Tall Tales from High Places - Peter Quaife

Hi Everyone,

Well, here's e-postcard no2 from my foolish bike journey across Tibet. I rolled into Ali yesterday which is roughly the half way point and the first town for 1100km. I'm fine but have lost quite a bit of weight, have taken dirty to a whole new level and am looking pretty silly with a big beard and a patchy tan.

This is a bit long I'm afraid - got loads to say. I won't be offended if you don't read all of it - I know these things can be a bit boring.

The ride started with 250km on flat well surfaced roads across the Taklamakan desert, which means "Desert of No Return" in Uighur, so I guess making it across that bit was a good sign. It was very hot, but knowing what was in store, it didn't feel like the ride had really started. Then a right turn on the fearsome Highway 219, past the "No foreigners beyond this point" sign and into the wilderness. No hotels now for weeks, just rough truck stops with pretty basic food and the constant search for drinking water.

Things start pretty easily. The road is surfaced and by 3pm I've reached a village with a big market and some good foodstalls so I eat so much I can hardly move and fill my panniers with supplies. By 5 the tarmac has stopped, but the road is OK and I find a nice spot to camp by a river. A passing truck driver stops to give me a melon which is really welcome - fresh fruit is scarce here. Next day takes me over the first pass, but at 3300m it's not high enough to cause problems. Then through the last village, there's a checkpoint. I need special documents to go this way, but I don't have them because they won't issue them to cyclists. A soldier marches me into an office where all the regulations are posted on the wall. But he doesn't care about any of that, writes my name in a huge ledger and sends me on my way. He grills me about my route though - this is sensitive border territory and he wants to make sure I steer clear of the Pakistani and Indian frontiers.

The next bit is the one I'm most worried about. It's the first 5000m pass and I know I get sick at around 4000. I do some quick calculations and work out at what height I need to camp each night to keep the symptoms manageable - and ride along with an eye on my altimeter. At 3800m I stop and camp, feeling a bit breathless but otherwise OK. The next day I climb to 4500m, which is only 16km but I'm feeling pretty rough. Can't really eat and have a splitting headache, so decide to take some of the drugs I bought in Hong Kong for altitude sickness. Bad mistake. Apart from the usual minor side effects I just can't get warm. I'm wearing every piece of clothing I have which is around 5 layers + a down jacket and I'm in a 4 season sleeping bag. It's only 9 degrees but I'm completely frozen. I can't sleep, read, listen to music, anything other than lie there and shiver. Then at 4am I'm overwhelmed by heat - the side effect has worn off and I have to leap out of the tent to cool off and strip some layers off. Next day, the pass is fine and I plumet down the other side to the first truck stop.

Then the bad roads start. These are dirt roads used by heavy trucks and military convoys which completely destroy the surface, and no maintenance is done at all. The worst is washboarding which is caused by truck wheels bouncing on potholes. It makes the surface look like a gentle wave pattern - doesn't look too bad but it is the worst surface imaginable for cycling on. It means that every second or so the saddle thuds into your backside and the handlebars send a shock through your arms. Not too bad at first but it really gets to you after a while until it's close to impossible to ride on. Sometimes I can escape by abandoning the road altogether and riding in the desert, but often the sand and rocks make it impossible. Add that to large rocks and sand, and it's no picnic.

After a couple more passes I'm humbled, and not for the last time. I catch up with Ina, a 50 year old German woman on a 50 year old single geared shopping bike with hardly any brakes she's ridden from Munich. It's falling apart and she has little idea how to fix it. In this terrain she has to walk most of the time - 50km per day. We end up playing tortoise and hare - I ride much quicker than she does but like to finish early to rest, cook, read and listen to music. Often just as it gets dark she plods out of the gloom and camps nearby.

Then it's up onto the Aksai Chin. It's a part of India that China grabbed in the early 60s and is a plain entirely above 5000m. It used to be a seabed so most of it is salty, there's no water and no food. In fact for most of it there's nothing living at all and a deathly silence envelops everything. The only way a cyclist can ride across it it to scrounge water from passing vehicles. I charge 1 litre for a photo from a tourist, and military convoys sometimes give water and melons. It's 4 days without supplies riding across what looks like Mars - it's a landscape of vast plains and distant hills but the altitude makes the colours and clouds all wrong which makes it look like a set from Star Trek.

This length of time at over 5000m is wearing me down. I don't feel ill but each day I have less energy. The low passes become impossible to ride and I spend hours walking, well, staggering would be more accurate. It's also bitterly cold at night and I struggle to keep warm. Then I cross into Tibet, and suddenly it's populated (not much) and there's a tiny amount of greenery. A day or so later the road descends below 5000m and I feel fantastic. The air is thick and soupy and I can pedal almost effortlessly. 2 days further and there's a village big enough to have shops and a hotel (of sorts). Another 2 days and I come to a Chinese town, 2 days more it's Ali where I am now.

Not long before Ali I meet 2 other amazing characters. One is a Chinese guy on an old boneshaker he's ridden 8000km from Hong Kong. His luggage is in 3 huge rice sacks tied with string to his carrier. At least Ina has good tyres and proper luggage - this guy's set-up looks like he wouldn't make it to the end of the street. I meet him on a tough section of road. I've run out of water, there's a strong headwind and the road is unspeakable. But somehow his cheery attitude perks me up and I realise what I'm doing isn't that hard. He tells me there's a beautiful campsite by a lake 20km further on - and sure enough I'm rewarded by a swim - it's freezing cold but it's so good to get some of the grime off. The other character is WALKING the same route I'm cycling. I saw him as I was packing up my tent one morning and went across to say hello. He produced 2 beers with a flourish from his rucsac (he must have carried them 100km) and we sat at the roadside at 7am drinking them together. He's actually at the next computer to me - he arrived in Ali a day later so we're off for a beer soon. I'm buying.

Ali is bizarre. It's a city but it's at 13,000 ft, drops to -40 in winter, has no airport, railway or proper road access. When I first saw it it looked like a mirage, or at least a photoshopped image. From a distance it looks like an immaculately clean modern city plonked in the middle of a typical Tibetan landscape which make no sense at all. Up close it's pretty scruffy but it has all the things you'd expect in a city, even hot running water. I struggled to find a room - I looked such a mess when I arrived all the hotels turned me away.

The tourist police collared me in a cafe, so I've paid my GBP20 fine for travelling without a permit and have been issued with one which will get me to Lhasa. They were very friendly and even apologised for the fine - not at all the touh-guy image they have.

Tomorrow I'm hitting the road again, but I'll have more regular net access from now on. Apart from some passes, the altitude is lower so it's inhabited - so I can expect supplies and general towny stuff more often. There's even asphalt for the first 100km, but in 300km I've got 10 very deep rivers to get across - with no bridges. I'll worry about that when I get there.

That beer is calling, and this email is already far too long.

As always word from home is appreciated, so if you feel like dropping me a line, please do.

Next installment in a couple of weeks or so I reckon,