Paradise Lost

Despite the chopfest in the room across from ours and the intense snoring of our host’s youngest kid, I manage to sleep until 09:30! That’s when I realize how we were able to survive the insane cold. Tagong grasslands are already under the grip of winter, but lucky for us, sometime during the night these sweet Tibetans have piled three wool blankets on top of us. We ask permission to boil some water for tea and porridge and invite the woman and her boy to join in. They are reluctant to taste our colorless, odorless, and especially meatless breakfast. Things change when they bring a plastic jar with yak cream which gives that extra oomph to our meal. I almost forgot to mention that to brush our teeth we had to go outside, break some ice and endure the whipping wind. I could feel my face cracking like a mirror being smashed with a hammer, that’s how lovely that was. Nevertheless, refreshed, fed and humbled by the hospitality, we hop on for another day in the highlands. The road is heavenly smooth, and it climbs mildly, but steadily.

By now our visa days are numbered and we need to reach Kangding town to apply for extension. On the way we shall encounter two high mountain passes. First we need to climb over the Zhe Duo Shan Pass (4300m). Then over Tsedo Pass (4298m), separating Kangding from Xinduqiao and the Kham people from the Han Chinese. We are now on Altitude Illness territory, but the bikes prevented us from going too high too fast so I’m assuming we’ve been properly acclimatized. Altitude is considered “High” from 2,438 to 3,658 meters, “Very High” in the 3,658 – 5,487m braket, and “Extremely High” beyond 5,500m. Theoretically anybody can go to “High” altitude with minimal effect, but as I found out climbing and failing to summit Mt. Cameroon in Africa, if you cross that barrier things start to change. The thing is that the concentration of oxygen remains the same even as altitude increases, but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. For example, where we are now, in Tagong grasslands, there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath than at sea level. To cope with this, our bodies must adjust to having less oxygen or our breathing rate has to increase (even while at rest). This is a handy tool to check how oxygen levels vary with altitude and to prepare for a climb.

For now we do not need to worry, as by the looks of this place, we’ve arrived in a lost Paradise. The wind crashes on blue mountains lightly dusted with snow. The vast valley carved by the Liqi river is dotted with flamboyantly scarlet bushes. All we need to do is stop, and be instantly immersed in the sights, sounds and aromas of the plateau.

It’s early winter, and the fat grasses of summer have dwindled. Few nomad herdsmen are still up the grasslands with their black tents knitted from yak fur and with their groups of yak grazing the last bits.

Quintessential Tibetan scenery with grazing yak in Tagong grasslands follows :) as cycle past lonely Kham Tibetan men, sitting on the grass, staring vacantly into the nothingness and I dare not engage them with more than a wave. They wear crazy cowboy hats and their long raven hair is flowing on their shoulders. Feels like we’re somewhere wild, untamed, insulated against significant change (except for solar panels and baby’s walking aid thingie). Nomadic life is undoubtedly very hard, as it is misunderstood. The scale of such lifestyle escapes me, but I feel moved by the quietness and the simplicity of what I see. These Tibetans are partly living as our ancestors had a millennia earlier, while only a comparatively short distance away, the urban paradigm is already being superseded by an even more delirious model. I seriously wonder who is the crazy one here? Is this the question that brought us to this remote region in the first place?

Around noon we see a small cabin with a makeshift display in front, advertising for yak yoghurt. The stuff of dreams. We push the curtain and we find ourselves inside a room that brings sweet memories. In the back there are blankets piles up just like at Adil’s in Tajikistan. In the middle is a sitting area with benches with a small kitchen on the opposite wall.

Meanwhile a group men have arrived and like all Tibetans they are not shy at all.

The strangers start ordering butter tea and talking loudly, waking up a little girl who we haven’t noticed napping on a side bed. The big burly guy fixing our tea is Laozang, the yak yoghurt maker. He has long hair and a golden tooth, and a magnetic don’t give a damn swagger.

We pay for the yoghurt, thinking we should keep it for dinner, but John must have a taste. It is thick and creamy, with a two-millimeter layer of foamy buttery thing on top. My mind goes into a rush.
So we collapse on the pillows, sipping tea and spreading yoghurt on crackers, thankful to be there. I don’t think we realised how tired we were.

When we’re back in the saddle, I feel I’ve lost the momentum. On the contrary, John is pedalling maybe two or three km ahead, so we are not together when the clouds break over Tagong grasslands. It’s just tiny tiny droplets. The GPS is with him so I can’t check the altitude, but as we are approaching the Zhe Duo Shan Pass I start to fear snow. Suddenly, the sound of a car. It passes me over, then I see it stop 100 meters or so in front of me. When I pedal next to the open window, the driver, a man in his early 40s, says in reasonable English: hello, where are you going miss? I tell him that I’m going to Kangding and he seems baffled. Oh, no, he says. It’s snowing up the mountain and in Xinduqiao. The road is dangerous, you must not go alone. He offers me a ride, 50 kwai he says. I thank him graciously and tell him that I must refuse. Then he leaves. About a kilometer later I see the same car parked on the side-road, across some tents.

It’s my guy who wants to persuade me that I don’t want to cycle to Kangding. Arguing that from Xinduqiao there’s sleet, frost and roadworks on the G318. By now I’m already feeling the crunch, and from where I stand things don’t seem to be getting any better. I am pissed, frustrated, and cold. There are not enough options. I cannot go back to Tagong or that village, I must find John and I’m not equipped to summit the pass under snow.
To cut the story short, I hope on the car and about half an hour later we see a ghostly silhouette pedalling against the fog. It’s John. We collect him and the bike.

By early evening the car spits us out in Kangding. I wish I could say I’m sorry for taking the easy way out, but I’m not. The road was horrendous. We passed by Kangding airport which at 4280 meters above sea level is I believe the world’s 2nd highest commercial airport. We stopped at the Zhe Duo Shan pass only for a moment. On a clear day that spot would have offered a great view of Minyak Konka (7556m), the highest mountain in eastern Tibet. But then again, under less inclement weather this route would not have given me this feeling of isolation and spookiness.

Today sucks. It started awesome, and ended in failure, and there’s nothing I can do to fix it. For such days it’s good to have company.  Preferably someone who brews a nice cup of tea and who has chocolate. And before I know it, the hard times are over :)