Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  ,
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A few kilometers from my campsite I had to make a decision. I could either continue on Highway 219, or I could turn right, climb out of this valley, over three passes, down into a low desert plain, visit the mostly destroyed remnants of a kingdom I'd never heard of until a week ago, hack out over two more passes and rejoin highway 219 about 50km down the road a week later. It wasn't really a 'decision'. I turned right.

That this was not going to be a stroll in the park was clear from the outset. It took me a while even to identify the road, mistaking it for some time for a stream (it was the six-inch deep water flowing down it that confused me). Pushing up this initial waterfall was sufficiently hard work for me to feel committed; 100m further on the road was properly blocked by a deep, fast flowing river. Perhaps it was a ford first thing in the morning, but by now it was a torrent. There was a semi-permanent tent by the river, I suspect making a living feeding stranded people (else feeding on them). The occupants watched in amused silence as I removed all my baggage, changed into sandals, waded across the river and back six times, ferrying everything across, always one careless step from irredeemable (and un-redeeming) baptism.

Having invested over an hour to struggle 200m from the road, there was now nothing that would make me turn back. The road, little more than a track, (though amazingly this was the 'navigable' route taken by supply trucks) Followed the narrowing river up into the mountain for about 5km, a pleasant ride in the sunshine. It then crossed the river on a small, handbuilt drystone archway, and switched back.

I knew there was a double pass to climb, and I knew it was around 5000m. I didn't know my altitude at the bottom, so this information was functionally useless. I couldn't even guess how long the climb would be, let alone how hard. As soon as the second hairpin took me out of sight of the river and out of the protection of it's small valley, I was exposed to the fast deteriorating weather. I could see what appeared to be the first pass above me, but it was a three hour slog to reach it. The track was soft earth, rideable but slow, and tiring. A strong cross wind alternately helped and hindered (though by 'helped' I mean 'didn't hinder' and by 'hindered' I mean 'wrecked'- twice stopping me dead).

There were a multitude of alternate tracks, where 4x4s had rejected the shallow gradient of the truck road in favour of a more direct route. Twice I attempted to climb one of these 'short cuts', which shows how slow a learner I am; the first attempt was disastrous, with me pushing, backsliding and exhausting myself far more and for far longer than if I'd taken the proper road. The second attempt was worse. By late afternoon I reached the point where the road had seemed to cross into a new watershed, and found that in fact it merely went around the mountain. From here I could see the first pass, about as far again as I'd just climbed. However, about a kilometer away, in the crook of a natural hairpin, so slightly sheltered by the mountain, was a drystone-walled goat-pen, sans goats. I camped as close to the wall of the pen as I could, which took the edge off the wind, and tried to ignore the pungent fact that I was sleeping on several inches of sheepshit.

The climb the following morning was better only in that it was morning. Anything hard is easier if you have all day. The pass I could see from my campsite was another mirage, and it was a good five hours before I reached the true pass. I was foolish to have been deceived- passes are always 'adorned' (littered) with prayer flags. These are red, yellow, blue and green squares of fabric, or long white scarves of cloth, with Sanskrit prayers printed on them. They are strung together and left on passes, or sometimes over rivers, in thanks and supplication. Not that Buddhism is a religion, of course...

The weather was clear, but it's always cool at 5000m. A 4x4 full of Chinese policeman, apparently on an excursion, reached the pass while I was there; they were amazed to see me, and filled my pockets with sweets. The descent was only a few hundred meters, and the second pass was lower than the first, so it wasn't long before I was descending properly into the green, sandy valley. This time there were no fences. Apart from the road, which was barely distinguishable, there were no signs of humanity. There was no wind; When I stopped, the stillness and isolation were palpable. While riding, however, the silence was cracked by increasingly troublesome noises from my transmission. An experienced biker would have recognized this as a sign of trouble ahead. Not that they could have done anything about it, any more than I could, so in this case ignorance was bliss.

I followed the valley for a couple of hours; the going was flat and, apart from one wide but shallow ford, where I resupplied my water, uneventful. Around 3 o'clock the road turned in towards the valley wall. It seemed too soon to camp, though I had no intention of climbing three passes in one day. The prime real estate below the climb turned out to be occupied by some Tibetan nomads, whose dogs chased me for about 20meters, while their children kept up for about a kilometer. It was astonighing how fast these kids could run at this altitude. Or perhaps how slowly I could cycle.

Chased from the verdant pastures, I decided to start the climb. It was a long pass, so there was likely to be a tent-sized patch of flat earth somewhere on the way up. Beware of ill-conceived faith in flat earth. Another three hour hack and I made it up to the third pass. Hairpins all the way, with a steep cliff on the inside and a sharp drop on the outside. About halfway up I came head to head with a fuel tanker, occupying almost the entire road. I was stuck on the outside edge, clinging on with my toes as the lorry edged past. I kept an eye on it's descent as I climbed (switchbacks allow this), convinced it must be stuck, else plunge. Of course they made it, there's a town at the other end of this road and they must receive regular supplies, but this road was right at the edge of navigability, from start to finish.

It was already 6pm when I reached the third pass. And I needed to reach a campsite before dusk. Fortunately the descent mirrored the first climb, long and steep, first swerving down switchbacks and then a long slide down a river valley. I rode another 25km in no time, which brought me out onto a huge open plateau, stretching to a jagged horizon of snowcapped Indian Himalayas. There was suddenly no shortage of flat camping ground. I came to a junction, which I didn't expect. There was a sign I couldn't read with arrows I couldn't fathom. Keen, under the circumstances, not to take the wrong road, and having ridden more than enough for one day, I pitched camp near the junction and left the decision for the morning.

While I was eating my porridge a 4x4 appeared from the direction of Hwy219. I ran to the road and, after some highly convoluted mime, discovered that the driver spoke English. He pointed me in the right direction (left. I'd been leaning towards going straight, so was delighted with this help) and gave me a beer.  Fortunately he drove off without insisting that I drink it right then, so I stashed it in a pannier as a reward for arriving in Zada. Call me soft, but beer and porridge just didn't appeal before an 8hour bike ride.

The left turn descended to a river which cut a deep gash through the plateau and climbed back up the other side. Fording the river was tricky and provided much amusement to the small crowd of 4x4 passengers who'd stopped by the river for breakfast. (There was a Tibetan tent serving food. Again. Clearly the 'fordside tent' is the Tibetan equivalent of a 'cornershop').

Zada is at an altitude of about 3500m. I'd descended a a long way yesterday after the third pass, but not 1500m. Before long the road led off the plateau. It followed, and often merged with, a rocky river-bed. In parts it felt like a canyon, with sandstone cliffs close at each side, more resembling the Karakorams than the Tibetan hills. With the lower altitude came real heat, also reminding me of Pakistan. From this corner of Tibet it's a short hop to Ladakh. It's not even that far from Daramshala, which was a thought I didn't like to dwell on. English guidebooks sell the destination of this road, the remains of the ancient Guge kingdom, partially hollowed out of the rock. Chinese guidebooks, or at least the Chinese tourist board, are just as interested in the surrounding geology. What is rendered in Chinglish as 'stone forests', and refers to waves of 50m+ high sandstone protrusions, weathered into fortress-like systems of buttresses and pinnacles, folding the landscape for hundreds of miles. The descent into Zada (the town near Guge) mostly followed the path of least resistance between two such waves. The path out of town, did not.

I arrived in the afternoon; the narrow gorge opened into a wide river valley, totally barren. Zada was visible across an arid, stony plain on the far side of the river, smaller and even more incongruous than Ali.

The street was paved, which made me smile. The first hotel I tried was full, and the second expensive. While I was regrouping , chatting to a Swiss long-term resident of the hotel, a couple of Chinese girls came over to chat (they do that). One of them, Ada, spoke fluent English; They were also looking for a room, so we joined forces. A little further down the street we found 'The Letter Always Arrives Hostel', which was offering a dorm bed for 40Yuan, which seemed fine to me. Nonetheless, Ada bargained on my behalf as well as her own. A protracted negotiation ensued, which revealed why I'd had, and would continue to have, little success at bargaining with the Chinese. Whereas in India you basically name your price and wait, in China you have to persuade. You have to give them a reason to come down that doesn't lose them face, and this really requires language. Ada found the clincher:
-Tim, are you a student?
-Yeah (more or less)
A little more discussion and I had a dorm to myself, with TV, for 30Yuan.

Ada, the other girl, whose name translated as 'Blue Sky' and Dan were on a jeep tour around China. The other two spoke no English, but through Ada we managed sufficient communication to be friends, and Dan (whose jeep it was) offered me to join them visiting Guge the following morning. Not relishing the 22km out-and-back detour over an atrocious surface, I jumped at the offer.

Conveniently for me, the following morning Dan had to get his jeep fixed, which freed up enough time for me and Ada to visit the crew of Swiss restorers working on the local monastery. (They'd suggested this while I was loitering yesterday) This was a belated effort to mitigate the effects of the cultural revolution. Their project was permitted, though neither funded nor encouraged, by the Chinese authorities.

Tibetan monasteries are typically built as a complex, with both domestic and spiritual functions. There's usually one or two main 'chapels', which are large halls with high ceilings supported by a forest of wooden pillars painted crimson. The walls are painted black or red, with scenes from Buddhist mythology either painted in huge, intricate murals or stenciled in repeating patterns, often gold. The focal point of the chapel is a statue of the Buddha; covered in gold leaf, it is invariably the best of it's type (tallest 'sitting Buddha', heaviest 'fasting Buddha', widest 'reclining Buddha facing east' etc). This is often surrounded by other, less remarkable statuary of important Buddhist folk. (Gods? Surely not.)

The chapel at Zada was empty, save for a couple of plinths and some scaffolding. Zealots of the cultural revolution, after ransacking the place, threw wet slurry on the walls. The Swiss team were engaged in the laborious task of scraping the walls with scalpels, to chip off the clay and reveal the original artwork. We distracted them for an hour or so, before returning to check on the state of the jeep.

Something had been fixed and we set off immediately. After the initial novelty wore off, jeep travel transpired to be a surprisingly tiring and uncomfortable way to go. I can't say I'd ever envied the landcruiser tours, but now I almost pitied them. We were shaken like nuts in a tin, clinging on to the handholds for stability. On the other hand, it was air conditioned and quick. The final approach to Guge involved a stretch of deep mud. Dan got out and manually switched to 4WD mode, and we blasted through without trouble. On the bike, it would undoubtedly have been, well, gooey.

The Guge kingdom itself was surprisingly rewarding. The surviving remnants of the kingdom were the heart of what was a thriving trade centre back in the day. It was strategically located on the now totally defunct trade route between Tibet and Ladakh. The king lived in a 'palace' at the top of a 400m hill. This was divided into his 'summer palace', a pretty humble effort of maybe ten small rooms built on the summit, and his 'winter palace' a system of tunnels and caves hollowed out of the rock over 5m below the summit. The caves were tall enough to stand in, the tunnels bent me double. The surviving structures below the palaces, some built of brick, others carved into the hill, were primarily living quarters for the ruling monastic elite. This gave the ruins a more 'lived-in' feel than those other famous rock-carved remains at Petra, where all that's left are tombs.

The kingdom fell when the king took too close an interest in the teachings of some Jesuit missionaries; the monks feared for their position, and invited the neighbouring Ladakhi's (fellow Buddhists) to invade. There is a lasting monument to this, in the form of a thick wall halfway up the hill, which serves no apparent purpose. When the Ladakhi's invaded, they took most of the low ground without too much trouble, but the hill was impregnable. Instead of a futile attack, they enslaved the people they'd already defeated and forced them to build a wall at the front line. As they worked themselves to death, the slaves were simply built into the wall by their friends and family. Suffice to say that they were not a happy bunch. The plan was for the cries of his suffering people to force the king to surrender, which he eventually did.

It is worth remembering that, the illegality of the Chinese invasion notwithstanding, Tibet has never been an idyllic land of peace and brotherhood. Before the Chinese invasion, which has made it an oppressed, occupied territory with isolationist tendencies, exclusively ideological education, and with wealth and resources dominated by a foreign elite, Tibet was an oppressive, feudal theocracy with isolationist tendencies and exclusively religious education, with wealth and resources dominated by a domestic elite. If they had oil, they'd be a rogue state.
The Dalai Lama has effectively acknowledged this, by campaigning for a democratic autonomous government in which he would have no part. He would be unlikely to garner much international support for a return to absolute rule by 'god-king' dictat. One has a sense that, left to their own devices, Tibetans may well have followed the Nepali and Bhutanese model of peaceful transition to democracy, but this is of course pure conjecture. Anyway, I digress...

As well as living quarters there were several chapels with surviving artwork and partially surviving statuary. Several statues (grotesque demon-gods made out of something colourful and lacquered) were still standing but had gaping holes in their bellies where their straw innards were ripped out. It wasn't clear, from Ada's translation of the guide, whether treasure was secreted in these cavities, or whether the looters just thought it was, but the effect was the same. The clarity and quality of the 500 year old murals was fantastic though.

After wandering the ruins for a while, we ambled down a streamside path to a cave containing 100 year old, incompletely decayed, human remains; without heads. No one knows who, or why. We were back in Zada before dark, so I had time to meet up with the Swiss restorers again for drinks at their favourite haunt. This was a pavement table outside a Tibetan restaurant; they were clearly regulars, and had a great rapport with the middle aged and matronly proprietress. They explained to her that I came by bike, and she smiled.
-Very nice.  I couldn't do this- I have very bad knees.
You can't really impress Tibetans with feats of endurance. They live in Tibet.

I left Zada early the following morning, aware that I had to climb around 2000m before I'd be back on Hwy219. The road out of town followed the river for a couple of kilometers and was mostly sand. However, while coming into town had followed a ravine, leaving crossed them. Worse still, the trucks don't use this route. The promise of humane gradients was broken, and very soon I was facing a steep ramp of soft sand. I tried to make a run at it, but a 4WD appeared at the worst possible moment and gunned past me, forcing me off the bike and nearly off the road. There was no way I could build momentum again, the rear wheel just spun in the sand, so I pushed and slid. From this point there was almost no respite. I deflated my tyres to half pressure for grip, and after a while the gradient softened enough for me to make enough traction to ride again, but this was little faster than walking. The sand and bare rock reflected and intensified the heat. I saw no more vehicles, and there was no water. It took seven hours to hack 25km out of that valley; I've since ridden ten times that distance and felt less exhausted. The final kilometer onto the plateau was like trying to ride up a dry waterfall, huge rocks, loose shale, steps so steep I had to push the front end down to keep it in contact with the path. Already utterly worn out, I was prone to carelessness. I failed to spot a deep pothole in the path, which my front wheel missed, but the rear did not. The saddle fell away under me, before the rear wheel slammed into the side of the pit, jerking it up, and forward. The agony was excruciating, and combined with a unique sense of shame and violation that comes with being involuntarily buggered by your own bicycle.

At least this was a parting shot; the worst was done and I could sit at the edge of the green plateau and admire the view of the 'stone forest'. A couple of kilometers further on there was a river, again cutting deep through the plateau and providing shelter as well as water, so I pitched camp.

Most of the next day was spent crossing the plateau, which was gratifyingly cool, green and flat. There was a pass, but the climb had been so gradual over about 60km that I was surprised by the appearance of prayer flags. This subtle climb was followed by a real descent. Clearly Shi-Ma-No, Tibetan god of cyclists, felt I was overdue a blessing. There was a river below the pass, as usual, with a perfect flat campsite just above it. So perfect, in fact, it was littered with the trash of previous occupants.

There is debate about the most responsible thing to do with litter, when wild-camping, with thought generally divided into three camps: 1) bury it 2) bin it in the next town or 3) burn it. Since nearly all the litter I generated was, thanks to the Chinese love-affair with shrink-wrapping, plastic, burying didn't seem very ecological. The difference between binning and littering tended to be one of agency rather than effect, since most towns just dumped their rubbish somewhere nearby. So, as a rule, I chose option 3. I think my logic was sound, but then again... I do like burning stuff...

The god of cycling clearly felt that he'd overdone his largesse. The following days ride, through a relatively lush valley and over a tough but not extreme pass should have been the good kind of hard. I'd climbed approximately ten feet of the pass when the first spots of rain fell. Rain on sand can firm up the surface and improve rideability. The last three days had been nothing but soft, powdery sand. Today was dirt. Hard and quick when dry; slippery, cloying, clinging, chocking clay and slurry when wet. The good road quickly became unrideable. I managed one or two kilometers before the sticky mud started to cling thickly to the tyres, jam in the mudguards and dump all over the transmission. Twice I fished out my toothbrush (the one in the toolkit, not the one in the washbag) and cleaned all the crap away, and twice it took two pedal rotations to foul everything up again. I had to admit defeat and push the two kilometers to the top of the pass.

The descent was a little better, since I didn't need to pedal, but  I did need to brake. This was merely hard rather than impossible, so I did ride most of the descent. At one point the mud was two feet deep, half brown water, half sucking slurry. A small traffic jam of 4WD had formed each side of the 100yard stretch, the drivers not sure if 4WD was enough. I changed into sandals, bit the bullet and trudged through. The jeep passengers were mostly concerned with their own troubles, but a European couple (probably Swiss) did give me some sweets.
At the bottom of the pass was a clear brook, ankle deep, so  I stood the bike in the middle of it and spent half an hour cleaning the accumulated crap away before carrying on.

Finally I rejoined Hwy219, which I was shocked to discover was still asphalted this far from Ali. I made good progress in the afternoon, over a gradual climb past Bauer army camp and onto an open plain. I could see stormclouds ahead, however, and didn't fancy an exposed campsite, so I pushed on, hoping that either the storm would pass overhead or the scenery would change. Just as the storm hit the road dropped into a long, gradual, paved descent. If you could wish for any kind of road while touring, this is it. It was probably unique. So of course, it had to be raining.

An hour or two later the rain was clearly not going anywhere. The valley had narrowed and I was on the lookout for any vaguely suitable place to camp. Suddenly I spotted some flat ground, below the road. It caught my eye because there was already a tent on it. A tent I recognised. I'd seen that 'Stormshield' logo every morning for weeks:
-Pawel! Magda! What the hell are you doing here?
-Us? What the hell are you doing here? We thought you'd be in Lhasa by now!
-I took the detour. I take it you came straight?
-Yeah, we tried but with our tyres, it was no good. How was it?
-Awesome. Absolutely the best thing I've ever done... (for any non-traveler types, this is the standard response when asked about anything that you've done and the other guy hasn't)
-Yeah yeah
-Anyway, can I camp with you? Dunno if you've noticed but it's a little damp out here...
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