We set out from Golmud on a road bound for Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. We wouldn’t be following it all the way, as the Chinese government doesn’t allow independent travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR, hashed in yellow below), which is also called political Tibet. The region is perhaps the most sensitive in China, after Mao declared it part of the PRC in 1950, rolled the tanks in and forced the Dalai Lama into exile. For better or for worse Tibet has remained part of China ever since, a very tightly controlled corner of empire – though frequent protests from inside the TAR still manage to hit Western media and anger Beijing. Luckily for us Greater Tibet (namely the Tibetan plateau) extends far beyond the TAR, and the overwhelming majority of people who live there are ethnically Tibetan. So as cyclists, if you’re prepared for a few weeks of tough high altitude climbs, you can still experience Tibetan lifestyle on what is called the rooftop of the world. This is what we planned to do. The plateau is at a base height of 4000m: similar to the Pamirs, cyclists normally only venture up here during the summer, but as usual, we were stuck with the winter snows and February winds. However buoyed by our recent Taklamakan success, we treated this prospect as an additional challenge.
Our attempt to reach the plateau didn’t start well. A windy climb out of Golmud swiftly brought us to a police checkpoint, where it was established in no uncertain terms that we would be cycling no further. Although we were still 400km away from the official boundary with the TAR, from this point onwards special permits were required as we approached the sensitive zone. The fact that we would be turning off east before the TAR was entirely irrelevant, we were told. No permit, no onward passage. No discussion. While Lobby still argued hard for our cause, I started hatching a plan which had us sneaking through the police post after dark. But with beautiful timing the man in charge then turned to address me directly for the first time, as if he could read my mind, reminding me that the post was open 24/7 and that our descriptions had been radioed to the next station. Ah. Desperately frustrated at being held up by Chinese officialdom, we then blurted out that we would be cycling on anyway, as we made for the door, and that there was nothing they could do to stop us. With my hand on the doorhandle I heard the man state that if we crossed his checkpoint like this, he would make sure we were both arrested and then deported from China. This last word stung, as we had already been given the deportation treatment in Azerbaijan all those months ago! Beaten this time by the system, we had no option but to head slowly back to Golmud and regroup. We scrambled for a plan B as we pedalled. On this occasion we had tiptoed too close to the invisible line, following a truckers’ route directly towards the forbidden land: so we decided to head to Xining overnight and approach the plateau from a different tack. This plan would add mileage, and would bizarrely have us cycling west for a few days – but ultimately it should mean that we rejoined our original route in Yushu. Map above!
The next morning saw us stumbling bleary-eyed from our overnight bus in Xining and straight back onto the bikes, following a road which punished our tired bodies with 1800m of steady climbing on our first day out of the urban sprawl. We were heading west for the first time in the expedition, and this combined with tiredness and the never-ending climb made for a tough day mentally. Leaving the outskirts behind we quickly found our first prayer flags, as well as huge white Tibetan carvings, Buddhist scriptures etched into the hills of the plateau. Woolly yak grazed and vultures ripped apart a sheep carcass by the side of the road. Over the next few days we would climb up to a plateau of 4000m, peaking at 4824m. This being China we wouldn’t be facing the Tajik problems of disappearing roads and power outages – but we would be coming up against snow and severe altitude once more, along with a much more potent obstacle: the wind.
As we climbed further and further the wind began to attack us with unprecedented ferocity. It came down from the peaks to our left and right and swept straight across the plateau, carrying with it helpless birds, prayer flags (a good hazard to entangle our bikes) and even some yak herders wrapped up in their Tibetan furs. As cars reached the top of passes their passengers would pile out, and staying close to the ground they chucked little pieces of paper stamped with Buddhist mantras into the wind with great cries of delight. Afterwards they would dive back into the car, with the urgency of a drowning man being shown a lifeboat. Unfortunately we had no such lifeboat. Our bikes were at the total mercy of Mother Nature and were blown all over the road like twigs instead of the 150kg beasts they really were. I’ve never experienced anything like it, Pamirs included. What’s more, within a couple of days we had risen above the treeline, which made the riding even more exposed. If there was a headwind our speed dropped to a Central Asian 3kmh; if we were hit by a crosswind we would both have to dismount and walk, the safer option, having witnessed Lobby nearly pushed off the road and down a steep drop by a nasty gust. Once without thinking we left our bikes square to the wind, and they were slammed down into the tarmac. The two sellotaped chopsticks which together acted as our flagpole bent out at a horizontal angle to the bike, the Union Jack streaming madly behind us. This was proper wind!
The first rundown Tibetan places we stayed in were nearly all in one-street villages, with at least half the houses boarded up for winter. There were very few people outside. It felt like a scene from a Western shootout as we pushed our bikes down the empty wind corridor, dust churned up in front of us and the door of an abandoned house swinging wildly on its hinges. Life up here is harsh. If you were outside during the day you could quickly get sunburnt from the altitude – the Tibetan ‘rosy cheek’ look is actually years of compounded sunburn. If you lingered outside after dusk you could easily get very cold very quickly. Peter Hopkirk writes that the Tibetan plateau is the only place in the world where it is possible to get sunburn and frostbite at the same time, if you sit half in the shade and half in the sun at the end of the day.
Those Tibetans who for some unknown reason had decided to stay up here during the winter spent the day huddled around their wood burner in a central room, as we had seen in Kyrgyzstan. I say wood burner but there was no wood at this altitude: it was the wife’s job to collect dried yak poo from the surrounding hills and feed the fire with that instead. Personal hygiene was kept to a minimum because of the lack of running water, which all froze. Poo collection was usually her first job in the early morning, when the stuff had had a chance to freeze overnight. Her next immediate task was to make breakfast for the family, who had presumably got used to the idea of yak particles being in their porridge. Lack of wood is actually a much bigger problem on the plateau than just fuel for cooking, as it also means people can’t be cremated when they die. The frozen ground is also much too hard to be digging graves. So instead of cremating or burying their dead, the Tibetan practice is to cut the corpse up into small pieces, grind up the bones and feed the resulting mince to the many vultures which circle overhead, in a ceremony called a sky burial (in Tibetan this translates as being ‘bird scattered’). Tibetan Buddhism treats the body after death as just an empty vessel (the soul is the important one which moves on), so the fact that it is consumed by birds is not met with the same alarm as it might be in the West.
So you would expect that having to deal with these living conditions the Tibetans would be the most grumpy and miserable people in the world. I imagine if you put a Londoner somewhere for the winter where he couldn’t go outside, wash or breathe properly then he would lose his sense of humour pretty quickly. But the Tibetans were the complete opposite – extremely friendly people, upbeat, loud, real jokers! They wore colourful woolly caps and thick fur overcoats which they wrapped around like a sheet, with sleeves that went down to their knees, apparently so they could grip the handlebars of their motorbikes without feeling the cold. Motorbikes have largely replaced horses as the way of choice to get about, so many decked these out with rugs and big sound systems to zoom around town in zigzags, shrieking at the top of their voices over the Buddhist chanting droning from their boomboxes. Long black hair tied in a ponytail beneath a cowboy hat, gold teeth in permanent grins framing dark faces, Buddhist amulets dangling from their neck, prayer beads worn like a lasso across the chest and big riding boots over tight jeans: these guys were the opposite of Han Chinese in almost every single aspect. They greeted us in excited yells, and were visibly pleased to bursting when we managed to string a couple of Tibetan words together to shout back from our bikes. Our mangy beards went down pretty well since Tibetans have virtually no body hair at all – it became quite normal when we ate to have a man come across to our table uninvited and stroke one of our beards curiously. Arm hair was totally foreign to them too and produced sharp intakes of breath as well as stunned silence, as if they had just met a talking monkey. Then followed endless photos with the talking monkeys alongside every family member in every different pose, which we had to start refusing eventually or we would never get our mileage cycled for the day! It was a surreal experience.
The most impressive building in every village we passed through was the monastery, usually on a hill far removed from the chaos below. On the same hill would be thousands and thousands of prayer flags, sometimes tipi-shaped, sometimes strung out in lines to make massive rectangles, or even spelling Tibetan words in giant multicoloured letters against the snowy mountains. The monastery complex also housed many of the monks who spent years of their lives up there, so there was nearly always somebody keen to show us round if we made the climb up the hill. We would be sat down in the huge kitchens with tea, yak yoghurt and – if we were unlucky – tsampa, a kind of Tibetan porridge (avoid), while monks bustled around us boiling water in gigantic pots and making yak butter sculptures for the monastery. We would then be led around the monastery by a monk who could speak Chinese and therefore could answer most questions we had about the inside – statues of the different Buddhas above pictures of famous lamas, against a backdrop of colourful wooden pillars, draped cloth from the ceiling and the pervasive sickly smell of yak butter.
On one occasion a monk about our age invited us to have dinner down the hill, and we were introduced to his extended family over many big bowls of noodles. A framed picture of the Dalai Lama – illegal to display in China though this was largely overlooked outside the TAR – hung on the main wall above more amulets, offerings and quite tacky electric candles. The granny sat in the corner muttering mantras and vigorously spinning her prayer wheel throughout the evening. Our monk showed us the dagger his father used to carry on him for protection when he went outside, as most others had done of his generation. He grumbled that these were no longer allowed, and that the Han police would arrest you if they found you with one on the street (looking at the huge blade, we couldn’t help thinking that was fair enough). He then went on to show us what most people now carried to guard against the many wild dogs on the plateau, basically a small anvil on a thick string. It could be whirled around to strike a dog’s skull with enough force to crack it. Even the pacifist Buddhist monks took the wild dog issue very seriously, which slightly worried us – at the end of the evening he insisted on walking back with us in case we were attacked, anvil firmly in hand! On our walk back he opened up and described his people’s great sadness at not having a country to call their own, at having their spiritual leader in exile, and being routinely discriminated against by the Han. He told the story of being handcuffed as a teenager and put behind bars for a few days, just for being on the street after dark wearing a monk’s robe. It was a very powerful and memorable evening.
On the bikes, we were still rising steadily and started encountering all the same altitude problems that we had suffered in the Pamirs. Lobby in particular began to develop some worrying breathing issues at about 4300m, energy sapping away with each pedal turn while still being buffeted by the strong wind. As usual our bikes were being blown all over the road. Rest stops grew longer and longer, and it soon became clear that Lobby was in quite a bad way: his numb fingers could no longer control his handlebars, which is pretty key when the wind hits you full-force. There were steep drops on either side of the road, so losing control of the bike at the wrong moment could spell the end of your expedition – and perhaps a sky burial if you were unlucky! We decided to try and hail down a car which he could take to our planned evening stop, and I would meet up with him once over the pass (4500m). Magicking his bike into a standard car’s boot space with a howling gale was a delicate process, but we managed it with the help of some very enthusiastic Tibetans and a couple of bungees to keep the boot closed. Lobby was on his way. I joined up with him as planned that evening after the pass, at which point his condition had unfortunately got considerably worse. The highest pass (Bayankala, 4824m) lay between us and Yushu, our rest stop at the halfway point of the plateau. Although extremely gutted, Lobby agreed that it wasn’t sensible for him to be climbing further in his state, or in fact to be on a bicycle at all: he would take a truck going the right way, and we would aim to meet up again in Yushu.
So it was at 5 o’clock that I woke up on my own in a little shack, on my second day of a two-day push to the expedition’s highest pass. The windows had no panes and the door didn’t close properly – I’d been caught out overnight by not putting my water bottles in my sleeping bag, which had all frozen by the time the alarm went. Wheeling my bike out into the dark I grabbed a large rock as my host had done the previous evening, aiming my torch at the four pairs of reflective eyes whose owners started howling as if on cue. The dogs made a big racket but did nothing but circle the bike and snap their jaws, so my rock remained unlaunched and I was safely on the road, now fully awake and heart pumping the pedals quickly round into the blackout. It was very important that I cover the uphill to the pass in the morning, as the afternoon winds became much fiercer and could easily dash my summit attempt – much better to face those going downhill.
The first few kilometres threw me as they sloped downhill: I didn’t have time to put my gloves into the handlebar mitts to reach for the brakes before I was skidding all over the place on black ice, ending in a not-so-spectacular fall onto my hip. The bike somehow took most of the impact, which snapped my rearview mirror off and twisted my pannier rack round. I was left feeling stupid but unhurt, a good sharpener for a long day ahead! As the sky grew lighter the early morning truckers started zooming past, headlights flashing as if by blinding me they thought it would be easier to steer my bike on the snowy road. I spent the morning spinning the bike up a series of winding inclines, sheltered for now by the mountainside to my right. My beard froze to my jacket zip, and when I tried to melt it by dribbling saliva down myself that froze too. Not cool! Several cars stopped to ask if I needed help, I was quite impressed that they stopped at all really considering the abominable snowman look I was quickly taking on. One (Han) car offered me an instant noodle sachet, which was sweet but utterly pointless as I pointed out that all my water had frozen – to which they gave me a huge thumbs-up and drove off. To the Han Chinese, the message seemed to be that even at the worst of times there was nothing that couldn’t be solved by a sachet of instant noodles. Even just having one in my possession was a guardian against all ill.
The wind hit with full force at midday during my last two hours of climbing, right when I had planned to be summiting the pass. The climb had been tougher than I’d thought, so I’d been slower – now it would be windier too! There now seemed to be no other option but to groove my way to the top, so I blocked out the howling wind with some Parov Stelar on full volume and punched out the last 8km to the top that my lungs had in me. I realised halfway through that without a rearview I was effectively blind and deaf to the traffic behind me, so decided to ride obnoxiously in the middle of the lane in case anyone tried to jump me. Luckily few cars take the February route over Bayankala Pass.
The pass sign finally came into view with a crescendo of gale, which cut my cycling speed to a walkable 3kmh. I summited a shrieking, fist-pumping maniac, coat zip frozen to face, flagpole horizontal to the wind. A minivan full of monks was kind enough to lend me some hot water to unfreeze my face as they threw prayer papers out the window, which allowed me to record a short video: our donations page to Prostate Cancer UK had just reached £10,000. We had just reached our highest point of the expedition. It was quite a moment.
I met up with Lobby in Yushu, who was much happier for having spent a couple of days in bed. Yushu had been worst hit in the Qinghai earthquake of 2010. According to official government reports 3,000 people died and 85% of all buildings were destroyed, though many Tibetans think the death toll was much higher. By complete coincidence I had been travelling through Yushu just three months after the event in 2010, which at that time was lined with rubble and blue disaster-relief tents. Now we entered a completely rebuilt city, with practically no sign that it had been flattened just five years previously – the pace of development was ridiculous. We hitched a ride out of town to a well-known monastery, which had a walking loop up a mountain around it, and were encouraged to follow a whole load of humming and chanting pilgrims around the circuit too as we hoped for a favourable wind over the next section – or at least not so brutally against us. Here for the first time we saw Tibetans prostrating themselves fully on the ground as they performed their slow loop, stretching their whole bodies out horizontally in the dirt after every third step. The most pious make a pilgrimage from their hometown all the way to Lhasa like this, face down in the dust for a third of the time, in a journey which can take months. The prostraters were covered in dust and mud but seemed very happy in their work, cheered on by all the prayer-wheel spinning, chanting, humming walkers who overtook them.
We finished our day – and the first half of the Tibetan plateau leg – by taking a walk around Yushu’s mani stone pile, which I can tell you was much more exciting than it sounds. A mani stone is a rock inscribed with a Buddhist mantra, usually the most famous “Om mani padme hum”. These are piled on top of each other in huge walls which people then walk around clockwise, accompanied by the usual prayer wheel spinning and devotional humming. The mani stone pile in Yushu is the biggest in the world, so unknowingly we were thrust into the middle of a revolving congregation of thousands and thousands of Tibetan Buddhists. Once part of the moving crowd it was very hard to get out: we were jammed together shoulder to shoulder, prayer wheels smacking anyone within a handheld radius and once in a while the masses parting to let through a yak or a buggy circumambulating the wrong way, swallowed up in a sea of colourful hats and furs. This became chaotic. Not looking in the slightest bit Tibetan we didn’t fit in well, and as soon as people spotted the foreigners they started grabbing us excitedly, tugging at clothes, holding hands, asking for photos. We made the mistake of stopping once for a quick picture, which turned into a paparazzi shootout with dozens of lenses and kids being launched in our general direction for the mantelpiece picture. Those who have already been to China will have experienced the excitement of feeling like a minor celeb as the Chinese anxiously gather round for photos – in Yushu that reached a whole new level. Fighting our way out of the corner we had been squeezed into, we dived into a shop thinking to lose some of our tail, but they marched in behind us, took over the shop floor and blocked off our exits. Some were hysterical. In that moment as we physically wrenched ourselves free of our new Tibetan fans to get to a taxi, I empathised with the daily struggle Justin Bieber must face walking down the street. Mugshots of hands over our faces from the taxi window. Safer to be on the saddle riding across an empty plateau, we thought, breathing heavily from the chase. And fortunately, we were soon doing just that: the second half of our Tibetan route had begun.