Riding the Roof of the World

Story by Paddy Tyson// Photos by Andy McGregor
December 1 2013

A long wait at Chinese immigration, the possibility of serious health problems due to altitude sickness, deleted photos and confiscated maps were only a few of the problems Paddy faced during his attempted ride to the Everest Base Camp.

This was just getting silly. Six hours earlier, I had been processed through Chinese immigration and had stepped into Tibet as a man under surveillance – but my motorcycle hadn’t been so lucky. I knew nothing of the town I was standing in, as I had been forced to donate my guidebook to the authorities of the People’s Republic of China. It clearly had the word “TIBET” printed on the front cover, and everyone in China knows that there is no such place. I had donated my map as well, which would have curtailed my exploration as a tourist, had I not been assigned a “guide” for the duration of my visit. Lagpa was a lovely guy – an “approved” Tibetan – but he was at his wits’ end as to how he was going to get the 500 cc Royal Enfield Classics out of the clutches of the border guards.

I wandered around between the soldiers, the moneychangers, the traders and the porters who carried immense loads and who all seemed to be women in their 60s or 70s. I had a Lhasa beer even though I shouldn’t have, because at an altitude of over 2000 metres, it can do funny things to you.

The bar was on the fourth floor of a rudimentary concrete structure squeezed perilously between the mountainside and the road, and it enabled me to observe the bustling border commerce below. The Nepali border porters in their voluminous dresses delivered their payload, maybe 70 kg of cloth, and then from beneath their skirts dispensed various contraband packages to waiting hands, before restocking with an alternative load and heading back over the frontier. Given the level of Chinese surveillance, I presumed the practice must be sanctioned at least in part, so I thought I’d kill time among the traders and see if I couldn’t find a contraband bargain, just as a souvenir you understand, not with any desire to undermine the intellectual copyright of a multinational electronics giant.

I located my prize; a Samsung Galaxy S3 for the princely sum of $35. Not bad, eh? Still in its box, it was a perfect copy – apart from the spelling, Sumsang, and as I later discovered, the lack of an answer button.

Tibet WomanBut six hours was long enough. I’d eaten yak-and-something soup and walked up and down the single street innumerable times. I’d had my cameras examined by the Chinese authorities, and any shots deemed unsavoury had helpfully been deleted.

I was scoping out the possibility of offering accompanied tours to Tibet, and it wasn’t boding well, even though I was with someone who had been living and working in Nepal for ten years. If there was any more delay, we wouldn’t make it to our accommodation before nightfall, and climbing to 3800 metres in the space of 40 kilometres was going to be challenge enough in daylight.

There was a huge ruckus in the customs building, as shifts were due to change and senior officers chastised subordinates. Paperwork for the bikes finally materialized, and the Enfields were released. At last I was able to push the motorcycle through the x-ray machine and out into Tibet, mount up and begin the inexorable climb, which was only curtailed at every subsequent police checkpoint. The Chinese populace imported from the east are entitled to free movement. Tibetans, alas, are not, and all their identity papers must be in order if they wish to leave their local area.

Lagpa was travelling in a van that couldn’t manage the twisty, near-vertiginous road with anywhere near the speed of the Enfields, and it certainly couldn’t overtake the lumbering Dongfeng trucks, so at every checkpoint we had to wait for him.

Climbing within the Himalaya is like nothing else. In the Rockies, you can marvel at the majesty of the surrounding peaks, enjoy the broad vistas and feel insignificant given the scale of the place. The Himalaya are simply too big. The views are limited by the size and proximity of the mountains themselves, and while it may be stunning to ride the side of a valley on roads which are engineering masterpieces, when you finally reach what you imagine must be a summit, you simply find yourself on the floor of yet another valley.

Darkness had fallen as we rose above the treeline, and our arrival in the town of Nyalam was eerie as we threaded our way around potholes of indeterminate depth, between the free-range dogs and the unlit vehicles. Even with limited visibility, I knew the settlement had a wild feel, perched as it is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and devoid of any vegetation to help tame the incessant wind.

I didn’t sleep, but it wasn’t the rock-hard bed or the bitter cold. My head hurt, my chest felt tight, and every time I nodded off, I awoke with a start as I imagined I was being strangled. By breakfast I was nauseous and thirsty. Nyalam is at 3800 metres, where oxygen is already in short supply. I was suffering the early onset of altitude sickness, but we had to press on.

Tibet mountainsDaylight exposed the rugged beauty that surrounded us. Naked roadsides and mountains rising variously all around shared barely a blade of grass. The palette was one of browns and greys beneath an unbroken blue sky, and it felt as though there wasn’t a drop of moisture for miles. We were still climbing onto the Tibetan Plateau. It’s a harsh dry place that sees barely 250 mm of precipitation in a year, but the cold meant that I had to wear all my waterproof clothing.

Still we climbed to Tong La (La is the regional word for “pass”) at 5153 metres, and much as I wanted to enjoy my surroundings, just controlling the bike was a struggle. I downed a Diamox tablet and gulped as much water as I could, but in essence, we’d climbed too high, too quickly, and I was suffering and needed to descend, rapidly. Altitude sickness can result in many things, the most damaging being a burst brain or lungs, neither of which I felt would have improved my riding any.

But the thing about Tibet is that you can’t really descend. The plateau is an area two and a half times the size of Ontario, with an average height of 4500 metres, and it’s surrounded by towering mountain ranges, hundreds of peaks that reach seven or eight thousand metres high and more. You climb the passes, but there isn’t really any respite from the altitude, as you rarely fall to even 4000 metres. It’s no wonder it’s called the roof of the world.

As I suffered, incapable of speech and with my arms and legs wracked with pins and needles, becoming simultaneously numb and painful, the little Enfield beneath me seemed absolutely unaffected. It plodded along, its EFI system metering the fuel as best it could to compensate for the lack of oxygen, and feeding the simple, single-cylinder engine, which continued to perform mile after mile.

On the descent from Lalung La (5050 metres), I could barely hold the throttle open. I looked at my hands, but I had a hard time believing they were mine. Like my feet on the footpegs, I couldn’t make them do as I asked, and with alternate sweeping switchbacks turning me toward a vicious headwind, gravity was in charge until we hit the valley floor. I hit it harder than most, tumbling off the bike and lying face down in the dirt of the desert, retching pathetically and gasping for air. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment, and much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t formulate a simple request for water. I could see all the words in my head, but I couldn’t get them into a sentence and make them come out of my mouth. My brain just wasn’t working. I wanted to get up and shout “I’m an adventurer, dammit!” but instead I lay there, face down and helpless, imagining the indignity of dying by the roadside in a helmet and full riding gear without even having had the decency to crash first.

And then I was sitting up, and a mask was on my face. Lagpa had arrived in the van with a canister of oxygen. I knew who I was again, but there was to be no more riding, as I was bundled into the van with my oxygen and some water. Depending on its severity, altitude sickness can wane as your body adapts to the lack of oxygen, which is why it’s so important to acclimatize slowly. In another 24 hours, I was back in the saddle and riding out of the old town of Tingri, passed the yaks working what appeared to be barren soil, and waving to the curious, friendly Tibetans. I was determined to ride to Everest base camp, and just outside Tingri, I was faced with my first view of the highest mountain on earth. It was a moving experience, and I couldn’t have been more fortunate with the weather. The almost perfect black top cut straight as a dye across valley floors and then wound gently over minor passes as we headed toward the giant. All of our access permits were in order, but as with so much in Tibet, the rules changed overnight, and we arrived at a checkpoint to hear that today, our permits would be of no use. No motorcycles could ride to base camp.

A couple of days later, I spent the day in police custody. Shigatse is the regional capital, home to the government driving and vehicle-testing departments and centre of more impenetrable bureaucracy. The authorities decided that I needed a driving licence and that the Enfield must be granted full approval to be used safely on the road network of Tibet, so there ensued a magical mystery tour between government buildings all over the city, where my eyesight was checked, my weight and height measured, and all technical aspects of the motorcycle were recorded on fancy equipment, very little of which worked. It was unbelievable when there didn’t seem to be a vehicle in the city that had so much as a functioning headlight. The authorities were determined that I should take a driving test, and I was happy to, but I pointed out that they’d need to first provide me with a crash course in Chinese, as I couldn’t read the road signs. As that wasn’t possible, I was issued with a permit anyway, which is perhaps my finest souvenir.

But I’ve written nothing of Tibet and its famous architecture and Buddhist culture, which is under continual assault. Certain monasteries have been chosen to survive and are upheld as examples of the Chinese honouring and celebrating Tibetan history, but other palaces lie vacant, festering and crumbling beneath the harsh summer sun and even harsher winters. Instead, all towns now sport great monuments to the “Glorious Peaceful Liberation” of 1951, when the Chinese killed thousands of Tibetans whilst liberating them from themselves, before imposing the colonial control that they must now live beneath. Small police stations on every street corner are equipped with fire blankets, extinguishers, and people catchers that look like fishing nets. It seems the subjugated Tibetans are so happy that they still insist on setting themselves on fire in protest.

The Chinese are not, of course, the first imperial power to forcefully invade Tibet; the British made a good job of it at the turn of the last century. Major Younghusband made it all the way east to Lhasa, and when his troops arrived in Gyantse, they apparently stormed the administrative fort which still sits on a mound overlooking the town. As I breathlessly climbed to the fort at almost 4000 metres, managing only a few steps at a time, I thought of those British troops with their woollen tunics and all their weaponry, and then carefully considered the use of the word “storm” to describe their actions. I feel that the way they deployed their machine guns was probably the main reason for their success.

The fort overlooked the Yeti Hotel in Gyantse, which was a haven and absolute delight. The food was sublime, the rooms clean and with running water, and there was even a minibar to cater to western needs. It contained water, instant noodles and oxygen. I don’t travel to find the familiar, but it’s always good to locate what you need to stay alive. As we neared the capital, Lhasa, the last vestiges of what is Tibetan seemed to fade. The towns lost their ancient architectural hearts and were replaced by identikit, tower-block housing projects. Bilingual signage vanished and only Chinese characters were in evidence, but the flip side of the occupation was the ever-improving road network, telecommunications and sanitation. It really was like being in a Monty Python film. “Yes, but what have the Chinese ever done for us, apart from the infrastructure, the education . . .” In such a harsh environment, it is incredible to witness the quality of the highway engineering and the driven nature of the Chinese workforce, who seem to labour around the clock.

In the towns, cement mixers are continually delivering, and an army of workers runs back and forth with wheelbarrows full of the stuff. As with ants, the number of workers and the scale of the development are hard to comprehend, and through it all we rode our ever-reliable Enfields, which tackled tarmac, deep sand and piles of rocks with the same stoic efficiency. A 500 cc Royal Enfield is a big machine for Tibet, where most people ride 125 cc or 150 cc machines, but laden with luggage and plodding all day long, I developed a huge respect for its abilities. It was terrific in the cut and thrust of the urban mayhem, where rules of the road seemed to be arbitrary and any gap was yours if you could fill it. Tibet is a marvellous country and truly unique, but being watched from every rooftop, assigned certain hotels and restaurants, and having very little access to the outside world through a restricted Internet, can be very wearing. Neighbouring Nepal is more vibrant, and that’s where I’ll return next time I come to this part of the world.


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