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RoughGuides #5:
Lhasa to Kathmandu, Tibet

The sun dipped behind the glacial peaks of the Himalayas, casting a shadow across the sweeping plains. 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 the campsite. The temperature dropped quickly and we were soon nestled in our sleeping bags, sipping on sweet milk tea.

We had left Lhasa a few days before. There, the Tibetan quarter centres around the vibrant Jokhang, the monastry where pilgrims carry out their prostrations. Market sellers cry out their wares to passers by, who stroll round in a clockwise direction thumbing prayerbeads and spinning the prayer wheels. Totalling less than five percent of the city, it is dwarfed by the forever expanding 'new' Lhasa, a complex of sweeping boulevards and government offices, home to the Bank of China, blue tinted offices and giant malls that typify any Chinese city. The architecturally imposing Potala, symbol of Tibet, once spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism and former home of the exiled Dalai Lama, has become little more than a money-spinning museum manned by a handful of robeless monks. Such is the reality of Tibet's capital today.

So it was with sadness as well as excitement that we began this 1000km stretch from Lhasa to Kathmandu, following the Friendship Highway. Awaking from our first night under the stars, we looked out towards a range of snow capped peaks lit by the first rays of the morning sun. Soon the 'highway' deteriorated into a track, beginning a gentle but unending climb. Up and up we rode, past inquisitive yaks and herds of goats, stopping to rest and sip on water as the altitude increased. Cresting the pass at almost 4,800m, 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 villages, where rugged, red-cheeked Tibetans silently watched us pass by.

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, happily scrutinising our belongings, went too far. Engrossed in packing up, we overheard a soft but perturbing hiss. Looking round, our Tibetan visitor lay curled on the ground, shaking, uttering not a word. He had discovered Joe's pepper spray, and having successfully removed the safety clasp, sprayed it directly into his face. I could only wonder at the intense thoughts that this blinded and confused man must have been thinking! Calming him down, Joe tried to explain his fear of attack by crazed nomadic mountain dogs as he plied him with biscuits. The effects wore off and worries that he might harbour ill thoughts were dispelled. Within moments he returned to rifling through the bags, 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 pungent cubes of yak cheese skewered by string, hanging like an necklace around his neck...we took a photo of his beaming face.

Arriving in Shigatse, second city of Tibet and all but Chinese in character, we finally showered and refuelled on fresh food, a welcome break from the instant noodles and biscuits that we had previously endured. Following a gravel track that cut across the desolate plains, we outran a brooding storm that spread like an ink blot across the sky. We broke for an early dinner at a truck stop, where inebriated drivers greeted us merrily as they staggered and stumbled back into their cabs. Shepherds herded their flocks home for the night and we weaved our way through a goat tailback, camping beneath a sky bursting with stars.

The haunting melody of locals singing in the fields awoke us from our slumber. Lunch was a bowl of tsampa in a dusty village, a sort of powdered 'All Bran' and the staple Tibetan diet. Reaching the top of yet another 5000m pass, a bone-dry valley stretched before us. We enjoyed a few moments of solitude amongst the prayer flags before a convoy of jeeps arrived and unloaded tourists, who duly photographed the view and tore off. Aside from cycling, Toyota 4WD's are the only half-reliable transport around Tibet, plying the Friendship Highway with passengers from Lhasa to Kathmandu, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.

Joined by David, a Levi-clad Frenchman, we left Lhatse and began the long climb to our highest pass, a lofty 5220m. The descent was exhilarating, slowed only when the road dissolved into a muddy bog. Gleefully, we waved to the marooned jeeps that had overtaken us...It was long past nightful before we arrived by torchlight at Rongbuk monastry, relieved to finally catch sight of its distant lights. We were exhausted, humbled by a rock strewn track that had climbed and dropped 1000 metres like a human-powered rollercoaster ride. Drained of the last iota of energy, it was an emotional time for us all; before us rose Mount Everest, glowing beneath the rays of the full moon. We collapsed in perhaps the world's highest restaurant where Doji, a laid-back Tibetan with hair that tumbled past his shoulders fed us delicious pancakes.

The following morning, the clouds veiling Everest dissipated and at 8840m, the North Face towered dramatically above us. An ancient leathery pilgrim in old climbing goggles perambulated the monastry, spinning the prayer wheels as she went. We pitched tent at Everest Base Camp, 5200m, where a cold and windy night left behind a crust of ice, crackling the tent as it shuddered in the wind. I tied my prayer flag, and cocooned in my sleeping bag, felt no need to dream - I was living what I had dreamt all those months ago.

With a chain that was almost worn out and just a few working gears, climbing passes became increasingly difficult and frustrating. Stopping in a Tibetan village coated in the golden light of the afternoon, we eyed the selection of instant noodles, dried yak cheese and Chinese biscuits long past their sell by date. Children gathered around our pannier laden bicycles, ringing horns and clambering onto the saddles. Circling us, they pulled out handfuls of carefully wrapped fossils and set about their sales pitches relentlessly. We raced off, yet more heavily laden, and camped amongst 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. Satellites glided across the cloudless sky as we listened to the silence of Tibet and drifted off to sleep.

Morning came with a burst of sound - we had been discovered! Inquisitive ruddy-cheeked and runny-nosed 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 - demanding money for their efforts. With farewell waves and smiles we peddled on once more, young Tibetans in happy pursuit, and struggled up one final double pass battling a gale force headwind. Cresting the summit, I gazed out for the last time to the distant peaks that surround this high altitude desert. Then, with cries of elation, we began our plummet off the plateau, dropping thousands of metres. The landscape changed suddenly and dramatically; trees sprouted from nowhere and mist-cloaked waterfalls cascaded over shiny vegetation. Cycling into a wall of rain, we slipped and slid through kilometre after kilometre of ankle deep mud that led down to the Nepalese border at Zhangmu.

Tibet is one of the most mesmerising countries I have cycled in. Its Himalayan panoramas, indigo blue skies and own particular Buddhist philosophy has induced an almost mystical pull on travellers for many centuries. So captivating is the physical beauty of the land that one might almost overlook the oppression that it harbours. Since the Chinese occupation of 1959, Tibetans and their culture have been systematically squeezed out, and the Han Chinese have moved in. It must not be forgotten that Tibetans are neither free to study in their own language nor hang a portrait of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Unlike many communities in the world, religion is still strongly woven into everyday life and the Tibetan spiritual leader is the essence of their belief. This part of my journey had not only introduced me to the uniqueness of the land, but also to the implications of the tragic story that is taking place there, right now. Without serious upheavals in China itself, it's difficult to see the consequences being anything but inescapable.

For us, foreign visitors, able to travel freely beyond the prayer flags and the plateaux, our destination still lay far ahead. Kathmandu and the long ride home.



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