A Different Kind of Freedom
The route starts in southwestern China, in the rural town of Dali, just to west of Kunming, Yunnan. This area forms the eastern terminus of the great Himalayas, the start of the journey. From there it goes northwesterly into the eastern part of Tibet, locally known as Kham. The high forested mountains and valleys of Kham finally give way to the area of central Tibet and the capital city, Lhasa. Leaving Lhasa the road goes toward Mt. Everest and just before reaching the Nepal border a dirt track points the way to the holy Mt. Kailash of Western Tibet. From this most scared pilgrimage site, the main road goes northwesterly through Ali, then across one of the highest most desolate roads in the world, crossing the Askin Chin basin. After descending from this 16,500 foot basin, the Kunlan Shan Mountains are one of the last obstacles before reaching Kashgar in far western China. The Karakoram Highway connects this silk road town with Pakistan and is followed to the final ending point of Gilget, Pakistan. The entire route covers a distance of more than 3,300 miles (5,500 KM).
“They lived on old hard, dried raw meat, butter, sour milk and brick tea. They made boots and straps of the wild asses skin, and thread from the tendons of the wild beast. They and their women took care of the tame yaks, the sheep and the goats. Thus their lives passed monotonously, but healthily and actively, from year to year, on dizzy heights, in killing cold and storm and blizzards. They erected votive cairns to the mountain gods, and venerated and feared all the strange spirits that dwelt in the lakes, rivers and mountains. And in the end they died and were borne by their kin to a mountain, where they were left to the wolves and the vultures.”
– My Life As An Explorer, Sven Hedin, the first Westerner to circumambulate Mt. Kailash, 1907
Flying along at 30,000 feet [9100 meters] above the Pacific Ocean, I sat on a China Air flight from Taipei, Taiwan to San Francisco. The Boeing 747 carried me home from a ten-month trip through Asia. At first what had seemed like a haphazard course through most of Asia, in retrospect was a great circuit around the Himalaya traveling through Nepal, India, Thailand, China and Tibet. The 13-hour flight seemed to last for days. While the daylight outside the plane changed to night and back again, I planned what would consume my being and my life for the next two years.
I had a simple idea in mind. I wanted to ride the greatest mountain bike route in the world. A 3300-mile [5500 km] solo ride that would follow the length of the massive Himalaya. It started in southwestern China, in the province of Yunnan, where the Himalaya end near the Chinese-Burmese border. From there I would stay on the north side of the Himalaya and cycle the length of Tibet, finishing on the other end of the great ridge, where Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan all come together. The route would take me to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and former home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the religious and political leader of Tibet. From Lhasa I would follow one of the centuries-old trade routes out to the most sacred mountain in Asia, Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet. Then the last leg would lead me to Kashgar, the hub of the silk road in Central Asia, on one of the highest, most desolate roads in the world.
When my plane landed in San Francisco, I hopped on the bus down to Palo Alto and walked the seven miles up to where I had been living. Maybe I had been in Asia too long, but somehow walking that last remaining portion of my trip home seemed like the right thing to do. I picked up a pint of Ben amp; Jerry’s Toffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream en route, a treat impossible to find on the other side of the planet. Sometimes there is no place like the USA! I could not have planned it any better. When I got home my housemates anticipated having Thanksgiving dinner in another hour, they had no idea that I was returning from Asia, I wanted to surprise them all. By American standards we ate a normal Thanksgiving dinner, but compared to where I had been only a couple weeks before we enjoyed a royal feast.
I worked as a consultant in Silicon Valley for the last few years, doing easy jobs and receiving great wages. Before I knew it, I had begun work at another software consulting job. I spent a few hours a day programming UNIX computers, writing software to control large-scale telephone switches for fiber optic long distance telephone networks, then continue with the research for my trip. At four in the afternoon I headed home for a strenuous mountain bike ride and to study spoken Chinese in the evenings. I had picked up a little Chinese and Tibetan on my last trip but I knew I needed a much greater proficiency of both languages. On the trip I had planned I anticipated that I would go for weeks without speaking English. I knew that I must be conversational in Chinese. Every day during my standard San Francisco Bay Area commute I listened to Chinese language tapes, practicing to myself in Chinese “Hello, are you Comrade Chen?” “No, I’m not Comrade Chen.” In the evenings I conversed with an American-born Chinese housemate, each of us jokingly addressing the other as “comrade”.
I love maps. In my living room an enormous map of the world covers an entire wall. I sit and daydream for hours, checking out different places on this map. Maps of Tibet are always difficult to come by. I could not just call up American Automobile Association and ask, “Could you make me up one of those trip-tic things for a trip across Tibet?” I wanted to start down in Dali, Yunnan, China, head through Lhasa, Mt. Kailash, and on to Kashgar. If this was an easy task, everyone would be setting out this ride. After a couple months, I finally tracked down a set of US military maps that cover the entire planet, called Observational Navigation Charts or ONC maps. When I received my copies, I pinned the 6 foot by 8 foot [2 meter by 2.5 meter] section of the ONC maps to the wall adjacent to my world map. I quickly realized that these maps were intended for jet fighter jocks. Over parts of the map covering North India and Western China there were boxes reading “Aircraft Infringing upon Non-Free Flying Territory may be fired on without warning.”
By most every measure, I lived an easy life in California. I had delicious food to eat, a warm place to live, and just about all the material comforts that I could ever want. Twenty-four hours a day, I could go to a supermarket to get as much ice cream as I could eat. I could pick up a phone and have someone deliver a hot pizza right to my house. I truly lived the life of royalty. Somehow in all this luxury, part of the challenge of life disappeared. It seemed to me that the life of hardship that I would face in Tibet would balance out the life of material ease that I had enjoyed in California. I do not think I would have sought out such a demanding journey if my life in the USA had not been so comfortable.
On a roadside billboard, advertising a shopping mall, I have seen a sign that reads, “Over 100 stores, over a million choices.” Sometimes this is one of the problems with the USA, you are inundated by choices, thousands and millions of choices everyday. It seems that most every consumer activity involves far too many decisions. I have often seen people suffer from what I have heard referred to as “Analysis Paralysis.” This common malady can often manifest during any type of shopping activity. On a simple trip to get something to drink at Safeway, an entire aisle of varying types of bottled water bombards you with choices. It seems that when so many choices of virtually identical products overload your brain you become paralyzed by the process of trying to make an intelligent decision. There is something to be said for life in the third world where far more simple choices abound. I am not sure that I always need 72 different types of oatmeal to choose from.