Up the Pass

The following day we are still toiling more or less like a fortnight ago. Last night was freezing cold and a tingling sensation in my throat suggests unpleasant repercussions. I am obsessing with the suspicion that I’m slower than if I walked, so at one point I get off and push. It’s actually harder than to pedal, and just as damn slow. John passes by, churning up the air ahead and the pungent aromas from trailside flowers and bushes waft over me. I take a long look back down the valley I’ve just climbed up and I decide that roads shouldn’t go through terrain like that. But the tiny horned & hoofed genie levitating above my shoulder is whispering into my ear: “we hope there are more of those sexy slopes to come!”

We continue to follow the gorge carved by the roaring Yala river. The frothing torrent over massive boulders, the water bouncing off cliff faces and spraying on us as we cycle past – this place has it all.

I thought I was more conditioned than him, but John is outcycling me. Where I lack technique, I hope to compensate with stamina. When John eventually become more tired, I take the lead and for a while I cycle alone again with the mountain.

By this point I am nearing a cabin probably being used by road workers. Cloud clogs the sky like a thick winter blanket, but the sun is shining behind, flooding the mountain in soft light. I bask in this rewarding warmth. Cycling is great because you don’t need to wear a lot of stuff. And even the little that I have on is soaked in sweat from the few rays that managed to pierce though. I strip to my bra and allow the rest to dry a little.

At the 20km mark my cycling abuse is taking its toll. I’m at the foot of a particularly stiff switchback. John is at the top, again way ahead of me and pointing at something in the distance. It’s the plateau before the aforementioned mountain pass. The big boy.

The prayer flags are here, so are the informative sign and the local tourists scrambling for selfies immediately VPN-ed to whoever is watching. John, always a man of order, chases a cheeky pig out of what we hope will be a nice memory of us and the bikes, with the 5820m ridge line of the Ya La Snow Mountain in the background (or Zara Lhatse as the Tibetans call it). And before you ask, no, “we” are NOT pregnant!

The 180 degrees vista is almost draining in its beauty. Now looking up at the next switchbacks, I don’t know if I should be excited or alarmed. I’m also starting to feel the crunch of high altitude. Is John secretly juicing or am I out of my depth here?

A lengthy climb through colourful bushes takes me to the final stretch. Suddenly, the mountain is laid bare and I see the prayer flags on top of the pass. Finally! The GPS says 3915m only. But look at that elevation plot!

As we take the mandatory shots, two young Tibetans zooming by on a motorbike break into a smile and wave. The driver’s coat extends into some sort of muffs attached to the clutch and brake levers. Of course it is, because at this altitude the light rain that accompanied us to the pass quickly becomes a snow flurry.

I’m comforted in the fact that from now on it’s a fast downhill to Ba Mei. Hyped by the prospect of an endless descent, John shouts “I’ll see you in town” and guns into the valley. Maybe a kilometre farther, the flurry grows into a proper windstorm. My spirit falls as the gusty winds bring heavy clouds and icy rain, then rises again as the rain turns into much gentler snow. Such is weather in the mountains, I am beginning to realise. I have to stop and quickly take the duffle off, unroll my panniers, take off my windproof jacket and rebuild the layers with everything that I can find inside the bags. Then I rush on John’s path looking like the pink bandit, my plastic raincoat fluttering around me and my face almost obliterated by the balaclava.

If might have taken us a long time to climb the 60 km to the pass, but in under an hour we’re reunited in Ba Mei.