By Matt Westby
It was shortly before 1pm when I dismounted my bike and slumped exhausted at the side of the dusty, gravel road.
There were only 3km of the 20 left to go, but when you’re climbing a hill higher than Mont Blanc and each kilometre marker comes by about as regularly as a birthday, small numbers are of little solace.
With a relentless sun beating down and the high altitude draining even my deepest reserves of energy, Tibet’s revered Pang La pass was proving why it is such a formidable part of the Himalayas. Nobody goes by without first paying their dues.
I reluctantly remounted and continued to pay mine for another 30 or so minutes, propelling my bike forward at a speed slower than walking pace.
But then, finally, an arch of Buddhist prayer flags came into view, marking the end of an exhausting 1,000m of vertical climbing and three-and-a-half hours in the saddle.
As I passed under it, the richest of rewards for my efforts appeared in the distance, as a selection of the world’s highest mountains punctuated the horizon. It was almost as Everest, Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Lhotse and myriad other cloud-piercing peaks had formed a welcoming committee.
Seldom have I been so fatigued as I was at that moment, but seldom have I been so in awe. It was a feeling typical of the mountains, an environment that demands so much from mind and body yet gives back so generously in unparalleled vistas and a sense of achievement near impossible to match.
But reaching the top of Pang La pass was just one of many memorable moments of cycling Lhasa to Kathmandu in a two-week traverse of the Himalayas.
Lhasa, once home to the Dalai Lama and a fulcrum of Buddhism, is a difficult city to fathom, thanks to a bizarre juxtaposition of traditional culture and Chinese rule.
Parts are centuries old and offer an insight into how life once was here, with bustling markets, narrow alleyways and pilgrims praying in elaborately decorated monasteries. Others, however, bare all the hallmarks of a socialist city, with huge grey buildings flanking immaculately Tarmaced roads that all look the same and appear to go on forever.
But nowhere is the conflict of cultures more evident than at the stunning Potala Palace, which still towers over the city, 60 years on from the Chinese invasion.
While tourists are free to explore its impressive maze of statues and shrines, any talk of Tibet’s exiled leader is absolutely forbidden and a sense of being watched pervades. In some respects, though, that only adds to it being one of the world’s must-see attractions.
From Lhasa we travelled by bus to the tranquil Lake Yamdruk, before switching to bikes, which would be our sole mode of transport between that point and Kathmandu, the best part of 1,000km to the south-west.
After cresting the 5,050m Karo La pass, we spent several days crossing the Tibetan plateau, an arid yet beautiful landscape that must come as close to replicating the moon as anywhere else on earth.
Effectively a desert flanked by mountains, its cream-coloured, stoney ground contrasts perfectly with the rolling grey hills and brilliant blue sky to create a truly unique environment. The people who live on its plains are equally intriguing, offering one hand in welcome, but begging for loose change with the other.
That’s not to say they are undesirable people, just merely victims of a political system that will happily build roads for tourists yet leaves its population in poverty. Indeed, their friendliness and generosity border on humbling and are among Tibet’s finest attributes.
Beyond the plateau, high mountain passes came thick and fast, with Pang La being preceded by the equally obstinate but just-as-rewarding 5,248m Lhakpa La pass and followed by a gruelling, six-hour climb up to a village holding legendary status among Everest climbers, Rongbuk.
Built around its famous monastery, Rongbuk is the last permanent settlement before the northern base camp and as such offers unrivalled views of the world’s highest peak, known as Qomolungma by locals.
Until you’ve seen it with your own eyes, it’s impossible to comprehend the scale of Everest. Even in this land of giants, it towers unremorsefully above everything else, taking away what little breath you have left at this altitude in the process. It’s a genuine privilege to stand in its shadow.
Following a visit to base camp, which underwhelmed thanks to the overly stringent watch of Chinese soldiers, we dropped down to the white plains of Tingri and, after tackling two less taxing passes, over the border into Nepal. Almost instantly, the air thickened, temperature rose and greenery returned to the landscape.
The general atmosphere also improved, owing equally to leaving Chinese rule behind and embracing the exuberant Nepalis.
We followed the course of the Bhote Kosi river for a day-and-a-half all the way to the outskirts of Kathmandu, passing through culturally vibrant villages along the way, before entering the city itself to complete a journey as memorable as it was mammoth.
Friendship Highway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendship_Highway_(Tibet)