a wrong turn in lhasa
The first day of a brand new tour; the Thailand tour that has been chronicled to much critical acclaim pomp and fanfare (well, my mum says the sunset pictures are nice) has begun.
So for the coming two weeks I will once again be treading the route I have explored several times over the past year. The concern now is with all the twists and turns, all the amendments to the route, will I remember which turn was the right way and which was to a rubber factory full of cheery waves, greetings, and offers of palm wine, but little in the way of opportunity for onward travel.
This concern brings to mind the first cycling tour I ever led. I was in Lhasa for the second time, the first time having been ten years before. It was time to take the group for their inaugural ride in Tibet, just a few kilometres to get a feel for the bikes and experience cycling in low oxygen conditions. I wanted to reach a bridge that crossed the river to a little Tibetan village. ‘Follow me group’ I commanded with great authority. There were several amongst the group’s ranks that looked doubtful; ‘fear not, I know the town well’ I fibbed. It all began well as I steered a course in what seemed to me to be a fine approximation of the right direction. From time to time I would drop to the back, apparently checking everyone was OK, when in reality I wanted to stop and have a sneak peep at my map. Then I would dash breathlessly to the front and resume control.
It was alas too late when I realised I had gone wrong. We had passed the bridge but fearing it would prove bad for moral to admit error at such an early and delicate stage in the proceedings I decided to bluff it. I knew the river turned in a loop ahead and if there was a path along it, which I considered likely, surely it would lead me back to the bridge. We reached the water, sparkling crystal and blue in the rarifieded atmosphere of altitude, and there by the river was an adventurous looking gravel track heading back in the direction of the bridge. ‘Yippee’ I said very quietly, ‘victory is within my grasp’. We regrouped by a small wall where I made lots of confident noises and explained that it was always a good plan to have a little ride on this gravel path to see how the bikes handle off road. I explained how I knew the track so well it was like being back in the presence of an old and dear friend and its company made my heart swell. We rode off line astern, I felt good, I smiled and sang a little song, the bridge was getting closer and closer. We were but fifty metres from the bridge when rounding a corner my singing was bough to an abrupt halt. There, across the path, was a large imposing grey concrete building. ‘Bugger!’
‘Bluff it Walks’ I told myself. I jumped up onto a small wall and turned to address my flock. The looks that greeted me were many. A wonderful Kiwi chap wore a look of great amusement. I knew that he had clocked me from the offset. He knew I was new to this game and was watching with amused interest. He was kind and would from time to time give me little compliments that would cheer my heart. His face now said ‘go on then, what are you going to do about this?’ Some faces wore frowns and brows became furrowed, whilst other’s countenances seemed to say ‘oh, this is fun, how exciting, what a jolly adventure’.
‘A fine example of early twenty first century Sino-Tibetan architecture’ I explained pointing to the ugly grey box. They looked unconvinced, ‘I will now check that the path round the back is still open’, I said pulling myself up to peer over the wall, no one said a word. I looked at the group, they seemed to be ignoring me and looking beyond, I turned, ‘Oh bloody hell’ I spluttered as as half a dozen armed Chinese soldiers appeared on the bridge. Tibet is a sensitive area, foreigners need permits, snooping around the military is not good. ‘Um, OK, nothing much going on here, the path seems to have been blocked, silly Tibetans, let’s, erm, lets go home shall we?’
Fortunately I didn’t have to call the office explaining how, within 24 hours, I had managed to get the entire group incarcerated, chained to radiators and unpleasantly interrogated. We continued with no further excitement beyond a puncture and the incident was kindly laid to rest by the group. Let’s hope that all goes well this time.