Head on a pilgrimage to the East Tibetan mountains and see where bikes could take you!
Words by Gerhard Czerner Photos by Martin Bissig
The yet unclimbed Khawa Karpo is one of the eight holy mountains of Tibet. The pilgrimage path around the foot of the mountain is considered to be one of the most impressive paths on earth. No one could tell us if it was possible to ride it. We went on a journey to find out.
Getting acquainted with Asia
I've got used to using chop sticks to eat. What I have a hard time getting used to are the duck heads that keep bobbing up to the bubbling surface of our hot pot, a type of Chinese fondue, from time to time. I try to snatch a few vegetable or tofu pieces swimming in-between them and a whole number of entrails floating around to still my vegetarian appetite. As the next load of fish heads disappears in the fire-red brew I decide I've had enough to eat and give up. I stick to jasmine tea for the rest of the evening.
I am sitting in Shangri-La together with three riders of the Liteville Enduro Team China, Kevin, Terryn, and Arsenal. No, we didn't discover the fictitious and mythical Shangri-La that became famous through the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. We are in a small Chinese town in the province of Yunnan that was called Zhongdian up until 2001. It boasts a population of about 130 000 and lies 3150m above sea level. The change of name had purely economic reasons. The new name shrouded in legends is meant to lure more tourists into the area. The old town is renovated accordingly and covered in hundreds of shops. You can get all kinds of Tibetan gifts and souvenirs, from prayer flags to singing bowls and sweaters made from yak fur. You can also find countless tea rooms where you can try native tea and buy it. They also remind you of the old Tea Horse Road that used to pass through here. It was a network comprised of old trade routes. It was mainly used to transport Pu Erh tea from the city with the same name all the way to Lhasa with horses.
We have been on our way towards Tibet for the last two days as well. Without horses but with our mountain bikes as luggage. We planned to ride the eastern part of the Kora, a pilgrim path around the mountain Kawa Karpo. For Tibetans circling around the mountain that is holy for them is considered a ritualistic act. For them the mountain represents a manifestation of the spirit of Buddha and many hope to come closer to Buddha by circling it. In special years of the Tibetan calendar many thousands of Buddhists circle around the mountain clockwise.
We are also pilgrims on our way if you consider the Latin root of the word. Pilgrim stems from the Latin word peregrinusor peregrinari, 'being foreign'.“We feel very foreign here. Of course Kevin and I are more foreign than both of our Chinese friends since we're from Germany but they also only know the route that lies ahead of us from vague descriptions on the internet. Without them we wouldn't even be able to order the hot pot boiling in front of us in a restaurant. Chinese characters are like hieroglyphs for us and simply unreadable. Our English skills aren't of much help either. Most people in this region speak as much English as we do Chinese. Practically none. So we're happy more than once a day to be travelling in an internationally combined team.
Another day in the mini-van awaits us until we finally get to ride our bikes. We drive past the valley of Mekong. The flanks of the surrounding mountains tower into the sky from the broad river valley. It continues like this hour after hour. The next planned stop is in Deqin. The city in the northern most part of the province Yunnan doesn't have much to offer except a rough climate at first sight. Still for us it is extremely important. It's the last possibility for us to buy food. We also want to meet a Tibetan here that will accompany us with his sumpter horses.
Our driver skillfully passes through the narrow alleys into a courtyard and stops the bus. We meet our horseman in a restaurant. He greets us with bright eyes and a broad grin. He's prepared three horses in his house and he tells us he will pick us up with a bus the next day to drive the remaining kilometres. Arduous negotiations begin about the cost of his services and the duration of the trip. We want to plan with enough time since we don't know if and how much of the path we will be able to ride with our bikes or if we even have to push them the entire way. We plan seven days for the tour. Our driver is supposed to pick us up on the other side of the mountain range with the bus. He'll drive back the entire way along the Mekong and then back up river in the Yangtse valley to reach the arranged meeting point. It will take him four days! The distances here are indescribably huge. After some back and forth we agree to meet the next morning at 8am. We spend the night in Feilie Si, a tourist town about 10km in the distance and higher up. Sleeping at an altitude of 3300m helps us to get used to the thin air. The highest pass of our route awaits us on day three of our trip. We have to slowly get used to the elevation if we don't want to get altitude sickness.
We hope for good weather in the evening. You have a fantastic view of the 6740m high Kawa Karpo, the holy and also highest mountain of Yunnan, from Feilei Si, granted the air is clear. Unfortunately we don't get to take in the view. The mountain hides behind a thick blanket of fog the entire evening. During dinner we try to plan what food we will buy as much as we possibly can. Rice, vegetables, a little meat and crackers for the journey. All of us can't wait to see what's in store for us. Will we be able to ride it? Will we be able to cope with the altitude? How will the weather be? Will we sleep in our tents or in the few camps along the way? Will our driver make it to the other side? Questions upon questions.
We go shopping the next morning at the huge market in Deqin. We stand there a bit lost since none of us know how much food we'll need. We'll have noodle soup for breakfast, crackers and chocolate for lunch, rice and vegetables in the evening. That's our meal plan. Well then, we just shouldn't buy too little food. Being hungry on the way isn't good. Especially not under exertion. We transport our groceries to the tiny bus in big, white sacks. It's packed all the way under its roof. There's not enough room for all of us. So we get on our bikes. The bus takes the lead, the food is unloaded, then the drivers picks us up at the side of the road to bring us to the meeting point with the horses in a small Tibetan mountain village. We passed the border to East Tibet down in the valley. It was only discernable by a sparsely occupied checkpoint in a tiny tent at the side of the road.
The border patrol just checked our passports briefly and showed no interest in us otherwise.
Our luggage is weighed, evenly divided and packed onto the horses, and we pack our daypacks. We need four horses now with the entire food. Otherwise the load would be too much for the animals. Before we continue we have to "sign" an agreement about services rendered and payment. This doesn't happen with a pen and signature but with an ink pad and fingerprints. We're only allowed to begin our trip after four red fingerprints are on the piece of paper. A steep gravel road leads us up to 3200m, our first passage. Here the road ends and our tension becomes unfathomable. What will we expect behind the first curve? Riding? Pushing? Or even carrying downhill?