A few notes on our Route through Tibet

As the reader knows from Line’s blog, she and I travelled with a large group of westerners in jeeps to get to Lhasa with our bikes. Once there, and aclimatized to the altitude, we set off along the Friendship Highway, a well-paved backbone of much of Tibet, built by the Chinese, to Shigatze, a medium-sized city to the southwest. The altitude of the two cities is very close, at around 3600 meters or so, so the highway,following the river, has only moderate hills in some of the mountain gorges. Though the headwind in those narrow passes was often strong, the first leg of the journey was fairly flat, and not too much work, relatively speaking.

However, after Shegatze, the Friendship Highway goes over two high passes, one at 4900m and the other at just over 5000m, in the next leg, before even coming to the highest of all, the Tigri pass. Line, as Team Leader, suggested that instead of taking the Friendship Highway with its “double hump”, we should stick to the river and head west along the back roads to rejoin the main highway later, at Latze, a big town without any developed tourist industry to speak of.

It is not easy to get maps in Tibet, and many of them are utdated or simply wrong. Line’s was both, we found out. It showed the river flowing more or less straight west from Shegatze without any major bends,towards Latze, with a series of little roads indicated next to it. In fact, the river flows north and south many times on its way west as it moves around the intersecting fingers of the two major mountain ranges on either side of it, the Himal being on the south bank. I estimate that for every klik we travelled toward the west, our goal, we probably pedalled 4 or 5 km in a north/south direction.

As a result, the river route turned out to be much farther than it
looked on Line’s map, perhaps twice as far in all as the highway route. As you’ve already read, the paved road ended after 65 km. After lunching at the town there,we found the dirt road heading west, and set off bravely, passing one of the very few signs in English lettering, which said: LHATZE — 75 km.(it turned out to be closer to 125 km.) Within a few km, the road became more gravelly, and steadily got worse after that. The stones got larger and sharper, and our machines started to take a real beating, particularly Line’s, which is a touring bike, lighter in construction than the mountain bike I had rented in Kathmandu.

Just when one of us would remark that the road we were on was the worst ever (Line actually said this after travelling 9K km.), it would get worse. It was bad enough to constantly battle huge rocks and gouges, but then we came to the sand dunes sweeping over the road. They were often very beautiful, but even more frustrating than rocks to try to peddle through. At times, we had to wear masks or scarves over our mouths against the blowing sand.

Line has talked about the small, sometimes lovely medieval Tibetan
villages we passed through, and the fun times we had talking to children and other Tibetans that we encountered along the way.

At any rate, it was the sand that seized the peddle bearing in my
rent-a-bike, no doubt, which left me in Lhatze with a broken bike, like an an albatross around my neck, saying good bye to Line as she continued upon her way. It is at this point that I became a traveller on my own, which is not an accepted form of travel in the People’s Republic of China. Little did I realize how hard the Chinese police, directly and indirectly, would make it for me to get a bus or a ride to the Nepali border at Zhang Mou, about 4000 km away.

My Encounters with the Chinese Police

I first asked where I could find a bus station. I assumed the town must have one–i discovered, after trying to consult a couple of police officers, that it doesn’t. Furthermore, next to no-one speaks even a word of English, and it often seems as though the Chinese in general, even those that deal with tourists on a daily basis, are not interested in learning any other language. Their word for westerners is still “foreign devils”.

There was a hotel on the main street where the convoys of jeeps
carrying western tourists seemed to stop regularly for meals, so I asked the management (in sign language) if the bus stopped there. They said (in sign language) that one had to watch the main street for buses that might or might not stop for new passengers going west to Tigri.

I spent 1 1/2 days in Lhatze before i finally got away, during which
time I tried flagging down buses on main street, to no avail, then stood out on the highway passing the town, trying to flag down the buses that bypass the town, and, between buses, just plain hitch-hiking. Finally, after several hours, a truck pulled over and stopped. The Chinese driver spoke no English, but accepted me as a third rider, I found out. The other two were Tibetan, and got off on the main street of Lhatze as we came back through the town to drop them off. As we cleared the town limits, I felt relieved to be finally leaving Lhatze.

A few km. out of town, we came to a truck weigh station, manned, of course, by several young Chinese police officers in spiffy uniforms. They often appear to have no leadership, as though they are there to throw their weight around in whatever way they see fit, which allegedly includes taking bribes and harrassing the non-Chinese population (i.e.Tibetans).

The truck driver was told to pull off the road, and he took his papers into the weigh station for a few minutes. I don’t know what the cops said to the truck driver–he didn’t try to explain. He just got back in the truck and drove me right back to the main street of Lhatze, where he dropped off me, my crippled bike, and my 35 kilos of stuff in my backpack, bags, etc. I was back to square one.

Walking by the jeep stop hotel, I noticed that the current convoy
pulling in for a lunch stop included a minibus with more seats than the standard Toyota SUVs which comprise 98% of the tourist agency vehicles.
Not only that, but a couple of the seats were even unoccupied. Thinking I might get lucky, I approached the guide of that particular mini-bus, asking if I could pay my way to the border with his group. “I’m sorry”, he told me, “but the police won’t let us carry anyone other than our own group, for whom we have special permits. We would get in trouble if we gave you a lift and got caught.” Indirectly, the cops had thwarted my efforts again.

My yuan were running low, and there was no way in town to cash
travellers’ cheques or use a Visa card. I seemed to be stuck in this little Hell hole with rapidly dwindling resources. By now, many of the townsfolk, both Chinese and Tibetan, had noticed this foreign devil with the broken bicycle walking up and down main street with a note written in Chinese asking to find a way to the Nepali border. That note, kindly copied from one that Line carried by a friendly hotel clerk, became extremely dog-eared, but I’ve saved it as a momento of the experience.

Finally, in the mid-afternoon of day 2, I found a smallish bus whose
guide and driver agreed to drive me to Tingri for a hundred and fifty
yuan, quite a high amount. Of course, I agreed, and paid them
immediately, even though it just about cleaned me out untiil I could get to Zhang Mou, where I knew there was a Visa machine. We stowed the bike on top of the bus with my other stuff, then I entered the bus to discover it was full of kids of about 9 to 13 in age, perhaps on a school outing or some such. Because of the language barrier, we couldn’t communicate very well, but we exchanged friendly greetings as I said my good byes to Lhatze yet again.

As we approached the truck weigh station, I held my breath, but we were stopped only briefly, and the cops didn’t come aboard. However, a little further down the highway, we came to a proper police checkpoint. Not only did an officer board the bus and peruse my passport and visa, but after a few minutes, the guide came back from the police hut to inform me that they would not be able to take me any further. I said good bye to the children and got out as they unloaded my bike and bags from up top. I piled it all by the side of the road outside the hut and went in, where the cops were all sitting around drinking chai.

I hadn’t really planned as to what I’d do in this type of situation,
so I just followed my natural instincts. I walked into the hut, sat down with the cops, took out my documents again, remarking on my problem of needing to get to the border within the 5 days remaining on my visa, and then asked for a cup of chai, which they were pouring out of large thermos bottles, very common in Tibet. They didn’t have a cup for me, so I found one in a cupboard and wiped it out with the skirt of my cycling shirt. They poured me some chai, which turned out to be the salty, hard-to-drink variety, but I hardly had time to take a sip before a strange process suddenly occurred. Barely as I had sat down, one of the
young cops had left the hut, and as the chai was being poured, I could hear him yelling at the bus driver, who had just begun to drive away, to stop the bus and back it up to the hut again. The driver complied, and before I knew it, my stuff had been repacked onto its roof and I had been instructed to get back on the bus and continue on my way.

Needless to say, I was caught completely offguard by their flip-flop, but was delighted at its outcome. The kids, also astounded, welcomed me back aboard, and we enjoyed the next 3 hours as we travelled over the magnificent Tingri Pass at about 5200m together. Unable to speak with them, I pulled out my harmonica and serenaded them with a few old down-home prairie melodies, to which they clapped along.Though the episode was completely unplanned, I have come to see it as a small victory for individual travellers’ rights in Tibet.

When they dropped me off at Tingri, I still had over 250 km to go to get to the border, and I had another set of adventures in order to finally accomplish that, but my mind had already settled into the mindset of the realities of living under a totalitarian regime and its powerful and ubiquitous police presence. I think I would find it oppressive anywhere in China, but in Tibet it seems doubly so, and extremely galling to those of a buddhist persuasion.

Ross Campbell