As Rob says, this ride really exceeded all expectations in every way possible. We’ve ridden 1000kms, most of it at more than 4,000m above sea level and we didn’t miss a kilometre, avoiding the temptation to hop into the Landcruiser accompanying us, and which was never more than a few kms away. We’ve crossed 6 passes at more than 5,000m and 4 more above 4,000m. Fortunately, we’ve had no illness, accidents or mishaps. The dual suspension mountain bikes never missed a beat, and demonstrated their worth many times over (one puncture – for me – was the only issue) . We anticipated the gradients, the head winds and the distance but overlooked the terrain. Cycling at altitude was no trouble but curiously climbing 3 flights of stairs in our hotel still leaves us breathless. Our biggest climb (Day 2) was over 1,000m but the hardest was no doubt the 23km, 900m climb over Pang La (5050m) on terrible dirt. Our fire trails are in better condition than these “roads”, but the effort was rewarded by the highlight of the trip – the panorama of Everest and her near companion mountains. I won’t quickly forget eventually arriving at the top, exhausted and cranky (because I wasn’t told about this climb and the state of the road!) but to immediately forget all those feeling as I took in the magical scene in front of me. There is some debate in the group as to whether this scene or the view of Everest coming into Rombuk, (where Everest is only 8km away, dominating the valley) was the highlight of the trip (for Rob, the latter scene coincided with Geelong winning the Grand Final, so we know which was his highlight!)
We were blessed with incredible weather and a team who produced remarkable food three times a day, critical to keeping us going. As beautiful as the weather was, it was always freezing in the early hours of the morning. It’s an odd climate when you have to lather sunscreen all day against often fierce sun, but the sunscreen is frozen in the tube when you open it in the morning!
We’ve had 12 nights in a tent, two in “hotels” (using that term loosely) and a “guesthouse” with damp mattresses and mouldy walls (plus a communal drop toilet and no bathing facilities).
All of us in our group would put up with this many times over to experience again what we have seen. We’ve been privileged to traverse Tibet and meet its remarkable people at such close quarters I now believe that only on a bike can you truly engage with the communities you pass through. We’ve shared yak milk tea with a family in Gompa, chatted to travellers from all over China (Shanghai, Harbin etc), been photographed and filmed many times over by local and foreign tourists, and lost count of the farmers, goatherds, children and others who’ve greeted us, and run out to meet us and talk, even if we could not find any common language. Visions of small children poking fingers into our spokes as they tried to “high 5” us as we passed did not, fortunately, become reality (although one near miss between a child and a truck coming the other way encouraged us to give the children a wide berth, as friendly as they were). The agricultural scenes at harvest time, and the frenetic activity from sunrise to sunset, were wonderful. Deliberately or not, our campsites often seemed to be on the “commuting route” as donkeys, goats, yaks, tractors piled high with the harvest, adults and numerous children wandered through as they went about their business. Camping after Everest, the local goats were herded right through our camp on the way to their corral for the night. At Rombuk Monastery, we literally shared the yak paddock with the yaks, resulting in some strange sights and sounds during the night (from the yaks I mean).
With the friendliness of the people and the glorious weather, it was easy to forget that the Tibetans survive in what must be one of the harshest environments in the world, living higher than almost anyone else (the highest permanent settlement in the world is in Wuhan, China, at 5039m). Lovely creeks and rivers that we camped by give way for much of the year to ice and snow and then raging torrents as the snow melts, evidenced at this time of year only by the massive infrastructure/engineering designed to prevent everything being washed away every spring. Despite the electrical installation and mobile phone coverage, we saw no evidence of televisions, computers or any other technology. There was no sign of mechanical harvesting and it was odd to see new, solar powered street lights outside ramshackle, traditional houses. There is extensive solar and hydro generation across Tibet (but no wind farms, surprisingly).
I have never seen such an openly and genuinely religious people; even goatherds standing all day watching their flock at 5000m were turning prayer wheels constantly (when not spinning wool by hand). The monasteries we visited are vibrant, living places of worship and not merely reminders of a distant past. Pilgrims always vastly outnumbered tourists, and it was hard not to feel a sense of intrusion.
It’s impossible to know whether China’s strategy of integrating Tibet through vast investment in infrastructure, moving businesses to Tibet (the names of all the big state-owned enterprises appear on new buildings in Lhasa) and substantial immigration of ethnic Chinese will work, but it is hard to imagine a satisfactory future that does not accommodate the faith of the Tibetan people.