Lhasa – Kathmandu

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 The cycle ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu was an experience I looked forward to for months and wouldn’t have missed for anything, -but it turned out to be no easy ‘ride in the park’…

…as the conditions were harsh because of cold and high altitude, the riding was made difficult by long stretches of road reconstruction and corrugations,  no-one found it easy. 

Disappointingly I was not in the best of form for the duration…although I hasten to say that mine was not the only illness in the group, but mine continued, for me, an uncharacteristically long time.

I was certainly slowed down and I arrived back far less bike-fit than when I started.
I left Singapore for Kathmandu with a 4 day old head cold, it never cleared in the 3 weeks away, rather, it worsened progressively over the first 10 days causing me a deep, painful, productive cough and low blood pressure…Self administered antibiotics had no effect.

Punctuating that, during the 48 hours prior to leaving Lhasa I was struck by a bout of bacterial dysentery, I think the result of my unwisingly eating food from a street vendor in Kathmandu! What I thought was going to be a normal, safe, deep-fried samosa when it was served to me was broken up on a plate and covered with sauce and I suspect, raw egg…possibly spiced with salmonella? 

I became very unwell in Lhasa with 48 hours of bloating, rigors and uncontrollable diarrhoea…! Fortunately a timely dose of Ciproxin put an end to the more dramatic of the symptoms and enabled me to start cycling as planned, although I was as interesting and lively as a wrung out dish-rag…

I was one of a group organised by Makalu Adventures, a Kathmandu company running commercial trekking and cycling trips. For bureaucratic and practical reasons, cycling in China is near impossible unless part of a tour.
We met no more than a handful of other foreign cyclists over the whole trip and certainly no groups like ours. I think that was a reflection of our being early in the season,  other companies do not start their trips until the conditions are warmer;  but our being on our own made it all the better for us.

There were 10 in the group, I was the old man, the age range being from 29 to 55.
There was Sylvia; the next oldest, an American dentist from Houston, travelling alone, but with a great deal of determination and  generous spirit. She was unfortunately badly affected by allergy problems and so for that, and other reasons, unable to cycle for much of the way.
Jose and Rafael  were 2 Brazilian men, Jose a writer and Rafael a paediatrician, together wittingly and unwittingly, they provided much of the entertainment for the group. They were there to enjoy themselves and were less obsessed with cycling than the rest of us, so the hard way was not neccessarily the best way. They could always be expected to do the unexpected!
John, with a broad Scottish accent from Glasgow and at times an uncommon similarity to Billy Connelly provided the other half of the entertainment. He was a relative novice to cycling and disadvantaged by being on a rented bicycle, but he persevered for the entirety. His meal time stories of his determination inspite of difficulties to keep going, and his other, less mentionable (though probably imagined) Scottish habits with sheep kept us all listening and laughing. He was also in love. To the amazement of us hardened marriage-cynics, even in the most isolated of campsites in out-back Tibet, at dusk his cellphone would ring, John would excuse himself and be unavailable for an hour…any of us could have all pointed out to him the ‘off’switch!
Anthony, an Englishman, is an ardent mountainbike racer who’s been tavelling and cycling overland for some months. He was with his American partner, Stephanie a photographer, more recently flown in from  from Las Vegas, but also a keen mountain-biker. She seemed uncertain of her role, as she found she was either abandoned as he sped off doing interval training up some high pass; or she was tucked in behind him, being hauled to the top by a lanyard and karabiner as he used her added ballast to develope his bike fitness. He was into high altitude training of the most extreme kind!
Alex and Tamara are a Dutch couple, Alex became by default the unofficial spokesman for the group, but he did it very well, -with vital assistance of course from Tamara who had opinions. They seemed very happy together and as cyclists, were steady, but determined; they rode their sturdy Dutch road bicycles resolutely over the roughest of rocky terrain.
Lastly was Anja from Berlin. She was my long-suffering tent and hotel room-mate as I coughed and hacked my way through the nights…She’s a young lady with high personal ideals, but a very generous nature, an excellent mountain-biker and keen racer too. Although probably I’m older than her father and inured by experience, I shared much of her philosophy, we were quite closely matched cycling; I enjoyed her company immensely.

As a group of different personalities thrown together and living in close proximity for the duration, we got along remarkably well. But each was well aware of the others’ differences; respectful  of other’s opinions, there was no chance for friction to develop.

Accompanying us was the support team, officially there were 8, but at times there were many more as their friends and associates came along for a ride…
Leading us were both a Tibetan and a Nepalese guide, each called Tensing and known from the outset as T1 and T2. Both in their way were very personable people but each had a different attitude and ability  to help. On the one hand, T1, the Tibetan although knowledgeable on Tibetan customs and affairs, he frequently left us, telling us he was ‘busy’, arranging to meet us later. His directions were almost always out by 180 degrees, and his estimates of time and distance totally unreliable! We learned not to ask him too often for advice. On the other hand, T2, the Nepalese, was always there when he was needed, was invariably helpful, got to know each of us well and  gave information that was accurate!  Unfortunately as T1 managed the hotel reservations and restaurant bookings those arrangements were not always clear, there was confusion over rooms and breakfast-time…
The other members of the support team were the drivers, the cooks and the hands who put up tents, served the meals and looked after our every need. They worked hard and were a happy lot, not mixing much with us, but they were often heard chatting and joking late into the night.

They accompanied us in 2 light trucks, one generally went in advance with the tents, the cook and the kitchen, to set up for the lunch-time stop or the camp for the night. The bright red and ‘rescue-orange’ tents were welcome beacons on the bleak Tibetan landscape,  we could see them well into the distance, so we knew when our stop was not long away.
The second truck had our personal belongings and either T1 or T2. They lagged, although not always behind the last of the group, but they were there to look after our well-being and provide assistance -or a ride if anyone should need it.

Our accommodation was in hotels in the bigger towns and 2 man tents when we were camping. The Chinese hotels of Tibet although pretending to be grand and were grossly over-decorated in the Chinese way, they were invariably cold and dark, the heating rarely working and often without hot water. The sun outside was always warmer, the rooms stayed cold day and night, we almost all agreed that for comfort (and food) we preferred our nights in tents!
Campsites were usually alongside a stream and often in quite beautiful situations, although at the end of the afternoon the wind could be blowing strongly down the valley, testing the skills of the men putting up the tents while the wind-chill tested our cold weather clothing…it was cold!  
Ablutions in those conditions were quickly performed, if at all. On better days it may be possible to have a quick wipe-down with warm water in the ‘shower’ tent but there were some days too when the sun was strong, the wind was light and if the nearby river was clean enough to allow it, quite a complete bath would be possible.
When in a town we ate restaurant or hotel food, in Lhasa and the bigger centres there were Chinese Restaurants with fresh vegetables, fruit, or even a selection of Western food. In smaller towns however, the choice was more limited, a mixture of Tibetan and Nepalese was usually available, soups, curried vegetables, a little fried or curried meat, -usually referred to as,       -but maybe not bearing any more relationship than that to! -yak…(we kept hearing stories about dog)…and there were the ubiquitous ‘momo’, steamed dumpling stuffed with meat, vegetable or cheese. The choice of food was not extensive anywhere, the range of tastes small and the strong flavour of yak butter permeated all!
Undoubtedly, the best food was when we were camping, the cook did a great job with limited resources. There was always plenty and it was a tasty mix of western and local. There wasn’t a lot of meat, but he did well otherwise with cheese and eggs; his bread-making was truly commendable. He produced a variety of pancakes, flat breads, deep-fried, pan-baked or steamed, and when available, commercial bread as toast or French toast.
Breakfast of a morning was porridge and cereal or fruity rice pudding followed by bread or pancakes with eggs, honey and jam.
We would be met at midday with lunch; hot fruit-juice, then a plate with bread, maybe sausages, fried spam (nice!), thinly sliced yak meat, canned fish or cheese, coleslaw, chips or maybe vegetable pakoras and then fresh fruit.
Dinner in the evening was served in the dining tent and invariably started with a tasty garlicky or ginger soup, with prawn crackers popcorn or poppadums, followed by potatoes as curry or cooked with cheese, and green vegetables, beans, cauliflower or bok choy. Or there were various pasta or noodle dishes with vegetables, or rice with daahl sauce and once even thick cheesy pizza! This was followed by a canned fruit dessert, although on one notable occasion there were deep fried bananas!
There were 2 birthdays celebrated during the trip and for each, a decorated birthday cake with candles was produced. The cook excelled himself and how he did it over gas without an oven remains a mystery to me!
The food supply was such that we had no reason to be hungry and snacks along the way never seemed to be needed.  

Our weather for the trip was good, but it was cold. As the first trip of the season it was hardly surprising, but I have to say I underestimated how cold it would be.
Kathmandhu was warm and sunny at 25 to 30C, but it was a comfortable dry heat, wearing long trousers not a problem.
When we emerged from the airport at Lhasa, it was a different matter.  the sun was out, the sky was blue, but the air was thin and very dry. It was warm in the direct sun, but stand in the shade for a moment and it was soon very cool, and as soon as the sun disappeared in the evening it immediately became cold. In any breeze the wind-chill was freezing. When we were riding, the sun and wind burned our faces, the dryness cracked our lips and in some of us, our noses…
It didn’t rain, there were frosts overnight, we often had snow showers when we were riding over the passes and on a couple of occasions we woke to snow around the campsites. Nights around the camp (and in the hotels for that matter!) were spent wearing polar-fleece clothing, hats, gloves and down jackets, some of the group even slept in them, but my sleeping bag hired from Kathmandu was excellent, -I was never cold in the tent at night wearing just T shirt and shorts. Riding in the morning was invariably cold to begin with, we often started out with everything on, but as the sun came up we got warm and progressively removed clothing.
 When I discovered how cold it was in Lhasa before we started riding I bought an the extra wind-stopper jacket and over trousers, I was very thankful I did. Although it felt like a horse-cover,  it became my uniform, I wore that jacket almost always…

At this time of the year strong winds and dust-storms can be a problem. We were fortunate, generally the wind was light and behind us when we were riding, but we had the occasional time when it was strong, gusty and we were overtaken by dust-storms, they were not pleasant!  More testing however were the few occasions when we had to ride into such a wind…but we were thankful there for the knowledge of T2; as the wind was usually worse at the end of our day he planned our ride so that we got to our campsite in time to avoid the worst of it.
The altitude was a limitation to us all, but no-one was severely affected. We all found it difficult to climb the first set of stairs in Lhasa or to walk up the steps in the Potala Palace, but over 48 hours we all noticed the improvement. Most of us used Diamox, and apart from some minor headaches, nobody had any symptoms definitely attributable to Mountain Sickness, but none of us walked at our normal speed and while cycling, on a given gradient, we used a greatly lower range of gears than we would ever normally.  Several of us early on woke on some nights gasping, typical Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a known effect of altitude, but it passed quickly as we accustomed. Our route was planned to enable us to acclimatise slowly, spending time first in Kathmandu and Lhasa, then as we went higher we would sleep lower at night than we had been during the day, so by the time we were over 5000 metres  near Everest, we noticed no more difficulty with altitude than we had lower down.

The cycling itself was never difficult, -or would not have been at normal altitude! The distances were not great, only one day did we do 100km and usually  it was much less, in total not nearly as much as I would do normally do over the same time. However,  it was consistent, we rode on 17 of the 23 days. No roads were steep, as they were built for Chinese trucks with not a lot of horse-power and although we climbed passes of more than 1000 metres, it was over a long distance with a series of many hairpin bends!  The road surfaces near Lhasa were excellent although the traffic was chaotic and noisy; as cyclists it was neccessary to keep well clear. The Chinese have developed airhorns for trucks and buses which are far louder than in any western country or could possibly ever be needed as a warning device in even the most dire situation; (unless maybe in a crowd of deaf-mutes…) but in Chinese Tibet they are used at random, no reason needed,   -other than to scare the trousers off cyclists…

The Chinese-Tibetan programme to rebuild the Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu will result in a nice road, but there is still a long way to go, and much of it is under construction now. Rather than as in most Western countries where a large amount of effort with big machinery is put into completing a small amount of roading at any one time, here the approach is different. Instead they send many people out, to chip away with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows and the occasional blast of gelignite, gradually breaking the rocky hillsides down, etching away at the landscape…The result is a road that for much of its length under reconstruction, with many detours, a very rough rocky surface and in places the extremes of dust and mud. For those of us who enjoy riding off-road or even on single-track the surface is ideal, it makes for an interesting ride, but for those of the group less accustomed to it or with bicycles not up to the conditions it became difficult to continue.

Roughness due to road reconstruction along the Friendship Highway was not the only road problem. Nobody, even the best of mountain-bikers likes corrugations but when we left the main highway to divert to Everest Base Camp we found them on a grand scale! Not only was the base metal coarse and uneven, the corrugations caused by numerous landcruiser 4WD trips occupied the entire road, they were extremely testing for any cyclist! The only satisfaction for us was to know that the people in all those Chinese tour groups would have been having a worse ride than us!

After that rather long preamble, -now for the cycling and my 23 day diary…

28 April 2007  -Day 1: I left Singapore early in the morning flying with Thai Airlines to Kathmandu with a stop-over in Bangkok. This was my first time to Nepal and arriving in the early afternoon my initial impressions of Kathmandu were not good; I couldn’t see beyond the airport perimeter because of the thick hazy smog, a small girl puked all over the floor beside me in the Immigration queue; and I was set upon my men who insisted on carrying my bags which I didn’t want carrying. Of course they wanted a tip; but they were out of luck, I wasn’t giving them US dollars, apart from Singapore, that was the only currency I had!

As promised I was met by Mohann his van and driver, from Makalu Adventures. The ride to the hotel was bewildering, a maze of rough, unmaintained and unsigned roads, chaotic, noisy traffic and everywhere dirt, dirty buildings, dirty animals and dirty people.
I realised I had just come from super clean, super wealthy Singapore to one of its poorest neighbours.

I was deposited at the Hotel de l’Annapurna, met at the front door by a honky-tonk brass band as there was a wedding in progress. However, it’s reputedly one of the best hotels in town and although a little dated, it proved to be very comfortable.
Never one to miss out on new sights and experiences I was soon back out on the streets, Lonely Planet Guide in hand, exploring the old part of the city, clutching the money and valuables secreted in various locations about my person. It took some time to relax in the narrow streets with so many people crowding around and their’s such a different idea of personal space, I initially felt threatened…Later I realised I had little to worry about beyond normal precautions in a city.


The narrow twisted streets were narrowed further by  the street vendors, they were colourful


and in the case of the many metalware merchants; shiny!


I fought my way through the streets of the old town, dutifully following the Lonely Planet Guide, looking into the tiny courtyards, observing old temples, I soon learned that there are legions of them in Kathmandu.


But I shared in the marvel that they were still there often after many centuries For some,


although the ancient metal-work may have been especially remarkable


the resident pigeons above, below and all around, limited my appreciation of the delicate wrought-iron tracery.
What I was most impressed with, however, without the prompting of any guide, were the many wooden Newari windows…


Pertaining to the Kathmandu valley only, many of them are very old, fantastically ornate, predating the days of glass in the city.


and life just goes on around them as they slowly fall down.

Dusk came, I had an arrangement to meet the rest of the group at the hotel…it was my introduction to the ‘team’ and I should be there.

I was looking for food to eat on the way, -I found many western style bakeries with most impressive pastries and hot breads, any of them would have been fine, but instead, wanting something ethnic, I hastily elected for the samosa which I suspect was the cause of my later downfall…

The meeting at the hotel turned out to be brief and introductory as we all needed time for ‘settling in’ and would be  joining for a tour in the morning. However, the first impressions were favourable.

There was another wedding with brass band going on at the hotel, (apparently it was ‘wedding season’, astrologically a good time to be married), festivities and the band continued outside my room into the not so small hours!

Day 2: After breakfast in the hotel  buffet, -a tempting spread of Nepalese and western dishes, we were met by the Makalu van and guide for an official tour of the city.
Not surprisingly the first stop was at the Durbar Square, the heart of the city and to where a hefty admission fee is charged. In the Square are the old palace, many more temples and the home of the ‘living Godess’, the Kumari Bahal which we visited first.
The Kumari is a prepubertal girl selected by a complex series of endurance testing, then as the winner,  isolated from her family in this down-town mansion, protected and pampered, idolised by the people, but it lasts only until the onset of menstruation when she will return to reality.


She’ll often show herself at one of the ornate windows around the courtyard but wasn’t obliging for us, in spite of the offer of  generous donations, but she was said to be doing her schoolwork, did arithmetic  win over the rupee?
I wasn’t too disappointed by her non-appearance, but I did appreciate the woodwork around her court-yard while we were waiting…




Otherwise in the Durbar there are many fine examples of old temples. It’s a disorderly collection, in varying states of repair and related to the many different branches of the Hindu faith.


They’re distinguished by their multi-tiered tiered roofs


which are supported by rafters decorated with astonishing erotic art;


But there are other sacred monuments scattered around;


pigeons and cattle adding to the disorder:


‘Holy-men’ with pecuniary intent;


colourful flower sellers;


hawker stalls with artwork or hand puppets;


and grumpy rickshaw drivers…


They’re all there in the hope of separating you from your rupee…      

From the Durbar Square we piled back into the bus and were taken through town, up the hill to Swayambhunath, a predominantly Buddhist Temple complex above the city. Access is up steps from the town


via the ‘Yellow Buddha’, other temples and tokenry


The main attraction is the central ‘Stupa’ (the 13 tiered pinnacle)


with the ever watchful eyes and questioning nose of the Buddha


Pilgrims circumambulate the main stupa clockwise, light candles, spin the racks of prayer wheels, each of which is inscribed with the  ‘om mani padme hum’ mantra;


while the prayer flags above scatter the same printed word on the breeze


But suddenly it was lunchtime.Our group wasn’t good at staying together and listening…we were a determined bunch of stragglers! Our guide caught a rare  moment when we were all in the same place and bundled us back in the bus for another trip across town. Our route then took us around the busy circular road, the traffic was unruly, (which side of the road do they drive on in Nepal?) and the trip was long enough to convince any of us who still contemplated it, that a quick cycle ride after the day’s sightseeing might not be such a smart idea!

We were taken to a roof top restaurant at Bodhnath, overlooking the Buddhist temple complex which has one of the largest central stupas anywhere




Although in Nepal, it is a Tibetan enclave, used over the centuries as a Tibetan Buddhist sanctuary.
Parts of it might date back 1500 years, no-one knows, but it’s very old. Now it is quite spectacular in the sunshine, dazzling white, with colourful prayer wheels


and  thousands of prayer flags. The 5 colours represent the 5 elements of the buddhist faith


and they’re all inscribed with the same ‘om mani’ mantra in Tibetan script…


We had lunch beneath the red and white umbrellas on the roof-top, then were taken to a nearby ‘gompa’;


one of the highly decorated, former monasteries surrounding the central stupa; now it houses a Tibetan art school


The students here specialise in producing the painstaking ‘thangkas’. They might spend months on one work, using tiny brushes, mineral paints and gold to create the most intricate mandala designs on a cotton fabric base.


The patience in producing them can only be admired and the art works are all available, (in consideration of the man-hours involved) for a very reasonable price in US dollars…

It was only a short distance in the van from here to Pashupatinath, our final tourist attraction of the day, but it’s an ‘attraction’ only for the macabre…for most of us it’s a morbid fascination…
Beyond the entrance with its collection of hawker stalls selling religious items


and the gang of doggedly persistent sellers of cheap jewellery


is the Bagmati river, the banks of which are the site of Hindu cremations.


It’s a deeply religious place for ritual bathing and cremations with several of the latter going on at any one time. Cremation for them is a remarkably unceremonious occasion. Within hours of death the shrouded body is brought here, prepared and placed on top of the log fired pyre (ghat) which is lit and the relatives leave it to burn unattended.

There is also a small temple nearby, said to be once the scene for festivals of human sacrifice


Then further upstream is an area with ghats reserved for royalty and where relatives can be seen busy preparing new candidates for cremation. 


Beyond that the river exits a narrow gorge where there are caves, they were once used by religious hermits and sadhus.


Above the river, the terraces provide an irresistable view-point for the ghoulish


and a string of Hindu pagoda-like shrines


 are guardians of the religious site below.

We were fortunate that the wind blew in our favour, but it was still a situation uncomfortably close to death; transgressing boundaries that most of us Westerners prefer not,  although we all acknowledged that this rapid-fire method of dealing with mortality is undoubtedly the most appropriate in this society.
We were happy to leave.

There were things to organise during the rest of the afternoon, in the evening we were hosted to dinner by Makalu Adventures; it was held in a large restaurant complex built on several floors with amazing Mediterannean arches and columns. The architecture alone was worth the visit, but the dinner was good and a chance to get to know Makalu, us and Nepalese food more. There was also a short, minimally-invasive cultural show, it was a nice evening.


Day 3: Soon after breakfast we were taken to the airport for our flight to Lhasa. 10 people with bicycles in boxes, bags and other assorted luggages don’t get away without paying excess baggage….and they saw us coming….
It was a real crowd boarding the China Airlines airbus, I feared for it being able to climb above the Himalayas!
It did, but the ride was severely turbulent.


The view for those who had one was spectacular; but I once again feared for the safety of the plane as a group of sizeable Dutch women left their seats to all crowd over to the windows first on one and then the other side…but maybe the Chinese pilot was anticipating it; he handled the moving ballast well!

Lhasa airport is new, Chinese and not efficient. Although prepared with all the required documants and visas our group still was split by officials with some being held for a considerable length of time and told they would have to import their bicycles while us others were hurried straight on through as though they preferred not to know what was in our bags… In the end of course nothing happened, talk of fees was dropped and we all were permitted out to board our waiting bus. We met our Tibetan guide,Tensing number 1.(T1) for the first time.

Lhasa airport is at Gongkar Dzang, some 90 km away from the city, in a wide valley surrounded by brown and snowy hills. The air was fresh clean and palpably thin after Kathmandu, the sky was blue, the sunshine warm, but there was a definite alpine chill…
The bus ride into town was along new roads and through 2 tunnels. Although the roads are good and the traffic with its honking of horns and fearless overtaking, gives the impression of being in a hurry, the speed limit is low, it was a 1 1/2 hour trip.
The ride was interesting however, an introduction to cold Tibet; looking at the snowy mountains and enjoying views with clear air…


There was a neccessary comfort stop at a tourist spot, Nyethang, where there is the Buddha carved in the rock;


but more memorable for most of the group than the Buddha was their being pursued from the facility by the toilet attendant demanding her paper fee of a few fen!

Lhasa was a surprise for its flatness and it’s modernity after Kathmandu, but of course as it’s all part of the booming Chinese economy it’s to be expected that the streets are lined with shops selling electronics, designer clothes and luxury cars…
We were taken to the Himalaya Hotel, our introduction to our series of Chinese Hotels and it had the best and worst features of most of them all!
The view from the bedrooms however, was one of the better…


It was a grand place with a grand entrance, lobby and stairway, but was freezing cold! We stowed our bikes in the disused gymnasium and our luggage in our mortuary-cold rooms, put on goose-down jackets and quickly gathered back outside to walk in the warmth of the sunshine.

The vehicular traffic in town was reasonably controlled, they usually drove on the right side, sometimes obeyed the lights, and (a positive) there was a central city-wide ban on the use of horns!


The rickshaws were more orderly, in dedicated lanes with tinkling warning bells but were still not averse to bumping the odd pedestrians…
We needed money from an ATM, we needed orientation to shops and an evening meal, but it was slow going; none of us felt inclined to walk fast, we had to think about breathing.. 
We found ATMs aplenty and supermarkets to rival those in any modern city, (I was impressed to find too that there are facilities for recycling and signs declaring Lhasa to be ‘plastic bag-free’ city….indicating an intention of environmentally friendly principles far more advanced than the rest of China…is it just a facade? do they stick to them?)
Food was easy, there was no shortage of restaurants selling good Chinese meals.

Late in the afternoon, we also found that iconic landmark,  the Potala Palace:


and immediately opposite; the central city square with an imposing police and military presence.


It was a reminder that the Dalai Lama isn’t here anymore…


Because Tibet must run on the same time as Beijing, considerably further east, darkness didn’t come until close to 9pm.


which is fortunate as the sun stays out and is warm but once it goes there’s a sudden chill, with onset of darkness we were quick to get back to the hotel.

Day 4: However, it turned out to be a cold night in the Himalaya Hotel, with no heating, inadequate blankets and just a trickle of hot water in the shower.
(As well as that,there were other faults such as the lighting and the lift that only sometimes worked…the only reliable thing about that elevator was the carpet on the floor which was changed daily, it had ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’ etc. inscribed on it and that was always right for the day!)

After breakfast at the hotel buffet, (it was an eclectic mix of Chinese, Tibetan and Western food), we met again with T1, his bus and driver.
He took us us first to the Jokhang Temple in the Barkhor Region of town.


This temple reputedly had its origins back in the 7th century (although probably none of that original structure remains today) and it is the most revered of religious sites in Tibet.


There is a constant stream of pilgrims from all over ,  they come to the Jokhang, to circumambulate with their prayer wheels, everything must turn clockwise, prayer wheels and pilgrims… 






and they prostrate themselves across the forecourt.


Many of them are there, prostrating repeatedly for the greater part of the day; -up and down…up and down… They might do 100 or so repetitions onto the hard stone in any one series, a certain level of attainment is achieved by a certain number of prostrations but there’ll need to be more than one series for a true devotee. For the most religious, that means coming equipped with cushioning, padding for the hands to slide on the pavement and a nourishing thermos flask of hot yak butter tea…


The main temple is built around a courtyard




and is comprised of many smaller temples.


It is all very dark, the rooms and corridors smell of yak butter candles; they are the main source of its light…


But in some parts, there is recent gaudy restoration, blatantly Chinese in vividness…


I’m certain the Dalai Lama would have never seen it looking like that!

It’s nicer to get out from the dingy temples and onto the roof top above; to fresh air, the brass and yak hair rooftop ornaments and the view around the old part of the city.




From the Jokhang T1 took us a short distance out of town to Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. Tired after waiting around for us at the Jokhang, he excused himself there and left us free to explore on our own.


Norbulingka is a collection of palaces built in walled grounds by the succession of Dalai Lamas. The gardens are untidy and the artificial lake is dirty,


but for Lhasa it is the closest thing to a botanical garden they can have and it’s pleasant enough to wander around.


The conifers are all quite threadbare, a reflection of harsh winters, but the fresh green leaves of the deciduous birches


and cherry blossom just beginning to flower


confirm that it is springtime.


Some of the palaces are partially open to the public.


the audience rooms are grand,


but the living quarters we saw, surprisingly spartan. The rooms are sunny and airy however and it is easy to see why the Dalai Lamas would all prefer to spend their summers there rather than the dark, cold Potala palace that we visited next.


Visiting the Potala is an exercise in Chinese security.
We had to arrive strictly on time or miss out, we needed our passports for ID check and as we entered the main doors were screened with metal-detectors and a manual body-search. We were then free to go in, but time was limited, there were many places we were not allowed to see, and photography inside was not permitted under any circumstances. Neither did you feel inclined to break the rules, security cameras were everywhere!


The Potala, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama is the most important landmark in the whole of Tibet. Outside it is striking, multi-storied, dominating in its position up on the hill and for me anyway, the views outside were far more rewarding than our time inside.
There it was dark, dingy and at times airless, we were unsure where we were or what we were looking at, it was a disjointed succession of temples, shrines and mausoleums, seen through crowds of Chinese tourists.
One feature that couldn’t fail to impress anyone however was the tremendous repository of wealth held there. The tombs of the Dalai Lamas each contained tons of gold in their construction, (that of the fifth was said to have 3.7 tons alone) the building was erected around these massive monuments.
Clearly the church in this poor country has always been just as unbelievably and unjustifiably rich as it is in so many others.
Perhaps it is surprising the Chinese have left it all intact…(they have, haven’t they????)
Who knows, I prefer the views outside anyway…


(and this Tibetan guide is much nicer than T1!)










By the end of our Potala experience we were ‘toured out’, T1 was tired of guiding and lunch was very late.
He left us at a favourite Tibetan eating house, we would then have the rest of the afternoon free.
Unfortunately food by then had no attraction for me; I was freezing cold and with a feeling of impending disaster in the middle regions of my anatomy…
However I managed some vital shopping then went back to the hotel to try to get warm, I ran a hot bath; but even there I couldn’t stop shivering!
Later when the group went out to a restaurant for dinner, I probably unwisely went along, I sat, shivered and black coffee was all I could manage…

That night however, there was a bonus as the hotel room was warm. Several of us had been fortunate enough to procure panel heaters, they worked well!

Day 5: After a warm night’s sleep I felt a little better, although couldn’t distance myself far from ‘facilities’, but with adequate precautions I felt bold enough to brave another morning tour… 
This morning T1 took us to the Drepung Monastery.
Built in the 15th century, with 10,000 monks this was once of the biggest, -anywhere. It is about 10km out of Lhasa, up on the hill



with a grand view over the town and valley below


There’s a collection of palaces and colleges, linked by steps and alleyways.




prayer wheels at every turn


and wandering sheep.


The resident stock may be a small part of self sufficiency, but the surrounding hill terrain is rough and inhospitable, very hard for any animals to live on and probably more suited to the religious iconry…


But religion sometimes uses science in the interest of self-sufficiency… 


in this courtyard the use of a simple parabolic mirror heats the kettle for morning yak tea! 


It is a VERY effective boiler of the kettle!

The monastery itself is an assortment of temples, courtyards, assembly halls and living quarters,


the monks are there, they study, they perform their monkly duties


and in the areas open to the public, they also keep an eye on what is going on, protect the valuables. They’re also quick to catch a miscreant photographer trying to break the 20 Yuan per chapel photo fee and have a ready supply of change for when you are caught and have to pay…no excuse!

Within the monastery we were free wander as we wanted…


through dark narrow corridors and up steep stairways




to various religious rooms, some plain, some heavily muralled


rich shrines


with ancient artworks and the parchment writings of Buddha sequestered in glass pigeon holes…


Near the top of the monastery complex is the main assembly room. It’s richly decorated with Thangkas and hanging drapes




and is where the monks in training work at their studies.


reciting their ‘oms’,


ever- watched by the Bhudda


However, seeing these 2 monks with cell-phone in hand and money on the table suggests something a little less religious going on…?



Also on a more worldly, less ethereal and practical level, is the catering of food for all these monks…they are hungry young men! There is a central kitchen,


an enormous bowl of soup atop the fire


and a troop of monks outside with crates of garlic on peeling duties…


Like the Potala, the monastery is better on the outside


the alley ways, steps and courtyards;


 the brass works on the roof tops;





among those snow capped hills and rarified air, it just seems like they should be there…
It’s a most attractive place!

Although I had managed without a major problem,  to my relief there was no more on the touring agenda for the day. Others went for lunch, I returned to the hotel, the heater and the bathroom, not intending to move far before the next morning…

I had to go out briefly however to buy more windstopper clothing…The outdoor clothing stores weren’t far away, I kept the trip short and to get there I walked through the nearby Barkhor, the old interesting Tibetan part of town, close to the hotel. There you are greeted by cheerful children and ‘everyday’ Tibetans;


there are chanting monks begging for alms;


fresh food markets line the streets;


with good imported vegetables of all sorts.


There’s dismembered yak carcass for sale in shady corners…


and everywhere, enormous  mounds of yak butter…even there, you can’t get away from that characteristic rancid yak smell!


Day 6: This was the first day of the cycle ride proper, -no more tour buses, we would be on our bikes! Departure was set for 10am. Antibiotic from the night before had got rid of the worst of my gut symptoms, I felt limp, but able to ride knowing it was to be an easy day…
Our gear was loaded onto the truck, we met the Nepalese guide Tensing number 2 (T2), he had been on a bus from Nepal 30 hours, but he had a bike and though he soon tired, started out with us to give us the lead through the Lhasa traffic.

The first stop was at the Potala for a team photo…


but only after the police made it clear that we musn’t cross the fence into the park


and declined to have their photo’s taken with us…

The riding was easy out of town, apart from the traffic, surprisingly, local people stopped and stood by to cheer us on!
As we got further out there were just buses, trucks and farm tractors,


we went under the Beijing railway and through the industrial area with mysterious Chinglish signage…what do they mean?
We followed down the same river valley we had come in from the airport, taking it slowly, -easy riding, downhill and down wind. We all became a little ‘horn’ weary as each vehicle indiscriminantly and uneccessarily, hooted…we each wanted to wear on our backs a ‘no horn’ sign from Lhasa City, they obey them there!
The river in this part is slow and meandering, although it looks clean, it is far from it, I wouldn’t swim; but there are some nice picnic spots on its banks near Nyethang…






…picture postcard landscape!

When we left the airport road near the town of Jang the traffic lessened to become much more tolerable, riding became enjoyable Reassuringly too, soon after, we started to climb the river valley…-we knew we were going to have to sometime!
We stopped for a picnic lunch and there were many other stops for punctures, apparently there’s a particularly penetrating thorn in the loose metal on the verge of this part of the road.




The local children were always keen to see and help with goings on, curious, but just as we, likewise, as it was all new, peered and photographed over their back-yard fence!




At Daja the valley started to become narrower with pinnacle mountains in view at the top of the valley. We crossed a bridge 


with a military guard, no photos allowed with him, but the river made a nice view anyway and we kept riding up the valley. The trucks and tents were waiting at the first campsite near Genda at the foot of the Kampa La Pass, 


We were camped in a breezy, dusty spot between terraces of planted grain, there was a trickle of dirty irrigation water, no use, but the dust of the day neccessitated something, so there a token attempt at a sponge down, the ‘crew’ supplied bowls of warm water…


even the most minimal of ‘bird-baths’ was better than none at all!

There was a certain degree of excitement in the camp that night, it was to be our first in tents, but also as the Kampa La pass we were to ride up in the morning was reputedly the worst of the whole trip… how would we match up to the climb?
(We later came to question that advice as being out of date…with recent road works, Kampa La was no longer the toughest…)

Day 6’s ride: 85 km    Altitude: little change from Lhasa at 3700m

Day 7: It was a fine clear morning, the night had been comfortable, we set off just before 10 am. The climb over the pass started immediately once through the small town of Genda


It was an easy graded climb, and as it has been recently rebuilt, the road surface, excellent,


but it does go on and on, for 2 hours or more as it winds upwards through a series of hairpin bends, a distance of more than 20 km and rising 1100 metres.
The top was visible from a long way off as it’s marked by many prayer flags and there were people and vehicles stopped to take in the views.


From the summit, on the one side the green of Genda and the campsite was still visible beyond all the hairpins far below


and on the other, there was a spectacular view of the Yamdrok Lake.


But at 4800 metres it was very cold at the summit and it clouded over very soon after I got there.


Anja arrived, so after a brief photo opportunity and putting on all our cold weather clothes we cycled on down to be out of the worst of the wind on the lake shore near the village below


to await the rest of the group at the lunch spot…it snowed briefly.

A passing peasant couple took the opportunity to have their animals photographed…




-for a fee of course! They really do dress their yaks like that and not only for photographs! (We found a lot of women wearing the face masks all the time, I was never sure why, but think that like us, they find the cold dry air too hard on the airways)

Over lunch we talked, everyone had felt good about that climb, it hadn’t been as hard as anyone had anticipated, -although the 2 Brazilians had made it a little easier by hanging onto the sides of a struggling 3 wheeler Chinese truck, hitching a lift for a good part of the climb…although they insisted that they were pushing it!
However, the road had been busy and we had all found the exhaust from passing heavy trucks and buses a problem…like us, those diesel engines struggle with the gradient and are short of air, they run inefficiently, can only go slowly and we were smothered in black smoke as each crept past.

After lunch we cycled on around the lake edge, it is a long, narrow lake, we were seeing only a small section of it.


Ferries travel between the isolated villages on either side. 


and many of the people rely on fishing for a living




At the far end of the lake near the village of Yasik and grazing yaks


we found our campsite for the night.

Day 7’s ride: 61 km  Altitude 4490m

Day 8: It was a frosty morning!


We departed camp just before 10am, leaving Lake Yamdrok behind, but soon finding another, smaller lake, Jem Tso


and shortly beyond that, the town of Nangartse Dz 


This is a new town, modern, multi-storied and largely unoccupied!  We didn’t know what the town had been built for, possibly for either road reconstruction or hydroelectric development, but the people seem to prefer living in their comfortable little nearby villages rather than this sterile Chinese town.

Beyond some cross-roads here the road condition deteriorated dramatically, the seal ended, the metal surface became rougher as we went into an impressive gorge


The weather also closed in.


There was reconstruction going on, we were soon riding over rough broken rocks in a light snow-storm! -but on the positive side there was no traffic, it had gone back onto the more popular, better paved Central Friendship highway.


The lunch-stop was near a quarry site at the foot of the Karo La pass


Compared with Kampa pass the previous day, although it is 200m higher, (altitude 4750m) the climb was shorter, steeper and soon after leaving the lunch stop, we were among the prayer flags on the top.
We were alongside an impressive glacier, but as it was snowing lightly and cold we didn’t linger, once again we put on our warmest clothes for the ride down the other side.


That was through another zone of reconstruction, with detours and rocks to ride over.


Then the weather improved as the valley opened out


and we found our campsite soon after.


It was a good spot by a clear running stream and a small village, we shared it with marmots


and curious (demanding) schoolchildren…




It is an unfortunate thing that Tibetan children in the villages are now learning or being taught to automatically demand money of any passing stranger, they can become quite angry when refused, even to throwing stones or sticks.
The Tibetan people are naturally quite a happy lot and generally welcoming of visitors. In town we were always treated hospitably, people were smiling and helpful, they seemed pleased to see us.
But unfortunately, it is also part of the Tibetan persona that they are not too proud to beg and they will prefer not to work if they can get what they want without the effort.
Out of town, the adults we met along the roadside were always cheerful and almost invariably greeting us with a friendly wave and ‘hello’… that is; until the camera came out!  But they have a right to refuse to have their photograph taken, we all respect that, and when they ask a fee for a picture of them or their prize yak it is also probably not unreasonable. However, for many that now extends to demanding money after we have photographed their roadside home or their grazing flock of animals…(and that is not the best way for a country to develope a tourism industry!) 
This demanding aspect of the adult behaviour is concerning enough, but much more so is that the rural children are learning it faster and more enthusiastically, to the extent that their behaviour becomes aggressive and annoying. When they see a cyclist approaching, they will stop what they are doing and run hundreds of metres across a rough field,  greet with a ‘hello’ and their hand held out, expecting money; then repeating the ‘hello’s with increasing persistence and frustration as they find no money forthcoming! On the contrary, in the towns, the children will be curious, but they do not demand money.

Neither can these ones share. To give a handful of biscuits to one is to create a shark-like feeding frenzy as he keeps them to himself and the others will fight him to take them off.


(On this occasion we had T1 intervene to break up the fight and share the biscuits around!)
While camping, we found it almost invariable that the adults would come around the tents, looking curiously (sometimes uncomfortably closely!) saying little, but their pestering children would become a nuisance.
It is sad that as rural Tibet is having more visitors of all sorts the people don’t recognise that this type of behaviour is going to be counterproductive to their cause.
Day 8’s Ride: 62 km Altitude 4400m
Day 9: It was another very frosty morning, we left the camp well wrapped against the cold at about 9.30am. In our ride down the Ralung Valley we had stunning views of the mountains behind


and the barren hills with great colours and patterns of erosion. 


We passed little peasant villages



and others in ruins


It must be a hard life there. There was no agriculture, peasants just ran small flocks of sheep goats and yaks.


Of course there was road reconstruction and as we neared Simi La Pass this intensified. We were following the line of a lake formed for hydro-electricity, but it had recently been partially drained to enable the road works.


Simi La Pass was short, steep and rough, taking us high up over the lake


into a nice downhill ride


to the dam on the other side


The road works continued, the riding was the roughest of the trip, with broken rocks, holes, dust and mud everywhere. There were many detours and even to riding on a river bed for a time! For those of us who enjoy it, it was great cycling!

As we went down the valley it opened out and the countryside became less harsh, the land was terraced, people were ploughing


there were patches of green appearing with poplars and willows being planted.


Our lunch stop was beneath the second, smaller hydro-electric station on the river,


and by here it was warm; almost tropical compared with temperature of the early morning!


After, it was a quick but extremely dusty ride down the valley towards the town of Gyatse;


we could see its hill with fortress many kilometres in the distance before we arrived and we looked forward to the night in a hotel to wash dust from bodies and clothes. (while the ‘crew’ did the same to our bikes!)

Gyantse has an interesting old town,


quite a history, including being the site of the ‘British Invasion’ of 1904 when British soldiers laid siege to and took the fortress being held by Tibetans. The Chinese and British accounts of the event are very different, but whichever is right, it was an unfortunate time when Tibet was used as a pawn in the stand-off between Britain and Russia.


The 14th century fortress still stands above the old city as a monument.


Of greater importance in Gyatse however is the enormous Gyatse Kumbum, the largest chorten (Tibetan ‘stupa’) in the country


(Kumbum refers to 100,000, it is said to contain 100,000 images of the Buddha, I quite believe it!)
On each of its multiple tiers it has numerous tiny temples


and on the walls of those are murals with many further Buddha images


In the grounds are ranks of prayer wheels



an assembly hall and on the hill above


the Pelkor Chode monastery.
It’s not open to the public, but the views over  the town from its main entrance are commanding. 






Day 9’s ride 71 km Altitude 3980 m


 Diary continues in Lhasa-Kathmandhu 2 


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