On the descent from Lalung La (5,050m) I could barely hold the throttle open. My arms and legs were wracked with pins and needles, becoming simultaneously numb and painful. Beneath me the little 500 Enfield seemed absolutely unaffected. It plodded along, its EFI system metering the fuel as best it could to compensate for the lack of oxygen, feeding the simple single cylinder engine which continued to perform mile after mile. Unlike me. I looked at my hands but they just weren’t mine. Like my feet on the footpegs, I couldn’t make them do as I asked and with sweeping switchbacks turning me alternately towards and away from a vicious headwind, gravity was in charge until we hit the valley floor. I hit it harder than most.
Tumbling off the bike and lying face down in the dirt of the desert, I was wretching pathetically and gasping for air. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment and much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t formulate a simple request for water. I could see all the words in my head, but was incapable of speech. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get any of the words into a sentence and make them come out of my mouth. My brain just wasn’t working. I wanted to get up and shout ‘I’m an adventurer dammit! I’m hardcore!’ but I just lay there, face down and helpless, imagining the indignity of dying by the roadside dressed in a helmet and full riding gear, without having had the decency to actually crash.
And then I was sitting up, and a mask was on my face. Lagpa our Tibetan guide, had arrived in the van with a canister of oxygen and I knew who I was again, but there was to be no more riding as I was bundled into the van with my oxygen and some water. It’s not possible to use a foreign bike in Tibet without employing a guide approved by the authorities. It’s an expense we could have done without, but since the Chinese border guards had relieved me of my Tibetan guidebook and map – everybody knows there’s no country called Tibet; how silly of me – Lagpa was a real necessity and a jolly nice chap as it turned out. And without him, now, here in the high desert of the Tibetan Plateau, there’d have been no van for me to curl up in, drifting into and out of sleep.
I’d downed a Diamox tablet and gulped as much water as I could earlier in the day at the top of the 5248m Tong La pass, but in essence, we’d climbed too high, too quickly and I was suffering and needed to descend, rapidly. Altitude sickness can result in many things, the most damaging being burst lungs or brain, neither of which I felt would have improved my day.
But the thing about Tibet, is that you can’t really descend once you’ve arrived. The Tibetan plateau is an area twice the size of France, with an average height of 4,500m and it is surrounded by towering mountain ranges, hundreds of peaks seven or eight thousand metres high and more. You climb the passes, but there isn’t really any respite from the altitude, as you rarely fall to even 4,000m. It’s no wonder it’s called the roof of the world.
Depending on its severity, altitude sickness (AMS) can wane as your body adapts to the lack of oxygen, which is why it’s so important to acclimatise slowly. I was here with friends, riding the conveniently named Friendship Highway from Kathmandu to Lhasa and was annoyed as hell that I’d been the one to be struck by AMS. As I spent a day in bed coaxing my body to accept its new environment, Nich, Andy, Ian and Peter entertained the population, sampled the local cuisine and imbibed some communal spirit in the name of international relations.
In less than 24 hours I was back in the saddle though and riding out of the old town of Tingri, passed the yoked yak working what appeared to be completely barren soil, and waving to the curious, friendly Tibetans. I determined to ride to Everest base camp but it wasn’t to collect a sticker or tick a box on a bucket list, it was to stand in expectant awe at the behemoth that is the highest point on earth. To feel a tiny part of what Hillary and other great adventurers must have felt as they approached their goal, or often, their quarry.
The North Face Everest basecamp has an altitude of ‘only’ 5150m and I’d been higher already, but it’s the place that affords the greatest view of Everest for mere mortals. The Himalayas are unlike other mountains; they rarely actually present themselves. Riding through the Himalaya is like nothing else. In the Rockies or the Alps you can marvel at the majesty of the surrounding peaks, enjoy the broad vistas and feel insignificant within the scale of the place. The Himalayas are simply too big. The views are limited by the very size and proximity of the mountains themselves and it may be stunning to ride the side of a valley on roads which are engineering masterpieces, but having finally reached what you imagine must be a summit, you often find you are on the floor of yet another valley.
But just outside Tingri I was faced with my first, if distant view of the highest mountain on earth. It was a moving experience and I couldn’t have been more fortunate with the weather. Standing clear of all the surrounding peaks, which would themselves be a wonder on any other continent, Everest or Chomolungma, stood against a clear blue sky, just a vapour trail whipping off its 8,848m summit.
There seemed to be no other moisture within the surrounding rugged beauty of the landscape. Naked roadsides and soaring mountains shared barely a blade of grass. The palette was one of browns and greys. It’s a harsh dry place that sees barely 250mm of precipitation in a year and calls for the constant application of lip balm, but as the unbroken sunlight burnt our skin, the cold meant that I still had to wear all my waterproof clothing.
The almost perfect black-top cut straight as a die across valley floors and then wound gently over minor passes as we headed toward the giant, all of our access permits in order. But as with so much in Tibet, the rules changed overnight and we arrived at a checkpoint to hear that today, and this week, our permits would be of no use. No motorcycles would be visiting base camp.
The disappointment was palpable, but being even this close was something I’d never imagined achieving when I sat in geography class at school, gazing at the map of the world and in particular that white and purple coloured section with the mysterious ‘Tibet’ emblazoned above it. There would still be Lhasa to see, and the almost mythical 1,000 room Potala Palace, established as the seat of Tibetan government and its Buddhist religion in 1649. A UNESCO world heritage site now, there have been many rounds of either building extension or restoration works, and the most recent finished in 2006.
Certain other monasteries and ancient administrative centres have been chosen to survive by the Chinese authorities, and are upheld as examples of the Chinese honouring and celebrating Tibetan history and culture, but other Palaces lie vacant, festering and crumbling beneath the harsh summer sun and harsher winters. Instead, all towns now sport great monuments to the ‘Glorious Peaceful Liberation’ of 1951 when the Chinese killed an unknown number of Tibetans whilst liberating them from themselves, before imposing the colonial control that many say now exists. Small police stations certainly sit on every street corner and are equipped with fire blankets, extinguishers and people catchers that look like fishing nets. It seems the subjugated Tibetans are so happy with the current administrative system that they still insist on setting themselves on fire in protest.
The Chinese are not of course the first imperial power to forcefully invade Tibet and the British made a good job of it at the turn of the last century; Major Younghusband making it all the way east to Lhasa, but when his troops arrived in Gyantse, they apparently stormed the administrative fort which still sits on a mound overlooking the town. As I breathlessly climbed to the fort at almost 4,000m, managing only a few steps at a time, I thought of those British troops with their woollen tunics, backpacks and all their weaponry and then carefully considered the use of the word ‘storm’ to describe their actions. I feel the adept way they deployed their machine guns was probably the main reason for their success.
The fort overlooked the Yeti Hotel in Gyantse, which was a haven and absolute delight. The food was sublime, the rooms clean and with running water and there was even a mini bar to cater to western needs. It contained water, instant noodles and oxygen canisters. I don’t travel to find the familiar, but it’s always good to locate what you need to sustain life.
As we neared the capital Lhasa, the last vestiges of what is Tibetan, seemed to fade. The towns and villages lost their ancient architectural hearts and were replaced by identikit tower-block housing projects. Walls made of yak dung were supplanted by breeze blocks. Roof tops had just too many young men with dark glasses, cameras and listening equipment atop them. Bi-lingual signage vanished and soon only Chinese characters were in evidence, but the flip side of the occupation was the ever improving road network, the telecommunications and the sanitation. It really was like being in a Monty Python film. ‘Yes, but what have the Chinese ever done for us, apart from the infrastructure, the hospitals…’
In such a harsh physical environment it is incredible to witness the quality of the highway engineering and in places the afforestation which is occurring. The driven nature of the Chinese workforce, labouring round the clock, is generating incredible results. In the towns, concrete lorries are delivering continually, an army of wheel barrows ferrying the grey slop to its final resting place. Like ants, the number of workers and the scale of the development is hard to comprehend, and through it all we rode our ever-reliable Enfields, which tackled tarmac, deep sand and piles of rock with the same stoical efficiency.
A 500cc Enfield is a big machine for Tibet, where the majority ride 125cc or 150cc machines, but laden with luggage and plodding along all day long, I developed a huge amount of respect for its abilities. It was terrific in the cut and thrust of the urban mayhem where rules of the road seemed to be arbitrary and any gap was yours if you could fill it.
What still makes me smile is that the bikes had to be approved for use on Tibet’s roads with an MoT type test in the city of Shigatse, where none of the testing machinery worked and where every other vehicle in the city barely had working headlights. We also had to be issued with Chinese driving licences and to have our height measured and eyesight checked. It took a day to achieve, but being called up by the police and asked to match our own photographs and names, was priceless. The staff said that we all looked the same to them…
That driving licence is perhaps my finest souvenir.
This article was first published in Issue 6 of Overland magazine.