Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Saga of Saga

Top of the Kailash Kora
October 31; Saga, Tibet.
Happy Halloween. The five French Canadians in the hotel are ready with costumes, but I might miss my favorite holiday since there are two competing interests this evening: having my first shower and shampoo in two weeks when the hot water comes on between 7 and 10 pm; or sleeping before cycling tomorrow morning to help me make it the 60 or more kilometers it might take to reach an indoor sleeping site. Because I didn't sleep much last night, crammed in the back row of a stinky short bus with four other travelers riding with 15 other Chinese citizens, most of whom smoked through the night, "resting" against the ice-encrusted window, trying to keep from freezing beneath a PRC army coat. But at least we arrived in one piece this morning, scraped the centimeter of dust off the bikes and settled into a fairly snazzy $15 hotel room with hot water for three hours each night.
The past two weeks have been full of ups and downs. I wrote little more than a list of topics to cover, because for some reason, Tibet muzzles its pilgrims. So here are a few of the thoughts that reverberated through my troubled mind during the past fortnight.

Frying and Freezing
The thing you notice when you travel east in October on the Tibetan Plateau is My Left Foot. That's the one that perpetually rides in the shadow of the front panniers and never wants to warm up during the day. The right foot is quite comfortable, full sunshine penetrating the worn canvas of the the old summer hiking boots. In fact, the sun innudates all parts on the right side, as that is the direction of south. You can't really say that it all evens out- the right ear, the right cheek, withering and burning if you don't continually reapply sunscreen. Part of the challenge of the road.

No One in SIghtIMG_1672Too Frequent

If It's Not
If it's not the cold, it's the headwinds. If it's not the headwinds, it's the dust. If it's not the dust, it's the sand. If it's not the sand, it's the gravel. If it's not the gravel, it's the washboard. If it's not the washboard, it's the gradient. If it's not the gradient, it's the altitude. If it's not the altitude, it's the cold... That's on the road.
In the tent. If it's not the smelly feet, it's the stinky gas. If it's not the gas, it's the B.O. If it's not the B.O. it's the garlic breath. If it's not the breath, it's the feet. Part of the acceptance of the trip.

Dogs, Doo-Doo, Human Excrement and Garbage: This is Tibet?
It has been hard to come to terms with what we see every day here. Disillusionment with some mythical anticipation of what Tibet would be. Prayers wheels, stupas, gompas, bells and colors on women's thick woolen garments, sweeping skyscapes. Yes, those things are to be seen. But more impressive, albeit in a very negative way, is the refuse everyhwere and the lack of concern of those who deposit it.
I'd heard of the vicious dogs present in Tibet. Well, canines are abundant, especially around the ubiquitous garbage heaps that punctuate every village road and path, but even the feeblest three year old is adept at tossing stones which these pups abruptly heed. Even waving your arm or growling at them causes thes four-legged creatures to take their tails away with them. Of course their doo doo remains. But this is of little consequence. When walking in the open- and here it is mostly open- you quickly learn to train your eyes and plot your path carefully. Yak and sheep and the occasional goat turd is not the least bit of a nuisance, especially as it often warms your sleeping room in a sweet-smelling heat stove fire. So avoiding the dogs' waste is second nature. And when nature calls, they tend to move off to an untrod place. Not so, the humans. Inexplicably, the local poplulation finds it appropriate to stop and squat in any and every place. And if they do decide to use the constructed facilities, they leave their deposits anywhere near or about the intended hole, making it nearly impossible to find safe footing to correctly aim yourself. If you dare enter these public facilities. And so you likely also head out to anyplace you dare to do your business. Feeling more animal and criminal than human and wondering how people can be so casual and unashamed.

Ali Full of Cyclists
That is the heading that Rich, the green card carrying Slovakian encaptioned a recent photo on his fantastic website (drogpatravel.blogspot.com) of several late season riders on the 219, as the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway is labeled, whom we first met him in Gilgit, Pakistan, at the end of our time there. In addition to Rich, nearing the end of his 6-month circa Himalya solo sojourn, is Nikolai the Dane who befell an unfortunate fate when he fell, alone before the crest of a 5160 meter pass and seriously injured his right hand. A sleepless, freezing and scary night sent him hitching to Ali where we met him for the first time, a few days later. He'd already heard of us from John, the kitchen-sink carrying Bostonian who combines hitching and cycling in a generous way. He makes Americano coffee and shares his oreos with good humor and kindness. He rolled into Ali on the bus which he'd flagged down en route, black-faced with diesel soot and cigarette smoke. And then there were the unstoppable French, Delphie and Ivan, who start riding at first light each day, and only stop for breakfast when the sun has climbed to a warming height in the sky- just about when Chris and I would be eating in the tent. It was great camraderie to meet with others at the winter-end of the Tibet season. And for the past two weeks we have been leap-frogging and reconnecting as we ride at our different paces or sometimes hitch to the same places.

Kailash Dawn
Mt. Kailash

Clearly the high point, both literally (5660 meters) and figuratively, the walk around this holy and significant peak. It is near the headwaters of four of Asia's most important rivers. And Tibetans believe that circling this massif brings blessings proportional to the number of circuits. For me, it was a beautiful a nd quiet time in the clear air, surrounded by colored flags which create prayers as they flutter in the wind.

From Darchen to Saga
About 500 kilometers. 10 days riding or maybe 2 hitching. After our trek around Kailash, we decided we would just ride east for one day, because there was a village (read warm (?), indoor beds with no need for tents or campstoves in the wind) just 42 kms. away. After that, we would hitch to Saga where villages would then be spaced just a day's ride apart. It's not that we don't like sleeping on our inflatable Thermarest mattresses and eating instant noodles three times a day. Well, maybe we don't love that stuff. But our tent zippers are failing and the stove is very tempermental and the winds are wicked cold and the scenery, while beautiful, varies only slowly. And more importantly, the very few villages we passed through were mostly run-down, small, and not the best place to meet new people or make local friends. Better get going and get to a more southern locale. So we set out for our one day of riding. Less than a kilometer on the bumpy morning road, and a dump truck came by. Chris made an instant decision and within an hour we bounced into Hor Chu, having collected the Dane on the way, who got about 8 kilometers out of Darchen. We spent the rest of the day hitching, which is how we realized it was very unlikely anyone would pick us up. That evening, at the Chinese restuarant which would be our home for the next 5 days (we slept in comfy beds in the "motel" in the back), our hosts told us a bus would come. It came the next day, going the wrong way, but we paid a deposit and waited til the day after tomorrow for it to get us. Well, it broke down somewhere on the way back, and it was only on the 5th day the we finally got to spend a jarring, freezing, sleepless night on the way to Saga.

Waiting, Day 3 The Bus is Here!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Road to Ali

4980 meters

The Road to Ali

The road to Ali has been long, high, difficult, cold and full of compromise. The day of reckoning came on October 11th when we crossed the 5190 meter Khitai Pass. The ibuprofen I had taken in the morning to reduce the shoulder-neck pain that I'd been having had worn off, and I was greeted at the top by a wicked headache. The lowest point we could reach that day- and for the next 10 days- was 4830. We past an icy, sleepless night in a sort of foxhole campsite. The temperature was in the single digits (Farenheit) and my years old REI down bag was rated just to +20. I resolved to end it there. Not my life, but my riding. Ahead of us were four more passes each over 5000 meters. Probably we would have been safe, but I was unwilling to face the lack of oxygen and the lack of thermal units. We rode and camped one more day, as the elevation increased very little there, and we had a long and difficult discussion as to what to do. It was unfair to rob Chris of the chance to cycle over the highest passes in western Tibet. I was prepared to hitch 260 kilometers to the town of Domar at 4380, and wait for him to join me. We slept one more night, our tent erected inside a deserted Mao era building, serenaded by Tibetan Mastif Ducks. By morning, Chris had resolved to keep the team together, and we began a 3-day hitch that carried us 450 kilometers over the four high passes, and to this well-supplied, Tibetan town of Ali.

Our First Hitch   too common

Our rides were with Muslim Uighurs, Hui Muslim Chinese, and Han Chinese. We rode in a fuel truck, a coal truck, and a road construction electrician's truck. We slept at night in simple dormitories, and ate our fill after dark, as our Muslim benefactors were observing Ramadan, and we were reluctant to eat in front of them.
It was painful to enter Tibet in a vehicle, although it would have hurt worse to ride through the snow and sleep so cold and high. It was especially crushing on the second day, when our truck drove us around the shores of the beautiful Pangong Tso Lake, bordering India. The day was pleasant, the water was turquoise, the road was inviting and we were in a vehicle.

But it was a pleasure to be protected in the work truck with the electrician when we passed through 60 kilometers of hellacious wind and sandstorms in the long stretch of eroded road construction. Our driver, the electrician, stopped to do some work, and during our 3 hours of waiting, we helped erect an insulated canvas tent, and looked around at the rock crushing equipment. But mostly we snacked and read, well protected in the thin metal hull of the truck.
Now we are filling our last hours of civilization with internet, errands and shopping. Tomorrow we head out with a Danish guy as we join forces on the way to Mount Kailash, nearly 300 kms distant. Beyond that it's another 500 to Saga at the intersection of the Friendship Highway- the road to Nepal. Our plan is to ride to Kathmandu, but before that, to visit Sigatze and Lhasa before back-tracking to Saga. I have found some warm additions to my sleeping bag, and so with these reinforcements, we hope that the cold won't deter us again.

Leaving AliLeaving Ali

Two Weeks Ago
More than halfway to Ali and I really haven't written anything. I haven't had a voice. This part of the trip since leaving Kashgar- I'll have to tell you about that comedy of errors later (Four left turns brings you right back to start!)- has been very inward. Clearly, Xinjiang has not been about culture or people or scenery. It's about challenge. And acceptance.
The places we have been riding for the past 800 kilometers have been high, cold, desolate. The roads, when we finally left the crazy-making, horn blowing, dust spewing, speeding trucks flying over the asphalt, have deteriorated into corrugated washboard littered with gravel and sand, sometimes deep. The passes, and there are a dozen on the way to Ali alone, have gradually increased in elevation. Tomorrow is our first one over 5000 meters, as we cross onto the Aksai Chin Plateau and meet some of our greatest altitude in western Tibet: 5440 meters.
Today is our 22nd day of riding without a break. That's also how many days since my last shampoo. I've gotten good at bathing out of a one liter hot water bottle. Last night we actually slept inside in a warm dormitory in the last town before this next 188 kilometer stretch without a village. There were about 25 very friendly soldiers watching China Cable Television and feasting on delicious hot plates prepared for them by the efficient husband and wife proprietors. Maybe it was some sort of R+R- after dinner and CCTV, they left around 9 pm. Chris and I ordered five plates of food for the two of us- plus rice- a typical cyclist's dinner portion. And if our cookstove ever starts working again, we'll reheat the few leftovers for tonight's dinner.
We are holed up at 4680 meters, in an abandoned road matintenance station, 24 kilometers below 5190 meter Khitai Pass. As there is no water for 31 kms past here, we plan to cross tomorrow and sleep at a spring at 4930. As you see, life these days has become very mathemeatical. We take care not to go too high in one day so we have time to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen in the air.
There have been days when I think repeatedly: there is nothing else I'd rather be doing; there is no place I'd rather be; there is no one else I'd rather be with.

Two Weeks Before That
It's an island here, Kashgar, for me. Coming back for the second time, we know our way around around, sort of. How and where to cross the streets. Where to get a godd lunch. How to get to the bank, the bike shop, the supermarket. How much a slice of melon costs. And the names of the key hotel staff. It has also been cooler than when we first arrived din August, so we've been able to enjoy our days and haven't had to suffer from hot, sleepless nights. But more than the familiarity, Kashgar is a respite from the vigilant state required when traveling in the Muslim world of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, pakistan. Of course, the Uighur Autonomous Republic is also predominately peopled by Muslims, but here it is tempered by the Republic of China. Here I can comfortably walk around in a tank top, and could even wear shorts if I wanted to. We did meet one young shopkeeper who that the Taliban is good and Bush is bad. We agreed with him on the latter, but couldn't on the former. We looked elsewhere for yogurt next time. But the point is, it is a relaxing moment for us, poised between the world of the "stans and the forbidden lands ahead.
With cyclists daily depating "east" as we are calling it, we can only believe that we will be successful as we aim for the 5000 meter high plateau. With enough to eat, proper clothin, sufficient knowledge, a comprehensive medical kit, cleaned and tuned cycles, rested and trained bodies, we are in a positive position for success.
Of course, it is not guaranteed. Riders have died on this route- from stubborness or ignorance. Others have been hurt. We hope to be prudent and deliberate in our actions and decisions. We are willing to go only 20 kms in a day if the altitude warrants. We are also resolved to make our progress. We are experienced in cold environments. And we have the prayers of many of the faithful supporting us. Enshalla, we will arrive at our destination healthy and glad, if a little bit lean.
With cyclists daily depating "east" as we are calling it, we can only believe that we will be successful as we aim for the 5000 meter high plateau. With enough to eat, proper clothin, sufficient knowledge, a comprehensive medical kit, cleaned and tuned cycles, rested and trained bodies, we are in a positive position for success.