The last days have been very emotional.
Let’s start from the end of the last blogpost.
We camped next to a mountain river on a sandbank. The night was cold and foggy, not really typical for the edge of a desert but we were glad about it. I have always preferred sleeping cold to sleeping hot. In the morning I woke up and felt a very strong pain in my back. I could hardly get up and as I did it got even worse. I could hardly straighten my back anymore and so I was no help for Paul. I laid down again hoping that it would get better. But it didn’t. Even when I took a strong painkiller I was still unable to sit, walk or lie down without pain. It was already past midday as Paul had a relieving idea. He supposed that sitting on my bike could be a comfortable position for me and so I tried. It was horror until I got there but as I sat on the saddle and had my hands on the steering, the pain really got much better. Probably because most of my weight is on my arms in this position, or maybe because it is the position I am used to in the last months. Anyway, sitting on my bike and not moving on was no option. Paul hauled the bikes back on to the street. This by the way was probably the reason for my pain, I had hauled them to the camping place the day before.
I sat down and began paddling, the pain got better and better but every time I stopped and tried to straighten my back, it was not possible. Maybe it was because cycling was the best position for me, maybe because I wanted to get to the checkpoint fast, but we managed to get over the first huge pass in the Himalayas. We started at 2100 meters and ended at 3300 meters. The streets up here were adventurously carved into the rocky mountains, overhang on the on side, abyss without barrier on the other. The road was sometimes covered by rocks or mud that came falling out of the walls. At some places the road had a dangerous leaning towards the abyss and we could see cracks in the asphalt that seemed to be getting bigger when trucks passed us by. Of course they didn’t get bigger but here and there a stone fell out of the road and disappeared towards the bottom of the valley.
The truckers up here must have nerves from steel. They drive their trucks right to the corner of the abyss, overtake in risky curves and shoot down the mountain with queeking brakes. Although by looking down to the bottom of the valley we could see many huge pieces of concrete an asphalt that once must have broken out of the road, the truckers don’t seem to think it could slip away under them.
Well, I avoided the corners not only because my distrust in the Chinese art of roadbuilding, also because driving next to a “deep nothing” makes me feel like I loose my balance from time to time. If you once tried cycling along (for example) a peer, you know what I mean.
Just as we thought we had found a perfect place to sleep at the top of the pass, a storm came up. It began raining hard and strong winds made it impossible for Paul to build up the tent. Because I couldn’t help him with my aching back we had to leave the place again and descend to lower altitudes where the storm was less strong.
It was horror. Rolling down a steep pass with freezing fingers, pain in my back and nearly zero sight. The cold water was dripping of my chin and running down my chest. I could feel the water gathering in my shoes. Then the road got worse and we experienced a mudslide that came sliming across the road right in front of us and blocked our way. Luckily Paul had seen it coming early enough. We watched the mixture of rocks, mud and water flow into the abyss and as it stopped moving we carefully crossed it.
As we reached the bottom of the valley the rain stopped and we found a perfect place to camp. Dry wood that had been flushed into a cave by a river, probably in springtime. This we could use to make fire an dry our clothes. A flat “grass-bank” and clear water from a small side-river to fill up our water reserves. Paul raised the tent while I sat down and cooked dinner. Glass-noodles with chilly- tomato-sauce. We had a quick shower in the river and tired as never before on this whole trip, I creeped into my sleeping-bag. Although I was so tired, I could hardly sleep. The pain in my back didn’t allow me to change sleeping positions and at the same time I couldn’t lie still for the pain got stronger when I did.
I took some pain killers and when I woke up in the morning I felt at least able to get out of the tent and make breakfast. I was looking forward to cycling and finaly wanted to get to the checkpoint.
Our way lead us up a muddy, racing river through steep valleys and over wooden bridges. About half way to the checkpoint we met a Chinese hiker who was convinced that we already had passed the checkpoint about two kilometers earlier. We remembered a empty military building but didn’t believe him. It was impossible that the checkpoint that is known to be the worse of all Tibeb, impassable and perfectly organized, had let us slip through in the middle of the day without us even noticing our luck. Still we wanted to believe the Chinese hitchhiker but were to afraid of being disappointed later on. So we stayed careful. At every car that came towards us, every house on the side of the road we covered our faces completely with scarves an sunglasses to try to hide our identity. We had read that the people around here get money for telling the military when they see strangers without guide or permit.
Finaly we arrived at the real Kudi, where the checkpoint, in opposite to the hitchhikers opinion, definitely was.
My heart had already begun beating faster at every curve we rode as we came closer to Kudi, but now it jumped out of my chest. Imagine you have a hard time breathing already because you cycle up a pass at 3000 meters hight, and then, in addition, you get adrenalin rushing through your vanes.
We had discussed how to behave earlier and had come to the conclusion to just try the most obvious way. Just go strait forward and try to cross with our faces covered in scarves.
I already saw the first gate we had to cross. About 50 meters before we got there my rear bag on the rack opened and all the cooking equipment fell on the road an spread over the ground with a rattling noise. I flushed and tried gathering all of it without getting the attention of the guard. “Hurry up”, Paul said against our agreement, which was not to speek until we crossed the checkpoint in order not to show our identity. “The guard is already looking at us”. I tried to hold my self together and walk as normal as possible with my aching back. I must have looked like an old many that can’t walk upright any more, gathering garbage from the street.
Miraculously the first gate opened, the guard smiled at me and I thought he must be kidding. He said “nihau”(Chinese:hello), I replied the same and we were through.
From other cyclists we already knew that the real checkpoint would begin after the last curve in the village. So it did. We saw barb wire, a watchtower, steel gates and men with machine-guns, all framed by the unbelievable beautiful but also impassable landscape: a racing muddy river on the left, and steep rock-walls on the right. They chose the perfect spot for their checkpoint.
As we got closer I thought:”how could we be so stupid to think we could pass this, why did we ride nearly 200km into the Himalayas over 3000 meter high passes to try our luck on a chance that is smaller than one percent”.
The first guard smiled at me and waved us through.
“Stay calm, don’t show your fear”, I said to myself and I think Paul thought something similar.
The second guard waved us through and we we’re riding straight towards the final gate.
“I can’t believe it, do they really let us go through”, I thought.
Paul was directly behind me and just as I wanted to do the last two meters the last guard, we had just passed, screamed something after us that probably was Chinese for “stop”.
Silence followed. I had stopped my bike, but didn’t want to turn my head around. Maybe they meant someone else. I waited like this, frozen like a cat that someone had grabbed in the neck short before it got to the desired pot of milk.
A truck passed me by. “Probably the truck, and not we, was the reason why the gate had opened” shot through my head.
The guard shouted something again and another guard on the watchtower gave me a sign to turn around. He pointed his arm at the grey building next to me which had some golden letters over the entrance.
Now it was over. They would notice that we don’t have a permit for Tibeb.
I entered the room and already felt like a prisoner. Here a man sat behind stainless steel bars an asked for our passports.
They looked at them, shook their head and probably said something like: you need a tibeb visa to pass here, you can’t pass here.
Now it was definite, they handed us our passports over and send us back to our bikes. As sad and afraid as I was, I still remembered something Paul and I had talked about this morning. If we don’t get through, I should take my iPhone and do as if I make a call. In reality, I start the camera on the telephones back and make a video of the scene so we can decide later wether it is possible to cross at night or not. Even though I knew that we could not succeed, I still made the observation-video, just in case.
There is barb wire reaching into the river on the left, and barb wire into the rockwalls on the right, in the middle they have spotlights, gates, dogs, and guards. “Crossing illegally here with a bike is in my opinion, impossible” I said to Paul as we cycled away from the checkpoint, still not completely realizing what this really means.
He agreed with a sigh. We were still so full of adrenalin that we didn’t want to give up.
“the first option failed,the second option, crossing in the riverbed is impossible at the moment, the third option is still available: going through the neighboring valley and crossing a 4200 meter mountain to get back to the street behind the checkpoint”
Of we go. We by bread an other food for a week ( as we won’t find any food in this mointains) and begin on our last chance. The valley is steep and only a small road, well actually a path is leading up there. As we reach the point where we have to leave the valley and cross the mountain, we look at each other, close to tears, and realize that this is it.
We won’t make it over this mountain. It is far to steep. It would be possible without bikes and proper hiking equipment, but not with cycling shoes and a bike that with equipment and food weights over 60 kilograms. We have to go back, back through the mountains, through the Taklamakan desert. The most desired part of our tour, the Himalayas, Tibeb, the roof of the world, we won’t be able to ride it.
I seriously have never on the whole trip felt so down, so disappointed.
We stand there in the middle of nowhere, looking at the snowy mountains around us, not saying a word, we both have tears in our eyes. After we have cycled more than 7000 km through prairie and mountains, we get hold up by a invisible barrier which the Chinese government put up.
After nearly an hour has passed we start descending again. On the way back we meet another cyclist. He is Chinese and speaks a little English. He understands our problem and gives us an address in Kirgilik where we can maybe get a Permit for Tibeb. It is not quite legal and so, he said, it is not very likely but still a chance for us to get into Tibeb.
This adress in our pocket is like the last match to lite a fire in the storm.
We leave Kudi and head for the place we started of on the morning. We don’t speak much, we enjoy the probably last view we will have on this beautiful mountains for a while.
We were so close, but yet so far.
Ps: I use the word “tibeb” for we heard that the Chinese Government is searching the internet to find intruders and travelers that are not playing by the rules. I guess you know what Tibeb means:0)
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