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September 28, 2006

Drepung Monastery

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LOCATION: Lhasa, Tibet
Longitude: N: 29.65°
Latitude: E: 91.13°
Miles from Singapore: 4271

A two day bout of intestinal problems has kept me bed bound and in Lhasa a little longer than originally planned. However reaching Lhasa on the first attempt from Yunnan has put me vaguely back on schedule (the initial itinerary included an extra month to allow for a second shot at getting to Lhasa via of the other three entry roads into Tibet should I have been turned back), so an extra day here and there to relearn 'Sphincter Control 101' shouldn't jeopardize the next target which is to get over the Himalayas before winter.

I was determined to visit something other than the toilet before being here, such as one of the great Gelugpa monasteries to be found close by. So yesterday I finally cut ties to the world of ceramics and ventured off on my bike in search of Drepung monastery, translated literally as 'rice heap' (a reference to the huge numbers of monastic buildings that once piled up on the hillside).

Drepung was founded in 1416 by Jamyang-Choje Tashi Phldn (say that 10x quickly), a disciple of Tsong Khapa (a renowned early Tibetan teacher and writer). Initially home to Dalai Lamas one through four before the fifth built the Potala, it eventually became the world's largest monastery with over 10,000 monks residing here at the time of the Chinese take over in 1951. Although suffering through the ages from the attentions of the Kings of Tsang and the Mongols, it was left relatively unscathed by the Cultural Revolution. Today it houses just 400 practicing monks and one of the definite impressions I had while touring the place was that I was walking around a museum rather than an active establishment of religious pursuit. The monks I did see were either glued to their cellphones or counting up the hundreds of small denomination bills that pilgrims leave wedged into the thousands of shrines and sculptures that adorn the numerous chapels. However to be fair I was told the monks have just finished their summer meditation and are 'resting' for the week before starting studies again *I tried not to look tickled!*. So apologies for the rather obvious lack of monks doing monk-like-things in the vlog. Hopefully I'll hit another couple of monasteries en route to Kathmandu where the monks are back in session, so any spectacular footage (flying monks or otherwise) will certainly allow for a follow up vlog.

More information on -
Drepung Monastery
Tibetan Monks
Tibetan Buddhism


Posted at 2:46 AM

September 22, 2006


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ADVISORY: this vlog contains images of a sheep being butchered (following slaughter). Please view with discretion.

LOCATION: Lhasa, Tibet
Longitude: N: 29.65°
Latitude: E: 91.13°
Miles from Singapore: 4271

'Being Buddhists, they know it is wrong to take any form of life, yet being nomads it is the only way they can survive. They accept their lot, believing that previous bad deeds must have caused them to be born as a people destined to live by killing animals. So for all their lives they are trying their best to outweigh this great sin by good deeds...when they get older, most of them like to give up their lives as nomads, take holy vows and enter a monastery. There they pray continuously for forgiveness of all the lives they have taken, and so end their own lives in peace, striving towards the goal'

Excerpt from 'Tibet - It's History, Religion and People' by Thubten Jigme Norby and Colin Turnbull

Posted at 5:33 PM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2006

Arrival Lhasa!

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LOCATION: Lhasa, Tibet
Longitude: N: 29.65°
Latitude: E: 91.13°
Miles from Singapore: 4271

Lhasa has just gained one new tourist, which judging by the throngs of Chinese that are already here won't tip the balance too much. I'm VERY relieved to be here. I couldn't fully share it in the updates until now but these past three weeks have been hyper-critical to the onward progress of the expedition's route around the world. Eastern Tibet is for all intents and purposes 'closed' to individual travelers. Had I been arrested and deported from Tibet/China the alternative routes were very limited. Myanmar (Burma) is likewise closed to individual travelers, so the only option would have either been to backtrack all the way to Singapore and pedal Moksha across to East Africa: very costly in terms of time and money.

For the 800kms from Lhasa to the border with Nepal I can acquire a legitimate permit from the PSB (Public Security Bureau) and be all above board (subject to some unforeseen change in the political climate which can happen at any time of course). I'll spend a few days here in Lhasa to rest and try and elbow my way through the crowds to see a couple of the local sights of historical and cultural interest. Although I fear the local monasteries are now nothing more than museums for tourists and just it's all about the money. Lhasa is extremely expensive, as much as four times the price for a basic hotel room than I've paid for anywhere else in China.

If you click back tomorrow I have a special treat in store; a vlog of a chance visit with some traditional nomads I ran into and shared a 'cuppa cha' with yesterday before arriving in Lhasa. For any of you interested in the 'old' Tibet, I think you'll enjoy it.


Thanks for being with me these past few weeks. When things were particularly trying it was always a comfort to know there were a few others along for the ride...


Posted at 4:06 PM | Comments (3)

September 19, 2006

A Silver Lining

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LOCATION: Bayi, Tibet
Longitude: N: 30.02°
Latitude: E: 092.89°
Miles from Singapore: 4103

Things are looking up.Tonight was the time in 9-days I got to set up camp without rain - what a difference that makes! The wet weather that was making life so miserable seems to be moving out and warmer, dryer air moving in. Plus I passed through what I believe was the last police checkpoint two nights ago - the 11th in 1600 kms. Nothing is guaranteed yet (I'm still several hundred kms from Lhasa) but my hopes are beginning to rise that I'll make it.

And then food! I passed an apple stand yesterday - the first fruit I've seen for 17-days (my gums are loving me right now). And now I'm past that last checkpoint I've felt comfortable enough to stop at restaurants in the larger villages and towns and get some decent food inside me. Again, what a difference...

So with the combination of sun and food re-entering the picture my enthusiasm for Tibet and the trip is well restored.

I've a little ambivalent about making it to Lhasa though. The restaurant I was in this morning had what looked like the design layout for a new Chinese city covering one entire wall. Row upon row of dull, lifeless high-rise buildings. Or perhaps it was one of the larger towns I'd already passed through? I looked closer for a recognizable name and to my surprise saw the Potala Palace marked in the centre of the design. Goodness, was this a futuristic concept of what Lhasa will look like in 20 odd years time I thought to myself? Then on closer inspection the truth dawned that this wasn't a design drawing at all, it was an aerial photograph of what Lhasa looks like today.


Posted at 1:34 AM | Comments (2)

September 15, 2006

The Misery of Rain

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LOCATION: Tangmy, Tibet
Longitude: N: 29.72°
Latitude: E: 094.73°
Miles from Singapore: 3911

'Did I ever tell you about the time it DIDN'T rain in Tibet? Actually, now I think about it I can't remember...'

I'm afraid this update is just whinge about the 'weather and me'. But the reality is that for the past week the rain has dominated all aspects of daily existence to the point that I'm unable to extract much enjoyment from the experience of traveling through Tibet. I'm surrounded on all sides by some of the most incredible landscapes I will ever find myself fortunate enough to be traveling through, but to be honest I don't care anymore. I just want to get to Lhasa where I can check into a hotel, dry out and get some decent hot food in my stomach. The compounding factors of being constantly wet, cold, tired and having no ready access to hot food or drinks are really taking a toll.

There was a 5-hour window four days ago when the sun broke through. For every other hour of every other day it's been rain, rain and more rain. I knew I'd be clipping the tail end of the rainy season here in early September, and perhaps see the odd hour downpour in the afternoon, but this moderate but round-the-clock precipitation is making a rainy month in good old England look like a brief cloud burst.

All my clothes have been soaking wet for days, save for my long-johns and sleeping bag. I manage to partially dry a pair of socks and shirt each night by wearing them inside the sleeping bag, but they're wet within a half an hour of getting out of the tent the following morning so it's hardly worth it. From a mere morale point of view it's hard to keep the spirits up; three hot meals have passed my lips in the past two weeks, the rest of the time it's been cold packets of noodles (like instant Ramen noodles available in the west) and biscuits. From a more logistical/safety point of view it makes crossing the passes over 4,000m a more serious affair; the risk of hypothermia (wearing wet clothes) being a real danger. Pedaling uphill generates heat of course, but freewheeling for several hours downhill after a pass will suck the last ounce of heat from my body (my fingers got so cold during a descent yesterday I ended up having to stop the bike every time I wanted to shift gears and use my feet!). And then there's the added risk of landslides with all this moisture. The locals tell me the risk is greater with the bigger trucks (the vibrations being greater), so I'm making sure to stay well away from any convoys passing the landslides prone areas.

If I was a little more resilient I'd just see the rain as being a temporary inconvenience. The bottom line is I'm alive and I haven't been arrested and turned back (yet). I've pedaled over 1,000 kms of difficult terrain and successfully made it through seven towns that either have police checkpoints or police presence, with another three or four to go. The novelty of getting up at three o'clock in the morning (in the rain of course!) to lessen the chances of being intercepted has worn quite thin, but it's a strategy that does seem to be working, so I just have to stick with it. In around a week I'll be looking back on all these discomforts as distant memories thanks to the anesthetizing magic of hindsight - guaranteed to soften the most traumatic of holiday nightmares.

So again my apologies for this being such a whiney report. After Lhasa I will be out of 'survival mode' and able to travel the remaining passage through Tibet as a legal traveler, immersing myself into the local environment and culture en route without constantly looking over my shoulder. And this will hopefully be reflected in these reports from the field, something those of you more interested in Tibet than my current wardrobe crisis might be encouraged to hear. And by that time it might also have stopped raining.


Posted at 8:47 AM | Comments (5)

September 10, 2006

Sanctuary in a Monastery & First Impressions of Tibet

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LOCATION: Bomi, Tibet
Longitude: N: 29.86°
Latitude: E: 095.76°
Miles from Singapore: 3628

After a dry first few days entering Tibet we seem to be back into a wet cycle, with storm clouds building in the afternoon breaking to rain in the early evening and through the night. Invariably this has made for wet camping, which is tiresome. Yesterday a storm broke shortly after summiting a 5,000m pass. Through a medley of snow, hail and rain I descended as quickly as the poor road surface would allow, made significantly worse of course by flood water pouring across the road, dragging good size rocks and gravel with it. I'm now glad of all the winter gear that I''ve been dragging with me all these months through the tropics as by the time I reached camp I was bitterly cold

Landslides are a worry in this wet weather. Hopefully we'll be back into a dry cycle again before the really bad section of road coming up in a few days' time.

The Tibetan people are a mystery to me. The older generations are invariably a delight to exchange even a wave or pleasantry with, especially the older women; always a radiant smile and a gesture given almost as a blessing. The middle generations always make an effort to establish contact, if only with a raised hand. The children are something else. The stone throwing continues, as well as running alongside the bike and trying to grab whatever they can. If I come upon a large group of them my strategy is to stop, and make them either drop their stones and empty their pockets. I then show them the large rock that I am carrying, and gradually ease off down the road with frequent glances behind me. On other occasions I've had delightful encounters with some children who just want to say hello and make contact with me. So I don't know what the pattern is. Perhaps just village by village?

All are intensely curious about my equipment, so whenever I stop and people gather I'm constantly asking both young and old not to fiddle with things on my bike rig. And almost every man of 30+ years I've encountered for more than a moment will reach inside the top of their shirt and pull out a pendant with a photo of the Dalai Lama (strictly prohibited by the Chinese authorities). The consistency with which this has happened will leave a deep impression on me as to just how devoted the people are even after all these years of his absence.

Food continues to be a problem. All the restaurants are located in the major towns, which I can't enter during the day, so supplies come from small roadside kiosks in the villages, sometimes 100kms apart. The only edible goods they carry are noodles and barely digestible Chinese biscuits. So after a week of this diet I am definitely feeling weaker, not helped of course by the arduous terrain. Yesterday I came the closest I've been in what seems like a very long time to a decent (and hot) meal. I passed through a village that had a very basic restaurant. Hooray! A hot meal at last I thought. I dashed in and ordered two portions of egg, tomatoes and rice - one to eat on the spot, the other to eat later. Confident that my dietary challenges were at least temporarily solved, I briefly stepped outside to retrieve some money from my bike. I just happened to glance sideways and notice the building next door looked rather clean and well kept compared to the rest of the surrounding buildings. Then the sign 'Police Station' in Chinese and English leapt into focus and in an instant I was back into the kitchen, thrusting some money into the hands of the proprietor and pedaling away as fast as I could!

As I began the long, arduous 4,400m climb to the next pass in the heat of the afternoon I knew there was something terribly wrong with this picture: I was about to bike up a large mountain, I had no food in my stomach and there were two, already paid for, hot meals waiting for me half a kilometre behind me. Tibet is definitely turning out to be a challenge.


Good Campsite

Road Hazards


Fancy a Tatty?

Sending the Vlog

Posted at 11:56 PM

September 5, 2006

In Tibet - Where the Sausage is Mightier than the Sword!

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LOCATION: Mangkam, Tibet
Longitude: N: 29.67°
Latitude: E: 098.59°
Miles from Singapore: 3440

Some of the dangers I'll potentially be encountering riding through Tibet are landslides (it's still the wet season), the difficulty of getting help if I get into trouble or become ill, and the possibility of being detected and made to leave. But the one I'm most concerned about, following reports of other cyclists who have traveled in the region, is the possibility of being attacked by wild dogs. Tibet is stuffed with large, aggressive 'mastiffs' that have been abandoned or broken loose from people's homes (where they are traditionally used as guard dogs) and are running wild in packs. An unknown percentage carry rabies, and the nearest hospital with rabies treatment from here is probably Lhasa, so the idea is to avoid getting bitten in the first place. Check out my cunning defense strategy on the vlog.

At the time of writing I am now officially in Tibet, having crossed the border two days ago. The roads so far have been dreadful, and the fuel line on my stove cracked early on so I've been living on noodles soaked in cold water (repair is impossible, the line being under pressure). There is little wood to be found for making a fire, but I'm loathe to do this anyway for fear of drawing unwanted attention to myself. Thankfully the little roadside kiosks that occasionally appear in the middle of a village sell nothing but noodles, so I could live out here for months.

My second night was spent at a monastery where the monks kindly gave me a place to pitch my tent away from the road. More on this in the next vlog. The Tibetan children I've encountered so far are a nightmare; running alongside the bike in packs trying to tear things off, then resorting to hurling stones when they can't keep up. I now carry an arsenal of missiles myself and have already engaged several groups of the thieving little tikes in pitched battles. A good amount of shouting and roaring on my part helps to frighten them away also (not very Buddhist, but neither is throwing stones). The Tibetan adults just stand there smiling in pride at their darling progeny take on the barbarian foreigner.





Posted at 1:50 AM | Comments (1)

September 1, 2006

A Monster Climb!

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LOCATION: Deqin, Yunnan, China
Miles from Singapore: 3324
Longitude: N: 28.47°
Latitude: E: 098.89°

Enormous climb yesterday to a series of three passes between the Mekong and Yangtze Rivers. Starting at daylight it took until 5pm to pedal 56 kms up to 4300 metres. What a struggle! The effects of altitude began to appear the last few kms: already tired muscles deprived of oxygen, the beginnings of a headache and intense exhaustion. By the end I was having to stop every half kilometre for a breather, rallying the mental resolve to keep going. I even used my last Clifshot energy gel to grind out the last few hundred metres to the first pass.

Things weren't made any easier by the road giving out half way up the mountain to cobblestones (felt like I was thrown into a period drama riding a Penny Farthing along the streets of Victorian London). Then 10 kms before the first pass it started hailing and snowing, making the cobblestones murderously slippery. Definitely the toughest day since Singapore for me. And this is only the start of the Himalayas!

On the flips side I was rewarded at the top by stunning views of a series of 6,000+ metre peaks complete with glaciers off to the west. Unfortunately it was so late in the day by this point that I had little time to sit and appreciate the scenery, my focus instead being to descend as quickly as possible to a lower altitude to sleep the night. Not that 4,300 metres is particularly high. But the mild headache was an indicator that I still need to acclimatize to these higher elevations.


Posted at 3:24 AM | Comments (1)