The Inaugural Trans-Himalaya Cycling Expedition Is A Wrap

 

Veni, Vidi, Vici.” – Attributed to Julius Caesar

Veni

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

All together there were 42 of us – 32 cyclists and 10 support staff hailing from the four corners of the world – 15 countries to be exact. There was more than 3,000 km of riding ahead of us, including over 34,000 m of altitude gain – four times the height of Mount Everest!

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We gathered in Ladakh 51 days ago to begin a cycling expedition that would take us over mountain passes above 5,000 m, through unknown weather conditions, past natural wonders and into unique cultures.

Vidi

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We saw stunning mountains peaks, endless rivers and waterfalls, luscious green forests and meadows. Dry lunar landscapes that stretched out for miles were suddenly interrupted by a river and a green oasis.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We saw sacred places of worship both ancient and modern – Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic. We saw weddings, funerals and religious celebrations.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We had encounters with people of every colour and ethnicity. We met folks, old and young, with features combining many different genes. We came across nomads and travellers of all kinds. We heard languages that we had never heard before, but there was also plenty of English.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We saw people of all ages working hard in the fields to make sure that they had enough food to eat until next year, an endless number of traders and shops of all kinds. We saw a lot of joy and plenty of struggle.

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Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We ate an incredible variety of local specialties. Some of us payed for this by spending more time in washrooms than we bargained for.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We saw people trying to build roads and we saw nature demolishing their efforts.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We saw domestic animals running around as well as being slaughtered for festive occasions. We saw cows ambling on streets and highways and we captured some great footage of monkeys swimming across river. We saw rhinos bathing in a river and elephants strolling in the tall grass.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We made friends for life and spread the ashes of a friend who was supposed to have been with us on the trip but passed away suddenly. We imprinted images on our brains that will not disappear for as long as we are alive. Cumulatively, we took so many pictures that they would fill several large galleries.

We tried very hard to see a tiger or two but it was not meant to be. They prefer the deep forests and the tall elephant grass. To quote from my favourite book that I read on this trip, The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, “It is the whole acceptance of what is”…. “Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?” It is what made his expedition a success, as it did ours. It was the acceptance of what we saw, felt, experienced and accomplished.

Vici

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

We conquered steep climbs and dangerous descents. We conquered the heat, humidity, the winds and the rains – sometime all in one day. We conquered roads scarred by monsoons, mudslides and earthquakes. Most importantly, we conquered our own fears and limitations. We cycled a lot. Sometimes we pushed our bikes up steep hills. We laughed often. Sometimes we cried from exhaustion but in the end, we conquered that as well.

Photo: Frieder Wolfart

After Peter Matthiessen’s ‘unsuccessful’ search for the Snow Leopard, his partner on the expedition remarked that their expedition was – “tough enough so that we feel we have accomplished something, but not so tough it wiped us out completely”. I think that every participant on the Trans-Himalaya Cycling Tour would agree.

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Cycling Over 5,000 Metre Passes On The Trans-Himalaya Cycling Tour

Nakeela La (pass), altitude 4,740 meters
Boralacha La, altitude 4,850 meters
Lachung La, altitude 5,019m 
Tanglang La, altitude 5,360m 

It is impossible to describe the last week in one sentence” – Lieutenant Colonel Rae Simpson, Retired senior air force officer, F16 pilot, aged 75, current 2019 Trans-Himalaya participant

Every cell in my body is screaming, ‘Enough! Stop, for heaven sake!’ The muscles on my thighs are shrieking ‘Not one more revolution.’ I can see the top, I think, I hope, but, in fact, it is still a few km of steady climbing away. Not a very steep gradient but at this altitude, any gradient is hard pedalling. A small car coming from the top pulls to a stop. I am breathing so hard I can hardly hear his question. “Where are you from?” asks the driver? “Canada” I say. He moves on, than he stops and backs the car up “How old are you?” “Sixty seven” I say. He nods his head and moves on. And I just breathe, if that is what one can call it. Better yet, I gasp and gasp again. I do not think. I am incapable of thinking or reacting in any way. All I can do is extract as much oxygen from each breath as possible.

I was on this road two years ago in a car checking out a possible cycling tour of the Himalayas. As I sat in the vehicle, enjoying the magnificent views and wondering if my headache was caused by altitude or by too much caffeine, I thought, is this really a good idea for our company? It certainly would be a challenge, it will fit well into the ethos of our company, it will create a new cycling tour that no other bicycle tour company has ever attempted, but who will sign up? Who is crazy enough to cycle day after day at such altitudes? And what about me? I scouted it so that means I should cycle it. I will be 67 years old and although I have cycled over 4,000 metres before that was ten years ago. And this is not 4,000 metres. This is over 5,000. Are you nuts? Are you pushing your luck? Why?

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Why indeed? I breathe deeply and look to the top. By now most of the other riders have probably reached the summit. I am in awe of each and every one of them, men and women, several of them older than me. The top is at 5,360 metres or 17,582 feet. The support van is nowhere to be seen but even if it was here, my inner voice would be saying, ‘No, you are not getting in. You have come all this way, you can’t get in now.’

And so I breathe as deeply as I can, drink a bit more water, lift my leg over the bar and move on. The ‘why’ is not important now. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Not the spectacular views, not the cool air, not the threatening clouds. Nothing matters except to move ahead another ten feet…and then another ten feet. And repeat.

It has been a remarkable ten or so days for all of the participants of the inaugural Trans-Himalaya cycling tour. We have enjoyed some of the most spectacular views in the world and experienced and learned from one of the most unique and oldest cultures living in the Himalayan highlands. But I believe, for most of us, it has been an adventure of self discovery. After all, not one of us has ever cycled at such high altitudes. In fact, not one of us even knows anyone who has come close to doing what we are doing. So just as I have asked myself over the last two years, why are you doing this, I imagine each and every rider carried their thoughts and moved their own pedals one revolution at a time, reaching one high after another.

Now that they have accomplished this, does the question even matter? Does checking off a 5,000 metre pass matter to anyone? It is just a number. What matters, I suspect, is the self knowledge we have gained, the pushing of our own boundaries, the indescribable feeling of fighting for more oxygen, those moments knowing what it really means to be fully alive, being ‘in the moment’, appreciating each breath and loving the path we have chosen for ourselves. What really matters to us is the satisfaction that comes from overcoming one’s doubts and enjoying the realization, once again, that what matters most in life is really doing things, of moving your legs when they are shrieking and telling you that it is enough. No, it is not enough! Definitely not! Life is there to be explored.

 

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