Broken to bits on the road to Tibet
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
Dust. It’s what defined the Western edge of China’s Tarim Pendi Desert. A fine, wind-driven powder that covered everything and spared nothing.
As I pedaled that first day toward the Tibetan Plateau, it stung my eyes, before it began eating away at my bicycle equipment, camera gear, and eventually, the inside of my head.
Thirty miles outside of Kargilik, I stopped at a viewpoint.
Looking out through the particulate, it reduced the mountains to incremental tones.
A herd of camels moved across the horizon.
Slow and lumbering, their silhouettes moved against the flames of a nearby oil refinery. As I stood and watched in silent witness, I wondered just what I was doing in this desert all alone.
It was late. I raced to set up camp against the setting sun.
Pushing my bike through the khaki-colored sand, I came upon an odd pair of linear tracks – one large, one small. The distinctive signature of a recumbent bicycle. In a moment of excitement, I recognized that they were that of my former riding partner Christoph Fladung, who’d forged ahead four days earlier after I’d had my Passport stolen.
Although I knew he wasn’t there, I called into the wilderness, “Christoph …?”
My voice was met by an overwhelming silence.
A dry rain pelted my tent that night, falling with its mixture of airborne dust. I awoke the next morning wiping crusty nuggets from the corners of my eyes.
After breakfast, I pushed back to the road, and dropped into a quiet cadence that quickly settled my mind. That ease ended abruptly when the pavement turned to dirt.
The road became a joke.
A long, dark joke whose twisted punchline stretched out endlessly before me.
Somewhere near the halfway point was the border of Tibet. As I rolled across the first spine-contracting divots, a crushing realization descended upon me.
It was that I’d spend the next two months chattering over this tortuous line on the map. When I was done, I’d have rattled over 1,500 miles of unavoidable washboard, rocks and tooth-jarring potholes – up and over the Tibetan Plateau – before I would again roll on to pavement in the heart of Katmandu.
What I hadn’t known at the time was the cruelty this road was capable of delivering: axle-deep mud, driving sand and snowstorms, vicious winds, river-crossings and daily temperatures that swung wildly between 0 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Eager to get miles behind me, I rode quickly up the first of 12 mountain passes. It wasn’t until the second, (Chiragsaldi Pass, 16,338 feet), that the altitude began clubbing me like a baby seal. Gasping for air atop the summit, I fumbled hastily, erecting my tent on a small escarpment on the edge of a towering peak.
As a biting wind crept, temperatures plummeted into the teens, and I wrapped myself in everything I had.
When I stared out at the mammoth peaks and folded geological layers, a sobering thought rose from within. It was that this was a big landscape that held big consequences.
I cursed myself for skimping on weight and cold-weather gear. What I’d brought wasn’t enough.
That night, as my heart wrestled furiously to provide my body oxygen, I pondered the other cyclists whom my guidebook reported had perished here. Most had succumbed to hypothermia, exhaustion, altitude sickness or traffic. During that cold, sleepless night, I prayed I would not become another statistic.
The next morning brought more dust – great plumes spinning off the wheels of Chinese Army trucks.
They traveled in convoys, from 10 up to 100, delivering gas and supplies between a series of sizable tent camps. They were here to prop up security in the Aksai Chin Region, a virtual high-valley no-man’s land sandwiched among the Kunlun, Karakoram, and Ladakh Ranges.
Although some argued that they were here to protect the single strand of road that ran through western Tibet, most agreed that they were on guard against any spill-over from the ongoing India-Pakistani conflict that loomed just across the border.
Two days later, after I’d summited Kirgizjangal Duban (16,256 feet), I was in the midst of a hair-raising descent when a strange noise came from my bike.
It stopped me in my tracks. I looked down to find that the road chatter had sheered a quarter-inch-steel rack mount off the rear of my frame.
I was stranded.
As I paced roadside, beneath the ever-growing peaks, my self-confidence shrank to the size of a subatomic particle.
Again, a Red Army convoy passed. I jumped to the roadside and began to flag, bouncing furiously amongst their clouds of dust. The driver threw an emotionless stare, then passed me by.
Four hours later I continued to pace, languishing in a kind of solitary despair.
That’s when I found my savior. A small piece of bailing wire measuring a foot in length, coiled neatly on the side of the road. I grabbed it and worked quickly.
Configuring a series of loops and twists, I harnessed the rack back to my frame. Moments later, I threw a leg over my freshly rigged bike and pedaled the 25 miles to the nearby hamlet of Shahidulla.
Shahidulla is a tumble-down shantytown, where scattered heaps of garbage blanket oil-soaked streets.
Near its center was a handful of dilapidated work yards covered by torn-up tarps – most of which housed automotive-repair machines that sit in various states of disrepair.
I approached one.
In front lay a medium-size dog, a mixture of wet and dry blood ringed around his freshly torn-off ear.
I called out. Almost instantly a sleepy man appeared, diagnosed the problem, wheeled out a welder, then made the repair. Moments later, I was back on the road.
That night I decided to celebrate.
There in the relative discomfort of my all-too-chilly tent, I cracked-open the Middle-Kingdom’s equivalent to Budweiser – a tall can of China’s Blue Diamond Beer.
When I tipped the can, my face contorted as if I’d just sucked a lemon.
My eyes ran down the label. There at the bottom was a small motto that read, “Blue Diamond, a beer for all people and all seasons.” I surmised it should have continued, “…but mostly for those who are stuck in a small Chinese town and have no other choice.”
After forcing down several swigs, I decided to open my laptop and write a few notes. As I did, a set of black blobs appeared on the screen. The blobs were accompanied by a spider web of cracks spreading across the glass. Cracks caused by the rattling road – eliminating the use of over half my screen.
I threw my head back and cursed.
The next morning, I was several hours into my ride, and trying to forget my ailing computer, when another strange noise had me pulling to the side. It was the rack-mount on the opposite side – sheered off by vibration at the base weld.
The road, it seemed, was eating my equipment and my sanity alive.
After welding and reinforcing both rack mounts with nearly a spool of bailing wire, I would come to realize that my equipment issues were the least of my problems.
Besides my rack mounts, six hours of riding each day on the harshest of roads had shaved 15 pounds off my already-too-lean frame. Assuming long hair and beard, I began to resemble an emaciated reject from the ’70s rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Shortly thereafter, I was battered by sandstorms, stopped by flash floods, and frozen by a series of bone-chilling snowstorms.
A week later, I stumbled into a guesthouse in the town of Tielong, where I sought shelter from the ongoing storm.
With cracked lips and frostbitten toes, I shivered beside a small wood stove and wondered if it was worth carrying on. Then, while the diminutive host poured me a cup of hot tea, a blast of cold air revealed a female cyclist standing at the door.
It was Marija Kozin, a Slovenian woman I’d met in Kashgar – arguably the first Slovenian woman to pedal a bike from her homeland in Europe, 12,000 kilometers east to China. Last I’d heard, she was riding with my former cycling partner Christoph Fladung – some four days ahead.
“What are you doing here?!” I asked after giving her a hug.
“I broke a crank arm, and had to return to Kashgar to fix it.”
I was set aback. After nearly two weeks alone, I was elated at even a momentary chance for the company of another.
“I’m happy to see you,” I replied, taking guilt-ridden solace in the suffering of another.
After long conversation and several cups of tea, I commented, “This road is brutal,” and asked, “Would you like to ride together?”
“Sure,” she replied.
During the next week, Marija and I crossed more than 300 miles, riding and camping on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau. After ascending the summit of the 17,716-foot Quieshan Pass, we descended into the outskirts of Domar.
Finally, we reached Tibet.
I set down my bike for a moment and stared back at the road – a long, brutal chapter on my winding road of dreams. Across it seemed to lay a continuous stream of broken hearts, souls and car parts.
And at various points, it seemed to consume everything.
Everything that was, but my dream and my will to press on.
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