Well, I rolled into Lhasa three days ago so this is the last of
my e-postacards. It was an emotional moment posing for pictures
in front of the Potala Palace however tacky the photos end up looking.
I haven't added up the stats yet, but I've done around 3000km,
2000+ of which was on abysmal dirt roads, crossed around 30 passes
more than 4500m high and forded countless deep rivers. I've got
such a calorie defecit that since I arrived I've done nothing but
eat - the sightseeing will have to wait.
After Saga where I last wrote from we were straight back into
the wilderness, but before that we had another weird brush with
Chinese officialdom. At a very intimidating looking military checkpoint
our alien travel permits were demanded. Mine had expired and was
for a different part of Tibet, but when I produced it there were
smiles all round and we were quickly on our way.
The further east we get the more intense the rainy season so after
getting soaked 3 nights out of 4 in my dodgy tent I abandoned camping
which was pretty easy to do with villages coming more and more
regularly. Fortunately the pattern of rain is predictable - it
rains at night so there's usually mud to contend with in the morning
but the sun burns through the clouds by mid morning drying everything
up. The rain made the endless river crossings more difficult, but
all were managable with a bit of planning.
The rain also made the scenery greener and greener - sometimes
it looked like Wales, at other times like the Lake District, but
often we were riding across vast desolate plains which could only
As we finally approached the end of the 2150km highway 219 the
road drops around 500m to the Yarlung Tsampo valley which in India
becomes the Bhramaputra. The river is vast and it's hard to imagine
that it descends almost another 4000m before reaching the sea.
The change in the landscape was dramatic - suddenly there was agriculture;
wheat, barley and oil seed rape, villages came every few km and
they were much more prosperous looking than the impoverished settlements
higher up. We also saw the first trees for 2000km which was a welcome
symbol of more hospitable terrain. Reaching the end of highway
219 was perhaps the biggest physical landmark - the remainder of
the ride was on the Lhasa/Kathmandu road which has a superb asphalt
surface, regular big towns and a steady stream of cyclists heading
to Kathmandu, many in supported groups with trucks following along
behind with supplies and some travelling independently like us.
Their route is aound 1000km and includes the biggest descent in
the world - maybe I should have done that!
On the second day of asphalt an English guy caught us who I'd
exchanged a few emails with before leaving. He left Kashgar almost
a month after me so getting caught by him was pretty amazing. He
hated Tibet with a passion and rode in a permanent bad temper,
determined to get through as quickly as possible. Every day he'd
set off before sunrise and ride at an incredible pace till after
dark with only the briefest of stops to buy supplies and eat. It
was hard to imagine why he was doing it - and the same thought
obviously occurred to him because when he got to Lhasa he abandoned
the rest of his trip and went straight back to the UK.
Progress was really slow on this part of the trip - Xinjiang and
Western Tibet have little in the way of sights, but of course the
most populated part of Tibet has lots of distractions. Shigatse,
the 2nd largest Tibetan city was the first place we came to. It's
the seat of the Panchen Llama (the Dalai Llama's deputy) or at
least it would be if it weren't for Chinese interferance. The monsatery
complexes are amazing and extremely calming places to spend some
time. It seems to be easy to get monasteried out here, but having
seen little of Tibetan culture up till now we were fascinated.
We took a detour after Shigatse, partly because the traffic on
the main road gets pretty bad, but also we heard that the old road
which takes a longer more scenic southerly route was closed to
traffic because of road works. Sure enough it was being asphalted
and was 75% complete, but work on a pass meant no vehicles could
get through. It also meant we could visit Gyantse which turned
out to be a bit of a highlight of the trip. The dirt sections were
really good quality and it turned out to be an idyllic ride although
we lost a day to bad weather. On the way we passed a huge lake
called Yamdrok Tso which was an astonishing turquoise colour. It
has no natural outflow, but the chinese have bored a tunnel through
to the Yarlung Tsampo valley to generate electricity using the
1000m drop so inevitably the water level is falling. The lake is
sacred to the Tibetans, so they're outraged at the scheme particularly
as the electricity produced will allow more Han Chinese to move
to the region. Leaving the lake was the last pass of the trip -
a specacular but fairly short climb to a ridge above the lake followed
by a huge descent to rejoin the much lower Yarlung Tsampo valley.
The last day of riding was a bit of an anticlimax - an easy 60km
along an extremely busy road. Not too bad as these things go, but
after the empty roads and clean air of the previous 2 months it
was pretty hard to deal with. Lhasa is now a huge sprawling Chinese
city which makes for a depressing approach, but at least there
are bike lanes to keep the crazy Chinese drivers at a safe distance.
After 10km or so the small Tibetan quarter comes into view and
it all looks much more as you'd expect Lhasa to look.
It was pretty difficult to sort out transport back to Hong Kong,
but I managed to get an air ticket yesterday which was a relief.
It's illegal for foreigners to take the bus, the local maffia have
the train tickets all stitched up and flights are booked up solid.
Meanwhile, apart from eating I've been spending time stting around
chatting to all the other cyclists passing through - it's a pretty
standard part of round the world routes so there are quite a few
of us here. It's also really interesting talking to non-cyclists
about the hassles of travelling around Tibet. Chinese bureacracy,
incomprehensible and constantly shifting regulations and lots of
other problems makes moving around an absolute nightmare. For some
reason I can't fathom cyclists seem to be almost entirely exempt
from all of this which makes the whole experience much more pleasant.
Sometimes it hits cyclists too though - not long after I left Kashgar
a group of Canadians staged a Free Tibet demonstration on the Great
Wall which led to the inevitable clampdown on foreigners in Tibet.
Two weeks after I turned off the desert highway into the mountains
a road block was set up there and all foreign cyclists were turned
back. It's likely some of them sneaked through after dark which
I'd have done if necessary, but having to avoid all the checkpoints
would have made for a much more difficult and stressful ride.
I'll be back in the UK on the 19th, so see you all soon after