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Published: July 30th 2010
Top of Chola Pass
Prayer flags lay strewn across the road as the wind caries the wishes into the heavens
The weather was picture perfect, the traffic volume low and alpine-esque valleys lay below me in all their glory. I had timed the ride just right. It was 1 pm, the hottest part of the day and my altimetre indicated an altitude of 4.400 metres as I headed ever upwards to Chola pass in Western Sichuan. I had spent the night in the cleanest hotel of the whole trip, showered with hot water for the first time in days and spent the morning happily clicking away at Dege printing lamasery's treasures. Now it was time to double-back and return to the north-south route that would take me up to Qinghai province and on to the New Frontier (Xinjiang).
All of a sudden, as is the habit, I heard a revolving noise. Deciding to listen further before investigating, I was quickly brought to the realization of what had happened. The steering grew jerky as the back of the bike seemed to take on a life of its own. Flat tyre number two of the trip was a reality, my decision to stop a formality. Finding a mechanic in China is as much work as walking down the street and as such
Who You Lookin' At?
A yak poses for a picture
I did not have the tools nor the know-how to fix the flat myself. Things here, though, were slightly different. The choice was simple. Help ahead lay in Manegango, a ten horse, five hundred yak town 60km or three hours drive up and over the pass. To return to Dege would mean a 50km, 2 hour one-way trip. The night before I'd made friends with the mechanic who worked in the shop below my hotel. Sign language worked well with him and I was convinced I would be able to persuade him to drive me back to my motorbike and perform the repair. I wasn't wrong. I thanked the truckers who had stopped and given me a ride to town, photographically illustrated my predicament to the young mechanic and within a few minutes we were on a motorbike and on our way. It took a little while longer to explain to him that we needed to refuel before going as the round trip would be 100km. This is when things became interesting and the whole situation took on the air of an adventure.
The moment we set off from the fuel station, gale force winds hit us squarely in
Walking the Horse
Scene around Dagei Gompa, Sichuan
the face. A look up the valley in the direction of the pass revealed that the baby blue skies had taken on the mood of a Picasso painting and the air vibrated from the rumbles of what could only be described as AC/DC kicking it live. It wasn't long before cold, heavy, lance-like raindrops permeated our clothing and chilled our bodies. My saviour, clad in a shirt and raincoat I had lent him but helmet-less stopped and motioned for me to take the front. It wasn't long before we both felt like we had fallen into frozen Arctic waters. My teeth chattered incessantly and I was worried my new filling, expertly applied by a friendly Chinese dentist in Kuala Lumpur, would reach a premature end. The trip was taking longer than I had hoped. With visibility low, road conditions abysmal and my partner wanting to turn back, you could say that things were not going smoothly. My buddy was going to find it hard to explain an extended absence to his boss and in cartoon like fashion he depicted himself getting a beating. As he showed ever-more hesitancy to continue, I showed more urgency to go on. I motioned for
A couple of nuns return to their nunnery as the sun sets on a stunning landscape
us to stop for some hot yak butter tea, the favourite in the area, but he remained adamant. This guy was either a soft drink fan or simply overplaying how cold he was. We had come too far, I was not turning back and as I made my point across, he had to relent.
The bike stood there, between kilometre stones 892 and 893 just like I had left it. The only beings that had shown any interest in it seemed to be the neighbourhood yaks, whose fresh patties lay all around. As we dismounted, the sun came out, as if on cue. The mechanic pulled a rusty nail out of the tyre and fashioned an extra layer out of the old tubing. I'm not sure that'll help if I collect another nail, but it seemed to please him and a hundred kwai note made him smile ear to ear. An eleven Euro payment for a five hour trip - repairs here really are that cheap. If only they weren't so frequent and time consuming...
Work finished it was time to get back to the job of riding. Despite the inconvenience of returning to Dege for the second
Bakong scripture printing lamasery in Dege holds over 70% of Tibet's literary heritage.
time that day, memories of the previous night's hot shower and comfortable bed convinced me that was the way to go. Two hours later and I wasn't so sure. The Hu Xie hotel was full and the others were smoky, smelly, Han infested holes. My patience, untried during the course of the day, now suddenly grew thin. There are journeys you make to simply get from A to B and then there are the ones you will remember for the rest of the life. My will was about to drive me to undertake the second.
As my mechanic buddy looked on in awe (or perhaps he was simply incredulous that a 老外
could be so stupid), I rotated the throttle of my Z-Hero and punched in my ticket for a night with destiny. It was eight o'clock, almost nine hours after I first attempted to re-cross the highest mountain pass East of Tibet. Third time lucky?
Thanks to their only being one time zone in China, Beijing Central Time, light was on my side. But as I passed where my bike had waited hours before, the last traces of day gradually slipped away. A nearly full moon struggled
It's not every day you find someone to do a five hour round trip with you to fix a flat tyre
to make itself seen from behind the cloud cover that had decided to retake the sky and a freeze set in. I only had a little over six hundred metres altitude left to the top of the pass but the geography, cold and fifteen kilometres conspired against me. I found myself wiggling my toes and squeezing my fingers together in an attempt to keep the blood flowing and prevent frostbite. Memories of Huayna Potosi
went through my head but this time I didn't have a Kit-Kat.
The gravel road kept rising ever upwards into the heavens. From the luminance of my head lite I could just make out the path ahead. Darkness on one side marked the precipice and keeping my distance did not necessarily mean safety. Frequent landslides left piles of rocks strewn across the way. Dakar rally organizers would be proud to include this route in their race. I persevered.
When I quit my job almost two years ago, people found it hard to believe. Why?
The fact is it stopped being a challenge.
Here was one of the rare real challenges on the Asia leg of my trip staring
me in the face. Over six months of easy-peasy-japanesey since my Endau-Rompin
misadventure had culminated in this moment. I deemed it worthy. It brought out the masochist in me and made me feel alive. Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make - I'm an extreme adventure junky. But if you've been following my trip, you already knew that.
At around ten o'clock my motorbike inched across the top of Chola pass. 5.050 metres. My body was too stiff to climb off for a celebratory picture. Of what - the darkness? Besides, I needed to mentally prepare myself for the descent. The road to Manegango looks like it was recently bombed. Craters and ruts. Madness and mayhem. Danger and peril (yeah, I know, they have the same meaning). The adrenalin rush was tangible.
Lower down the valley I felt the temperature slowly rise. The barking, rabid dogs signalled I was approaching Manegango. I needed to get out of my wet, freezing clothes. I needed to find a shit hole for the night and warm myself under layers of blankets. But that's the subject of another story.
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