Occasional flocks of goats and yak were passively tended by old, well-weathered men. One of these beckoned to me and while we established that we had no common language I realised I was uttering words for the first time in two days. I thought he maybe hadn’t spoken for longer. He offered me one of two cigarettes, hand-rolled in scraps of newspaper, and we smoked side by side in silence, watching his hardy goats tearing at scattered scraps of tough, tinder-dry grass.
The road surface continued to disappoint and I steadily accumulated an uncomfortable collection of saddle sores. My front rack broke in a forth place, giving me a hellish couple of hours trying to bind it up with numb-fingers using strips of inner tube which had lost their elasticity in the cold. I experimented with riding on a frozen river one day. The smooth surface was a delight for a short while until I began slipping over every hundred yards and then got stuck on the wrong side of the unfrozen stream in the middle. I stubbornly rode on as the river widened and then was unable to turn around as a gusty dust storm was pelting my back, pushing me onwards. That afternoon was a long hunt for a ford back to the road and eventually involved carrying my bike across a series of streams while my leaky left boot filled with thick, icy water.
I rode straight to the door of the hut and ran in where I knew the dogs wouldn’t follow. Inside, a Chinese couple, winter guardians of the road-building station, sat me down, fed me lunch and insisted I stay the night. I gladly hunkered down by the stove all afternoon, not understanding the card games I was being beaten at. The wife mothered me kindly (despite being only two years my senior) and I took the opportunity to wash my filthy face, feet, socks and boxers for the first time in a fortnight. I was waved off into another dust storm the next morning with plenty of food. The following six hours slogging through the thick swirl of dust and sand took me only fifteen miles.
This sensitive region is claimed as part of Kashmir by India and was technically part of India until the 1960s but is now administered by the Chinese. The dusty road that runs through it was built by China in the 1960 and sparked a short war between these two leviathan countries when India eventually noticed the road two years later. The plain is an otherworldly dust-bowl perched on a 4,800m plateau. Small groups of chiru (the tawny-hided, black-faced Tibetan antelope) wandered the desert and galloped gracefully away when disturbed by me.
With an old man’s warning ringing in my ears of three-feet deep snow ahead, I made my highest pass yet and congratulated myself on being comfortably higher than Mt. Everest base camp. The road rounded a mountain and the snow began. Thick drifts lolled across the road and the wind carried dry, powdery snow which blurred everything. The drifts deepened into impassable piles and I began long stints of pushing my bike, often sinking up to my knees in search of passage. The headwind flared up and a biting blizzard began, pushing the temperature down with an invasive wind chill. I was soon lost in a white out and using my compass to keep in the rough direction of the road. A 4x4 ploughed slowly past and opened a window. A large hunk of frozen bread was silently proffered by four balaclava clad faces; floating eyes agog.
My progress slowed to a pitiful pace and I began to worry that I might be stranded on the mountain for the night with the worsening weather. My hands had long ceased to feel and I had to look down to check they were sufficiently hooked onto the handlebars each time I started pushing. Finally a dozen buildings loomed out of the whiteness ahead and I stumbled into one asking for water. The small family inside looked frightened and stared at the sunburned, crack-lipped, icy-bearded madman who stared so lovingly at their stove. I was sat down, given some yak butter tea (famously found foul by foreigners but which I had developed a taste for) and later asked to stay the night.
At dinner time I am handed a sharp knife and a large joint of roast goat. Each adult pares the meat and gnaws the bone, occasionally handing tender little titbits to the children. The bones, picked clean, are placed by the stove for a while before being cracked to drink the marrow. I slept deeply that night and vaguely recall the father laying his large overcoat on top of my sleeping bag as I drifted off.
The next town had a Checkpoint and I gladly rose before sunrise after an uncomfortable night of food poisoning which climaxed in me vomiting inside the tent after losing a desperate fight with my sleeping bag zips. Luckily the up-chuck froze in a minute and I chipped it off and scooped it out with relative ease. I passed the road barrier but took a wrong turn afterwards, managing to ride into the police building’s courtyard before riding a couple of miles down the wrong side of a lake and eventually turning back and finding the correct road out of town kust as the sky began to pale.
South of Ali was a different world to the sparsely inhabited north. Homes lined the roadside at fairly regular intervals, flocks of livestock roamed in uncountable numbers and prayer flags proliferated. Every pass and the top of each slight rise has a colourful, chaotic tangle of wind-shredded flags that motorists add too as they pass. The Buddhist belief is that the prayer written on the flag goes to heaven each time it flaps in the wind. There are also many arbitrarily placed cairns on the roadside with a few flags fluttering.
After these curiosities the road once again crawled up into the whiteness and I followed it through light snowfall; slowly up and over the Marium La pass where my camera failed to work in the low temperatures. A string of cars floundered on the buried road and I stopped several times to help push. Night was falling but I rode on hoping to descend further before camping. I came to yet another military checkpoint and, complacent after the previous five, I decided to steal by in the dark evening instead of waiting for the small hours. All was fine until I slipped on the ice just a few yards from the guard’s hut. I lay still for a few seconds and, hearing no sound, carefully stood and regained balance. This involved a small step backwards which landed my heel directly on the squeeze part of my Klaxon. The comical resulting noise brought out the guard who saw me hurrying around the edge of the barrier. The jig was up.
The soldiers were very respectful and one with some English listened attentively as I frantically concocted a backstory of innocence and ignorance. They gave me tea and said I must go to Lhasa in a vehicle. By this time it was late at night and a five-car convoy I had helped on the mountain arrived. They offered to take me to the capital. After some phone calls to the police HQ in Lhasa, it was agreed. I was to be escorted by a friendly young soldier.
I gazed out the window at the villages, and yaks and mountains and slipped in and out of sleep until I was looking at characterless Chinese apartment blocks towered over by the Potala palace. The light was failing when we pulled up to the police station in the city centre and the soldier went inside to fetch an English speaker. The kindly driver and his companion, eager to get home, took my bike off the roof and leant it against the car. I hurriedly conceived a plan, said a quick thank you to them, mounted Old Geoff and rushed off around a corner. With pulse thumping in my ears, I hurtled along side streets and down alleys for ten minutes while irrationally considering my options. The police would surely be searching for me by now.
I decided I would continue east to Sichuan or Yunnan Province. I would need supplies for this remote road and so must stay one night in Lhasa and leave at first light, stocking up in shops on my way out of the city. To this end, I began searching for somewhere to sleep. The fact that I didn’t even consider finding somewhere to pitch my tent suggests to me now that the plan was rushed and insincere. In the fourth hostel I tried, I managed to convince the receptionist that I had lost my passport and would be going to the police station in the morning to get my permits re-issued. I showered and went straight to bed.
I soon had my bike boxed up and sent to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, ready for my ride to South East Asia. Knowing the inefficiency of Chinese rail freight, I decided to take advantage of the inevitable wait for the bicycle to reach Kunming and so booked a ticket to Beijing to visit a friend for a few days. The departure time allowed me a few hours to walk around the Potala Palace and merge with the flood of pilgrims circling Jokhang temple; prostrating themselves repeatedly at its doors. Tibetans crawl (literally on hands and knees) for miles to this centre of worship and there were many tearful devotees stumbling around in an emotional trance.
After 44 hours on the world’s highest train I stepped onto the platform of a different world, already nostalgic for the one I had left.