Tibet: Southern Friendship Highway

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Southern Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Gyantse was probably the highlight of our entire journey. We cycled through picturesque valleys, challenged high passes and camped next to a holy lake. The Tibetan people, however, are very annoying on this particular area.

Kampa la (4787 moh)

We were awakened early on the morning of July 11th by the sound of children’s voices outside our tent. The day before we’d biked from Lhasa, and in the shelter of dark had made camp in between two Tibetan villages. When we emerged from the tent, we discovered a stream of Tibetan children on their way down the road towards one of the villages. They all had backpacks, so we assumed that they were on their way to school.

This is the day we’ll be going up the pass called Kampa la. This pass has the highest continuous ascent of our entire trip, going from 1600 m to 4787 m, i.e. a rise of nearly 1200 m across a distance of 23 km.

While we’re packing up our bikes a Tibetan family comes to watch. Eventually the family becomes more and more persistent, wanting to get their hands on everything we have with us. In the end, Jardar’s chocolate and Lyngve’s ice tea are given away more or less voluntarily.

Luckily, we’re able to get on our way without the disappearance of any vital equipment. Just as we’re riding off, a Landcruiser stops along side of us, and out hop 3 young Australians and an elderly Dutchman. We had met them the previous day outside of Potala in Lhasa as we were biking out of town. Like us, they were on their way to Mt. Everest Base Camp. We had a pleasant conversation before they got back into their vehicle and drove away.

According to our book Overland Tibet from 2002, which contains descriptions of a number of roads in Tibet, the road up Kampa la wasn’t paved. This is no longer the case. During the course of the last 2 years, the Chinese have paved the first 100 kilometres of the “Southern Highway”. Now only 100 km of dirt road remain on the Southern Highway, i.e. between Nangartse and Gyantse.

The trip up Kampa la pass went reasonably well. The weather was good, about 17-18 C degrees and partly sunny. Overland Tibet estimates the time it takes to get up the pass to be 5-7 hours, calculated on the basis of an unpaved road and probably not fully acclimated cyclists just out of Lhasa. We needed somewhat less time. Lyngve and Jardar, who bike the fastest, used a little less than 2 ½ hours going up. For Eric and Sigbjørn, travelling at a slower, more relaxed pace, it took about 4 ½ hours.

At the top Lyngve and Jardar met an American who told them that the road between the Tibetan border and Kathmandu was closed due to a huge landslide across the road. We encountered light rain and thunder on the way down the other side of the pass. The road descended onto a large lake called Yamdrok Tso. This is a very sacred lake for the Tibetans. We found a beautiful campsite beside the water, which lies at 4040 m.

A near accident / Chinese foolishness

On the morning of July 12th we woke up to the sound of bells and men’s voices. When we peeked out of the air hole in our tent, the first thing we saw was a herd of cows strolling by between us and the water. They were followed by a flock of sheep and horses. The shepherds greeted us with the words “Tashi deli”, which means “Hello” in Tibetan.

Our goal for the day was the town of Nangartse and the monastery Samding, which lies about 10 km outside of Nangartse, on a mountainside away from the road.

The bike trip along Yamdrok Lake can without a doubt be described as one of the highlights of our entire trip. Fantastically beautiful nature and very pleasant people greeted us along the way as we rode by.

Our stay in Nangartse, however, turned out to be not so nice. On our way out of town after a hot lunch, Eric was hit from behind by 2 Chinese youths on a motorcycle. The youth that was driving lost control of the bike, causing him to ram into a tractor that was standing still on the side of the road. The front light on the motorbike was shattered to pieces. Under normal circumstances it would have been Eric who got an apology, since it was he who was driven into from the rear. But there was no apology to be gotten from this youth! Instead, he hopped off the bike, clenched his fist at Eric and pointed to the broken light on the motorcycle. He sputtered a bunch of angry words at us, which we didn’t understand, but we were able to get the gist of it from his body language. The Chinese youth wanted Eric to pay for the damage. That, however, would have been completely unreasonable.

The youth then started kicking Eric’s bike. Jardar and Lyngve, who had ridden ahead about 50 metres, turned back to help. They had to position themselves between the youth and Eric, so that Eric was able to ride away without being knocked down. Temperaments ran high on both sides. Luckily, the Chinese youth didn’t get any support from the large crowd that had gathered, at least not from any of the Tibetans.

We had planned on taking a day trip to the monastery and then return to town for dinner. But now we didn’t dare to, because we were afraid that the Chinese youth might go to the police and make up some story about what had happened. So we decided to ride on to the next pass, Karo la, which is known for its cold, strong headwinds.

Karo la (5050 m)

About 10 km out of Nangartse, the nice paved road ended; a disappointment for some of us and a joy to others, i.e. mainly Jardar’s joy, since he loves off road biking.

On the way out of Nangartse we were overcome by a sudden and violent wind, thunder and rainstorm. We had actually planned on stopping to camp before the pass because of the storm, but on our way up, the bad weather disappeared and was replaced by a clear, sunny sky. So we decided instead to ride on through the pass after all. We had a lot of headwind on the way to the top, but considerably less than we had expected.

Crazy Tibetans

As usual, Lyngve and Jardar were the first two up the pass. The view from the top was spectacular, with, among other things, a mountaintop more than 7000 m high right next-door. But this natural experience was considerably dampened by what we encountered up there. A couple of Tibetan families had stationed themselves at the top of the pass, apparently believing that their main purpose in life was to throw themselves upon innocent tourists arriving in Landcruisers.

True enough, we didn’t come in a fancy Landcruiser, but on two very worn down bicycles. Nevertheless, that didn’t prevent the Tibetans from surrounding us and trying to get us to buy ugly stone crystals – not to speak of their efforts to turn everything we had on our bikes into “gifts” for themselves. All in all there were 4-5 children, three women and a man in the pass. Two of the youngest women were, without a doubt, the most aggressive beggars. Jardar had to hold on tight to his water bottles so that they didn’t disappear. They even wanted the map he had fastened to the handlebar bag – although they had no idea what it was for, not even being able to tell which end was up on the map.

When they realized that they wouldn’t get anything from us, they seemed to become rather desperate. One of the women plucked lice from her hair, which she threatened to throw at Jardar. Having absolutely no desire to be contaminated with lice, Jardar dodged away, the woman at his heels. Luckily, she gave up the chase after a short time. Hopefully, she realized how ridiculously she was behaving.

When one of the girls pulled a pack of gum from her pocket, Jardar decided to try a little reverse psychology on the Tibetans. He ran towards the girl with his hands outstretched, crying “gimme, gimme , gimme!”. The girl ran around in circles with Jardar chasing her, until after a short while he felt that his point had been taken. Apparently this helped, since they became somewhat subdued after that. Instead of giving them material gifts, Jardar decided to provide them with a little entertainment. He sang a few songs at the top of his lungs and spewed out a bunch of silly proclamations in English and Norwegian with an unusual intonation that apparently was to their liking. As the performance progressed he was offered both marriage and a place in bed with one of the women, an offer he declined without hesitation, not in the least considering the hygiene of the persons involved.

When Eric and Sigbjørn arrived at the top, they stopped just long enough to take pictures before we all speeded away down the other side, where we made camp in a gravel pit, sheltered from the wind

Simi la (4358 moh)

Between Karo Pass and the town of Gyantse, which was our destination for the day, there lies a smaller pass, Simi la. The dirt road to Simi la passes through a beautiful natural countryside. Along the way there are lots of picturesque Tibetan villages, which are surrounded by green and yellow fields that seem to illuminate the completely vegetationless mountainside.

Simi la is a pass only about 100 m high and can be done in 10-15 minutes if you’re a fast biker. Just below Simi la there’s a gorgeous lake, quite new. The book Tibet Overland from 2002 describes the dam being built at the end of the lake. While we were at the top of Simi la, loads of Landcruisers stopped. The majority of the tourists were Chinese, and they paid us a lot of attention. Most wanted to be photographed together with us. They also gave us gifts of fruit, drinks and canned goods. They called us “heroes” and said that we were “brave”, a description we didn’t really feel suited us. Nevertheless, it’s fun to be the center of attention now and then.

The trip onwards from Simi la to Gyantse passes through a valley that gradually widens, opening up into larger and larger cultivated areas.

We arrived in Gyantse early in the afternoon and checked in at a better hotel in the center of town, where there was hot water 24-7. Tomorrow we plan to visit the town monastery and castle.

Photo Album

Posted by gfg on Wednesday, July 13, 2005. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

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