Serk Cycling Beijing
It's late November 2018 and I'm sitting in the office staring at the frozen canal out the window. The season is over and the day dreaming about projects for the coming one start to take centre stage.
It only takes a few weeks of winter setting in for the seeds of new projects to be sewn. Sure enough the next day I received an email.
"Hi, I'm with 5 cyclists and we'd like to discover the Himalaya." After replying with a link to our regular Everest trip a response soon came back - "we want something tougher - can we have a chat about that?"
A few weeks later the group leader Ronald and I had a chat and the project was hatched. He called it the 'Himalaya Project'. The brief was simple - more climbing, more distance, more Himalaya, Everest Base Camp and throw in some gravel if you can find it.
After a bit of poking around on strava it was obvious these riders were serious. Besides being mostly Dutch (still yet to meet a non hard core Dutch rider) they had ridden a bunch of other frontier locations around the world. It was clear they were up for a specially challenging route.
Research began in earnest via our fixers, maps and snippets of notes we'd made on previous trips. Way back in 2014 we'd driven the old way into Everest via a dirt road - it was time to ride that and explore further west towards Mount Kailash.
The scene was set ;
12668m of climbing
14 passes over 4500m altitude
11 days riding
80km of gravel
400km of virgin roads to explore.
Now that's a project!
As is customary the first days of our Tibet trips are always spent in the far east of the region acclimatising. Remarkably there is a brand new Hilton Resort by the massive Yarlung river. The Hotel goes a long way to helping riders take it easy the first day and lower the squat to sit down toilet ratio of the trip.
We were also incredibly lucky to have cycling photographer Vincent Engel along for the trip. Vincent has an artist like ability to capture the real spirit of place and sense of solitude that adventuring by bike brings to the fore. So while we were praying for blue skies, sun and tailwinds he was secretly gunning for rain, head winds, sleet and snow. Guess who won.
The first real day of riding was met with on and off rain showers. It was mid Autumn so the temps were bearable at the relative low altitude we were riding (approx 3000m). The valley we travelled through was littered with construction projects. The Chinese are building a new high speed train through this sparsely populated and rugged landscape.
We reached the outskirts of the capital Lhasa after 2 days riding beside the mighty Yarlung River - the longest river in Tibet and the 9th largest in the world. Our first climbing test looms on the horizon - a 7km bump up to 3800m.
A rest day in Lhasa provided one last day of acclimatising before the real Himalayas started. Unseasonal autumn snow was in the air. The mountains on the outskirts of Lhasa had a dusting making us a little nervous about what lay ahead.
The real mountains start. From Lhasa west towards Everest Base Camp there are only high passes left now. The lowest of which is a towering 4800m high and the highest 5200m. These arduous climbs are long, hard and incredibly humbling. Even the lightest mountain goat climber is tamed on these slopes. After getting out of the saddle countless times to try and attack the mountain you simply have no choice but to sit back down and settle back into a sustainable rhythm that your lungs and legs and cope with. Here the mountains are in control - nature and altitude are to be respected rather than conquered.
After days of gut busting climbing you take every opportunity to save energy. On these long climbs the truck engines are also starved of oxygen and crawl their way to the summit - easy prey for a free tow.
The following day we finally entered the Everest Base Camp Park. From here it is roughly 90km in to the actual Base Camp. It was eerily quiet as we slowly made our way up the spectacular Kyawu-la Pass. Combined with the pure white snow and rhythmic breathing a feeling of tranquility enveloped us.
Once over the top one of the world's best descents lay in waiting.
And there she was. After an hour of so of sipping warming ginger honey tea in Rombuk Monastery Cafe the clouds slowly parted and Everest shows her northern face for a few fleeting moments.
Leaving Everest Base Camp behind we ride out via an 80km dirt track. 5 years ago this was a remote dusty road leading to rarely visited traditional villages. Out there life seems to have stood still for the last hundred years. The only visible form of modernisation are a few satellite TV dishes on rooftops and mobile phones poking out the pockets of the local women. In the weeks before our arrival road construction crews were preparing the road for the German Asphalt machines that are slowly paving their way across Tibet. It's sad to think we were probably the last to ride this road as gravel. Once asphalt arrives so too will the tourists on four wheels. The locals of course are welcoming the new road and the economic opportunities it will bring.
We are now well and truly in the Wild West of Tibet. The roads have hardly any traffic, the hotels have non functioning showers and constant power shortages. The landscape is harsh and the altitude is brutal. We sleep at over 4000m each night and any time we head up its over 5000m passes. Winter is really coming now and the snow is heavy. The joy of climbing in these conditions is wearing thin but the jaw dropping landscapes keep us motivated.
After more than two weeks of riding at extreme high altitude our bodies have finally adapted. The legs are tired from the residual stress but magically the lungs now are effective and climbing is less laboured. Our final climb is only 8km long. We push hard and have one final race to the top. Once there we all breather a sign of relief with those last pedal strokes. Getting over all those 5000m passes has been tough. We finish with a Lhasa beer and high fives, this trip will live in our memories forever!