Archive for June, 2010

Tibet 7: Mountain passes and Zhangmu

June 13, 16:30: Just below Lalung Pass, 5282km from Shanghai, 4800m

Morning: rolling hills (slight up), slight headwind.
Afternoon: steep uphill, huge wind (mostly head.)

We’re now camping in the valley between two passes. Tomorrow’s pass takes us to the world’s longest downhill!

June 14, 13:00: Nylam, 3800m

This morning we crossed Thang Pass (5050m), our last mountain pass, then rode along a ~15km downhill followed by rolling hills, mostly down. Things are a lot greener down here and we’re below the treeline (which seems to be exactly 4000m.)

There were several snowcaps visible from the top of the pass and as I descended, they all disappeared behind lesser but closer mountains. A good way of saying goodbye!

June 14, 16:00: Zhangmu, 2300m

Yay, world’s longest downhill :) Over 30km of coasting down past tree-covered hills full of waterfalls!

Zhangmu is an interesting town geographically. There’s one main road, which is the China-Nepal Friendship Highway. It winds its way down the mountain and there are buildings on either side of the road.. there were at least 10 switchbacks between the top of the town and our hotel (which is near the bottom.) It’s a crazy road with all sorts of trucks making their way up and down, squeezing past each other using the gaps left between the Land Cruisers[*] parked on both sides of the road.

It’s warm and green down here and the air is full of oxygen! 8km more to the Nepal border!

[*] It’s spelled "Land Cruiser" but it’s pronounced "jeep."

China 5: Shanghai & Expo

From Hong Kong, I took the direct train to Guangzhou then boarded an overnight train to Shanghai – the direct HK – Shanghai train sells out days in advance (and only runs every 2 days. China FAIL.)

On my first evening, I visited The Bund, the historical international/commercial district of Shanghai, where there are lots of neat old buildings, mostly Western-style. There are also excellent views of Pudong, the current commercial district, across the river.

Robin arrived early the next day and we met at the excellent (and free) Shanghai Museum, which has a variety of exhibits showing China’s historical arts and crafts. Then we wandered around, visiting the French Concession, which was a bit disappointing (just western-style bars & boutiques.)

The next day we visited Expo. This is part of the same series of “world fairs” that visited Montréal in 1967 and left us with the métro and all the awesome stuff on Île Sainte-Hélene. The expo consists of a large number of pavillions, usually one per country but sometimes smaller countries share space in a larger one. You line up for anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 hours, and then you get to see multimedia presentations about the country and maybe browse some cultural artefacts. On your way out you can often buy souveniers from the country and some of its local food.

We only had time to visit a dozen or so pavillions before our evening train and the one I really wanted to see (Japan) had a 3 hour lineup so we skipped it. But some highlights:

  • Canada was the first pavillion that really impressed me. It actually had a fair amount related to expo’s theme, which was “better city better life”, and there was some good interactivity: a cool water + projection sculpture where you could splash the water and have your splashes turn into flower blossoms, and bikes you could ride to take a “tour” though Canadian cities. We also had poutine, which wasn’t very good but was the best poutine I’ve had in 2010…
  • Morocco was neat – built like a palace, big high ceilings, and rooms each dedicated to a different traditional craft on the second floor. It actually made me want to visit Morocco :)
  • The DPRK (North Korea) was amusing, just because it’s the DPRK. They were trying to sell the image of a paradise on earth, but even in their best wall sized panoramic photos, Pyongyang still looked grey and rundown.
  • Luxemberg‘s pavillion was made of rusted metal. Awesome!
  • Israel had the best multimedia presentation I saw. The pavillion was kind of a dome, with static displays on the outside talking a bit about history, and on the inside, futuristic glowing orbs, a wraparound projection screen, and a booming “voice of god” explaining Israel’s contributions to The Future (like: they invented the laptop, apparently) with subtitles on the glowing orbs.

So that was the expo, and that was Shanghai. It’s not an amazing place – I much prefer Beijing – but oh well!

Shanghai photos are here.

(I was in Shanghai from May 15-17. Robin arrived on May 16. I’m currently in Nepal, leaving for Kathmandu in about 25 minutes.)

Tibet 6: Everest Base Camp to Tingri

June 11, 17:00: Rongbuk Monastery, 5150m

Everyone is enjoying a much-needed break from cycling. Today we slept in, then some of us cycled to Everest Base Camp, which was just an 8km ride slightly uphill on gravel roads. There’s not much to see at EBC itself.. it’s not climbing season so nobody is actually camped there, and the Chinese police prevent anyone from going further. We timed the wind right again: not much wind at all on the ride there but a nice tailwind on the way back! Also on the way back: some singletrack, cutting through the switchbacks for a steeper and more interesting descent.

After lunch, an even smaller group toured Rongbuk Monastery itself. It’s shabby and rundown, even by Tibetan monastery standards, but still beautiful and there are great views of Everest from the roof!

So OK.. I’ve now been as close as I actually want to get to Everest. The summit is not a technical climb and these days, anyone in reasonable shape can do it as long as they have $40,000 and 2 months (for acclimation, mostly spent at EBC.) Actually, that wouldn’t be too terrible – bring up a laptop and a solar array and use China Mobile’s 3G Internet to stay entertained during the 2 months.. but I just don’t see the point, so it’s not on my lifetime TODO list.

Oh yeah, there are yak grazing in our camp. We’ve had sheep and dogs before, but this is the first time for yak.

June 12, 16:30: Tingri, 4340m

I’m currently waiting for the rest of the group to arrive at this restaurant so we can head to the campsite together. Today was quite the day!

We started ½h early again to beat the wind. In these parts, it’s dead calm in the morning then it gets really windy starting around 13:00. Then it gets calm again sometime during the night.. I woke up at 3:30 last night and it was calm. And the stars again looked close enough to touch. You’d think I’d be used to that by now but it gets me every time.

We rode about 15 km back along Qomolangma Road, then turned off onto what our guide had called a singletrack. Sadly it wasn’t, just an unmaintained jeep trail, sometimes a lot rougher than Qomolangma Road. Anyway, we had a hard climb up a gradual hill before lunch, with the headwind starting just before noon. But hey: headwinds, hills, bad roads.. we’re used to those by now.

We headed downhill about 10km before lunch, then after lunch we turned a corner and the headwind turned into a tailwind! The rest of the way down was very fast. A mountain bike on a rough road has a fairly low "this feels really fast" speed, and I rode at that speed for most of the ride. Riding that fast over rough terrain means spending most of my time looking at a point about 5m in front of the bike, so I can figure out what lines to follow to stay on the bike, keep the speed up, and have a smooth ride. But every now and then I was able to look up… and each time was an amazing view! Today actually had some of the best views on the trip!

The downhill led us to the China-Nepal Friendship Highway just before Tingri. Yay, asphalt again!

June 12, 20:30: Campsite near Tingri, 5206km from Shanghai

Lonely Planet on Tingri: "It was all looking rather shabby and unsettled, though the views of the towering Himalayan peaks of Mt. Everest and Cho Oyu across a sweeping plain (sort of) made up for this." Yeah, it’s about that.

We’re now camped 12km from Tingri. The field next to us has about 8 dogs in it, and one is already barking. Good thing I have earplugs.

Tibet 5: Shegar to Rongbuk

June 8, 13:00: China-Nepal Friendship Highway, 5085km from Shanghai, 4900m altitude

Today we climbed from our camping altitude of 3960m to the 5220m Lakpa Pass. This was our hardest climb so far: about the same distance up as on day 2 but starting from a higher altitude. I could feel the air getting thinner during the climb: colder and less oxygen. There was also a headwind starting about halfway up the 23km climb. I’ve never been happier to see prayer flags, which Tibetans put up at the top of mountain passes because the higher a flag is flown, the more wind + luck it collects.

At the top, I bought some prayer flags myself and put them up with the help of the 2 Tibetans who were selling the flags. That was fun and I plan on doing it again at the next pass. It would be nicer to carry the flags up the pass myself rather than buying them at the top, but the only town I’ve seen them for sale in is Lhasa.

After the climb, we had a 12km downhill ride to lunch, but on the other side of the pass the headwind was huge so I had to pedal on most of the downhill. Still, it was a lot less effort than climbing and lunch was (as usual) excellent.

Oh, the food! I haven’t talked much about the food, but our crew sure knows how to cook! There are usually 4-5 dishes plus dessert. For example, dinner last night (let’s see if I remember it all): soup to start, then rice with dal, penne with cheese sauce, some sort of pancake-like thing with leeks, and steamed vegetables. Then an apple pie for dessert! And they make lots of it, so there’s almost always seconds.. important when you’re cycling this much!

June 8, 18:45: Qomolangma Hotel, Shegar, 4250m

The remaining 40km we rode today was easy.. there was still a headwind, but it was mostly downhill. I arrived at the hotel several hours ago – lots of time to shower, do laundry in the tub, stock up on snacks…

Shegar is a tiny little town but it’s the gateway to the Everest region when you’re coming from Lhasa. So there are quite a few hotels but not much else.

Oh yeah, I saw Everest for the first time today; it’s visible for a ~10km stretch of the highway. We’ll be getting much closer though in a few days…

June 9, 20:00: Somewhere on Qomolangma (Everest) Road, 4400m

This morning, we rode for about 10km along the Friendship Highway, then turned left onto a small singletrack paralleling Qomolangma Road (Qomolangma is the Tibetan name for Mount Everest.) We had a 3km flat ride, then we hit the road itself and its 42 switchbacks. The road was pretty rough: lots of washboarding and loose gravel, so the riding was hard. I was especially tired for some reason (maybe I didn’t get enough oxygen at night for my muscles to fully recover from the day before).. I was tired even on the asphalt. But I made it up anyway, to Pang Pass at 5150m where we had lunch.

After lunch I climbed a small embankment to take some photos of Everest along with the inevitable prayer flags at the top of the pass, when a huge truck piled high with lumber and a couple of passengers got stuck on one of the prayer flag strings next to me! Along with one of the women on the roof of the truck, I helped free the flags from the lumber and the truck rolled on.

Then came our reward: an epic downhill singletrack on the other side of the pass. It was great riding, much smoother than the gravel roads, with Everest looming in the background. Amazing, and it more than made up for such a hard morning!

Sadly, about halfway down the pass, the singletrack ended and we had to ride on gravel roads again. I got a flat tire here, from a broken beer bottle, but I was still so happy from the singletrack that I didn’t care. Patched it up and was on my way.

There was a huge headwind for the last 3km to camp, and when we got there the staff had only managed to put up the kitchen tent, so we all helped out – it took about 8 people to put up one 2-man tent, some holding it down, some hammering in pegs. The wind also kicked up a lot of dust, although not that much.. I probably only ate half as much as in a similar amount of time at Burning Man.

June 10, 14:00: Rongbuk Monastery, 5150m

The ride today was hard again but hey, if it was easy anyone could do it.

We rode 44km total, most of it over rolling hills heading mostly up. The last few kilometres was straight up some switchbacks. We left camp ½h early at 8:30 to try and beat the headwinds, which generally only happen in the afternoon in this area. It mostly worked – the winds hit at around 13:00, by which time I was only a few kilometres short of the switchbacks (where wind doesn’t matter as much because you change direction so much.)

So it was a hard half day and we’re now taking a much-needed break, camping on the grounds of the highest monastery in the world in full view of Mount Everest. Tomorrow we’re free to head to Everest Base Camp by whatever means we want: cycling, walking, or (apparently) donkey cart.

Tibet 4: Shigatse and on…

June 5, 14:30: Highway just outside Shigatse, 3860m

We’ve stopped here to wait for the rest of the group so we can ride together to our hotel in Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet.

We’ve ridden 90km to get here, and our total ride will be 93km. The ride was easy and fun. Straight roads that looked flat but were mostly a slight downhill. And when I say straight… we rode over 5km before the first turn.

The roads ran through fertile land with farms on either side. Over half the traffic on the road was tractors. People were incredibly friendly as usual, and there were lots of children out too (it’s Caturday, so they’re not in school.) The farmland smells great too, apart from the occasional whiff of diesel from a tractor or bus. One part smelled vaguely of cinnamon, then there were smells of burnt coal, which is quite nice in small doses (i.e. not Beijing). Plus the smells of the crops and the livestock…

We got a slight headwind about 15km out of town, and the road got really rough 10km out, but that’s why they invented sucking it up and suspension forks (respectively.)

June 5, 16:00: Shigatse Hotel

This is a really nice hotel… but it still doesn’t have WiFi! It turns out I don’t mind stopping our ride early if we’re sleeping in a city. I took a shower, washed some clothes, and now we’re going to see the local monastary before dinner. Much nicer than sitting around camp!

June 6, 18:00: China-Nepal Friendship Highway, 4997km from Beijing Shanghai, 4120m altitude

Today was the hardest ride of the trip so far. 97km over rolling hills, 2 small mountain passes, and a huge headwind all day! Luckily I had lots of things to motivate me: friendly Tibetans, beautiful mountain scenery, playing number games with the milestones (kilometrestones?), my inherent love of cycling.. and chocolate. Lots of chocolate :)

Shortly after Shigatse, we turned back onto the China-Nepal Friendship Highway (we were on it for the first day before turning off towards Gyantse.) There are fewer buses but more trucks. But the trucks are fine. They’re used to dealing with slow vehicles farm tractors, yak carts, and so on, and they pull into the oncoming lane to pass. If they can’t, they slow down to your speed and pass when it’s safe. The only downside to this is that you get to breathe diesel fumes for a few minutes after they pass you, as they groan their way back up to speed.

I’m happy with today’s ride. It’s the first day that really challenged me. There have been difficult things in the past (the second day’s mountain pass for one) but they were always followed by easy things making for a short day.

Nobody else (that’s arrived so far anyway) is happy… oh well.

To finish up with Shigatse, we went to see the monastary which was nice enough but not mind blowing. Somehow the world’s largest gilded Buddha (almost 23m) didn’t look that big – I think his building was badly designed. Then we had dinner at a nice restaurant with slow service, then I tried unsuccessfully to get on the Internet. Shigatse is a shabby town overall. Everything looks rundown, and it doesn’t have much going for it. I don’t know how it managed to become the 2nd largest city in Tibet – who would want to live there?

June 7, 16:30: China-Nepal Friendship Highway, 5060km from Shanghai, 3860m altitude

We climbed to 4520m first thing this morning – a fun mountain pass topped (as usual) by prayer flags. Apart from that, the ride was mostly downhill and we only rode 63km, stopping for the day at lunch time. I’m counting this as a good thing.. I’m still hurting from yesterday’s ride (and so is everyone else.)

Shortly after leaving camp, I passed the 5000km marker on the Friendship Highway and discovered that it starts in Shanghai, not Beijing. I don’t know how far it is to Kathmandu.. I guess I’ll find out soon enough :) We’re about halfway there by the route we’re cycling (which has 2 side trips.)

I finally got on the Internet – my roommate/tentmate Richard speaks fluent Chinese, so he talked to China Mobile and got them to switch on GPRS on my account. So I can connect (very slowly) using my cell phone. Gmail is still loading (after 5 minutes) but I can easily post blog entries.. that’s all that really matters, right?

Tibet 3: Cycling Lhasa -> Gyantse

Greetings from Gyantse! I’m going to do something different for this part of the trip and post my blog entries whenever I have an Internet connection. Photos will follow later. I’m going to save China 4, 5 and Tibet 1, 2 until I get those photos done though…

June 1, 20:30: foot of the Kamba Pass, 3700m

We left Lhasa after taking a group photo in front of the spectacular Potala Palace. The ride was easy and mostly flat. Works for me as my first serious ride at altitude. The day was a bit short though – we finished by 4PM with lots of daylight left. The ride was through epically beautiful terrain, much more fertile than I expected.

Tibetans are even friendlier than people in Vietnam, at least to travellers on the road. And wow, do they ever know how to smile!

The road has been paved so far, but most of it not very well. I am not regretting my choice of a bike with a suspension fork (plus any mass produced bike with decent components comes with one anyway these days.)

I rode near the front of the group for most of the day, which surprised me… I haven’t been cycling that much so I didn’t think I was in great shape.

June 2, 17:00: near Lake Yamdruk, 4490m

Last night everyone in our camp was woken up by a dog barking at the top of its lungs. My roommate/tentmate Richard got up and threw a rock at it, which at least moved it further away.

Today we rode up to 4794m over the Kamba Pass then down. The 24km uphill section took me about 3½ hours, then we rode about 8km downhill and 15km that was mostly flat. We were done by 15:00, which again is a pretty short day. But I think this is largely dictated by geography. We’re now at the bottom of the Karo Pass and I don’t think anyone wants to climb that right now.

I rode fairly fast again today. Usually #1-3 in the group. Not that it matters, I’m just a bit surprised. The pavement was good too (we turned off the main highway shortly after our campsite.) I set the preload on my fork to the maximum for the uphill section, which means it doesn’t bob at all when I’m riding normally.

June 3, 8:00

Snow! It snew last night. In June. 4490m will do that. I woke up at 4AM and the moonlit landscape outside looked like the surface of the moon (but with snow.)

Just before dinner, we became a tourist attraction. A Land Cruiser filled with Chinese tourists pulled up, asking questions in broken English and wanting photos with us! I’m used to this on trains, where people have nothing better to do, but having people make a special stop was… special.

There were dogs again, worse than the night before because they were in a gated courtyard across the road. If we threw rocks, they’d have nowhere to go!

It looks like a fairly easy ride today. It turns out that we’re riding to Karo Pass and will cross it tomorrow. So today: 50km, mostly flat. Well, maybe I’ll go for an afternoon ride on a side rode near the camp.

This morning my body has a litany of complaints, none of them serious. Time to ride!

June 4, 7:00: Bottom of Karo Pass (4750m)

Last night I woke up just after midnight to find the moon hiding behind some mountains and the sky full of stars. They looked close enough to touch!

This morning, it’s a bit frosty. My down jacket made its first appearance as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.

Yesterday’s ride was easy, as expected. I was done riding by 1:30 PM, despite a headwind for the last 5km. So I did a couple of hours of hiking after lunch. The scenery was beautiful, helped by the snowfall. We’re well above the treeline, so snow adds contrast to the mountains (which are normally brown.)

Our guide promised us a dog-free night last night but when we rode into camp, there were 2 dogs hanging out! But luckily they belonged to a construction crew working nearby. Workers and dogs both left before sunset.

Today’s ride is going to be hard – up the Karo Pass to 5150m. Less of a climb than 2 days ago but we’re starting from a higher altitude so there’s less oxygen… hopefully the winds will stay down so we can avoid yesterday’s headwind (at least until the downhill section.)

June 4, 16:30: Gyantse, 3980m

The climb up was hard but not too hard. The downhill was great! It was also nice to be back at a slightly lower altitude. If you told me even a few days ago that 4000m would seem like luxurious levels of oxygen, I’d have laughed at you. But that’s how it felt today. After the downhill we had some flat riding followed by another climb up to lunch. It looked like it was going to be long but it wasn’t – I did it in less than 15 minutes.

Just before the second climb I decided to listen to some music (which I usually don’t do.) I let my iPod pick the album, which ended up being The World Accordion to Art. Strange music for a climb, but somehow it was fun.

We ate lunch then headed over mostly flat terrain into Gyantse. The ride was short again – we arrived at the hotel by 3 PM.

Apparently the reason for these short days is that the road we’ve been riding on was only paved 3 years ago, and the distances were designed with off-road / dirt road riding in mind. I don’t know why they didn’t change the program when the road was paved. I think we could easily have done the last 3 days’ ride in 2 days. Well, this is why I prefer independent travel where possible (which is not Tibet.)

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