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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This 3,300km ride will take cyclists from Kashmir to Kathmandu. Along the way they will pedal over passes as high as 5,000m, spin past remote forts…

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 & Mysteries On The Trans Himalaya Cycling Tour

 

The Buddha’s teachings are like travel guides that show the way to enlightenment, to ultimate knowledge of the nature of the mind and of the phenomenal world.” – Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

It was a mere three months ago that I stood under a sacred Bodhi tree in Madagascar of all places, seeking enlightenment at the end of the Magical Madagascar Cycling Tour. Today I am actually standing under another Bodhi tree, this time in Lumbini, Nepal where, according to believers and anthropologists, the spiritual teacher known as Buddha was born.

We have arrived in this place after an arduous but nevertheless enjoyable six week cycling journey and most of us spent the day visiting the complex of temples and monasteries here in Lumbini. Here a pilgrim (or a cyclist) will find monasteries built by various Buddhist Associations from around the world – Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China, Thailand and even France, Germany and Canada.

These monasteries and temples, some of them quite spectacular, are obviously to venerate Buddha. Included in the middle of the park is a beautiful golden statue of a child Buddha which gives  visitors a great opportunity to take a ‘selfie’. Watching this made me think of Buddha’s teachings about attachment to the ‘self’ and the need to “unmask the imposture of the self in order to recognize the true nature of things”.

Though I did not take a ‘selfie’, I did ponder what Buddha would say about all of this. One branch of Buddhism, the Zen Japanese, actually says ‘Kill the Buddha’. According to the famous French monk, Mattheiu Ricard, who abandoned a promising career in science to study Buddhism and eventually becoming an ordained monk, Buddha made it clear that “his teaching should be examined and meditated on but never simply accepted as true”.

It is while having all sort of such random thoughts running through my head that I found Richard, one of our riders, at the Chinese monastery. He was on the front steps of the temple watching a caterpillar inching along. He commented that the caterpillar was ‘happy’ and is doing what it is suppose to be doing. Though not a practicing Buddhist, Richard revealed that Buddhism, unlike Judeo-Christianity, always appealed to him ever since he was just 13 years old and received a gift from a girl upon whom he had his first crush. The present, a book, happened to be Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

We continued our discussion about how it seemed that all human beings had a need to find meaning in their lives as well as in their symbols. I then ran into Yanez, our Assistant Tour Director on the Trans Himalaya Cycling Tour, and we continued exploring this vast complex of temples. One of them was locked and looked through the gate to be a bit ‘Disneyesque’ but it seemed very appealing to Yanez and he suggested that we should break in, just for the fun of it. I explained that at this stage of my ‘enlightened’ life, I no longer possessed the desire to break into locked compounds, which was a bit disappointing to Yanez as he was obviously in need of some mischief.

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This 3,300km ride will take cyclists from Kashmir to Kathmandu. Along the way they will pedal over passes as high as 5,000m, spin past remote forts…

Instead, we refocused on the fact that the large complex we were exploring was mostly empty of pilgrims or tourists. A discussion ensued about how this place needed some changes in order to make it more appealing to the masses. Yanez, being a chef, thought that some good street food from each of the Buddhist countries represented here would help. I suggested that a virtual reality centre in which wise old men would dispense wisdom was required.

Just then we ran into three more cyclists from our group – Gonzalo, Ruth and Juan. I was not sure if they were searching for enlightenment of their own but looking at their professional cameras, I am sure that they got much better photos than I did. Of course, all of this is a bit, as my father would say (and forgive me as this is in translation from Yiddish) “neither here nor there”. Therefore I will end with a wonderful quote from a rabbi, a very famous one who had when he was alive and now that he is dead even more so, many followers, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav – “As the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so the little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full, and who can draw it away from before his eyes, as one draws away a hand, behold the great shining of the inner worlds”.

Tomorrow we begin the climb to Pokhara. From there we can see the great Annapurna mountain massif and I will endeavour to draw away the hand that conceals the great shinning of the inner world.

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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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This 3,300km ride will take cyclists from Kashmir to Kathmandu. Along the way they will pedal over passes as high as 5,000m, spin past remote forts…

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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The Inaugural Trans-Himalaya Bicycle Tour Is Ready To Roll

That is at the bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have the courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

The small hotel here in Leh, Ladakh has been overrun by a group of tourists, many of them senior citizens, from different parts of the globe. There may seem to be nothing particularly different about them from any of the many other travellers in this part of the world. However, if you happen to start a conversation with any of them, you will find that they are here to do something very unusual, something that no other group, certainly not in their age bracket, has undertaken. They have gathered for the start of a bicycle tour that will take almost 2 months to complete. Starting here in Leh, the participants will cycle through spectacular valleys and up over passes at 5,000 metres, stopping for rest days in some of the areas most famous locales before eventually ending in Kathmandu, Nepal.

View of Leh

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is described by the Rough Guides as one of Asia’s most scenic towns. Ladakh – ‘the land of high passes’ is the area through which the group, including myself, will be cycling. The area is often described as ‘Little Tibet’ or ‘the last Shangri-la’ and “is mainland India’s most remote and sparsely populated region. A high- altitude desert cradled by the Karakoram and great Himalaya ranges and crisscrossed by myriad razor-sharp peaks and ridges”, it is in Ladakh where the riders will face the high and lows, not only of the terrain but of their own struggles and desires. It is here where they will often ask themselves why are they here, what are they searching for and what, if any, meaning there is to their own life experience.

The Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa, Lumbini, Nepal

One of the places where the tour will enjoy a rest day after cycling through Ladakh, is Lumbini, the birth place of the one called Sakyamuni, better known as Buddha. According to the book The Snow Leopard’ by Peter Mathieson, it was in Lumbini that ‘he forsake (the comforts of palace life) to go in search of the secret of existence that would free men from the pain of the sensory world, known as samsara”.

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This 3,300km ride will take cyclists from Kashmir to Kathmandu. Along the way they will pedal over passes as high as 5,000m, spin past remote forts…

It is one of those funny things in life, totally unplanned, that the hotel in which we have gathered is called La Buddha. I say unplanned because the tour was to start in Srinagar (in Kashmir) and our first rest day was suppose to have been in Leh but in a different hotel. Unfortunately modern leaders are not in search of the secret of existence but are preoccupied with political ambitions not realizing or caring for the impermanence of ambitions and the futility of their actions. They are enslaved by desires and at least according to Buddha’s teachings they are not free men or perhaps men of free will.

Shanti Stupa

Thus we find ourselves here in La-Buddha, accepting the energy flow of the universe.  Preparing for a journey that although will be done more or less together, we allow each and every one of us to be, quoting Mathieson again, “seeking our own Holy Grail what Zen Buddhists call our own ‘true nature’; each man is his own saviour after all”. Meanwhile we wander around this wonderful town. There are plenty of great restaurants to fill our hungry palates, we can visit the 16th century palace which is “lording over the old town from the top of granite ridge”, or visit the Chamba Temple. Riders can help acclimatize to the altitude by climbing the many stairs of the Shanti Stupa, inaugurated in 1985 by his highness the Dalai Lama. Some of us linger by the ever present prayer wheels – “spinning out the invocations that call the universe to attention: OM!” (Peter Mathieson, p55, ‘The Snow Leopard’)

Soon enough we will be spinning our own wheels. And being in the land of Lamas (Buddhist teachers or gurus) what better way is there to conclude this rumination than to quote Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898 – 1985) from ‘The Way of the White Clouds’ – “Just as the summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere – in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life … that leads him beyond the farthest horizons to aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from sight”.

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