Very Bumpy & Mountainous Roads...April 25th, Lhasa, Tibet "Not-so-Autonomous" Region, China
by Mr. D
After a couple days of recovery in Deqing, Richard was well enough to carry on. We packed up early and readied the bikes, but we were still uncertain of where to go. We'd joked about cycling into Tibet, but now we were at the final decision time. - Whether to cycle back down the 2000m hill to the Mekong and risk an unprepared and illegal trip through Tibet or to turn back to the relative tourist comfort of Dali for Pizza and chocolate.
But the lure of Tibet was strong. As we discussed the matter over a bowl of noodles, the decision was made, and we found ourselves planning the logistics of our new escapade.
Monster Mountain - Mt Melixue
At the back of our minds we held a faint glimmer of hope that we'd be able to get further.. perhaps all the way to Lhasa. But were we kidding ourselves, or was it really possible?
Our preparations ran into troubles at the small town bank beside the market. Little more than a whole in the wall, it was staffed by two glum uniformed attendants who looked nervous as we approached them to change money.
"OK change Travellers Cheques ma?" I ask in phrasebook mandarin.
"Ahh, what are those," she enquired inspecting the notes. But after a short pause she passed them back with a curt "No possible."
"OK, change money credit card advance?" I smile and show her our plastic. But she shook her head and went straight back to work.
We'd been saving our last US$100 for emergencies, but this seemed to qualify as an important enough event. Richard freed the money from its hiding place inside his handlebars and we returned into the bank. Still before we had chance to wave it in front of her, she shook her head profusely. Sitting behind her, her collegue is a little more capable of speech and says apologetically, "No change money here - you must go to Zhongdian."
Zhongdian was over 250kms away from Deqin... in the wrong direction and over some formidable mountains.... We were up the creek and left the bank despondently. Outside as we drowned our frustrations with some fried 'baba' bread we considered our options with only dregs of cash left in our wallets. But even though this was almost the perfect opportunity to give in gracefully and turn back, we both felt we couldn't give up that easily.
The last option was the hotel. I cycled back to see if they had money exchange, but they hadn't - still the manager was kind enough to call around town and check for me. But after a couple places and no luck, she shrugged and said, "you must go to Zhongdian."
I put on my sad face and remained seated in her office. "What bad luck," I sniffed, "no money, cannot go to Tibet, very sad." - After half a minute she gave in and pulled out her wallet and exchanged Y800 for our $100. We were on our way.
Richard cycles precariously close
to a 800m drop to the Mekong
We plunged down too, following the dusty road away from the alpine views and down into sparse desert canyon. The temperature soared, and as we repaired another puncture, we began to grow uneasy. The road echoed of goats crying and prayer flags rippling in the dry wind. The sun repeatedly set and then reappeared as we passed through the towering canyon walls. Our friend, the mighty Mekong, still muddy green was once again alongside us. But at this point, it had become only a shadow of its former self; a violent child of a river, crashing around corners and raging through constrictions leaving vast wakes of white rapids and smoothed boulders.
I kept feeling this was no place for us. The mountain goats clambered up steep paths, around narrow precipices and past withered thorn bushes. Behind them, a herder, his face hardened by the intense sun and wind, studied us for several minutes, before continuing on after his flock. His battered clothes flapping behind him in the wind.
My mind worried that in all this emptiness, we might find ourselves in battle with nature. We were alone with our enviroment, and if something were to go wrong, they could go very wrong. Richard started feeling ill again and I couldn't help feeling this was another omen?
We camped out outside a village that night, and have brief conversations with several of the village folk, but we were happy to be left mostly alone. The river raged next to us... to icy for a wash. A fierce wind tore down the gorge, and as we silently cooked dinner we fought and lost a continuous battle to keep the sand out of our food.
To add to the stress, Richard screamed out, and I looked up to see our tent blowing away - bouncing rapidly accross the sand dunes away from us. We're both up and running, but I was ahead... sprinting accross the soft sand in hot pursuit. But, with the tent travelling at least as fast as I was, I felt like a greyhound chasing the mechanical rabbit. I exhaust myself in the chase, heaving and puffing, while the tent bounces on tantalisingly close, but still out of reach. We continued like this for what seemed like forever... the wheezing of my lungs interspersed by the bounce, bounce, bounce of the tent rolling and tumbling. Then, finally it hit a rock and in its brief hesitation I manage to grab hold of a corner and fall down on top of it gasping for air.
Richard dragged himself alongside also huffing and puffing. In between breaths he pants, "lucky it didn't blow into the river."
"Urrr, yeah" I replied looking at the icy turbulent river racing close by.
The next morning, the wind had died down and the sun cast more peaceful shadows on the canyon walls. We ate a fried rice breakfast at a small shop in the village before continuing up towards the border. The restaurant owner told us of a couple Americans who had passed this way a couple months earlier, and our hopes of Tibet were raised until he told us that they returned to Deqin the same day.
The morning cycle is pleasant and we stopped to talk to locals as they walked along the road or slid accross the river on aerial ropeways.
Surprised at our luck
[ Jaymz & Rich at the Tibetan border ]
It's worth pointing out that we had arrived in 'political' Tibet, otherwise know as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. When the Chinese occupied Tibet in the early 50's much of the country was consumed by neighboring Chinese provinces. Yunnan gobbled a small chunk (Deqin area) while neighboring Sichuan province is almost half Tibetan in terms of land area.
So in reality we had already been in Tibet, but now we were in real Tibet... the place where the guidebooks reckoned was next to impossible to reach, the land of mysticism destroyed by forces that its people could not halt, the land of pain and suffering.
We ran accross the border checkpoint at the next town, several kilometers up the road. Miracuosly no one was standing outside watching as two western cyclists quietly slipped around the barrier and gave each other silent high fives, before quickly moving on.
We were eager to consolidate our position and see as much of Tibet before we were turned back. On the way out of town, we were waved at by a uniformed man who appeared somewhat unsteady on his feet, but we just ignored him, and quickly carried on. When a jeep stopped for us and offered us a lift (for a fee) an hour later, we were happy to accept.
We found ourselves sharing the bed of the the jeep with 4 others. Our bikes and our bags cramped everyone, but everyone seemed rather jovial and not too inconvenienced. I chatted to them all in basic mandarin for quite a while until I discovered that one of them was actually Japanese, and can't understand a word I'm saying. His name was Satush, and in Zhongdian he had equipped himself with a broad rimmed hat, a tacky chinese coat, and a hesian rice sack to cover his backpack. - He'd not washed for a couple days, and was now in full disguise and heading towards Lhasa. In his broken English he translated the advice from his guidebook to avoid the police in the next town of Markham. "The police there, very bad," he says with an air of worry.
His philosophy was to travel surreptitiously and at Markham he sliped off, quickly distancing himself from the crowds flocking towards us. In contrast we couldn't hide and decided to wander around without a care. If the police were to find us and turn us back, so be it; we figured we were lucky to have seen so much already.
We left our belongings in a horrible hole in the wall guesthouse and quickly escaped to see the town. The town had a distinctly frontier feel to it, and was markedly different to anywhere we'd been before. Monks gathered round us in crimson robes, while rugged cowboy types lead their horses through the dusty streets. Outside shops long haired men in long baggy coats and red hairpieces paused their conversations to eye us suspiciously. As we approached the main crossroads, the town took on a distinctly more Chinese feel, and we retreated inside to the relative safety of a Chinese restaurant. While we ate, people drifted by and watched us from the doorway.
A sad and depressed air pervaded around us. It felt like an Indian reservation in America, populated by idle people who seem to have given up hope.
We returned to the guesthouse after dark exhausted and ready for sleep, but once again we found our room right next to loud banging chinese pop music coming from a bar nextdoor. Then after what seemed like an age to fall asleep, but there was a loud banging at the door.
It was almost midnight when all of a sudden, we found ourselves with a room-mate for the third bed in the room. The guesthouse owner flicked on the light and showed a grungy Chinese man around the pokey room. He had long hair and an unkempt matted beard, his face was crusted in dust, and an unpleasant odour followed him into the room.
The guesthouse owner eagerly explained who we were, and added that I could speak Mandarin. This elicited a barrage of questions from the man who seemed quite oblivious to the fact we were trying to sleep.
I made a couple polite replies, and then found it necessary to point out that we were quite tired, and would actually quite like to go back to sleep. His response was to offer us both a cigarette. We abjectly declined and rolled over to ignore him. But as I tried to close my mind to the rattlings and bangings as he went through his belongings, I couldn't ignore the sound of a cigarette lighter soon followed by the acrid smell of chinese tobacco drifting through the room.
"Please smoke outside. no air in here," I barked at him, trying to contain my frustration. He pondered the situation for a minute and then thankfully took the hint and left the room.
It was 1.40 am when he returned banging at the door again. I grudgingly opened it to let him in, and soundlessly returned to my bed, but sleep did not come easily as he pottered around and eventually settled himself into bed. But the light stayed on, and I glanced round to find him reading my Yunnan road map... I said nothing and instead tried to ignore his coughing and spitting with every passing few minutes.
It must have been 2.30 when he went and took a last piss from the front door and then finally turned the light off. Relieved and disgusted I dosed off and waited for the alarm to wake us up with sunrise.
The following morning was beautiful, and it dampened my urge to make as much noise as possible as we prepared to leave. Dormitory ettiquette had been drilled into us so much that we couldn't even take revenge as the revolting man snoreed away, oblivious of our departure.
On the way out of town we discovered a proper hotel and kicked ourselves for not discovering it sooner.... however, even if we had, it's debateable wheter we would have been able to afford it.
Money was now becoming a problem. I'd calculated that we couldn't even spend Y1 (US = 8cents) for every 1km we travel towards Lhasa. It shouldn't have been a problem, but with food costs rising, and transportation scarce, I started a list to keep track of how much we were spending in comparison with how far we have travelled.
Cute Kid by the road!
We cycled on quite leisurely and made time to chat with a couple farmers sitting around a bush fire they had made. Chang (barley beer) is mixed with tsampa (roasted barley) for a marginally appetizing mid morning snack, and we marveled at how self reliant they were. The language barrier had become much more formidable as the farmers could speak no Chinese or English. Around the neck of one man hung a locket, inside of which was a photo of the Dalai Lama. We admired it for a while while all of us murmered his name... "Dalai-Lama, Dalai Lama" - it was the only word we had in common.
The Dalai Lama has not been forgotton by the Tibetan people. As the spiritual leader of Tibet, he fled the country he lives in exile in India and conducts a global campaign to 'Free Tibet.' However, this is all much to the chagrin of the Chinese who see the Dalai Lama as a huge thorn in the side of their attempts to integrate this hostile territory into the motherland. All over we find evidence of people clinging to the hope that one day he would return... lockets hanging around peoples necks, pictures inside their vehicles and houses, and he was often times the topic of conversation we had with many a native.
We reached the pass by late morning. Amongst the prayer flags and stones piled high was a plaque telling our height - 4300m. - it was the highest place on Earth we had yet been.
Jaymz toils uphill
It was early-afternoon by the time we made it to back down to the Mekong and the bottom of the hill. At the top we had been dressed up with 3 layers, fleece, gloves and wooly hat to guard from the icy cold and blustery wind. But down in the gorge far below the heat was oppressive and we had to strip right down to our shorts and t-shirts.
After filling ourselves with an expensive Y50 lunch of fried spam and beans, we said an emotional last goodbye to the Mekong and began the long climb up the other side of the valley. We flagged down a passing truck hoping for a ride, but he was only going 10km up the road. I turned him down and said that we might as well cycle... something I was soon to regret.
It took almost 2 hours to struggle that first 10km. The wind wipped sand into our faces and the sun scorched our skin. At times we would come round a corner only to be buffeted to a halt by fierce winds swirling off the hillside. It became a slow struggle as we pressed on and up, past the occasional road crew and little else.
We made it to the tree line and made camp as the sun was setting. After a fine dinner Richard turned in early while I sit around the dying fire watching the stars late into the night. It is so peaceful out here, the air so fresh, and the landscape so untouched by people. However, I began to worry about our safety. It was us alone with nature... if something were to happen; snakebite; rockfall; bike accident... it would be several days to any competent medical help.
The next morning was cold and crisp. A thin frosting of ice covered the tent and as the sun rose it reflected on the clouds to produce some wonderful colors. As we shivered and packed the tent, the sun peaked out from behind the hills, and we basked in its glow. Its warmth, glorious in the early morning stillness and. Only the clicking noise from a bird above us, and the echoes of a thin silver stream finding its way towards the Mekong far below us broke the peace.
Back on the bikes and climbing again. We reached a sub-pass of 3900m and then had a pleasant 15km break as the road gradually wound its way down to another tributary of the Mekong. At the bottom, we were cheered on by children outside their school. It would have been a nice place to stop, but we were in no mood to socialize and were instead intent on conquering the hill before us.
Gusts of arctic winds returned as clouds built up in the sky and passed accross the sun. Together they acted to create frustrating temperature swings and we were forced to stop and strip clothing, then put it back on, then take it off, then put it back on again.
The road wound slowly on and up, on and up, on and up. We played leapfrog with a truck fully laden with pigs, and stopped once to snack on the last of our cookies. On and up we went, on and up, praying that each stretch will be the last before the pass. But the road kept on going up while the air grew thinner and colder. We slowly layered up and struggled on, large hills towering above us, their yellow-green shrubs contrasting sharply against the blue sky. The clouds came closer as they swept by not far overhead. Low shrubs grew alongside the river and the odd frisky tailed bird chirped and fluttered about oblivious to the eagle circling overhead.
By mid-afternoon, just after we were disappointed with another false pass, we were presented with more road stretching up and into the distance... cutting straight accross the mountainsides like an open wound. But for the first time, the real pass was obviously visible - but at a dispiriting hours cycle ride away.
I was exhausted. Richard seemed to be in only a little better shape. We split one of the energy-bars that we'd been keeping for emergency and then continued the slog.
Someone once asked of me, "what do you think about when you are cycling?" Most of the time, I'm content to let the mind wander over anything and everything. It's a lesson in patience. But climbing this hill was a lesson in perseverance and determination. I knew it would take an hour, and mentally divided the road into sections which I then broke into sub-sections. The climb became hellish. The air noticably thin, but that didn't seem to stop the wind buffetting us more than ever before. We were both in our lowest gear, and I ground on trying to ignore the pain. Richard slowly pulled away as I took more and more frequent rest stops at each mental marker point. It was just a matter of time I told myself, and I tried to shut away the hunger and pain of over-exertion. On one occasion I stopped to take a swig from my water bottle only to find myself gasping for air after swallowing the water. Richard occasionally stopped to wait, and the pain on his face showed too.
A truck passed us on this final section, but neither of us were going to flag it down. It had become a battle between us and the mountain and we were not giving in.
The surroundings were now awesome. It's all so huge out there. I struggled to keep up with Richard who was strugging himself. We were taking breaks every couple of minutes even though the end was almost with us - It was a fight, and it was painful.
Its big out there.
But the pain was not over yet. The downhill was horribly cold, although invigorating and fast. At several points we had to stop and rewarm our hands in the fading sunlight. The road was quite smooth and only the cold stopped us from letting go of the brakes and flying full speed downhill.
We reached the base of the new valley just in time to watch the dying sun was reflect beautifully onto incredible granite spires that rose up beside a crystal clear and gently flowing river. It was warmer again and exhausted but happy, we followed the river up towards the small town of Zuo-kun.
In Zuo-kun we attracted scores of staring bystanders. Few of them spoke Chinese, and at first I mistook their 'in your face' curiosity as hostility. As we ravanously ate dinner, the crowd watched us from the doorway while a smaller crowd inspected and ran their hands over the bikes. This made me a little uneasy, and occasionally I would walk out to the bikes to make sure we weren't losing our possessions. But we weren't; quite the opposite; there was even one guy who was trying to fix Richards cycle computer with some left over wire.
Following our meal, we checked into a truck stop guesthouse... the finest place in town and paid the princely sum of Y10 (US1.30) for a dirty bed in a dirty room, and another Y8 ($1) for a gorgeous hot shower - the first in almost a week. Then, to our surprise we bumped into Satush, our japanese friend, getting out of a truck with his rice sack backpack over his shoulder and his cowboy hat covering his eyes. It had taken him as long to get to Zuo-kun by riding trucks as we had by bike.
We woke up the next morning to a majical snowfall and low cloud hanging over the valley. It almost felt like Christmas. With no intentions of going anywhere in this weather, we took our time over a breakfast of fried rice and dumplings and watched as the snow turned to sleet which then turned to rain.
It was a slow morning; we sheltered for an hour in a cafe watching the rain and then wandered around looking for food and petrol. Our quest for petrol was always a source of amusement, and gas station attendents would puzzle over our bikes looking for an engine. - Sometimes we would have fun with them by miming that we drank the petrol ourselves, and then we'd stand laughing at the shocked faces they gave us. "Mmmmmmm..." we would exclaim, "very tasty!" - In reality the petrol was for our little stove that would cook 3 or 4 days worth of brekfast & dinners for us on one bottle of petrol. In Zuo-kun, the only petrol station had sold out, and we eventually only found some by begging from a truck driver. Meanwhile, Satush was looking for a ride out of town, but the only truck going anywhere wanted to charge us Y300 ($45) per person for only a 60km journey. So we waited, and as afternoon came on the rain slowed, stopped, and the sun began to peak out through gaps in the dark grey clouds. We watched the truck leave, full of locals, and decided it was time we left too.
The route up the valley was bumpy and uneventful save for a wonderful stretch of tarmac road. It was such a surprise that Richard got off his bike and kissed the tarmac kissed the road, much to the amusement of the drivers of a passing army convoy. We then set off down the silky black tarmac... the wind whistling in our wheels, and joking that it would only last for a couple kilometers, but we were wrong... it didn't last even one.
Still, even such a short stretch of tarmac lifted our spirits, We cycled along complementing and shaking hands with the workers by the side of the road. But then in English we would jokingly comment, "you must work harder, even Laos has better roads!"
We reached the next town of Ban da later the next day. It sits at one of the most important junctions in Tibet. - Behind us were all roads to China, to our left was the southern route to Lhasa, and to our right was another longer route to Lhasa via Qamdo.
Ban-da was merely a string of five or so pokey restaurants in a long line. Nearby was a small army outpost that probably keeps the restaurant owners in business when the traffic becomes infrequent. Outside, a large group of rough looking Tibetans hung out waiting for rides to their next destinations. - A makeshift pool table was keeping some of them entertained, while others just sat on the dusty earth talking or staring into space.
Once again, our arrival was an instant attraction, and no sooner had we stopped, but we were surrounded by a small crowd. - The crowd continued to stare as we ate our meal. Some of them took up seats and just watched us. Outside, I had to interrupt one guy as he tried to test my bike helmet by hitting it on the handlebars. Another guy took my Chinese phrasebook from my hands while I was reading it, and disappeared outside to examine it.
Being the object of such attention was often wearing. In Laos it was enjoyable as the onlookers were positively friendly. In China it was acceptable as the onlookers always respected privacy and space, but in Tibet it was just annoying as the onlookers were neither friendly or respectful. This is not to say they were unfriendly or disrespectful, but their more primitive nature and lack of 'western' social rules often created an atmosphere that to us felt hostile and oppressive.
We left town to face another large hill, but it was not something we wanted to start climbing at 3pm. Climbing a hill so late could leave us dangerously exposed to both the cold and possible altitude sickness.
So we cycled up the road for a mile or so, parked the bikes and spent the remainder of the afternoon resting and reading in the weak sunlight. Around us there was little more than silence and open land. Sheep grazed on the hillside in the distance, and after watching carefully we also noticed marmots scurrying in and out of their holes. There were no trees. Occasionally we'd see someone emerge from the little group of huts barely visible in the distance, and walk up the valley and out of sight. The person would walk for an hour barely making any distance in the vast expanse.
The sun set around 7pm, and a biting cold set in within seconds of it disappearing behind the hills. We hastily cooked a pack of instant noodles, and held our hands around the stove for warmth. More villagers appeared again, some in the distance, some closer by, herding their sheep and yaks back to the village for the night. At one point, we were surrounded by a herd of yaks ambling back down the valley. Three children watching over them threw stones at animals which strayed too far. The oldest one was maybe 12, the youngest no more than 6. Apon seeing us and our bright green tent, they came over to watch, and gazed apon us intently admiring the stove, and our bikes, and our tent. They were dressed in long shaggy wool coats with sleeves that touched the floor. Their faces were already worn by the weather, and hands that had never been washed. They were very quiet, and just watched on, grinning occasionally when we tried to talk to them.
While they were distracted, the herd started to break up again, and eventually they were forced to go back to work and get all the animals back home before dark, and presumably in time for their dinner.
We spent the night shivering in the tent. In the morning, we woke to find a heavy layer of frost on the ground, and the water in our bottles frozen solid.
We'd packed just in time to catch a ride with a truck going up the hill. It was an army truck, and 12 excitied chinese soldiers eagerly helped hoist our bikes onto the vehicle. We began to entertain them in broken Chinese with the usual array of answers to the usual array of questions. Then conversation steered to all sorts of different directions, and we talked about where their homes were (all over China), whether they liked Tibet (no), and then onto whether western women were prettier than Chinese women. They didn't seem too interested in western women.
The suns' warmth began to radiate again, and the day was beautiful and clear providing us with a spectacular view of the valley. The truck waited while a JCB (yes a JCB! tractor... all the way from England!) dug a drainage trench through the road. Then the JCB stopped, and everyone sat around talking until a car was spotted heading up the road behind us. The soldiers sprang into action, picking up shovels, and heading over to the trench. I overheard the words 'the boss is coming'
The bosses Toyota 4x4, driven by a chauffeur, pulled up behind the blue truck, and patiently waited. As the time ticked by, and a few more vehicles pulled up, and we all watched as the soldiers goofed about repairing the road with a new drainage channel.
Every time we suggested that we'd go off on our own, one of the soldiers told us to rest, take it easy, and they would give us a ride to the top of the hill. By the time they had finally finished at 11pm, they did just that... but the summit was only another kilometre up the road, and Richard and I balanced out our exasperation as we thanked the driver profusely for his help.
At 4500m the pass provided a spectacular view of mountain peaks soaring far into the distance. This was the true Himalaya. We followed the road down and down and down and down, all the way to the nu river, some 3000m below. It was a 45k downhill, but the road was rocky and hid sand holes which meant we never really got to enjoy it.
Once we were down in the valley, the heat was searing, and we were once again cycling in shorts and T-shirts and sweating profusely. The angry rust colored 'nu' river raged beside us, racing towards more peaceful nature in China and then Burma. The valley walls were steep and life seemed never to have existed down here. The road crossed the river over a concrete bridge at a narrowing where a huge rock, 10 storeys high, had at one time fallen. Beside our bridge lay the ruins of two others that had been swept away sometime in the previous 20 years, and then further upstream we could see how the valley walls became vertical cliffs towering towards the sky.
We followed a tributary away from the nu. The road became an appauling mess of alluvial rock with grit. In many places it had been shored up by concrete walls, but the walls didn't seem to be halting the progression of nature. All around us overhanging precipices of precarious rock looked ready to bury us at their whim.
Many road crews worked along this section of road trying to keep it from the river below, and the rocks from above. - It seemed like a battle they were barely winning. An evil dust laden wind blew straight into our faces making our progress slow and painful. Every spin of the wheel was a bone jarring shake, and the slope and the wind made time stretch on eternal. Low on food, and tired from whole ride, we both became extremely pissed off, and rode on without saying much to each other.
Salvation came in the form of another blue truck, laden up with boxes, and a few passengers in the back. We negotiated a ride for ourselves & bikes to Ba-yi, a town some 250 kms distant for Y200 ($30) each including bikes.
The catch was that at each town, we had to walk through it by ourselves as the driver knew he faced potentially crippling fines if he were caught transporting foreigners. So at the town of Ba-sui, we were dropped off at one end, and ambled through casually while the locals, stared, gawped, and wondered about us.
In Ba-sui we found Dove chocolate. We also found the police. While the truck waited at the other end of town for us, we were interrogated by a young and friendly officer who was quite confused by our appearance.
"What are you doing here", he asked
"Just out for a bike ride," we replied jovially.
After what seemed like an age waiting for him to copy down the details from our passports, he warned us that we were travelling in a restricted area. He asked us to check in with the police at the next town up the road, and then miracuosly bid us a pleasant farewell.
The truck was still waiting for us by the time we had finished with the police, but we had to continue walking out of town so as not to draw attention to the driver.
We waited for the truck beside a small vegetable patch and a garbage dump at the edge of town. Squatting in the middle of the dump, a man and his 7 yr old daughter eyed us suspiciously. After several minutes the young girl came towards us and inspected us from a safe distance. We held out a cookie, and she instantly accepted. We let her take a couple to share with her father, and she skipped off delighted. - The father seemed equally happy on receiving the cookie, and waved us over. Richard remained by the side of the road, but I could not resist the temptation to peak into someone elses life. The father looked worn and beaten from toiling in the sun and scrounging for food. They had a small fire going, and perched on top of it was a little kettle boiling the ubiquitous bitter tea - They had no cups to offer me, so we had to craft a makeshit one from the bottom of a discarded plastic bottle on one of the heaps of rubbish. - We cleaned it with boiled water, and then proceeded to try and talk with no common language at all between us.
It is amazing how even language cannot stop a conversation. Neither Richard or I was able to learn any Tibetan, and this man was not alone in not knowing any English and almost no Chinese. Still, somehow I was able to tell him we were going to Lhasa by truck. He so desperately wanted to come along too, and I had to keep repeating that it was not my truck, and that we couldn't just invite him along. He seemed a lonely and sad man who was ashamed not to be able to raise his daughter in better conditions.
These types of meetings around the tea pot occured frequently on the trip, but for reasons that I can't explain, this one sticks in my mind as the most memorable. I felt at ease as I talked to them. But then all of a sudden the truck arrived, and I had to dash away to join everyone on it.
The cargo had now swolen to probably 20 people... all of whom were young men, and many of whom were shocked to see two white people climb aboard. - There was an intense curiosity that almost began to feel hostile, and wasn't diffused by offerring cookies around. We bounced over the bumpy road billowing dust behind us, and the sun quickly disappeared permanantly behind the valley walls. - As the truck raced on, and the night came apon us it got colder and colder. Richard & I were faced with a serious problem that all our warm clothes were packed in the bags somewhere below this mass of people. We were to face the night on a moving open air truck high in the himalaya with little clothing.
It did get colder and colder, and I was forced to move away from the draft behind me. Everyone in the truck moved closer and closer, until eventually we were locked together in a tightly huddled human tangle. A few of the men started chanting to the night... serene religious chants that carried logingly over the banging of the truck and whining of the engine. It became colder and colder as we climbed higher and higher. I curled up beside Richard, while one Tibetan guy used my butt as a pillow, another lay against my back, and another 2 rested their legs over mine. Richard & I kept talking to each other to make sure each other was doing ok, and acknowledged that hypothermia was now a real possibility.
The scenery around us was lit up by moonlight, and we watched awestruck as we passed below great snowy peaks. Then we passed a huge lake that was as flat as a mirror. The eerie soft glow from the moutains reflected perfectly and was more beautiful than words.
At just past midnight we thankfully pulled into a truckstop to rest for the night. We joined some of the guys inside one of the huts and shared some Tea, Tsampa (dried barley flour) and hacked meat from a dried joint of Lamb. This is the staple food for most people in these parts... a simple diet, but one which puzzled us, as the historically under-nutritioned Tibetans seemed far better built and far healthier than there Chinese contemparies who have had the benefit of good food for centuries.
We stayed the night in a simple room for the princely sum of $1. As usual, the toilet was the front door, and there was no running water to wash in. But there was a bed. - The rest of the guys slept out under the stars on mattresses they had brought with them.
We awoke the next day just before the waking time of 6, found our warm clothes, and prepared ourselves for the continuing cold. Everybody rose within minutes, and we were on our way only minutes later. The sun poked its light out from behind the mountains at around 7, and we were graced with the most spectacular views that both of us have ever seen. Huge towering peaks, reaching for the sky with sharp jagged edges and spires... everywhere. Every mountain was snow capped, and they followed, one after another as we drove down the lush green valley.
At 8am we stopped for brekfast. It was a mad dash as everyone gathered wood, and began to light fires for their little kettles. Bags of tsampa came out and everyone sat down to eat the same food as they had eaten the night before, and probably 3 times a day for their whole lives. Richard & I tucked into another one of our Dove bars when no-one was looking.
Chillin' with the Khampas
The next few days were spent casually cycling through incredible natural scenery. And as we cycled down the valley, a crystal blue stream beside us turned slowly into a river, and then into a wide grey torrent of grey water that would later become the great Brahmaputra in India. The weather became warmer and warmer too, and we progressed from alpine valleys to lush tropical ones with birds and all sorts of jungle sounds around us.
Long downhills are followed by long hard uphills. 3 days after leaving the truck we found ourselves once again conquering an almost 5000m pass. By this time, our bodies were much more acclimatised and we would have reached the top in high spirits had we not arrived during a snowstorm. Here we were on top of one of the greatest Tibetan passes, with a 7800m mountain right beside us, but we could hardly even see the roathunderd in front of us. We eventually took shelter under a large rock and waited listening to claps of and watching the blizzard blowing around us. An hour later when the thunderstorm had passed, and the snow became lighter we carefully rode on again through the slush and down the other side of the hill.
Again, the enjoyment of the downhill was marred by a rocky, muddy, and slippy road that was almost impossible to keep control on. As we descended, the snow turned into rain, and our hands, feet, and faces once again, went numb with cold. After a couple of hours of butt banging, and fighting to stay in control, we reached the bottom of the next valley to find something incredible. Tarmac.
Back on tarmac was like being in a dream. I constantly pinched myself just to make sure I really was awake, and I was.The road, smooth as silk, gently followed the undulations of the valley edges, and the sun poked out from behind the bubbling clouds to warm our damp bodies. Accross the river, Greenhouses lay spread out lending the area the feel of a future colonization on a distant planet.
Ba-yi came apon us like a surreal dream too. Rapidly we found ourselves sharing the road with taxis and cars, motorbikes and trucks. Traffic signs guided us, and then we were surrounded by buildings which grew bigger and taller. We glided by a fancy hotel to our right, then rows of shops and then found ourselves at a major intersection. The road to our left was lined with new, tall & impressive glass walled office buildings... Neon signs, and large statues.
Richard & I were dumbstruck... the map had only shown a small town, yet here we were in the middle of a large metropolis. We took the left turn and cycled in awe down the main street. People stared at us, and we stared right back... it was the cleanest and nicest city we'd seen in China... traffic passed us by without hooting, and tractors were not to be seen on the street. Pedestrians ambled down the streets in fashionable clothing, and fancy restaurants beckoned those with money to dine in style. But with our ever dwindling supply of money we had no choice but to find a hole in the wall noodle shop at the far end of town.
We had just ordered our food, and started fending off the curious onlookers when we got busted. A police motorcycle pulled up outside the shop, and out jumped two dour looking cops. A jeep pulled up a second later, and now there were 4. They piled into the restaurant, and ordered all the onlookers away.
"We are police. Why are you here?" one of the cops, a young woman, barked in strained English.
"Oh, we're just passing through" I replied.
"Passport, please" she ordered, and we grudgingly pulled out our documents. They gathered round to inspect them, and then she spoke again. "where are your permits?"
"You must have a permit to travel here"
"You must come with us."
We sighed, and in the pause, another policeman stepped in and asked us if we had eaten yet. Realizing we hadn't, he said, also in broken English, "we will wait until you have finished eating."
So, we ate our meal casually, and chatted to a soldier on the table next to us. We figured that being friendly with someone in green might keep us from too much trouble, and he explained that we were the first westerners that he had seen in Ba-yi. Inside, we were both a little worried. These guys seemed much more serious and organized than anything we had encountered before. And worse still, one of them spoke acceptable English... for me a sure sign of trouble. Outside the cops all took turns to study the passports, which kept them entertained for at least as long as it took us to eat dinner and join them outside.
We followed the motorcycle and jeep back to the station in a racing motorcade that we could barely keep up with. - On the street, a few people shouted 'hellos' but we were going far to fast to reply.
The police station was a dismal affair, but our interrogation was short and quick. They announced that we were breaking Chinese alien law and were not allowed in the city without a permit. - We explained that we had seen no signs to this effect, and politely enquired where we could get a permit from.
"You cannot get a permit. You are not allowed here." she replied. "As a penalty, we are going to confiscate your passports until tomorrow. You must report back here at 10am."
Behind the dour exterior, the police actually seemed quite friendly. They showed us to one of the cheaper hotels in town, and made sure our room was of a decent standard. Still no bathroom, but at least the sheets were clean. They chatted to us briefly while we were in the room, and then left us alone, with another reminder... 10am tomorrow.
The next day came fast after a long tired sleep. Richard & I joked in the night about all the excitement, but both of us were at least a tad concerned. We were at the station at 10am exactly the next morning, and our friendly cops were not far behind. - They let us into a musty waiting room with a thick layer of dust on the conference table, and soon joined us equipped with notepaper and pencils.
The woman began to question us in English, while the young guy spoke in a broken chinese/english that worked just fine with my broken english/chinese. The mood was good natured and we explained to them how we'd come accross Tibet on our bikes, talking to army guys, and to the police who told us to carry on to Lhasa, and everything seemed fine until we completed the story. There was a pause, and then they again explained to us, almost apologetically, that we had broken Chinese law, and there was to be a punishment.
"ok... " we sat expectantly waiting to hear of a small fine.
"You will be fined Y1000 each." - Ouch! - Richard and I just about laughed in shock. Y1000 is US$150 - a lot of money to a pennyless cyclist. We were ok with a small fine of a couple hundred yuan, but a thousand was out of the question. What's more we didn't actually have that much money. And so began a long drawn out process of negotiation.
"1000 Yuan... that's too much. We don't have that sort of money." We pulled out Y200 from our wallets, "this is all we have to get us to Lhasa." (We lied we had 400 between us, but weren't going to part with our safety net.)
"You must have more"
"What about American money"
"Well, I have $30 in American dollars."
"That is not enough," he replied.
"Well then we're stuck then aren't we." Richard & I grinned at each other.
"I don't believe you," the young man replied.
Eventually, we admitted that we had some travellers cheques, and then a visa card, but we had already discovered earlier that the biggest bank in town didn't accept them.
"Will you take credit card, or travellers cheques," I asked.
"They are no good to us... you cannot use them here"
"Well then, we cannot pay you."
"I do not believe you. We are going to leave you here for a while to think about this."
"Ok," I replied, "but we can't magically make money in here."
We were left alone for an hour... Richard and I joked in good spirits... If we couldn't pay, surely there wasn't much more that they could do than send us on our way. In the dust on the table we drew silly faces, and wrote things in slang such as "pigs suck." - We got up and walked outside of the building, and stood tapping our feet, waiting.
A big burly old man came up to us, dressed in a cheap suit, and took us back into the building. To the side of the waiting room was a smaller store room. Inside was a box of books from some Christian group. The titles on the top read about, "The famine in Gansu province," and "Find the light in Jesus." Then to the side were two bikes, covered in dust and with flat tires. - They were touring bikes, one a very nice Trek bike with front shocks and high spec equipment. - The burly guy poked his finger at me and grunted in Chinese, that this is what would happen to us too.
"No way," I replied firmly. "There is no way you will take our bikes." - Looking back on the situation now, I can feel how that came straight from the heart. I meant it.. there would be no way I would leave that town without my bike.
The burly guy paused. "I am the boss here," he replied.
"No way" I said again firmly and coldly. - I looked him in the eye, and I guess he must have realised that I meant it. He left the room and the young guy replaced him to ask if we had decided yet.
Richard and I pretty much spoke as one. "We have little money. If you cannot accept travellers cheques or credit cards, then there is no way we can pay you... unless you can think of another way." I chirped in as an afterthought, "can we wash dishes instead?"
The young guy almost smiled at the joke and answered we couldn't. We were left alone again for another half hour, waiting, before we were finally called out and issued their decision.
"We have decided," spoke the woman, "to refer your case to the police in Lhasa. Tomorrow we will put you on a bus to Lhasa. The driver will hold your passports and deliver you to the police there. You will have to pay the bus driver in Lhasa, and deal with the police there."
The news of a bus ride to Lhasa was so good that we didn't even worry about what trouble lay on the other end. Rich & I gave high fives to each other and thanked the police officers effusely. They looked back with a knowing air, and I sensed that the thanks was not warranted.
But for that afternoon, it didn't matter. We were going home... finally the cycling was almost over, and we'd be back to some vaguery of normality within a day. Lhasa was our goal, and we were almost there... we'd be able to talk to other westerners, and find a way home. Life was looking good. We spent the afternoon wandering through the town, poking our heads into shops and food joints. At one place we found more dove bars, and bought 6 packs... they didn't last the afternoon. We splashed out on ice creams, and found Internet for just Y10 an hour in the China telecom building. We surfed, and emailed friends, and then set off to explore the town. - We passed by a market, and found fruit and veg that would have laid disgrace to a supermarket back home. Everything was so fresh, and so abundant. Big juicy red tomatoes, mouthwatering apples, and bright yellow bananas. We were astounded, and chatted to people as we explored on.
The next day, we were up at 5.30am, to catch the bus. We were last on the bus, but it wasn't crowded, giving us plenty of room to spread out on the uneven seats. It was still dark as we left town, but light soon began to filter through the clouds as trundled on.
The smooth tarmac road gave out within half an hour, and we found ourselves bumping up and down as we traversed the washboarded road, and bumpy road. We'd trundled along passing heavy trucks laden with logs and god knows what, while 4x4's zipped past us horns blaring. The road deteriorated as we approached areas crawling with road crews who were busy tearing up and trying to level the road. - Their efforts only made the ride worse, and we went from bumpy road to very bumpy road with rocks and boulders everywhere. It was tough going, and my shoulder was already bruised from rubbing against the seat by the time the bus first broke down around 9am.
The engine spluttered to a halt, and a cloud of smoke rose from the cowling beside the driver. The driver and his helper popped the hood, and examined the problem, while the passengers took the break to answer their calls of nature.
Drivers our in these parts need to be incredibly self sufficient, and immediatly they were out with their toolkit, cutting and stripping new wires to fix a burnt out electrical system, and hammering something back together. 20 minutes later, the engine was fired up and we were back on our way.
The day wore on and we broke down several more times. Sometimes we were fixed in just a couple minutes, other times it took over an hour. The road got worse and worse, and the scenery more and more arid. At times, both of us felt worn out and ill, and at other times marvelled at things going on outside the window. - Beautiful cliff faces, wide valleys, tribes of tibetans with horses, small villages, road crews. Along the way, the driver would stop to pick up people standing by the side of the road. Some would accept his price, others would haggle over a couple yuan to the next town. The driver picked all of them up anyways. Every extra yuan in his pocket, was extra for him. The rest of the passengers sighed, as we waited out the sometimes lengthy negotiations.
The sun beat down during the afternoon, and we were covered in road dust by the time we stopped for lunch at a little roadside shack. We ordered our food in a line, and then waited as it was cooked. - There was no menu, and no food to point at, so I just told the lady that I wanted the same as the guy in front of us. Fortunatly, he'd chosen alright, and we were served with a couple bowls of rice and some spicy meat.... enough to keep us going.
And then we were on the road again. Held up by breakdowns, and road construction. At one time we got to watch the road crew blasting the rock face to widen the road, while in other areas we navigated past stranded vehicles which had become stuck on more technical sections of the road. We were both thankful not to have cycled this stretch of road, but the bus ride was a small consolation prize. Afternoon turned into evening, the sun set, and we continued to trundle on and up. As night came, we looked on at the surreal landscape; patches of snow in deep bowls, while mountain peaks stood sillouetted against the moon. It grew cold, and I tried to curl up on one of the seats and get some sleep. - I don't think I ever really fell asleep, and time trundled slowly on as we drove, bounced, and rattled through the night.
Sometime around 2am the bouncing subsided, and the bus screamed down the paved road at what must have been 80 mph. It blasted the horn as we passed slower trucks, and I couldn't help feeling that we were screaming towards our deaths. But I was too tired to care, and the risk seemed acceptable if it meant getting to Lhasa a little quicker.
And then we were in Lhasa... A Lhasa far removed from the movies, even in the early morning. - Taxis plyed the streets , and yellow lighting cast eerie shadows as we cruided the streets. The bus pulled into the station at just after 4am, a good 22 hours since we had left Ba-yi. We were knackered, and slowly pulled the bikes off the bus, and headed to the bus station hotel.
Foreigners were not allowed sighed the attendant, and then he returned to watching the black and white TV. The bus driver tried for us at another place next door, but it was the same story. "This is Lhasa, you can only stay at approved places." - With no energy, we sighed and asked for directions to somewhere we could stay.
We found our way to the Lhasa hotel and found ourselves in a plush lobby with a sleepy eyed receptionist. - The cheapest room was Y970. (US $140) We sighed without replying, turned around and left. The doorman suggested a place up the street which was cheaper... advice we took because we were too tired to sleep in the park.
The next hotel was also a fancy affair, and they had rooms for a still expensive $280, but it was a price we could live with to get some sleep. The night receptionist asked to see our passports, but they were still with the bus driver. She called the night manager, who could speak acceptable English.
We tried to explain the situation, but at the mention of police and passports he backed off quickly. But we were not frustrated enough to argue.
"Please," we implored " It's now almost 5 in the morning, we need somewhere to sleep"
Nervously the manager consented, and allowed us to check in unofficially. In return he asked us never to tell the police that we were staying at the hotel, as it could close the place down. The police are very strict here he said. We accpeted and were shown to a basic room where we crashed hard and slept deeply till late morning.
The next morning, after our first shower in over a week, we took a taxi to the police station with the bus driver and his mate. We tried to talk them into just giving our passports, but they were on the line too, and would have gotten into trouble if we'd escaped.
And so we were back to square one with the police again. This time, a casually dressed officer who spoke excellent English with an American accent interrogated us in the waiting room. He had clearly styled himself on American cop movies, but what I found most off putting was that he was a native Tibetan but working for the heart of Chinese evil in Tibet. While clearly aware of the story, he questioned us from scratch again. "Where are you from, where have you been, what have you been doing, why do you not have a permit, did you know that you were breaking the law, how long have you been in Tibet."
We answered seriously, but in an upbeat mood, and told him all about how we had met police and soldiers along the way and had seen no signs saying we were travelling 'off limits.' We cracked a few jokes along the way, and asked him about himself, but nothing cracked any ice. Finally, after we'd satisfied all his questions, he dropped the bombshell. In a dour manner he announced that we would have to pay a fine for travelling in a 'politically and militarily sensitive area off limits to foreigners'.
"ok," we prepared ourselves.
"Y250 each per day we were in Tibet..." Warning bells started ringing in our heads. We laughed in disbelief. "...or we will confiscate your bikes." - The fine added up to at least Y5000 each... that would total almost US$1500 between us. There was no way.
We went straight into negotiating, except now we didn't have the 'can't pay' argument, it was time to move to the 'won't pay.
"That is too much" I stated.
"You do not understand the seriousness of your situation. You have made a very serious infringement on Chinese law, you must pay" he replied in his infuriating mocking american accent .
"But we cannot pay that sort of money. It is far too much."
"Then we must confiscate us your bikes."
"No way" I replied in my firm tone, but it wasn't working with him. I tried explaining that my bike was a present by my late grandparents (I lied) and that it had sentimental value... and there was no way that I would part from it. Richard followed with a similar story.
"Then you'll just have to pay the fine." he retorted.
"But, we don't have that sort of money. You may think that all westerners are rich tourists with money to throw around, but we're not. The money you're asking is outrageous."
He appeared indifferent, and the discussion wheeled aggressively back and forwards... money, or the bikes. Money... or the bikes, but he wasn't moving or wearing down.
Soon we switched to a different tack. "I'm looking for a third option," I explained, "there has to be a way that we can both get something from this and be happy. But we cannot pay you so much, and you are not getting our bikes. Period."
"There is no third way, this is not up for negotiation." He held firm.
"Well, what about if we consider that we travelled through Tibet really fast, and have only been travelling for four days."
"Four days," he laughed at us. "There is no way you could have travelled so quick." He was right, we'd been travelling as fast as we could and it had taken a couple weeks!
"OK, so then, where does it say you can fine us Y250 per day?" I enquired.
He quoted 'article 42' of Chinese Alien law. I demanded to see it, and he pulled out the rulebook and showed us article 42.
Foreigners travelling in restricted areas without a permit are subject to i) a warning, or ii) a fine of Y250 per day in the restricted area, or iii) detention.
Cool. I pointed out that option one was a warning. "Can we have that?" I asked.
"No," came the curt reply. "That is not an option for you. Your case is too serious."
"Well then, the third option is detention," I shrugged. "I don't mind spending a day in jail."
He looked back flustered for the first time. "No. It would not be for a day, it would be for a week at least."
"How about 3 days," I countered quickly.
"This is not for negotiation," he stammered in frustration. We will decide what punishment you will have.
"Well, if we're not paying, and if you're not getting our bikes, you'd better think of a different third option. I rather think that this might be your last alternative."
Silence prevailed. He clearly didn't want to send us to prison as much as we didn't want to go to prison. Eventually, he stood up and announced that we should think very seriously about our situation, and we should report back to the police station at 3.30pm, with our bikes, by which time they would have drawn up our papers for imprisonment. Before then we should have also write up a full confession of everything we had done in China.
It was 12.30 - We stepped out into the chaotic streets with just three hours in which to save our bikes, our money, and our butts from the filth of a chinese prison cell. My brain felt like it was tumbling over itself trying to think of ways around the situation.
We strode down the street brainstorming with each other. Neither of us wanted to lose the bikes. Neither of us wanted to pay that sort of money, and Richard most definately didn't want to go to jail. For a couple minutes, I tried to convince Richard that jail might actually be quite fun, but he wasn't having any of it. Eventually he stopped my arguing and declared quite matter of factly that he was NOT going to prison. I didn't want to go to prison alone, so out of the window went my grand illusions of making headline television for political actions in Tibet.
We took a taxi back to the hotel, and immediately placed a call to the British embassy. However, all were out to lunch. Time ticked by. We called the embassy again, but still no-one was available to talk to us. Back at the hotel, I started to strip my bicycle of all the removable parts, just in case the inevitable happened.
Richard remained somewhat in denial, and acknowledged that he would pay the fine rather than lose his bike. While I sat swearing at my bike while trying to unscrew rusty bolts, Richard set about writing our 'confession'. He was the perfect person to write it too. By the time I had finishe, he had crafted a wonderful 5 page essay about how nice all the people were in China, and how the fields in Yunnan province looked so beautiful in the springtime as we cycled through them. It wasn't until the final paragraph that he briefly described our rapid odyssey through Tibet. It mentioned no dates, or times, and was wonderfully inventive with the spellings of the towns we had been through. I loved it.
At 2.30 we got through to a wonderful bloke with a thick Scottish accent at the British Embassy. We outlined our story too him, and he put us totally at ease with the reality of the situation.
"Well," he said, "they do have every right to confiscate your property, and they can put you in prison too. Although you probably want to avoid that because Chinese prisons are horrible rat infested sewers - they're not like British prisons."
I grimmaced to Richard, and enquired about the chances of negotiating a discount with the police.
"It's possible," he replied. "What I'll do for you is give them a call. We have a fair amount of dealing with the police in Lhasa and we may be able to influence your case. How much would you be willing to pay?"
I let him know that we'd probably cough up if the figure was two grand or below. He seemed to think that this was within reason. Then he asked, "do you want your next of kin to be notified if you are sent to prison?"
Young & old...
also under the watchful eye of the PSB
At 3.30pm exactly, we returned to the lions den, but without bicycles, and prepared with the excuse of having a flat tire. Richard gave me the permission to negotiate around the prison thing, but made me promise that under no circumstances was I to get us locked up.
Sourpuss came in the room, sat down and asked us what we had decided. I repeated the story. "We will not give you our bikes, we do not have the money. You will either have to lower the fine, or you have to send us to jail."
He stood firm. "I have told you this is not for negotiation...." He was interrupted by one of the aides, and I caught a bit about a telephone call. He left the room, and we were left alone again to chat for over an hour.
When he did come back, he opened up the conversation on a different tack. "I've just been talking with your Embassy," he announced matter of factly, "they've explained your financial situation, and we've decided to be lenient on your case. We are now prepared to consider that you have only been in Tibet for four days, and that you will be fined Y2000 each. Are you willing to co-operate."
Richard & I hid our grins. "Yes," we both said carefully... anxious not to appear to eager, while keen to spot any other way to lessen the blow.
"You must understand that this matter is not for negotiation, this is not a business, this is the law." He rambled on trying to save face, but it didn't matter anymore, we were ready to settle and get the hell out of there.
We were given a ride to the bank, we cashed out, got our official PSB receipt, and left with strict orders not to cycle any more in Tibet. - It didn't matter, we were going home as fast as possible.