Into the unknown

Our horseman says goodbye to us. He won't join us on the tour. His wife and a relative will accompany us with the horses. They've gone ahead and want to meet us at our first camp. We're on our own now, without cell reception, internet, or other contact to the outside world. We have to have everything we need with us and we have to help ourselves if something happens. An elevation profile and an inaccurate digital map is all we have for orientation. But according to it there's only one way across the mountains.

 

We give high fives, step into our pedals and immediately dive into another world. The path winds its way down into the forest like in a roller coaster in a tunnel made of prayer flags. Thousands of them hang to the left and right of the way, waving in different colors, along the sides of the narrow and beaten trail. It's like rushing through a box of paints at high speed. It's like a reset button in your head is pushed to 'here and now'. Emotions run wild. We take a short break after what feels like an eternity. All four of us grin wildly. We can hardly find words to describe our joy. Supernatural is the only word we can agree on to explain it. If it continues like this it is going to be a huge amount of fun.

 

We catch up with the horses at a half decayed wooden barrack in the dense forest. It's dark already. This is our camp. A camp fire burns in a hideout. Kitchen and living room are one here. A stream rushes past behind the hut. A few upright logs are covered with plastic tarps and make up our bedroom. Old mattresses and damp blankets lie on wooden pallets. We lay our sleeping bags on top. Our Tibetan companions cook with us together. None of us can pronounce their Tibetan names and so we call the Annemarie and Hans, much to their joy. Lots of laughter on the first evening with new friends is a good sign for a relaxed atmosphere in the coming days.

 

We sit at the campfire the next morning and eat noodle soup and rice. I guess we'll have to get used to this for the next days. Arsenal knibbles on dried chicken legs he brought from the market with visible pleasure. It's raining slightly outside. Dense forest surrounds us here at almost 3000m. We marvel at the biodiversity. We weren't expecting this up here. After breakfast we make our way on a muddy trail covered with slippery rocks. The dense vegetation almost swallows it at times. A total contrast to yesterday. We try to ride small parts again and again but we're seldom successful. Abandoned wooden barracks stand by the side of the path as witnesses to thousands of pilgrims during certain years. Now they're decaying and waiting for nature to conquer them again.

 

It's uphill pretty much all day. Camp today lies at 3900m. The last 250m altitude gain are so steep that we have to carry our bikes. Again thousands of prayer flags line the path. Halfway up several colorfully painted Buddha figures are carved into the rock. It feels like passing though a holy place. We reach a few tiny wooden huts after eight hours. We see our horses and we've finally made it. The sleeping camp is a little cleaner and bigger. Other than that all camps are very similar. A fire area with wooden benches at knee's height to sit on and a "dormitory" covered with plastic tarps. Annemarie and Hans have been here quite a while and made us rice and vegetables at the fire. We thankfully accept. We're exhausted. We only sit around the campfire for a short while, our hunger satiated. Tomorrow will be a long day, the highest pass is waiting for us. So we crawl into our sleeping bags.

 

The next day begins early with rain. We start slowly in order to find a rhythm. The air is getting thin and breathing is becoming hard. We noticed the altitude yesterday and reduced our speed noticeably. Riding is out of the question again, the soon visible pass is too steep. The tree line isn't until about 4000m here. At home in the Alps the only things at this altitude are snow and ice. Our group pulls apart a little, everyone continues at his own pace. Garlands and prayer flags begin to show us the way far before the highest rise. The rain eases a bit and we drag ourselves across a carpet of colorful cloth, breathing heavily. You can't see the ground anymore, everything is covered in billions of 'wind horses', the correct Tibetan translation for the flags. The mountain world is rugged and cloudy. My GPS shows 4500m here at Duokha La. We've reached the highest point of our pilgrimage!