Chapter 1: A Life Ruined by Literature
Three kinds of people die poor: those who divorce, those who incur debts, and those who move around too much.
It was 1:00 pm somewhere on the sweeping plains of western Tibet. All morning we had been crawling like overladen ants across a vast landscape that seemed barely to change from hour to hour. Our bicycles bumped and wobbled across the loose gravel, thumping with metronomic regularity across the washboard ruts created by rare passing trucks. Our heavy panniers, bulging with tents, sleeping bags, spare parts, fuel, warm clothes, books, pots and pans, stoves and much more, banged rhythmically against our long-suffering luggage racks. It was maddening, exhausting work keeping the bicycles moving at barely above walking speed, watching for lines where the ruts smoothed out for fifty blissful metres and we could lift our aching eyes from the road to look around at our surroundings.
Finally I called a halt at a spot indistinguishable from any other along the track. The five of us were all desperately hungry, our bodies emaciated from weeks of propelling our ponderous bicycles across some of the highest roads on earth without enough to eat or sufficient rest. I had been dreaming for the past hour of devouring an entire pan of cheese-laden lasagne by myself, accompanied by a Greek salad of Olympian proportions and a litre of ice-cold beer. Instead we put down our bikes, opened our panniers and rummaged around for bags of peanuts and slightly rancid raisins, reclining in exhaustion on the dusty ground, trying to extract every last scrap of taste and calorie of energy from our meagre fare, rationing ourselves since we had no idea where we would next be able to buy anything to eat. We slaked our thirst with slightly murky water flavoured pungently with iodine drops. Nobody spoke for a long time; our ears were filled with the maddening whistle of the persistent crosswinds that had raked us all morning.
We had been at this for weeks, trying to force our bodies and our mountain bikes across the almost uninhabited high country of the Aksai Chin plateau and the sparsely populated valleys of westernmost Tibet. Somewhere ahead of us, a destination that seemed to retreat with Sisyphean cruelty, lay the most sacred mountain of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, Mt. Kailash. It shimmered in our minds’ eyes as an impossible Eden where our earthly suffering (or at least our pedalling) would end and we would achieve nirvana. It couldn’t come soon enough.
I lay staring up at the impossibly blue sky, trying to remember how on earth I had ended up here, and how I had convinced my sisters and their partners to join me on this cycling Calvary. What sins could I be expiating? Why were we doing this?
* * * * *
When I was in graduate school, my tennis partner Bill helped teach a course with a marvellous name: Lives Ruined by Literature. The course dealt with fictional characters such as Don Quixote and Madame Bovary who read too many books and, fatally, took them too seriously. I never managed to sit in on the lectures, and have always regretted it. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that, if atlases, travel guides and record books counted as literature, I would have fit in better as an illustrative example of a Life Ruined by Literature than as a student.
It all started when I began elementary school in Thunder Bay in the mid-1970s. Already able to read, I found grade one terribly dull, and my mother created enrichment activities to keep me interested in learning. She traced maps of Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia on crinkly wax paper and made me look up and label the names of countries, provinces, capitals, rivers and lakes. I still remember the joy of finding that there were places named Ouagadougou and Antananarivo.
When I was twelve and my parents renovated my bedroom, the pirate wallpaper with pictures of Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan was replaced by a National Geographic map of the world that covered an entire wall. I spent many happy hours sitting on my bed, reciting exotic place names to myself. I imagined what the Sahara, Antarctica, the Amazon, Ellesmere Island, Tierra del Fuego and China looked like, and longed to go see if I was right. I devoured library books on skiing to the North Pole, climbing Everest and sailing around the world.
In high school I played Reach for the Top, a TV quiz show for teams from local high schools. My best friend Hans and I would warm up for games, one of us facing away from the map and the other searching it for more and more obscure geographical questions to ask. What is the name of the strait between Sumatra and Malaysia? (The Strait of Malacca.) What is the capital of Vanuatu? (Port-Vila.) How many landlocked countries are there in Africa? (Fourteen.) Our team scored well on geography questions.
Record books were another road to ruin. My Aunt Ethel and Uncle Edward gave me the Guinness Book of World Records for Christmas every year from the age of nine. I memorized huge chunks of it, and my friend Michael and I spent school days quoting records to each other and boring our classmates silly. The oldest town in the world? Jericho. The tallest man-made structure? The Polish radio mast outside Lodz. I wanted to get into the book, so I practiced flipping stacks of coins off my elbow and catching them until the next year’s record reached an impossible 140. Searching for a different record to break, I looked at the “most countries visited” category and was envious of the man who had visited all but two of the world’s nations; I still want to match his feat.
Years later my geographical and other trivia came in handy as an escape from a PhD that I had lost motivation to finish. I applied to be a contestant on Jeopardy, and won a game. I suddenly found myself with enough prize money to drop out of grad school and start travelling the world full-time, embracing my calling as another Life Ruined by Literature.
That was in 1994. I spent the following three years exploring, travelling and working my way around the globe. I crawled through ruins in Egypt and Turkey, prowled through the museums and art galleries of Europe, marveled at wildlife and climbed mountains in East Africa. I taught English and skied in the Japanese Alps, trekked through Southeast Asia, India and Australia, and fell in love with the Himalayas and the Tibetan landscapes of northern Nepal. I hiked in Pakistan, where my dream of cycling the Karakorum Highway, the fabled KKH, began to take form.
Of course I was reading dangerous literature at the time. I raced through Maurice Herzog’s book Annapurna, about the first ascent of that mountain in 1950. I also read Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. The grand adventure of the author and his companion Peter Aufschneiter making their way on foot from a POW camp in India to Lhasa, against all the odds and despite the best efforts of the British and Tibetan governments to prevent them, fired my imagination. I read Charles Allen’s A Mountain in Tibet, about remote, sacred Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, and wanted to see them with my own eyes. I had read about Tibet before, of course, particularly about Mallory’s expeditions to Everest in the 1920s, but I had been put off visiting by the idea that the Chinese had made it impossible except as part of an expensive package tour. In Nepal, though, I met people who had gone on their own, forming their own groups, hiring a Land Cruiser and driver at the Nepal-Tibet border, and getting to Lhasa that way. I began to dream of a trip to Tibet.
During those vagabond years, I met up with my family and friends when I could, renewing the ties that bind across oceans and continents. I visited my sister Audie, who was working as a wildlife biologist in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and crossed paths with her twin sister, Saakje, in Bangkok, where she was finishing a bike trip through China and Vietnam with her partner Luke. Then, on a visit to my parents in Canada in the summer of 1997, I fell in love again with Joanne, who I had met in Russian class as an undergraduate, before promptly heading off to Europe with my bicycle. Inspired by The Razor’s Edge—another dangerous piece of literature which I had read years before – I was inexorably drawn to spending the late summer and early autumn harvesting grapes in France.
Audie came with me. She had finished her work in the Serengeti and had spent a year traveling in Africa and Asia before returning to Canada to plant trees, that quintessential Canadian summer job for university students and travellers. In the Netherlands, at my uncle and aunt’s house, we met up with Saakje, who had just finished working as an au pair in Corsica. This was the first time in years that we’d all been together. Given our similar tastes in active, outdoor activities, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try to plan an overseas adventure together for the first time. Saakje proposed cycling the KKH. I weighed in with my enthusiasm for northern Pakistan and the infinite opportunities for trekking, along with the mind-blowing scenery. Audie was game for anything that involved mountains. We made a pact: we would ride the KKH the following spring or summer.
Plans made, Audie and I headed to Burgundy’s grape harvest. After that excess of good food and great wine, we rode our bikes to Chamonix and then over the Alps to Switzerland to meet up with Saakje and Luke. We four picked grapes together in Aubonne, and planned our Pakistan adventure. Among our fellow pickers was a young Swiss student named Serge to whom Audie developed an instant attraction. By the end of the vendange, he had been enrolled as our fifth expedition member.
Bidding farewell to the others, I rode south over the Simplon Pass into Italy to meet up with Joanne in Venice. Unlike Serge or Luke, Joanne didn’t see the attraction of pedalling bicycles over the world’s highest mountains, and wasn’t about to sign up for the KKH. We did, however spend a wonderful two weeks exploring Italy by train before she returned to Toronto and I went on to complete a month-long course in Barcelona on teaching English as a second language.
At Christmas I returned to Joanne in Toronto to spend the winter working as an English teacher and planning the trip in more detail. I already knew where I wanted to ride in Pakistan: from Islamabad to the beautiful Chitral Valley, over to Gilgit and then a circular detour to Nanga Parbat, the Deosai Plains and Baltistan before heading north along the KKH, through the Shangri La that is the Hunza Valley, over the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar, the westernmost outpost of China. Visiting Chitral would entail missing the lower stretches of the KKH from Nowshera to Gilgit. This was not a bad thing; these parts of the KKH pass through almost lawless, always hostile Indus Kohistan. Better the friendly confines of Chitral than the hazards of rock-throwing Kohistanis, I thought. The route provided ample opportunity to explore Buddhist ruins and to hike a number of intriguing trails that I had hadn’t had time for the previous summer.
What would we do after the KKH? Leaving Kashgar, there was an intriguing line on the map that led southeast to Western Tibet. “The highest highway in the world” said the Lonely Planet; this was a siren call to my ears. The Chinese had declared this route closed to foreigners, but some hardy souls seemed to slip through anyway. Here was my chance finally to reach Tibet. The road led right past Mt. Kailash before heading on to Lhasa. The idea of cycling from Islamabad to Lhasa sounded adventurous, although physically and logistically difficult.
If we wanted to go to Tibet, there were alternatives to riding directly from Kashgar to Mt. Kailash, and some of them might even be more acceptable to the Chinese authorities. We could bus or fly to the town of Golmud, north of Lhasa, and ride from there to Lhasa. We could fly to Lhasa via Chengdu and ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Or we could fly to Kathmandu and ride from Kathmandu to Lhasa. All these routes, though, involved lots of motorized transport, and I liked the purity of a trip that was entirely by bicycle from one end to the other; throwing our bikes onto a bus seemed like cheating.
Letters, e-mails and phone calls flew across the Atlantic to Switzerland, where Audie, Saakje and Luke were working and Serge was studying. After some debate, and despite my warning that it was going to be a long, hard grind, everyone agreed to cycle from Kashgar to Mt. Kailash and on to Lhasa. I arranged to work from mid-April to mid-May for a bicycle tour company in Europe to get myself into financial and cycling shape for the trip.
Having finalized the route, I began combing the Toronto Public Library and the Internet for information. I wanted, for once, to have done my background reading ahead of a trip. I read about nineteenth-century European attempts to reach Lhasa in Peter Hopkirk’s Trespassers on the Roof of the World. I devoured John Keay’s When Men and Mountains Meet, about British exploration and imperialism in the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains. I learned about the peoples of northern Pakistan, the fierce Pakhtuns, the lawless Kohistanis, the cheerful Chitralis and Baltis and Tajiks and the long-lived Hunzakuts. I read Forbidden Journey, Ella Maillart’s account of her trip from Beijing to Kashmir in 1935 with Peter Fleming, even as Audie and Saakje were reading News From Tartary, Fleming’s version of the same story. Other travel books followed: Marco Polo’s Travels, William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu (his retracing of Polo’s journey), George Schaller’s Stones of Silence and Nick Danziger’s Danziger’s Travels. Characters such as the unfortunate murder victim George Hayward, Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein, Ney Elias, Nikolai Prezevalski and Francis Younghusband became household names for me. I lived in the romantic spirit of Victorian English travel writing.
In the midst of all this historical background, I found time for more modern, practical books like the Lonely Planet, Hugh Swift’s delightfully idiosyncratic Trekking in Pakistan and India and Victor Chan’s tome the Tibet Handbook. On the Internet, I posted questions about visas, travel permits for Tibet, the availability of food and water and dozens of worries about logistics. While plenty of people cycled the KKH every year, it was hard to find any hard information about the Kashgar-Lhasa route.
Finally someone wrote to me to say that, while cycling from Lhasa to Kathmandu a few years earlier, he had met an American named Ray Kreisel who was riding our route in reverse, from Lhasa to Islamabad. My correspondent had heard that Ray had made it, despite being mauled by dogs in Shigatse. He didn’t have Ray’s e-mail address, but he did have one for his sister. I mailed off my list of questions, and after a long, anxious wait, I received a reply.
His description made the trip sound harsh: dangerous river crossings in western Tibet, homicidal dogs, cycling around police checkpoints in the dead of night, relying on semi-classified US military maps to locate water sources. At times the road became so sandy that he couldn’t ride and had to push his bike for miles on end. He once went eleven days without being able to buy supplies. He recommended bringing steel, rather than aluminum, mountain bikes so that if pieces broke off they could be welded together again. Despite the rigours of the trip, he had enjoyed the experience so much that he was repeating it, this time from west to east, preceding us by only a few weeks.
Meanwhile Saakje had found an article by three Australian cyclists who had tried to ride from Mt. Kailash to Lhasa but had given up in the face of chronic dysentery and near-drownings while crossing flooded rivers on air mattresses and spare inner tubes. They had run out of water and been reduced to flagging down passing trucks in the desert to beg for water. These stories disturbed us, but didn’t put us off entirely. What was an adventure without a few hardships? We were cut from the same heroic cloth as Sven Hedin and Francis Younghusband, weren’t we? It would be a trip to Tibet in the spirit of a pilgrimage or Victorian expedition. My friend Bill would have nodded sagely as he chalked up five more Lives Ruined by Literature.
April came. The pace of preparation quickened. We bought or refitted mountain bikes and camping equipment. We applied for Pakistani visas and established a rendezvous point in the Islamabad Tourist Campground in mid-May. I kissed Joanne goodbye and flew to the Netherlands.
My tour guiding was a final spree of sybaritic luxury before the expedition. The clients and I stayed in five-star hotels, eating extravagant meals and riding 40 flat kilometres a day through tulip fields and past cheese farms. My tourists, mostly older American couples, said things like “I thought you said Holland was flat!” as we pedalled over tiny hump-backed bridges, or “Doesn’t everyone speak German in Holland? You mean they have their own language?” or “This biking is much harder than we expected!” I smiled and mouthed encouragement and hoped that they tipped well.
The most significant tip came on the last tour as one of my travellers, staring at a carved duck decoy on someone’s lawn, said “Is that a real duck?” then wobbled off the road and tipped over sideways right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes to avoid running over his head, then flew over my handlebars and landed on my thumb with an audible pop. X-rays confirmed the worst; my right thumb was broken. I was disconsolate—I was supposed to start biking in two weeks’ time! The Dutch doctor was not hopeful, but a week later a French physician gave me a removable plaster cast for my thumb, grumbling about primitive Dutch medicine as he removed the splint I had been fitted with in Gouda. He said that if I wore my cast while biking, the thumb should heal in a month. Unable to write or shave, let alone carry my bicycle box, I flew from Paris to Karachi, unsure, after all these preparations, whether I would be able even to start the trip.