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Daring Deeds - real stories, expeditions, road trips and adventure

The Tibetan Plateau

By Karen Darke
21, Oct, 2014

‘The Roof of the World’ following the Friendship Highway from Tibet to Nepal

It’s had a mysterious appeal to me for a long time, particularly the route of the Friendship Trail, joining Lhasa (Tibet) to Kathmandu (Nepal). Tibet has never been an easy place to access, with Chinese government rules changing regularly regarding which nationalities are allowed visas, strict regulations about minimum group size for visa issue, and the apparent requirement to have a guide with you to ‘escort’ you through the police checkpoints (surely there must be a way to go independently but I never found it…).

After the pressure cooker of training for the Paralympics 2012 and subsequent race season with the British Paracycilng Team, my thoughts turned once again to the Tibetan Plateau, the attraction of it’s expanse, the emptiness, the big Himalayan vistas, and a general curiosity about this far-off land. It seemed time to get the long-awaited ride of my life into motion. I like solitary times, but to me adventures and journeys are better shared than done alone, and so a team grew. Five friends. Five women. We all wanted time out and an adventure to somehow counter the big life events that had impacted us all in different ways over the previous six months (relationship endings, career changes, traumatic accidents…). Our route would take us over eight high mountain passes (between 4500m and 5300m), across the Himalayas via Everest base camp, through the most breath-taking scenery we could ever imagine. 

As with any challenge in life, the anxieties and worries ran high before we began. How would we cope with the altitude? The long days of cycling for weeks? The uncertainties of visa troubles, crossing checkpoints and borders? Mechanical problems? Mind and body breakdown? I worried if my arms would keep up with legs, riding long days and high passes on a handbike. Would I be able to relax into it after the intensity of following a strict ‘athlete’ training schedule? Had I lost all my wilderness camping and survival skills now I was more accustomed to the hotel rooms and the controlled training environment I’d adapted to with British Cycling?! On the one hand I could barely wait, the excitement of the adventure pulsing in my blood, but on the other, I worried I wasn’t up to it. I used to spend more time under canvas than a roof, but for a few years I’ve spent more time in hotel beds than my own and the nights camping beneath starry skies hundreds of miles from the pollution of city lights have been far too few. 

The journey along the Friendship route, that twenty years ago would have been dirt washboard all the way to Nepal, is now (thanks to the Chinese) largely good quality tarmac. At first it felt less ‘intrepid’, less of the adventure I’d anticipated it to be, the surfaced roads too ‘easy’ against the image of the journey I’d held for so long. However, it meant that instead of looking at the road for a month concentrating on potholes and navigating my three wheels through rocks and dirt (though we had to do some of this to get to Everest base camp), I could look up and absorb the landscape we travelled through. I could enjoy views of the colourful prayer flags adorning the sacred hills, the vast skies, the ever-changing landscape, the contours, the mountains, the white giants of the Himalayas. We struggled up mountain passes and flew down the long slopes afterwards, ironically sensing freedom like never before in a land that has lost it’s own.

I don’t want to write a blow by blow account of our journey, but like any journey in life it was a true rollercoaster, not just physically over all the 5000m passes, but emotionally too it had highs, lows, tears of laughter and joy, moments of spine-tingling beauty and appreciation, moments where ‘womaning-up’ was the only option… Tibet and it’s people touched me in a way that I’d never expected. The smiles of the Tibetan people were wide, generous and soul-lighting…inspiringly so for a people who have suffered and lost their land and freedom. 

Maybe the five of us began our journey in search of some kind of answer or resolution to the year we’d had before, but of course there are no answers to the ‘difficult’ stuff of life. Only a road to travel, corners to turn, summits and valleys, and new views to see. It’s always special to get off the treadmill that life at home can sometimes become, to break the routine and escape from pressures and electronic gadgetry, social media (no chance of that in Tibet!), to share an adventure and to look up at big skies, blue or starry, and gain perspective. Maybe that’s all we could hope for from the ‘Friendship Highway’. But cycling up the last ‘double-dipper’ passes (two in one with a drop down between them), especially the final stretch to 5250m and a massive view of the Himalayas and Nepal, the scenery tugged out our emotion. I felt to be riding into the future, a future full of excitement and beauty to match the mountains around us. I knew why I’d had to wait twenty years for the journey. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have had the same impact. 

And shortly afterwards, things got even better…the World’s longest descent of almost 5000m. Woohooo!!!!!

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