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TIBETAN ADVENTURE

BICYKLE ADVENTURE IN TIBET

After 4 unforgettable weeks in one of the world’s highest countries I was back in my “home” in Kathmandu in middle of November. Tibet is a place I will remember for the spectacular open mountain landscape which I rode my bicycle through, the friendly people I met and the beautiful sunset over Mt. Everest. I will remember the exhausting bicycle ride across Gyanso La Pass, all the flat tires and the bumpy rides in different trucks. Most of all my visit in a Tibeten home and the ride in a tractor trailer with a Tibeten child sleeping in my lap while watching the sun going down, are memories I will carry with me.

OVERLAND TRIP TO LHASA
I joined an organized group trip from
Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa in Tibet, setting off from Kathmandu on October the 9th. There were more than 50 people from 20 different countries in 13 land cruisers. It took us 5 days to reach Tibets capital city. We visited beautiful stupas and spectacular monasteries on the way, in Shigatse and Gyantse, then stayed a few days to explore Lhasa and the surroundings and The Potala Monastery where the 14th Dalai Lama had his place before the Chinese occupation. There has been a great development of eastern part of Tibet over the last few years, and now Lhasa seems to be more like a small Chinese city than a traditional Tibetan town.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE
— in
Kathmandu, I had met Ross from Canada. I had told him about my plan to go to Tibet and bicycle back to Nepal. He was excited about the idea and said he would like to do the same. He had never bicycled on such a long trip before, but there’s a first time for everything — so why not?

After some busy planning, Ross had gone out in Kathmandu to hire a mountain bike, sleeping bag, tent and whatever else he needed for 3 weeks on a bike in the cold high altitude of Tibet. Finally everything had been ready for the adventure and we had had our bicycles packed in big boxes in Kathmandu to be able to take them in a jeep to Lhasa.

READY FOR BICYCLE ADVENTURE
After some interesting days in Lhasa and lots of good food (especially the delicious yak steak at the Snowland restaurant) we were ready to start our journey back to Nepal. We unpacked our bicycles in front of the hotel, excited about in which condition the bikes would be after days on bumpy roads. Several curious Chinese people were watching us carefully while we were putting our bikes together. After a while they turned out to be really helpful and we had good fun even we didn’t understand a word of Chinese. There were surprisingly few people in Lhasa that understood and spoke English, in spite of all the tourists that visit Tibet every year.

LHASA TO SHIGATSE 231 km (see the end for details for towns name and distances)
We packed our stuff on the bikes and set off by
noon when the hot Tibetan sun was shining at it’s brightest. But we were already hungry! It had been a long time since breakfast that morning so Ross suggested a Vivians sandwich and tea in the Yoghurt Shop near the Potala monastery, less then 1 km from the city center. What an excellent start to the journey.

One hour later, we were on our bikes going south west on the Friendship Highway. The weather was beautiful and the road was very good. Ross was satisfied with his mountain bike which he had rented in Kathmandu, and of course, I had my own bike from Norway. We were happy and ready for the big Tibetan adventure!

We took it easy at first and had a few stops to eat the bit of the food we had bought before leaving Lhasa. The first little town on the way is Quxul — I knew we could find a guesthouse there. Ross got tired after a while, but I pushed to reach the place before dark. Just before sunset we had our first tire problem. Ross’ back tire went flat! He pumped more air in and we continued the last few kms, but it was pitch dark when we finally reached the guesthouse in Quxul.

TIBETAN GUESTHOUSE
The small, cheap lodge was a real Tibetan place. As there were no other guests in the lodge we got a big room with 8 beds for ourselves. The young girls in the kitchen did not speak any English and they were laughing and had lots of fun when I walked around in the kitchen trying to explain what we wanted to eat. A big bowl of “Thuk
pa” (noodle soup with plenty of vegetables and chicken) was a good choice after almost 6 hours on the road.

2ND DAY ON THE ROAD
Next morning we changed Ross’ back tube and fixed a tiny hole in the flat one. After everything was packed on the bicycles and we were ready to go, I got a big surprise: my front tire was flat! I couldn’t believe it. I had cycled all the way from
Norway to India and had had just 2 flat tires, and this was only my second day in Tibet.

It was late in the day when we were finally ready. Ross had a very sore bum and was complaining endlessly. The first day had been hard and he was tired, so we decided to do a short day. We stopped after 2 hours and put up our tents by a nice small creek sheltered from the traffic. We made tea and sandwiches and relaxed in the sun that afternoon, while a bus with Swedish people stopped for a chat. That was a nice experience, because it’s not so often I have got the chance to speak Norwegian.

THE FIRST SNOW
It was cold
and I woke up in the middle of the night because of the strong wind and discovered that water was dripping into my tent! I lit my head lamp and discovered snow, wet and heavy. My tent was not prepared for this so I crossed my fingers for good weather for the next 3 weeks. There was snow on the ground, and the bicycles were covered in snow when we got up in the morning. It was cloudy and cold, the road was wet from the snow and the wind was increasing. Our camp place was sheltered from the wind so we took our time, cooked breakfast on the stove and waited for better weather. We walked to the village nearby, taking photos and “talking” to the locals on two and four legs. Slowly the weather got better, the sun came out and we were off again.

3RD DAY ON THE ROAD
The 3rd day we did 30 km
30 hard km. The head wind was terrible. It is a strange thing, this wind. Why does it always come from the direction we are cycling? I wished we could have it behind us sometimes. I was day dreaming about going the other direction, from Kathmandu to Lhasa, it would be so much easier.

We found a sheltered place for the tents that night, on the edge of a steep hill. I discovered too late all the spiky plants on the ground. My inflatable mattress went flat, and the morning after my back tire was flat! Bad luck.

A WISH COME TRUE
I wished for the wind to turn that night, because it was a night of meteorite showers. Not as many stars fell as expected, but we saw a few as we lay on our backs watching the clear sky and millions of stars. The first hour that morning we had the wind
at our back. It was wonderful, even though it lasted just one hour. That day we managed 40 km and reached a small Tibetan guest house near Lubom by late afternoon. Ross was tired, hungry and a bit grumpy, but an unexpectedly good restaurant with delicious Chinese food helped a lot with his bad mood.

We arrived in Shigatse on the 5th day. Good food, comfortable beds and refreshing hot showers gave us the energy we needed to continue our journey.

SHIGATSE – LHARTSE 137 km
Two days later we left Shigatse about 10 am.
10 o’clock seems early in Tibet because the sun comes up at 8 am at the earliest. Tibet is on the same time as Beijing, 2 hours and 15 minutes in head of Nepali time. It is cold in the morning before the sun get up, as in the desert — hot at daytime and cold in the night. We stopped at a bicycle shop that morning to get some more air in our tires. Maybe too much air?

TIRE PROBLEM
We decided to take the northern route from Shigatse to avoid one of the high passes on the highway. While we sat by the road for a short rest one hour later, we suddenly heard a sound like a gun shot. What in hell was happening?? Unbelievable — my back tire had exploded!

I jumped on Ross’ bike, took with the broken tire in and peddled like crazy back to Shigatse. I bought a new tire and was back 3 hours later only to find out that the new tire was a little bit too large for my bike! I learned that a 28″ tire in China is not necessarily the same as in Europe. Bad luck again. We got a lift back to Shigatse, and had to stay another night.

FUN WITH CHILDREN
We filled our bicycle bags with food and water, preparing to camp for the next few nights. Bread, noodles, tinned oysters and mackerel, eggs, biscuits and yak meat. Our road map gave us very little information about the northern road from Shigatse to Lhartse. We just knew by talking to other bikers that the road was partly bad. The first day we had good paved road, but put up our tents early in the afternoon. Ross had some good fun with children who discovered us on the way home from school. Ross played the harmonica and sang for them, and they were very excited about the tents, the bicycles and our cameras where they had the chance to see themselves on the screen. Ross had lots of helpers to put up his tent this afternoon. They secured every corner of the tent with big stones and helped to put all his stuff inside the tent. At the end it was more than 20 children standing around us, some reading from their English school book (that funny enough had Canadian stories). Nice kids, lots of fun.

NEXT DAY
For the first 20 km the next day we continued on a good paved road, but it ended at the charming
village of Thongmon. We looked around and had a good Tibetan lunch there before continuing on “the worst road ever”. The unpaved roads in Tibet are bad and my bike is not an off road bike –it prefers the better roads. I had to go slowly because of the loose gravel and the bad wash board surface. Late afternoon we found a nice place to camp by a bridge crossing a small river. There was nothing other than rocky mountains around us. Ross made a delicious dish with noodles, vegetables and yak meat and we boiled water to fill our bottles. The air in Tibet is very dry, and now we were at about 4000m, so to drink lots of water was very important.

SHEPHERDS
Next morning 3 young shepherds joined us at breakfast time. They studied everything we had and everything we did, and the stove we cooked on was especially interesting to them. They were looking after a large herd of sheep and goats, just come down to drink from the river. They were walking up and down the steep hills to find grass for the animals. Sometimes I really wonder how the yaks and sheep can find anything to eat there in that very dry desert country.

BREAK DOWN
We set off by
noon. The road got worse as further we got, with big stones and, in some parts, sand dunes which I had to pull my bicycle through. After 20 kms the problems on Ross’ bicycle started. The peddle bearing seized up. In the end he had to push the bike. Of course, there were no cars there when we needed them most! We saw just one car the whole day. We reached a small village late afternoon and the sight of a small truck gave us new hopes. The wish came true — finally we found a driver who would take us to Lhartse for 200 yen. After a 2 hour long bumpy truck ride we arrived in Lhartse after dark. Ross was first very upset about the bike, but later he was happy. I think he was tired of the biking and the uncomfortable life on the road, and now he had a good excuse to break up, have a beer and go back to Kathmandu.

The next morning Ross went off to look for a bus to the border while I planned my solo bike journey back to Nepal.

LHARTSE TO ZANGMU 137 KM
I continued on my own next day, after fixing yet another flat tire. I was used to the flat tires by then. I got a lot of practice in changing tubes and fixing holes. But Things Take Time and it was already 2 pm before I started my climb towards the roads highest pass. The road was good and not too steep, so it was easy biking slowly for the first couple of hours. It got harder the higher I reached, and the head wind increased. I didn’t know how many kms it was to the top, but understood it was quite a few because the cars that came down smelled really bad from hot brakes!

A TIBETAN VILLAGE
Reaching higher I had to get off and push my bicycle, I had to stop for short rests more and more often. The load on my bike felt heavier, the head wind got slightly stronger and I was walking up to higher altitude.

The sun was low in the sky, but I continued, wanting to see what was around the next corner, over the next hill. Could I probably reach the pass today?!

But I realized it was too far –it was going up, up, up. I could see the road ahead, slowly going higher and higher. It was getting colder and I was looking for a place to put my tent, out of the wind. I wanted to put it up before the sun went down because after sunset I knew it gets bitterly cold. Then, just around the next corner, just before sunset, there it was: a small village with white Tibetan mud houses with colorfully painted windows and doors, and prayer flags on the roofs. Now I knew I could find a sheltered place for the night.

When I reached the village, an elderly woman and a child were crossing the road in front of me, on their way to fill the jug the woman carried on her back with water. “Namaste”, I said and told her in the universal language that I needed a place to sleep. “Come with me”, was her answer. And I followed her to her home where a surprised husband met us.

I don’t speak any Tibetan, but it always surprises me how it is possible to communicate without language, especially when two people both want to understand and be understood.

LATER INSIDE THE HOUSE
“– I’m sitting on a black, wellworn yak skin on a hard bench near the fire. “Meh” is the Tibetan word for fire or heat. A big kettle with water sits on the top of the oven. I have been given my own thermos flask with hot water, and I’m drinking green tea. In a smaller kettle the butter tea is prepared, made of tea, milk, salt and yak butter. That tea has a bit of a strange taste so I prefer my jasmine tea.

The children boys, 2 and 3 years old are watching me with big brown eyes. They are shy, hiding behind a colorful cupboard, but also very curious. They came a bit closer after I gave them the apples I had in my bag. They appreciate the apples, holding them tightly in their dirty hands, like they are afraid it would disappear before being eaten.

We are at about 4700m and without trees there is no wood for a fire, so people there collect yak and sheep dung to burn. Around the village there is yak dung put up in big piles to dry in the hot sun. I can just imagine how many days the people in this family have been out collecting shit -it’s a big pile outside the house. It burns really well in the oven and gives a good heat.

The houses in the village are made of homemade mud bricks. They mix mud, yak dung and straw and make them into bricks, and leave them in the sun to dry for weeks. I put up my “house” in the small open yard outside the house, sheltered from the wind. The family likes my little tent. I told them that the tent is my house, and the bike is my home.

The most important in the house is the heater, a large oven standing on the mud floor in the middle of the room. Around it there are benches to sit on, where the family also sleeps. The boys have their own sleeping bags made of sheep skin, where they slept naked. Early in the morning, still naked they walk out in the cold weather for a pee, like it is a warm summer day!

The boys parents are out looking for yaks and sheep for some days, while “momo” (grandmother) and “popo” (grandfather) are babysitting. The “momo” seems to work all the time. She makes tea, and heat water to fill the thermos flasks standing on the shelf, while she makes food for the boys. Several times she walks out to fill the jug with water. When she has some spare time she picks up the spinning wheel and spins wool.

“Popo” sits on the bench, near the fire, with his prayer chain, chanting “om mani padme hum”. Now and then he picks up his spinning wheel too. It’s late and getting dark in the room. He lights a small lamp hanging from the roof. There is just gives enough light for me to be able to write down the Tibetan words I have learned while sitting here.

I feel good. To get into a family’s home is always a special experience to remember. “Dalai Lama ok?” the woman asks me. I say “yes” nodding my head. It’s a sad thing that it is forbidden to have photos or even talk about Dalai Lama in Tibet.

GYANSO LA PASS – 5200 M
The night was cold and windy. Because of all of tea I had been drinking during the night I had to run to the “toilet” many times. Toilet? – any place along a stone fence.

Next morning the sun was rising about 9am, by then I had already had my breakfast; tsampa porridge (barley flour in hot water), rice and fried potatoes. I packed my things, paid some yen to show my appreciation and continued my climb to reach the pass.

The last 7 km to the pass took me almost 3 hours. Pushing my bike in the head wind up to 5200 m was heavy going, but at last I could see the prayer flags across the road that marks the pass. What a good feeling!

The wind was very strong, so I stopped where I was a bit sheltered by the flag portal. The prayer flags which can be seen everywhere in Tibet have 5 colours: blue (sky), white (air), red (fire), green (water) and yellow (earth). There are written prayers on them which the people believe fly with the wind.

A group of local shepherds sat by the road and got very interested when I showed up on my bicycle. We had a Tibetan “chat” and they helped me to take some photos before I headed down the other side of the pass. I thought it would be easy to go down, but no -I had to peddle like crazy all the way down. In spite of the strong head wind I made it to New Tingri just before sunset.

MY LUCKY DAY!
A jeep with 2 people from Belgium, Katrin and Tom, stopped to have lunch in the hotel I stayed at the next day. They offered me a lift to Rongbuk, (near to Everest Base Camp). So after a discussion with the guide and the driver in the jeep they agreed to take me and my bike.

After 6 hours on a small, bumpy road from Old Tingri we reached Rongbuk (4900m) with the most fabulous view of Mt. Everest’s north side. It was a beautiful sunset over Everest that night.

MT. EVEREST BASE CAMP
The day after, I cycled up to the base camp and met Katrin and Tom on their way back down. They offered me a lift to Tingri again, but I had decided to cycle. The base camp (5200m) is a rocky place close to the foothill of world’s highest mountain. The Chinese have made a fairly good road up to the base camp from New Tingri, but it’s not paved, and they are continuously improving the road. At this time of the year there is noone staying at the camp, because the best time for climbing Everest is in the spring.

MY WAY TO TINGRI
I stayed 2 nights at Rongbuk before heading down again. I had one problem: my permit to stay in Tibet was running out the next day so I really wanted to reach the border as soon as possible. Otherwise it could be an expensive penalty, someone had told me.

The road had bad washboard surface and loose gravel, so I had to go slowly. I understood I could not make it all the way to New Tingri in time on my bike. So when I 35 km later arrived in the small village Pangsum I asked about the possibility to getting a lift to Tingri. “Yes, maybe!” a young man told me, and 1 hour later I sat in a trailer behind a small tractor taking the shortcut to Old Tingri. The shortcut is marked as a path on the map, and that was what it was a path!

It was 3pm when we set off on the bumpy main road from Pangsum, with the tractor and trailer full of people that wanted a lift to the next village. Together with me and my bike there were dirty children, babies, bags filled with shopping, a goat and women dressed in colorful traditional Tibetan cloths with the most beautiful belts and broaches.

My young friend on rest of the journey was the drivers little brother – a 6 years old boy named Som. His cloths were made from sheep skin and he didn’t say a word during the whole trip. He tried hard to stay awake, but fell asleep in my lap. He woke up some times when the bumping was worse than normal. Then he sat up quickly and looked around, like he wondered where we were, and few seconds later he fell asleep again.

For hours during the trip we were going through beautiful mountain landscape, going up a valley with small villages. Many places I also saw ruins of old villages and monasteries. We crossed the pass at 5400 m, while the sun was going down the most beautiful sunset. We arrived in Old Tingri late night.

TRUCK TO THE BORDER
I thought it would be easy going from there, just taking a bus back to the border the last 180 km. The road from Old Tingri is very bad, with road construction (it will be finished in 3 years time, I read later). I was In fact happy that I didn’t have time to bike this part of the road, and I waited for the bus at 2pm the next day. Then another problem occurred: the driver didn’t want to take my bike! Problems with the police”, he said! What now? I had to be back at the border as soon as possible, otherwise I would probably have a problem!

I had a piece of paper that spelled out in Chinese and Tibetan that I was looking for a lift to the border. I walked up and down the dirty road in Old Tingri showing it to people in hopes of a ride. At 5 pm I was sitting in a truck between 2 friendly Tibetan guys, Dordsi and Nimbo, on the way to Zangmu (the border village). Dordsi had secured my bike really well on the back of the truck.

It was a long journey, because on the way stopped to give lifts to people standing by the road. We stopped to fix the engine twice, and had several stops to fill water in the truck. We helped people with a flat tire and were stuck in traffic jams a few times because of the road construction. This part of the road was just open at night time, and there was heavy traffic with lots of big trucks. It had been another bumpy journey with a beautiful sunset over the mountains when we crossed the 5000m pass.

At 3am next morning we reached Zangmu in light rain. No hotels were open at that time, but after walking up and down the street I found an open door to a hotel. But there were no people to see, so I ended up sleeping on a hard bench for 3 hours. By sunrise I walked back to the truck to fetch my bicycle. Dordsi and Nimbo were still sleeping in front of the truck, and our last hitch hiker had wrapped himself up in plastic — for protection from the rain — in back of the truck. I got my bike, waved goodbye to my new friends and went for a big breakfast before crossing the border. The woman at the border check point didn’t even discover that I was 1 day late!

My bicycle ride through Tibet is a part of my long journey I will remember, but it was very nice to smell the trees and the green, fresh vegetation the day I cycled down the steep hills towards the Nepal border. I spent 3 relaxing days on the road back to Kathmandu.

LHASA TO SHIGATSE 231 KM
DAY 1 Lhasa – Quxul 67 km
DAY 2
Quxul – Dardrong 39 km
DAY 3
Dardrong – Nubshllung 31 km
DAY 4
Nubsholung – Lubom 41 km

DAY 5 Lubom – Shigatse 53 km
DAY 6/7 Shigatse

SHIGATSE TO LHARTSE 137 KM
DAY 8 Shigatse (back to Shigatse because of tire problem, 70 km)
DAY 9
Shigatse – Karu 65 km
DAY 10
Karu – Possum 46 km
DAY 11
Possum – Lhartse 26 km (+ 50 km truck)

LHARSTE TO ZANGMU 137 KM
DAY 12 Lhartse – Gyanso La pass 27 km
DAY 1
3 Gyanso La – New Tingri 60 km
DAY 14 New Tingri – Rongbuk (by jeep 93 km)
DAY 1
5 Rongbuk – Everest Base camp – Rongbuk 16 km
DAY 16 Rongbuk – Pangsum – Old Tingri 34 km (+ tractor ride)
DAY 17 Old Tingri – Zangmu (lift with a truck 180 km)

ZANGMU TO KATHMANDU 133 KM
DAY 18 Zangmu – Zerokilo 81 km
DAY 19 Zerokilo – Dhulikhel 18 km
DAY 20 Dhulikhel –
Kathmandu 34 km