Tibet

test (Lhasa - Kathmandu 15-27 may 05)

The wind is testing us. It blew pratically non-stop during the 800 kilometers that we had to ride to get from Lhasa to Kathmandu. It blew the wrong way of course: straight on head wind. It saw us battling hard, pushing on those pedals like never before. Its force and violence made us shut our eyes and make faces in front of the incredible, magnificent high Tibetan plateau. It forced us to stop every now and then, to catch our breath or simply to remain standing. It took the air out of our lungs and violently blew sand and dust to our faces. It heard us yell at it "stop it!" and even swear at it. It also saw us giving up, accepting its presence - did we have the choice? - and just fighting it with all our energy, again and again. We laughed at it too as we started the big downhill from the last pass (5120 m): we made it, despite its best efforts against us. And so, as we were riding over those 5000m passes, surrounded by those famous 8000m mountains we read the mysteries, adventures and other conquest stories of since we were children, we wondered what the wind must be like up top there, of Mt Everest or Cho-Oyu...? We got the answer in Tingri, where we met an Italian and his Nepalese guide coming down from a successful attempt on Cho-Oyu: 160 km per hour. Enormous winds this season, that only saw 10 people standing on top of Cho-Oyu this year (less than 5% success).

The bikes are testing us. About half way, Mike's free wheel (the part in the rear hub that allows riding/coasting without pedaling) breaks down. We were not expecting it, after only 8000 and a bit kilometers. This is not a spare part we have. And so, with the wind blowing like mad, non-stop, in the middle of a dust storm, we look for a solution. Mike, of course, will find it: he gives up on the free wheel mechanism alltogether, and ties the cassette to the spokes with bits of wire we find on the road. He does not think it will last (the spokes will most likely break), but do we have a choice? We are in Tibet not entirely legally so we cannot jump on a bus or hitch a ride. Our visa expires in a few days. And we are very far away from a good bike shop! We still have 2 passes over 5000m to go over... At the top of the first one, 4 spokes have broken. So Mike improves on his repair: instead of the wire, he uses the broken spokes and ties them straight to the rear hub that now has free holes to tie the spokes to. Mike after that manages to ride some 400 kilometers on the equivalent of a track bike, on a pretty bad road! The principle is to make sure you don't stop pedaling, ever. If you stop, you get ejected from your bike. Mike finds that one out pretty quickly, after a few kilometers only... And so, every morning, as we get on the bikes, Yvoine says to Mike: "do not forget to pedal", but there is no need really. The bikes tested us but Mike's thinking and determination still got us to Kathmandu. What a relief as we get to the top of the last pass: the wheel has kept together!

The road is testing us. We expected an improvement of the road conditions on the "friendship highway" (the road that goes from Lhasa to Kathmandu) because it is a road that has been done by tourists for quite a few years now. Well, no, it was not to be! This year, as the Olympic games are drawing closer, China is working on its image. That means re-building of the roads around the country, including Tibetan roads, since the Chinese plan to use Beijing 2008 to promote their country to the rest of the world. Tibet, of course, is high on the list. As usual, re-building of a road in China means destroying it first...: the dirt road we ride on is alternatively (or any combination of) bumpy, sandy, full of potholes, full of various obstacles, rocky, going left right center... We cruise amidst bulldozs and trucks, spitting dust and whatever other particles we get to inhale. We go through detours to the left or to the right, as the Chinese are putting in irrigation systems. If only this wind could stop, and the dust, and the potholes, and the sand... But we do not wish for too long, as we are now very familiar with the new theory of relativity, the one that applies to cycletouring. Don't ever wish for other conditions or another situation, because it can (it will!) always get worse... If the road is bumpy, it could be muddy. If it is muddy, it could be sandy. If it is sandy, there could be a strong head wind. It is there is a head wind, it could be raining. Etc, etc... So for the moment, we are happy that Mike's bike goes, and we keep on riding towards Nepal.

The thirst for power and human nature are testing us. To our questions about the panchen lama or the dalai-lama, the smiles of the Tibetans we talk to disappear: "we are not allowed to talk about this; I cannot even trust my cousin or anybody for that matter, they all need money..." Or the story of this Tibetan family: the parents have had 5 children. They sent 3 of them to Daramsala, because it was the only way to keep their culture, their language, their faith alive. We take the time to speak with one of the daughters. When she was 5 years old, her parents sent her to Daramsala. Today, at the age of 20, she is back in Tibet (she's been back for 1 month when we meet her) because her parents are getting old. For 15 years, she has had no contact with her parents whatsover: they have not been able to see each other, nor write to each other, nor talk to each other over the phone. 15 years without seeing their daughter. It is the choice this mother and this father made so that their identity, their culture, what they believe in had a future... Today, as they are together again, it is almost like they are meeting for the first time, like strangers...

Life is tempting us. As the conditions test us, the signs of encouragement come frequently and regularly. We forget all about the wind and dust as the rising sun turns the top of Cho-Oyu to pink. We feel so small and are full of admiration as we finally face Mt Chomolangma (Everest). We remember all the people, whom we know, some well, some less well, whose story is linked to this summit: Gary Ball, Rob Hall, but also, "los tres"... We can only but smile to life when the multi-coloured prayer flags are dancing in the wind, or when, in the gold morning light, shepherds lead sheep, goats and yaks over the expansive dry Tibetan plateau. We can only but thank our "good star", or God, or life of something/someone else?, as the rays of sun come to warm us, and light up rivers, glaciers and summits with their most beautiful rays. As we keep going forward on this road taking us west. As we keep discovering and meeting, pass after pass, valley after valley.

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