Cyclists tackle the holiest and the highest mountains

Even by Tibetan standards Darchen is dirty. Garbage and broken beer bottles litter the streets and the empty lots between the single-storey,…

Even by Tibetan standards Darchen is dirty.

Garbage and broken beer bottles litter the streets and the empty lots between the single-storey, mud-plastered buildings.

What could be a pretty stream running through the town is half clogged with shreds of plastic bags and sludgy cardboard. The militaristic look of Chinese built, uniform blocks, add to the grimness.

This is the trailhead for the 50-kilometre Kora around Mount Kailas, the world’s holiest mountain, sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and followers of the Bon religion.

To Buddhists it is the navel of the world, to Hindus it is the centre of the universe. One pilgrimage hike around the base of the mountain will forgive the sins of a lifetime. Worth the effort, I thought.

At the back of town, built up against the brown rock of the hillside is the Sun and Moon Guesthouse, the one bright spot in this dreary place. Income from the guesthouse helps support the Tibetan Medicine College next door.

A Swiss lady manages it with Swiss cleanliness and precision. Tibetan designs in bright primary colours decorate the walls and the restaurant staff produce pizza for dinner.

Fortified with a breakfast of scrambled eggs, peanut butter, jam, chapattis and instant coffee we take the path outside the guesthouse and turn up a river valley that drains the west side of Mount Kailas.

The trail ascends gradually, passing prayer stations with strings of colourful prayer flags. Marmots bask in the sunshine, showing none of the shyness they have in the Yukon.

The river we are following twists around the mountain in a pretty, bouldered valley. Tea tents are set up to refresh pilgrims, each boasting a landslide of garbage cascading into the river.

We stop for the night at Drira Gompa, a monastery with guest rooms and a basic café that sells instant noodles, beer, cigarettes and bottled oxygen.

The pyramid peak of Kailas glows golden in the morning sun as we begin a steep section over a rocky moraine to the Dolma La.

This pass, at 5,600 metres, is the highest we’ve ever been without the assistance of an airplane. Few of the Indians seem to make it to the pass but there are plenty of Tibetan pilgrims, busy adding new strings of prayer flags to an already festooned summit cairn.

The descent is just as steep to the valley on the east side of Mount Kailas. There are few views of Kailas but the massive snowy bulk of 6,790-metre Mount Gurla Mandhata with the blue waters of holy Lake Manosarowar in front and blue sky behind dominates the view to the south.

Eager for the comfort and food of the guesthouse we walk 10 hours back to Darchen arriving exhausted at 7 p.m., proud that we covered more than 50 kilometres, all over 4,650metres, in 15 hours of walking.

The Landcruiser slides to a stop spattering gravel back at us, and four Chinese tourists jump out, cameras at the ready. A few quick flashes and they are away again, spattering more gravel.

We are stocked up with the staples of our life; instant noodles, cookies and toilet paper, and on the 900-kilometre, 18-day ride to our next target, Mount Everest.

On this rutted, sandy road, nine hours of riding barely gets us 50 kilometres, while convoys of vehicles, always Toyota Landcruisers, pass regularly, full of Chinese tourists or Indian pilgrims.

Mornings are cool; we wake to frost on the tent. Headwinds rise every afternoon and in the evening it rains.

These are the days we have our doubts about continuing but we persuade each other to keep going.

Between passes, grassy plains, made emphatically vast by the absence of trees, are home to nomadic herders, camped in wall tents.

Their sheep and yaks compete for the grass with wild antelope and donkeys. Large tracts are fenced off, but it is impossible to tell who benefits.

At a road barrier we are stopped by a team of three boys. The biggest wears a backpack sprayer, the next operates the pump with enough vigour to almost pull him over, and the third holds the nozzle from which a dribble randomly wets our tires, our feet, their feet.

Well-stocked shops in the town of Saga are a welcome sight, where we buy chocolate bars and canned fish to supplement the instant noodles.

The Himalaya comes into view now we are heading south, on the roughest road so far, until we turn onto the Friendship Highway, connecting Tibet and Nepal.

Suddenly the world is a busy place: traffic, begging children and shops selling the tourist essentials — bottled water and bottled oxygen.

At Dingri there is pavement and we are “oohing and aahing” at the pleasure of such smoothness. Shishapangma, the only 8,000-metre peak wholly in China looms between breaks in the hills, and then Everest flanked by Cho Oyu and Makalu spread wide before us, outlined against a cloudless blue sky.

In a valley half blocked by a jumble of hillocks there are barley fields, and harvest is in full swing. Families toil at scything, and stooking; threshing is done by tractors or horses driven in circles over the barley stalks.

Following an ages-old ritual, the grain is tossed by shovel into the air to separate the chaff from the grain.

The dirt side road to Everest base camp turns almost immediately into 18 kilometres of switchbacks up to 5,050-metre Pang La.

The coast down the other side is interrupted by two women road workers who jump out in front of me, holding their shovels across the road. When I pick myself up from under the bike, I am mad enough to chase them up the hill until trembling legs and lack of oxygen stops me.

Rounding a bend in the track we come abruptly on Rongpu monastery and straight ahead framed by the valley, the awesome north face of Everest. It is a breathtaking moment; a long-held ambition has been realized, without the disappointment that sometimes comes with over-anticipation.

A cold wind blows in our faces, as we look around. The mud and stone buildings of the monastery, stacked up the hillside, looks ancient. A satellite dish in the courtyard appears totally out of place.

On the right, the guesthouse has expensive rooms, and we have little cash left. We are offered a cheaper option, to stay in a vacant monk’s room in the monastery, and jump at that.

The room, three metres square, is filled with two bed platforms, covered with a traditionally patterned carpet of woven yak wool, and a carved and painted dresser.

The walls are covered with posters of Buddha. A car battery sits in the middle of the floor powering the fluorescent bulb hanging above. To enter the room we have to stoop through the fuel-storage room, piled with dried sheep droppings.

It is cold, the afternoon sun has dropped behind the valley wall. The only warm place is the guesthouse café and it is packed and noisy.

Groups of German and Chinese tourists are being babied by their group leaders. Their drivers and porters sit huddled around the sheep dung stove, preferring poisonous fumes to shivering.

A harassed family of Tibetan sisters run around, giving, then taking away, then giving back, the mix up of dinner orders coming out of the kitchen. Outside Everest, golden in the evening sun, commands the scene.

The Landcruisers go only a few kilometres further to a line of tents offering hot drinks and Tibetan souvenirs. Visitors, hidden in bulky down jackets and clutching cans of oxygen take donkey carts to a moraine top viewpoint.

A police border post guards the track, not to keep immigrants out, but to keep Tibetans in. We walk, under the spell of the mountain, trying to imagine Mallory and Irving walking this same path 84 years ago, only to climb to their deaths, and wondering, did they make it to the top?

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.