Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! When is this volcano going to stop chucking ash up into the sky? Check the media, check the airline website, hanging on the telephone and - nothing! Still it fumes. As if Iceland hasn't caused enough problems what with the banks and all that! Anyway so here is where the story begins - Monday April 19th - my flight from heathrow terminal 4 has been canceled and I spend the next two days pacing the flat and fretting I will never get to go on this life changing trip.
The Sky News reports and all sorts made it see that getting back to the UK was harder, but that flight delays could stretch to a week. When I hadn't heard back from Etihad, I made a decision - Laura asked me if I would pay an extra 500 quid to go on the trip. I said yes, and as I wasn't sure how long the backlog would be I went onto opodo.co.uk and booked the smae flight but leaving on Friday 23rd - the last date I could get to Kathmandu in order to get my tibet visa sorted.
Within 12 hours of booking (not sure I am now valid for a refund) Etihad called me and said they could get me on a flight on the 21st, which I had to take - I was going spare by this point. I could have taken the refund and stuck with my Friday flight but then what if the cloud came back? I bit the bullet and accepted and on Wed 21st in the evening, Mum came ovr and picked me up and drove me and Laura to the airport. Terminal 4 wasn't nearly as packed or manic as you would imagine and I was checked in within 10 minutes. Then Laura bought me a farewell dinner at the Weatherspoons and then I said goodbye and was emotionally off through security.
Etihad is a great airline and the comfort and entertainment was top notch. Even when the girl behind passed out in the aisle the staff were impeccable in getting her back to consciousness again. We landed in Abu Dhabi and my arse hurt from the seams of my boxer shorts - not a good sign with an impending 1100km ride looming.
Spending 6 hours in Abu Dhabi airport was not my idea of fun. It was so sterile and commercial and money orientated and I was glad when my connecting flight finally took off and I got the hell out of the desert. The Arabs in all white with prayer beads are worth watching for ten minutes and the cleaners who literally sweep after you like some demented monks. And no you can keep your $17 duty free 50+ Nivea Sun cream thank you and no i don't want the chance to win an oil rich Ferrari sports car either, but it would appear I was alone on that one as the $20 tickets cramming the transparent lottery box in front of the Bulgari and Starovsky diamond shops was overflowing! I sat next to a quite cute 23 year old Nepali student, who was studying water preservation in Cyprus. Her passport in true Asian style said she was 30! She took photos of us and the guy in the row behind for no reason other than to be friendly in that weird way only Asians can, but we had a bit of a chinwag anyway which made the journey pass. Finally we landed in Kthmandu and the airport hjasn't changed in 7 years. What has changed I was told is that the population has gone up from 700,000 to 2.8 million in just 8 years, a result of a change in coalition government and the abolishment of the royal family and the unofficial inertia of the Maoists forcing people from rural areas into kathmandu Valley for protection.
So the first thing I noticed, after the obligatory taxi and money change men in the airport, was the huge numbers of people and traffic and it seemed more like India than the Nepal I remembered from 2003. The faces as well, from dark as Bangladeshis on Brick Lane, to Chinese and Tibetan eyes and everything inbetween - really great! Mohan the tour guide picked me up on the evening of 22nd and dropped me at the Hotel De L'Annapurna, one of the best hotels in the city. I felt a bit alone as everyone else had arrived for the trip earlier in the day and flown straight to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I was awaiting only the arrival of Matthew Westby, a lad from Sheffield who was due on Saturday, the day before we were off to Lhasa.
After a decent night's sleep I had a swim in the pool and abig breakfast and my guts started playing havoc with me straight away - not sure if that was the food or the 33 degree heat? On the way into Thamel, the main central tourist area of the city, I came across Mohan's office as I wanted to clear up a few things and hassle him into doing the sightseeing tour for the following day, which he kept a bit quiet about. As I was the only person there I wanted to maximise my time the best I could. Then Mohan hit me with the bad news, even though i had missed two days of the tour already and would miss the first 100 of the 1100km of the ride because me and Matt would have to acclimatise in Lhasa (3700m above sea level) for 1.5 days before riding. Thus we had to get a change of flight, a seperate transfer to Lhasa from airport and then an early transfer to lake Yamdrak to meet up with the others in the group and start riding from the 3rd day onwards - this cost an extra $400 on top of the $2000 (inc guide tips) I expected to pay. Ouch and what a start! Possibly 500 quid down on a flight (hopefully I can convince them to give me credit otherwise i won't use opodo again) and $400 down on tour charges. I met Biplove for the evening and it was great catching up over a few beers - his wife only gave birth to his daughter 6 weeks ago - and reminiscing about the last time I was here and what can happen in 7 years! I rolled home drunkon the back of his 350cc Enfield Bullet and was glad I left a slice of pizza in the mini bar fridge which I devoured before falling asleep.
I was assigned a tour guide on the 24th April and he took me to Bhoda, the buddhist stupa in the valley. it was fascinating seeing the prayer wheels and people walking around clockwise and all the prayer flags, door hangings and Tibetan influences. I was cajoled into buying a piece of art from a student at one of the monasteries and then we headed for bhaktapur and some Hindu temples, where like Varanasi in India, they burn they bodies of the deceased at the side of the river and then send the ashes downstream towards the Ganges. Quite harsh - there was also an old people's home there for people over 60 without family that Mother Teresa helped to found. It was very sad to see - almost like a leper colony - with decrepid and disabled oldies everywhere. There was also a Cornea Excision centre which took the eyes out of any donors before they went to the river funeral pyres. The river was filthy and polluted with sewage and rubbish and that was as sad as the old folks. Finally the guide took me for lunch near Darbar Square, Patan (the famous old Palace Square) which is 80 % buddhist area. I spent an hour looking through the museum and its garden before heading back into town past a student and political rally, also past the statue of the first woman to climb Everest on 22 April 1993 - Pasang Llama Sherpa - who tragically died in an avalanche on the descent.
It had been so hot that I felt a beat of sunstroke and jumped into the swimming pool to do ten lengths before the sun fell, then I finished reading my Bill Hicks biography and then Matthew Westby arrived to share my room. A nice 26 year old lad from Sheffield, a tall, gangly journo for the 36p Hull Daily Mail, who had brought his bike from the UK and was hoping Wednesday would avoid relegation on the final day with a home win against Palarse. Being a typical tight-fisted northerner Matt was also unhappy about the extra charges we incurred but we re-assured each other that this truly would be the experience of a lifetime and whacked the credit card out!
We showered (not together) and went out with Mohan to a restaurant called Utsav, a Nepali cultural programme. We had a few beers and some rice wine and a masive Thali meal. the culture was provided by dancers doing nationwide folk dances accompanied by musicians. Towards the end came Mohan's home town and then at the very end they invited the restaurant up to dance with them and I just copied all the hip and hand movements of the best looking girl dancer and laughed my way painfully through the embarrasment as she smilingly encouraged me as i went for White tubby Bollywood idol fame. Matt looked just as awkward. We waved goodnight to Mohan and went back to the hotel at about 10 o'clock.
Mohan met us in reception at 7.30am the next day and I left a bag of stuff in left luggage to try to lighten my load a bit! Then we were whisked off to the airport. Matt had to pay an excess baggage fee which we were not told about so again the griping began, but it was just the lack of communication. Later we found out annie benyon, a Welsh lady who had to cancel due to the volcano had to pay $1600 anyway to make up the group money. It would be interesting to know after paying staff and accomodation costs what the true profit was for each paying customer.
Our Air China flight took off at 10:45am on time and it was a bumpy turbulent flight all the way. Matt and I were amazed by the distance of the Himalayas as we flew - they seemed so close and the were, only about 5000 feet below and to the side of us, alot closer than any flight over the alps. For the first time we were daunted - we had to cross those bad boys on nothing but a bike with our own measly legs and determined minds as fuel. We landed in Lhasa about an hour later but it at 2pm local time (2 hours 15 mins ahead, like the whole of China). To pay homage to our arrival my guts decided to play up and before we had even cleared customs I was pebbledashing the bog, one of very few western toilets to come (mainly squatters) - a very sterile and clean Chinese airport which i was not expecting come the state of Kathmandu. We cleared customs with no problems handing in part one of our two part tourist visa, although our passports were not stamped which I was a bit gutted about.
Because we were two days behind the group, we were assigned a stand in guide called Jigme, a 24 year old farmer's son who lived 65km from Lhasa, the same distance as the airport from the city, which seemed a bit strange considering how flat, dusty and arid it all was on the plateau. We were given the option of being driven to meet the group straight away and thus not lose as much of the 100km+ that we would lose, but acclimatisation (3700m) was very important and both me and Matt felt it straightaway. He got knackered out just assembling his bike, which after all that had been damaged in transit when it had been dragged along the floor, ripping a hole in the bike bag and grinding down a couple of cogs in the process, he also had a few problems with the fluid in his rear hydraulic brakes over the next two weeks, but it would only cost him half a day's cycling, so he was lucky in a way! I on the other hand went on the search for a bike. The streets were very Chinese and grid-like and not a patch on the old Tibetan quarter which was much more like you would expect, lined with market stalls and live animals and vegetables of all types and people with face masks on and dead Yak meat on boards, not that i know how anything can grow including animals in this arid climate. After a dinner of Yak steak, I truly had the Brad Pitts and was scared i would go through my whole allocation of immodium before the end fo the trip. I ran out of water and wandered the hotel (like The Shining) and the deserted streets at 4am, insomnia brought on by the dry air and the altitude and time moves very slowly here.
Next day, I had to forgo all of the sightseeing but the Potala Palace, which was incredibly detailed and was home to the Dalai lamas from 5 to 14 of the past until 1959 when the 'revolution' happened and the current one (14) exiled to Dharamsala, India, although outside the Palace Jigme forbid us from talking about any of it saying we could be arrested as the Chinese flag waved above our heads from the main square flagpoles - very militant. I managed to find a bike shop and had to settle for a Giant ATX 680 17" frame (at home I ride a 19") as they are quite small people here. It had 21 Shimano gears, front suspension and a decent seat. She added a water bottle bracket, a lock, 2 inner tubes and a helmet for $320 - I have been told I can sell it in Kathmandu for half that, which means it will have cost in effect $10 a day to rent. I could maybe have got her down to $300 but i could not be arsed and was just happy to have sorted out the problem. Now I was ready to go! We had an amazing dinner in the old town local - 70p for a bok choi noodle soup which was delicious and then went back to the hotel for we had to get up at 5am to catch up the group 100km up the road (another price to pay we would only complete 1000 of the 1100km, though no ones fault still gutting!).
Packed ready for the early start and was eating boiled eggs by 4.30am, only the road by five. We climbed a 25km 1000m climb towards the end of the ride that looked brutal but beautiful and was rewarded with the Tobetan prayer flags of the first pass and the equally exciting downhill section down to the campsite by the shores of jade green Lake Yamdrak at 4500m.
We waved goodbye to Jigme and hello to Marty, who had a wispy Chinese style beard on the go and looked really happy. Over the next two weeks we would bond and have fun and share some pain and he would tell me how he had really fallen for this place Yang Shuo in Guylin, China where he had been for the past 3 months and he wants to go back to rock climb and teach english and just live for real cheap - he knows an English guy there that pays 50 quid a month for a 3 bedroom house. We met the guides, Lhaba (29, who we later found out was a not very good last minute replacement for the regular guy who had a family issue), the ever reliable Calden (29). Then there was a beefy musclebound 'granddad' cook who looked mid 30s, Shiva (30) and friend who helped with everything, 2 drivers whose names were never discovered, one who smoked alot, one who slept whenever he could. On top of this was Calden's cousin Dawar, 20, a young virgin Sherpa who competed in cross country mountain biking events - a very nice lad and very helpful - he was just using this and the altitude as a training exercise and will do another one in September, although he mucked in especially helping put up tents and at dinner times serving.
The rest of the group was dominated by a bunch of Canadians, who under guide Scotty, operating out of Toronto - made up nine of the fifteen. Another interesting thing was that only Linda (22) was below 50 years of age, not that it mattered such was their fitness and zest for life. There was Brian, a glacier-trekking fitness freak of a 50 year old from Vancouver with a Santa beard. Norm, Chuck Norris' elder lawyer brother from Edmonton, Mike and Martha, a newly dating cycling mad 50 something couple form Calgary with kids from previous unsuccessful marriages, Literature teacher Jay (Martha's brother, Toronto), Frank, a half Italian (the bottom half!) loud mouth nice guy, deadly Doug, a quiet guy with mad blue staring eyes who got sick pretty badly and had to sit a few days out in the truck, as did others. Then there was ex-pommie doctor Roger, a very witty camp guy who would make outrageous statements and speak too fast almost apologising for a comment before he had fully finished it - he had lived in Invercargill, New Zealand for 20 years and had two daughters 'that I know of!' The 2 Americans that made up the group were Magdalena, a Mexican who had lived in Houston, Texas for 32 years but whose English seemed to diminish with each day of her arduous trip (she was unable to do almost any uphill, which meant she spent the longest of anyone in the truck). There was also Mary Ann, a 63 year old 4th generation air to the Pepsi-Cola corporation, who spends her time as a fitness instructor between Sarasota, Florida and Tucson, Arizona where her son, 30, lives and manages the South West region of the company. It must be noted that when she flew out to join the trip she brought 15kg of chocolate with her (about as much as my bike weighs!) and seemed to eat very little else which was a little worrying considering how anorexic she looked. That made up our strange but intriguing group of mad cyclists.
Day 3 - 27 April: After an omelette on toast, we cycled into a headwind for about 70km, rising up about 250m and camped at the valley before the Karo Pass, where Marty and I went for a climb to explore a glacier and lake up a mountain that would not have looked out of place on Mars. After dinner, it got so cold under a full moon that I nearly froze to death in my tent (my 1 degree sleeping bag not nearly good enough for the minus 15 degrees it got to!) as a blizzard set in. I did not sleep a wink and was texting my brother for gossip and football results just to keep myself sane in the cold. By 7am and a wake up call by Shiva with a cup of tea, I had filled a 1.5 litre bottle with yellow piss and my water bottle had frozen solid, the thermometer on Marty's bike read -12 still. Climbing out stiff as a board with several layers on it took an hour for my fingers and toes to warm up. Calden said it could get colder at Rongbuk monastery (5150m up and 10km from Everest base camp) and to buy a decent blanket when we get to Shigatse.
Day 4 - 28 April: The first climb after breakfast was 8km long into a headwind, climbing up 260m so we breached 5000m for the first time. We were rewarded with a great downhill to the base of the 5560m glacier Kharoa and some locals from the huts were there to greet us. Most of the kids are cute and filthy, but alot of them beg and 'Hello, money! Hello, money!' isn't the best thing you could hear. The day continued with a few more 200m climbs and downhills to match (one of which i took too wide and clattered into a metal barrier and Linda did a 200 degree flip and landed on her collarbone- oops!), before a flat and welcome 30km ride into the 4000m town of Gyantse for a night in a dusty hotel, although far better than I had imagined with electricity and windows and decent bathrooms it is a treat to have a shower and a dump without squatting in the toilet tent or behind a rock. The road was tarmacked 2 years ago (one good thing the Chinese have brought to Tibet!) and it is a joy to ride on - I actually believed we would be on crushed gravel the whole way which (as I learned later on the off road sections to and from Everest, would have made the trip far more tricky!).
I had to do a dump immediately and when i came back all the room keys had gone. This is something that should have been organised before and where Lhaba's poor English, lack of communication and organisation were found wanting. Eventually Marty agreed to share Doug's room and I slipped in with Matt. Before dinner we went to an internet cafe and I was astounded to see the Chinese have annexed youtube and facebook. Had one of many to come Yak yoghurts - 20p from all good retailers - and got ready for dinner. This is where things got interesting. Marty, used to eating for very cheap in China, said me, him, Matt and Linda should go to a local place while the group was going witht the guides to a tourist place. In the end we reluctantly agreed as we didn't want to cause friction or division in rank so early in the tour, but it was a grievous error.
You know when you see Tibetan, nepali, Chinese, italian, and chips on the same menu that they will do all of them averagely and it wasn't that which got Marty and mine's blood boiling. It was the fact we had to wait 90 minutes, most people had eaten and were leaving, but when our 'lamb dopiaza' arrived it was terrible. Rancid butter on the naan and tough as old boots mutton in the curry, I changed mine for chicken chow mein after calden stopped me leaving but Marty chucked his money in and left for a more local cheap place, furious. Linda didn't help matters by eating all of the rejected food and then saying she was so full (while I was still waiting for something edible) and then claiming that I just wasn't used to it as it wasn't westernized - fuck off! How patronising is that to an open-minded man that has eaten in 60 countries around the world? To be honest though, other than talking in a very distinct way and often at great length when a simple answer would suffice, Linda did nothing else to annoy me the whole trip. Ate after 9pm, threw my money (a fiver) down on the table and walked out to my room. It was the first of probably 3 times that I pissed Calden off and for which I would later apologise. Lhaba was no doubt at the Gyantse whorehouse, a place he admitted freely that he visited saying it was as necessary as food. A nice guy, but he couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery (i was gonna say get laid in a brothel, but he knew how to do that alright) when he was there so he often just left it to Calden to take responsibility, which considering Calden (and Dawar) was the only guide who cycled with us, was pretty unfair.
Day 5 - 29 April:
Got about 4 hours sleep last night - a marked improvement and the Brad Pitts seem to have finally cleared up now, which is a blessing. Enjoyed a rather random but welcome egg, chips and beans breakfast before an eventful 90km flat ride on the bike. I opted for the cycle shorts as the sun was pretty hot today, but I got 2 rather painful burns. One on the back of the calf, the other a fruit salad line across my (riding commando) bell end - gutted! The ride was so flat that 90km felt like nothing and we arrived in Shigatse in plenty of time, although Matt's brakes finally started to give him a bit of grief. We saw some sheep leaping across the road, some Yaks pulling an old fashioned plough and an Eagle, although all the other wildlife seems to be the same dusty sandy colour as the landscape so its hard to see when you're going past at 25kph. In the afternoon, before Lhaba's '20 quid massage appointment' (how does he afford it?) we went to Theushun Po Monastery, a kind of little winding village into the mountain at the far end of town. This was as good as Potala palace, not as regal or large, but a grewat opportunities to take photos of people and the Buddhist monks as they walked around. As we were leaving, an elder monk in front of us stopped in the cobbled street, fiddled with his robes and then a jet of urine splashed out the bottom. We passed by giggling to ourselves. On the way back into town i managed to buy an ex-army surplus blanket for 4 quid (40 Yuan) and we giot caught in a sandstorm tornado that threw and twisted cardboard boxes and things hundreds of feet into the air. Marty caught it on video and its mad - I could feel the sand and grit in my teeth after it had subsided. Overjoyed by our day and another hotel with porcelain, we decided to eat dinner at Dico's (a Chinese KFC). Marty and I ate 2 burgers and a fries each and then shared a bucket of chicken too in our greed, but hey if you can't treat yourself at 4000 metres above sea level (which is meant to diminish your appetite -yeah not when you are burning 5000 calories a day!) then when can you!
Before going to bed i had an ice cream and a bath (a god damn bath!) and Marty decided to play a trick on Matt (in the next room). He called him up pretending to be a Chinaman speaking Engrish from leception, saying to please hurry downstairs where 'bicycle is bloken!' Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door and our laughter had just died down when Matt came back to berate us. he was a good sport about it but i think we cursed him for in the morning his brakes had ceased to exist and unless he could fix it in Shigatse this would affect his deserved enjoyment of any downhill sections which would be far too dangerous without brakes.
Day 6 - 30 April:
At my 30th birthday breakfast, I was greeted with pleasantries and well-wishes from the group and Mary Ann told me that if I was her son she would be proud of me which was nice! An awesome 100km ride into a headwind was ahead of us though, so i couldn't rest on my laurels for too long. There was a few ups and downs but mainly another rolling day where we only ascended 200 metres and camped in a sheep grazing area (that means like ten metres square of mossy green outcrop) with a stream next to the Gyachung Monastery (4100m) and cattle bones everywhere in a desert/moon/mars landscape where you can't believe anyone lives. I was so tired after today and a bit emotional when I called mum and she choked a bit saying dad would be proud. To date I have raised 1200 quid for Cancer Research UK and this alone will keep me going. I want to be one of the five (out of 15) who never rode in the truck and am just gutted that I missed the first 100km because i know I could do that too and hopefully doesn't invalidate my claim too much! Spoke to Laura too which was really nice and will probably be a huge part of my UK phone bill (at least 200 quid - ouch!) and got lots of good wishes and textsa from people which I tried to reply to all. Had a wash in the shower tent and set up my new blanket and bags in my tent to make it nice and cosy (glad I don't have to share with anyone else) and then shovelled home another carb-fueled dinner (pasta, rotis, chapattis, rice and chips), but right at the end Calden presented me with a beer and a birthday cake with Happy Birthday 2010 TOM on it. I was shocked and had to wait for the lotus flower candle to open before it did an electronic version of happy birthday with mini Top Gun-esque afterburners - pretty cool! I miss alot of things about home right now but that was a nice touch and i went to bed happy and actually slept well under the most amazing stars (definetly in the top ten) i have ever seen and thankfully wasn't cold at all.
Day 7 - 1 May:
Today we covered 67km with no lunch, twelve of which was a gruelling uphill into a head wind over the Yulong Pass (4520m) and the remainder of which was down and flat into the town of Lhatse, where we camped beside a stream and some farmland at 3860m. We had some more time to kill so played a few rounds of (cards) shithead, sunbathed as the weather was good listening to Johnny cash and then Linda, Marty, Matt and I went for a cool off in the cold glacial stream. I chatted to Mike about the ride he does from Calgary to Austin Texas every year to meet up with Lance Armstrong's ride for cancer. They ride in 4 groups of five riders (6 hour shifts, 24 hours a day) with ambulance, support crew and vehicles to get the next team in position. Pretty impressive and Mike talked about a peloton which into this headwind could yet be a fantastic idea, although i like the idea of Me, Matt, Marty and Dowar as we tend to ride at the same kind of pace (that is when Dawar isn't picking up his bike on shoulders and running up the mountainside cutting out the sweeping bends for training!). I really can't see any weight coming off me and maybe the energy and protein powders and the mental need for routine aren't helping. Oh well, its not the end of the world, although I had planned on going home a bit of a specimen! Before dinner, we saw a cattle herder picking up stones and slipping them into a sling, which he would rotate around his head cowboy style then fling the rock 20m and it hit his yak in the bum. This way he shifted him to wherever he wanted to go, amazing!
Day 8 - 2 May:
Today was a brutally tough day which started off in the worst possible fashion, climbing a continuous 21km up to the Lakpa Pass (5248m), where the sight of the prayer flags could not come soon enough for anyone. After it was slightly down and then rolling flats through Sierra Nevada type desert, except this time we got a first glimpse of Quomolonga (Everest) and some of the higher 8000m mountain peaks of the Himalaya. It kicked off a bit at lunch, because not for the first time the support truck had left someone massively behind (Magda had already been found almost crying with a loose slipped chain one day). This time it was Marty who still refusing to take off his jeans had the mantra of marathon not a sprint and never was this more evident than today when he arrived nearly 30 minutes after the rest of the group. Scotty, who took it on himself to be a spokesperson for all, told Lhaba he wasn't happy for anyone to be left that far behind the truck in case altitude sickness or fatigue set in, let alone any flat tyres or problems with the bike where said person may need help. We did have a 40km ride down into town but it was still into a headwind and despite the refuelling soup and carbs at lunch, i was pretty exhausted and sweaty. Dawar helped massively in a 3 man peloton blocking the wind so we could almost streamlined off his back wheel without expending so much energy - the Sherpa legend! So we arrived into the the town of Shegar (another wild west one horse town) in Dingri province, close to Quomolonga national park for our last night in a hotel for 5 nights. We decided to pay our cooks 50 yuan (5 quid) each to use the hotel kitchen facilities and they didn't disappoint, making an amazing chicken curry and aloo gobi dal bhat and apple pie and custard dessert which was most appreciated by all and highlighted what a decent effort they made in a camp tent with a gas cylinder each night. The kids here were especially dirty and inquisitive, playing with our bikes and asking for money. I had a bath and then watched Anchorman on Marty's laptop and was in bed by 11pm reading and listening to music, glad i hadn't the need to crack open my can of emergency oxygen yet (probably like Spaceballs' Perri-Air).
Day 9 - 3 May:
Still a week to go and so far (touch wood) my arse is holding out and I feel good. Yesterday was hard but today could be harder as we leave the Lhasa-Kathmandu highway and head on the energy sapping steep rocky off-road to EBC. First we had to climb 1100m over 25km, which we managed arriving at lunch exzhausted and low on air. Marty really did off-road large sections of this sweeping 42 switchbacks by carrying / pushing his bike up the sides of mountains to gain distance advantages. Although it looked as hard at lunch it was i who looked more tired (probably the hardest thing i have ever done) and thank god for the MP3 player music that got me through). in fact he said he felt rested as he had used different muscles whereas for the first time the lactic acid poured into my calves and quads and i felt truly drained. I did the one foot wide offroad downhill trail for 10 minutes before frank and I decided to get back on the road. i was sure I was going to plummet off the hillside and didn't have enbough faith in my brakes. Also it was cold on the way down and I had no grip from my all weather mittens, so while Marty careered down the hill helmetless and in jeans like a maniac, I got back on the bumpy road and by the end could barely straighten my hands out i was holding on so tight. 25km later we arrived to our camping spot in the Rongbuk Valley 1000m lower at 4200m and I was spent - thew physical first half and the mental concentration needed for the downhill had made it a truly hard day in awkward terrain. I finished my Bill Hicks book which was excellent and inspiring and gave it to Marty with a pair of cycle shorts and jersey I know I will never see him wear. I am on Lord of the Flies now which I hope to have down by Sri Lanka so I can start my third book. After a starchy carb-filled dinner, I read some LOTF and was asleep exhausted by 10pm, glad tomorrow was meant to be an easy day.
Day 10 - 4 May (May the forth be with you on this, Star Wars day!):
Today was billed (another problem Mohan needs to be made aware of on the less than accurate itinerary) as an easy 35km ride to Rongbuk monastery. Calden said there would be some uphill but we should make it in plenty of time. Now mentally I clearly hadn't prepared myself as in fact it was another 1000m climb to an altitude we would have to stay at for a day and a half - 5200m - to Rongbuk Monastery and our rest day at EBC 10km away. Firstly it turned out the 35km was in fact 47km on some of the worst bolder strewn arse wrenching roads imaginable. Marty and i counted the km markers but couldn't go more than 2km without stopping such was the lack of air and pooor quality of road. To add to this - again the truck was nowhere to be seen and when it finally came back i had a massive go at Lhaba for leaving us stranded with no water or energy left. He chucked us an apple and a juice carton and said it was 2km more - in fact we later found out it was 7km further and it was these little infuriating mind games that made him unpopular, not per se his actual character. We got a view/photos of Everest 10km away as we climbed over Everest bridge and past the Rongbuk monastery, a weird 'Shining' hotel and a few yaks and pigeons? (yes identical to London ones!) and into camp. I fell to the floor so tired I thought I was going to puke. It took me 30 minutes and a bowl of soup to regain my composure and then I set my tent up and wore two to three layers all over my body as the snow began falling. This was what it was all about and I felt truly tired and exposed for the first time, glad we had a day off. Magda and Mary Ann got altitude sick right away and had to be taken down to Tingri where we would arrive in 2 days. We all crashed trying to keep warm after dinner.
Day 11 - 5 May:
Man, the snow abounded and the visibility was poor. We got to a tented camp 4km from Base Camp through a gravel moonscape and one tent declared itself Hotel De california (you can check out any time you like, butr you can never leave seemed strange but true of this place). With so much time to think and so little air you can become quite calm and philosophical up here, but that changed when Doug sent a postcard from the highest post office in the known world. I asked him where he got it and he said Lhaba gave them all to Scotty (why didn't he hand them around - lazy fucker!). Turns out it was a China pre-paid mountainscape postcard which they stamp EBC before posting. If yu want it to go outside China its an extra 10 yuan (a quid). Of course Scotty had them all inn his tent - 6km back - ruddy nice one and the post office wasn't open late enough or early enough the next day to make it back, evenb if we got one of the many buses that chucked dirt and dust up into the air. We could still send one but at our own cost (9 quid). Suffice to say (especially as I have no China stamp in my passport) me and Marty were pissed off! To make matters worse after 4 more kilometres - a hard walk at such altitude - we came to the border post and the fecking Chinese military would not let me take my Cancer Research UK banner in. So I did something i regret but that suited my mood I pulled out my Union Jack bandana and let it flutter in the wind as Linda took a photo. next thing i thought I was going to be shot by firing squad as I was surrounded and frogmarched back to the tent, my flag confiscated and the photo deleted from my camera. RThis made me so mad i wanted to write FREE TIBET on my arse cheeks and take a photo of that but they wouldn't let me back up for half an hour when Lhaba finally got the message and came back to escort me. The funny thing was i was actually wearing an England beanie but because the dickheads can't read that was deemed fine. Also if I had just taken it to the brow of the hill I was out of view and could have done what I liked. After travelling so far it was an underwhelming end as we couldn't see the world's highest peak for the weather. I took a FEW PHOTOS WITH IMAGINARY banners and QPR scarf etc which I may be able to photoshop later, but in the end I was happy to pay 2.50 to get the bus back to the tents and let off some steam by having a few beers and a couple games of cards (man how I wish i had brought my chess set, theres no way I couldn't sleep after a hard game of that!) in the dung heated lounge of The Shining Hotel Bar. Linda and Marty seemed to be getting on well and i thought it was just A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE they were shagging each other, but for one reason or other best not spoken about this never materialised.
Day 12 - 6 May:
General Election today ended with a minority win for the tories but a hung parliament as not enough majority to take power. Gordon Brown resigns and Nick Clegg agrees a coalition a few days later that means the Lib Dems will be partly in power with the conservatives and hopefully they can sway them on certain issues and stop them from being a bunch of get the rich richer and fuck the poor bunch of cunts that they already are! That's the hope anyway!
Snow cleared overnight and we were treated to another decent view of Everest (if only it had been like this yesterday). We cleaned up camp and before we set off it had been agreed that the bikes would be taken by truck the 70km (800m down) to Tingri because of the state of the road. Now it was mainly flat and downhill, but very dangerous and 30 km longer than on the way up, and so we spent 4 hours in the truck crushed like sardines as Martha literally commented on EVERYTHING! and asking hypothetical question after hypothetical question until my head span - what is it about woman of a certain post-menopause age? What happens to their inner monologue, does that dissolve too? Mike got a bit motion sick on the bumpy railingless cliff ride down and I'm sure it annoyed the poor guy too. Still I was glad we were in the truck as BOTH knees (left anterior side of left knee and knee cap of right) are now shot!
We arrived and had a late packed lunch in Tingri (4350m), which compared to what we have had was poor. We drove up to the hot springs which were dirty and a bit of a joke, which sucked as we were looking forward to a good soak, so instead i took my shower gel and me and Marty went and washed in the river which wasn't ideal, a dead dog lying a few feet away, but did the job despite being a few degrees colder than the other river we swam in. It was like getting brainfreeze all over your body and it took your breath (and bolx - retracted like a Sumo wrestler) away. We spent an hour skimming flat stones on the water and we were now clean and dust free as the sun set and dinner was all the more enjoyable because of it. Had a few 50p (650ml) beers in the landowners hut and learnt that it was common for a woman to marry 2 brothers and to run the show. Tried some Yak butter tea, which was as disgusting as it sounds and went to bed with my book.
Day 13 - 7 May: Only me, Norm, Marty, Brian and Roger have not been (other than yesterday of course) in the truck yet - that's a third (5 of 15), although i will have only cycled 1000km and them 1100km by the end. Still proud though.
Today we left Tingri and after breakfast cycled 50km of rolling land into a headwind (again!) before lunch. then there was another 20km uphill climb of 700m over the LaLung Pass (5000m), the last significant pass of the tour. That was hard after 2 days off rubbing our sore legs and I very much enjoyed the steep 5km cold downhill into the valley between LaLung and Cross Thang pass after where we saw a Goldhawk perched on a rocky outcrop and Marty went seriously off road again as i stuck to the trusty tarmac all the way down to our final campsite, which looked like it was surrounded by massive sand dunes like the Soussevlei in Namibia. We camped here at 4300m and this was one of the warmer nights as the wind changed and was blocked by the massive rock dune behind us. Here i wrote limericks for everyone in the group that no one seemed interesting in hearing and a quiz that no one seemed interested in partaking - cheers guys!
Day 14 - 8 May:
Getting a bit tired of the group now and need some solitude. Rose 800m up to Thang Pass over 13km (5050m) and nnow this was officially the pat on the back all down hill from here according to the itinerary (or was it?). At the top we were surrounded by peaks including the Shishapangma range 8012m and makalu at 8463. I got quite emotional at the top pumping the legs , the music getting me through and I waited for Matt (who has taken 1 shit in 5 daysd) and Marty for high fives at the top before wrapping up for the downhill (2700m) which would be long and cold. We started to hear birds again and see trees and maybe the lack of life and air up high was why the time seemed to pass so slowly. As we flew the final 10km into the border town of Zhang Mu we were in the clouds and visibility was 6 metres as we traversed through the jungle and the pouring rain - the first for 2 weeks or more. We had an excellent dinner after showering and trying in vain to dry out our gear and then Linda, Marty and me went to a nightclub where a midget was the central dance focus and a smoke machine chucked thick dung smoke out intop the air which was cut by lasers as the songs alternated between the 9 or 10 they had on the jukebox and everyone practiced their moves. Meanwhile Lhaba was off somewhere paying 200 Yuan for a fuck in one of the mainly red lighted brothels in this remarkable town with one long zig zagging street and full of nepali trucks ready to go home over the border at the Friendship bridge tomorrow.
Day 15 - 9 May: It was nice to be down from altitude and in a town again (the most Chinese yet - according to Marty) and most of all wake up after a decent nights sleep in a real hotel bed. Dumped a few items of clothing and off we set for the border, another 8km of fun downhill in no rain with monkeys scarpering in the trees above the hairpin bends this time. We were 2 hours at the border before we got let through and I still forgot to ask for A cHINA stamp - idiot!- but as Nepal is 2 hours 15 behind we didn't in effect lose any time and boy am I glad, because we would need it all to go the 100km to Dhulikel, even if 80% of it was downhill in 35 degree heat. best morning so far as 50km stright down to an excellent Dal Bhat lunch at about 500m, then we climbed steadily for a few hours and rolling way until late in the afternoon, we had a 13km (more like 20km on past experience) steep ride up to Dhukilel Lodge Resort at 1600m. My knees gave in properly 30km from Dhulikel and the heat was so intense I had to borrow a cap from Brian. Also i had to put plasters on my nips before the final climb as they were rubbing so bad. This was the last time me and Marty (now way back) saw the truck with not enough water or snacks as linda powered on ahead and we hadn't been given instructions upon reaching Dhulikel, by which time it was almost 7pm and getting dark. We took a left at the T junction (should have gone right) absolutely at the point of exhaustion and i lost it when we couldn't see Calden (first we hadn't been mentally prepared for the post-lunch difficulty not amde an easier by my knees) and second where was Calden or Dawar to meet the two people at the back. What if we had collapsed or got a puncture as it got dark? Anyway this kind but mad local with sharop teeth and jamjar glasses called O-Jays told us the resort was owned by his uncle and so we followed him another 2km (him running us cycling). In no uncertain terms Marty said we would duff him over if he was taking us to a different hotel and that's exactly what happened. Marty pushged him in the flowerbed and I nearly had to hold him bACK FROM punching the retards face in. the owner came back and apologised on his behalf and we headed bACK INTO TOWN AND TOOK the other way. Over the brow of one final hill and their stood Dawar - a sight for sore eyes (but why not at the sodding junction). We rolled down the hill and collapsed in the hotel lobby with a coke tired beyond belief and pissed off we'd been left again my knees throbbing like a bad headache. We were going to go into town as dinner was $10 buffet plus 23% tax and service charge, but in the end Marty offered to pay and we all stayed. Matt was sick but managed to eat and take a second dump in 8 days so he started to feel better and having missed a bit of today with no energy would be able to ride into Kathmandu with the crazy traffic and hold his head up high with everyone else.
Except at dinner we learnt that all the canadians and roger except Linda were staying so only 6 of us would ride tomorrow. It suited me fine and sort of summed up the differennces (not only iun age but mentality) of the two sets within the group. I still had plans to do my quiz and the limericks but fuck 'em - they could have them by email and make of them what they would. Not really bothered to keep in touch now anyway - I don't want to share my photos and i am not interested in theirs - i want mine because I took them - that's the whole point and with Dave Browne it was a mission to get and sort out all the ones from Peru 2 years ago - and not really worth it if I am honest. Besides i want to retain copyright and maybe try frame and sell some at portobello market this summer!
We had some weed tea with marijuana we picked at the side of the road and i left Linda and Marty to it as i thought they were going to do the bad thing, so i went off to call laura and was in bed by 1am.
Day 16 - 10 May:
I can't believe this is it! A 35km down and flat ride into Kathmandu and after selling my bike for $140 to the hotel owner (Calden would bring it back in the truck when he came back for the Canadians), i nearly crashed as i took a downhill corner too wide and scraped the side of an oncoming bus at 20mph - oops! My heart pounded like a bitch and i was 6 inches from doom, but other than 2 near fatal crashes and one chain slip, my bike has treated me well and it was nice not to have to worry about finding a buyer for my bike in kathmandu so I could sleep easy tonight. Took a photo of me holding the bike up in front of the hotel I left 15 days ago and checked in. Went for a swim and (forgive me) a bargain bucket at KFC and made sure I was packed and ready for my afternoon flight to Sri Lanka after a midday check out tomorrow. Then we went out to Rum Doodle Bar for dinner and ate a Buffalo steak and chips and said hello to Biplove. Then we went to Sam's bar and got horrendously drunk on margharitas and shots of rum. By the time I smoked a joint in Marty's room I was a goner and stumbled into bed knowing I would feel absolutely awful come morning.
This was the Road to heaven and a once in a lifetime experience, but my god was it hard in places and some might even say hellish! Cheers and see you on the other side! x Tom