I only had three things to remember: breathe deeply; drink a lot of water; and put the toilet paper in the wastebasket, not the hole. That was my mantra for fourteen days. The first two were essential for surviving a mountain bike expedition above 4,000 metres. The third was necessary for avoiding the awkwardness of a clogged Tibetan toilet. Remembering to practice all three is not as easy as it sounds; habits and routines are hard to change. How much can a person transform during a two-week trip? Can you become a different person through travel? If so, is it possible to bring that person home?
These questions were far from my mind six months earlier. I was home in Canada, lazily scrolling through Facebook, when a posting caught my attention: A group is going to Tibet for a 10-day epic mountain bike adventure and we are looking for people to join us. At that time, my knowledge about Tibet was basic–Mount Everest, the Dalai Lama, Prayer Flags. I asked my partner, “Should I go mountain biking in Tibet”? His response, as usual, was “Hell yeah.” I signed up the next day.
To prepare, I Googled my fellow travellers. Among them were a mountain bike guide, a racer, and a pro rider. I imagined them travelling all over the world in exotic locations, with massive thighs and nicknames like ‘Shredder’ and ‘Count Huckula’.
I love mountain biking; it makes me, a 56-year-old woman, feel like a kid. I ride a couple of times a week at the local trail affectionately known as ‘The Dump’. My mountain bike buddies call me ‘Crash’. Doubts started to march through my mind. An Army of Insecurities ordered me to stand down. How can Crash keep up with a group of fit, professional riders who get paid to bike for a living?
Nevertheless, I trained the best I could, and six months later my bike and I boarded a plane to China. Jet-lagged and bleary, I arrived in Chengdu. My bike had other plans–and an unknown destination. Cool. My first test. Breathe deeply. I didn’t need my bike for another four days. The next morning, we flew to the Tibetan capital Lhasa to tour and acclimatize. That night my head pounded–the dreaded altitude headache. Cool. Test number two. I guzzled five litres of water, which cured my headache but led to frequent tests of mantra number three–wastebasket, not hole.
After four days of visiting Lhasa, the City of Happiness, we travelled to eastern Tibet to start the biking adventure. My bike had arrived, and I no longer felt the effects of altitude–until the first climb. I gasped and gulped for air, desperate to introduce oxygen into my starving lungs. My head exploded, and then my stomach and I spewed my lunch behind a bush on a pile of yak dung. I questioned myself, and the nearest yak–what was I doing on a trip like this?
Over the next week, we pedalled eight to ten hours per day. We grunted our way over mountain passes, down rocky yak tracks, and through nomadic villages. Raging creeks tried to swallow us as we traversed their banks. We hoisted our bikes on our shoulders to scramble up slippery slopes. Exhausted, we descended upon remote guesthouses where the owners greeted us with local foods like yak meat, yak momos, and yak butter tea.
Somewhere along the way, I began to notice that I felt…nothing. Sensations of hunger, cold, soreness and sickness dissipated into the thin air. I didn’t miss my family, or friends, or home comforts. Worries and negativity drifted away from my reach. From my consciousness. I was filled with a deep spiritual joy and contentment (as well as a newfound respect for yaks). I experienced my own personal Nirvana, and in my mind, I was no longer Crash; I was now the Biking Buddha.
I don’t consider myself a spiritual person. I am a true Virgo–practical, logical, in control. During that trip to Tibet, I shifted inside. I awoke each day, mounted my bike, and rode blissfully at my own pace accepting whatever came my way. I felt present and profoundly peaceful.
There were many occasions where feeling peaceful was easy. Sharing meals with my new friends, stabbing forkfuls of freshly made noodles as delicious Tibetan dishes whirled by on a lazy Susan. Cozying up to the fireplace where grandma was feeding yak dung into the stove and serving yak butter tea; the old woman and her daughter giggling conspiratorially when I sipped the butter in the tea rather than blowing it away. Spending hours laughing and talking with a wizened Tibetan monk–not understanding a single word. Our van driver presenting me with a gift of his family’s prayer beads. Riding above the clouds, locals gaping incredulously as our cycling entourage sped by.
There were also occasions where my newfound serenity was challenged. The second day of riding included endless declarations of ‘one more climb before the summit.’ We reached the final peak as the sun changed guard with the moon; its toothless grin our only light as we dropped over the edge into the darkness.
Another time, I found myself solo, separated from everyone. I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or if I was on the right trail. Miles of vast countryside loomed before me. I was utterly alone, but it didn’t matter–I wasn’t fearful or anxious. For what seemed like hours I journeyed on, thinking– This is my new reality, riding through eternity on a back road in Tibet –until I eventually reunited with the group.
Landing back in Canada after the long flight from China, I waited calmly at the baggage area to claim my bike. A man waiting for his luggage looked over, and remarked, “You look like you just got back from the Himalayas.” I smiled. My question was answered–I can bring that different person home. But how long will the Biking Buddha stay before she plans her next journey?
Originally titled "Constelation Realignment", this is a personal retrospective of an Extravagant Yak mountain bike tour of Tibet written by Maureen Scott. Images by Maureen Scott and Ryan Creary
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