The Road Ahead
I awoke at nine o’clock with the light streaming through the gaps in the door, through the window shutters and through the door frame where it didn’t quite fit the opening in the wall which had been formed to accommodate it. I felt fantastic, fully refreshed and ready for anything. I would normally comment on the hardness of the bed or otherwise. However, I have absolutely no recollection of the degree of comfort offered by the bed, had I tripped going through the door, landed starfish like on the floor, I’d have slept where I’d fallen and still be in no position to comment on the relative degree of comfort offered by the concrete – I’d slept soundly.
After my morning ablutions, which consisted of inserting my contact lenses into my eyes having first giving them the most cursory of swills from the remains of my small bottle of water, retained, with untypical forethought, for the purpose. A swift visit to the Gents, the swifter the better as a Tibetan toilet is not a place to linger.
Perhaps a word on Tibetan toilets here may clarify exactly what this fully entails. I do, of course, fully understand if anyone reading this wants to skip this next paragraph or two. You see, Tibetan toilets, the one attached to guest houses at any rate, are indescribable. However I shall try. Before entering such edifies, I usually take a few deep calming breaths, as I like to confine breathing to the absolute minimum once inside. This is particularly difficult at altitude where I find it impossible to hold my breath for more than a second or two in order to take a photograph, even this short a time results in panic breathing. Any more than that and I’m sure I’d collapse – and believe me there are very few places in the world where I would choose to collapse and a Tibetan toilet is somewhere near the bottom of the list.
Upon entering such a place, having ensured that it is both absolutely necessary to do so and it is a matter of the utmost urgency, and of course, there is absolutely no alternative available, one is faced with the hole-in-the-floor. They will always be of the-hole-in-the-floor type, the stand and deliver, the squat and drop type – western toilets are never used. I desperately attempt to avert my eye from falling on the hole-in-the-floor, but somehow this is never possible. For one thing, one has to locate the foot plates upon which to stand, and worse, there is a morbid fascination that inexorably draws you eye to the hole-in-the-floor.
In the particular case of this one in Pelbar, or new Tingre (Tibetan towns frequently seem to have two names), light was emanating from the hole-in-the-floor, that and a light breeze. It appeared that the entire toilet block was suspended over the communal rubbish tip. This did give me some degree of comfort, seeing the light so to speak, as I was once advised in Tanzania, when using the dark hole-in-the-floor-type, to take a large stick and bang heavily on the hole-in-the-floor to scare off any bats that may be roosting below. I can imagine that frightening bats into flight once proceedings had commenced, must be, on a personal level, one of the world’s most shocking moments.
Once you have, to use the airline phrase, adopted the brace position, it allows you to check that the door is firmly closed, there is no lock, but as the door was only half height, the necessity for a lock is rendered largely superfluous. Should I encounter someone else during my hopefully short visit, I thought a cheery ‘Good Morning!’ might be the best greeting – first impressions are after all lasting ones.
I’m hoping that I’ve not exhausted my supply of euphemisms before commencing the last paragraph, because here’s where delicacy is paramount. After completion of the act one will, quite naturally, look about the small concrete cubical. You will find a large vat of water and a small, hand held witches broom. I shall draw a veil over the implied usage of these two items; suffice to say that the broom bore testament to frequent usage.
I like to think of myself as a worldly wise traveller; however there are certain matters that do expose me as a squeamish westerner. However, how much greater must the culture shock be for Greg, one of the film crew, who enquired of me “if I knew where the bathroom was?”
This was to be our last ride in Tibet, from Pelbar to the border town of Zhangmu. How we covered the final 135 km or so into Tibet and on to Kathmandu was left open. We could ride it on our Changs, that’s assuming the Chinese Authorities would allow the bikes to be taken out of the country or by taxi, it that was the wish of the Chinese border guards. It was, I was going to say in the lap of the Buddha, however, and not to be too prosaic, it was quite frankly, in the lap of the Peoples’ Liberation Army.
……the sky Tibetan blue and the air cold and Himalayan fresh it was a lifetime away. This was a moment to be lived in.
That was all in the future though, something to be resolved later. It was a whole day away and on such a beautiful Tibetan day with the sun shining, the sky Tibetan blue and the air cold and Himalayan fresh it was a lifetime away. This was a moment to be lived in.
“This is your last ride in Tibet, so how do you feel Mark?”
Such questions from the film crew I’d become so accustomed to answering that I’d assumed flippancy was appropriate. “It’s a fabulous biking day, what can possibly go wrong?” I seemed to remember answering.
The road out of Pelbar was tarmac, and smooth – beautifully smooth. Crisp clear watery sun bathed us with high altitude brilliance. This is a perfect day for Chang riding – slow, steady and purposeful – riding toward Kathmandu; to warmth and a climate more suited to human physiology.
After about an hour of probably the best riding I’ve ever done we pause to take our last views of Everest and her eight thousander sisters. We stop to take a few photographs and say our goodbyes to the mountains. Our next stop will be Nyelam, a small town with a main road running through it, a few hotels for trekkers and some restaurants dotted about. A lunchtime stop, before we plunge off the Tibetan Plateau; a two kilometre free-fall in less than twenty as it snakes through a narrow twisting gorge, over the Friendship Bridge and into the Kathmandu valley.
About an hour outside Nyelam, the sky darkened, low clouds scudded in from the south west, the direction we were travelling, what’s a little rain? It’s hardly the first time I’ve ridden in rain.
The warm moist tropical air that blows in from India is forced over the Himalayas where it turns, not to rain, but snow. OK, still no problem, I’ve ridden in snow before, only this time I’ve got a third wheel, so hardly an issue.
This snow, I will admit, was impressive stuff, supercooled at high altitude over the Himalayas, but as it doesn’t have far to fall to reach the Tibetan plateau, it lands supercooled. It stuck with unimaginable tenacity to whatever surface it hit, sucking every last drop of residual heat out of every surface it made contact with, freezing instantly into a solid mass.
The snow piled up on my visor with such ferocity that I was riding one handed, the right one on the throttle, the left one continuously clawing at my visor
My headlight was on full, although you wouldn’t think so as no light could possibly penetrate the supercooled, super-dense, snowy substrate that formed on its surface. The dynamo on a Chang barely has the power to illuminate the bulb, let alone find enough surplus energy for excess heat to melt the snow.
The snow piled up on my visor with such ferocity that I was riding one handed, the right one on the throttle, the left one continuously clawing at my visor to allow brief, fleeting glimpses of the road ahead.
Our first sign of Nyelam was a stationary queue of trucks stretching back several kilometres from the outskirts of the town. Overtaking them, we arrived at a military guard post; there was a barrier across the road. ‘There’s been a landslip’, we were told. ‘Road’s blocked you can’t go on’.
The guard only let us through as we were cold and very tired after riding through the snow. We could go into Nyelam, but only to find a hotel. We would not be permitted any further.
It was a relief to be allowed through. It was about four in the afternoon, the snow was still falling and it was getting colder, A hotel would be unbelievably welcome. With the road closed, it wouldn’t be long before all those people, who like us, thought they’d just be passing through Nyelam, on their way to the border, would also now be trapped here in Nyelam. It wouldn’t be long before the rather limited number of hotel beds would be used up.
As it turned out, finding a hotel wasn’t too difficult. What to do next was the harder decision to make. Information abut the road closure was in the true spirit of Chinese information dissemination; non-existent. In the absence of any official word on the subject, the rumour mill went into overdrive to fill the information vacuum.
‘Thousands of tonnes of debris have fallen into the roadway, but heavy earth moving equipment will be brought in and the road will be open in a week’.
What was lacking in official promulgations was more than made up by unofficial pronouncements.
“I was there when the land slide happened, never seen anything like it. I was lucky to survive!” one Canadian told me.
Wherever the truth of the situation lay, a decision would have to be made. We were safe and comfortable in the hotel, but as is the case in the modern world, deadlines had to be kept, the world of work beckoned and our ordinary lives outside being intrepid motorcycle explorers lay there for us to return to, with increasing impatience.
The following morning a decision was made. We would check out of the hotel, ride through the barriers closing off the road and toward Tibet. Maybe a motorcycle would get through? The truck and its owner-driver were paid off. ‘We won’t be needing them any more’. We naively imagined.
The following morning, as planned, we checked out of the hotel. The bikes and the sidecars were loaded with our luggage, the cameras and the film crew for the attempt on the border. We left Nyelam discretely, that is as discretely as seven men on four vintage motorcycles, carrying film making equipment can be discrete. It appeared to us that the whole town had assembled, lining the main road to see us on our way. The interest in the success or failure of our mission suddenly became the focal point and the main conversation topic for every walker, hiker, trekker and mountaineer trapped in Nyelam. If we didn’t return then clearly there was a way through. However, should we return then the road was well and truly impassable. If a motorcycle couldn’t get through then there was certainly no hope of anything larger getting through. The implication of that would be obvious; unless you’re prepared to wait many weeks, even months for the road to be repaired. It’s a return to Lhasa, 1200 km along the only road. Our return would instigate a mass exodus from Nyelam. Every availed truck, taxi and Land cruiser would be commissioned for the retreat to Lhasa and the airport – the only remaining route out of Tibet.