LHASA TO SHIGATSE
We arrived in Lhasa on a bright sunny afternoon to surprising lovely temperatures in the low 20’s. Despite being a little disappointed not to spy our first glimpse of Mt Everest from the plane due to cloud cover we were all in a buoyant mood. Coming to Lhasa was the start of us climbing up in altitude and it felt like the trip was beginning to start in earnest, although we still had 3 nights here to help us acclimatise before we set off for real! Compared to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, Lhasa felt very much like a modern Chinese city. Decent infrastructure and roads, and actually pretty clean! You are reminded almost immediately that Tibet is of course part of China since the “Cultural Revolution” in 1959. Lhasa has exploded in population since then and is now mainly Chinese! I have to admit that I had reservations about coming to Tibet/ China given the circumstances. I was reassured by the fact that the Dalai Lama does encourage responsible tourism to his homeland, and also comforted by the fact that once we left Lhasa our “Tourist Dollars” would hopefully find their way into the pockets of deserving Tibetans, as many of our guest houses were in more remote small villages. (It can be hard as a traveller to balance our desire to see new places and do what is right for the local people and their economy – I guess we make what justifications we can that our actions are pure?)
So it doesn’t take long for the effects of the altitude to become apparent. Checking in at the hotel we only had 3 flights of stairs to negotiate to get to our room – Easy for a fitness instructor like me? Maybe not? It was weird to get to the top of the stairs and feel so out of breath and a bit dizzy! Turning around to view some of my fellow cyclists reassured me that we all felt the same and we had a laugh at ourselves. How the hell were we going to cycle 1000km up and down mountains?? The next 3 days saw us drinking lots of water (strict instructions from Mangal our guide to drink 3L a day – NO alcohol- Ooops!?) and peeing for Britain! I think most of us did also have some minor headaches but nothing that a paracetamol couldn’t fix. (My AMS was to get a bit worse but I’ll get to that later)!
This style of building is typical in the Old Quarter of Lhasa and throughout Tibet
So Lhasa was mainly about acclimatisation and seeing some cultural highlights like the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple. I listened hard to our guide and tried to distinguish between my Dalai and Benji Lamas, and my Buddhas from my Dharma protectors? Tibetan Buddhism can get quite complicated and has a lot of mythology surrounding it. It was a good introduction and essential to spend time acclimatising but I think by now most of us were itching to get on the bikes – The ride after all was the real reason we were here!
LHASA TO CHUSUL – 82.42km, Total Ascent 366m, Total Descent 444m
Our group outside the Potala Palace as we set off – Getting everyone to look at the camera at once is clearly too much? – Especially with Mangal nearly getting run over!
Our first day on our bikes and an “easy” one to start off with! The day started with a group photo shot in front of the Potala Palace, where Mangal our guide came very close to being run over by a bus while crouched in the middle of the road to take the photos! He remained cool as a cucumber until the Chinese policeman came over to move us along! Today the road was mostly flat and once out of Lhasa passed through some really beautiful agricultural land and small villages. As with any group activity everybody has a different pace and there was definitely some testosterone flying around at the head of the “peloton”! I had to suppress all my competitive urges that wanted to keep up but that really wasn’t why I was doing this trip. After Lunch I decided to chill at the back where it was much more about stopping for a photo opportunity and to try and interact a bit with the locals – and of course have a wee chat!
Nice spot for lunch…..!
Arriving at our guesthouse just outside Chusul I felt surprising tired after only 85km, but I think that would be the effects of the altitude, although we had actually dropped slightly since Lhasa. Our accommodation was our first introduction to the Tibetan guesthouses that would symbolise most of our trip. We were only 3 girls so we got a room to share by ourselves! This one was actually quite luxurious and we had a proper shower (1 to share between 11 people – but this is something we would get used to and better than no shower at all)! Our Tibetan Chef cooked up a storm for dinner (out of the back of his truck) and we all went to bed a little tired but happy to be on the road and looking forward to day 2 and our first high pass!
CHUSUL TO NAGASTE – 73.81km (25km climb to the top of the Kang La pass) Total Ascent 1425m, Total Descent 567m
So this was really the first big test! Despite feeling great in the morning and tackling the pass well I’m not ashamed to say I was in bits at the end! Although mostly due to the effects of the altitude. I got up in a respectable 3 hours (ish – give or take) and didn’t think I felt that bad at the time? Reaching the top was a real high with stunning views on the other side and I thought I felt great! On hindsight I had a very dry mouth from about halfway up and hadn’t drank enough water. Also the last couple of kilometres was really tough and pedalling the bike in a straight line had become increasingly harder! After a short rest at the top we dropped a bit down the other side for lunch. I knew I didn’t feel great at lunchtime and as the afternoon went on I gradually felt a little worse. The afternoon ride was rolling flats but we had only dropped to around 4400m so still high in relative terms. I just felt nauseous, headachy and generally a bit rubbish! Bizarrely I was also highly emotional (mood swings can be a symptom of AMS) and when we finally arrived at our guesthouse there was nothing I could do to stop myself crying! A bit embarrassing for the boys and totally mortifying for me but I couldn’t stop it? I felt unwell but not that unwell? I was happy to have finished the day and cycled the whole pass? I still couldn’t stop crying? “Might be time for somebody to give me a Diamox (drug for AMS) because I’ve got NO IDEA what’s going on?” or words to that affect!
A disappointing end to the day but after a diamox and a hot shower in the public baths (15 yuan) I felt better. I still couldn’t eat much at dinner so headed off to bed early. Given the circumstances I slept OK despite having to get up to pee 5 times in the night because of the Diamox!
NAGATSE TO GYANTSE – 104.15km, Total Ascent 996m, Total Descent 1436m
Although still feeling a bit rough this morning I was determined to get on the bike and do what I could! In actual fact I think I got about the first 15-17km under my belt before I had to jump in the bus! The road was beginning to climb but looked deceptively flat to the naked eye, my legs and breathing however were telling me otherwise, and it was also getting increasingly colder so I bailed and got in the truck! We stopped for lunch just over the pass which was the first of many over 5000m. It was so cold we all ate in the bus but all I could managed was a bit of mushroom soup! Wrapped up in as many clothes as I could get on I decided to stay on the bus as we headed on for the afternoon. At this point I couldn’t really imagine me getting back on the bike today but miraculously as we started to descend I did start to feel almost immediately better! I perked up enough to get off the bus to have my photo taken with some of the Tibetan children who had taken a liking to us and did eventually manage back on the bike for roughly the last 30km.
Starting to feel a bit better I hop of the bus to grab a photo with some local kids
I’m so glad I did as the weather improved and the landscape was really beautiful in the afternoon! By the time we arrived in Gyantse I felt like a different person! Being lower in altitude again made a massive difference and although we were to stay low for a few days I was anxious about how I would feel when we started to climb again? Many of the other cyclists had diamox they weren’t taking so from here on I continued to take it for the rest of the trip.
GYANTSE TO SHIGATSE – 92.87 km, Total Ascent 189m, Total Descent 356m
Feeling great this morning after a good nights sleep in a “posh” hotel and a great breakfast! We started the day with a quick trip to Pekor Chode Monastory for some more lessons in Buddhas, Lamas and Dharma protectors! It also has the Great Stupa Kubum, which at 32.4m high is the largest in Tibet! The ride today was long but mostly flat across the very scenic plains amidst a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. This was another day to hang at the back and make the most of some great photo opportunities. The weather was sunny and warm and despite the road being very straight there was lots to keep you interested! I felt strong again on the bike today which was a relief after the disappointment of being a “bit of a wreck” for the last 2 days! Tonight we also had another “posh” hotel and a rest day to look forward to tomorrow!
Woman cutting barley in the fields. There were many people working in the fields and singing as they went.
REST DAY SHIGATSE
A lazy start to the day and a bit of time to sort out our laundry. After visiting the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and viewing the quite amazingly huge Bronze Buddha statue within we had the rest of the day to ourselves. Most of us did a little bit of souvenir shopping before heading back to the hotel to relax and maybe grab a massage. Also available at the hotel was “a happy bath”? I’d be careful about ordering this though as you might get a surprise?! (If you know what I mean)? This became a standing joke for the rest of the trip!
Yes boys that is tripe in the Meat Hotpot! – Keep out of my Veggie Hotpot!
In the evening we went out for a traditional Tibetan Hotpot meal at the Wordo Kitchen. This is a family run restaurant that also has it’s own museum upstairs with loads of traditional Tibetan artefacts the family has collected over the years. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Kalsang Dhondup, who’s family own the restaurant/museum. He spoke with such passion and enthusiasm about Tibet, and also allowed the boys to have a bit of a play with the swords! As you can imagine they were delighted and it was a great end to a lovely evening. Back on the bikes tomorrow and a few big days ahead of us as we take another step forward to Everest Base camp.
Still to come………
SHIGATSE to RONGBUK – Everest Base Camp (part 2)
RONGBUK to KATHMANDU – The Final Ride (part 3)
PHOTO ESSAY SERIES – The People, The Landscapes, The Temples and Monasteries