From the Tibetan city of Garze we headed West towards the biggest climb we’ve ever undertaken, we both wondered nervously how would we cope riding at over 5000m.
As we left the town the grassy plains opened out and the snow capped mountains provided the back drop to the smooth tarmac ribbon. After 35km we saw Darjay Monastery and we called in to explore the complex. It was another really peaceful spot just at the side of the road. It was being repainted and done up like so many of the temples. Where the funds come from to pay for all the building work we never worked out, but it’s good to see them being cared for and bustling with activity. Here is a map of the entire trip and some labels relating to this blog:
A big friendly monk welcomed us and let us tour the buildings. There was a scaffolding inside and three artists lay on their backs and were painting the wood carvings and bold bright scenes on the ceilings. This was inside the temple I hope the picture does it justice:
After some more spectacular mountain view riding we saw the next Monastery. Here one of the guys spoke enough English to discuss the bikes. He liked the Titanium frame on mine. It seemed odd he would recognise bike frame materials with no access to bike shops etc! At this Monastery we were told about a hot spring we could camp next to, the big guy in this picture gave us directions. He didn’t speak enough English though as we got very lost! I walked for what felt like hours across the fields.
Eventually we found the hot pool down a steep track after getting further directions. Measuring about 20 feet across it was large and at a pleasant warm temperature, however it was quite busy so we just paddled and washed. The number of naked monks splashing about also made Marion a bit shy! If you look across the river in the picture you can see where the hot spring is.
That night we camped in the new latest most amazing place ever. On the grasslands behind the large monastery we found a slight hollow and shelter. The view from the tent was this:
This was watching the sun go down:
It was a really cool night with great stars and just sitting out cooking was awesome.
In the morning it wasn’t cool but brutally cold and hard to get out of the warm tent! The canvas was frosted and even the water bottles rattled with ice, ice baby, as I sang.
Finally we rode off towards the Monastery to get some water for the day.
Today we were heading to Manigangexianghum, good luck pronouncing that even without a humbug in your mouth. As the name suggests it was a wild west frontier feeling Tibet town. We ate some food we bought while sat in the town square, this open location allowed as many local people as possible to sit or stand and simply stare at us! It was then on wards to a holy Glacial Lake where we hoped to camp for the night.
As ever the sky was blue and hardly a cloud in sight after the cold start it was warm under the intense sun.
For lunch we stopped at a recently built Chinese Buddhist monastery. We were ushered into a luxurious restaurant where Marion was excited to hear the entire menu was Buddhist Vegetarian. It was an unexpected luxury stop but expensive. Over lunch a monk came other to talk and gave us a magazine dedicated to the Lama who founded the vast monastery. It was only built in last 10 years and gleamed from the new gold roof tops to the gold prayer wheels extending for literally miles around the perimeter. It felt fake and a show of wealth rather than a religious site. I didn’t take any close up pictures of it.
After receiving the magazine from the Monk and looking at the pictures, a young Nun came over and gave Marion a Chinese book containing the Diamond Sutra in Chinese. A book in Chinese was not great reading material but we kept it and figured it might bring us good luck like the lady said. On Wikipedia it is described as: Hsing Yun describes the four main points from the sūtra as giving without attachment to self, liberating beings without notions of self and other, living without attachment, and cultivating without attainment. Yep, I’m no nearer understanding it than the Chinese version! This is Marion looking like she can actually read Chinese:
Back on the bikes and we rode past more pasture and saw a Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier sitting by the road, this is a seriously big bird and when it took off the wings were even bigger than we expected. Their wingspan can measure up to 9ft8in which if you think about it is pretty scary!
The next oversize thing we saw was a giant Buddha rising from the plains, obviously we detoured to investigate. It was another monastery but this one had an odd air to it. Vast but very empty feeling.
I detoured to another temple and monastery here while Marion stayed with the bikes by big Buddha. It was a strange place, most monks were inside banging drums in a random rather nonrhythmic fashion, those young monks outside were either staring or a couple made quite unfriendly gestures. I took some artistic pictures of a Yak tied up outside and left. This was the only place we had had a cool welcome, I guess we probably just choose the wrong day!
From here we headed to the Holy Lake, AKA a scenic lake in the mountains with Prrayer flags and carved rocks.
This was the first glimpse of the big peaks getting closely as we started the climb to TroLa Pass.
The lake itself was fenced off and we had to pay a small amount to get in to see it, the price of holiness.
We found a stealth camp spot by the lake and set in for the night.
I went to take some photos at sunset over the water, I hadn’t realised a lady with a bucket had appeared behind me to collect drinking water, she was quite bemused as I lay down to see through the viewfinder while my camera was balanced on a rock. The cloudy turquoise glacial water must taste a bit weird to drink we thought. It didn’t seem to affect our noodle soup dinner though.
In the morning we chilled out on the shore jumping on the rocks carved with Tibetan phrases.
Back on the road and this was the start of the big hill, it would be a lot of uphill today to get over 5000m.
After about 20km the tarmac ran out at an entrance to the new tunnel route under construction. The Chinese like building tunnels, there were new ones everywhere we rode it seemed. Apparently this would be the longest tunnel in the world at this high altitude. I think it was going to be 8km long, hopefully they might put in some working ventilation in this one
After the tunnel entrance the road up to the pass turned to gravel with loose sand on top as we started on the never ending hairpins.
We went uphill slowly at a steady gradient but it went on and on with the views changing and improving by the minute:
Looking down I could see Marion slowly making progress between the old piles of snow on a hairpin below, I love the next picture I took of her. The presence of snow when it had been so hot only hours earlier showed how high we were getting.
Finally a huge arch of prayer flags signaled the top. The noise of the flags blowing in the strong wind was deafening.
On the ground lay discarded oxygen cylinders from Chinese drivers, confirmation this was pretty high or evidence the Chinese like to buy placebos, but it honestly felt a lot easier breathing than we expected it to be.
If the ascent was steady the descent was mental. Super tight hairpins traversed a super steep mountain face. Huge tankers crawling down slowly meant some sketchy overtaking maneuvers were needed. Well they weren’t needed but were fun in a “I really shouldn’t be doing this” kind of way.
I made a short video from some Go Pro clips, it doesn’t do the scenery justice with my shaky footage but take a look and enjoy the cheesy music. Marion was nursing her bad shoulder hence why we were taking it so slow on the rough surface.
The descent carried on down a valley and into a Gorge, we passed more interesting ancient villages, each felt more untouched by the Chinese as we headed west.
This Buddha was just at the side of the road carved out of the natural stone in the cliff. It would probably be its own tourist attraction anywhere else in the world but here just another monument to Buddhism:
Finally we rolled in Derge or Dege a city developing fast (read here a big Chinese construction site) Yet again the Tibetan old town was the most interesting part, hidden away up the hill. At the top was, yes you guessed it, a huge spectacular Monastery! Here a big ceremony or service was taking part and all the Tibetans were sitting outside in traditional dress listening to the prayers or teachings. Later food would be served so I stuck around.
I tried my luck and just wandered around taking pictures and exploring behind random doors. Inside one I dropped down to the basement of the monastery where there was a vast kitchen preparing tonnes of food. To cook all this food the fires used were so big it was fed using entire tree trunks shoved in.
The billowing smoke filled the air and flames licked the pans, it was a dark slightly satanic atmosphere, well if not for the ever friendly people. It was hard to photograph so I hope I did it justice.
I never think I’ll visit anywhere quite like this place again!
Derge is most famous for it’s vast printing works, a building that holds more Tibetan literature carved into wood than almost anywhere else in the world. It is therefore a holy site and pilgrims walk around the perimeter. Once inside it’s strictly no photos and fire safety is paramount due to the never ending shelves of carved wood.
I was however allowed to photograph the guys working hard to print the wooden blocks onto paper in the same traditional method that existed 100’s of years ago.
This is the building outside:
That night I had the most interesting meal of the trip, I’ll call it Chilli Chicken which sounds OK, but it was made up of the bits of chicken I don’t want to eat i.e feet, neck, guts etc. plus just green chillis nothing else. It was just about edible but after a few chillis my eyes were streaming and my nose too. It was unusual as dishes go. Marion had greasy Aubergine and a spicy Tofu both very pleasant!
We explored the town again and got to the top of a small temple on the hill, a young monk had seen us and climbed the vertical stone wall to meet us. It scared the living daylights out of us in case he fell, it was a pretty technical climb and way off the ground we hoped he knew what he was doing! Here you can see Marion’s hand grabbing him!
The exit from the temple was a good place to people watch, as the crowds of beautifully dressed locals in amazing colours wandered past.
Our hotel was pretty basic and the shared toilet was a delight but they let us keep bikes in the corridor inside. In town there was a clear tension in the cold air whenever crowds of TIbetans gathered. The police were all over the place dispersing any groups in the evenings especially. Again no issue for us but it was the most visible sign of unrest of the trip so far.
From Derge we headed further into the wilds along the mighty Jinsha river towards Baiyu and our map showed the end of the road.
Soon we reached the closed border with Chamdo/Qamdo province a large number of Police guarded the border bridge, new CCTV cameras over the road had tracked our movement. I don’t think there’s much chance of crossing here,even for the bravest explorer! Riding alongside the river marking the border we could see that each house over the other side flew the Chinese flag, it’s surprising to see such support for the Chinese from every single house or nomads tent in what is the heartlands of Tibet. It’s almost like there’s 20,000 troops stationed here enforcing them to fly the Chinese flag…..must…try….not be too political.
As we carried on along the smooth new tarmac we saw steep mountains and gorges in between were villages and temples. Civilization was getting even more widely spaced which meant we had to carry more food supplies here. This cool village was soon after Derge:
After a comfortable wild camp we rolled in Baiyu or Baixu.
Similar to Dege in feel we carried the bikes up countless steps to get a view of the monastery and the town below:
I love the standard Tibetan motor bikes that they all use to get around on, makes the road much safer for cycling too! This was a back street
In the Monastery here we met more friendly monks wanting to ride our bikes:
While the lady in red and blue in the picture below left Marion quite bemused, she approached us and was super friendly, too friendly, she grabbed Marion’s bottom and held on for an awkwardly long time, like a minute or so. We weren’t quite sure if this was a normal greeting or Marion had been assaulted! Either way we left sharpish!
Another view of Baiyu:
The next target from Baiyu was Yarchen Gar the worlds biggest monastery housing 10,000 nuns and monks. It is hidden from maps and tucked away in the mountains at over 4000m, it would prove to be a spectacular place that made the trip unforgettable. In part 4 we were also forced to hitchhike as the trip ended on a bit of a low note….