1 US$ = 50 Nepali rupees
133 km time 7:10, climb 440m
8090 km to date
Well, chalk up number nine. Nine countries, wahoo! (if you count Kazazkstan and Iran—ok, a bit of a stretch, but we peed on the border and the stream may just have made it across).
Our shortcut from Gorkanbad leads us out of India early. Its amazing to see how quickly the personalities change, “Angle-ais! Angle-ais!”, children shout from the street. What’s more, women actually start conversations with us. No running away. No shielded faces. What a change. How refreshing!
At the bordertown, we wait in the customs office while outside in the street, Nepalis and Indians cross in both directions as if no border exists. What’s the deal? The customs official ignores our pleas at first, but finally turns to us and says in perfect English, “If you buy me a Pepsi, maybe then you can go,” then lets out a huge belly laugh. Normally we’d tell someone like that to screw themselves, but we immediately like this guy. It’s as if he’s recognized and accepted that he’s corrupt to the point that he can even laugh at himself about it.
Crossing, we gorge ourselves on buffalo pot stuffers and spicy sauce in a roadside restaurant before heading down the road on what appears to be a huge shortcut to Kathmandu, according to our trusty maps. Soon, though, our paved road is reduced to a crappy singletrack. Some shortcut! We dodge buffalo and Nepalis on three-speed bicycles who holler as we pass. Workers waist deep in the water soaked fields stop their toil and watch us bounce by. Though our path is completely flat, a mountain wall in silhouette forms a wall to our left. We reach a river with a destroyed bridge, but the enterprising locals have a ferry system, though little more than a raft. We descend a steep bank to load up our bikes with other passengers, including another local biker, and drift across the muddy river to the opposite bank. There, the road has not improved, and we continue along our shortcut.
Finally, we reach pavement, cruising towards the wall of mountains ahead, the sun begins to descend, easing the heat, but no respite from the crushing humidity. We lost a lot of time on our shortcut. It’ll be a close one to reach town before dark. We’re into rolling hills now, on the losing end of most of the ascents and descents. Dopey from the long day, I steer my bike into the steep ditch and crash my bike on one descent. Dangling in the ditch, still clipped into my pedals, Alex comes to my rescue as I swear off my dumb move.
By the time we reach town we’re on fumes. All water bottles empty, I’m bloody with raspberry scrapes from my fall, and feeling dopey as can be. Mega bonk. Dusk falls as we reach the town though humidity hangs thick in the air, muffling the collage of street sounds. It seems to us as another one of our unlikely "victories" along the way. Another five kilometers further would have been too far to ride.
On autopilot, we start our "in town" routine, asking as many people as will seem to understand, "where can I find a place to stay?" Each waves us further up the road. Some point right side, some point left side. We seem to follow blindly along, faithfully believing these instant guides. Sometimes the instinct overtakes. A man might say, "to the left, up 500 metres" We'll pause briefly and both veer right, without discussion. It just feels right.
Building after building is a dimly lit open front restaurant. Groups of men sitting on wooden stools strain their necks as we pass and shout at us some encouraging words. The density of this activity increases as we approach what must be the centre of town. Oddly, many of the restaurants bear the sign, “hotel”, but have no beds. No less than three times we stop, barrel through the room, see nothing but stainless steel pots and tables. “where the heck are your beds?” Blank stares meet us, and we move on.
Finally, we find a place to stay. We are in the habit now of refusing on the first offer for accommodation. But since all the “hotels” we have found so far have been for naught, and a young guide from earlier in the town has caught up with us to tell us, "Sir, this is the only rest house in town." It’s less than perfect, with no showers and no ceiling fan, but it’s all we’ve got tonight. The slight man looking impossibly hot in bluejeans and striped shirt tells us it will be one hundred rupees and we accept. In the “lobby”, the entire family is parked on the floor watching TV. We lift our bikes through the open lobby and over the family members towards our room. The family lies on the floor in the hallway watching a. A blue, green and red plastic facade in front of the screen gives the image of a colour picture, blaring sounds and images in their tongue.
The slender man offers us food as we walk through, but we don’t see him again after promising to bring us fried potatos. We climb the bikes up the very inclined and narrow stairs into our tiny room.
Yeech. I’m feeling not so fresh in our running water-less, ceiling fan-less room. My shirt and socks and pants and hair are stuck to my skin with a dirty, sticky glue. The chaffing in my groin feels like my crotch is bleeding from the abrasion. I lay sweating in my bed. Gravel between my toes grinds against raw, slippery skin. I peel off my shirt and examine the concentric salt deposits down the back of the stiff cotton. My shirt, lying on the bed, shows the salty outline of my ribs. Alex leaves in search for food while I collapse on the bed for a quick nap, dreaming of ice cream, cheese & crackers. I awake later with the starving realization that it was a dream and walk into the village streets in search of those very elusive nocturnal ice cream and cheese & crackers.
129 km time 7:04, climb 890m
8219 km to date
Malekhu, Nepal 800 m
From one of the deepest sleeps I can remember I am jolted awake at dawn by the sound of howling dogs. One starts. Many reply. I wrap the pillow around my head with an arm. I need more sleep. Only two days till Kathmandu. I can picture it already, and for the rest of the day, Bob Segar is stuck in my head, “goin’ to k-k-k-Kathmandu! That’s really, really where I’m going to…”
Observation of the day: Weird Al Yankovic appears on the Nepali rupee currency.
Malekhu is a one street town with a resthouse that may compete for our grottiest yet. But first, the bananas.
As we roll into town we’re feeling good. We climbed hard today but made good time. Near the town center we stop to get our bearings and I pull out a banana to munch on. Out of nowhere, a too tame goat appears and eats the entire bunch, peels and all, right from my hand. Sonofabitch.
We also meet Brett, the ultra flake cycle tourist from Colorado. Our first velotourist since the KKH, we pepper him with questions about his route, his gear, his plans. What a disappointment, this guy. You couldn’t order up a more bipolar personality than Alex. Brett is on a yoga self development tour, having stayed in one village for three weeks learning to meditate. Geez. He notices our abundance of tires and mentions that he had to spend a week idle when he ran out of tubes. I ask him how many he started with, and he softly replies, “about ten.” I was about to give him some, the realized that charity for Brett would be wasted.
With no running water in our room, or in the entire building, I head to the middle of the street, where a tap runs. Not caring about my offending anyone, I strip down and lather up right there. Amazingly, no one bats an eye.
75 km time 5:50, climb 1450m
8294 km to date
It’s another day of climbing, descending, waterfalls, Cokes, children in the street, and smoky trucks spewing dust in our faces and we start the final climb into Kathmandu. I've got some very persistent chaffage going on, and stop at all waterfalls just to feel the cool water on my face and my massacred groin. Spinning in first gear, sweat drips from my forehead onto the lens of my sunglasses. My vision is blurred. It’s so humid I can’t change the gears on my gripshift without my hand slipping. I wrap a dirty sock around the handlebar to give myself a grip.
It's clear we're approaching a touristy part of the world. A rafting agency unloads tourists in front of a roadside restaurant. We stop for a coke. As we sit near some other tourists, a Scottish guy, about nineteen, looks us over. "Looks like you've been on the road for a while."
"What do you mean?"
"You don't exactly look, um, right of the plane." He's right. My shirt is filthy. I see my reflection in a glass. My hair has grown into a wild afro, and my facial hair is long, patchy, and whiskered. White salt crystals grind into my face as I wipe my face. We have been on the road for a while; since Delhi, ten days ago. We look like road warrior animals.
After a few more hours of spinning, I reach the top, where Alex has been waiting. I sit on a ledge in front of a small store. Children relentlessly try to sell me corn chips and Korean chocolate. I'm listless and totally bonked from the heat. Ahead I see the smoggy capital of Nepal sitting in the valley depression, surrounded on all sides by lush, steep, green mountains. I'm thinking about ice cream again, and all of a sudden I find my second wind. It’s a bouncy descent into town.
The Thamel district is the tourist district to which all tourists like us instinctively gravitate. As we weave through the labyrinthine outskirts of the city, locals point us onward, as if steering us away from their neighbourhoods. More tourists appear, short pants, white legs and big cameras. It's an unfamiliar sight, and probably the greatest number of tourists we've seen in three months. Somehow, though, it is a welcome sight. We know if all these people are here then we can probably get what we need: information on bicycle passage into Tibet.
We indulge, and indulge again. Meeting with our Scottish friend from two days ago, he takes us to a bar down the street. I order a steak and take my time in eating it. A band emerges and starts to play the blues then rips into a Neil Diamond classic, to the delight of the western audience. "Song Sung, brue, sreeping on my pirrow,...." I catch myself staring at the women. Not because they are good looking, or young, or western. I scan the room. None of the women I would look twice at back home. Most are over traveled, dressed in rags, dreadlocked and listless. No, definitely not because they're good looking, but because they're women. We've been in Muslim countries nearly exclusively since Istanbul. It's a good feeling to see breasts again, even if they're covered up and we have no chance of picking up the way we look.
Rain falls heavy at night, keeping the yelping dogs off the street. I have my best sleep in weeks.
Tibet prospects don't look good. As we visit travel agencies, they firmly maintain that the Chinese border will be closed until further notice to all foreigners. September 1st will be the thirtieth anniversary of the "liberation" of Tibet by the Chinese. Celebrations are planned. Officials and dignitaries will be on hand in Lhasa. Beijing wants a smooth, orderly party, free of any uprising. Foreigners are potential dissidents and cannot just be shot if they misbehave. Best to just lock them out. Relations with the west right now are strained. Taiwan is asserting it's independence and Harry Wu, a well-known human rights activist, has just been arrested in Urumqi. Entrance into Tibet by self propelled means is absolutely out of the question. We must join a tour that will fly to Lhasa and bus us back to Kathmandu, the whole while our bikes confiscated and us under direct supervision. Though we’re on a rest day, it’s stressful to think that we could be in for a big detour.
It’s a fattening up town. We find a German bakery that serves great muesli and steamed milk coffee in the mornings, and cruise the strip stuffing ourselves with pizza, pasta and lots of junk food. The restaurant downstairs has its grand opening one night. The timid waiters obsess over our happiness. When my Caesar comes to me tasting like water, I hop behind the bar and show them how to make a real one. Mom and Dad cry over the phone in joy as we call collect from the phone office.
The story at the consulate is the same. An expensive tour is the only guaranteed entrance into Tibet at this time. Visas are only issued after the tour has been purchased. You must buy a visa to enter the country. We have our visas already, procured before we left North America. It seems to us that the consulates and the tour companies have a conveniently comfortable deal going. There are a lot of people that would do anything, pay any price, to see Tibet. We're just willing to do anything, at our price.
After some bike repair and a vain search for mail at the Canadain consulate, we ready ourselves to go for it, alone, to Tibet. Tomorrow we will cycle out of Kathmandu, bound for Kodari, the border town of Nepal and Tibet.
35 km time 2:15
8329 km to date
We don’t leave Kathmandu till three in the afternoon after more bike repairs and fruitless attempts at getting better information on Tibet tours. Reaching Bhaktapur, the bakeries are stocked with Indian cakes we saw in the train stations a week ago. How disappointing. Life in the big city was sweet.
After a leisurly, short, pedal, we stay the night at an idyllic inn, the “Snowview”, overlooking our descent we’ll undertake tomorrow, dining with two late twenties-ish German sisters traveling alone together. It’s just the four of us at the guesthouse, and I’m finding it a dream just spending time with women again, enticing us with tales of their Thai massage expertise. Just as they’re getting us worked up, the leave for bed.
88 km time 7:00, climb 1865m
8417 km to date
Kodari, Nepal 2060m
Our day is spent gliding down a fifty kilometre downhill and slogging away, trying to regain the elevation on an increasingly marginal road. Kathmandu was about 600 metres above sea level. Our first day in Tibet, if we make it, will see us cross a pass over 5000metres. We have some climbing to do. Waterfalls crash down from hundreds of metres overhead, softening the road into mud. It slows us to walking some frustrating sections, and often the grass alongside the road is easier to ride than the road itself. We keep climbing. Just as the road reduces itself to a wide, muddy trail sliced by deep tire ruts, unrideable, as rivers swallow twenty metre sections, a town appears: Kodari.
It’s not what I had anticipated. The slide shows back in Kathmandu strategically staged Kodari as a frontier take off point, quaint and geared for tourists. I see in front of me a collection of strung together trailers, different sizes, colours and shapes, crammed together at different angles like boxcars in a train wreck. At the end of the wreck, the caboose, is the bridge. Beyond the bridge, high up ahead on the mountainside, 300 metres above us, sits Zhang Mu, Tibet.
We ride as far as we can. A lowered gate stops us before the bridge. Staring wondrously at the town facing us, it seems farther away than the visible distance. This could be the terminus of our forward progress. We have no plan. Tomorrow will attempt to enter Tibet, on bicycle, against the official rules, based only on our confidence and cockiness that has gotten us this far, over 8000 kilometers from Istanbul.
Negligible kilometers, mostly spent touring through Zhang Mu
It's a cold morning. There's a flurry of activity as truck drivers and tour guides meet in groups, talking rapidly. The air is filled with anticipation. On the Nepal side of the bridge, three Chinese army officers sit at a desk, two men and one woman, looking so pretty as to seem out of place in this context. Gliding towards them, we are already nervous. We are wearing our "Inner Asia Expedition" fleece pullovers, hoping that some semblance of a uniform will deem our entry more legitimate. The officer pulls us in, waving at us with his palm down. On our first foray into China, in the northwest, it took me a while to understand that this gesture meant "come here." To me it looks more like, "Get outta my face, scum bag." It's pretty clear this morning that this guy wants to check us out.
Motioning for our passports, we hand them over, careful to demonstrate, with just the right amount of urgency, that our visas have an extension stamp a few pages beyond the original stamp. He reads. He sneers. He spits. The pretty female officer sitting next to him knows I have been staring at her, yet defiantly, has not even glanced my way.
He waves us away, toward the group of guards sitting like matching bookends on the other side of the bridge They never look at our faces, just talk to the other guards, laugh, and sneer. They're probably saying, "let's fuck these guys over. We'll send them all the way to the end of the village, then the guards there will send them back. That way they will waste an entire frustrating day banging their heads into Chinese bureaucracy."
The bookends mimic the routine, waving us up the mountain switch backs to Zhang Mu. No entry stamp, no customs declaration. Red tape processed in town, which is 10 kilometres straight up. Suspiciously we pull away. "Alex, that was too easy. We're in Tibet now, right?"
"They'll make us climb this mountain first, then they'll send us back. At least we can say that we cycled in Tibet, if only for an hour."
Steep, snaking switch backs climb the muddy slope. Halfway up the road is unrideable. We're pushing our bikes through a mud hole when I hear the squeak of bicycle brakes coming towards us. Descending down on us are two German cyclists, dressed head to toe in pink neon and lycra. They bought the Lhasa to Kathmandu bus tour. Three hours out of Lhasa, they tell us, they jumped off the bus, jumped on their bikes and finished the tour by "independent means of transportation." The had no checkpoint hassles, but they were on their way out of Tibet, in the opposite direction we’re going. Officials are happy to see them leave. Things may be different for two bikes heading in. "There is a checkpoint six kilometres out of town. There you might have some problems." We don't need reminding.
The usual flurry of Asian pedestrian traffic amplifies as the city approaches. Alex leads the parting of the crowds with his bike and loud shouting. The thin gap is filled in as they turn and stare at him cycling away. I am left behind, bumping and weaving, hot and frustrated, vainly trying to keep up in the ever thickening swarm of people looking the wrong way. The customs buildings come into sight. Seconds after we don our "uniforms" again for appropriate presentation, a small child runs blindly into my path. It's too late to shout. I swerve to avoid him, but my front pannier takes out his legs. I lose balance, sliding off a slight embankment and falling over into a large puddle of mud. I flail desperately in the water, trying to unlock my feet from the cleats. Freed, I am completely covered in mud. I swear, shout, and flail some more. The child cries. His mother grabs him and runs away from the deranged foreign devil on the bike. Ahead, Alex waits for me, chuckling. We are 100 metres from the customs checkpoint. My "uniform" has lost its official appeal.
"Goddamnit! That kid wasn't looking! For a split second there I'm sure I could have swung at him, at anybody."
"Time to cool off. We have to have our heads here. Are you ready to go?"
Guards linger at the gate. Ignoring us, we seem to be of little interest to these officers. Looking for the customs office, we can't find it, so we make for the gate. An officer jumps from his chair and runs for us, waving his gloved hand and hissing. "One hour! One hour! Now, lunch. One hour." Lunch break? It's only 10 am. Then I remember. China operates on Beijing time, three thousand kilometres away. We have to move our watches forward two hours now that we're in China. We lean against the building, picking our noses and planning our scheme while the guards continue to do an excellent job ignoring us.
A tourist approaches. He's European and seems very happy to see us. "Are you trying to come in or trying to leave this country?" He says he's been detained here in Zhang Mu for thirteen days because of a mistake on his visa made by the CITS. They would not accept assurance from the German consulate that his visa was legitimate so they confiscated his passport. Today they returned his passport and told him to leave the country immediately. "I told the fuckers that's what I was trying to do two weeks ago. Not a word of apology. Welcome to the PRC. Have fun." He heads toward Nepal.
The shutters on the building behind us open. An officer does the underhand wave thing and asks for our passports. He hands us customs forms, written in English, to fill out. Within five minutes he has examined our visas, stamped our declarations, pretended to read our immunization cards and given us the entry stamp. Again, we walk away, suspicious. "That was too easy. Something's up."
We enter a bank and change money. Minutes later we have yuan. A shopkeeper encourages us to change some money with her. I buy a chocolate bar from her. As I unwrap the candy and take my first bite, two things happen. First, I realize that the chocolate is inedible. Not chocolate as we know it, but dust mixed with wax, disguised to look like chocolate. Then, not seeing a garbage can, I place the wrapper and the rest of the bar back on the counter. I thank her and turn to leave. Seconds later I feel thud on the back of my head. Turning around, the woman is jabbering away at me, angry, pointing to the street below. I look down. The street is covered with garbage. I understand. How could I have been so rude to give this woman my garbage? I should have thrown it away myself, into the street. Garbage is everywhere, and stinking. Across the street a child squats and shits in a gutter. A dog nibbles at the feces. Of the twenty or so stores in front of me, at least ten of them appear to be restaurants. Each one has an outdoor loudspeaker blaring distorted dialogue from ten different violent Chinese films. The collage of sound is deafening. Chaos surrounds. Cars honk and try to pass a truck that is parked, blocking the road. The truck is parked and empty, without a driver or an engine. There are flowers growing from under the hood. This truck has been annoying drivers for some time.
Overwhelmed and anxious but starving, we weave through the chaos to one such restaurant with an open view of the melee. A sour faced Chinese woman hands us thick menus of many pages written in Chinese. As our rice and vegetables arrive, the sky darkens and rain falls. Intensity of scurrying in the street rises to a crescendo as rain falls harder, tapering off as the height of the storm hits.
We sip tea and wait, suspicious of everyone. Wet Chinese men enter the restaurant and speak to the waitress, who seems to nod and point to us. Each of these policemen seems to glance at us as well, nod, and leave, running into the now empty street. My imagination runs amok. We're spies, about to be arrested and shot.
We're in Tibet, but not happy about it just yet. Carrying on in the post storm mist, the streets bustle again. One switch back follows another, snaking up hillside. We can see the town below, built into the steep hillside. Further down is the customs gate, where I fell in the mud earlier. Further still is the bridge to Nepal. We're near the high edge of town now. Storefronts have given way to apartments and auto shops. We cross a river spilling over the road at a tight turn in the road.
Checkpoint. A truck entering town is waved through into town. The army officer lowers the red and white gate. Slipping into cocky traveler mode, we confidently produce our passports as he holds his white gloved hand to stop us. This time there is a break in the routine. There are no forms to fill out. He shakes his head. "Sorry Sir. Tibet crosed. Must have visa and Alien Travel Permit."
"It's okay, we don't need one." We push our bikes forward in a taunt. He jumps in front, physically restraining our bikes from passing an imaginary line.
"No, sir. Must have visa and Alien Travel Permit for Tibet. Need Alien Travel Permit." It's not working. We try the Torugart invitation that we used two months ago. He laughs as he reads it. "This not for Tibet, sir. This for Torugart. Must have visa and Alien Travel Permit." Meanwhile a truck is waved through without slowing down.
"Where can we get one? How much are they?"
"You must come to Public Security Bureau office. You must pay twelve Yuan."
We offer him the twelve yuan, then twenty, then forty. He insists on following us back to the police station, six kilometres back, at the customs entry point. Alex is incensed. Twelve Yuan. No problem. "Can we just pay you the twelve Yuan and you buy one for us later? How about twenty Yuan? Thirty?"
"No, sir. You must follow me to Public Security Bureau." This guy is a robot. A model soldier, and he doesn't seem to get the concept of a bribe.
"They didn't tell us at customs that we needed one. Why do we have to go back down there to get one?" It's useless to argue. We roll uneasily back through town. The officer waits for us after every turn. He's cutting through walkways rather than snaking through the switch backs. We really want to lose him, but he's always there, at every turn, waiting. When we reach the PSB office, he urges us to follow him. We stall. "Not yet, we'll go later." Anything to lose Mao's favourite son.
He's in a hurry to get back to his post, so we stall further. Finally he leaves without us. Alex enters the office, beside the truck with flowers growing from the hood. I'm outside with the bikes. Twenty minutes pass before he emerges. He wears a look of frustration.
"He won't give us the permit unless we buy a tour. We can't buy a tour because there are no tours running. He says there's a landslide up road so no traffic is passing. I told him we saw trucks driving past the checkpoint. He said that is impossible, there is no traffic passing."
"I said, 'Is there any (wink) 'special fee' we can pay to obtain the permit without joining the tour?'
He thinks for a minute. 'I do not know. Let me call Lhasa and find out.' I sat there while he called his boss to ask if he could take a bribe. Pathetic."
"He said the only way to get the permit is to talk to the Travel Service at the hotel. They sell the tours to allow us to buy the permit. Holy Fuck. Is this what China is going to be like?"
I knock on the hotel room door. Stenciled letters spell "C.I.T.S" The China International Travel Service. We've been trying to avoid dealing with them from the outset. It is the government run agency seemingly intent upon frustrating tourists and taking their money. Months ago, when inquiring into Tibet passage, a CITS worker insisted the only permissible way for us to ride bicycles in China would be accompanied by a Chinese official in a jeep for the duration of Tibet and beyond, some 3000 km, at a cost of nearly $4000. Alex told him 'no thanks, we'll find another way.' Here I stood, on the doorstep to Tibet, knocking on the regional CITS office door. I think Alex feared the same guy might answer, "I've been expecting you. Did you bring your $4000?" There's no answer at the door. I knock again loudly.
A boy of sixteen or so opens the door a crack, chain across the opening. I've woken him from sleep. He squints as I say something about a permit. The door shuts. A few minutes later he opens it again and leads me through a dark room towards a table and chair near a window. Another man sits at the table smoking cigarettes.
"How can I help you?" His English is excellent. This is a start.
I explain the checkpoint guy, the PSB guy. I show him our visas. I show him the Torugart invite (he laughs at this one too). "We want to join a tour to Tibet."
"I cannot give you the tour permit. The road is closed from a landslide. There are no tours running. If I sell a tour permit and you are permitted to enter Tibet, I will see trouble." He takes a long drag on the cigarette.
"Is there any special fee we can...."
He laughs. "I cannot accept a bribe." I'm beginning to like this guy. He's the first Chinese official we've met that at least recognizes a bribe. "You see, if I issue a tour permit and you access Tibet, I am the one that will be reprimanded."
We are out of options. I'm picturing us back in Kathmandu, with the rest of the tourists, lining up for a flight to Lhasa. He takes another long drag on his cigarette, exhales, and inhales again. He is about to speak. "I know what you want. You want to ride your bicycles in Tibet. This is not permitted right now. The border to Tibet is closed to foreigners. If you join a tour I know that you will leave the tour and travel on your own. I will see trouble for this. You cannot join a tour right now. The road is closed. If you wish to ride your bicycles in Tibet, this is what you must do."
I am trying to stay cool, but he can see that I'm starting to shiver, so he continues.
"Tonight, when it is dark, return to the checkpoint and be very quiet. After midnight the guards stop working. When no one is there, take your bikes through the gate and walk past the guardhouse. Some travelers have done this. You understand, you did not hear this from me."
I'm stunned. "You mean enter illegally? What about police and the checkpoints beyond this one?"
"They should not be a problem. Once you are inside Tibet, you usually do not need a travel permit. They might ask for it in Nyalam. You should try to pass this one before they open in the morning. You did not hear this from me." He is impatient now, anxious, like he senses he has said too much. Hastily I am shown to the door.
Outside in the bright sun again, I'm squinting, trying to adjust to the light and quickly think of a way to sell this latest idea to Alex. Alex is leaning against the bikes, eyeing me for some response as I approach. "Well, there are no tours into Tibet." I tell him the rest.
He is not excited about this idea. "I think we seriously have to evaluate the potential for downside. What if we get caught. We get kicked out of the country, or, we get shot."
"I don't think they'd shoot us. This guy spoke like tourists do it all the time, and from what I've seen, the Chinese authorities only shoot their own." Alex is not reassured.
The rest of the afternoon is an ongoing debate over the possibility of things going very badly, very well, or not at all. We know are options are limited. I'm actually a bit charged over the prospect of some excitement, but Alex is more thoughtful.
We check maps, marking towns with possible checkpoints. We stock up on enough pasta, traveling vegetables, and "Spout" chewing gum to get us to Lhasa. In our shopping we find the holy grail of road food: edible chocolate. We each buy a case of 24 bars and stuff them in with the rest of our gear. If we make it through, this chocolate will be key. The bags are re-packed, with the essentials for the midnight adventure near the top of the pannier for easy access in darkness.
The evening passes in a hotel restaurant closest to the border crossing. We are the only customers. The man serving us tea is also the chef, waiter, and bus boy. His wife, the food runner. We stuff ourselves on dumplings and soup while the waiter keeps refilling our mugs with steaming tea from the usual floral thermos.
The man sits beside us at our table after serving the last of the tea. Silent, but smiling at us. He glances away to the T.V., then back to us, smiling. He knows about our plan for tonight, I think. This is probably where all the velo tourists stop for an evening meal before making a run for the border. He watches as we repack our bags once again, probably comparing our equipment to the last border runners. He knows, but he doesn't worry me. He doesn't have that policeman scowl.
Near 11 p.m. we roll out of the hotel courtyard and pump up the final switch backs towards the checkpoint. Coming into view it is still buzzing with activity, as guards stand around smoking cigarettes and drivers idle their trucks while waiting to pass. We decide it is best to find a pull out near the checkpoint and try and get some rest for at least an hour, or until things quiet down.
There are few places to pull out on this twisting road, being carved into a mountainside. We find a small grassy flat spot sheltered from the glaring lights of the trucks, lights that shine on us like beacons, bouncing from our reflective jackets, shoes and panniers.
It is difficult to rest. We have laid out a ground sheet and stretched out on the grass, but rain has begun to fall steadily now, taking any comfort we had. Our hearts also pound with anticipation of the task at hand. The image in my mind from earlier today sticks in my mind. Just after our visit with the CITS guy, we are pushing our bikes up through the busy town. The tension of our situation weighs on us. Alex stops and leans over his handlebars, head down, almost touching his front wheel. "I really don't feel good about this one, Doug. We just don't think we know what the potential downside of this may be." He's right, but I see our options as limited, expensive, and not as exciting. At the very least, we decide, we'll check it out tonight and see if it's as easy as Mr. CITS says it is.
That's where we are now. The tension has not left us, and we are trying vainly to dismiss the negative possibilities. I decide to approach the checkpoint on foot and reconnoiter the target.
It is so dark now that I can't see where my feet are stepping. I'm about 200m from the checkpoint and the only light is a floodlight shining its beam across the gate. Guards emerging from the door beside the gate will be in the light and blinded by it, so I know I'm safely concealed until about 50m, unless a truck approaches. Then, I've decided, I'll head for the bushes on the right. Heading for bushes on the left will take me downhill rather quickly.
One step every 5 seconds. I stop, listen for approaching trucks, listen for guards ahead, watch for movement in the guardhouse. The cleats on my shoes scrape against the rocks on the road, making what I fear is an alarm bell of my presence. I remove my shoes to walk in my socks, getting a soaker with my first step. Closer I get, walking straight up the middle of the road where the footing is surest.
A guard steps from the shack. I am frozen, now standing only 50 m from the guardhouse. He is smoking, gazing at nothing in the blackness. He looks right at me without pausing. He horks, spits, and goes back inside. I was right in guessing he wouldn't see me. The sound of the rain splashing on the road is another cover for me. I also hope it is a disincentive for the guards to spend much time outside the shack. From my position I can hear two other voices from within. A television blasts much louder than necessary, but they seem to be enjoying the humour of some kind of cartoon show. I have seen enough this time, enough to know that it is too busy yet for our action plan. We will have to wait until later.
I am in a restless sleep, semiconscious and aware of the rain falling on me, of Alex tossing and turning beside me. The more I try to sleep, the less I rest. Suddenly Alex jolts, fumbling for his light. He is swearing, "God damn! What the hell? I'm bleeding! Doug! Where am I bleeding from?" I take his flashlight and look at the back of his neck. Blood trickles inside his shirt and cakes on his hair. The source of the cut is a writhing worm, stuck to his skin at the base of the scalp. I pluck it off and hold it to the light. It is a worm all right, with jaws the size of its head. I find another under his ear. Blood is everywhere, but the worms seem to have done little damage except to our severed nerves. Alex checks me and finds one of the critters on my neck too. Most of the blood is now hardened in clumps in my hair.
It's impossible to sleep now so I go for another check on the cartoon boys. This time I get right to the checkpoint and have a look inside at them. I am less than 10m from the guards, looking at them from behind, but they are transfixed on the cartoon and oblivious to the velotourist behind. They seem to be watching one of those anime Japanese cartoons that I never liked as a kid. I'm glad it is keeping them occupied, and I hope it's over soon. I scamper back to our annex for more waiting. It's one a.m. now. We agree to check again at two a.m. If there is no improvement on our prospects, a new plan will have to be looked at, though we have no other plan.
My last check, it's two a.m. As I round the final corner, the floodlight is off. The television is off. The place is quiet, and black. Racing back to our hide out, "Alex, all quiet. It's now or never."
We opt for the sandals as footwear, not the best for climbing but we need quiet to get passed the checkpoint. We stuff our rain jackets and all other reflective clothing in the panniers. Our black team jerseys are our camouflage. Reflective taping on the panniers is covered with duct tape.
Hearts pound as we approach the gate. It lies 1 1/2 metres above the road, forcing us to angle the bikes sharply to fit them under. Our bags scrape the road and make an alarming sound. We freeze, but there's no sign of anyone. We’re committed. We've crossed the gate. Our first steps are tentative, but realizing there's no turning back, our pace quickens. A bend in the road reveals trouble. A line of additional shacks lines the roadway, some with the lights streaming onto our path and activity inside. Our heads down, our pace even faster, we pass the row of shelters. We can hear discussion, laughter, and shouting from within. Light spills on to the road in our path. The last one is passed, then blackness.
We walk the bikes in darkness. Blinded, we trip on the uneven rocks, seeing the road only in the outline of the treetops ahead. Alex shines his penlight ahead while I follow his rear tire. Amazingly, my light, which has worked perfectly every day since I bought it years ago, has chosen this night to stop working. What next? Still no words are uttered until we are far up the road. "God damn, Doug, I can't believe we just did that. That was some serious shit."
I am too stunned to add to that, and keep walking. The rain is steady now. We put the rain gear on and push the bikes on. We estimate that at a rate of 5 km/hr, we have about 8 hours of pushing ahead of us to get to Nylam before dawn and breach the security checkpoint there. Up, up, up we push, around a corner, up more, and around another corner. There is much elevation to gain, as we know that tomorrow we will clear a 5000 metre pass. Zhang Mu was at just over 2000 metres, so there is work to do.
We seldom stop, only to munch down a chocolate bar or take a piss. The adrenaline rush has worn off, and fatigue sets in, but Alex pulls us along. It seems strange to me that we must walk our bikes now. Such efficiency we have when we can ride. 20 km/ hr, on average. This would take no time in the daylight. Reduced to walking, against gravity, in the dark, we seem crippled.
So far to go yet. It does strike us that we have not seen a single vehicle coming or going since the checkpoint. Lucky for us, we think. By the tight corners, steep drop offs and loose rocks, I'm not one that would choose to travel this road without daylight
Hours pass. Legs are sluggish. Suddenly, out of the black, lights flicker ahead and we are frozen, followed by a rush to move off the road and out of sight. Crouching low, out of sight, the light twinkles distantly ahead on the road. No sign of it coming closer, so we emerge from our hiding spot to push on, now gingerly, ears tweaked for any sound to send us dashing for the bushes. Closer, we can see the source of the light. Dozens of trucks are parked ahead. One of them just had their lights on for a moment. We roll our bikes along the passenger side, walking on eggs.
We surmise that this must be the landslide the CITS guy was talking about. The road is closed, so these trucks are stuck here waiting for it to reopen. Luckily, everyone is asleep as we steal past the convoy. All except for one guy, out for a pee. We startle him as we pass, but he just rubs his eyes and climbs back in his truck.
The landslide sits before us, the end of the road. We figure that we can unload the bikes and portage across, assuming it’s not too far. Gingerly, we hop from rock to rock by the light of Alex’s flashlight—our only light. Pausing to listen, we can hear rocks and boulders falling around us. This landslide is still alive! The sound of tumbling rocks echoes deep into the valley below. A misstep could send us a long, long way down. We continue across, then Alex does fall. He slips, he yelps, “I fell!”. His light goes out. I call out in a loud whisper. Yikes. We double our efforts to get across fast. By the time we’ve made the three round trips, we’re exhausted, nerves frayed (again), covered in mud, and my sandal is broken.
Reaching the opposite side, the lined up trucks are a mirror image of across the slide. Again we skulk past the queue, not rocking a single driver from their slumber. I have to think that even if one of them did see us, they’d probably think it was a dream.
By the time the sun comes up we’re truly in a different land. Running on fumes, Alex pumps some chocolate into me to keep me going. This is well past my stamina threshold, but we know we have to get past the Nylam checkpoint before it opens. With the town in view, we pull off the road and take a few hours of sleep. We roll our our sleeping bags on the grass and collapse.
Waking, the sun is out and trucks trundle past on the road below. We’ve slept late. Hurridley we pack up our makeshift camp and roll towards town, unsure what obstacles lay ahead of us.