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Published: November 29th 2007
After a short but well earned rest at Ali it was time to leave again. We had not quite got used to our luxury room with en-suite, breakfast and TV. This was good since we needed to be tough. We had passed the least inhabited stretch of our route across Tibet but the road ahead was not going to fall below 4000 metres until Lhatse, well over 1000km to the east and mostly along the same terrible unsurfaced roads.
The first day was a breeze: fresh legs, good new tarmac and easy passes. Leaving Ali we cycled across the Indus valley through the middle of an enormous Chinese government irrigation scheme where they seem to be attempting to grow a forest. Huge earth banks have been bulldozed up, concrete ditches and sluices put in, but the 'trees' are nothing more than pathetic dead sticks poking out of a foot of solid ice. We are at 4,300m and there are no natural trees for hundreds of miles. Genius.
Leaving this foolishness behind we climb our first pass and fly down the other side into the Gar valley, wine red with dwarf shrubs and hemmed in to the south by a
AXIS - Boom Shiva!!
Holy Mount Kailash, from the Barka plainsto the south.
huge wall of snowy mountains. It is great to back in the wilds. We pass a few odd deserted villages of empty, new-looking houses. They are made of concrete but in a style mimicking Tibetan mud houses. Again we smell a Chinese government scheme. Far across the valley we can see scattered nomad mud villages, but as yet obviously nobody has been tempted to move.
After a long ride up the valley we reach Namru, a small Tibetan village with a barrier across the road outside the police station. Checkpoint? We freewheel limbo-style underneath it and nobody seems to care. After another small pass we return to the Gar river and stop to warm up in a teahouse at the side of the road. Inside a couple of Tibetans are wolfing down tsampa (roasted barley flour) they have dumped into their bowls of butter tea and chewing raw, air-dried yak meat off leg-bones. We order some hot butter tea, no-idea what it costs and every time we put the bowl down it gets instantly re-filled. It was hard to actually finish, get up and leave. When we do our smiling hosts refuse any money for the tea, and are
Well, not the cat! Back in Darchen after a complete circuit.
already in an argument with their other guests who are evidently trying to pay too much? I think I'm going to like Tibet.
A short time later and well over 100km from Ali we were camped by a pretty river. The night was freezing as usual. Although the mornings are terribly cold there is nothing quite like opening up the tent to see the first rays of warming sun strike the frosted hills behind you. Tibet is wonderful; so silent and big. Everywhere we look we see such beauty in the light, the smiles of the people, the patterns in the frozen river or the snow crystals that cling to the tent each morning.
We are heading to Darchen and the mythical Mount Kailash, believed by millions of Buddhists and Hindu's to be the Axis of the Universe and the Abode of the Gods. We reach Shangsha for lunch before climbing the Jerko La and find a bus load of fellow pilgrims lounging all over the dirt outside one teahouse. I can only guess their bus has broken down. They all have blankets spread, a couple of fires going and dozens of crates of beer open. As we
Thats the huge mountain, not a Bollywood star. Taken from Horchu,looking across the marshes and Manasarovar.
would slowly learn, Tibetan Buddhism inside Tibet involves a lot of ritual drinking.
Sadly none of the teahouses will serve us, all telling us they don't have food even though Tibetans are inside blatantly eating tsampa. We ask for tsampa but are told there is none. A complete contrast to yesterday. We are saved by an Italian guy who arrives with a tour group in 2 landcruisers. He is their guide but has also cycled all over Tibet so we get pasta, fruit and yoghurt off their truck.
After this the ride up the Jerko La is a doddle, we still have tarmac. At the top we rest next to nomad tents and huge herds of yak and sheep. The pass is wide and grassy, really just a high point on the wide grassy plateau. We descend into another river valley, with glimpses ahead to some truly enormous snow covered peaks - the Himalaya again, this time from the north! We follow the river down, cruising alongside kites and lammergeirs, to the small town of Misar/Moincer (every town in Tibet has multiple names), nestled under a huge snowy dome of a mountain.
As we reach the town
there is an army tent with a barrier across the road - definitely a checkpoint. Again we just roll under the barrier, the soldiers being safely tucked up inside their tent. I am beginning to think our expensive permit and fine was a big waste of money. The new asphalt road skirts the edge of Misar, passing new imitation-Tibetan Chinese concrete shops and restaurants. Tibetan children run after our bikes screaming "Hello Hello Hello Hello Hello" as if their lives depended on it. We ask a Chinese guy for a cheap dormitory and he sends us up the dirt track into the original town - low mud buildings, streets full of rubbish, and a pall of dung smoke filling the air mixing with fragrant cooking smells. We find a cheap bed and realise the old road used to run through this square, but now it has been bulldozed up. From now on all passing trade will go to the newly arrived Chinese businesses on the new asphalt bypass. We really liked Misar, our first real Tibetan town. Guys played pool in the main square on the most knackered tables you have ever seen, every one wore a huge smile and
the shops were overflowing with cheap food. We enjoy a huge supper of yak meat noodle soup in a Chinese Muslim cafe full of Tibetans.
The following morning we cycle uphill out of town as the early sun bounces of the snowfields above us and mountain hares zig-zag away from the road at high speed. The road takes us slowly uphill across the wide open grasslands, a long-line of high mountains stretching ahead of us on our left, and further off to the south huge snow spikes of the Indian Himalaya puncture the horizon. At the first of two deep river gullies in the plateau the asphalt ends abruptly, spilling us onto rough rocks and deep sand again. We pause to let some pressure out of our tyres and psyche ourselves up for a bumpy ride for the next 7-800km.
The now rough road continues its slow climb across the plateau towards a distant grassy horizon ahead. To our south the Himalaya are becoming clearer and we guess the huge peak we can see is Nanda Devi in India. All around us Pika dart for their burrows and Snowfinches hop across the bare ground. As we slowly reach
The Upper Gar Valley
Looking a lot like Scotland...
the high point of the plateau our eyes are drawn in 2 different directions at once; to the southeast is a truly massive bulk of rock and snow - at the point where India, Nepal and Tibet meet Gurla Mandata stands sentinel above a patch of turquoise blue - the sacred waters of lake Manasarovar. But immediately to our northeast is another mountain, the one we have travelled this long hard road to reach - Kailash. It is a beautiful, instantly recognisable pyramid of a mountain, with four perfectly orientated sides that face the cardinal points.
From the pass the mountain is not as impressive as we imagined but as we descend towards Darchen the true form becomes more clear - a huge, towering, 4-sided almost perfect pyramid of rock and ice. This is the ancient mythical Mount Meru of the Puranas, the crystal mountain of the Gods that stretches from the lowest hell to the highest heaven and thus binds all the worlds together. These legends, the oldest religious writings in the world, describe Mt Meru as an isolated, four sided peak, with a sacred river flowing from each of the four faces. Mt Kailash does have four
distinct faces and four of Asia's largest rivers rise nearby; to the north rise the headwaters of the Indus; the Sutlej flows west, eventually merging with the Indus in Pakistani Punjab; while to the south a major tributary flows through the Himalaya to join the Ganges; and to the east the Yarlung Tsangpo flows across Tibet, forces its way through the Himalaya into Assam and becomes the Brahmaputra. The Indus and Brahmaputra define the western, northern and eastern boundaries of the Indian sub-continent, with Kailash as the cornerstone.
We leave the dirt road and follow rough pathways across the grassland, making a shortcut towards Darchen and the base of Kailash. While this means we avoid the entry fee on the main road we do have to ford a wide river. With a Tibetan audience I just make it across, but Erika gets her feet wet. In Darchen we get lucky though and avoid the nasty hotels, finding a room in the only traditional two story Tibetan house in the village.
Darchen is a weird place; every year thousands of pilgrims from the Buddhist and Hindu worlds converge there to walk around the mountain. The Tibetan Buddhists believe that
one circumambulation will grant you a clean bill of karma health and 108 times around guarantees instant nirvana. Our trip since Kathmandu has been about getting here. All the difficulties and arguments have been like tests of strength from the mountain. It was certainly a long ride here and some of the physically hardest we have done. For me however it was a big challenge mentally and it was only once we had got into a routine of camping in sub zero temperatures and cycling at altitude that I truly believed I could complete this cycle trip. I wonder when I will learn that we have enough determination and fitness (thank god) to achieve most of these challenges. One thing I do know is that it is only by cycling together that I get enough strength to push myself on the tough days when it is cold and windy. I don't think I would be able to do this by myself.
Darchen was not as touristy as we had feared, but this was the first place we came to in Tibet where there were other tourists. We were happy not to be here in summer when thousands of Indians
West Tibet Plateau
Much of western Tibet looks like this, all well over 4500m.
arrive on pilgrimage. The place is pretty dirty though, even by Tibetan standards.
It was nice to be walking again after so long on the bikes, but the day we set out for the "Kora" the mountain was swathed in a big snow cloud. It had snowed that morning and the day was not too warm. The path left the rubbish-strewn village to skirt along the base of a steep grassy ridge at the edge of the huge plain that stretches south to the Nepali Himalaya. Making a clockwise direction around Kailash we pass numerous Mani walls before climbing a small ridge that will take us into the valley up the eastern side of the mountain. The ridge is marked by standing stones and cairns wearing peoples old clothing and dense masses of prayer flags. This is the first of four prostration points, where pilgrims prostrate themselves towards the 4 faces of the mountain. We meet an Irish guy looking none too happy, heading back in the wrong direction. The guides on his trekking group turned them back because of deep and dangerous snow on the high pass. Not good news, but as the story unfolds we read between
Kailash South Face
The southern, or sapphire, face of Kailash. Hindu's beleive the giant scar is a swastika. Bhuddists hold that it was formed during the defeat of a Bon (the pre-Buddhist religion of tibet) Shaman/Saint by the Buddhist Poet-Saint Mila Repa.
the lines and reckon he has dodgy guides who never intended to take them over. Soon after we pass the rest of his group, all looking totally knackered and suffering from the altitude, and guess this is the real reason for them turning back. A flock of Tibetan sandgrouse flew past only to settle almost invisibly on the other side of the valley.
The path drops into the mouth of a wide valley, passing chortens and the huge ceremonial Tarboche flagpole. After this the valley closes in dramatically between huge, towering vertical walls of fractured rock. Kailash is invisible above the canyon walls, hidden in dark snow clouds. We soon caught up with two old Tibetan guys who were plodding along slowly, fingering prayer beads in one hand, chanting in low deep voices and happily stooping every few paces to throw stones off the path or put them on the regular cairns. It was great to be taking part in a pilgrimage with local people, and when we stop for a snack and share our food and water they look suitably impressed to learn we have cycled all the way from Xinjiang, but erupt in laughter at the idea
Tarboche Flagpole, Kailash Kora
This flagpole is taken down and re-erected every spring in a huge festival. Apparently if it stands perfectly vertical all is well, if it leans towards Kailash things are not so good, while if it leans away they are even worse!
of us riding all the way from Scotland. Happily for us now it was also far too cold for the thousands of Indians and we mostly were able to walk by ourselves.
As we push up the canyon the sky begins to clear and by the time we reach the second prostration point we have a clear view up to the awesome western face (the ruby face), ridiculously steep with a huge mass of ice hanging precipitously form the steep rock. Our path slowly takes us around the north east corner of the mountain into another valley, and up towards the Drolma La pass on the northern side.
That night saw us tucked up warmly in the smoke-filled kitchen of Dirapuk Gompa at 5000m. The kitchen was full of Tibetan pilgrim women and the few monks that live there. We tucked in to our instant noodles and endless butter tea, having reached the monastery in time to watch the setting sun illuminating the massive northern face of Kailash. This is the Gold Face and in this light it well lived up to its name. We sit there watching the changing light and this mountain and place certainly feel
Entering the canyon on the western side of Kailash.
very spiritual. To me all mountains are spiritual places to some degree, and I ponder whether the special feeling here is because there is some truth in the myths about Kailash, if it really is the home of Shiva, or whether the sacredness emanating from the mountain is due only to the veneration of all the pilgrims?. Is the mountain is simply radiating back the prayers, love and devotion that people have heaped upon it?. Or is there any difference anyway?
We spend a chilly night in the gompa, waking to see Kailash has disappeared again behind the snow clouds that surround us, fresh snow is all around. We eat our tsampa breakfast watching other trekkers and Tibetans setting off up towards the pass, disappearing into the whiteness. We are easily the last to leave but quickly catch most of the other foreign trekkers/pilgrims, struggling with the altitude. We have no such problems though, and it is great to be climbing in the snow, even with no views. We pass Shiva Tsal, a special place where pilgrims are supposed to undergo a 'spiritual death' before being re-born, karma free (or at least improved, depends on your starting score...), after
Below the Mountain
Atthe second prostration point, below the western face.
crossing the pass. Most leave a piece of clothing or something else that signifies a break with the old and a new start. Old shirts and clothes adorned rocks all around, mostly covered by snow though. For our part Robin broke his longest and oldest dreadlock, tying a good 3 foot of it onto some prayer flags. A Tibetan porter working for a group of Austrians see this and is very impressed, but tells Robin he must now make 3 prostrations towards Kailash to complete the gesture. So in front of the bemused Austrian tourists Robin kneels and then prostrates himself face down in the foot deep snow 3 times over.
The rest of the climb we are bombarded by a blizzard, passing the other foreigners and climbing with Tibetan families; old men, women wearing thick skirts and trainers, and even small children, all singing loudly to ward off the freezing cold or plodding slowly up, chanting "Om Mani Padme Hum" in low deep voices every few steps. Instead of backpacks they carry wicker baskets filled with provisons and blankets, or else have large metal boxes tied to their backs with rope, even a 40 litre gas canister!. As
we finally reach the top of the 5,600m pass the white shroud around us breaks open and we are bathed in brilliant sunlight, which we take to be our metaphorical (metaphysical?) re-birth. The view down the west is amazing, but Shiva retains his privacy - Kailash is still shrouded in a snowstorm above us.
We descend an easy path through the snow down into another wide glacial valley that runs down the western side of the mountain and back out to the plains, but once we are down in this valley we are blasted by a fierce, icy headwind that blows snow and spindrift into our faces, making progress hard and slow. There is also no real path anymore, everything is buried under frozen snow, except at regular intervals when we have to cross icy boulder fields, or surprisingly unfrozen bogs. The deep frozen snow also gives way quite often, suddenly plunging us up to our knees. We had hoped to make it all the way back to Darchen but in the end it is a major effort to escape the snow and get down into the lower valley and the Zutulpuk Gompa.
We spend a night here,
Kailash Kora, rounding the northern side of the mountain.
again in the kitchen with the monks. There are only 3 monks here though: the cook, the head monk who wears a long pony tail and is clearly a big practical joker, and an older guy with matted hair who says nothing to anyone, not even to the other monks. The other tourists are all staying down in the guesthouse below the gompa, so we are alone with the monks and a few other Tibetan pilgrims, including 2 young women who eat with us and the monks in the kitchen. We can't understand most of the conversation, but some things are obvious, and the cook and head monk are definitely hitting on these girls. Later they quite unsubtly suggest we should now to go to sleep in our dormitory, leaving them and the girls alone in the kitchen and us wondering just how celibate these guys really are!
Of course the following morning the sky is completely clear and the weather has improved a lot, but we don't care that we spent half the Kora in a snowstorm. We wander slowly back towards Darchen, completing the circuit in a happy daze and pass a Tibetan woman doing things the
The Holy Mountain
The North or Golden Face from Dirapuk Gompa.
really hard way - she is prostrating herself the entire way around the mountain. We donate our surplus food to her, as at this rate she still has days to go to reach Darchen. Some devout pilgrims even travel all the way from their homes on the far side of Tibet to Kailash on foot, prostrating themselves all the way, before making this kind of Kora.
After a rest and lots of good food we say goodbye to Kailash set off on the bikes towards Horchu on the shores of the nearby Mapham Tso, or Lake Manasarovar. In Hindi manas
means 'of the mind of Brahma' and this lake is therefore a physical manifestation of the mind of Brahma, who created the physical world. It is also the female counterpart of the male Mount Kailash, like the Yoni to a Lingum in a Shiva temple. In fact this whole landscape is sacred and forms an enormous, natural, Shiva temple. Both Hindu's and Bhuddists also make Kora's around the lake, Hindus are obliged to make puja by submerging into the freezing waters too.
The road to Horchu is easy as we have a strong, icy tailwind pushing us east,
Fellow Pilgrims in the kitchen of Dirapuk Gompa
although occasionally we get hit by a rogue snowstorm coming the other way, visible ahead as a dense mass of white cloud. We stupidly take an off-road shortcut towards the town (when we will ever learn..?), great at first as the stony plain is easier than the rutted road, but soon we are in a minefield - everywhere is an enormous Pika colony and the ground below us is a swiss cheese of holes and burrows. Small furry critters pop their head up everywhere or disappear down other holes, but we are paranoid that the ground will cave in and drop us down into some huge underground world full of small furry rodents. Of course this doesn't happen, but we do run up against a river - deep, wide and quite fast flowing. Far off back on the road we can see the bridge, and have to slowly push the bikes along the river back to the road.
We slog it into Horchu and find a modern new Chinese concrete town that nobody lives in, the place is deserted. This is a disaster, we had relied on getting several days of supplies here before the long empty road east.
Looking north towards the source of the Indus, from the lower reaches of Drolma La.
There are no shops, everything is locked up and empty. We spot 2 women carrying barrels of water on their backs and ask about a dorm for the night. They tell us there is none, but we watch them disappear behind the concrete town towards a mud-brick town we hadn't spotted before. Sure enough, here is the real Horchu, full of shops and with several hotels.
We spend a rest day here, eating and buying supplies and saying hello to everyone who lives there. No really, its that kind of place. In the afternoon we walk across the marshes and sandy plains to the shores of Manasarovar. Again we cross huge pika colonies, but observe that the pikas also live communally with hamsters and several species of snowfinch, all underground together. Their common enemy is the sand fox, and we see one silently stalking around the edge of the colony. They have really thick, warm fur which is a popular choice of hat in Tibet.
The shore of the lake is lined with prayer flags, across the deep turquoise water Gurla Mandata rises high into the sky, and looking back we can see the east or crystal face
Arriving on the pass, the highest point of the Kora circuit and place of spiritual re-birth.
of Kailash for the first time. The sun is low in the sky and the whole area feels amazingly special as we sit alone on the edge of the lake, at over 4,500m. Robin decides swimming would be a bit suicidal, but instead purifies his feet in the holy water and assures me that they will never smell bad again.
From Horchu 230 km stretched out before us to the next town. We ride out of town as small children run out into the muddy street to say goodbye. As we cycle up the hill we look back at Manasarovar, Gurla Mandata and Kailash one last time, and a pair of black-necked cranes fly past us, singing goodbye as well. This place is enchanted in some way, we are certain we will be back here again. Cycling Information:
if you are planning to cycle this route then we have made a detailed roadbook which you can downlaod from cyclingnomads
Tot: 0.051s; Tpl: 0.026s; cc: 7; qc: 23; dbt: 0.0065s; 1; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.3mb