Xinjang - Tibet hwy 1

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, July 16, 2007

The first couple of passes on hwy 219 are arguably the hardest climbs on the road. In only 2 days, including one not insignificant descent, we climbed from about 1000m above see level to about 4,300m. The road was unsealed after day one and for the most part poorly maintained, resulting in painful juddering stretches of corrugated earth. Provisions for sale were meagre and sparse. The environment, however, was stunning. Whether climbing a rocky gorge, admiring a stack of sweeping switchbacks (with pride or anticipation from above; with dread or mourning from below), descending into a wide, green, unpopulated valley or struggling across a barrren, windswept plateau, there was no escaping the power and the glory of Tibet's western wilderness.

The altitude made for cool temperatures and rarified air which evaporated perspiration and extinguished most odours. This was a great advantage, since I camped every night until I reached Ali a fortnight later and I don't recall washing. And while Tibet is all climbing, there is a trade-off. There's The Promise. The unwritten (or, come to think of it, possibly even written) rule, that while a road in Tibet may be unmaintained, corrugated, and surfaced with greased ball-bearings a halfmetre deep, it will not be steep. This is not for the benefit of illegal intercontinental cycle-tourers, but for the shitty Chinese trucks, which have to stop for a breather every 100 yards when climbing anything steeper than a snooker table.

Unusually for me, I was prepared for Tibet. I'd pestered Peter about his experiences for three months, sought advice from online cyclist forums, bought 10kg of food supplies in Kashgar and printed out several different sets of notes compiled by previous cyclists on this road. To put it more simply, I was scared. I'd managed to get this far with relatively little challenge. The bike had held up, the going had been relatively easy, the weather had been mostly clement and I'd never been more than a couple of hours from some kind of help. From here on in, the weather would be unpredictable; the road unreliable, slow and arduous; even small villages could be several days ride apart and in the unlikely event that help was available, being technically outside the law could make it even harder to obtain. The KKH had been a baptism of fire and had, apart from anything else, improved my conditioning enough to face the climbs ahead, but it was never a wilderness. I'm sure I recall a wise man saying that sufficient preparation will go unnoticed. Certainly, in the event, crossing Tibet was not frightening. I don't remember feeling in danger, or being stranded, or without food or water. Looking back, however, I realise that all of these things were possible.

So, we climbed the craggy gorges to the Kudi and the Chiragsaldi passes, camping mostly near the road on whatever flat ground was available an hour before sunset. We climbed slowly, all of us weighed down by even more luggage than usual (some more than others...), but we made steady progress. Attempting to ride alongside Pawel and Magda, stopping for rests when they did, I found that my legs seized up every time and getting started was always harder than if I'd not stopped at all. This demonstrated a universal truth. Cycling together is all very well, but you have to climb alone. Climbing at anyone else's pace will inevitably exhaust and frustrate. I found it far preferable to settle into a comfortable rhythm and climb, albeit at little more than walking pace, without stopping. I found waiting for the others at the top of a pass for an hour or two, wrapped in most of my clothes, eating a chocolate bar and, on one occasion, drinking a pot of tea, an added bonus rather than an encumberance.

One of my strategic purchases in Kashgar had been a phial of iodine, since I'd been recklessly drinking stream water since Islamabad and had almost certainly only avoided a plethora of parasites by requiring a strong course of antibiotics for my infected sores. My logic at the time was that while there are myriad waterborne diseases which can kill a man in a variety of unpleasant ways, none of them are as swift, unpleasant, or immediate as dying of thirst. It was good logic, though not as good as 'realising this would happen and buying iodine in Islamabad'. However, as I've said, for Tibet I was Prepared. 

Pawel: "It's Gardia"
Me: "It's what?"
Pawel: "Gardia! How can you not know what gardia is? It's endemic in the water of all these regions! Are you not carrying medication for it?"
Me: "No! I've got every other poxy pill. Will anti-malarials do? Anyway, how do you know it's gardia?"
Pawel and Magda: "The smell!"
Magda: "It's in one of the guidebooks. Eggy wind and burps = gardia. It gets worse, and then there's the running and the vomiting."
Me: "running?"
Magda: "Yeah, you know... running. In the night time, you have to.. you know... run"
Me: "oh."
Magda: "We have a spare treatment, don't worry"
Me: "But you might need that..."
Magda: "It's worth the risk to stop you making that smell"
Me: "Thanks"

I started the course, probably antibiotics, that evening, but it was too late to save me from my fate. We'd camped on a patch of grass between the road and a stream flowing down from the Chiragsaldi pass. Apart from it's proximity to the road it was an excellent pitch, as evidenced by scorched stones and holes in the ground left by previous tenants. I ate a noodle-based concoction for dinner, despite feeling a little unsettled and producing occasional, eggy emissions, and retired to my tent. This was premature, since, as predicted, I had to... run. 

Five times, between 8pm and 2am, each more urgent than the last, each preceded by a bout of noxious, sulphorous gas that would have made the devil retch. The final run had the inevitablity of the apocalypse. I'd had no time to pull on clothes or shoes, barely enough even to get a hygeinic distance from the tent, before squatting over a dent in the ground. That the only lorry to pass all night should appear at this moment was a coincidence too cruel to be anything other than malevolent divine tinkering. I'm not sure who, ultimately was the more wounded. The Uighur driver, eyes casually following the yellow headlamp beams as they swung around another sharp corner, cannot have been prepared for the horror he witnessed. I watched helpless as they swept towards me and fell, lingering, on my naked, pale, knee-hugging, anguished form at the precise moment that all the vilest stench and filth of hades exploded simultaneously from face and arse.

At least my friends' rapid diagnosis saved me further discomfort, as all my symptoms were bearable the following day, and gone thereafter.
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