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Wednesday, 27 January 2016 06:30

Thin air and Tsampa, aka Our Adventures on the Tibetan Plateau. NiHao QingHai! Part one.

Author: Balazs

Translated by: Pál Capewell

As we wrote earlier, sadly we had to cancel our plans regarding Tibet. For now, one must go through a travel agency to obtain a permission to enter and spend a pretty penny doing so. If that wasn’t enough, visitors are limited in what they can visit and discover while in Tibet. Point is, we would never have the opportunity to slurp yak-butter tea with the locals in their tents, using the internationally accepted communication form of... smiles. We were suggested a website (thelandofsnowes.com), where one can get plenty of information regarding other Chinese regions resembling the Tibetan lifeforms and cultures.

Actually I meant to give this post the title “Two Weeks in Tibet” (which, in reality, is three weeks but two weeks is closer to reality). Though we didn’t officially enter Tibet, everything was just like Tibet, if not more! What do I mean? Let me explain. The Tibetan Plateau does not stop at the administrational border of Tibet, but spans out to QingHai and Sichuan Provinces. The landscape, plant-life, and animal-life are the same. Animal keeping nomadic families can be found here as well (in bigger numbers than Tibet!), and the majority of the locals are still from the Tibetan ethnicity. They speak the Tibetan language and use it around town (even for street signs), and wear traditional Tibetan clothes.

But let’s start from the very beginning. QingHai Province welcomed us with a very dark, desertlike landscape. Inhabitants and drinkable water were scarce, which made our journey a tad difficult, so we decided to hitchhike a bit as well. We got to know a young Tibetan-Mongolian couple, who were sweet enough to have us over for an evening. Cenga Peren, a Tibetan folklore singer, and his wife Majena, who was pregnant with their first child. We were overjoyed to meet a Tibetan and a Mongolian at the same time, as we could not wait to see faces from these two different regions.

We got down to Golmud, where we were fortunate enough to enjoy hot showers from functioning shower-heads, wifi, and a washing machine. Our gas cooker blew two of its seals which we didn’t expect, and had to fix. We found one, yes one, cooker in the whole town - by that I mean the expedition stores - and even that didn’t work properly so we didn’t buy it. Instead, we bought four gallons of gas, an attachable cooking head and hoped it would last until we got to a bigger town where we can get the necessary replacements. We had to restock on food as well, as the small towns we passed only had instant food, from which we had enough for a lifetime. We bought rice, corn flakes, raisins, prunes, banana flakes, honey, milk powder, and instant coffee (ever since Kirghizistan we couldn’t find normal coffee, we have high hopes for Chengdu though!). For emergencies, we keep chicken thighs in vacuumed packing and noodles at the bottom of our bags. For those of you who have not been to China this may be a shock: in China, you can find almost every single body part of any animal, in a vacuum packing. So chicken thighs and legs, duck neck, pork knuckle, and tongue, all sorts of fish and sea creatures are readily available in most stores. Aside from these, I must say they love packing things one by one. Crackers, sausages by piece, boiled eggs, etc could not be easier to get!

On September 15th, we left Golmud on the Lhasa Highway. The name highway is a bit misleading though, it really was only just a two lane road going to Lhasa, via a few unimportant towns. We began our ascend, together with the road. We spent quite some time at a police check-point, as the cops took their time with us. It was challenging to convince them that despite how it looks, no, we are not trying to sneak into Tibet. (We heard of a biker who was turned back HERE, 1000km away from Lhasa!!!)

We were perfectly aware that we had to cross a 4000m-deep pass on our 730km journey to the city of Yushu, and knew what we were in for. Our journey took us through the Mount Kunlun Geopark, we checked out a Taoist Temple, a saint spring, a triple glacier, and the memorial sight of a 8.1 magnitude earthquake. We planned our progress so that we managed to sleep 600m higher every night till we reached the valley. 3100m, 3700m, 4300m, and then conquering the 4763m deep pass, at 4600m above sea level.

The weather was decent, but Mother Nature managed to bless us with some rain or snow every day. What did surprise us, however, was the unseen military presence along our way. Military vehicles and hummers, radar stations, trucks in a never-ending continuation. Enormous tents that were probably capable of catering for hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers. The famous Lhasa Railway went parallel with our path. We saw trains passing in both directions, but instead of the expected passenger trains, they were military ones carrying equipments. The soldiers at their posts seemed quite chill though, smoking away, smiling and waving at us. Looks like this Tibet topic is still very active today...

The higher we reached, the more severe our lack of oxygen became, attacking us in sudden shocks, forcing us to have unplanned stops. It seemed as if the bikes became heavier and heavier. There were nights when we awoke suddenly to the awful feeling of not being able to breath, followed by fits trying to get enough air into our lungs. 

Arriving to the pass was a priceless experience - on one hand we were exhausted from all the work and it even started to snow, on the other hand we were extremely happy and proud for having made it. Not only have we not been this high up before, but we did it this time with bikes! 4763m became our new bike record. Unfortunately our headaches got more and more severe, and it started to turn dark so after a few pictures we continued to ride forward.

The desired destination for that day was Bodunquan, hoping the city will spoil us with a warm shower and a room crowning us for all this hard work. Right before Bodunquan, a snow-storm slowed us down, with such strong cross-winds that we barely saw anything. Luckily for us, it left as fast as it came, and after a turn, we reached Bodunquan. It’s next to impossible to put the sight into words, but I’ll try. Do you remember those good old cowboy movies where the lead hero lived in a dusty little village (of three houses) with nobody in sight, just the wind stirring the sand? Well, it was exactly like that except the sand was dust. To the left of us, there was a car repair shop, and a gas station, to the right a grocery store seeming hole-in-a-wall, a “restaurant”, and a motel/grocery-store/truck-stop. By truck-stop we mean those areas where the trucks can be refueled with water so they don’t get too hot on the steep hills. To be honest this is not what we expected, or at least a bit more life and a decent accommodation. But, it seemed that was our selection for the day. A kind old Tibetan local showed us our choices, and we opted for a 6 bunk room, where, to our fortune, only we slept. The beds were bunk, with very rough exterior and a crepe-thin layer that was titled a “mattress”. Oh and there was an iron stove, and.... yeah, that’s about it. They did crack up the heat for us in the stove though, in all fairness to them. 

We were never the picky ones, but in that physical, emotional and mental state, we’d have sacrificed a tad more on the altar of comfort. Power outlets nada, and we even had to request for the light to be turned on in our room, as that also was at the hand of the owner. In favor of those with sensitive stomachs and those reading these lines while enjoying meals, I will not go into great detail as to what served as a “toilet”. Let it be enough that it forced me to go out into the fields very early morning to answer nature’s call. As for water, there was a barrel next to the road outside, with a friendly warning that it’s not drinkable. The patio was covered under dirt, trash and a huge mess. This is the beginning of the time period Eni and I (Balazs) refer to as “going under”.

Instead of tear-dropping over leaving Bodunquan, we quickly turned on road S308, not knowing what to expect. The only information we had was that it goes through the Tibetan Plateau, it is mostly uninhabited (by people) and has an extensive wild-life. The latter became apparent rather soon, as we saw deers, chipmunks, wild donkeys, and yaks wandering around. It was our third day above 4000m, and our headaches reached a severe level, so we had to start taking painkillers. To look at the silver lining, we took turns feeling ill - for me it was the night in Bodunquan, for Eni it was the day after that was very uncomfortable (to use heavy sugarcoating). A lot of people, including us two if I am honest, probably imagine the Tibetan Plateau to be just flat, like an oven pan. Au contraire! It was a slightly hilly, diverse landscape at around 4000m above sea-level. No trees whatsoever, instead scarce grass and yellow-brown moth cover most of the land, upon which animals feed themselves. Tiny lakes and rivers made the view a little more colorful. Due to the hilly nature of the landscape, the road naturally felt like a roller-coaster, going up and down. It was quite challenging to be heading upward at 4500m. We could only do it with regular stops. It felt like someone sucked the energy, power out of our bodies and the air out of our lungs.
Mornings were generally nice, but dark clouds appeared during the afternoons which were much faster than us. These dark clouds produced snow-storms, hails, so strong we had to get off our bikes as we couldn’t keep them on the road. It was very dangerous. At times like these, we just sat by the road under our poncho, freezing, waiting for it all to be over. I’ll be honest with you: wasn’t the time of our lives. Every evening we slept in tents and the evenings became colder and colder, going under zero celsius on a regular basis. Most mornings we came out to see our leftover water frozen.

It was during these trying days that we reached our first Tibetan village. Allow me to write a few lines about them. 

Their faces, especially the males, remind us of the indigenous peoples’ of America. Their skin dark brown and black, and their eyes and hair both black. Men are around 170cm tall, women even shorter. Most of them dress themselves in Tibetan traditional outfits. Men wear knee-length coats with sleeves so long they reach the ground (no idea why). They frequently use one of the sleeves as a wrap around their waist, secured by a wide belt. They either wear hats or head-covers that remind me of the time Tom (from Tom & Jerry) secured a headband on and hid in a cild bassinet - the only difference I see is that Tibetans have more colorful versions with better patterns. Ladies also wear long coats, but their coats go all the way till the ground. They also have the super long sleeves of which they only use one and either tie the other one around their waist, or let it just hang there. They keep their hair woven, even the elderly, with a long ribbon that covers their head. These ribbons are colorful, decorated with large beads and jewelry. They adore rings, necklaces, earrings, which most of the time have an orange stone or bead in the middle. Kids’ pants are quite entertaining, as they have a hole at their backside, enabling them to “answer nature’s call anytime, anywhere”. They squat and push! Oh and do they love colorful decorations of all sorts! They put stickers and decorations on their motorbikes, trucks making them look like a Christmas tree.

How did they welcome us? How did we find the slightly mystical, unheard of, and perhaps slightly over-idealized ethnicity? What is tsampa and what is it like? How was our first encounter with nomads? Read our next post to find out!