A Week From Lhasa
Lhasa got closer day by day. I knew that I would arrive within a week’s time. Before I had left on this trip, so many people had told me that the journey would be impossible. Chinese friends thought that the trip would be extremely difficult, and when I said that I wanted to make the journey on a mountain bike they laughed. During a year and a half of research I only found one other documented case of someone cycling this entire route. When I started on the ride I could only focus on the section that lay immediately before me. To think about the trip in its’ entirety overwhelmed me. I had mentally divided the trip into a few different parts. While en route people would ask me where I was headed, I would say that I was going to Lhasa, and then they would ask where I was going after Lhasa, I would always answer, “Well, if I’m still alive and my bike is still functioning, then I am going to ride on to Mt. Kailash, or Kashgar.” By the time two weeks of this journey had passed, I knew that if I were turned back, it still would have been worth it.
The only big obstacles that stood between me and the delicious food at Tashi’s Restaurant in Lhasa were the towns of Bayi and Nyingchi. These towns were commonly known to be the worst places for police in all of Eastern Tibet. In 1992, two friends of mine tried to travel from Lhasa through Eastern Tibet to Chengdu, in Sichuan province. The police in Bayi apprehended them twice and sent them back to Lhasa after the second incident. I knew that my only chance would lie in traveling through both towns during the night. By the time I descended from the 14,500-foot [4420 meter] pass before Nyingchi, early evening had set in. As the road snaked its way down the mountain side I could see some of the buildings below me. I waited by the side of the road for the sun to start setting.
From my previous travels in Tibet and the helpful hints of other long-time Tibet travelers, I have developed a few rules of how to travel in this harsh land. The first is never go drinking with Khampa men, this is an easy one for me because I almost never drink. Next, always treat Khampa men with respect. They often have big egos, but given a bit of respect they have always gone out of their way to look after me. The last rule is: when the sun starts to set, know where you are going to sleep, and do not move around at night. In most towns packs of wild dogs roam the streets at night, only a few people travel around late at night and they are usually not the sort that you want to meet under the cover of darkness.
The problem with moving through town at night is that I have to break my own rules. The only reason that I could possibly sneak past the checkpoints during nighttime is because everyone else knows that they also should not be out moving around once darkness had settled in. Wild dogs and thieves patrol the streets, and if you are a solitary Chinese soldier there are Khampas who will slit your throat.
I came down the hill and rolled rapidly through Nyingchi. After just three blocks, I had already cycled passed town. Once I left town, the next problem was Bayi, which lay more than ten miles away. I had to ride the next ten miles in the dark, to pass through Bayi before daylight. At first that did not sound too bad, but the road turned into a surface of fist-size gravel that was a literal pain in the butt to ride on. I rigged my flashlight up to my hat so that at least I could see something of what lay ahead. The bumpy ride jarred me enough to cause the flashlight to fall out of my hat every few minutes. As I rode past some houses I would hear their dogs start to charge toward me. I would reach down and grab a handful of rocks to throw into the darkness. Whenever I saw the headlights of a vehicle coming up from behind, I pushed my bike off the side of the road into a ditch or behind a few bushes. I feared that if someone saw me on the road that they would report me to the police stationed at the next checkpoint ahead in Bayi.
I rode on. My butt hurt from the pounding of the gravel. I had no choice but to continue riding in the dark. Finally I came around a bend in the road where I could see the lights of Bayi glowing on the dark horizon. I knew just another few miles of riding would put me at the edge of town. On all of these bike rides past checkpoints I would have to mentally prepare myself to just ride. To keep riding unless someone physically stopped me. Still a couple of soldiers wandered around, most were a bit drunk and not interested in some crazy foreigner. I passed a couple of military compounds, a few blocks of restaurants, a fuel depot, and finally I saw the red turnpike and guard station in the bright floodlights, just ahead. It looked like the guards had called it an early night and retired for the evening. I quickly pushed my bike under the metal turnpike and kept moving. I peddled out past the edge of town and got a few hours of sleep behind a gravel pile off the side of the road.
I had moved closer to the big city, Lhasa. In my first hour on the road I saw more trucks than I would normally see in an entire day. Eastern Tibet has some of the largest stands of old growth timber in the People’s Republic of China. For the next week, I watched the huge three-foot-diameter [1 meter diameter] trees piled high in the backs of Chinese trucks move past me on the road. Regular bus service carried passengers between Bayi and Lhasa. I knew that I was getting close now. The last buses I had seen were back in Dali, almost 900 miles behind me.
The road continued on with the same bone-jarring gravel surface. The days of endless racquetball-size gravel wore hard on my tires, some of the tread on the sides started to peal off exposing the fibers that make up the tire. I did not carry any extra tires with me. After I had left the USA, I had a friend mail a new bike tire to Lhasa, along with a few other supplies. I just hoped that my tires would hold out for another 200 miles. The gravel required riding in one of my lowest gears. Normally I would only have to use those gears climbing a steep hill, but on that stretch of road I moved painfully slow. With only a couple days separating me from Lhasa, two vehicles full of Westerners passed me on the road. None of the passengers even smiled or waved. It was as if I did not even exist. I rode for a few days and never talked to another person, in any language.
A long slow climb took me up the last mountain pass before Lhasa. I climbed out of the temperate forest of Eastern Tibet and into a cold high altitude desert valley that looked and felt like the Chang Tang of Western Tibet. I could see no nomads on the horizon, the entire valley was devoid of inhabitants. The Khampas of Eastern Tibet do not like to live in such high desolate places. With fifteen more miles to climb to the top of the pass I stopped for the evening. The valley felt completely different from the rest of Eastern Tibet. It had the massive size and space of Western Tibet. Small purple flowers grew around my tent offsetting the harshness of this place.