Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Expedition Videos and Photo Slideshow!

A bit late but i just realised how to upload videos... =p

The Official Expedition Trailer

The Photo Slideshow

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Experience of a Lifetime

Day 1

So long Singapore!

The team touched down in Kathmandu and was immediately given a rough introduction to another country and culture. Accustomed to the orderliness of Singapore and Changi Airport, we were totally unprepared for what greeted us at Kathmandu’s international airport.

After clearing customs, we soon found our local contact, Mohan from Makalu Adventures. He had arranged for a vehicle transfer to our hotel where we would be staying for the next 2 days as our papers for entry to Tibet were processed. Carrying a bunch of fresh flower garlands in his hands and surrounded by an army of porters, he stood out like a sore thumb.

The army of “porters” eagerly grabbed our luggage and carted them energetically towards our waiting bus. However, to our horror, these “porters” were not employees of Makalu or official airport staff. Instead, they were just jobless Nepalese who made a living by swarming foreigners at the airport and carrying their luggage, whether they desired such a service or not. Upon performance of such a service, they did not hope for a tip, rather, they would demand payment for the act and that was what we experienced once our bags had been loaded. 8 tired university students were suddenly besieged by 20 pairs of arms, each demanding amounts which we did not really understand except for shouts of “US dollar!”

Luckily, Mohan handled the situation for us by getting one man from the army to accept a group tip which we did not really care as to how it would eventually be split. We were just grateful to get going after a tiring flight and a rather harrowing introduction to Nepal.

As we drove through the city, we noticed the clutteredness, pollution and aggressive driving habits unseen even in Singapore. However, who would not be excited by the prospect of discovering and exploring a new foreign land and culture. We certainly were and the team’s only activity throughout the bus ride was to peer in amazement out of the windows at the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, taking in every single drop of the Kathmandu atmosphere.

We were pleasantly surprised upon arriving at our hotel as we found it totally unlike what we had seen of Kathmandu. It was quaint, clean and really warm as the staff there gladly helped u with our every need. Also, this time we had only one porter (who was very efficient!) to deal with. After settling in our rooms and resting for what was left of the afternoon, we left for dinner in the evening.

Dinner was somewhere in the city centre and along the way there, we saw some international brands such as The North Face and Adidas, showing us a more modern side of Kathmandu that we had not seen initially on the way to the hotel from the airport. Also, as a reminder of the insurgency by rebels and the unstable political climate that was prevalent then, we noticed armed soldiers patrolling the street and more shockingly, a machine-gun pillbox erected at the corner of a traffic junction!

Dinner was a spicy affair as we were treated to a traditional Nepalese steamboat. The steamboat was still powered by charcoal instead of gas or electricity which added to the authenticity. Curry seemed to be something of a staple like rice as it came with every single dish we had! Also, during the course of dinner, we met a team of Mexicans who were with Makalu Adventure albeit on a hiking expedition to Everest Base Camp. We found out that they were actually a family and that they had hiked in exotic locations such as the Andes and like us, were looking very much towards their hike through Tibet.

During dinner, we also had the fortune of being treated to a live Nepalese traditional dance. Despite not understanding a single word that was being said, the power of the comedy and music allowed us to follow the story rather accurately. A barrel of laughs, it was certainly a nice way to end of our dinner.

After exchanging contacts with the Mexicans and promising to catch them again in Tibet, the team was taken for a quick tour around the district of Thamel. It was here that all the souvenir shops, bars and hostels were located. Though it represented what Orchard Road means to us, it was a far cry from the orderliness and cleanliness that Orchard Road provides us Singaporeans with. The streets were winding , narrow and most confusing while most of the shops stood at 2 stories tall without a single shopping mall in sight. Still, the place smelled of excitement (and a wee amount of rubbish) despite most of the shops being closed for the day.

As we headed back to our vehicle, we were accosted by a couple of street children who refused to leave us alone unless we gave them money. Things almost got ugly as they both decided to jump onto Danny’s back. Luckily, our vehicle was just around the corner and we managed to scamper into the safety and comfort of the vehicle. As we sped away, we saw both children angrily flashing their middle fingers at our departing van.

Reflecting on the day, we agreed that we had to be vigilant and look out for one another especially given the foreign nature of our surroundings. Yet, at the same time, each of us could but help salivate at the prospects the days ahead held for us.

day 2

We woke up nice and early for the hotel breakfast which was varied and certainly very hearty. Instead of a typical buffet spread with eggs lumped into one giant receptacle, we had the hotel chef fry our eggs into a unique Nepalese omelet individually!

What followed after was an afternoon of sightseeing at various Hindu shrines at Durbar Square and a visit to the 1500-year-old Boudanath, an enormous stupa representing all four Tibetan Buddhist sects (Gelu, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya).

the 1500-year-old Boudanath stupa

With the monks at the Stupa

A colourful scene of hundreds of Hindu devotees cleansing themselves by the river

Monkey see, monkey do

View of a section of Durbar Square

"momo" & Aiwei hanging with the local street urchins

We also took the free time off in the afternoon to better equip ourselves with outdoor gear and clothing as we were warned of extreme weather conditions at different parts in Tibet.

Just before dinner, we took some time to visit Mohan and his colleagues at their office in Thamel. There, we were briefed about the potential complications arising from Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) which typically sets in at about 2000m above sea-level. It subsequently becomes pronounced at 3,500 m and requires adjustments for each 400 m above that. If not treated quickly, it can be fatal. One of the ways of treating AMS is through a decompression chamber or a portable altitude chamber (PAC) which requires the victim to be placed in a portable red bag where air is pumped in slowly to help decompress the pressure the victim feels. Deming was enthusiastically volunteered by the team for an on-the-spot live demonstration and it was quite hilarious seeing him sweat and suffer inside the stuffy red PAC.

Packing up our teammate

Following that somewhat hilarious episode, Mohan invited the team to his home for a cup of tea. After waling through a series of mazes, we were warmly greeted at his door by his wife and son. Somewhat to our surprise, we were reacquainted with the Mexicans who were already seated in his guest room, sipping away at Mohan’s homemade Nepalese tea. There, we exchanged more stories with the Mexicans who by the end of the night, had persuaded us to pay them a visit one day in their homeland. Of course, we managed to do likewise!

Next, it was off to a specially arranged dinner by Mohan’s company. We were told that it was a very traditional Nepalese dinner, totally different from the steamboat we had the night before. True to his word, when we got off the van, we found ourselves in the courtyard of a very nostalgic looking mansion, complete with tea-lights all around and blowing curtains at the entrance. Most grand and authentic looking we thought. There was better to come. Once inside, we were ushered to a long low table where we were given soft fluffy cushions to sit on. The whole place was decorated with exquisite rugs and candlelight, all of which further contributed to the very authentic Nepalese setting.

Soon, we were served a variety of Nepalese food, ranging from curried meat and vegetables to local Nepalese rice wine and beer. Dinner was suddenly interrupted by a burst of lively music as dancers emerged suddenly from out of nowhere and started to perform for all of us. Towards the end, we were even invited to join in the traditional Nepalese folk dance which most of us (those not drunk) gladly obliged. It was certainly a most memorable and lively dinner!


After the meal, Mohan gave us the option of returning for rest or visiting the local casino. Needless to say, we all opted for the casino! We were certainly surprised that a proper casino existed in cramped up Kathmandu but we had to see it for ourselves.

True enough, the casino was small and far from the grandeur associated with those in Vegas or Macau. That said, they had all the basic games to keep us occupied all night long… or until our money ran out which was what happened first. The drama for the night was not done as having had a wee bit to much to drink, Danny promptly proceeded to puke his dinner out on the way back in the van, inflicting collateral damage on a couple of his team mates and even “inspired” Mohan’s young son to do likewise a split second later.

day 3

This day, we were finally ready to depart for Tibet. After thanking Mohan for his hospitality and help, we were then promptly subjected to a very strict baggage check and despite prior promises from Makalu adventures that we would be given excess baggage allowance, we were still charged for all our excess weight which amounted to a hefty sum. Yet another sour experience at the Kathmandu Airport. Still, we were in no mood to allow such an incident spoil our impending trip and made a note that we would double check all arrangements in future, especially if we had not been involved in the initial planning. This we felt would help us avoid further unnecessary charges.

As the plane descended to Lhasa, we found ourselves constantly gazing out of the airplane’s windows as we caught our first glimpses of the vast mountains that lay ahead in our expedition. It was truly a sight to behold and had some of us gasping in awe at the sheer beauty and majesty of the scenery.

Unlike the airport in Kathmandu, our experience at Lhasa’s was a lot less harrowing and virtually trouble-free. We were promptly picked up shortly after clearing customs and were grateful as the weather was muck chillier than in Kathmandu. Instead of being showered with flower garlands, the team was instead given good luck scarves by our local Tibetan guide.

In Tibet at last!

The journey from the airport to our hotel somewhere in the city was a good preview of the treat that lay in store for us over the next few days. We saw majestic rivers, snow-capped mountains and serene lakes as our bus sped towards the city centre.

Scenery on the way from the airport to Lhasa Central

AMS was not an issue yet but our first hour at the hotel was probably a warning the things were only going to get worse. Many of us were panting crazily after carry the luggage up just one flight of stairs! Perhaps it was the shock of the “hotel’s” appearance which resembled something more of a hostel. There was only a common bathroom that did not stand well with the girls as both males and females were to use it.

Once we had settled in, we then eagerly set about reassembling our bikes so that we could take a ride around Lhasa and acclimatize to exercise in the relatively high altitude conditions of Lhasa. To our horror, a simple standard routine became something of a horror as we discovered that the shop which had packed our bikes for us “professionally” had not done such a great job at all. It was shoddy to say the least.

For instance, Alvin found that the brakes on his bike were missing while Alvan found that his bike had been packed without any padding. Danny also found to his horror and dismay that his gear shifters were not working at all either. A visit to the local bike shop was now imperative.

Thankfully for us, the local bike shop while not blessed with the best spare parts, was blessed with a very able mechanic who could do small wonders with the little basic parts he had stocked. We each managed to resolve the problems we had with the bikes and were soon on our way back to the hotel.

Danny created his own problems - notice how he's struggling to fit his handlebars on...

Our afternoon whirlwind tour of Lhasa brought about several interesting observations. For starters, we noticed that Lhasa did not resemble our mental picture of Tibet in the sense that we did not see any idyllic villages and water wells but instead, we saw high-rise buildings everywhere and with running water to boot. Also, instead of being dusty and dirty (we were given this impression by the general disdain China accords street cleanliness in the bigger cities), the streets of Lhasa were rather spick and span.

Lhasa in the evening

Dinner that night was at the foot of the famous Potala Palace, the one distinctive landmark of Lhasa and of Tibet. Formerly the residence of the country’s leaders, it had now been reduced to a museum by the Chinese government. Situated at the top of a hill, the sprawling Potala Palace was both grand and rather daunting.

Dinner too was a rather grand and daunting affair. Like in Nepal, we were treated to local dishes and performances while we ate but as we would find out later in our expedition, the food in Tibet was simply not quite agreeable with Singaporean taste buds, or ours at least. Each dish was cooked using some part of the yak, an animal that is to Tibet what cows are to New Zealand. By the time we were through with the 5th dish that was cooked using the yak’s intestines or testicles (we could not tell anymore), we were thoroughly sick of the meat and prayed that we would not have to consume any more of it over the course of our expedition. Fat chance as we were to find out…

Yaks! It's Yak!

Our liaison then suggested after our meal that we join him at a local night club to enjoy a traditional song and dance show. Curious to find out more about this mysterious place, we readily agreed.

The performance turned out to be far from anything traditional. At best, it was something of a mix of old and new as Tibetans belted out songs in their local language to the beat of techno music blaring out of the sound system. The setting of the club was anything but traditional as well as waitresses in skimpy outfits emblazoned with the words “Budweiser” took turns to persuade us to buy more alcohol. After a mere 15 minutes of the performance, we decided that it was all too much to bear and bolted for our hotel.

Our first day in Tibet really showed us the inaccuracy of how we had perceived the country. We also truly became appreciative of the saying “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” after our yak dinner supreme.

day 4

This day was the last day that was set aside for our acclimatization to the higher altitude and thinner air in Tibet. It did not seem to be helping much as several team mates complained of headaches and giddiness just by climbing the hotel stairs again.

The morning was used for another more lengthy trial ride around the area to help us better acclimatize. We took the chance to visit the Sera Monastery which was up on a small hill. Here, our guide Chimmi explained to us the history of the Dalai Lamas and how the current one had come to be chosen and his subsequent escape to India.

The Monastery was out on the outskirts of Lhasa and we noticed that the further away we got from the town centre, the more dusty and dirty the roads became and how the modern looking shops were slowly giving way to older shabbier ones.

Outside the temple

After our ride, we visited the Jokhang. It was the place of worship in Lhasa. While the Potala’s neighbourhood had been modernized, the Jokhang and its surrounding Barkhor Square remained as it did before 1950. It was busy with monks chanting sutras, ringing bells, bashing cymbals, blowing trumpets and conch shells; lighting yak butter candles; old people twirling prayer wheels; people prostrating themselves full length on the ground.

Worshippers prostrating themselves outside the temple

Worshipper with prayer wheel

Inside were the main prayer hall and several chambers with shrines to Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, each in its own cell, some with a chain net door, the air thick with fragrant incense and, everywhere, glimmering butter candles. This was the Tibet from another age, old Tibet.

Surrounding the Jokhang was Barkhor Square, a bizarre bazaar of souvenir shops, Tibetan craft, fruit stalls and prayer things. Here, we found clothes, shoes and hats, beads, prayer wheels and incense, shawls, blankets and carpets, horns, trumpets and skulls, old coins and bric-a-brac, radios, mobile phones and calculators, cheap rings and chains, jade, turquoise and amber. Our Mexican friends had also found us and they proceeded to buy Buddhist Monk robes.

The highlight of our day was the afternoon visit to Potala Palace. There we saw a large queue outside the palace gate and were told that each day only a few hundred tourists are allowed in, thus tickets had to be bought at least a day or two in advance.

Low & behold: The Potala Palace!

The view from the palace

The story of Potala goes something like this. According to legend, the ancient Tibetan King Songzan was looking for a site for his capital when his Chinese wife, using feng shui, divined the valley to be the ideal spot. First, the existing lake had to be filled in, not just by workmen, but by using white goats to carry the earth. After many years this was accomplished and work on the palace could then begin. Later generations of kings added to it and when the secular and spiritual rulers combined, the Potala became the monastic seat of government that lasted until the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. Today the Potala is a museum.

Inside the palace grounds, devotees sing a song

For a palace this big, one would expect spacious halls and large chambers. But inside was a warren of rooms and shrines and the corridors were labyrinthine. The rooms were small, musty, dimly lit by bulbs or butter candles or daylight seeping in from the central courtyards. There were several collections of large and small Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in glass cases; libraries of pigeonhole shelves with scrolls; shrines with burning incense and shrines like large urns containing the preserved bodies of previous Dalai Lamas who were not given sky burial.

The coronation hall was small, ornate, with gifts of calligraphy by emperors and sacred, historical tapestry hangings. Nowhere was there any sign of damage; we were surprised that the Potala and its contents were not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Though the Potala was atmospheric with incense smoke, gloomy rooms and treasures, yet it was like a gilded birdcage after the bird had flown.

Long walk up and down the palace

The rest of the free time we had that day was spent indulging in a hair salon that by Singaporean standards, would have cost us a bomb. Instead, for the mere price of about $4, we were treated to a massage, hair wash and cut.

We then experimented with a Tibetan Ma La steamboat which was an experience, albeit a very oily and spicy one. Post dinner, we headed back to our hotel for some good rest as our adventure was about to officially begin the next morning.

day 5

A grand farewell party we had!

We woke up excited and raring to go. The thought of finally getting our expedition underway after 4 days of relative inertia was thoroughly exhilarating. We had a Nepalese guide by the name of Akshaya who would be responsible for ensuring that we did not lose our way or fall off some ravine along the way. He was really friendly and we immediately took an instant liking to his unique brand of humour and enthusiasm.

Villagers rush to snap a photo with us

Fangkai & Alvin pose during a stop along the river

Today’s leg was to be 80km long but due to a logistical cock-up, we ended up cycling close to 100km instead and had to suffer the entire day without lunch. When the logistics lorry finally found us, it was already 9pm in the night and we quickly wolfed down our dinner like starving prisoners.

The arduous experience that day did not mask the fact that our first impressions of the Tibetan countryside were simply awesome. Despite our hunger and discomfort, the stunning scenery and wonderful company more than made up for it. Every km of road traveled offered us one new beautiful postcard setting. There were mountains, rivers and lakes to sooth our growling stomachs. However, man cannot survive on scenery alone and when we finally came across a secluded village restaurant, we immediately decided to dine there even though dinner was supposed to be provided by our Tibetan support vehicle. Thankfully, when they found us, our liaison offered to pay for the meal and profusely apologized for the miscommunication which had almost caused us to starve to death.

After dinner, the guys took the chance to do a night cycle while the girls decided that they would follow the support vehicle. This was a night cycle unlike any other in Singapore as the entire Tibetan highway was unlighted at night. We would have been cycling in virtual darkness if not for the moon and our bike lamps. Still, an unforgettable experience it was.

That night, we spent our first night outdoors in tents that were set up by our support team, a motley crew of Nepalese Sherpas and Tibetans. Though we were shivering and cold from the harsh winds that were blowing through our camp site, we found warmth in the setting they had made for us. There was a comforting dinner tent in which we had supper and subsequently, all our meals and many nights of interaction and laughs.

That night, as we shivered in our tents and struggled to sleep, we each thanked whichever god or force we believed in for giving us the chance to be where we were, experiencing episodes that few of our peers could even dream of.

Rest at last! The dinner tent - some of our best moments were shared in there throughout the expedition... not to mention great food!

Day 6

Our morning got off slowly as none of managed to sleep very well in the harsh conditions the night before. However, we were soon on our way and the immediate task we were faced with was conquering the 5000m high Kamba La Pass, one of the many mountain passes we would be faced with over the next few days but also one of the toughest.

Checking our bikes as we prepared for the day's journey

Breakfast time!

Being thrown in at the deep end so early in the expedition, we gamely went about our task of conquering the pass. However, at about 4000m AMS overcame the members of the night cycling party the night before. It was terrifying in a way to see Alvan, one of the most accomplished and able riders in the group reduced to a wheezing and limping wreck. From resting every 100m or so on the bike, the entire night cycling group was soon reduced to resting after every step they took while pushing their bikes! Once it was apparent that the group was not going to be able to make it safely to the top of the pass, the support vehicle quickly came by to assist them.

We all started off brightly!

Further evidence of our bright start... and the breathtaking view that we were enveloped by

Then it all went wrong - AMS victim Alvan recovers in the land rover

In the meantime, the 4 others who had not gone on the previous night’s joyride were slowly but surely making their way up to the top. After cycling from 9 in the morning till almost 5 in the evening, they finally made it to the top of the imposing Kamba la Pass. Here we were all rewarded with a breath taking view of the valley and Lake Yamdrok Yam Tso.

Lake Yamdrok Yam Tso

Having taken 8 hours to ascend the pass, we took merely an hour to speed down the mountain pass to our rest point for the day where we enjoyed a hearty meal cooked by our Nepalese sherpas, free of yak and anything remotely related thankfully.

day 7

If we thought that the journey the day before was tough, then today’s one promised to be just as tough, if not worse as we were told to expect 2 passes.

Our journey started fairly easily with flat roads but we soon approached the imposing sight of a huge mountain that we would have to go over. The roads from flat soon turned bumpy and were littered with gravel which forced us to change our cycling style as it became very slippery and taxing.

The nice smooth start didn't last long...

Dirt roads soon appeared and became the norm...

The weather also gradually began to worsen and resulted in the first accident of the expedition as Danny lost control of his bike on a downhill. Though he was not able to continue for the day, his injuries were thankfully not serious nor life-threatening.

Alvin had cycled ahead of the group in an attempt to seek shelter before the rain fell but instead fell victim to a hail storm. Soon after, the rain caught up with him and he was forced to take shelter in a ditch by the side of the road as he waited for the rest of the team to find him.

It took the team almost 3 hours before they caught up with Alvin who had hitched a ride back up the mountain pass in a bid to find the rest of his team mates and lunch. A little upset but thankful that lunch and company had arrived, he was able to continue on the leg after his belated lunch.

One missing member...

Missing member found half dead... =)

An eventful and exhausted 120km later, we finally arrived at our campsite for the night. Feeling dirty after all the rain, perspiration and dust, a shower tent was set up. That was the first and last night any of us took a shower outdoors. Hot water was at a premium and due to the limited amounts of water the bucket provided could hold, we were often left shivering and screaming in agony from the cold as we waited for top-ups from the boiler. An excruciating and unforgettable episode for all of us.

Given the action-packed day we had had, we all slept like logs that night.

Day 8

Today’s journey was to take us to the second largest town of Tibet, Shigatse. Surprisingly, after only 10km, we had arrived! We were told that this was the result of a mistake by the support crew the day before as they had overshot the originally planned campsite by some 40km.

Fortunately for us, there was some sightseeing to be don e in Shigatse. Some of us took the chance to walk along the streets and take in the sights while Danny went off to visit an old Tibetan fort just on the edge of the town.

That night, we brought the entire support crew out for dinner at a local diner and got to know them a little better over a couple of drinks and some good food.

day 9

Today’s ride was a rather straightforward one. More of distance than anything else, we did not encounter any passes thankfully for the day. After a relatively easy journey of 80km or so, we reached our campsite. Before that, we had passed by a Tibetan horse show but had not gone in as we had no place to park our bicycles. The road to our campsite was an awesome downhill that provided us with both breathtaking scenery and speed.

Our campsite for the day could have been taken straight out of a fairy tale or picture book for all we know. Lush green fields with horses grazing, a picturesque stream that cut right across the meadow and flower beds against the backdrop of the Himalayas. It was truly a sight to behold and a great place for the mind to unwind and relax.

day 10

As we left our campsite, the bright green surroundings soon became replaced by dark brown hills and dusty off-roads. A storm was looming on the horizon and we were cycling straight into it!

As we rested at a small village, we could see that the storm was only 5 to 10 minutes away from hitting us. Upon consulting our guides, we were advised to retire to the support vehicle as it would have been unsafe to cycle through such a storm.

Before we could get onto the vehicle though, Alvan was suddenly besieged by village children who wanted money and food from him. This was similar to the scene at Kathmandu airport although this time, he was the only one being pestered.

Thus, we avoided the storm just in the nick of time as it hit down hard and forcefully on our vehicle just as we had finished loading the bicycles. Half an hour and 30 km later, it lifted and those who were still feeling okay got off to cycle to the destination.

Along the way, we were subjected to “security check” at a roadside post. Upon closer inspection, we realized that it probably was not an official check but rather a lame attempt by the locals to collect money from foreigners passing by. Once our crew had spoken to them and offered some remuneration to the local “official”, we saw his wife lift the makeshift barrier from her kitchen, children in tow, all smiling away at yet another successful scalp.

The weather conditions got worse and worse but thankfully, we soon arrived at our rest point for the night, thoroughly exhausted, cold and very hungry.

day 11

Our day started off with great excitement as the bumpy uncomfortable off-roads soon gave way to nice smooth paved roads once again. The team took full opportunity of the splendid conditions to practice their drafting which helped to speed up progress and save our energy.

Unfortunately, halfway through, we had a major accident involving Lijen and Danny. Apparently, Lijen had failed to see a stationary motorcycle parked by the roadside as her view was partially obstructed by Alvin who had similarly just avoided the motorcycle at the last second. She clipped the mirror of the bike and was wobbling to regain her balance when Danny and the full glory of his 80kg frame and bike cannoned right into her.

We had a real scare for awhile as we saw her lying motionless on the ground. Thankfully, she opened her eyes once we gave her a good shake but mysteriously, she could not remember the crash. After easing both her and Danny onto the support vehicle, the rest of the team then quickly finished off the day’s journey just in time for yet another hearty meal by our Nepalese Sherpas.

day 12

The weather in the morning was most gloomy and things only got worse as we were soon greeted by yet another 5000m pass – the Gyatso La Pass. To make matters worse, the already muddy and dug up roads were made virtually impassable by the extensive construction works that were taking place all along the pass. Even vehicles risked plunging into the steep ravine below as they carefully negotiated their way around the muddy corners and ditches. It was a cold, muddy and downright miserable journey up the pass especially with the wind and chill exacerbating the sorry situation we were in.

Along the way, we all took turns to fall into swirling mud pools as our roads turned into mini rivers and hazards. Lijen’s bike finally gave way as her chain snapped and she was forced to retire for the day. Lunch provided brief respite and like the day before, the impending storm meant that the team had to board the support vehicle for the rest of the day’s leg.

Our only consolation for a sorry and miserable day was our accommodation that night in the town of Tingri. We were given suites at a “top hotel” that day and took full use to thoroughly rid our mud-caked bodies of the days “collections”.

day 13

The day started off badly as our guide’s bag was accidentally taken by another tour group staying at the hotel. At the same time, our Tibetan guide, Pasang, had failed to obtain his permit to go deeper into Tibet and had to head backwards to fetch it along with Akshaya’s bag.

The stressful morning soon got worse as we were confronted by the sight of a never ending, eternally winding mountain pass – Pang La Pass. Yet another 5000m high pass, the team laboriously pedalled for their lives up the mountain. However, it proved too much for some as injuries and the altitude caught up with them. In the end, only Lijen, Alvin, Danny and Alvan managed to overcome the mammoth pass.

Their reward then was a thrilling downhill ride that stretched for over 30km! Racing down at breakneck speeds, they were occasionally lucky not to end up in a serious accident as there were many a time when they felt their lives flashing by after hitting rocks and sharp hairpins on the way down.

Alvin’s personal duel with Akshaya was brought to an abrupt end when his tyre punctured towards the bottom. Being the bike expert that he is, Akshaya soon replaced Alvin’s punctured tyre and the group speedily made it to the day’s rest point where their team mates and hot dinner was waiting.

Day 14

Today’s ride promised to be every bit as tough as the day before, if not worse. Things were only made worse by the fact that injuries were beginning to set in for some of the team. Though it was only a distance of 50km, it was very steep and difficult. Things were only made worse by the strong winds which not only slowed progress but also made conditions close to freezing.

As the team fell victim to the weather and injuries one by one, only Alvin successfully huffed and puffed his way up to the top, a tremendous achievement especially since he was one of the less experienced cyclists in the team.

That night, we were treated to one of the most beautiful starlit skies we had ever seen in our lives. We braved the freezing cold for a full half hour staring at the beauty and sheer expanse of the sky above us, identifying constellations and wishing upon shooting stars.

Day 15

This day was designated as a day of rest and sightseeing. We hired donkeys that slowly took us to Everest Base Camp, the first point for all adventure seekers thinking of scaling the world’s tallest mountain – Mount Everest.

It was truly an honour and privilege to have stepped on the same ground as many famous adventurers who had risked their lives just to challenge the human spirit and themselves in scaling Mount Everest.

We took plenty of pictures with the world’s most famous and revered mountain as a memory of a lifetime before boarding our support vehicle which took us back down the way we came to a lower and warmer resting point for the night.

Day 16

The morning started off perfectly as we were treated to a feast of pancakes and peanut butter. The mood was further cheered by the news that we would only have to deal with 40km odd of nice flat roads.

Along the way, we picked up a solo cyclist from Spain by the name of Joan. The team and he hit it off really well and we invited him to spend the next few days with us as we were all going in the same direction.

That night, we hosted a dinner for him against the backdrop of a beautiful river which flowed right alongside our tents. That night we exchanged stories of Singapore and Spain and gained not just several interesting insights to Spain and Barcelona but a new friend as well.

Day 17

This day effectively marked our exit from the Himalayas as we would be passing the last 2 passes that would take us over the mountain range. While the whole team successfully managed to get over the Lalung Pass, only the guys sans Deming managed to overcome the last pass at Nyalam. Here, we might a mini United Nations of people headed in the opposite direction into Tibet and they patted us on the back for making it so far. It was great for us to be able to meet so many people of varying backgrounds because each time, we felt like we got to visit another part of the world without being there thanks to the vivid descriptions given to us.

That night, our Nepalese Sherpas cooked like there was no tomorrow and we went to bed thoroughly satisfied. Somehow or another, they even managed to bake us a goodbye cake with their stoves!

Day 18

Today marked the day that many of us had been waiting for. The world’s longest downhill ride. 320 km of non-stop downhill that would take us from Tibet back into Nepal. And, it was every bit as good as we imagined it to be.

As we raced down the mountains, we saw raging rivers, grand waterfalls that cascaded down over our heads and flower & fauna at every bend of the road. No words could ever describe the beauty and emotion of our surroundings.

We soon reached the border town of Zhangmu, a small town with steep winding roads and scattered buildings. That night, we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant which offered us a magnificent view of the valley that we were to cycle down the next day.

Day 19

Before arriving back in Nepal, our team almost met with tragedy. As we were speeding down the last few km back into Nepal, Lijen’s brakes decided to give up on her, both front and rear. This resulted in her having to jump off her bike into a ditch as she noticed a sharp hairpin in front which would have taken her flying down the valley into probable oblivion.

Luckily for her and her bike, they both came out unscathed.

As we crossed the friendship bridge that connected Nepal and Tibet, we looked longingly back at the route by which we had traveled and at our Tibetan guide and driver whom we had come to be friends with. As we traveled through the mountains back to Kathmandu, we saw a green and luxurious part of Nepal that was non-existent in Kathmandu. Waterfalls adorned the hills and breath taking scenery was the order of the day as we made our way to bungee jumping suspension bridge.

Unfortunately for the brave souls in our team who had planned on jumping off the bridge, the weather was deemed unsuitable for a jump which deeply disappointed them. The rest of us too were disappointed as we had hoped on seeing our friends’ scared faces and reactions upon stepping out to the platform.

We checked ourselves into a hotel that offered us a stupendous view of the valley and the entire range of the Himalayas. Sipping on Nepalese tea as the sun set, it was not hard to see why we felt as if we had found utopia.

Day 20

The ride back into Kathmandu was easy and quick. No more mountain passes or off-roads to negotiate; neither were there children nor villagers popping out of nowhere trying to extort some money from us.

We were housed again at the same hotel that we first stayed in when he arrived 20 days before. The familiarity and relative luxury of the hotel made it feel like home and we quickly set about cleaning and packing our bikes.

Deming discovered to his horror that he had left his money bag in the hotel the night before. Although he made an attempt to track back and recover the bag, it was all in vain. Still, to his credit, he took it in his stride and gamely took part in the bowling game and dinner organized for us that night and even treated Akshaya to dinner!

day 21

This day was one mad rush from start to finish as we headed to Thamel and attempted to buy up the entire street. We got souvenirs like Pashminas, knives and photo albums for our loved ones and ourselves.

Our Singaporean obsession with shopping almost caused us to miss our flight as we were told that our flight was full upon arrival half an hour before the take off time at the airport. Luckily, just as Danny was preparing to pack his bag for a night at the airport, the airline came through and allowed all of us to board the plane for Singapore.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A Summary of our Epedition Experience

In September 2004, a great dream to cycle 1000km across the fabled mountain ranges of the Himalayas from Tibet to Nepal in the name of learning, adventure and challenging oneself was hatched. This spurred 8 like-minded individuals armed with little cycling experience from vastly different backgrounds to band together in a bid to make this dream a reality, and thus the Himalayan Bicycle Diaries was born.

Between December 2004 and July 2005, our team of 8 scoured for sponsors, diligently studied the technicalities of mountain biking and underwent a rigorous training regime as we prepared ourselves for this maiden expedition under SMU’s Zero Limits X3pedition Series. Our training regime included weekly rides across Singapore and a dreaded ride up the not-so-friendly slopes of Mount Faber. In addition, we organized 3 overseas training rides to various parts of Malaysia – Desaru (3 days, 180km), Kuantan (6 days, 500km) and Cameron Highlands (altitude training). Finally, on July 24th, we departed for Kathmandu Nepal to begin our great adventure.

Our 2 day wait in Nepal for our Tibetan travel permits was compensated by the majestic mountain scenery that greeted us when we touched down in Lhasa (capital of Tibet). Moving further in to the heart of Lhasa, we found a modern city laced with nostalgia - a magical mix of malls and night markets, nightclubs and temples. Our 3-day altitude acclimatization period gave us the invaluable opportunity to visit landmarks such as the majestic Potala Palace where the Dalai Lamas used to reside and home to thousands of Buddhist scriptures.

When we finally got down to our expedition proper, the trip was anything but smooth. From missing brake pads on a teammate’s bike (the bike shop in Singapore actually forgot to pack his brakes in!), to shoes and torches mysteriously going missing overnight, to brakes deciding to malfunction on our expedition leader’s bike…on a 140km long downhill ; “expect the unexpected” soon became out team’s mantra.

However, when we were not busy dodging hailstorms and missiles from village children, we experienced the most serene and breathtaking views in our lives. Never before had any of us been fortunate to be amongst the lush green meadows and flowing streams that we were familiar with from documentaries and movies. But, there we were, for 15 days, cycling through the most beautiful backdrops we had ever seen in our lives! We even managed to get up close to the base camp of the world’s most famous and admired mountain – Mount Everest!

The glories of nature aside, we found that there was much to be admired in the people we met along the way. Poor as church mice they may have been but we were always greeted with warm smiles and enthusiasm wherever we stopped… even from the children who pelted us with rocks!

Cycling together for those 15 days really afforded our team many valuable lessons in teamwork, leadership and determination. Perhaps it was the circumstances we were in because when you are pedaling hard to make it over a 5,000m-high mountain pass, those are the qualities you begin to value most in the people around you and in yourself.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

We're Back!

Thanks to all who have wished us well in our preparations and to all our kind and generous sponsors for helping us make this expedition happen! Once the team has sorted out the tonnes of photos that we took on our amazing journey, you can be sure to find all the vivid details of our experience across Tibet-Nepal on this blog!

Do stay-tuned for the full story is coming! In the meantime, we will concentrate on getting our picture and videos sorted out so that you can share in some of our more memorable moments on this expedition...and boy were there many!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Our Cameron Highlands Experience

This trip was our final preparatory ride before our actual expedition. The focus of this trip was essentially to provide everyone with a feel of how cycling at higer altitudes would be like. Though Cameron Highlands came nowhere near the heights we will face in tibet and Nepal (1600m above sea level versus 5000m), it certainly was a good experience for the whole team, especially those like myself who had severely underestimated the harshness of cycling at altitude.

For anyone out there planning to cycle anywhere over 1500m above sea level, allow us to share a few important pointers we learnt first hand (ie: the hard way):

1) Protect yourself against wind chill. Gloves, long sleeves and the tucking in of your tops would go a very long way towards making your ride a more bearable one. Some of us almost became popsicles after our first day's ride.

2) Pace yourself. The air is thinner and colder which means your lungs suffer when you start panting should you push too hard (especially uphill). Thats when you start to feel brain freeze even though you haven't had a slurpee.

3) Hydrate and moisturize. Sun is even more deadly at higher altitudes, especially since you might be inclined to ignore it given the cool air. My cracked feet and peeling cheeks are testament to the folly of ignoring this. Oh, throw in a lousy sore throat as well.

4) Watch your speed downhill. As fun as it may be to zip downhill effortlessly at breakneck speeds of 60+km/h, there may be hidden dangers lurking around every corner. We had a few close shaves that we could have done without but fortunately, no casualties this trip round. =)

Hopefully this list will keep us protected in Tibet/Nepal but if it doesn't, we'll be sure to update everyone. heheh.

Woo Hoo! One Week to the Himalayan Bicycle Diaries! Stay tuned!

ah, the joy of having the whole bus to ourselves... Posted by Picasa

Yeah! Road Trip!!!!!! Posted by Picasa

We finally arrive! Posted by Picasa

Just chilling.... Posted by Picasa

Pre-ride maintenance... Posted by Picasa

Danny getting down and dirty... to fix a teammate's bike... truly a knight in shining armour. Posted by Picasa