Saturday, 15 October 2011

Tibet Bike Ride – Huge Landscapes and Visible Politics

This piece complements the day by day posts I wrote capturing the challenges and excitements of the trip in real time and reflects on experiencing Tibet. 

“This guide book is reactionary” This was my introduction to the Chinese surveillance of Tibet. We were at Lhasa airport and my books were being inspected by a young Chinese customs officer.  She had noticed my copy of “Seven years in Tibet” by Heinrich Harrer and pronounced this work to be “incorrect history” and then inspected my other books.  I had to suppress my reaction to protest but keeping quiet was vital if I wanted to enter Tibet, I was also curious to see how much English she understood; she clearly understood enough of the political and cultural analysis to confiscate both books.  Fortunately “Annie Matthews”, my father’s memoir about his grandmother was not confiscated so I had something to read, albeit about Yorkshire.  The process of searching was random and arbitrary, other people had brought Kindles loaded with their reading and these were not inspected.   The Chinese colonisation of Tibet is very striking and I saw it across in Tibet in many forms. My airport incident also earned me the nickname Dodgy Di.

The bike ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu is the highest in the world going on the main route across Asia. The journey is 1000km and one has to cross 3 passes above 5000m. I had long wanted to do this route and after Laura’s death decided not to leave this until I retire.  I have also loved the Himalayas since I first travelled in Pakistan in 1975 and have also been intrigued by Tibetan culture and have followed the political situation in Tibet. Deciding to raise money for BIkeAbility also validated the trip, making it more than just a holiday.
I travelled with a group organised by Exodus Travels. There were 17 people in the group, age range 34 -71, eleven men and six women.  I was surprised to find that I was the oldest woman.  Two other people were biking for charities; a woman, A, for the Royal Marsden and a psychiatrist, I, for Mencap.  We had a fantastic Nepal tour leader, Kumar who rode every km of the way and encouraged us all at each stop, at the back was his assistant Ajay (26) Nepali champion mountain biker and it was his first visit to Tibet so he was also photographing all the sights like a new tourist.  Everyone is the group was determined and fortunately we gelled well. The men were competitive, racing ahead to first at the top of the passes.  After a few days I became part of a self selected “slow group” who supported each other up the passes. We biked for 13 day, doing about 100 km a day, one day we did 150 km, much of that riding in a diamond shaped pelton like the racers use and I could feel the drop in wind friction, but also means that one cannot gaze around at the sights, so I did not always bike in the peleton.  We were well looked after and had three cooked meals a day to replace those calories we were burning off, with yak curry for the meat eaters.  Every group holiday has its defining moments, and we had two, a male one and a female one, perhaps ying and yang when  in Tibet  After a few days one of the young men became very frustrated because we were all being driven  part way up a pass and he had been determined to ride every kilometre of the way.  He seethed with frustration and then as we were checking our bikes he punched Kumar, our guide.  A retired headmaster showed old reflexes by immediately pulling the two apart and G then rode off ahead. He was biking with his father who was shocked by his son’s outburst.  It sobered up the other young men who had been grumbling about the pace of the slower cyclists. The women by contrast all went and hugged Kumar. In the evening G apologised to the whole group and the incident helped the group and made the faster ones have time for the slower ones.  On the same day we also had another group event, one of the women had been not been able to climb the first pass and had really struggled with this second one but also inflicted her anxieties on the whole group with non-stop talking! One of the other women, who was a strong cyclist and could have been at the front instead buddied her up the pass and we all formed a welcoming party at the top. The contrasts between male aggression and female altruism were very prominent for me that day.

It was a wonderful way to see Tibet, Lhasa is very beautiful with the mountains feeling close by and the lights clear and sharp. The red and white Potala palace dominates the scene and at night appears to floats above the city, but it has to compete with flashing neon  casino signs. At the summer palace outside Lhasa we saw the pictures of the previous dalai lamas. The photo of the 14th Dalai Lama was tucked away around a corner so that he could not be photographed. It is illegal to have pictures of the Dalai Lama and I did not see any photos of religious leaders.   Shiagatse is a large city with a big monastery and around the monastery runs a pilgrims path of 3km of spinning prayer wheels , from here I looked down on the different parts of the city , the old Tibetan houses were all built around courtyards  with water from street pipes. In the market felt slippers and yak cheese were on sale, the Chinese part was newly built and  concrete and glass shops e selling sunglasses and mobile phones. The villages were very poor, often with no electricity and villagers were busy collecting dung to make winter fuel. In the fields the barley was ripe and deep yellow and being harvested by hand.  Tibetan architecture uses local stone. The houses have striking entrances with double doorways leading to courtyards. The doorways are beautifully decorated with brass and painted metal plates. The windows have black wood frames around them. The hotels were all entered through an archway and had a large courtyard for horse or bikes with small rooms with black window frames above them.  I had been worried that the road would be busy but there were few lorries and almost no private cars. Most Tibetans get around by horse. 
The panoramas are vast with huge bare mountains with the rock strata clearly visible showing ancient geological turmoil.  We also biked around glacial lakes that were a deep blue.  The long climbs up to the passes were tough and the scenery would become bleaker with few plants. The tops of the passes were a mass of colour from prayer flags, perfect for photos. Atop the Rohang pass I could see the mountains stretching away in all directions and I felt that I was in a wonderful airy landscape. We had some fine descents in the afternoons, coming down into a greener landscape with golden barley.  The rivers were also beautiful, grey and flowing fast with glacier water but also reflecting the light. The river down from Everest was especially beautiful with a grey and green landscape and a few yaks grazing in the small valleys. The landscape high up was also like an abstract painting with huge areas of white and snow and rock. We saw plenty of yaks, they occupy the middle altitudes and look cuddly and seem to socialise a little in their small groups. The Tibetans take them up to the top of the passes to be used in photo shots with tourists.

The climb up to Everest was tough and the Chinese Base camp (5200m) is in a valley so one does not have the sense of space that I had from the Rohang pass.  There is a seasonal camp there with brown yak hair tents with central stoves giving out a little heat; we slept in wooden bunks around the edge of the tent. The camp looked like a refugee camp with white Land cruisers carrying Chinese tourists parked everywhere.  Everest was in cloud when we arrived but it cleared in the evening showing its vast beauty.  The Chinese side is austere with stone cairns and an empty ruined monastery and no memorials to past climbers. There was also little life at that altitude, just a few plants and birds, as if nature is reduced down to a minimal life set. Looking at the mountain was humbling.  That night we experienced a grade 3 earthquake there. We felt the tremors and ran out of our tents and could then hear an avalanche but in the dark could not see what collateral damage had been done until morning. All the Chinese tourists fled in their land cruisers during the night. This was a tremor from the earthquake in Sikkim. It was a powerful reminder of mortality.  I felt very tired after reaching Everest, it had been 10 days of biking long distances at altitude, but the group achievement then kept me going for the next 5 days. I remained very well for the whole trip; I had taken stocks of paracetamol for illness and brought it all back! I did not have altitude sickness (25% of the group had it badly) and apart from one episode of food poisoning I had no medical problems.

There was evidence of Chinese colonisation everywhere. The road was in excellent condition all the way to Nepal and when we crossed over into Nepal the condition of the road deteriorated dramatically with landslides, streams and an off road challenge. Chinese troops were very visible in the main sites in Lhasa and then i saw small barracks in many of the towns.  There was also excellent coverage for China mobile right across the country that also disappeared when crossing into Nepal.  On the mountain sides the white stones picking out religious messages have been replaced with Chinese slogans about literacy.

We visited a few monasteries and I found it difficult to tune into Tibetan Buddhism.  It feels a fossilised religion, the monks seemed to be dispensing religious learning and providing nothing for the population but taking large amounts of money from pilgrims. Only in one place, Lhasa did we see monks discussing their teaching and here young monks were engaged in lively disputes in a large garden, each group with a teacher but also a huge range of teaching styles  varying from the acrobatic to the quiet deliberation. I did not feel that the monasteries had done anything to improve the conditions of the people around where they lived. It is noticeable how few religious shrines or symbols there were outside of the few big centres and at the big monasteries there were only small numbers of monks. It seems that the monks have been partly retained for the sake of tourism. Prayer flags only seem to be tolerated at the tops of passes. Our Tibetan guide said that people would worship at home.  I felt an absence of religious freedom in a country where religion is integral to its culture and history.  Seeing the rich monasteries in a very poor society made me understand how the reformation happened in Europe, and feel grateful that it happened.  

I now have more insight into the political and cultural clashes in Tibet which are very challenging.  It is easy to say “Free Tibet” but rather more difficult to see how reconcile communism and theocracy, and democracy is even further off.  The Chinese have invested a lot in Tibet with improved roads and government structures but the Tibetans see this as colonisation.   It was the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese invasion in July 2011 and Tibet was closed to foreign tourists and The Chinese premier stood in front of the Potalala Palace to say that Tibet would always be part of China. 

In the last couple of days we descended 150 km, biking down a huge canyon that is formed by the Indian subcontinent hitting the Tibetan plateau and the monsoon rains create the deep ravine.  At the top was treeless Tibet, as we descended the trees became larger and more varied and there were huge waterfalls and flowers. When we crossed into Nepal on the Chinese built Friendship Bridge the earth became richer and richer supporting an abundance of crops and vegetation, paddy fields were tucked away on every hillside.  The people were wearing brightly coloured clothes and it was warmer.  Kathmandu felt crowded, vibrant and lively. A fitting place to end a journey of contrasts.   

Doing the ride has given me a sense of achievement.  It was a struggle to climb some of the long passes, especially the climb up to Everest base camp. When I was struggling I thought of my friends and the support from the messages on the web-site. I also reached my target of £5000 for BikeAbility. It was important for me to tie together the challenge of the ride with the prompt that made me do it. The huge austere landscape is beautiful. I was struck by the poverty of Tibetans and the visible Chinese colonisation. It would now be interesting to go to Ladakh where there the locals are ethnic Tibetans but without Chinese colonisation. 

1 comment:

  1. Maureen Thornotn8 January 2012 at 17:25

    Printed out for Annie - who is very agin computers! - and read with interest, as I did the journey from K to Lhasa, by minibus several years ago, and this year travelled with an Explore group from Ladakh to Amritsar by jeep.