|Tibetan Travels & Tribulations
Text and Photography by Clement Salvadori
When I saw the small blurb in the magazine about a motorcycle trip going to Tibet, I knew that one was for me. My next frontier, so to speak. Back in the 1970s I had spent three years wandering around the world on a bike, and had made an effort to get into Tibet. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu had had absolutely no interest in granting me a visa, so the closest I had gotten to Tibet was the old Friendship Bridge over the Bhotakoshi River on the Nepali-Tibet/China frontier. I tried to negotiate a private deal with the border guards, but they did not appear at all interested in allowing a lone motorcyclist to enter their country; I was ordered to turn back.
There are any number of good reasons to want to ride across Tibet: one, because you've had a fascination with the place ever since you were a child and your father gave you books with pictures of such places (that's me); two, you want to one-up your riding buddies ("Haven't seen you around the last couple of weeks; where have you been?" "Tibet."); three, you're a masochist. Or you could be a secret agent on recon. Et cetera.
This short travel story is about a group of Americans riding across the Tibetan plateau from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal, on newish Indian-built Royal Enfield Bullet 500s, a somewhat less-than-modern machine. Our two-wheeled trek took us over the "Roof of the World", as witless pundits describe it, the plateau's height averaging more than 4000 meters above sea level, the road crossing a number of high passes, all a good deal taller than Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, at14,495 feet). We followed hundreds of miles of muddy mountain roads, with holes big enough to swallow a small truck without a trace. Some days in the clear skies we could see great distances in any direction, other foggy days we concentrated on avoiding the chasm on the edge of which teetered the slippery excuse for a road. At the beginning and end we had fancy hotels with luxurious bathrooms, in the middle we were in dirt-floored guesthouses with no running water. It was fun; not easy, but fun. And memorable.
Nine of us flew into Lhasa's airport, Gongkar, which is on a flat spot some 60 miles from that austere capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Province -- though not very autonomous at all. We included seven affluent, middle-aged businessmen from the midwest state of Michigan, a 30-something dot.com entrepreneur from New York City, and yours truly from California. And we were going to ride those 600 miles to the capital of Himalayan hedonism, Kathmandu, along the Friendship Highway. The word "highway" is rather a misnomer, more closely approximating a long series of mudholes endlessly strung over mountain passes and through valleys.
The Michigan Seven, having garages bulging with Harleys and Ducatis and other pavement-oriented machinery, had originally planned to go to the south of Spain for their annual motorcycle extravaganza, when at the last moment the fellow in charge of organization heard about this Tibet trip and changed all the tickets. He claimed to have notified the others, but there seems to have been some disagreement about that. One gent looked around him at the godforesakenly desolate airport and said, "Where the hell are we? This ain't Marbella." The dot.com chap thought that the trip would be a good boast, and his tooling around Manhattan potholes for a few years on a BMW had obviously made him qualified.
We idled away a couple of days in Lhasa getting adjusted to the altitude, as we would spend ten days well above 12,000 feet. And learned the all-important drill involved in kick-starting our Bullets as well. As a point of history, I should note that this particular Bullet was designed back in 1949 by the British Royal Enfield company, and was sold for a dozen years in that island empire. In the early 1950s the Indian army decided that Bullets were absolutely necessary to keep the Pakistanis and Chinese at bay, and Royal Enfield helped them construct a factory to build their own Bullets in 1955. The Brit outfit went bankrupt in 1971, but the Indian establishment has soldiered on, essentially making the exact same machine for nigh on half a century. Modern niceties, like electric starters, have not been part of the Indian program, and brakes are still of the minimalist variety.
Lhasa was quite different from the illustrations of my bookish childhood. Since marching into Tibet some 50 years ago the Chinese Communists have tried hard to diminish the influence of the Tibetan culture -- as well as revamp the city. Where there was once a medieval collection of temples and monastaries and houses and markets, with little winding streets, everything overshadowed by the magnificent Potala Palace, there are now broad socialist boulevards and shoebox-ugly high-rise buildings; apparently neither Marx nor Lenin nor Mao Tse-Tung approved of the decadent art of architecture.
The Chinese did not destroy the Potala, which is in every Westerner's image of Tibet, and is still a sight to behold, soaring hundreds of feet up the Red Hill, a thousand rooms hidden inside its towering walls. This is supposed to be the home of the Dalai Lama, the leading political/religious figure in Tibetan life, but since his abrupt departure in 1959, to escape the Chinese, the place has become a rather bleak museum. For a better look at old urban Tibet, a mile or so from the Potala is the Barkhor district, where what remains of the old way of life in Lhasa is to be seen. The centerpiece is the Jokhang temple, the holiest spot for Tibetan Buddhists, full of monks and worshippers, with the permeating smell of incense and yak butter candles.
I advise the visitor not to try to understand Tibetan Buddhism, unless he or she has a lot of time to put into the study; it is full of buddhas and bodhisattvas and a great many revered lamas and other historical figures. Imagine a Tibetan dropping into the Vatican for a visit and trying to make sense of all the pictures and statues of Jesus and Mary and the myriad saints. Just enjoy the aesthetic, and these Tibetan temples and monastaries are superbly beautiful.
Early one morning we got the 6 a.m. wake-up call, departure at seven. The journey was beginning; our troupe was more reminiscent of a military expedition than a motorcycle trip: running point was our leader, American ex-patriate Patrick Moffat. Then the nine "clients", trailed by Patrick's son with girlfriend on pillion. Followed by a 4WD Land Cruiser with a driver and Tibetan Guide #1, then a bus with driver, Guide #2, three mechanics from India with trunks full of spares, and our baggage. At the rear was a truck carrying our supply of gas. In other words, we had 10 staff for our group of nine -- the way things should be in the world of luxury.
The Chinese are still loathe to allow stray foreigners to wander about alone, fearing they might spread sedition, but approve of "organized" tours, with official guides, where they can keep track of such tourists. To placate Beijing bureaucrats, this little outing had been organized by Patrick in conjucnction with a Chicago-based motorcycle touring company, Lotus Tours.
Day 1 would be a long day, averaging some 20 mph for 160 miles over the Kamba (15,820 feet) and Karo (16,648 feet) passes. Not that Patrick wanted to go that far, but there were simply no towns to stop in along the way. We thumped out of Lhasa on the pavement, crossed the Brahmaputra River, and soon began a steep climb up a dirt road. The way was rough, but well-defined, the biggest worry being the mud-filled holes that the occasional trucks had gouged out. It was a damp day, and had rained the night before; Tibetan dirt makes world-class mud.
At the top of the Kamba Pass our New Yorker, looking a bit blanched, said it was a good thing we were all experienced motorcyclists. I never saw him again. I left the pass before he did, and a couple of hours later I heard he disappeared into a mudhole, powered out, but was 20 degrees off course, missed a narrow bridge entirely, plunged into a creek, and knocked himself senseless. Fortunately the crash was witnessed by the rider behind, who was kind enough to pull him out of the stream. Back he went to Lhasa in the Land Cruiser, the bike going forward in the truck. Having a broken vertebra, dot.commer chose to return home. Wise decision, as the road got worse.
We spent a night in Gyantse, best known as the site of the only battle ever to pit Tibetans against Westerners, a result of the British wanting to open Tibet up to trade. In 1904 the then-Dalai Lama wanted none of this foreign influence, so a well-weaponed (using Enfield rifles) British expeditionary force marched from India over the mountains, defeated the ill-armed Tibetans at Gyantse, and sent some merchants into Lhasa. Two years later the British signed an agreement with the Chinese, putting Tibet in the Chinese sphere of influence -- which was the rationale for China's occupation of Tibet in 1950. Blame the Brits.
Next day we motored on to Shigatse (12,900 feet), the second largest town in Tibet, although it does not even have an airport. This is home to the Panchen Lama, the second most powerful figure in Tibet; he has got nice digs, the roofs of the monastary buildings being done in shiny gold(!?) leaf, visible from 20 km. away. I should add that the #3 dude, the Karampa Lama, slipped into India in February, 2001, which has irritated the Chinese not a little.
The food we ate had been, to a great degree, sinified. We were not going to starve to death on this trip, but the meals had a sameness about it that would soon wear thin on the old palate. We would sit at round tables, with a large lazy Susan in the middle, on which would be half a dozen small savory dishes all cooked in gallons of sesame oil -- yak meat and bean sprouts, tofu and greens, chicken and veg, scrambled eggs and tomatoes -- and in the middle a big pot of rice, and a big pot of soup. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Occasionally we ate Tibetan, but that was mainly doughy dumplings called mo-mo, or a barley-based gruel called tsampa, or industrial-strength chapati-like bread. This was not a gastronomically inclined adventure. We grew to love the occasional plastic bowl of instant noodles -- just add hot water and wait three minutes.
In Shigatse our most gastronomically inclined rider, Peebs, commandeered the hotel kitchen one evening, and proceeded to cook up a good old American meal, with fried chicken and mashed potatoes. The staff was enthralled with this large man, white chef's hat on head, opening refrigerators, barking orders through our Guide #2, clattering and clanging pots and pans. At that altitude Peebs felt he should pressure-cook the spuds, but left them in a tad too long. We ended up with Tibetan vichyssoise, but a commendable meal it was nonetheless, washed down with very expensive bottles of bad French wine.
Back on the road, we slogged our way wetly up to Tso Pass, at nearly 15,000 feet, the road a slick carpet of slippery mud. Tricky going, especially when it came to overtaking some truck grunting along at six mph, and we would have to dash(!?) along the shoulder while praying that the tires not lose their tenuous grip.
At Lhatse the road split, one branch going to western Tibet, the other to Nepal; the small town consisted of two rows of low, neo-socialist buildings facing each other on the main street. The most modern guesthouse put us in rooms on the second floor, with a common toilet at the end of the long corridor, carpeted years ago in bilious green; no running water, and very weak electicity for 90 minutes after dusk. At the restaurant all the locals stared at us through the windows; we were the week's major entertainment.
Out of Lhatse we began our climb to Gyatso Pass, at an immodest 17,105 feet. It was a dry day, but leftover rainwater filled many a large hole and had soaked the countryside. The Bullets were okay as long as one did not miss a shift at a crucial point, leaving the rider sitting in neutral in a foot or more of mud at the bottom of a crater. At the top our view was reduced to a mere hundred feet due to fog, but ten thousand multi-colored prayer flags placed by thankful Tibetans fluttered from the cairns and poles. Then we had to kick-start the Bullets, no mean chore when our oxygen intake was less than two-thirds of normal.
And we soon found out why all the prayers. I began the descent, and after a few miles rounded a corner and there in the narrow valley some 20 trucks and buses were faced off, nose to nose, victims of a small broken bridge and a truck that had half slipped off the single-lane track and gotten itself stuck good and proper. It was a righteous mess, and several 4WD SUVs had tried to bypass the situation and gotten themselves bogged down in seriously slippery stuff. The Michigan rider in the lead took one good look at the situation and recklessly hurled his motorcycle into the muck, spinning and churning and howling and sliding, but all the time making forward, and slightly downhill, progress until he at last reclaimed the road. And we all followed his good example. I have no idea how our support-vehicle drivers made it through, but they eventually did.
The road smoothed out as we headed into Tingri, a village on a broad plain lying 14,500 feet above sea level. And from here we could see the central Himalayan massif, with Chomolangma (a.k.a. Mt. Everest) visible some 60 miles to the south, another 14,500 feet higher than we were.
As an aside, nobody who has ever lived within view of Chomolangma has the foggiest notion who this guy George Everest was -- head of Great Britain's Great Trigonometrical Survey back in the mid-1800s. The re-naming of the mountain was just another example of Western conceit.
We put up at Tingri's Ho Ha Guesthouse, a lovely rustic place with well-swept dirt floors and an open-air toilet on the roof; one did get a superb view while attending to one's eliminations. A stove in the dining room kept the water hot and the gamblers warm; there is little to do in that village other than admire the mountains or play dominoes for money.
Morning was suitably cool; although we were on roughly the same latitude as the Canary Islands, we were a good deal higher. We rode out of town, across the plain and up a long, gradual valley, with the road climbing and climbing and climbing to the top, the La Lung Pass at 16,905 feet. Followed by a dip and then another pass, the Tong, at 16,895 feet. From there a steepish, twisting descent alerted us to the possibility of rapid reincarnation.
The valley broadened, with villages and yaks ploughing and children herding flocks of sheep and goats. And then the valley narrowed, the road hugging the hillside while a river roared and tumbled not far below. Finally we rounded a sharp curve to see the skinny town of Nyalam (11,300 feet) stretched out on the far side of the river; when the Chinese want to build ugly, they can do a superb job.
We stayed at the Snowland Hotel, a concrete block with a loud disco below and howling dogs all around all night. With dinner on the inevitable lazy Susan. This would be our last night in Tibet, and Patrick allowed as to how tomorrow's descent from the plateau would be one humdinger of a ride.
It was. The Bhotakoshi River plunges off the plateau and the road does its damnedest to stay with it. The steep, twisting descent was fraught, just plain fraught, with lethal drops off the edge of the road, huge pools of mud, the occasional waterfall to ride under -- all the stuff of a good James Bond movie.
Down and down we went finally winding into the border town of Zhangmu, where a hundred trucks were waiting to get through to Nepal. The town is built on a 30-degree slope and the narrow road somehow zig zags down through it, two-thirds taken up by an unbroken line of parked trucks. We passed a checkpoint, and descended a further eight km. down to the bridge over the Bhotakoshi and the actual border. Since our baggage bus could not get through the congestion, Patrick had to send another truck up from the bridge, have the bags portered from bus to truck, truck returned to the bridge, and the bags were again transferred to a Nepali bus. Good thing for Patrick's bottom line that labor is cheap.
From the bridge we bumped along for 20 miles through Nepali mud, and then found pavement. Blessed pavement! And we roared up to the hill station of Dhulikal and a very well-appointed resort with hot showers and a Swiss chef. Say goodbye to that lazy Susan.
The final day on the road was a short run into Kathmandu, and then the trip was over. This little journey was no bed of roses, no five-star extravaganza; this was an adventure. And a good one. And I, for one, am very glad to have seen a little of vanishing Tibet, rather than to have never seen the place at all.
This story is about a group of Americans riding across the Tibetan plateau from Lhasa to Kathmandu
Tibetan dirt makes world-class mud.
...the roofs of the monastary buildings being done in shiny gold(!?) leaf, visible from 20 km away.
The valley broadened, with villages and yaks ploughing and children herding flocks of sheep and goats.
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing