Nighttime checkpoint crossings, falling rocks, landslides, and packs of wild dogs…
Foreigners are not legally allowed to travel independently in Tibet without a guide (and then only on certain roads, after paying a hefty fee for a permit, plus a jeep rental fee, plus a fee for the driver and another one for the ethnic Chinese guide). We had met two Belgian cyclists who paid $100 per day to have a driver and a guide follow them in a jeep – for a total of $3000, just for the permission to bike in Tibet! We didn't want to be bothered with a guide or a jeep that followed us on the road, and so we chose to go it alone.
This meant that we had to cross all control checkpoints in the middle of the night, when the border guards were asleep. This involved first finding a camping spot near enough to the checkpoint that we could reasonably expect to have enough time to bike through the town before dawn - no easy task, considering that there were precious few safe spots, what with the steep cliffs, falling rocks, and landslides, and also bearing in mind that we couldn't pitch our tents before dark so that the police officers near the town wouldn't spot us. After finding a suitable spot (more or less), we then usually had about three or four hours of shut-eye before we had to wake up in the middle of the night to pack up the tent in the rainy blackness (we were in Tibet during the rainy season). Then we headed towards the town along a steep, unpaved road (most of the road in Tibet is unpaved), taking care to avoid the slippery mud puddles and the huge fallen rocks blocking the road (if we could see them in the dark), or falling over them if we couldn't. Vicious dogs awaited at every checkpoint, seemingly ravenous about this prospect for their next meal. We carried big sticks and pepper spray to ward them off, but found that a flashlight, more than anything, kept them at bay. We had heard terror stories about packs of wild Tibetan dogs for years, and the danger was very real. As it was, the one dog that came the closest only managed to sink his teeth into my saddlebag and not into my leg, so I counted myself very lucky!
And so our first day in Tibet was not an easy one. It was very slow-going and painful on the narrow, unpaved road, and rocks fell from overhangs above us and littered the road, which was sometimes entirely swept away by landslides. We didn't know if, or when, we might be stopped by the police, fined, and sent on the next bus back to Chengdu. Our campspot before the first checkpoint was high above the road, slippery in the rain, and extremely difficult to reach, but we opted for that one because anywhere else would have left us exposed to falling rocks or a landslide. We successfully crossed the checkpoint (a few minutes before dawn!), but only after falling over big rocks on the road in the rain (because my lamp battery died) and after my heart almost came to a full stop with the first nasty dog. But we made it! We were finally in Tibet!
The unpaved roads were real torture, making the downhills even more difficult than the uphills! I had never wished so badly for a downhill to come to an end as the time that it took us TWO days to complete 40 km. downhill! We rested very little, because, being there illegally, we didn't have the luxury of stopping at guesthouses or truckstops, where someone might report us to the authorities. And so our legs took a real beating. The road (there was only one - at least we couldn't get lost!) bounced up and down between snow-peaked mountain passes and subtropical forests and river valleys like an out-of-control yo-yo. Flat country is practically unheard of in Tibet. When we neared the tops of mountain passes, we often felt the lack of oxygen and struggled to catch our breath because we were up so high (up to 5100 m. or 16,800 ft.). Extreme temperatures were difficult to support. It could turn quickly from scorching sunshine to gray rain to pelting hail in a matter of minutes.
And, unfortunately, our tent was starting to get old. It dripped more and more often, onto my forehead right between my eyes every night, making it virtually impossible to sleep. We were so tired from a hard day of biking that we sometimes slept through the rain filling up our tent, awaking in the middle of the night to find ourselves in a puddle, before the saturated sleeping bags and mattresses woke us up. We tried various methods to prevent the rain from entering the tent, but it always involved a lot of time and energy and didn’t always guarantee success. On one memorable occasion, as the skies opened up, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge puddle inside of our tent! It dripped from everywhere, and I tried in vain to mop it up with our towel, while Stephane dug a ditch with his hands like a madman around the tent in order to drain the water. Mud went flying and he was covered from head to toe. We didn't even have enough water for him to wash up, and so he had to rinse off in dirty pasta water soaking in our pan. It was so completely and totally demoralizing.
Instant Noodles…Never Again!
But probably the most difficult thing about riding in Tibet is the miserable food situation. We subsisted for weeks on instant noodles - three times per day! - because there literally wasn't anything else available. It might take us a couple of days' riding before we reached a village, and then the village might be a sprinkling of a half-dozen houses with no shop. If there happened to be a shop, the only things that the shopkeeper sold were soda, cookies, and yep, you guessed it! - instant noodles! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Even the smell started to make us nauseous. We found no other food! No vegetables, no fruit, no eggs, no bread, no butter, no meat, no nothing! Once, we came upon a small Chinese restaurant in a village and almost jumped up and down in anticipation. We rushed in, hoping to stock up on vegetables, as we had in Yunnan. But the kitchen was empty. Ah, but no, we're in luck, we thought! There's a refrigerator in the corner! We opened it up eagerly - to find only one tomato, one zucchini, and one miniature, half-starved pepper! The tomato was sitting all alone in the middle of the top shelf, the zucchini in the middle of the second shelf, and the pepper in the middle of the bottom shelf! That was all - the fridge was otherwise empty!
On a second occasion - after about ten days and thirty meals of plain instant noodles - we came upon a restaurant and the stomach juices started churning, especially after having skipped breakfast because we couldn't stomach any more of the same thing. God be praised! We were ecstatic! The heavens must be with us, we thought! We entered the short doorway into a dark room swarming with clouds of flies. Two old men stared at us from over glasses of steaming water, and children peeked around the doorway, flies swarming about their noses and eyes. A man approached us from the shadows and we asked for something to eat. Anything would have done. He looked at us skeptically, as he showed us a pot of ten-day old rice with the remains of burnt rice clinging to the bottom and a plate of shriveled, three-week old green beans that even the flies and the hungry children didn't want. Otherwise, he told us hopefully, he had boiling water and could serve us a glass of hot water to drink. Fabulous! Then, he seemed to have a bright idea. He took us around back of the restaurant, where there was a tiny shop. He ducked under the doorway and reappeared with...yep, you guessed it once again!...a package of instant noodles! The most depressing part was that we actually bought some!
The Roof of the World, The Land of Mountains, and the Land of Running Water…
That aside, the scenery and the fresh mountain air made up for a lot of the difficulties. Tibet can justly be called the Roof of the World, the Third Pole, the Land of Snows.... I would add The Land of Rivers. We rarely went for more than 1/2 km. without passing another stream or river or waterfall. The snow was melting, the glaciers were melting, and water was falling from everywhere. Water, water, and more water! We crossed three major rivers. Many of Asia's large rivers find their source in the mountains of Tibet; in fact, 40% of the world's population is fed with water originating in Tibet! The sound of running water was omnipresent...sometimes relaxing and sometimes so loud that we had to yell at each other just to be heard over the roar of the water! The water was unusually clear and refreshing...so refreshing that just a quick rinse of the hands would turn your hands and arms numb!
I was more than a bit nervous about our safety on the first half of the road to Lhasa. But the last half was less dangerous, and I felt a lot better about the decreased chances of having my head bashed in by a two-ton rock. The landscape varied greatly. Some of it was harshly barren and desolate, with bare, rocky cliffs. Other mountains were forested and dark green, or variously orange, mauve, pink, violet, blue-green, or slate-gray. Yellow buttercups, white and pink azaleas, and purple-coned pine trees colored sporadic mountainsides. The view of the road snaking its way up or down the mountainsides was most impressive.
We followed the often violent rivers closely, their deafening waters thundering past narrow canyons and cliffs. There were a couple of long stretches where the road was completely torn away by mud, rocks, and excess water flow from heavy rain and melting glaciers. During the nighttime, thunder often echoed loudly off the canyon walls, bouncing off the cliffs to the tune of orange lightning. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags hung from bridges or fluttered on the tops of mountain passes, where the prayers were carried in the wind. We were as high as the snow, and the air was icy, even under the bright sun. We had the wind in our hair, the sun on our faces, the mountains and all the world before us….
We were almost completely alone, aside from the occasional nomad tent with a herd of yaks and the obligatory guard dog. It was a very solitary existence. Villages were very few and far between, meaning that we met very few people. Some villages had only a half-dozen houses. As for the few that had a dozen or more, there were always billiards tables sitting outside in front of the shops, where men in long plaits, beaded necklaces, large earrings, and knives at their waist played. But we did meet a young Chinese biker who goes by the name of Mercury, and we biked with him for three weeks, until we reached Lhasa. He made fun of the pilgrims who worked their way towards Lhasa by prostrating themselves on the ground in lieu of walking – because, he said, they missed the “Down! Down! Down!” that you get when biking! We had some great laughs with him.
Freakshow Valley and the Weirdo Dwarfs…
It would be a shame not to relate the story of our time in Freakshow Valley. We made the mistake of stopping the afternoon in a valley just the other side of a pass that we had crossed in the nighttime. After one week of non-stop hard biking, we decided we would rest the day near a stream in what looked to be a very sparsely populated area. We had an afternoon of rest in mind, but not so! As soon as we pitched the tent, I lay down inside to nap, and a young boy spotted us and sat down beside the tent for literally hours, singing (more like yelling!) at the top of his lungs for the duration. As if the fact that he couldn’t hold a note wasn’t bad enough, he decided that he would lay down in the mud – in the pouring rain! – and stare at us from underneath the tent!!! The situation only got worse as the day and the night progressed. Kids approached and threw stones at our tent. We saw deformed dwarfs by the cartload. Everything seemed otherworldly, like some bizarre experience straight out of Twilight Zone.
It must have been God’s idea of a social experiment gone awry – or perhaps, God’s idea of a huge practical joke. I can just see Him sitting up there and looking down and laughing His head off! In fact, the valley is isolated, and these people must have been inbreeding for centuries, if not millenniums, and there were so many deformed and mentally deficient people there that it was scary! As we were packing up the next morning, two children and an adult started trying to take our things from us. The adult was the worst. The man was much smaller than even I was, and he would taunt us by hiding things behind his back, and we would have to literally wrestle them away from him! He had the mentality of a three-year old.
We met a British cyclist, Nigel, in Lhasa a couple of weeks later, and he asked about our experiences in this valley. He had been arrested by the police for biking in Tibet without a permit and sent on the bus back to Chengdu, and so biked the valley not once, but twice! He said it was pure torture! He nicknamed the valley “Freakshow Valley” and said that “all the weirdo dwarfs should be shot!” We had a grand ol’ laugh with him. In his opinion, it would be like Hell on earth to be sent there on a Peace Corps mission. We couldn’t have agreed more!