Into the sky

Tibet.  I’ve wanted visit Tibet for a while now.  It’s not exactly the easiest place to ride a bike to and through though.  Tibet is another layer of complication on the already complicated business of getting the bikes through China.  You have to have a whole lot of extra permits, you need an additional Tibetan guide, and, most difficult of all, the roads have to be open.  In past years when we’ve asked for permits this route has been closed because mother nature has spat the dummy and flooded the place, pushed giant landslides across the roads or shaken the place to pieces, generally destroying the roads and making it impassable.  This year though we’re in luck.  Game on.

The one fly in the ointment is that Tibet will not admit Norwegians.  They awarded the Dali Lama a Nobel prize some years ago and that wasn’t the most popular decision round here so now they wont give them permits to enter.  Our poor Norwegian on his Victory is going to have to split from the party and take a route round the province with our guide and meet us later.

We meet our new driver and our Tibetan guide in Gulmud, wave a sad au revoir to our friend and head for the sky.  The ride rules are going to be very different now.  There is a much heavier concentration of police and plenty of checkpoints on the road.  Along with the police, there is a very heavy military presence in this region so we need to stick to the rules.   He can only let us off the lead for short periods as we can’t go through the checkpoints alone and they get nervous if we sit and wait for the him to turn up.  Fine with me.  Their country.  Their rules.

Gulmud is about 2800m, we’ll be going straight up over 5000m today and staying at about 4600m tonight.  No messing about.  No acclimatization.  Just get on with it.

Get out and start heading south.  Everything is hiding under a cold grey blanket of cloud.  It doesn’t look very friendly or inviting and neither does the border/waiting station.  Lots and lots of police here, and they don’t seem to be of the ‘not bothered’ variety we’ve been seeing up to now. They properly look over the bikes for a start.  They’re very unhappy about the fuel can on the back.  “Empty” the guide tells them.  He’s still not happy but decides it can be someone else’s problem and lets me go.  The guide tells me we’ll have to empty it and hide it in the van later.

0901 0902The biggest warning you get from the guide is about taking pictures.  You must not under any circumstances take any pictures where any military item of any kind is anywhere in it, ever.  Ignoring this rule is punishable by being put in a small metal box in a public square with just your balls hanging out… Oh.. I wonder if I will ever have an original thought in my whole life…

So there wont be many pictures for a while.  Our visit coincides perfectly with a huge military training operation and the place is absolutely full of hardware.  I’m really surprised we’ve been allowed through at all.   Off we go through… off to the sky.  Through the clouds and up and up and up.

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I thought the whole place would be empty.  That there would be just nothing here at all.  The Chinese don’t stick to the normal rules and they beat the landscape into submission, however difficult or hostile it is.  There are poles and pylons and wires running about everywhere for a start.  And the train of course.  I’m told this is the highest train line in the world.  Not just a little funicular railway either.  No, its a proper fuck off big style kind of thing that regularly screams across the scenery.  It’s all a bit weird.

The roads are full with columns of military trucks.  There are 100s and 100s of them.  Crawling along, scrabbling their way up the long long climb like big green snakes breathing out dense black smoke.  This is no fun at all.  And the roads are in a seriously bad way too.  Forget the troughs in Saratov, these are far more dangerous.  Whenever the climb gets steep, big deep slots appear in the road.  Tyre width with straight edges and bloody deep and dangerous.  Once in, you’re in.  You’re not going anywhere but where the slot takes you.  They often go on for 100s of yards and it’s like riding a motorcycle high wire.  Look down and you’re doomed, just keep your head up and try to relax.  Add in a low visibility black cloud and you’ve really got your work cut out.  You can overtake but there are a lot of commercial trucks on the route too and they have exactly the same idea so it’s slow slow progress.  Eventually we get passed the millionth truck and weave our way up to the first peak.  It’s at just over 5000m.  We’re heading up and one of the riders suddenly finds out his altitude threshold  is at 4980m, gets confused in a rut and just dumps it.  He’s not 100% with it and needs some help so the guide grabs him and sticks him on some oxygen.  It’s impossible to know how you’re going to react to altitude until you do it.  Some of the riders have been high before, but none have come this high.  It’s wrong to underestimate its effect, especially as you’re in charge of a 2 wheeled weapon.

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You don’t want to spend too long too high up so a few quick pictures then off and down to about 4500m.  Yep, that should help.  Spend the afternoon traversing indescribably huge high altitude plains.  This looks like where they hold the international weather system games.  Way way over in the left corner we have the red contestant.  Please put your hands together for “Storm”.  All dark and moody and with water and wind to spare.  An real angry looking bastard definitely in the mood for a fight.  And in the blue corner, please put your hands together for “Ice”.  Super tight, super bright clouds swallowing sunlight and illuminating themselves to blinding intensity.  All pointy sharp edges.  Scary and threatening.  Game on.  The different systems move around each other and there are big skirmishes wherever they meet.  The scale of this place is just rediculous.  And, while we are at it, are the roads.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  We’re way up in the mountains and quite a way from the nearest road mending team.  One of the biggest problems is the yomps.  The tamac just climbs and drops constantly and you’re either thrown out the saddle or compressed at about 10g and your tits suddenly hit your toes.  It’s raining and dull too so you can’t see any contrast.  A lot of the yomps are diagonal too so you’re just thrown towards the trucks/scenery.

Stop for a late lunch at the kind of place you would bring your wife, if you absolutely, positively without a shadow of a doubt wanted an immediate divorce.  It’s bloody freezing and wet and hostile outside so we all huddle round a heater and guess what will come out from behind the curtain to eat.  Go out to the ‘toilet’.  This is a first for me.  The ‘toilet’ is a platform built directly over the top of a small pond. It’s not clear what came first… the toilet or the pond…  The whole place is a disgusting dumping ground for everything going in or out of the human body.  Anyway.. back to eat.. I’m sure the cooks don’t use this toilet.  They’ll have a private one, all gleaming white and smelling of roses…

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Body temperatures back to just over 0 degrees its back out into the murk and cold.

Whenever it gets near the destination everyone speeds up, especially when they’re being snowed on or the temperature is only reading 0.5 inches on their dick-thermometer:)  The road is now just disintegrating too.  The trucks are all bunched up crawling over a bridge so we decide to overtake 200 at a time.  It’s all going so well until my brain very suddenly registers a big tear in the road/bridge continuum just ahead. FUUUUUUUUUKKKKKKK… This is why the trucks are all crawling.  They’re slowly having to climb through a 2 ft deep V shaped gouge that’s formed where the tarmac has collapsed where it meets … or used to meet. .. the bloody bridge.  Jesus Christ Almighty….. Bang on the brakes and slow as much as I can but now it’s time to just let go, yank the bars and hope for the best.  I feel about 10 years being knocked off the bike as it crashes through and out the other side and on to the bridge.  Shit.  That was a close call.  All my own stupid fault I know as well.   My room mate later tells me he hit the gouge so hard and fast that it kicked the back wheel right up in the air and he was riding on the front wheel only for quite a way.  Scared himself shitless!

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Tonights destination is Tanggulazhen, another army base but this time with just a couple of shops, petrol stations and a Grotel, a Grotty Hotel below the standard of a torn tent… This is the first full day at altitude and everyone is feeling shit.  Headaches are the main problem and we all have them.   It’s so cold we just run outside and follow our noses to the nearest door with the smell of food and all sit round a small stove trying to keep alive while the owner insists on opening the fridge/outside door to let the smoke out.   The clouds have landed outside and they’re slowly parading past the door like giant grey ghosts. Jesus it’s bleak up here.  It’s these sorts of moments that make a trip like this for me though.  Isolated, cold, sitting under a dull light bulb with friends, eating anything you can find and watching the clouds go by.  All wrapped up, and feeling bad I wander back to the Grotel through the mist, blurred Chinese neon signs winking and fizzing in the damp, distant sounds of machines snoring as they tick over to keep their pilots alive.  Check the horses and give them all a pat on the way through before a fitful nights sleep.  I hope the other riders are all enjoying themselves as much as I am:)

Get up in the morning to find the clouds are late risers round here.  There is ice on the bikes and the temperature is still around freezing.  Can’t see much.  Probably better that way though.  The riders don’t look well at all.  The guide hands out some medication to some of them but they didn’t get much sleep by the looks of it either.  It’s going to be a tough day.  The bikes aren’t keen to start either, especially the BMWs.  My Ktm is fine however, and I’m trying to convince myself that the problem is the key and that it’s all fine now… I don’t try the old key.. just in case it works and blows my theory..



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OK.  So everyone (except me it seems…luckily) is feeling shit today and has altitude related problems.  What’s the plan then?  I know, let’s go higher.  What a fucking great idea:)   It’s Tibet, there is one road, what else are you going to?  Tunnel your way to Lhasa:)

The road up here runs between 4500 and 5000m all day long and the beauty and scale just reaches obscene levels.  Still loads of wires and shit kicking about though.  You have to remind yourself where you are much of the time.  You’re just riding along big open plains at 5000m, so those snow capped mountains you’re looking at, they’re proper high.  Amazing!

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Today will be the highest we go on the trip.  We slowly climb and climb and I hit 5240m just as a parade of mountains and a big lake comes into view.

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It’s not as dramatic as I imagined it would be to be honest.  It’s just because of the scale though.  The whole flippin place is so high up.  No big jutting mountains here, just lots and lots of snow capped lumps! The craggy ones are elsewhere.  Bloody impressive to be on a 2 lane road being passed by commercial vehicles at over 5200m though.

A quick bit of exercise for the camera and we head back down a bit for some bike and body fuel.  Both are using a lot more than usual at this altitude and temperature.  Proper proper cold now.  Yet another checkpoint and out towards Nagqu through the rain and snow.

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The guide lets us off the lead for about 100km at a time between checkpoints.  As we approach the next one we quickly swap snow for sunshine and sheep.  Tibet is just weird..

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Get to Nagqu and it’s an absolute shit hole, the likes of which we’ve not seen so far.  It’s a really big town, still up avove 4000m,  and the whole place is currently under destruction.  The roads are all up everywhere.  0955 0956

The place is just destroyed.  It’s difficult to describe places like this.  It really is like they started building the place and decided to move in 2 weeks later. They’ll just finish it as they go along.. or not.. You go from tarmac, down a foot deep step into mud and gravel in the centre of town, then on to mud, then back to tarmac.  Our hotel seems to be in an area where the army has been practicing urban warfare.   Shit loads of shit just everywhere, piled up on the roadside.  The hotel foyer is full of oxygen cylinders for the faint hearted as usual.  Some of the riders might be taking those to bed with them:)

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Breakfast is… not worthy of the name. Air bread and eggs.  This isn’t going to help my digestion at all.

Usually when I come to China my bum turns into my cock and pisses out hot brown wee for weeks on end but this time it’s exactly the opposite.  I’ve not had to sit on a bog for weeks now…at all.  And my belly has got all swollen up like I’m expecting a food baby.  Sure enough, I woke up in the middle of the night having contractions.  I sneak slowly into the toilet, clutching my swollen abdomen, trying to remember my birthing classes.   My bowel suddenly lets out a long low animal growl.  Oh God, my wind has broken, I’ve gone into labour.. this is awkward..   I breath.. and push… and breath.. and push. The head out but it’s just so broad shouldered it isn’t moving any further.  My screams eventually reach a level when my roomy has to call in the crash team to deliver it by emergency anal cesarian.   After a particularly messy delivered it weighs in at 10lb 7oz.  Everyone agrees it is the spitting image of it’s dad.  I’ve decided to call it Trevor.

Anyway, I leave baby Trevor sleeping soundly in the toilet bowl upstairs and go looking for breakfast alternatives.  This place looks like a bloody bomb site.  No chance of anything here so I get back to the room.  I’ve got to breast feed Trevor..

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I quickly decide there is just no future for me and Trevor so I gently carry him down in the lift and lay him on a huge pile of shit outside in the street.  He’ll be happy there… with all his mates..


Saddle up, and head south towards Lhasa.  Beautiful blue sky,  fluffy white clouds, mountains and Yaks as far as the eye can see.  It’s just sooooooo incredibly beautiful up here.

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Lhasa is way down at 3600m and the scenery soon starts to change as you get near.  The mountains start going from gray to green and it starts to really warm up.  Must be 5 degrees at least…

We get to the outskirts of town and enter some sort of urban vehicle assault course.  This is weird.  I recognise this place.  I’m sure I do.  Now where… OH I know.  I think this is where they came to make  Call of Duty.  Bloody place is just a mass of broken buildings and roads.  “Ping Ping Ping… ” Bollocks.  I’ve been hit.  I’ve taken a sniper bullet to the panniers and a frame weld has broken.  These Jesse panniers are lovely but the frames are shit.  Every trip I’ve ever been on where someone has had them, the frames have broken.  I’ve had a few ‘ghost’ falls when the bike has fallen over but nothing else.  We get out of the war zone and I apply a big bugger off cable tie bandage to stop it flapping about.  It’s just a flesh wound.

We stop for fuel.  It’s all been going so well the last couple of days but here it’s a different story.  “I’m sorry sir.  It appears that you have not been keeping to your daily wait quota.  You cannot leave this petrol station until you’re average is up to the 2 hour minimum.  Now… if you would just like to wait over there… we will be with you …. sometime in the future.”  The guide said it would be bad here and he is right.  The fuel station not only has all the usual barriers/permits/kettle mallarky, it also has several on duty police outside and inside.  They have absolutely no idea what to do about us at all.  In Lhasa, as well as all the other stuff,  in order to get fuel they want to see Chinese driving licences and Chinese vehicle inspection and insurance cards.  They have little cameras that they take photos of the licences on before you can proceed.  We have all of the above and we hand it all over.  Still doesn’t work though.  Wait…wait… wait some more… what are we waiting for?  I’ve been waiting so long now I can’t remember.. The police cannot make their mind up.  They’re just staring at each other.  They want us to go somewhere else so they can get back to waiting on their own…  The riders are getting pissed off now.  Nothing is happening, and it doesn’t look likely to either.  Then suddenly it appears our waiting average has gone back up to the required amount and they just give the OK.  WTF!  There is no rhyme nor reason to it.  Bonkers.  2 hours after we arrive and the first kettle is getting filled.  Horah.


Down into the city we go.  What a weird place it is too.  All squeezed in between the mountains.  The ride in is one I’ll remember forever, with the mountains like giant walls along the roadside.  We come round some buildings and suddenly we’re riding past the Potala Palace.  A really strange experience.  You see it on the screen and there it is, right in front of your eyes.  I didn’t think they would put a big set of traffic lights in front of it but that’s what they’ve done.  Jump off for a quick snap and we’re off to the hotel/doctors surgery.  Reception is half reception and half surgery.  So many people have altitude problems here that they have a proper 24 hour on-site doctor and medical staff.  Bloody hell.  One of the riders is feeling very very rough.  He checks in to the hotel, checks in with the doc, and next minute he’s on his back in his bedroom with a drip and an oxygen mask on…

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I miss Trevor…

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