Charlie Walker's charity ride takes a life-threatening turn in Tibet. Can the kindness of strangers pull him through?
To a cyclist lost in a Tibetan snow blizzard, with numbed extremities and rapidly dropping temperatures, a sense of mortality becomes sickeningly tangible. I was following the arduous route through the barren mountains of far Western Tibet, close to the Kashmir border, when the weather set in and the unpaved road soon disappeared under a blanket of snow; quickly swelling to a foot in depth. Visibility fell to less than 20 yards and I was at an altitude of over 5,000m in mid-winter. The elements are cruel up here and, disorientated, I pushed my bike desperately in one direction hoping for salvation. I gasped at the thin air, which offered roughly half the oxygen content of sea level. The wind, which brought the temperature down to around -40°C, rushed up my sleeves and down my collar, biting painfully at any area of exposed skin.
A couple of hours of wrestling my heavily-laden bike through ever-deepening drifts were enough to have me fearing the worst and considering getting into my sleeping back and digging myself into the snow. Pitching a tent in this storm would be impossible. The light was starting to fail and my strength was dying with it. I decided on 30 minutes more in the same, possibly wrong, direction before nesting in the turbulent whiteness.
After another ten minutes I saw a dark shape, blurred by the blizzard, materialise ahead of me. A building! Just a stone's throw away. Using a surge of hope-induced adrenalin, I staggered the final few yards and dropped my bike by a low door. A furry Tibetan mastiff puppy leapt out of the snow at my feet and gave a piercing yelp. Faint voices were coming from inside and I hurriedly pushed the door open, nearly tripping on the step. Six faces looked up; frightened by the icy-bearded, crack-lipped, sunburned mad man who couldn't utter words but who stared so lovingly at their stove.
Their initial shock abated and the complete lack of common language was soon realised and cheerfully accepted. I was ushered into a chair by the fire and helped off with my stiffened gloves before being plied with cup after steaming cup of po cha (oily yak butter tea), which coursed through my grateful body.
Feeling human again, I finally took in my sanctuary and hosts. The smiling mother gently rocks her moon-faced baby and sings softly; a long bunch of braids trailing down her back. A girl and a boy, about three and five-years-old respectively, charge around the small, one-room house with wide grins and running noses. Their many layers of clothes cushion them as they bounce off surfaces in their raucous game. Their quiet father has an animated face and makes regular trips outside to fetch more yak dung; fuel for the two stoves which make the building inhabitable, burning from before dawn until after dark. Lastly, the well-weathered grandfather sits, wrapped in an animal hide, on the long bench under a south-facing window that stretches along the eight-metre length of the house. He diligently spins a prayer wheel and mutters Buddhist mantras under his breath, pausing now and then to suddenly tickle one of the passing children with a mischievous grin.
The low, wood-beamed room is brightly painted with reds, greens, blues and yellows in decorative floral and dragon motifs. A large canvas poster of Lhasa adorns the wall opposite the window and is dominated by the towering Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. A wooden cabinet runs along one wall and houses the family's Spartan provisions.
A simple mime is used to ask me to stay for the night. The storm still howls outside so I gladly accept both their offer and the meal that is handed to me. It is a large joint of roast goat and comes with a primitive but sharp knife. Each adult pares the meat and gnaws the bone, handing tender little titbits to the children. The bones, picked clean, are placed by the stove for a while before being cracked to drink the marrow and then thrown to the dog outside. Nothing is wasted.
After a little more time watching this isolated family's tender domestic life, it is time to sleep. The children add a further couple of layers to their dress and are nestled, top-and-tail, into a mound of blankets on the bench. The Grandfather does likewise on the floor and I clamber into my sleeping bag, also on the bench. The parents and baby sleep on a mattress on the floor. The stoves are given one final addition of dung and the lights go out.
I slept quickly and deeply that night but vaguely recall the father laying his large overcoat on top of my sleeping bag as I drifted off.
After some tea for breakfast I return to the frigid, but now calm, outside world. My hosts wave goodbye but the door shuts on me before I am five yards away. There is no time for airs and graces up here.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.