Cycling Plus #12:
Lhasa to Kathmandu,
The sun dipped behind the glacial peaks of the Himalayas, casting a shadow
across the sweeping Tibetan plain. At such high altitude the evening skies
are cloudless and the air is crisp. It was time to begin our nightly
ritual, the search for a campsite. The temperature dropped quickly and we
were soon nestled in our tents, sipping on warm sweet tea.
The Potala, the Dalai Lama's former palace, was our starting point for this
first stretch of the 1000km Lhasa to Kathmandu ride. Once the spiritual
centre of Tibetan Buddhism, it is now no more than a money spinning museum,
the result of the Chinese invasion in 1959. Set to a backdrop of blue sky
punctuated by candy floss clouds, it is still truly imposing and provided
the perfect location for our departing photoshoot.
Leaving the city, we followed a smooth and flat tarmac road, false security
for what lay ahead. Awaking from our first night under the stars, we
looked out towards a range of snow capped peaks gleaming under the first
rays of the morning sun, which dusk had hidden from us. It was
inspirational. Soon the 'highway' deteriorated into a bumpy track and began
a gentle but unending climb. Up and up we cycled, past inquisitive yaks and
through herds of mountain goats, stopping to rest and drink water as the
altitude increased. Cresting the pass at almost 16,000 feet, dark clouds
hung ominously close above our heads and prayer flags fluttered wildly in
the cross winds. Beyond, the dirt track bordered the turquoise waters of
Yamdrok-tso lake. Fording streams, it dissolved into ankle deep mud as it
linked whitewash Tibetan villages.
The Tibetans themselves are a curious people, keen to squeeze bicycle
tyres, test brakes and rifle through our panniers. We were used to such
curiosity but one morning an onlooker, who had been happily scrutinising
our belongings, went a little too far. Packing up our tents, we overheard a
soft but perturbing hiss. We looked round to find him curled up on the
ground, shaking, not uttering a word. On discovering Joe's pepper spray, he
had removed the safety clasp and sprayed it right into his face. What this
blinded and confused Tibetan must have been thinking... Calming him down,
we explained our fear of attack by crazy nomadic mountain dogs. As the
effects wore off, worries that he might harbour ill thoughts were dispelled
as within moments he had returned to rifling through the panniers, unfazed
by the whole incident. When his friends rolled by he proudly told them of
this encounter with these strangely armed foreigners. Guiltily we bought
the cubes of goats cheese that he offered to sell us, hanging like a
necklace around his neck...we took a photo of his beaming face.
With its Himalayan panoramas, indigo blue skies and Buddhist philosophy,
Tibet is a mesmerising place which has drawn travellers for centuries. But
in recent years, the Tibetans and their culture have been systematically
squeezed out, and the Han Chinese have moved in.
The road to Kathmandu is a tough and demanding ride, and as another night
fell we were relieved to arrive in Shigatse with the promise of the first
hot shower for days. This first half of the journey has not only introduced
me to the physical beauty of the land but has also told me a little of the
tragic story that is taking place there. Right now.