Trikes in Tibet
Australian adventurers Paul Pritchard and Carol Hurst report back from their extraordinary ‘honeymoon’ in the Himalayas, defying disability and taking their trikes on the road to Everest.
Fumbling with the tent I escape into a freezing, cavernous, deep space night. My eyes wander up and I contemplate the constellations of the northern hemisphere. Then I look down to the mountain of switchbacks on the rutted road to Everest, snaking up a pass which seems to go on for ever in the starlight.
We had been told that we would never be able to pedal our trikes up this pass. Samdrup, our Tibetan guide, just shook his head saying, “How can two disabled people tackle one hundred and seventeen switchbacks at 5200 m?”
I had placed a twenty Yuan bet with Samdrup that we could do this hill, but his lack of faith still shook me up. Sharyn, our camera-woman, had done the pass several times before, but in a truck. She had confidence in us, but her tales of seeing fit young cyclists standing defeated at the roadside half-way up didn’t exactly cheer us up.
The ‘Pang La’ pass was clearly going to be the crux of the whole journey. I stifled a shiver... we would to attempt to ride over this mountain of dirt at dawn.
Carol Hurst and I were making a honeymoon tour of China. We were to go bird watching and golfing, taking in the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors. It was to be dream trip.
At least that is what we told the Chinese immigration department.
In reality we were attempting a recumbent trike journey of over 1100 km from Lhasa in Tibet - via Mount Everest - to Kathmandu in Nepal. If you so much as mention Tibet on your visa application it will be swiftly screwed up in some consular office’s wastepaper basket. And as for filming in Tibet... forget it!
Our ploy seemed to work and Carol and I soon found ourselves on a Lhasa-bound train on the highest railway in the world. Ibex, yak and wild ass dotted the plains. Climbing up onto a high plateau the train groaned and people were reaching for the piped oxygen. On disembarking three people were stretchered off suffering altitude sickness.
In Lhasa, we posed for photographs below the Potala Palace. A seemingly pre-pubescent soldier, finger on the trigger of his rifle, approached us to let us know that the wind-horse on the prayer flags festooning our trikes is a highly dangerous symbol and is banned in the square. Uniformed snipers positioned on the roof-tops surrounding the Jokhang Temple (a stark reminder of the 2008 riots) studied us as we departed on our journey.
It all seemed rather ominous, but the mood lifted on the outskirts of Lhasa as we pedalled past a huge golden yak, then stopped at a ten meter tall Buddha which ‘magically’ appeared in the rock face. That evening I wallowed in the peaceful waters of the Kyi Chu oblivious to the thundering trucks passing close by our camp.
It is a requirement of the Chinese government that all independent foreign travellers in Tibet have a guide. The guide then requires feeding and transport so we also had a cook, Dawa, and a driver, Mota. At first the whole ‘kitchen sink’ approach didn’t sit easily with me. But now I am disabled, having a truck along seemed potentially rather useful.
Tibetans are notoriously stubborn with regards to customer service, though matters improved once our crew embraced the idea that we were on pilgrimage. Just like thousands of other pilgrims on the roads of the Himalaya, we headed slowly towards our respective goals. It was Carol’s aim to make it all the way to Kathmandu, whereas my interest always lay in Mount Everest. I was a mountaineer and climbing mountains had been my life. I had forsaken a ‘real’ job at an early age to summit mountains in the Himalaya, Patagonia and Baffin Island.
Then in 1998 on a climbing trip to Tasmania my life unravelled. A boulder fell on my head while climbing the Totem Pole on Cape Hauy. The rescue took a whole day, during which I lost half my blood through a hole in my skull. I ended up in hospital for a year with paralysis down my right side and had to learn how to walk again, talk again, feed and dress myself.
ON THE ROAD
Our first days riding took us to Chusul, where we met the Yarling Sangpo, tributary to the great Brahmaputra river. As you ride up the river the scenery gets grander and more serene, but the surface is dry and harsh: I often couldn’t see Carol for dust. We rode fifty-three kilometres that day, seventeen kilometres further than she has ridden before: a marvellous achievement and a promising start.
The river valley soon gave way to a narrow gorge, with dangers aplenty looming on every side: yaks precariously perched on cliffs, loose boulders overhanging the road, and big concrete trucks thundering past. On one downhill stretch we passed a bus-load of monks at the side of the road. With a fervour normally reserved for rock stars they waved, danced and cheered us on. So much attention do our trikes command that at one point we caused a traffic jam as tourists queued for a photo with us.
As we left the gorge a huge Tibetan mastiff began to chase me. I tried to speed up, but at close to 4000 meters altitude I just ended up gasping like a landed fish, moving along at little more than a brisk jog. Soon the hound was right in my face, and all I could do was present my spastic arm to it as one would a rubber chicken. But just as its teeth were closing on my arm Sharyn came to the rescue and charged it down.
After a week of riding we were ready for our first rest day at the 'Braille Without Borders' vocational farm near Xigatse. Paul Kronenberg, one of the founders, told us how some blind kids are locked away through shame on the part of their parents, in the belief that blind children must have done something terrible in a previous life. This was reflected in many people’s reaction to me as I was limping around Lhasa’s streets: one onlooker even spat at me. Any kind of disability is viewed like this. Paul and his team were challenging this and, by cycling across Tibet, so were we. Disabled people can do everything that the able bodied can. And that needs celebrating.
Shortly after we left Xigatse, rain began to pour. When you’re lying prostrate on a recumbent trike, this is a special kind of treat. We got soaked, and darkness was falling. Just as we were beginning to contemplate spending the night out, Samdrup found us a monastery to sleep in. Next morning, after breakfast with the young monks, we tackled our first major climb, the Tra La pass. At 3975m, this is only a baby pass in Himalayan terms, but we were pleased to manage the climb nonetheless.
We set up camp in a quintessentially Tibetan landscape: flat plains with yaks and distant mountains. The setting sun was beautiful even with the silhouetted power-poles which Tibet seems to grow so well.
The next day when, according to the official paperwork, Carol and I were supposed to be playing golf a long way across China, we were actually grinding ourselves painfully up the Gyatso La. At 5220 m this was the highest pass of our journey. We climbed it over two days, and the second day of the ascent dawned ruthlessly cold and in cloud. We passed nomads living in yak hair tents as they have for thousands of years before eventually, after two interminable hours, we surfaced into sunlight. My lungs were silently screaming as I tried to keep up with Mel, our physiotherapist and, as it turned out, pace-setter.
Carol was also hurting on this climb, and she had to stop every kilometre to massage her deadened feet. Carol was a keen adventurer when, in her twenties, she developed osteoarthritis in her hips. When her avenues for outdoor activity narrowed, Carol took to white-water paddling with determination, becoming six times Classic Wild-water Australian Champion. Now, her customised trike was allowing her to crank up passes in Western Tibet. Slow but steady, we kept on to the top.
Our first view of Everest came a full week before we reached it. The landscape was otherworldly: huge Chinese slogans on mountainsides informed us of I don’t know what as we passed, and as the sun set the silhouette of a dzong, a fortress built on a high outcrop of rock, dominated the broadening night.
THE PAIN PASS
We began climbing the Pang La, or ‘Pain La’ as it is apparently known to cyclists, at first light. The hot water we had put into our bottles soon froze. By mid-morning we were at hairpin nineteen, and a local woman who stopped her car wouldn’t take no for an answer until I’d eaten some of her hard-boiled eggs. This side of the pass has only forty-six hairpins (the hundred and seventeen Samdrup had mentioned would be on the descent for us), and snow flurries began as we reached the upper stages.
Carol and I summitted the Pang La (5150 m) together in cloud, rolling through the tunnel of prayer flags which adorns most of the region’s passes. Passengers in cars were scattering paper 'wind horses' printed with Buddhist prayers for luck on the descent, and after a brief rest we followed, descending the endless switchbacks in glorious swooping curves, a joy after the strenuous climb.
ON TO EVEREST
Personally, I was realising a lifetime dream in seeing the goddess mountain up close again. For the thirteen years since the accident, I've spent every day learning to walk and talk again. From my first day back climbing, and from the first ride on my trike; everything I've done has been to get me here, today. When I was first recovering I never thought I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to Everest Base Camp. It's been a long and tortuous road.
On the return from Everest we reached the Nam La (5100 m), a sandy singletrack where I had to weigh my panniers down with rocks to prevent the rear wheel spinning. Riding below Choy Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak, I sheared a quick release pin, so rough was the road. Mel lashed the seat back to the frame with an inner tube.
On the way down I remember a kid throwing a pebble at Sharyn’s head with remarkable accuracy, but even more memorable was the sight of tarmac. After eight days of rough roads I kissed the metalled road surface!
The last pass, the Lung La, was into a headwind. The back of my knee hurt. Mel came to the rescue yet again and fed me anti-inflammatories. I tried all the tricks in the book to take my mind off the job - a three kilometre stretch, straight uphill - mantras, headphones, bead counting, you name it. I finally made it through the arch of prayer flags miles behind Carol and am faced with a wall of mountains: Shishapangma, Phola Ganchen, and Melung Tse, all giants in their wedding gowns.
Now began the deepest road descent on Earth. We screamed down from the ice and frost of a Tibetan morning to the tropical lushness of a Nepali afternoon. The quality of the road deteriorated from brand spanking Chinese bitumen to dirt, landslides and Nepali mayhem.
On day twenty-six we entered Kathmandu, riding through a convoluted matrix of villages and back streets, past monkeys and metal workshops, bakeries and brick works, temples and shrines, and everywhere a jam of cars and motorbikes.
After much struggle and hardship we had finally made it. We had ridden 1158 kilometres over the Himalayas. For me it affirmed once again that life is an incredible gift that should not be squandered.
This tricycle trip across the roof of the world had certainly been no ‘honeymoon’!
Paul, Carol and their team also made a film of their adventure, which is to be released under the title “The Journey” by Griffen Media. You can watch a taster online at: http://youtu.be/l_4aXw-GICY
Photos: Sharyn Jones
The recumbent trikes we used were from Australian manufacturer Greenspeed, and we chose the heavy duty Magnum model. The length of the journey made comfort a priority, and the adjustable riding position was a major bonus. Only on day twenty-one did I get vaguely saddle sore.
Although cycling in the Himalayas sounds intimidating, the long passes are generally at an easy gradient to help the local trucks and buses cope with the lack of oxygen. Mountain passes tend to be steeper in Europe where the vehicles are better maintained.
Cyclists too need to cope with the lack of oxygen, and low gears are essential. I fitted a Rohloff hub to the rear and a Schlumpf crankset gearbox to the front to save my lungs and legs from rough roads – and being all enclosed these units survived the bumps and the dust. As I can't change a tyre I used a liberal amount of Slime anti-puncture fluid in the fat Schwalbe tyres, and thankfully I did not get a single puncture.
The team only had to make a single repair to my trike: the quick release pin which sheared under the seat had to be beefed up to an 8mm bolt. This journey was probably the most severe test run any trike could endure, and it stood up admirably.
If you want to see the excellent photos of Sharyn Jones' a hardcopy is available at Velovision