Friday 27 September 2013

Trikes on the roof of the world: Tibet Story


Honeymoon in Tibet

Fumbling with the tent fly I escape into a freezing, cavernous, deep space night. My eyes wander up and I contemplate the constellations of the northern hemisphere. Then I track down to the Pang La, the mountain pass which tackles the unsealed mountain of switchbacks on the rutted road to Everest. The pass seems to go on for ever. It is clearly discernible in the starlight.

We had been told often enough that we would never be able to pedal our trikes up this pass. In fact, Samdrup, our Tibetan guide just shook his head saying, “how can two disabled people tackle one hundred and seventeen switchbacks at 5200m?” I had a twenty Yuan bet with Samdrup that we could do this hill, but his lack of faith in us shook me up. Sharyn, our camera- woman, who had done the pass several times before, in a truck, had faith in us, but even she recalled grown men weeping on the side of the road amidst thick clouds of dust.

The ʻPang Laʼ was clearly going to be the crux of the whole Lhasa to Kathmandu journey. I stifled a shiver... And we were going to attempt to ride over this mountain of dirt at dawn.

Carol Hurst and I were making a honeymoon tour of China. We were to go birdwatching and golfing, take in the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta warriors. It was to be dream trip... At least that is what we were telling the Chinese immigration department. However, in reality we were making a tricycle journey of over 1100km from Lhasa in Tibet - via Mount Everest - to Kathmandu in Nepal. If you so much as mention Tibet on your visa application it will be found screwed up in some consular officeʼs wastepaper basket. And filming in Tibet... God forbid.

Our ploy seemed to work and Carol and I find ourselves on a Lhasa-bound train on the highest railway in the world. Climbing up onto a high plateau the train groans train like a monster and people are left reaching for the piped oxygen. Ibex, yak and wild ass dot the plains. On disembarking three people are stretchered off suffering altitude sickness.

In Lhasa we party down at a legendary Nangma nightclub, where every self respecting patron until recently carried a sword! We also ride out to Sera Monastery where a monk thrusts my head into a hole with a ʻhorse headed Buddhaʼ. My nose is painted black, and a Khata (a ceremonial scarf) is blessed and draped over my head.

We pose for photographs below the Potala Palace. A seemingly pre-pubescent soldier, finger on trigger of rifle, approaches us lets us know the wind-horse on the prayer flags festooning our trikes is a highly dangerous symbol and is banned in the square. Uniformed snipers positioned on the roof-tops surrounding the Jokhang Temple (stark reminder of the 2008 riots) study us as we depart on our long journey.

We pass the huge golden Yak and stop at a ten meter tall Buddha that ʻmagicallyʼ appeared in the rock face. At camp that evening I wallow in the peaceful waters of the Kyi Chu oblivious to the thundering trucks passing close to our camp. The women are playing badminton with Samdrup and invite me to play but I fall heavily. A dangerous game, badminton.

It is a requirement of the Chinese government that all independent foreign travelers in Tibet have a guide. The guide then requires feeding and transport so we have a cook, Dawa, and a driver, Mota. At first the whole ʻkitchen sinkʼ approach didnʼt sit easily with me. But now I am disabled having a truck seems rather useful.

Tibetans are notoriously stubborn with regards to client service, though our Tibetan crew get the idea that we are on pilgrimage. Just like thousands of others we have seen, we are heading slowly towards our respective goals. It was Carolʼs aim to make it all the way to Kathmandu, whereas my interest always lay in Mount Everest. After all I was a mountaineer and climbing
mountains had been my life. I had forsaken a ʻrealʼ job at an early age and had summited mountains in the Himalaya, Patagonia and Baffin Island.

Then in 1998 on a climbing trip to Tasmania my life unravelled before my very eyes. A boulder fell on my head whilst climbing the Totem Pole on Cape Hauy. The rescue took a day during which I lost half my blood through a gaping hole in my skull. I ended up in hospital for a year with paralysis down my right side and had to learn how to walk again, talk again, feed and dress myself.

At Chusul we meet the Yarling Sangpo, tributary to the great Brahmaputra. As we ride up the river the scenery gets grander and more serene. I often cannot see Carol for dust. We ride fifty-three kilometers, seventeen kilometers further than she has ridden before: a marvelous achievement.

We enter a narrow gorge where there are objective dangers a plenty: yaks precariously perched on cliffs, loose boulders overhanging the road, and big concrete trucks thundering past. On one down hill stretch we pass by a bus load of monks stopped by the side of the road. With a fervor normally reserved for rockstars they wave, dance and cheer us. So much attention do our trikes command, at one point on the road to Everest we cause a traffic jam as Chinese tourists queue for a photo with us.

On exiting the gorge a huge Tibetan mastiff begins to chase me. I try to speed up, but at close to 4000 meters I only end up gasping like a landed fish. Soon I was face to face with the vicious creature as it slobbered on my chest. All I could do was present my spastic arm to it as one would a rubber chicken. I was cycling hard, and moving along at a brisk jog. Just as the monster is about to gnaw on my arm Sharyn comes to my rescue and charges the dog down with a fierce growl.

After a week of riding our first rest day is at the 'Braille Without Borders' vocational farm near Xigatse. Paul Kronenberg, one of the founders, tells stories of how some blind kids are locked away through shame on the part of their parents. In Tibetan culture blind kids had to have done something terrible in a previous life. I consider peopleʼs reaction to me whilst limping around Lhasaʼs streets: one person even spat at me. Any kind of disability is viewed in such a way. Paul and his team were challenging such ignorance and, by cycling across Tibet, so are we. Disabled people can do everything that the abled bodied can do. And that needs celebrating.

Shortly after leaving Xigatse rain begins to pour, which, when lying prostrate is a special kind of treat. We get soaked, and darkness is falling. Just as our band are beginning to contemplate spending the night out, Samdrup finds a monastery to sleep in. After a breakfast with young monks we tackle the Tra La, which at 3975m is only a baby pass. We set up camp in a quintessentially Tibetan landscape - flat plains with yaks and distant mountains. The setting sun is beautiful even with the silhouetted power poles which Tibet seems to grow so well.

On the day when Carol and I are supposed to be golfing at Shenzen Mission Hills, we find ourselves grinding painfully up the Gyatso La. At 5220m this is the highest pass of our journey. We climb it over two days. The second day of ascent begins ruthlessly cold. We pass nomads living in yak hair tents like they have done for thousands of years and, in two interminable hours, we surface into sunlight. My lungs silently scream as I try to keep up with Mel, our physiotherapist and unintended pace-setter. Carol has to stop every kilometer to massage her deadened feet.

Carol was a keen adventurer when, in her twenties, she developed osteoarthritis in her hips. When avenues for outdoor activity narrowed Carol took to white-water paddling with determination, becoming six times Classic Wild-water Australian Champion. Now, a specially customised trike is allowing her to crank up passes in Western Tibet.

Our first view of Everest comes a full week before we reach it. Huge Chinese slogans on mountainsides inform us of I donʼt know what. As the sun sets a silhouette of a dzong, a fortress built on a high outcrop of rock, dominates against the broadening night.

 We begin climbing the Pang La, or ʻPain Laʼ as it is known to cyclists, at first light. The hot water we put into our bottles freezes. By mid morning we are at hairpin nineteen when a woman stops her car and force feeds me hard-boiled eggs. As we are nearing the top of the pass, which has only forty-six hairpins (a hundred and seventeen was to be for our descent, thankfully), snow flurries begin.

Carol and I summit the Pang La (5150m) in cloud together, through the usual tunnel of prayer flags. Passengers of cars scatter paper 'wind horses' printed with Buddhist prayers. After a brief rest we descend endless switchbacks on a Dr Suess road, straight out of Green Eggs and Ham. Pedalling to Everest Base Camp is a gruelling exercise: uphill and on dirt all the way. At itʼs zenith the sun blazes down.

Personally, I was realising a lifetime dream in seeing the goddess mountain up close. For thirteen years since the accident, I've spent every day learning to walk and talk again. From my first day back climbing and the first ride on my trike; everything I've done has been to get me here, today. When I was first recovering I never thought I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to Everest Base Camp. It's been a long and tortuous road getting here.

On the return from Everest we reach the Nam La (5100m), a sandy single track were I have to weigh my panniers down with rocks to prevent the rear wheel spinning. As we ride below Choy Oyu, the worlds sixth highest peak, I sheer a quick release pin so rough is the road. Mel lashes the seat back to the frame with a tyre inner-tube. On the way down to the sealed road a kid throws a pebble at Sharynʼs head with remarkable accuracy. After eight days of pot-holes I kiss the metalled road surface.

The last pass, the Lung La, is into a headwind. The back of my knee hurts. Mel comes to the rescue again and feeds me anti-inflammatories and ʻEmergen-Cʼ. I try all the tricks in the book to take my mind off the job in hand.

A three kilometer uphill straight - mantras, headphones, bead counting, you name it. I finally make it through the arch of prayer-flags miles behind Carol and am faced with Shishapangma, Phola Ganchen, and Melung Tse, all giants in their wedding gowns.

Now begins the deepest road descent on Earth. We scream down from the ice and frost of a Tibetan morning to the tropical lushness of a Nepali afternoon. The quality of the road deteriorates from brand spanking Chinese bitumen to dirt, landslides and Nepali mayhem.

On day twenty-six we enter Kathmandu. We ride through a convoluted matrix of villages and back streets, past monkeys and metal workshops, bakeries and brick works, temples and shrines, and everywhere a jam of cars and motorbikes.

After much struggle and hardship we had finally made it. We had ridden 1158 kilometers over the Himalayas. For me it affirmed once again that life is an incredible gift that should not be squandered.

This tricycle trip across the roof of the world had certainly been no

Paul Pritchard:2013. Photographs PP Collection