Someone to Ride With
Bamda is a insignificant truck-stop at the intersection of the main road to Lhasa and the road coming down from Northeastern Tibet. I moved slowly that day. Most of the night before I had been up vomiting onto the frozen ground just outside my tent. I could use a decent meal and a bed. When I pulled up, a young Tibetan boy said something about another Westerner in the hotel. Three weeks had passed since I started riding. I had not spoken English in a while. I was anxious to talk with another Westerner. Andrew had started out on this trip three and half years earlier. He had given himself five years to cycle around the world. From his home, Jasper Alberta, he had ridden down to Central America and South America. We spent the evening chatting about cycling and computers. We both set out the following morning on the road toward Lhasa. It was a different experience to ride with someone. Experiences were influenced by and filtered through someone else’s consciousness. It was no longer just me moving through the world. When I spent my days alone I didn’t have someone to reflect ideas and thoughts off of. Just my own observations and my own ideas filled my mind.
I had heard a warning earlier in the journey that the toughest checkpoint between Markam and Lhasa blocked the road just after Bamda. The former Lhasa policeman said that after the famous “72-Bends,” a descent of seventy-two switchbacks, there would be a tunnel through solid rock guarded by a Chinese soldier with a large gun. He said that at this place most foreigners who were headed toward Lhasa were turned back. After the exhilarating two-hour descent down to the river, Andrew and I spotted the guard’s living quarters just before a bridge that crossed the water where the road continued into a tunnel through solid beige colored rock. The river ran far too wide and deep to get across. We both knew that the bridge represented the only way across.
We decided to take our chances, and just try to ride across the bridge. Another building blocked our view of the guard post. Not until we were right on top of the guard did he spot us. About ten feet [3 meters] before the guard post we came into his line of sight. It was all just like I had been told, a soldier with a big gun guarded the bridge with a tunnel that went into solid rock. A heavy belt of extra bullets and other assorted weaponry hung around his thin waist. He held an solid black automatic weapon across his chest. By this point in the trip I possessed reasonable comprehension of Chinese. When the guard yelled, “ni qu nar?” (where are you going?) I knew exactly what he said. I just chose to ignore him. I waved my hand to indicate that we planned to head straight ahead, and kept on riding. He yelled again, “ni qu nar?” We rode on. Thoughts of bullets in the back of my skull raced through my mind. In another fifteen seconds we rode into the tunnel on the far side of the bridge. My mind moved to thoughts of an army jeep coming after us. I listened for the sounds of a jeep engine and kept pedaling hard. Nothing, no trucks, no jeeps, no gun shots, nothing, no one followed us. I kept riding at a strong pace. After another two hours passed I knew that they had no intention of chasing after us. During the next few hours we climbed up a small rocky canyon, regaining the altitude that we lost during the speedy ride down the “72-Bends.”
As part of my research for the trip, I compiled a list of all the main towns on my route. Next to each town I wrote notes as to if the police were rumored to be difficult or not, the remaining mileage to Lhasa or Kashgar, the availability of food. For Eastern Tibet most of my information had come from a friend who had walked the entire length of road from Southwestern China to Lhasa and then down to Kathmandu, Nepal. I had met Robert in the popular Yak Hotel of Lhasa in 1992. He was in the middle of a walking trip across Asia. A few years before, he had spent two and a half years walking from the southern tip of South America to Texas. He lived two and a half years of waking up every morning and walking all day long, then going to sleep and waking up the next day to push on northward. When I met him, I was headed to Kathmandu on a mountain bike and he was headed there on foot. We had a bit of an informal race to Kathmandu. He won, I never said I cycled quickly.
Robert had told me that problems may arise if I spent too much time in the next couple towns. All of these towns only have one main street. I would roll into town, buy some food, and whatever else I needed. Then I would push on as fast as possible. I knew that it would take an hour or so before the police got word of my presence. As long as I kept moving on, things went well.
Andrew had been on the road a long time by the time I met him. I could tell from the way he interacted with the local people that the traveling had worn him down. He was mentally tired of being hassled, and tired of being in a place where he did not always understand what was going on around him. Not speaking Chinese or Tibetan made things even more difficult for him.
Andrew and I had descended from a 14,250-foot [4344 meter] pass to the town of Rawu which sat at the edge of an enormous half frozen lake. On the far side of the lake rose mighty 19,000- and 20,000-foot [5792 and 6097 meter] peaks covered with glaciers and snow fields. Small wooden homes with flagpoles thirty feet [10 meters] high flying prayer flags dotted the fields before us. We both stopped on the side of the road to take in the beauty of this place. When I heard some words in English yelled in my direction, I looked up to see a group of well-dressed Tibetans sitting off to the side of the dusty road. I rolled my bike over to them and exchanged a few words. This Tibetan family had lived in refugee camps in South India for years. The father was a well-educated man who spoke English with an Indian accent. They were some of the few Tibetans who acquired special permission from the Chinese government to enter Tibet legally and visit the family that they had left behind. Decades before, they had fled the invading Chinese army, crossing the Himalaya on foot to settle in refugee camps in India. The entire family was proud of their daughter who had been selected for the special group of 1500 Tibetans that the US Congress had recently allowed to enter the USA as political refugees. She had just moved to New Mexico a few months before. With her clean blue jeans and purple and pink LA Gear jogging shoes, this young Tibetan woman stood out almost as much as I did. The tiredness and hunger wore thin on Andrew. When he yelled that he wanted to head into town I bid the friendly family farewell.
We rolled into town, a small bar stood on one side of the road with saddled horses tied to the hitching post out front and a truck-stop hotel sat on the adjacent side. Word rapidly spread that “inji” (Tibetan for English people) had arrived in town. A group of ten or fifteen dirty kids encircled us. Short pieces of string held their shoes on, only a couple possessed the luxury of real shoelaces. To them we must have looked like creatures from outer space. They carefully checked out our bikes, and our gear, they wanting to press every button and flip every lever. I quickly tracked down the hotel attendant and found us a room in the corner of the courtyard. We ducked our heads under the ever-present low door frame and unpacked a few things. I washed some of the only clothing that I was not already wearing, two pairs of socks. On my way back to the room two older Tibetan men greeted me, I replied with a friendly “Tashi Delag” (Tibetan for “Hello”). We chatted for a bit. When I did not know the correct Tibetan word I would fill in a Chinese word, a little confusing, but everyone seemed to understand. The conversation soon turned to politics, in particular the Chinese oppression in Tibet. Even though I could not understand every word that was uttered, they made it very clear that some major problems existed. The Chinese police often injured or killed Tibetans. My heart went out to these two Tibetan men. I had heard the same stories so many times before, and knew that it would not be the last time because I was headed toward Lhasa and the political and religious oppression is always the worst in the capital. I have never really understood all of my attraction to Tibet and her people, but I do know that much of it has to do with how the Tibetan people deal with adversity in their lives.
When I started to walk back into the hotel room, my two new Tibetan friends followed. They showed some curiosity about the bikes, and started to inspect them. When Andrew spotted these guys in the room he became upset. He yelled, “Get out of the room,” and informed me that if I wanted to talk to the locals not to bring them back into the room. At that moment I knew that I could not continue the rest of my journey with Andrew. We had ridden together for two days. It had been fun talking and riding with him, but he did not share the same vision that I had when it came to interacting with Tibetan people. I certainly had my times when I got fed up with people trying to rip me off and people hassling me, but the important thing was that I had a lot of times laughing and joking with snotty-nosed kids and sharing meals with old nomad women. I also had some language skills that helped me to create these wonderful experiences.
Not until I returned from my first trip to Tibet did I start to truly understand the European takeover of North America. The situation that Native Americans faced when the Europeans started to arrive in North America is extremely similar to the situation that Tibetans currently face with the Chinese. It is one thing to read about genocide as a disinterested high school student, but it is completely different to live in an environment in which the culture and people are being actively destroyed around you. During the 1800s the American government encouraged new European settlers to move farther and farther west offering ownership of land previously inhabited by Native American Indians. Over the course of a relatively short period of time, the Indians were herded on to smaller and smaller remnants of their original lands. Today the Chinese government is executing the exact same plan in China and Tibet, a policy of population transfer, as the Dalai Lama refers to it. Xizang Province is the Wild West of China. It is a land of economic opportunities, harsh environments and hostile natives.
Andrew and I had been eating dinner in the small restaurant in the front of the courtyard. While we waited for dinner I talked with the couple who ran the place. When the big round fellow with the gun sat down next to us, I shut up quickly. He demanded “pass! pass!”, my language skills quickly faded and I pretended to not understand his single spoke word of English. I just replied with “bu zhidao,” (Chinese for ‘I do not understand’). His one word of English came out of his mouth in an intelligible fashion. I just did not want to hand over my passport. The policeman did not seem like a particularly hostile man, but I just could not risk someone confiscating my passport. After about fifteen minutes of him asking and me replying with, “I do not understand,” he walked out. He had had enough of this pointless and idiotic conversation. When he left everyone relayed to me that he was the “Big Policeman,” I remained a bit nervous about the whole encounter throughout the evening.
We both would have liked to rest up in beautiful Rawu, but we knew that we could not risk another run in with the police. I awoke to the sound of rain hitting the metal roof of our dingy room. We slowly rode out of town in a cold mix of rain and snow at dawn. It sure would have been a treat to just lie in bed for the morning. An hour down the road, I told Andrew that I wanted to finish the ride to Lhasa by myself, he understood somewhat but I knew that loneliness tugged at his heart. Five months had passed since he had anyone to ride with. He rode on alone, while I sat by the lake for a few hours. I watched the misty clouds break up and the sun shine down on the pristine lake shoreline.
I always tried to have an idea of what might lie ahead, for at least the next few days. From Rawu things looked wonderful. The road followed the river for the next 150 miles. My altimeter read 12,500 feet [3810 meters] above sea level and I knew that I would drop all the way down to 6,500 feet [1981 meters] in the town of Tangmai. I had not descended that low since the beginning of the trip.