet.
Day 10: 61 km (46 mi). 8 hr 30 min riding/10 hr 30 min total.
Wow. Big hill. Long way up. Gyatso La, a 1230 m (4060 ft) altitude gain (from Lhatse) in 30 km
Day 11: Baipa to Everest Base Camp by Land Cruiser.
This was our catch-up day, and proved to be a really good decision once we saw the seemingly endless 42 switchbacks up Pang La. Even the hard-core group of Brits thought it was ridiculous; only two made it up out of the seven, and these guys (and one girl) really seemed to relish pain potential. We stopped for a tea break near the river, and shared some crackers with a nomad family. One of the boys, who was maybe six or seven, had a flute, and Phil got out his guitar in the hope that the kid would get over his shyness and play, but no such luck. Phil gave a short blues concert for his rapt audience and then they silently headed back to their goats. We got to Everest Base Camp in the afternoon, and, after a short but awed viewing of Everest, we hid out in the yak skin tent because the wind was brutal and cold.
Day 12: 30 km (23 mi). 3 hr 20 min riding/3 hr 50 min total.
Rough night. 5020 m (16566 ft) is way too high for me to sleep. The one red blood cell left racing through my body must have given up around 2 am because I woke up feeling like the worst parts of a hangover and a car wreck
Day 13: Rest day in Dingri.
Dingri, which is a fairly featureless two-goat town, does have the redeeming feature of some fabulous hot springs. We soaked in the "private room" to avoid the unabashed constant staring of the nomads who had come to wash their clothes. It didn't cure my tubercular cough (I am convinced that this will be my souvenir from China), but was wonderful for my aching legs and was our first chance to bathe since day 7. We also got to wash our clothes, although I thought later that I should've waited because they were almost to the point that they could've biked by themselves, which would have been a big help on the long mountain climbs. We ate so many times in the hotel restaurant that the owner's daughters asked if we had eaten anything since Shigatse. I am hungry all the time and we both eat as often as possible, but we're still losing weight; I can see the difference on Phil almost day to day. Mmmm...maybe one more order of fried noodles...
Day 14: 61 km (46 mi)
The fried noodles turned on me. Food poisoning with not a single McDonald's bathroom in sight. Good thing it was a short day's ride on a pretty decent packed dirt road because we went really really slow with my many "scenic" stops. I curse the fried noodles! Mmmm...fried noodles....
Day 15: 81 km (62 mi). 8 hr 26 min riding/10 hr 30 min total.
Our last mountain pass in Tibet, and what a way to end: a double pass described in our 'Tibet Overland' book as windy and cold and exposed. After the wind torture of Karo La, we were prepared for the worst...which didn't materialize until after the climb. We screamed up the first hill in an hour less than we estimated. The second pass was steeper, but we still made great time. We celebrated at the top, took some photos of the incredible snow-capped peaks around, and headed downhill. For a disappointingly short 12 km. Straight into an insanely bad headwind, on terrain that alternated between loose gravel and deep pockets of sand. I would have done both passes twice over rather than battle the wind, but since that wasn't presented as an option, we got the bad road and the wind (which felt increasingly personal with every kilometer) for the 40 km to Milarepa's cave. Considering that Milarepa, the founder of the Kagyu sect of Buddhism, achieved enlightenment by living as a hermit for years in a cave subsisting solely on nettles (which turned his skin green), I guess my self-inflicted biking misery wasn't too impressive, but it felt sufficiently traumatic at the time
Day 16: 123 km (93 mi). 6 hr 30 min riding/8 hr total.
This is the day I've been waiting for: a 1450 m (4785 ft) downhill in 33 km (23 mi). Rudely, the first 2 km out of Nyalam are uphill, but all is forgiven once we hit that glorious downhill, and descend into a sensory riot of trees (!) and flowers (!) and waterfalls (!!). I didn't realize how scentless and soundless and barren Tibet is until we could hear birds and smell wet dirt and see colors that weren't a thousand shades of tan. Not that Tibet isn't beautiful in it's stark dunes and treeless mountains, but I really missed foliage. We zoomed down to the China-Nepal border, said our goodbyes to Gompa and Niyma (with strict paternalistic instructions that our tip was not to be used towards cigarettes), and lugged our bags over the Friendship Bridge to the Nepalese city of Kodari. This part only took 10 minutes, but the time change gained us 2 and a quarter hours. The rest of the trip was comparatively short, 4 and a half hours, but it was hot and humid; kind of like biking in Michigan in August. One town outside of Kathmandu (having been warned of the horribly dangerous traffic as you near the city) we loaded into our new Jeep, and rode into the big city.
THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ON THIS TRIP:
1. It is not unhygienic or indicative of a neglectful upbringing to wipe your nose on your biking gloves. It means you're hard-core, like Lance. It is not ok, however, to pee in your biking shorts. That's just gross.
2. Mine are not a mountain people. This casts new doubt on my sister's claim that I was reluctantly adopted by my "parents" after being left by a nomadic Sherpa family in exchange for some food.