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Biking the Kora : A Pilgrimage of Kawa Karpo

Posted by Gerhard Czerner on September 5, 2019

Thanks to years of travel, I've gotten used to using chop sticks to eat. What I have a hard time getting used to are the duck heads that keep bobbing up to the bubbling surface of our hot pot, a type of Chinese fondue, from time to time. I try to snatch a few vegetable or tofu pieces swimming in between the heads and a number of entrails floating around to still my appetite. A real challenge, as I discover. It is not a good day to be a vegetarian. As the next load of fish heads disappears into the fire-red brew, I decide I've had enough to eat and give up. I stick to jasmine tea for the rest of the evening.

I think about our upcoming adventure, and the never-climbed Khawa Karpo: one of the eight holy mountains of Tibet. The pilgrimage path around the foot of the mountain is considered to be one of the most impressive nature paths on earth. No one could tell us if it was possible to bike it, but here we were, determined to find out.

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I am sitting here in Shagri La together with three riders of the Liteville Enduro Team China: Kevin, Jin, and Ansel. We have been on our way towards Tibet for the last two days. We planned to bike the eastern part of the so-called Kora, a pilgrim path around the mountain Kawa Karpo. For Tibetans, circling around the mountain that is holy for them is considered a ritualistic act. The mountain represents a manifestation of the spirit of Buddha and many hope to come closer to Buddha by circling it. In special years of the Tibetan calendar, many thousands of Buddhists circle around the mountain clockwise.

In Dequin, a city in the norther province of Yunnan, we meet our horseman. Together we go to the big market to buy our food. We stand there a bit lost since none of us know how much food we'll need. We'll have noodle soup for breakfast, crackers and chocolate for lunch, rice and vegetables in the evening. That's our meal plan.

 

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We are afraid of buying too little food. Being hungry on the way isn't good. Especially not under exertion. We transport our groceries to the tiny bus in big, white sacks. It's packed all the way under its roof. There's not enough room for all of us. So we get on our bikes. The bus takes the lead, the food is unloaded, then the drivers pick us up at the side of the road to bring us to the meeting point in a small Tibetan mountain village. We pass the border to East Tibet down in the valley; it is only discernible by a sparsely occupied checkpoint in a tiny tent at the side of the road.

Our luggage is weighed, evenly divided and packed onto the horses, and we pack our day packs. We need four horses, otherwise the load will be too much for the animals. Before we continue we "sign" an agreement about services rendered and payment. This doesn't happen with a pen and signature, however, but with an ink pad and our fingerprints, which feels more personal. We're only allowed to begin our trip after four red fingerprints are on the piece of paper. A steep gravel road leads us up to 3200m, our first passage.

Our horseman says goodbye to us. He won't join us on the tour, but his wife and a relative will accompany us with the horses. They've gone ahead and want to meet us at our first camp. We're on our own now, without cell reception, internet, or other contact to the outside world. An elevation profile and an inaccurate digital map is all we have for orientation. According to the map, there's only one way across the mountains.

Taking Off

We give high fives, step into our pedals and immediately dive into another world. The path winds its way down into the forest like in a roller coaster in a tunnel made of prayer flags. Thousands of them hang to the left and right of the way, waving in different colors, along the sides of the approximately 50cm broad and beaten trail. It's like rushing through a box of paints at high speed. It's like a reset button in your head is pushed to here and now. Emotions run wild. We take a short break after what feels like an eternity. All four of us grin like Cheshire cats and we can hardly find words to describe our joy. Supernatural is the only word we can agree on to explain it. It's the most impressive thing we've biked so far - and between all of our combined experiences, that is saying something.

We catch up with the horses at a half decayed wooden barrack in the dense forest. It's dark already. A camp fire burns in a hideout. The kitchen and living room are one room, and a stream rushes past behind the hut. A few upright logs are covered with plastic tarps to make up our bedroom. Old mattresses and damp blankets lie on wooden pallets. We ignore the blankets and lay our sleeping bags on top. Our Tibetan companions cook with us together. None of us can pronounce their Tibetan names and so we call them Annemarie and Hans, much to their joy.

 

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We sit at the campfire the next morning and eat noodle soup and rice, which will be our only food for the next few days. Ansel nibbles on dried chicken legs he brought from the market with visible pleasure. It's raining slightly outside. Dense forest surrounds us here at almost 3000m. We marvel at the biodiversity, which we weren't expecting up here.

After breakfast, we make our way on a muddy path covered with slippery rocks. The dense vegetation almost swallows us at times. A total contrast to yesterday. We try to bike small parts again and again but we're rarely successful. Abandoned wooden barracks stand by the side of the path as witnesses to the thousands of pilgrims that once crossed here. Now they're decaying, waiting for nature to conquer them again.

 

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It's uphill the whole day; our next campsite sits at 3900m. The last 250m of altitude gain is so steep that we have to carry our bikes on our backs. Again, thousands of prayer flags line the path. Halfway up the last push several colorfully painted Buddha figures are carved into the rock. It feels like passing though a holy place. We reach a few tiny wooden huts after eight hours. Finally, we see our horses - we've made it.

Day Three

The next morning, the rain begins. We start slowly in order to find try to find a rhythm, but the air is getting thin and breathing is becoming hard. The altitude from the previous days had already reduced our speed noticeably, and today is even worse. Biking is out of the question again, the visible pass is too steep. The forest line isn't up until at about 4000m here. At home, in the Alps, the only things at this altitude are snow and ice. Our group pulls apart a little, and everyone continues at their own pace. Garlands and prayer flags begin to show us the way far before the highest rise is visible.

The rain eases a bit and we drag ourselves across a carpet of colorful cloth, breathing heavily. You can't see the floor anymore: everything is covered in billions of "wind horses", which is the Tibetan translation for the prayer flags. The mountain world is rugged and cloudy. My GPS shows 4500m here at Duokha La. We've reached the highest point of our pilgrimage!

 

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Hollow rumbling accompanies deep black clouds and warns us to move on instead of savoring the moment. We push our bikes the first meters across the slippery carpet of prayer flags until we reach rocky ground. We look down into a deep valley. Far below we can recognize a green meadow with a creek between the steep rock walls. The trail is challenging and demands our full concentration with over 100 switchbacks. It gnaws at our strength. By the time we arrive in the valley, the thunderstorm has passed and the sun shines. We lay our bikes and ourselves down on the grass and eat a few crackers.

We look back up at the pass and see the impressive descent before us. This is a view we can enjoy, so we do, exhausted but happy.

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The Second Half

We have a hard time leaving our sleeping bags the next morning. The past day is still in our bones. But the first meters of beaten path behind the camp are inviting for higher speeds, and let us hope for an amazing day of biking. It feels good to finally feel wind again, but the fun is cut short once we dive into the forest again. Here it gets rocky and slippery immediately.

A group of Tibetan pilgrims accompanied by a monk in a red-orange robe walk towards us. They greet us kindly with a "taschi delek", Tibetan for "hello". We don't understand a word, so we have a conversation with hands and feet. His interest in our bikes is incredulous - he can't believe that we came over the pass with them. We are in turn astonished as he pulls out a gold smart phone from under his robe so he can take photos with us. It is the highlight of our day, and when we part ways we are forced to return to the rocky terrain. We spend the afternoon pushing our bikes again until we reach our camp.

 

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The fourth morning of our tour begins with noodle soup and tea as usual. We crave coffee and bread with jam. Abstinence surely is part of our trip, in more than just food: we forego distractions like telephone and internet. Unlike jam, though, we haven't missed the modern comforts of the digital age one. It's nice to be able to have a conversation without anyone constantly typing on their smartphone.

The trail zigzags down steeply and our switchback technique is tested once again. The forest clears and we come to a sudden torrential river. Surprised at the scenery, we cross a bridge and follow the river downwards. Our surprise is even greater as we see a house by the side of the road, the first solid living space in five days. Even better, they have room for us on the first floor. We relish the unexpected clean change after days in damp and shoddy barracks. Until now, we haven't met more than 20 people in the past days, now about as many hustle about the small dwelling. A small grocery shop is located on the ground floor where you can buy the necessities. Colorfully decorated motorcycles with huge speakers are used to transport the goods. Tired pilgrims can also make their way down the road over the last pass with them - accompanied by Chinese folklore music in deafening volume. The hope of a consistently bikeable path buds in us.

 

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We help to load up the horses in the morning and begin our journey together. We're faster with our bikes in the beginning. But that changes after just a few kilometers when the path becomes too steep to ride it without the support of a motor, so we get off our bikes. Today, 1000m in altitude gain need to be tackled again, and once again it looks as if we will have to push our bikes all 1000 of them. For hours and hours we trek upward, monotonous, one foot in front of the other.

A shack made of planks offers some change. We order a soda and take a short rest. Loud music emerges from the forest, preceding a few motorbikes. Secretly, each and every one of us wishes we had motor bikes, and envies the group that drives past. We reach the last pass after nearly four hours, dragging our bikes every single meter. The colorful flags that decorate the highest point here provide a small comfort. From the top, we can see the last two days efforts of our journey.

Our last camp is on the ridge of the mountain. We've been looking forward to washing ourselves the entire day, but we discover there's no water up here available for bathing. It has to be brought up with motorcycles from the valley and is used only for cooking. Dinner is meager: our supplies are running low, so we have dry rice with leek. Nothing more is left from our shopping spree at the market. A big prayer wheel is behind the hut. We turn it, letting it ring out a high "ding" across the otherwise completely silent landscape. We sit at the campfire together one last time, almost wistful, and look back on the experiences of the past days. We spent over a year in preparations for this trip, and have now reached the surreal moment where you realize something you've long looked forward to for a long time has come and gone too quickly.

 

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Downhill From Here!

The trail on our last day is dusty, but perfectly made for biking. We swoosh through the sparse trees down from the mountains into Abincun, where we slowly return to civilization after being in seclusion for seven days. It only takes a three hour bus ride to reach the first bigger city, where we immediately storm into a restaurant.

After Jin and Ansel place the orders for us, we toast to a successful tour. Then it's quiet, but this time it isn't enjoyable and sublime like it so often was during our past evenings. We have cell reception again and so emails are read, the latest news scanned, and reports made to the ones we left at home. We're only attentive again as the food is brought to the table. Lots of vegetables and potatoes are part of the selection, and thankfully, there are no duck heads on our plates.

 

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Written by Deuter Ambassador Gerhard Czerner and originally posted on www.gerhardczerner.com

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