Location: Beijing, China
Miles on the clock: 10,610
My typical winter’s morning in Tibet: my watch is tucked under my hat so I can hear the alarm which wakes me with a groan. The sun hasn’t yet risen but it is light enough to see in the tent without a torch. I stare with resignation at the glistening few millimetres of frost that have formed on the tent’s inner sheet. Vainly, I try to avoid knocking it off while wrestling with the three drawstrings and two zips that lock me tightly inside my two sleeping bags. I retrieve the warm pair of gloves from the crotch of my thermal leggings and put them on.
Behind a temperamental zip, in the tent porch, my breakfast is laid out, ready to be cooked. A cooking pot containing a solid block of ice (the broth from last night’s meal of instant noodles; a fork imprisoned in the murky freeze) sits atop an unlit cooker. Beside it lies a squashed packet of instant noodles.
I have learnt the painful way not to touch bare skin to any of the metal surfaces and remind myself of this while fiddling with the cooker which refuses to work efficiently above 4,500m in altitude (despite being made by MSR: Mountain Safety Research).
I eat quickly, greedily and noisily. There is likely no one within a ten mile radius to reprimand me. I slurp the down the broth, finger the sand-like residue into my mouth and lick the fork clean.
I am already fully dressed except for replacing my two pairs of ‘tent socks’ with three pairs of moisture-stiffened ‘day socks’ on which I have slept to prevent from freezing solid. The night temperatures here drop to -40°C. With rapidly numbing fingers I pack up sleeping bags and mat, all the while wandering just why I am here. It is so cold, the mornings are so unpleasant and this is certainly no holiday. A minute later I yank on a chilled pair of wellies and crawl outside. The air is so cold that it almost feels liquid as is gushes into my lungs. With a daily epiphany I soon remember why I am here. My purpose strikes me anew with resounding force after just a few seconds spent surveying my surroundings. They are invariably awe-inspiring, trip-affirming and dwarfing. This is what I came for. ‘Old Geoff’ (my bike) lies steadfastly on his side neglected to the winter night and sometimes with a dusting of clinically white snow covering his rusted and scratched frame. His surroundings may be why I am here; he is how I am here. Here, amongst these numerous mountains in this bewitchingly barren land.
* * *
As we flew back to the capital, I sat transfixed by the wall of mountains standing like a jagged row of shark’s teeth blocking the route to, until relatively recently, an impregnable and mysterious kingdom on which I had set my sights – Tibet.
After 33 years of occupation, the Chinese authorities tentatively opened Tibet to tourism in 1983 and a trickle of intrepid travellers seeped in. The rules got stricter as time passed but they were not always strictly enforced until 2008. Tibetan unrest and eventually rioting in February and March of that year led to a crack down by the PSB (Public Security Bureau: Chinese police) on unauthorised travellers roaming the “roof of the world”. Tourists must now be accompanied by a guide and a private jeep with a driver. Added to this are the costly permits and the maximum visiting time of two weeks. My plan to cycle independently through the region began to seem like a financial and temporal impossibility. As I thought all this over from my seat in the westward-bound twin otter plane, the mountainous barrier before me suddenly seemed the least of my problems.
In these two weeks I kept busy. A tortuously early start on New Year’s morning saw me mountain biking with my new friend’s Binod and Birendra (click here to see photos). I visited the medieval city of Bhaktapur where narrow cobbled lanes ramble down steep hills and Hindu temple complexes abound. I passed pleasant evenings playing games with Ayesha’s little brother and sister who are both Nepal number ones on the tennis court. However, mostly I was occupied with how to get into Tibet and how to survive the intense winter once there. Simply crossing the border alone was impossible. I asked many tour operators to sneak me in but all refused. I reluctantly resolved make a big detour by plane to China’s vast and remote northwest Xinjiang province and then ride south from the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, sneaking past the police and army into forbidden Tibet.
Avoiding this kind of sudden transition from temperate Nepal to the frozen wastelands of northern China is exactly why I chose to travel by bike and I was deeply regretting the necessity of the flight. The plane touched down, I collected my bike box (largely shredded by Air China’s deft-handed baggage “throwers”) and stumbled, discombobulated, out of the airport. Urumqi’s road signs are in Chinese, Arabic, Russian and English. I rail freighted the battered box to Kashgar and booked a ‘hard-seat’ train ticket for the following day. The journey was a 32-hour trauma. The unforgiving seat was bearable but the Shanghai student next to me gave an unremitting lecture about the merits of Mao, the crimes of the Dalai Lama and China’s superiority over the slothful Western world. His English was impressive but, strangely, he struggled to comprehend simple phrases such as ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of expression’.
The renowned Sunday Market was quite an experience with second-hand shoe sellers squashed up next to butchers maniacally hacking away at fresh carcasses with dirty cleavers. Everything imaginable is hawked and the stalls spilled over a huge area; down back alleys and along main streets.
I rode out of Kashgar with an energy-sapping flu and wrapped up ridiculously against the mild -10°C. Soon sweating, I made my way south along a bumpy road and through a dreary, flat landscape. The only variation on the few shades of steely winter grey were the pallid-browns of stick-thin trees and the frosted-brown of turned earth awaiting spring and life. Everything was dead. A combination of this landscape, so devoid of life and beauty, flu, the cold, and perhaps because of riding alone for the first time in three months, left me feeling slightly depressed. On my first night, as the temperature plummeted, I pitched my tent alongside an ice lake. The frozen sweat in my clothes was chaffing and I discovered that my tent zip had broken. My routine was unpractised and clumsy. I hardly slept but passed the night with a miserable marathon of exaggerated shudders, coughing fits and self-pity.
Over the next few days I found a more positive outlook and pushed on hoping the exercise would exorcise my illness. The bleak road saw occasional vehicles but mostly old men with bushy, greying beards sitting stoically on tilting wooden carts, flicking their donkeys harmlessly with thin sticks.
The tilt towards Tibet increased and I wore my Uyghur hat low over my eyes to mask my face as two trucks had already stopped and told me to turn back repeating “Police! Police!” I started hiding from the road when taking breaks and turning my face away when vehicles passed.
The open desert ended and the road plunged into a valley, beginning to climb in earnest. The tarmac was replaced by mud and gravel covered in an inch or two of powder-fine dust. Of the few people I saw, more now appeared Tibetan than Uyghur. I made my first pass (3,300m) and was rewarded with a scenic revelation as I crested the climb. Ahead of me spread a jumbled morass of mountains, brown in the foreground and tall and white in the distance. I wondered how on earth a road could weave a way through this slowly raging sea of geology and thoroughly froze my fingers taking photographs. The descent was almost as slow as the climb, navigating numerous winding switchbacks and rattling over ruts while dodging the perilous rocks liberally strewn across the way. Regular stops to clap and shake my hands were necessary to have continued use of the brake levers; the pain during each thawing was excruciating. I noticed my fingers had gone a strange shade of orange each time I ungloved to rub them together.
Excitement woke me early and I was just setting off when my watch beeped approvingly. I was shaking with anticipation as I put ‘plan A’ into action: walk my bike along the road and see if I can sneak quietly past the guard huts at the roadblocks. Feint starlight provided sufficient guidance as I approached the first red and white striped barrier. A flickering blue light was visible in the guard hut accompanied by the soft chatter of a television. I was wheeling my bike around the side when I heard a door open. Three soldiers walked out of the next building. I froze as they got into a car not twelve meters from me. Using the noisy cover of them starting a reluctant ignition, I dragged my bike off the road and crouched down next to it. They flicked their headlights on full beam and swung the car out onto the road, completely illuminating me for a frightening few seconds. My face throbbed with uncontrollable heartbeats. I would love to say that I focused on rock-like thoughts or put into practice some exotic environment-blending technique but the truth is that I held my breath and concentrated hard on not coughing or wetting myself. The car horn beeped impatiently a few feet from my head and the guard came out and raised the barrier. The large concrete counterweight narrowly avoided crushing me. The car went, the barrier dropped, the guard retired and I breathed again, thankful that I had remembered to wear black and put tape over the reflective surfaces on my bike and bags.
Having retrieved my bike, I found an alley leading to the right hand side of the valley. Following a goat path behind the buildings, I kicked a brute of a dog which had charged at me barking wildly. The dog retreated with a whimper and I came to the aforementioned fence. Feeling like James Bond, I took my Leatherman from my pocket and cut the bottom two wires. As I was shuffling underneath, the reality of the situation flooded my mind in a moment of chilling clarity. This was a Chinese military base, guarded with machine guns and protecting a sensitive area closed to foreigners. Here I was, at night, cutting my way through fences. Discovery could result in worse than just being turned back or arrested. Suddenly afraid, I dragged my bike through behind me and made my way forward as quickly and quietly as possible. Thirty minutes later and I found my way onto the road, mounted up and rode hurriedly away. At a safe distance, I couldn’t resist muttering under my breath “the name’s Walker. Charlie Walker.” However, I soon shattered this self-supposed (but non-existent) moment of cool by rushing down to the river and falling on my hands and knees on the ice to lap at the water like a dog, quenching my burning throat. I spluttered and finally erupted into a harsh volley of joyous coughs before gladly drinking again. I had passed supposedly the most difficult checkpoint on my Tibetan journey. To be continued...
Hospitality, frostbite and arrest in part 2