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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #13:
Lhasa to Kathmandu,
Part 2
17/11/99

The three amigos - Joe, Trystan and I - leave Shigatse and rejoin the Friendship Highway, dodging Chinese tractor trailers careering round its streets. 'Highway' is a loose use of the term - it's a gravel track cutting across desolate Tibetan plains. We outrun a storm that is darkening the sky and break for an early dinner at a truck stop, greeted merrily by inebriated truck drivers staggering and stumbling back into their cabs. Shepherds are heading home for the night and we weave our way between both goat and sheep tailbacks before camping beneath a sky bursting with stars.

The haunting melodies of Tibetan singing awake us from our sleep. Breakfast is a bowl of tsampa, in a dusty village. Tsampa is a sort of powdered 'All Bran', the staple diet of the region. Reaching the top of a pass, a bone dry valley stretches before us, a hundred shades of brown. We enjoy a brief moment of solitude amongst the prayer flags before a convoy of jeeps arrive and unload tourists, who photograph the view and tear off. Apart from cycling, Toyota 4WD are the only way to travel around Tibet reliably, plying the Friendship Highway as they ferry passengers from Lhasa to Khathmandu, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.

Joined by David, a Levi clad cyclist from France, the four of us climb our highest pass, 5520m, and contemplate the Himalayas. The descent is exhilarating, slowed only when the road dissolves into a muddy bog. Gleefully, we pass the stranded jeeps who overtook us on the pass.

It's long past nightfall before we arrive by torchlight at Rongbuk monastry, exhausted and humbled by a rock strewn track, climbing and plummeting over a 1000m at a time - I've never felt so drained of energy. It's an emotional moment for us all. Before us, lit by the full moon, rises Mount Everest. We collapse in perhaps the world's highest restaurant and its owner, Doji, a laid-back Tibetan with hair that tumbles past his shoulders, plies us with pancakes.

Morning comes; the clouds veiling Everest dissipate. At 8840m, The North Face towers almost 4000m above us. Ancient pilgrims in ski goggles perambulate the monastry, clockwise, as we pitch tent at Base Camp, 5200m. Breathing is no longer difficult, having cycled over so many high passes, but the lack of oxygen is still noticeable. A cold and windy night leaves behind a crust of ice, crackling the tent when it moves. Cocooned in my sleeping bag, I need not dream - I am living what I dreamt of all those months ago.

My chain is almost worn out, and limited to just a few gears, climbing passes is difficult and frustrating. Inspiration comes from the vast panorama of the sweeping Tingri Plain, enclosed by mountains, set against a deep blue sky speckled with clouds. We stop in a Tibetan village and eye the selection of instant noodles, yak cheese and Chinese biscuits long past their sell-by date. Children circle us and pull out handfuls of carefully wrapped fossils, setting about their sales pitch relentlessly. We race off, yet more heavily laden.

By now the sun had dipped behind the peaks of the Himalayas and a shadow was cast across the vast Tingri plain. At such high altitude, the temperature drops quickly and it was time to begin our nightly ritual: the search for a campsite. Before long we were cocooned in sleeping bags,sipping on warm sweet tea, our tents pitched amongst ancient ruins on a hilltop. The crumbling walls that had stood for so long would protect us from the icy wind and hide us from the children....we hoped. Rolling up the fly sheet, satellites glided across the cloudless night sky, as we listened to the silence of Tibet and drifted off to sleep.

Morning came with a sudden burst of sound. We had been discovered! Inquisitive runny-nosed, smiling faces peered in for a better view of our nomadic home. It was time to move on, and the previously merchant children became equally eager helpers, carrying our bags down the hill. With farewell waves and smiles we peddled on once more, the young Tibetans in happy pursuit. We struggle up one final double pass against a gale force headwind. Cresting the summit, we gaze out to distant peaks that surround this high altitude desert for the final time, and begin our steep descent off the plateau, plummeting thousands of metres. The landscape changes suddenly and dramatically; a cloak of mist hangs over waterfalls cascading over shiny vegetation.

Behind us lies Tibet; ahead lies Kathmandu, Nepal and the road home.



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