Shigadse really had potential, I mean, it even had beer garden… sort of. But certainly it had a nice place to sit and drink beer. It also had fries, excellent fries, probably the greatest fries in world, and in saying that I am only exaggerating a bit ! The hotel was simply breath-taking, it even had oxygen piped directly into the room. The purchase of a small credit card, which when inserted into the special bedside machine would provided hours of life giving gas, all with a comforting bubbling soundtrack as the o2 is filtered and diffused through a small bottle of some clear liquid. A healthy bong at 4100 meters above sea level! Oh yes, Shigadse really had potential, it also had a hospital.
We mostly saw the hospital.
The morning departure was as Mark described, his forgetting about the sidecar, and allowed it to achieve coitus with a dirt cart, briefly mounting the filthy machine before being left dented, paint scrapped, but happier and wiser in the street. Hell, we’ve all been there! I frankly found the whole affair comforting as it confirmed a prediction I had made, all Yoda like before we left Shanghai, “Sidecar you have! Forget it you will! ” referring to the early days of riding a Chang Jang, when I would merrily scoot down the street, not a care in the world, whilst dozens of Chinese people leaped salmon-like for their lives. Apparently “lǎo píao” does not mean “Onward my foreign friend.” Mark too had forgotten; my prediction had come true and I was feeling smug. I find feeling smug always lifts my day.
Rusty, the name of a brown and trusty CJ, was loaded onto the truck and I was demoted to sidecar, until with typical efficiency and clarity of thought we realised that why the hell was I in the sidecar when we had an extra bike? I was back on a bike and we rode in convoy out of Shigadse which I must say, really had potential!
The morning belonged to logistics, getting a new vehicle to speed Nick and I on our way, getting more footage, making some kilometres and refuelling the bikes by watering can, because apparently filling the bikes at the pump is too dangerous. So we drove, we filmed, we watered the bikes with highly flammable liquid, we visited a state sponsored monastery, rather clean and lacking the warm, thick incense, yak buttered atmosphere we had experienced previously, and then it was time to say goodbye.
In an inexcusably over-emotive moment of anthropomorphism I said goodbye to my bike, my Green Goblin, as Peter had named it, and there are many jokes here, but all inappropriate.
I photographed the little thing, looked longingly at the prayer flags I had carefully tired to the spare wheel and knelt in contemplative worship, giving an ancient warrior blessing to the God of bikers. Then I noticed that Greg had lost interest and had stopped filming me so I gave up. With a manly nod of the head to the rest of the chaps Nick and I climbed into the land cruiser. Not a tearful and soul-searching farewell to my companions of the past few days ( had it only been a few days?) not because I didn’t feel sad, or am an emotional homunculus, but because I was secure in the knowledge we were due to meet up again in few days in Kathmandu; swop stories, drink beer and reminisce about the fries of Shigadse.
Which just goes to show that however much experience you can muster, you can still be a damn naive fool. Something I have always prided myself upon!
The Green Goblin ( insert joke here)
The Road Down
The journey across the Tibetan plateau was speedy when compared to the Changs but still took hours upon hours, something like 9 in total. But I think, for every single minute of those hours I was captivated. Drawn to the unending stretch of enormous sweeping valleys, fringed with roadless hard-brown mountains that we sped past, all the vast geological forces were laid bare around us. It was wonderful, not as rewarding as on a bike, not as special as on a Chang, but the sights I greedily drank up were peerless. I was disappointed by not to be completing the trip, but the excitement of where I was, what I was looking at, beggared any negative thoughts, made them seem petty and ungracious.
Watching the people from the comfort of the land cruiser, cannot really be described by my weak-kneed and gasping eloquence. The Tibetans we passed were all busy, working the fields, and when I say fields it evokes, at least to my Welsh mind, green pastures. What I saw were mean, slender patches of the enormous brown, arid desert. They were churning it by hand or by yak plough, to grow God only knows what, barley, presumably, as it seems to be the only thing that can grow in such extremes.
Adjectives like resilient, tough, and hardy, spring to mind, but all are inadequate; I find it impossible to conjure any remote feeling of empathy for such a life. It isn’t humbling, it isn’t embarrassing to be whisked past in steel cocooned, air-conditioned machines, because it is all too alien. So alien there is no lingering feelings of some ill-defined guilt. You can, successfully forget what you saw, as you didn’t really understand it. What possibly remains, deep in whatever acts as a conscious is a profound sense of respect and awe.
We crossed later that afternoon into the Himalayan National Park and saw, across the rocky brown of the plateau the white and blue peaks of the tallest mountains in the world. It was intoxicating. I was imagining grabbing a tent, heading off road and rough camping, to see that sight in the clear of a morning. But we’re had a mission, we were to head to Zhammu, the boarder town on the Tibetan, Nepali frontier, where at 2000 meters Nick should start to recover. The mission was highlighted by Nick himself, who since the morning had started to become more and more sluggish and tired, as his blood, oxygen enriched from his over night stay at hospital had been depleted and now his lungs were failing to make up the short fall. I had bought many cans of oxygen from the hotel, and as we climbed a final time, the last major bit of altitude before diving off the Tibetan plateau and into the oxygen-rich tropical greenery of Nepal, Nick was devouring the bottles in the back of the land cruiser. The Himalayas in their mystical glory before me, and what sounded like Darth Vader on a scuba diving holiday behind me.
It feels like you literally drive off the plateau and free-fall, plunging into a twisting world of switchback roads, that drop you down, down, down. The road was under siege by the mountains, with frequent rockfalls that have whisked away the reinforced steel shuttering that had been placed along the roadside. It was geological time in fast forward, almost as if you perceive the grind and thrust of the millions upon millions of tonnes of rock, that now, as we were deeper in the valley began blocking out the fading sun.
As the sunlight finally began to fail, there was a sudden rush of crashing water, and green flowed back, bathing the roadside with thick growth. Far below, at the foot of the steeply shelving valley roared the river, white foaming past massive boulders that had been swept down in rages past.
Still the valley went on. Just when I’d think we’d reach the river, the road twisted again, the valley turned on its edge and the river dropped away again, crashing down a new gorge, the road had to tentatively pick its way around. As night fell the gorge grew steeper still as the vegetation loomed thicker and black outside our window. The sheer drop at the edge of the pitted road, seemed to leap, animal- like from one side of the car to the other as we wove ever lower following the lights of cars, that kept disappearing far below. Finally, Zhammu was before us, a town perched on one side of the spectacular gorge, hotel, restaurants and houses clinging to the walls, while water poured in a perpetual noisy roar all around.
We ate a late night curry at a restaurant, just down the steep road (all roads are steep in Zhammu) from our hotel. The faces of the staff already owed more to the Indian plains than the high plateau, and it struck me; we had left. We were still in Tibet, still under the jurisdiction of the Chinese, but we had left behind Tibet, what makes Tibet special, unique, the things we had come to see and experience. And now it was behind us, somewhere up there in the darkness, at the end of a twisty road.