“Celebrate We Will…” One Last Dance On the Tibetan Plateau

China

by | Jun 17, 2017

May 28 – June 9, 2017

Celebrate we will
Because life is short but sweet for certain
We’re climbing two by two
To be sure these days continue
These things we cannot change

                                                                                   “Two Step” by Dave Mathews

I remember growing up in Michigan, when I was probably 8 years old, and my grandma would tell me that I had to wait 30 minutes after eating before going swimming. Otherwise I would get a cramp and drown. Thirty minutes!?! Drown?!? I wasn’t sure which was a more agonizing or terrifying thought, but for sure 30 minutes felt like an eternity. Now, it seems the older I get, the faster it goes. Time waits for no one. When you’re learning to live each moment, in the moment, the moments can have a way of passing you by if you’re not paying attention. Reach out and grab them. Hold on tight as long as you can, because there’s no getting them back once they’re gone.

I have been in China and Eastern Tibet now for about 10 weeks. It has flowed by, like one continual Himalayan spring snow-melting stream of smiles. Faster than at any point of my journey over the past year. The freezing rain and snow in the high Himalayas has been blanketed by the warmth and kindness of the people. I am constantly reminding myself that in this face of hardship up here, these moments are gifts, so pay attention. I flip back, frame by frame, through the images and memories in my head. I smile instinctively, a smile so big and genuine that I feel I am smiling with my entire body. Vaguely I remember my frustrations with a culture and language that seem like a lifetime ago. I have grown so comfortable here that I now embrace those very same things and am heartbroken at the thought of leaving this magical place that I have called home for nearly 3 months. But alas, the Land of Snows as Tibet is commonly known seems to be the Land of Rains in June, and soon too, my 90 day visa will expire. Although time waits for no one, there was still time for one last adventure on the Tibetan Plateau. After sitting out a storm at nearly 14k feet for a week, the Himalayan gods winked and I was given 1 brief and final weather window to send me on my way. It was a gift that turned out to be a fitting end.

“We will be going over three 15k foot passes, possibly in the same day. The final one, I cannot see a path over the pass on the satellite. It’s likely that there isn’t one. We only have 1, maybe 2 days without storms so we’ll have to move fast otherwise we will be camping in the rain and possibly snow at 14k feet. We won’t die, but it won’t be fun,” my Swiss nomad friends Ivo and Brigitte told me, with their characteristic twinkle in their eyes, knowing I would take the bait. This is the common theme in eastern Tibet where everything is wild and where everything is possible. You just have to look and be ready when the opportunity presents itself. I would have been disappointed with anything less.

We crossed the first 2 passes on broken gravel roads, intermittent rays of summer sunshine piercing the hazy sky and chasing the storms away. Over each pass, and along each mile, the road slowly deteriorated. We came around a bend into a late afternoon sunlight bathed valley. It was 4pm and we calculated that we had approximately 5 miles to get through the valley, up 1000 feet and over the final pass. Two hours seemed like a reasonable estimate…until the single track path that we were following (which was not on the satellite) abruptly ended, depositing us into the first of 4, knee deep, swiftly moving rivers of summer snow melt. On the other side awaited a marsh sopping earth. The pitch appeared flat, but was in no way ride-able. And so began the next 5 miles and 4 hours of war.

I had that Dave Mathews song on loop in my head, “…we’re climbing two by two…” because it was that kind of a grind. Two steps, drag the bike over a soggy clump of earth, through the slop, breathe…two more steps and repeat. “Celebrate we will, because life is short but sweet for certain…” I knew this was likely the final moments in this enchanted high mountain wonderland and I just wanted time to stop. I looked around and took dozens of mental photographs.  I wanted to grab them all and put them in my pocket forever so I could pull them out whenever I needed beauty. Regularly I would pause, in between breaths, and just breathe. Not to breathe in the thin mountain air, but to breathe in the moments. Life is short but sweet…

Rain is coming tomorrow and I knew we had to make it over the pass today, or tonight. If it rained, we would be stuck in this swamp and it would take 3x as long tomorrow because everything would flood and the ground would swell…more. We were all shattered after coming over two 15k foot passes for the day. But daylight was quickly escaping so we knew we had to march on. “I hope it’s ride-able on the other side,” Ivo sighed, fatigue evident in his tone. We were all clinging to that same hope. Just before 7pm, we crested the final 15k foot pass. To the demise of our hopeful expectations, there was no path descending the back side. Note to self: If you can’t see a path on the satellite, there likely isn’t one. Down the back side was more of the same, except now there was a frozen river bisecting the valley and we had no confirmation of the depth of ice. On one side was the familiar ankle deep marsh. The other was a pitched scree field of loose shale. After sloshing through the bog for 30 minutes, we opted to duck a fence and cross the frozen river and try our luck on the other side. Fortunately the ice was stable. We traded ankle deep marsh for an ankle deep stew of loose rocks. Each step I took on the 30 degree hill side, I sunk deeper and my bike slid further down the embankment. Relentlessly we dragged on. Luckily it was down hill. It was now nearing 8pm and we dejectedly conceded that we would not make it out of the valley tonight. We found a clearing about 200 yards below, next to the now only half-frozen river, and set up our tents. There was a small Tibetan camp about ¼ mile down the river. Within a few minutes, we were surrounded by 20 Tibetan men, carrying clubs, picks, and one even was brandishing a bow and arrow. At first I thought they were just coming to quell their curiosity as all others that we have encountered have done. However, upon seeing their weapons, it was clear that they had other intentions. They were up in this area in search of yarcha gumpa, the medicinal caterpillar that I wrote about prior. It is the main and only source of commerce for most of the people in this region. I speculate that they were coming over to see who had crossed the pass into their territory. Once they realized that we had no interest in their bounty, they lost interest and went home.

The Himalayan gods continued their brief but generous ways. They chased away the clouds completely that night, and turned on the brightest night light that I have seen. Camping at 14k feet under a full moon, next to snow capped peaks and a frozen river is almost like finding the fabled pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The moon pierced through my tent, illuminating it like a halogen head light. So bright that it was difficult to sleep. I could not have asked for anything more, except, well, maybe an actual path out of the valley.

We awoke the next morning to hazy light, but no rain, so we quickly packed up and made our way down the valley. Within a mile, we picked up a path, which eventually turned into a dirt road and connected us to a main road. We made the turn and cycled to a tiny village where we found a warm restaurant that served home made noodles, only minutes before the forecasted afternoon rain engulfed the plateau, once again locking us in. After waiting out the storm with 2 bowls of noodles over 4 hours and scouring weather forecasts that all confirmed our predictions of a sustained gloomy weather system, we waived the white flag and cycled 20 miles in the misting rain, on a dreaded 4 lane highway, to the city of Xining. Sixty minutes later, I had a hot shower, in a fancy Chinese hotel, and the Tibetan Himalayas seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Celebrate we will…”

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Traffic is the worst in the Tibetan Plateau

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Coming over the 3rd 15k ft pass for the day, just before 8 pm, and we’re shattered

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Celebrate we will

 

 

 

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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. 

2 Comments

  1. Love this 🙂

  2. Speechless an for me that is most unusual..
    Love it an with out words to adequately express how much
    Happy to the enth degree . That my son is experiencing life to its fullest
    At peace an thank God for watching over my son on his journey an has brought him back to his friends , family an his Dad