Monday, 16 December 2013

The Tibet Diaries, Part 2 - Crossing the High Tibetan Plateau While Hiding from the Police

Before I continue writing up the end of my journey to India, here's a quick real time update.

I arrived back in England on July 24th having flown from Mumbai via Kuwait. I intended to cycle the last leg of my journey from Heathrow Airport to my house in Bath but I soon realised something was up. The next day I was in hospital.

For the first 3 days it seemed that I may have contracted malaria as I'd had it two years earlier and the symptoms were similar. Eventually it was confirmed that I did in fact have typhoid fever. After five days locked up in a quarantine room of the hospital I was allowed home yesterday and am slowly recovering. Two months later I also found out that I had Giardia.

Now, back to the blog. Here's a map of every place that I slept from England to India.

View England to India in a larger map

Excuse all this text, the photos start soon! I recommend pressing F11 on your keyboard to go full screen.

Unlike the last blog entry, which wasn't actually in Tibet, the next two entries cover 30 days of cycling in nothing but Tibet. To clarify, there are three different meanings of "Tibet". 1) Historical Tibet: the country which spanned more land than any other meaning of the word. 2) The Tibetan Plateau: the geologically defined elevated plateau running for thousands of miles in every direction. 3) Tibet Autonomous Region (T.A.R): as defined by the Chinese government, this is the name of the province given to Tibet as a part of China.

To make clear some of the shenanigans I was up to in Tibet I must tell you that to enter Tibet Autonomous Region a foreigner must obtain a permit. To do so one must apply along with 4 others of the same nationality, they must all book an organised tour for every day of their permit and they must not stray from their guide who must stay with them at all times. They must also stay in 'foreigner hotels' which are £25 per night (minimum) and they are only permitted to travel to certain tourist hotspots. Independent travel is illegal. I did not have a permit and therefore I was there illegally and had to avoid all police and army.

Where my last blog left off I was in a city just 32km north of the first checkpoint. After that I would have to be careful for the next month or I would be deported like so many others have. The following is copied directly from my journal.

Day 292 - 08/04/2013

Prepared to leave Golmud. Withdrew another 1000 RMB (£107) and got Chinese visa extended. Woman in hotel came with me. Cost 360 RMB (£37). Bought new sim card as old Chinese sim doesn't work in Qinghai state and probably not Tibet. Bought a new battery for my speedometer. Bought 10 instant noodles, 6 sausages (ate on the day), 1 kg of raisins, fruit, Adidas red peak cap to maybe look more Chinese.

Skyped parents. Felt bad about withdrawing so much money on their card (mine is blocked). Planned route with high and low points on map. Skyped Lauren late at night. Showered with bike. Took apart and cleaned dérailleur as I had a strange resistance feeling when pedalling. Oiled everything.

Planned to leave at 2am to pass checkpoint but too tired; finished packing at 01:30. Had shower then got in clean bed which I'd looked forward to all night. Had to solve problems with Feel Jah FM IP address change.

Day 293 - 09/04/2013

Enjoyed sleeping in. Typical morning dreams about sleeping in too long. Got dressed in mountain clothes and boots. Checked out by 14:00. Hotel charged me extra for dirty towels from cleaning dérailleur. I said that 2 of the 3 could be cleaned. Maid tried one and it came out. I was charged 20 RMB for one hand towel.

Lost cycle computer. Found in wash-bag later. Found really cheap good sweet bakery. Ate in concrete park in front of big building. Wrote previous days' entries in luxury bakery after having ice cream there. Withdrew another 1000 RMB, hopefully more than enough for Tibet and Nepal (not including Indian visa).

Topped up petrol for stove on way out of Golmud. Saw Tibetan Mastiff dogs and puppies. First sign for Lhasa and 'Tibet Road'. Very shallow climb; 200 m over 27 km. Slight tailwind. Hot in mountain clothes + cap + Buff for disguise.

Saw dear-like animals run across road and up steep mountain. Very excited for Tibet. Wanted night to come early so I could do checkpoint.

Stopped 30 minutes before sunset, quite cold, 8 Celsius. Using only tarpaulin and sleeping bag to allow quick get away early tomorrow morning for checkpoint. Fruit and Chinese chili snacks (crisps) for dinner. Not much water left but should find river tomorrow. Mountains very beautiful in golden light. Listened to Stadium Arcadium.

Tied opposing eyelets of tarpaulin together to make cylindrical windbreak for sleeping bag

Starting altitude (also lowest) 2844m. Sleeping altitude (also highest) 3053m.

This wall of sand was all I had to hide myself from the road

Day 294 - 10/04/2013

-5°c at night, a bit cold without tent. Woke several times and had several dreams about checkpointWoke at 4am. -3c.

On road by 04:30. No moon. Didn't use lights. Thought checkpoint was much closer than it was, got off road about 5km before. Pushed bike through desert sand; mostly not too difficult. Some big pits to avoid, I went in one. Could have cycled more but couldn't see anything.

Huge 5 metre tall 45 degree wall of dirt running perpendicular from checkpoint to foot of mountains 250m away. I stayed close to mountains. Eventually found a place to drag bike up barrier, very difficult, took 15 minutes. Checkpoint looked very serious, most vehicles stopped for several minutes.

Only cycled 4km before stopping to sleep. Used eye mask as sun was rising. Checkpoint took 120 minutes (90 moving). Birds started singing. Worried that I was still too close to checkpoint; many dreams about this. Woke at 11:30. Bought food and water in garage, very expensive.

SW tail wind all day combined with very gradual gradient made riding and climbing a joy. Often over 25km/h. Took off sunglasses, reversed peak cap and wore buff in the afternoon. Listened same as yesterday. Texted Felix and Giom (Guillaume) about checkpoint details. Strange stomach in evening. Struggled to go to toilet. Camped on bank 50m from road.

Felt positive about completing mountain pass (Kunlun Shankou) tomorrow; 43km (distance) and 1,000m (vertical ascent).

Starting altitude (also lowest) 3047m. Sleeping Altitude (also highest (3931m))

My "camp" from 06:00 to 11:00 after completing the checkpoint

Tibetan Antelope

My humble abode for the last 10 months

Day 295 - 11/04/2013

2.6°c in tent; still cold. Ice in tent. Slept in until gone. Apple and cakes for breakfast. Slept with 1 water bottle in sleeping bag; other froze. Collected 5 litres water from river. Strong wind to south all day. 13/14km/h as approaching pass.

Saw dozens of hamster like creatures running around and into burrows. Golden Eagles too. Got hot water from garage, put it in thermal flask to save using stove for noodles. Why didn't I think of this before? Chinese man gave me plum juice.

Great view of Yushu Mountain. Didn't stop for last 8km/200m up pass, even when my hat blew off. Wind helped greatly. Great section of Rock playlist. Steep at end of pass. 1,000s of Tibetan prayer flags, stupas and monuments. 4785m (15,700ft). Highest altitude ever. No breathlessness at all, maybe due to warm teperature. -1°c at top. Had noodles in the bag for lunch. Brilliant descent. Mostly above 30km/h even when almost flat.

Saw wild donkeys. Full force of wind felt when cycling west. Chinese tourists drove past; stopped ahead and took photos as I passed. I stopped. Lots of photos together; cute girls from Chengdu. Gave me food.

Bought breakfast in day's only village. Saw Tibetan antelope. Reverse view of Kunlun Mountains and Yushu Mountain was superb. Amazed by beauty of plateau. Sometimes very up and down (10-15km).

Was going to cycle 6 hours but saw a parked touring bike. Qing (written in Chinese in journal) is from Inner Mongolia (a province in China). Decided to stay in cheap nice hotel with him (on him). Will try cycling together tomorrow. Best day ever?

Waking altitude (also highest) 3931m. Sleeping altitude 4474m. Highest altitude 4785m.

Looking back on Yushu Mountain

At the top op Kunlun Shankou

Heavy Traffic (for Tibet) on the way down

Wild Donkeys. It's very rare to see donkeys not being used for labour in developing countries so this scene made me happy

Nothing to do but ride!

More Tibetan Antelopes. They were eventually scared off by a Chinese tourist who got out of his car and threw stones at them for no apparent reason.

Day 296 12/04/2013

Slept well. -15°c outside. Noodles for breakfast. Charged everything. Cycled at 08:30. No wind in morning, more in afternoon - rule of thumb. Had to go slow for Qing. Stopped less though. Took good photos.

Tried to get water from Kunlun River but it was too salty. Chinese tourists gave us some water. Lunch after 58km in restaurant, Qing's gift again. Qing stayed behind, I continued. Side wind at times. Finally went to toilet properly after 3-4 days. Up and down small hills most of day. Listened to XFM, Rock playlist, Dance playlist (for pass later on) and Badly Drawn Boy (bad for cycling). Stopped when I saw rain passing ahead for 5 minutes.

Saw yaks, wild donkeys, eagles and Tibetan Antelopes. Passed 5 Tibetans waling with a cart to Lhasa; very excitable, dozens of photos taken. Passed roadblock of broke truck. Wind blowing to SE, the pass was the only road all day going SE so I decided to go for it. Switched speedometer to actual time (as opposed to ride time), helped me to stop less. Didn't look again until finish (this was at 18:00). Didn't stop for last 17km/300m (up) of pass, 19km/h to start. 6/7km/h by finish; legs hurting so much but also felt strong, I'd change up a gear at every opportunity. 4955m (16256ft) at top. Didn't even notice temperature (-5°c), perfect combination of body heat and sweat.

Very fast descent. Lost light quickly. First town on map didn't exist. Second had police station. Third didn't exist. Cycled with lights. Trusted in road condition. Finally decided to camp when I started climbing again at 23:00/4600m. Set up tent quickly. Surprisingly couldn't finish noodles.

Very pleased to see final distance of 180km (112 miles) and 9 hours 50 minutes ride time.

Waking altitude (also lowest) 4474m. Sleeping altitude 4634m. Highest altitude 4955m.

Ice beard. Cycling with someone else created the rare opportunity to have a photo taken of me.

Trying to get water from the salty frozen river

Qing's envy of my bike led to this photo. How proud I am!

Pure joy on the open plains of Tibet!

Beware the yaks!

Kilometer marker 3000. They have long roads in these parts!

I asked Qing to write down (in Chinese) the names of the dishes that he ordered for us so that I could order them when I was alone.

The below video has terrible sound due to the strong wind.

Pilgrims walking thousands of miles to Lhasa.

A gift from a Chinese tourist who past by in a car

I reached the top of the pass at dusk

Day 297 - 13/04/2013

-10°c in tent. Half of body felt warm, half cold. Woke before 09:00 but didn't leave until 12:30; rested. Beautiful view of where I cycled from last night. Got water from stream. Possibly a bit salty. Climbed 4790m pass, much steeper at bottom, became so flat I missed the top.

Saw more Tibetans walking to Lhasa with cart full of belongings. Had 4 cameras on me at one point. Headwind at times. Light headache all day. Applied sun cream in the morning as I was already red. Legs felt a bit empty. Planned to pass Yenshiping, where there are lots of PSB (police) after dinner but it was 120km away. After 70km I kept changing my mind. Was going to go for it but then hail/snow and feeling ill decided otherwise.

Stopped in road construction camp (RCC). Asked if there was somewhere to sleep. Was led to police station round the back. All very kind, gave me lots of food. The boss, 22, spoke a little English. I told him I was going to Golmud, no problem. Slept in dorm by myself. Overall, very surprised to have not been arrested.

More Pilgrims on their way to Lhasa.

Nowhere is the dramatic weather more beautiful or visible than the Tibetan Plateau.

Day 298 - 14/04/13

Woken at 09:00. Told boss I was making a loop when he saw me cycle towards Tibet and not Germu (Golmud). Head/side wind. Legs still felt poor. Hail and snow a few times. Little motivation. Stopped at 14:00 as Yenshiping is only 18km away and I've seen way to many police/army already. Strong wind while in tent. Will cycle after 10pm.

Day 299 - 15/04/2013

Slept with water in sleeping bag to stop it freezing. -7c in tent. Woke many times as I was 10 metres from railway. Earplugs effective but painful after a while. Woke at 3am to pass town with lots of PSB. Huge mental struggle to get up. No choice ultimately. If I want to cycle in Tibet I have to do it properly. Got up after 10 minutes.

On road by 04:15. Came across unexpected checkpoint after only 2km. Assumed they were sleeping. I was going to go straight through (despite flood lights) but then a truck came. I observed from 150m. Not possible to pass on road. I jumped off road when the truck passed so its lights wouldn't show me. Sound set off 4 or 5 dogs. Unsure what to do as there was a river to the left of the road and dogs to the right. Went to the right.

One dog followed me, barking constantly. I threw stones at it to deter it. If I'd hit it the yelp would have given me away. Certain I was caught when a bright light shone on me from checkpoint. Turned out to be a stationary flood light that I'd moved into path of. Rejoined road only 75 metres beyond the checkpoint but hoped that the lights of the trucks at the checkpoint would stop police seeing me.

Lots of dogs in town straight after, was chased by 7 or 8 at one time; put my bike in top gear and hit 35km/h. Not fun when it's dark and I'm not using my lights. Saw 5 or 6 blue and red flashing police lights over next hour; not sure what they are; always stationary. Convinced, again, that I was caught when police motorbike went past me, stopped, turned around and shone its light on me. I just kept going. Was wearing balaclava but me eyes gave me away. Was always relieved when an oncoming vehicle turned out to be a truck and not PSB. I'd turn my headlight on so oncoming vehicles could see me and maybe make it harder to see my eyes.

Temperature was -15°c until sunrise around 08:00. Extremely painful to swallow as combination of high altitude (little oxygen) and balaclava meant I had to keep my mouth wide open to breath causing not only a dry mouth but dry throat. -15°c didn't help either. I'd been rationing water since night before. Finally found a river at 07:30. Had previously tried snow covered river but my foot fell through ice and water tasted horrible. I wore goggles once light to cover my eyes.

Passed Toma, marked as large town on map, a little after sunrise. There was a police station but no activity. Soon after climbed up and around hill onto new plateau and decided I was safe at 08:30. Had breakfast (raisins, dried apricots, 'mini french bread' and (frozen) sausages) facing sun which was warm. Extremely tired but felt great to have beaten the system. Very gentle climb until lunch. Didn't wear disguise.

Came across 100-200 backed up trucks. Put on balaclava and glasses in case of temporary checkpoint. Passed all and saw an overturned truck. This meant the road was all mine for nearly 1 hour. Got more water. Couldn't stop peeing as I'd drank so much in morning to keep throat moist. Similar lunch as breakfast. Small but decent tailwind. Steeper after 4900m. Was doing over 20km/h as I approached 5,000m; punched the air and cried out when I got there; first time ever.

Saw a couple of police bikes who hooted but no problem; probably off duty. Road to pass went up and down several times before reaching the top, making it much harder and longer than expected. Met Chinese couple hitching to Lhasa and Nepal. 5252m (17231ft) at top. Now in official province of Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region - T.A.R). Really exhausted and unsure how much further I should go. Enjoyed downhill but struggled to pedal even on flat bits. I'd reached top at 16:00, 13 hours after I got up. Knees ached when walking. Strong jarring pain in lower-right of back. Probably from the way I start, stop and cruise when on bike.

Found beautiful plateau to set up camp early on. Just needed water first. Found a spring, very happy. Erected tent in pit for wind shelter. Damaged pegs due to rock beneath sand. Greatly enjoyed just sitting in sun with no wind and letting clothes get warm. Eyes stung a great deal. Peak cap broken. Tore sleeping bag liner badly. Slept at 19:00. Got warm clothes ready as I knew it would be cold later. Heart beating very fast; explains difficulty getting to sleep previously.

I'd been riding for 2 hours and 27 minutes and the temperature had still only risen to -13°c


Little Boy enjoying the ride as always. That's my solar panel on top of my handlebar bag - used to recharge my camera, iPod and AA batteries.

A rather lonesome donkey

This must be a frozen spring

I'd never seen a landscape like this before. I was on a plateau at 5,000m above sea level and yet was surrounded by these medium sized hills/mountains

At the top of Dang La / Tangula pass 5252m (17231ft) above sea level. The "cafe" on the left seemed to have closed years ago.

On the other side of the pass, looking for flat land to share with the yaks

The spring from which I filled up my water bottles - I was so relieved to find this!

The pit helped me stay out of the wind and the sight of any police/army. The other option was to sleep under the road (in the black rectangle you can see).

Day 300 - 16/04/2013

300th day and 10 months into trip - 14°c in tent. Inside covered with ice. Not too cold. Easy morning. Not too much food for whole day; raisins and 2 sausages for breakfast. Same for lunch. Sewed adjuster in place on peak cap and sewed elastic in down jacket. Repaired hole in sleeping bag liner with duct tape. Sun very strong; applied cream again. Took photos of mice nearby.

Cycled at 14:00. Very hard to get bike back on road. Stomach ached after an hour, was worried that it could be Giardia; I have medicine for this - bought in Iran. Not much wind but occasional gusts to the East. Met Tibetan at top of 5177m pass with flat tyre on his motorbike. Broke handle of my pump when trying to help. Great downhill, 45km/h, taking racing line on empty bends.

Tried water from river; too bitty. Found better 1 hour later although strange colour. Didn't feel great, only pedalled when necessary. Also washed pan in river for first time in a long time. Listened to XFM, Office playlist and Royskopp. Eyes stinging again. Goggles better than sunglasses. Wind and light feel like main causes.

Wore balaclava as I approached Amdo. Just as well. Policeman saluted me, I nodded back. Felt smug that he thought I was Chinese. Crossed bridge off main road into Amdo for vital food but immediately turned around when I saw 3 parked police cars. Earlier, a police car passed me when I had no cover on and honked to which I waved back. I hope they only care at the checkpoints. Was worried by checkpoint in Amdo but it was only for weighing trucks, operated by traffic police, not PSB, and not functional at the time.

Found a tiny shop on main road leaving Amdo. Kept balaclava and goggles on whole time; must have seemed strange. Answered "Hong Kong" when asked where I was from. 2 police stations passed in Amdo. Saw fastest/fittest dog that's ever chased me. Immediately dismounted and shouted at it and threw stones at it.

1km later 3 really vicious and rabid dogs chased me. Slightly alarmed when one got right up to my bike. I dismounted to the other side and struggled to find stones to throw. Noticed the blood seeping from its mouth and wounds while bent over finding stones that were all smaller than satisfactory. First time I ever hit a dog! Didn't deter him. I was saved by a truck. When I heard its horn behind me I started cycling slowly (like many animals, I'm much more vulnerable when moving) knowing that the truck would fill the road between me and the dog. The trucker held down the horn and the dog moved to the far side of the road. I cycled side-by-side with the truck for 100m and gave him a thumbs up.

Not less than 1 minute later I saw the truck stop at a police checkpoint on top of a hill. This was unexpected. I went down the side of the hill to the ground near a river to go round the back of the hill and checkpoint. Very happy with first shallow river crossing as boots and snow trousers kept me dry in 10cm of water. The second river I had to cross was 20cm deep and I got soaked. Decided water would warm up in my boots and to keep going and deal with it after checkpoint.

The third crossing was downstream of where the first 2 had merged. 20m across. Shallow to start with. Very hard to find way across. Stepped up onto ice sheets in middle. As I was about to step into river again the ice broke. 30cm deep. Pulled front wheel back onto ice. Tried another way. Ice broke again all around me and I was now 45cm deep and all my panniers were in the water. Desperately hoped that my duct tape repair job on front right pannier would hold out. Real physical struggle to get myself and bike back onto the ice without the edge breaking more.

Found a better crossing only 20cm deep. Rejoined road in full sight of checkpoint. Cycled 1km before finding a good camping spot. Set up tent quickly and got changed. Checked inside panniers; all dry, buckles frozen though. Trousers froze within 5 minutes of taking them off. Toes cold only when changing socks. Felt so good/satisfying that I could go through such an ordeal and be prepared/experienced enough to be warm again "in bed" an hour later. I no longer regret carrying too many clothes.

The view that I woke up to

There's no nicer feeling than getting on your bike and seeing road and scenery like this ahead of you

The river water was murky but all I had.

My clothes pannier showing how far my bike and I fell into the icy river

Frozen solid within 5 minutes of taking them off

Day 301 - 17/04/2013

Woke at 08:30. -15°c outside tent. Ventilated tent to get rid of ice. Lots of sorting after manic night. Too hot in night with hoodie wrapped around feet and down jacket  in sleeping bag. Later too cold once above was removed. Wafer biscuits and 'yolk' centred cakes for breakfast.

On road by 11:00. 300m climb to 48xx pass. First steep pass (like a normal pass) in Tibet. Wind gradually turning against me. Kept getting confused by my compass, map and direction all pointing different directions when trying to think about new wind direction. Blowing East in AM and North West in PM. Map distances proven to be incorrect by a long way.

Very hilly all day; most of the day felt like a struggle. Headache at times, 1g Paracetamol worked. Realised I take far fewer breaks and for less time than I used to. I really want to finish this Tibet leg as soon as possible as I'm nervous about being caught and not making it to Nepal and India. Saw police cars, no problem. Wore goggles all day, eyes better.

Spilled 500g of raisins on gravel, spent 15 minutes picking 90% of them up. Found really good food shop, bought a lot of supplies. Very friendly Tibetans. Saw two animals in a chase. Disappointed when I saw it was a fox and not a wolf. Still haven't seen any. Cycled through blizzard and side wind. Trousers just about dry from river crossing. Was going to camp in field but too windy + hail. Camped in pit near yaks.

Thinking a lot about home.

When facing a mental struggle, a low cadence equals low morale, and vice versa.

"Add salt to the pasta water". This is a thought I kept having throughout my time in Tibet. The thought occurred as I was spending so much effort daily on things which I had to do to survive that giving time and value to doing something as unimportant as adding salt to the simmering water while cooking filled pasta in a comfy house back in England seemed unimaginable yet also so desirable. What a relaxed and protected environment one must be in to have to be concerned with a task which has such little effect on one's survival situation as adding salt to the simmering water.

The friendly Tibetan shopkeeper

This is what happens when you cycle in a blizzard and a side-wind at the same time

Day 302 - 18/04/2013

2°c in tent, very warm. Probably due to wind shelter from sleeping in pit. Woke at 07:30 to cycle before wind picked up but had to wait for ice in tent to go. Windy by 8AM anyway.

Convoy of 84 Chinese army trucks stopped on road next to me, I had to postpone packing and stay still. Filmed a close-up of eagle. I briefly cycled in same direction as new wind but turned straight into it after lunch. In very frustrated mood for much of day due to wind and then small things. i.e. my bike not standing up on kickstand. Ate all 3 remaining chocolate bars at height of the foul mood.

Passed through Nagchu, big town. Three check points but just traffic police, wore balaclava and goggles and went straight through. Many police cars and stations in town. Went quickly into a shop to buy food, felt very nervous about showing my eyes.

Found shelter to eat lunch behind just outside town, wind very strong. Teenage puppy joined me. Fed it 2 sausages when it cried. It then followed me as I cycled at about 9km/h into the headwind. He ran behind me for 2 or 3 hours until it found other pups at police checkpoint. I was thinking of making a bag for it to put on my bike for the downhills.

All passes on map are shown as about 100m lower than reality - annoying. Mentally so weak especially once iPod died. Probably stopped 20 times in last hour of cycling. Met Chinese cyclist coming other way, his face completely covered. This is good as it means police at checkpoints may find it normal when I do the same. Camped on plain near yaks and small lakes. Beautiful view of mountains.

I probably shouldn't publish this photo

Below is a video shot of Golden Eagle flying as I passed it. Sightings like this happened on most days!

The pup who followed me for a few hours

It's useful to be able to see the weather systems so far ahead

A torn Chinese flag. The Tibetans benefit from certain "rewards" for having this flag (it's on almost every building)

Non-nomadic farmers

Day 302 - 19/04/2013

(Night before, charged camera, iPod and AA batteries from laptop until laptop battery died).

-6.6°c in tent; ok. Very windy night; not too much ice inside tent. Tibetan boy stood outside my tent for 1 hour while I ate and packed. Banana swiss rolls, sausages and peanuts for breakfast. Didn't put water bottle in sleeping bag yet it didn't freeze.

On road by 10:00. Tailwind for about 15 minutes. A real surprise, put me in a good mood. Very strong headwind soon returned. Very hilly morning. Heights of passes on map still too low. Listened to XFM but later found that music helped me focus more. Burt Bacharach, Juno soundtrack and Adele. Bought food in small town, locals very interested. Ate behind house for wind shelter.

Cycled in 30 minutes sessions; very effective except for last period before lunch when wind was very strong and my shorts were rubbing, causing me to consider hitching (never seriously). Much better mood after lunch. Sang along to parts of Burt Bacharach; difficult when climbing a 4700m pass in a headwind. Flew through half hour sessions.

Unexpected checkpoint in middle of small town. I cycled on the pavement and tried to appear as a normal civilian. Saw 2 loaded bikes outside restaurant. Went in and ate with 2 Chinese cyclists going to Lhasa. Cycled together although they are quite slow. Confusion about sleeping plans. I stopped 30 minutes before sunset to set up camp, they will stay in motel 23km ahead. Will catch them up tomorrow.

This boy was standing next to my tent from before I woke up until after I had left - he never stopped smiling!

One of my most peculiar photos - four ducks chase a chicken, a Chinese man struggles to get onto his bike with two suitcases on the back and a dog barks at a yak in a skip.

The Chinese chaps I met in a restaurant who I cycled with for a couple of hours

Days 303 & 304 - 20 & 21/04/2013

I didn't find time to write my diary for the next two days due to what happened next. I'll explain briefly here as my plans changed in ways that I could only have dreamed of.

I never saw the two Chinese cyclists that I intended to catch up. I remembered struggling into a head-wind for most of the day.

I think this is a Tibetan Dwarf Hamster.

At one point I reached the top of a small pass (300m climb) and saw a road running straight and downhill for the next several kilometres. What I didn't know was that there was an army checkpoint in the road. You could call it arrogant, selfish, lucky, brave, impatient or any combination of the above, but what I did next was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.

I saw the checkpoint from about one kilometre away. I recall that I was listening to an angry Eminem song while doing about 40km/h downhill. A combination of those two factors meant that I didn't feel like slowing down for the army/police. And so, as I approached the queue of 3 or 4 cars on my side of the road that were waiting to pass through the checkpoint, I swung my bike out into the opposite side of the road, shot past the queue, squeezed through the barrier and was at least 50 metres beyond the checkpoint before I heard the first soldier shout. Of course, to try and not raise suspicions any further (and to feel like a bad-ass) I didn't look back.

I felt right at home.

It's hard to describe the feeling I felt upon seeing this rock. I had joined this road at kilometre 2751.

Late in the afternoon I returned to my bicycle, having been below a bridge collecting water, when I saw two other cyclists coming towards me. They were also Chinese, but they had no luggage. One of them, Zhu, had spent 40 days walking to Lhasa from his home in China and was now renting a flat in Lhasa. He had bought a bike in Lhasa a few days before, hitched a few hundred kilometres out and was now cycling back. The other cyclist was another young man that he had met in Lhasa.

Zhu spoke a little bit of English and told me that he was going to Lhasa. I told him I couldn't as there were too many police and army checkpoints on the way and it would dramatically increase my chances of never making it to Nepal and thus India. The turning for Lhasa was about 50km ahead, I was going to go straight ahead and they were going to turn off.

They were both very keen to try my bike but ultimately complained that it was too heavy and thus too slow!

Practicing my disguise.
Although I couldn't believe I was going to risk it at the time, Zhu eventually won his battle to convince me to come with him to Lhasa (or was that the devil inside me. After all, are there any cities more mystical than Lhasa)? I knew what this challenge entailed. I had already passed a dozen or so checkpoints, most of them run by the police and some by the military, but there was a reason that no vagabond cyclist had been to Lhasa in the last 3 years; it's "impossible"! These were the most feared checkpoints in China and here I was about to attempt to pass them illegally without any prior research.

As the night drew in the rain made our descent a lot more challenging that it could have been.

An hour before reaching Yangpachen, where the most formidable checkpoint exists, Zhu stopped us to re-energise.

For the last 50km before the checkpoint I wore my balaclava, goggles, buff and helmet to try and hide my wide eyes as much as possible. When we got to the checkpoint I had a look to see what the best around it would be but it quickly became clear to me that, in the true excited and spontaneous spirit of this stupid plan, I was going to cycle straight through the middle of it.

Zhu's friend went ahead and stopped at the checkpoint while Zhu and I waited about 100 metres up the road. The policeman came and checked his I.D. card and allowed him through. We waited half a minute for the policeman to go back into his booth before approaching the barrier quickly but not too fast to worry the guard. When we got to the barrier the guard was still in his booth. We ducked under the barrier. At that moment I saw the guard stand up. I pedaled away as quickly as I could while still looking cool and calm. The guard, it seemed, assumed that we must also be legal Chinese travellers and sat back down without stopping us. It's almost embarrassing to admit it, but that was my plan, and it worked!

Zhu asked quietly around the village if anyone was happy to host a foreign who didn't have legal papers. Eventually we found a place. We had to sleep in the attic, talk very quietly and I was never allowed to leave my room. Zhu went out and bought some dinner for us. I was absolutely buzzing at what had just happened!
Below is a video showing other cyclists how to potentially get around this checkpoint. It gives you a good idea of just how lucky I was!

The view of the checkpoint that we passed through the night before from the attic we slept in.

Chinese breakfast!

Feeling smug on the right side of the police checkpoint!

The ride to Lhasa was downhill and enjoyable, if a little nerve-racking. The final two checkpoints where on the outskirts of Lhasa. For the first of them, we tried the same plan. Zhu's friend cycled ahead to see how the police were dealing with people and then called back to tell us. It was bad news. He told us that the police man spent five minutes talking to him, checking his documents and asking him about why he was visiting Lhasa. I would never get through a check like that!

Not to be disheartened, Zhu and I cycled up to the checkpoint, me in front, face fully covered. The policeman gestured to stop when I was about 10 metres away. Zhu put on the brakes, I didn't. The policeman shouted when I was about 2 metres from him. I swerved around him as he stuck his arm out to try to grab me. I pushed my pedals down harder than I can recall doing in the last 12,000km and didn't look back. After about 3 minutes of steaming up my goggles I dived down a little alleyway and waited. Zhu texted me 15 minutes later to meet up. Apparently Zhu told the policeman that he had only me that day and he didn't know why I had not stopped (there was no mention of me being foreign).

I enjoyed the design of this solar kettle while hiding from the police

The second checkpoint was considerably easier as there was a lay-by on the other side of the road which bypassed all of it. I cycled slowly down it to try to blend in as "local traffic". After those checkpoints I was in, and effectively free. There are no checkpoints within central Lhasa and there are many white tourists there so I could happily walk about without worrying about being stopped. Getting out would be a different matter though...

Fish soup in Zhu's flat in Lhasa
On my first night in Lhasa, I found out that two of my friends who had also been cycling in Tibet illegally had been caught and were being deported. They were always about seven days behind me and so I had been messaging them the GPS coordinates of every checkpoint I came across as well as details about how to get around them. It seems that they didn't receive one of my messages as they tried to go straight through the checkpoint in broad daylight and were caught. Strangely enough, this was the exact same checkpoint that I had gone straight through a few days earlier. I wonder if what I did had increased the police's eagerness to stop cyclists passing through without stopping.

Prayer flags at the top of small pass 30km from central Lhasa. I didn't have to pass any checkpoints for this one day excursion with Zhu.

It always feels strange cycling without luggage, which I'd left in Zhu's flat for the week that I stayed with him.

The Potala Palace - This was what I thought was an unachievable dream come true!

Finally, on my last day in Lhasa, at the start of my last week on the run in Tibet before Nepal and freedom!