What an extraordinary journey! On 29th July eight cyclists and one back-up team member, all from UAE (including 4 from Fujairah) flew to Kathmandu. There they met up with two cycle guides, picked up their bikes and flew on to Lhasa in Tibet to start the journey a lifetime. By the time we set off we we’d grown an entourage of 3 Nepali staff, 5 Tibetan staff, including 2 cooks and 2 drivers – a total of 16 people all told, with a truck and a minibus.
Our motives were twofold: firstly to raise funds for Mission Himalaya in Kathmandu, who are building a new orphanage. To date we delivered $21,000 to their funds with a bit more still to come. A site visit before we left Kathmandu revealed the construction well advanced in an idyllic rural setting which will be a far cleaner, healthier environment for the children. Completion is dependent on funds, and Dubai-based Gulf For Good are continuing to fund-raise with an Everest Base Camp charity trip planned this autumn (www.gulf4good.org).
The next part of our mission, however, was a completely mad undertaking. We would attempt to cycle from Lhasa in Tibet all the way back to Kathmandu. This 1000 km journey has a slight obstacle in the way: The Himalayas. The road would include five mountain passes over 5000 metres and a stop at Everest Base Camp. No internet, no plumbing, no electricity, just the huge, wild landscape of the Tibetan plateau, one of the last great wildernesses of the world. The prospect was at once terrifying and exciting.
The trip is classed as “strenuous” due to the amount of high-altitude cycling – very few of the cycling days were done below 4000 metres. The itinerary was carefully crafted to get maximum altitude acclimatisation in the earliest stages, but even so, the strain of cycling at 5000 metres was felt by all of us – the oxygen content at this height is only 65% of that at sea level, so at times we were gasping for breath and wondering where our strength had vanished to. Sometimes the smallest hill became a major obstacle and we all became very familiar with the bottom gears on our bikes. There were both tears and laughter along the way. But definitely a lot more laughter!
Our abilities as a group ranged from superb athleticism to fairly fit but not bike hardened. At one point we lost a team member, Colin Holloway, who had to fly home with a bad tummy bug. On the third cycling day Dante Torres suffered a frightening attack of Acute Mountain Sickness and had to receive emergency oxygen. But a day later he was back on his bike and raring to go.
Our group was led by Siling Ghale of The Responsible Travellers, who mostly brought up the rear to check on the stragglers, and Angelu who was so slight that we joked if he turned sideways he would vanish. But he led the daily assault on the mountains with an ease and lightening speed than ensured he was always at the front. It turns out that cycling was only a hobby for him; his true vocation is as a high altitude climbing guide. Angelu has climbed Everest from both sides, and also the most technically difficult mountain, Amadablam, twice. He was “slumming it” with us this summer.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Or if it’s really bad, they hop in the back-up bus! For the first couple of days the back-up was a bit haphazard. It turns out the Tibetan crew’s experience of cyclists was more about dropping them to the top of mountains and letting them cycle down, not the other way round. Then Mita Srinivasan from Dubai started working with the crew to ensure water and snacks were constantly available… and a warm seat and a down jacket too, if we became exhausted. All but one cyclist hopped into the bus at some point on the trip.
Our accommodation at night had to be modified along the way. We carried full camping gear, but the unseasonable wet weather meant that, after a couple of muddy nights’ camping, we diverted to teahouses and dormitory sleeping, where we could. It was primitive but dry and our hosts were always friendly and patient with our kit bags and vast array of muddy clothes and bikes.
At Everest Base Camp we took group shots and had lots of group hugs – but no sighting of Mount Everest. Only her petticoats were in evidence, the snowy slopes of the foothills in view. It wasn’t until two days later when we had an urgent knock on our doors at 6.30 am. “Wake up, bring your cameras quick!” It was Siling. We straggled out to the main road in pyjamas and down jackets, flip flops and trekking boots, whatever we could climb into instantly. And there, finally revealed, was the shimmering pyramid of Everest, revealed against a perfectly blue sky.
The shock of cycling over the last pass and, within a day, dropping down into semi-tropical forests with bird calls and waterfalls was an unexpectedly beautiful finale to the journey, even with the rain drenching that accompanied it. The last descent took us, over two days, from 5100 metres down to 1500 metres and the paddy fields of Nepal, and before we knew it we were running baths and hot showers in the Shanker Hotel, an old palace turned hotel in Kathmandu, from where we’d started our journey three weeks before. After the pleasures of modern civilisation again (we oo’d and aahh’d over the hot showers and toilets, beds with sheets and pillows) we went out for a celebration dinner to the Everest Steak House. The next day, somewhat dazed (did we really do it?!) we flew home.
Mita asked me if I was planning another expedition next year. I told her I was contemplating a group tour of the sun loungers of the Mediterranean. The relief on her face was memorable.
There are lots of pictures posted on our Facebook page, if you’d like to see more. The trip was organised by The Responsible Travellers (www.theresponsibletravellers.com) and more information on the orphanage project can be found at www.missionhimalaya.org.
Many thanks to our sponsors: Gulftainer Co. Ltd., Fujairah International Airport, GAC, Fujairah Observer, Outdoor UAE magazine, The Responsible Travellers, The Market Buzz, Sheesa Beach Dhow Cruises, Rockport Presentations and Unanalac.