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On pilgrimage in Eastern Tibet

The still unclimbed "Khawa Karpo" is one of the "eight holy mountains of Tibet".

ADVENTURE

Martin Bissig

The still unclimbed "Khawa Karpo" is one of the "eight holy mountains of Tibet". The pilgrimage path around the foot of the mountain is considered one of the most impressive nature trails on earth. No one could tell us if it was suitable for biking. We set out to find out and experienced unforgettable moments.

I got used to using chopsticks when eating. What I find hard to get used to, however, are the duck heads, which from time to time are brought to the bubbling surface in our hot pot, a kind of Chinese fondue. Between them and various offal floating around, I try to grab a few pieces of vegetables or tofu to satisfy my vegetarian appetite. A real challenge as I must determine. When the next load of fish heads disappears in the fiery red broth, I finally strike the sails and decide to have eaten enough for today. For the rest of the evening I stay with jasmine tea.

Together with three riders of the "Liteville Enduro Team China", Kevin, Terryn and Arsenal, I am sitting here at dinner in Shangri La. No, we have not discovered the fictional Shangri La surrounded by myths, which became world famous through the novel "The Lost Horizon" by James Hilton. We are sitting in a small Chinese town in the province of Yunnan, which until 2001 still bore the name "Zhongdian", has about 130,00 inhabitants and lies 3150m above sea level. The name had change purely business reasons, in order to lure now with the legendary name still more tourists here. Accordingly, the old town is lovingly renovated and covered with hundreds of stores. All kinds of Tibetan souvenirs, from prayer flags to singing bowls to yak sweaters, can be purchased here. In addition, there are countless tea rooms where local tea is offered for tasting and sale. They are also reminiscent of the ancient "Tea Horse Road" which once passed along here. It was a network of ancient trade routes. On them, especially "Pu Erh tea", from the city of the same name, was transported by horses to Lhasa.

We have also been on the road for two days in the direction of Tibet. Without horses, but with our mountain bikes in our luggage.  We have planned to ride the eastern part of a so-called Kora, a pilgrimage route, around the mountain "Kawa Karpo". For the Tibetans, the circumambulation of the mountain, which is sacred to them, is a ritual act. The mountain represents for them the manifestation of the Buddha's spirit and by going around it many hope to get closer to this Buddha.  In special years of the Tibetan calendar, thousands of Buddhists make a clockwise pilgrimage around the mountain.  

We are also pilgrims on our way. At least, if you look at the Latin root of the word. "Pilgrim" comes from the Latin word peregrinus or peregrinari, "to be a stranger." And we feel very much like strangers here. Surely Kevin and I, both coming from Germany, are even stranger than our two Chinese friends, but even they know the route ahead of us only from vague descriptions on the Internet. Without them, we would not even be able to order the hot pot bubbling in front of us here in the restaurant. Chinese characters are for us like hieroglyphics and not to decipher. With our knowledge of English we don't get far either. Most people in this region speak as much English as we speak Chinese, practically not a word. And so we are happy more than once a day to be on the road in an internationally mixed team.

Another day in the minibus awaits us before we are finally allowed to get on our bikes.  We ride along the valley of the Mekong. The flanks of the surrounding mountains rise steeply from the wide river valley. Hour after hour passes. The next stop is planned in Deqin. The city in the far north of Yunnan province does not have much to offer at first, except for a harsh climate. For us, however, it is extremely important. It is the last possibility to buy food for the next days. We also want to meet a Tibetan here, who will accompany us with his pack horses.

Skilfully our driver drives the bus through the narrow streets into a backyard and parks. In a restaurant we meet our "Horseman". With bright eyes and a broad grin he welcomes us. He has prepared three horses in his house and tomorrow morning he will pick us up with the bus to cover the remaining kilometers there, he announces. Tedious negotiations start about the price for his services and the duration of the trip. Since we don't know if and how much we can drive on the way, or if we might even have to push everything, we want to allow ourselves enough time. We plan seven days for the tour. On the other side of the mountain range our driver is supposed to pick us up again by bus. He will drive all the way back along the Mekong River and then back upstream in the Yangtze River valley to the agreed meeting point. It will take him four days as well! The dimensions are indescribably huge here. After a long back and forth we arrange to meet the next morning at 8am. We spend the night in Feilei Si, 10km away, a higher tourist place. The sleeping altitude at 3300m helps us to get used to the thin air. Because on our route the highest pass with over 4500m is already waiting for us on the third day. In order not to get altitude sickness, we have to get used to the altitude slowly.

We also hope for good weather in the evening. From Feilei Si, provided the air is clear, we have a fantastic view of the 6740m high Kawa Karpo, the holy and highest mountain of Yunnan. Unfortunately, it is nothing with the view, the mountain hides the whole evening behind a thick cloud cover. During dinner we plan as far as possible what we want to buy tomorrow. Rice, vegetables, a little meat and cookies for the road. Everyone is very excited about what awaits us. Will it be drivable? Will we be able to handle the altitude? How will the weather be? Will we sleep in our tents or in the few camps along the way? Will our driver arrive on the other side? Questions upon questions.

The next morning we go shopping at the huge market in Deqin. Quite lost we stand there, because none of us has any idea how much food we will need. We will have noodle soup for breakfast, cookies and chocolate for lunch, and rice and vegetables for dinner. That's the meal plan. Well then, just do not buy too little, starving on the road is not good. Especially not with the effort. We carry our shopping in big white bags to the tiny bus. Packed to the roof, there is not enough space for all of us. Therefore, we swing ourselves onto the bikes. The bus drives up, the goods are unloaded, then the driver collects us at the roadside to get to the meeting point with the horses in a small Tibetan mountain village. We passed the border into eastern Tibet down in the valley, which is only visible by a sparsely staffed checkpoint in a tiny tent on the side of the road. The officials only briefly checked our IDs and otherwise showed no interest in us.

The luggage is weighed, distributed to the horses and we pack our daypacks. Four horses we need now with all the food, otherwise the load will be too heavy for the animals. Before we are allowed to start, we have to "sign" an agreement about the service and payment. This is not done with pen and signature, but with ink pad and fingerprint. Only after four red fingerprints are on the paper, we are allowed to start. A steep gravel road leads us up to 3200m, our first crossing. Here the road ends and the tension increases immeasurably. What awaits us behind the first bend? Driving? Pushing? Or even carrying downhill?  

Our "Horseman" says goodbye to us. He is not coming with us on the tour. His wife and a relative accompany us with the horses. They have already gone ahead and want to wait for us at the first camp.  From now on we are on our own, without telephone reception, without internet or any other contact to the outside world. We have to carry everything we need and help ourselves if anything happens. An elevation profile and an inaccurate digital map is all we have for orientation. But according to it, there is only one way over the mountains.

We clap off, pedal away and immediately we are plunged into a completely different world. Like a roller coaster, the path winds down into the forest in a tunnel of prayer flags. Thousands of them hang, waving in bright colors, to the right and left at the edge of the path, which is about 50cm wide and smoothly trampled. It feels like rushing through a paint box at high speed. As if a reset button was pressed in the head and switched to "now and here". The feelings roll over. Only after what feels like an eternity do we stop for a moment. All four of us are beaming like honey cakes, fall into each other's arms and can hardly express our joy. Supernatural is the only word we can agree on to describe the way. It is the most impressive thing we have ever driven. If it continues like this for the next few days, it will be a lot of fun.

At a half-ruined wooden barrack in the dense forest we catch up with the horses. It is already dark. This is our campsite. A campfire burns in a shelter. Kitchen and recreation room are combined here. Behind the hut a brook rushes. A few upright logs are covered with plastic sheets and represent our bedroom. Old mattresses and damp blankets lie on wooden platforms. We put our sleeping bags over them. Our Tibetan companions cook together with us. None of us can pronounce their Tibetan names, so we christen them Annemarie and Hans, which they obviously enjoy. Big laughter on the first evening of a trip with new companions, is a good sign for a relaxed atmosphere in the coming days.

The next morning we sit around the campfire with noodle soup and rice. We'll probably have to get used to that over the next few days. Arsenal nibbles with pleasure on dried chicken legs, which he has brought from the market.  Outside it is raining lightly.  Here at almost 3000m, dense forest grows around us. Amazed we look at the diversity of species, we have not expected up here. After breakfast we start on a muddy path littered with smooth stones, which is often almost completely swallowed by the dense vegetation. A complete contrast to yesterday. Again and again we try to ride small pieces, which is rarely successful. Along the way are some abandoned wooden barracks, which testify to the fact that in some years thousands of pilgrims have traveled here. Now they are decaying and waiting to be reclaimed by nature.

It goes uphill almost the whole day. Today's camp is located at 3900m. The last 250hm are so steep that we have to carry the bikes. Again thousands of prayer flags line the way. Halfway up, various Buddha figures are carved into a rock face and colorfully painted. It feels like we are passing through a holy place.  After eight hours we reach some small wooden huts. We see our horses and have finally made it. The bed camp is a bit cleaner and bigger. Otherwise the camps are all very much alike. A fireplace with wooden benches at knee height to sit on and a "dormitory" covered with tarpaulins.  Annemarie and Hans have been here for a long time and have prepared rice and vegetables for us by the fire. Exhausted and grateful, we help ourselves. Sated, we linger only briefly around the campfire. Tomorrow will be a long day, the highest pass is waiting for us. Therefore we crawl into our sleeping bags.

An early start with rain heralds the next day.  Very slowly we start to find a rhythm. The air gets thinner and thinner and we breathe heavily. Yesterday the altitude was already getting to us and the pace was noticeably reduced. Driving is once again out of the question, the path to the soon visible pass is too steep. Only up here is the timberline, at about 4000m. At home in the Alps there is only snow and ice at this altitude. The group pulls apart a bit, each going at his own pace. Already far before the highest elevation garlands of prayer flags begin to show us the way. The rain lets up a little and we drag ourselves, breathing heavily, across a carpet of colorful fabric flags. The ground is no longer visible, everything is covered with billions of "wind horses", the correct translation from Tibetan for the flags. The mountains are rugged and cloudy. 4500m my GPS device shows here at the "Duokha La". The highest point of our pilgrimage is reached!

A dull rumbling accompanies deep black clouds and reminds us to set off. The first meters we push down over the slippery carpet of prayer flags until we reach rocky ground. We look down into a deep valley. Far below we recognize a green meadow with a stream between the steep rock faces. A demanding trail leads us down there, which requires full concentration with over 100 hairpin bends and saps our strength.  The thunderstorm has passed and when we arrive at the bottom, the sun is shining. We put the bikes and ourselves in the meadow and treat ourselves to a few cookies. We look back to the pass and see the impressive descent ahead of us. Exhausted but happy, we enjoy the view before rolling the last half hour to the campsite.

The next morning we have a hard time getting out of our sleeping bags, yesterday is still in our bones. But already the first meters behind the camp let us hope for a fantastic day of riding. The road is as flat as on the first day and invites us to top speed. It's good to finally feel the wind again. This goes on until we enter the forest again. Here it becomes immediately blocked and slippery. A group of Tibetan pilgrims accompanied by a monk in red-orange robe passes by. After spotting us, he heads straight for us.  Friendly with a "Taschi Delek", the Tibetan "Hello", he greets us. We don't understand a word and yet with hands and feet, a communication gets going. He shows great interest in our bikes and can hardly believe that we came with them over the pass. We are amazed when he pulls out a golden smartphone from under his cape and wants to take pictures with us. We do him the favor of course gladly and also we make still memory photos of the friendly meeting. We spend the afternoon once again pushing until we reach our camp.

The fourth morning on our tour starts as usual with noodle soup and tea. We long for coffee and bread with jam. Renunciation is certainly a part of the trip. Not only are we allowed to do without familiar foods, but also distractions such as the telephone and Internet. We haven't missed the achievements of the digital age for a minute yet. There is always something to do. And how nice it is to be able to talk without someone constantly typing on their smartphone and being distracted. At the beginning, the trail leads along the roaring brook. Slowly but steadily the trail rises and leads to a small hill. This is also decorated with thousands of prayer flags. In addition, hundreds of food bowls are piled up here, which were probably left behind as offerings. Next to them are also various pieces of clothing lying on a small pile together. It makes a little sacral impression on us. It rather reminds of a garbage dump.

The trail leads steeply down in zigzag. Our hairpin technique is once again put to the test. The forest thins out and we come to a raging river. Somewhat surprised at the scenery, we cross a bridge and follow the trail downstream. Our surprise is even greater when we see a house, the first one in five days, standing on the side of the path. And indeed we have a camp for ourselves here on the second floor. After the days in damp and shabby wooden barracks we enjoy the unexpectedly clean change. Up to here we have not met more than 20 people in the last days. Around the small dwelling there are about as many. In the basement there is a small grocery store where the most necessary things can be bought. Colorfully decorated motorcycles equipped with huge loudspeakers are used to transport the goods.  Even tired pilgrims can make their way out to the road over the last pass on them. Of course accompanied by Chinese folklore music in deafening volume. In us germinates the hope for a consistently rideable road.

We help to load the horses in the morning and start together. At the beginning we are faster with the bikes, but this changes after a few kilometers. The path is soon too steep to ride it without engine support, so we dismount. Today want to be mastered once again over 1000hm uphill. And as it appears, we will probably push 100% of it. For hours, monotonously, one foot in front of the other. In between we bikes really become a burden. A board stall with cold drinks offers a short change. We order a Coke and take a short break. From the forest loud music sounds and announces a few motorcycles. Secretly, each of us wishes probably also a motor to his bike. After almost four hours we reach the last pass without having ridden even one meter. We are still enthusiastic about the colorful flags, which also decorate the highest point here.  The view reaches back over the stages of the last two days.  We are relieved.  Until Abingcun, the village we have to reach to meet our driver, it is only downhill.  The landscape changes completely. It is dry as dust and hot. The dense forest has turned into sparse, solitary pines. But the trail is just as good as the first day and puts an exhausted smile on our faces.

On a ridge lies our last camp. We have been looking forward to washing ourselves all day. Wrong, there is no water up here. It has to be brought here from the valley on motorcycles and is used exclusively for cooking.  Dinner is also meager. Our supplies are quite depleted and so we have dry rice with leeks. There is nothing more left from our purchase at the market. A large prayer wheel stands behind the hut. As the sun sets, we turn it devoutly, striking a bell with each revolution and a bright "clang" resonates across the otherwise completely silent landscape into the distance. Almost wistfully, we sit together around the campfire for the last time and look back on the experiences of the past days. We have spent over a year preparing and now the trip will soon be over.

The trail on the last day is again a highlight. Dusty, but as if built for biking. We rush through the light trees out of the mountains to Abincun. After seven days in seclusion, we slowly return to civilization. By bus we reach the first bigger town after about three hours of driving and immediately storm a restaurant.

After Terryn and Arsenal have made the choice for all of us, we toast to the successful tour. Afterwards silence returns for the time being. This time it is not pleasurable and sublime, as so often on the last evenings, but of digital nature. There is reception again and so mails are read, the latest news are searched for and reports are sent to those at home.  Everyone is fully alert again only when the food is brought to the table. It is very convenient for me that there are many vegetables and potatoes to choose from and this time there are no duck heads on the plates.

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