The Tibetan Plateau: Into the Great Wide Open

China

by | May 24, 2017

May 10 – 23, 2017

“Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue”

Tom Petty

I have not seen a shower (or running water), a mirror, a hotel, or even a tree in nearly 2 weeks. I have subsisted almost entirely on instant noodles. Whenever I happen to find yogurt, I eat it like its my job. Last week I found a pineapple and about lost my mind. A rebel without a clue. Fact: I did not have a clue what was I getting into. I just knew that I wanted IN (or is it OUT?). This is the Tibetan plateau. When you’re living each moment, in the moment, time just passes by, effortlessly, like the tranquil ripples on a pond. I have no idea even what day it is. There is no place to be other than here, right now. This solitude is meditative. I ride for 6 hours and feel as though I have not gotten anywhere. The scale and vastness of this area is beyond description. Valleys go on for weeks, broken only by the daily 2,000 foot climb over a pass to cross into the next valley. Rivers, like a surgeon’s scalpel, carve out these valleys at an average altitude of more than 13k feet. Nomad tents speckle the hillsides. It seems like only yesterday that I waived good-bye to the exhilarating, yet sinister, snow capped peaks of the Chola mountain range only to be replaced by the lush, rolling green hills of the Plateau.

With nicknames such as “the Roof of the World”, “the Third Pole”, and “the Asian Water Tower”, the Tibetan Plateau stretches approximately 620 miles north to south, 1,600 miles east to west, and is surrounded by the highest peaks in the Himalayas, Karakoram, and Pamir mountain ranges. It is the world’s highest and largest plateau, with an area of 970,000 square miles and contains the headwaters of most of the streams in the surrounding regions. National Geographic asserts that: “All told, some two billion people in more than a dozen countries — nearly a third of the world’s population and half of Asia’s — depend on rivers fed by the snow and ice of the plateau region.”

Weather forecasts here are unreliable at best. Each day I am shadow boxing with the ever changing, fast moving clouds, running from one storm or chasing a sucker hole pocket of sun a few moments later. Just as I am stopping to lather up my skin with sunscreen to protect from the scalding high altitude blaze, I can see another storm rolling in just as it is drying. And beyond that, another sucker hole and more blue skies await. Spring is here, yet the hope for more consistent weather evades me. My Gore-Tex jacket is never fully packed away.

Hardly any of this vast area is mapped. It is a web of dirt paths, mixed in with newly minted tarmac but just because there is tarmac is no affirmation of a continual road. Many times they just end. The best solution has simply been to ask locals. Fortunately I have learned the sign for dead end road is to cup one’s hand in a “C” and ram the other hand into the concave area. There is an ever sturdier language barrier here, however the smiles and curiosity are fresher than ever. It is estimated that more than 40% of the population here are nomadic tribes. By the perplexed looks on their faces, it is clear that they have not seen any other westerners, especially on bicycles. We share a laugh but it is a tragedy to not be able to communicate more, to hear their stories and share mine. Sometimes it is a like being in a zoo but I don’t know who is more fascinated by whom.

My lodging has been a potpourri of camping, home stays, and places labeled as guest houses but are more accurately just tiny, dirty rooms with a wooden frame and a piece of foam on top. Last week, in one of those guest houses, the tumultuous rumblings of my next door neighbor’s incessant snoring, like a 1978 Camaro with a rusted out muffler, vibrated my bed through the plywood walls. Even with ear plugs and supplemented by utter cycling exhaustion, I spent the better part of the night pounding on the wall, momentarily jarring him awake, allowing me to fall asleep for about 45 minutes, only to repeat the process for the next 7 hours. Fortunately, earlier in the afternoon, I had quelled 1 noise by setting free the guest house owner’s audibly wallowing cat who was tethered to a post via a 3 foot rope.

The following night, we were once again racing a storm. Fortunately we came upon a village, however with only a few houses and 1 restaurant.  This is typical of the villages here.  We appealed to the restaurant owner to allow us to sleep in the entry way of her building, just moments before the storm arrived. The lashing rain soon gave way to slush bombs pelting the corrugated plastic roof. Yet another night and again racing yet another storm, we found no village, only a monastery. The monks allowed us to sleep in their shed, which we soon found out was used for yak dung storage, neatly bagged and stacked inside.

There is no running water and thus no sanitation. Water is obtained from the ever present stream or sometimes a well in a town. The Chinese are attempting to develop the area, finishing roads, building new structures, and even planting trees. Growing trees here is not natural which is why there are none. To do so, they put a semi mature tree stalk in the ground and hook up an IV bag with a slow drip line to nourish it. I could not make this up and I have no idea if it will work. The true challenge however is the lack of sanitation. Toilets are, best case, an elevated box with a hole in the floor. There was one however that had more of a “community feel” to it. There were 6 spaces, each partially segmented with a 3 ft wall, giving the user the feeling of privacy but also the option of a social experience if they chose. The worst case thus far was something far…worse. Upon checking into a guest house (again, this term is used lightly and in context with the standards of the region) in a small village, I asked, “Cesuo?” (toilet). “Mei you,” he replied, waving his hand, before leading me out the back door and pointing to the river that ran through town. When traveling, I have always tried to follow local customs, norms, and traditions. “If they do it, then so will I,” I would rationalize to myself. This however is where I drew the line. There was a concrete wall that framed in the river, and I just could not bring myself to hanging my back end over it the next morning with a dozen of my new closest friends.

The Tibetan Plateau is absolutely the Great Wide Open. Life here is hard. It is basic and raw. But that is the beauty and magic of it. It is like no other place on Earth and is still mostly untouched. The omnipresent smiles and kindness provide a warmth to this cold and barren landscape that make me never want to leave. It is further a lesson in perspective. Just take a step back, recalibrate, and you will see the amazing that happens here. I squint my eyes and for a moment think I’m tucked away in a canyon somewhere at home in Colorado, but really I couldn’t be further away. Nine thousand miles, give or take. Nine thousand miles from everything familiar, even though I’m completely at home right now out in these mountains, out in the great wide open.

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Last views of the Chola range

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Tibet is full of hidden gems like this if you just look

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Coming into the green

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Leaving the snowy Chola mountains

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Finding religion in Tibet is easy

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Single track is everywhere

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Best camp spot ever with a 13k ft crystal clear lake

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The elusive Tibetan unicorn

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Just another night out

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High on the Plateau

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Camping on a roof top.  The grass was great!

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Cesuo (toilet)

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My little yogi prodigy

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She looked way better than me

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Homestay movie night

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Chinese police camp in the middle of nowhere.  Beer?  Yes please…

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I dare you.  Try to frown when you see smiles like this

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Ivo showing him how to make proper hash browns

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Most nomads have upgraded from horse to horse power

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Camp “Yak Dung”

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The ever present threat of impending storms

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Room for 1 more?

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A night in a restaurant entry way

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Nomad tents

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Ear to ear

Get the Book

The World Spins By is an intimate journey of loss, curiosity, and love—recounted one pedal stroke at a time along Jerry’s two-year bicycle journey back to himself. 

1 Comment

  1. Solid post my man, that life ain’t easy but at the same time is extraordinary.

    I’m also glad to see the Swedes haven’t figured out how to drop you yet. They must be carrying all your stuff. Once again, savy move on your part.