In case you were wondering, our T-Fit program beat all other high-altitude fitness regimes in the recent Himalayan Stupidity Games. Other competitors suffered bouts of vomiting, headaches, diarrhoea and sleep deprivation as they raced from 1,300m in altitude up to 5,200m in less than 30 hours. Many tapped-out of the competition prematurely by huffing on oxygen cylinders, kindly provided by the event organisers.
The altitude did not prove to be our biggest challenge however. When you go to the roof of the world, everything natural is extreme. The landscape, the wind, the cold, the gradients, the distances and the emptiness; these were all turned up to eleven.
We crossed into Tibet from Nepal and began climbing. Then we tried to refuel. Motorbikes were not allowed onto the forecourts of petrol stations. Instead your glamorous assistant had to fill a watering can with flammable liquid and slosh it over to the bike and then try to pour some into the tank. This was a pain and the Chinese government’s way to prevent self-immolation protests. Pointless. Next time you’re at the servo, predict exactly how many litres you need to fill up. This became our daily challenge.
Then we climbed some more and snaked our frozen fingers to, of all places, Mt Everest base camp. Here, at 5,200m, we lunched alongside some dude who was about to attempt the summit. May is the best month for stupid endeavours, after all.
Our Tibetan guide, codename Kelvin, endured all of our whinging and stood firm on his eight toes like the mountains of his youth. At eleven year’s old, he and his younger brother had fled the Chinese oppression of Tibet. He had trekked over the Himalayas into India and lost two toes to frostbite during the journey. He then spent fifteen years in India before returning to Tibet (narrowly avoiding a beating at the border but still being imprisoned for six months as a matter of course). Normally being a tour guide is a pretty cushy job, but our group afforded him quite a challenge. Even so, I think his previous suffering meant dealing with the twenty one of us didn’t even break his stride.
Hunter S Thompson wrote somewhere, “You’ve never known cold like you have on a motorcycle” and once again this was true. The roads were empty and the air was thin. Whilst the bike (running at 50% power) was relatively happy, we were not. The distances we had to cover each day meant high sustained speeds. The ambient temperature was mostly below 10°C. Imagine submitting yourself to that temperature wind at 100km/h. Then throw in a side wind at 60km/h. And also some sand. And the wrong eyewear. You’ve got a shivering, sandblasted motorbike tilting sideways along the road.
Or the next day you’ve got a shivering, snow-covered motorbike tilted sideways along the road. But your incorrect eyewear is iced up so you can’t see anyway. Or better still, your motorbike is sliding horizontally along the road and the two of you are sliding along the road behind it, wondering ‘what the hell just happened?’
This was Tibet.
So we rolled into Lhasa with our Chinese driving licenses and our registration documents and began to enjoy the ancient city. Dominating the landscape was the Dalai Llama’s summer ex-home, Potala Palace, resplendent with its fucking Chinese flags. Brilliantly illuminated at night, if you ignored the X-ray machines and security checkpoints, you could imagine the peaceful life that once existed for the locals.
Whilst others were snoozing we managed some sights around town and mingled clockwise with the pilgrims near the central monastery. After scoffing meaty bread accidentally in one of the Lhasa teahouses, we headed to the animated debating of the monks at Sera monastery. They had such a tranquil spot; a tree-fringed gravel courtyard, in which to debate the scriptures with claps of their hands for emphasis.
Some bumpy roads directed us down and off the Tibetan plateau, past wild deer, wild yaks and Tibetan wild asses (apparently). This was the end of the road for codename Kelvin and he gladly handed the baton to his replacement guide before heading to a peaceful trek in the Him-a-lie-ah (as Brad Pitt would say).