Riding illegally through Tibet is now a long-established tradition that many cycle tourists undertake yearly. The official permit system is expensive, limiting, pernickety, and was once easily circumventable. However, since the 2008 riots in Lhasa (Tibet's capital), the Chinese government has stepped up its efforts to prevent unauthorised strays getting into the region. Thus, the challenge has been heightened.
Bad timing saw me riding into the region from the desolate north-west province of Xinjiang in the biting cold of mid-winter. Ten military checkpoints lay before me on the 1,750-mile road to Lhasa. When I neared the first checkpoint I hid my bike and spent the afternoon clambering around on the mountainside, hiding behind rocks. I used the strong zoom of my video camera to thoroughly scout the military base and the two roadblocks in the small village of Kudi.
I pitched my tent out of sight of the road and set my alarm for 4am. The base lies at the foot of a narrow, steep-walled valley. On its Eastern side a tall fence runs down to a partially frozen river. Walking along the ice seemed a risky option as I couldn’t test its thickness first and the base directly overlooks the river. To the West, another fence climbs up the steep valley wall to an impossible height.
Excitement woke me early and I was just setting off when my watch alarm beeped approvingly. I was shaking with anticipation as I put ‘plan A’ into action: walk my bike along the road and see if I can sneak quietly past the guard huts at the roadblocks.
Faint starlight provided sufficient guidance as I approached the first red and white striped barrier. A flickering blue light was visible in the guard hut accompanied by the soft chatter of a television. I was wheeling my bike around the side when I heard a door open. Three soldiers walked out of the next building. I froze as they got into a car not 12 metres from me.
Using the noisy cover of them starting a reluctant ignition, I dragged my bike off the road and crouched down next to it. They flicked their headlights on full beam and swung the car out onto the road, completely illuminating me for a frightening few seconds. My face throbbed with uncontrollable heartbeats. I would love to say that I focused on rock-like thoughts or put into practice some exotic environment-blending technique but the truth is that I held my breath and concentrated hard on not coughing or wetting myself.
The car horn beeped impatiently a few feet from my head and the guard came out and raised the barrier. The large concrete counterweight narrowly avoided crushing me. The car went, the barrier dropped, the guard retired and I breathed again, thankful that I had remembered to wear black and put tape over the reflective surfaces on my bike and bags.
I continued down the road and 30 yards ahead were four men sat around a small fire next to an army truck. Leaving my bike, I crept closer to see if there was any way past. As I neared, a man exited a building behind me and started walking towards the fire. With no choice, I flitted forward on tip toes and threw myself flat on the ground in the shadow of the truck. I wormed underneath it as he passed until I was only hidden by a large wheel. It took about ten terrifying minutes to extricate myself from this absurd situation. Throughout this adventure I was constantly fighting a violent outbreak of coughing and my throat grew increasingly dry until I couldn’t swallow.
Plan A was aborted. Having retrieved my bike, I found an alley leading to the right hand side of the valley. Following a goat path behind the buildings, I kicked a brute of a dog that had charged at me barking wildly. The dog retreated with a whimper and I came to the aforementioned fence.
Feeling like James Bond, I took my Leatherman from my pocket and cut the bottom two wires. As I was shuffling underneath, the reality of the situation flooded my mind in a moment of chilling clarity. This was a Chinese military base, guarded with machine guns and protecting a sensitive area closed to foreigners. Here I was, a foreigner, at night, cutting my way through fences. Discovery could result in worse than just being turned back or arrested. Suddenly afraid, I dragged my bike through behind me and made my way forward as quickly and quietly as possible, cursing the telltale tracks left in the snow.
Thirty minutes later and I found my way onto the road, mounted up and rode hurriedly away. At a safe distance, I couldn’t resist muttering under my breath: "The name’s Walker. Charlie Walker."
I soon shattered this self-supposed (but non-existent) moment of cool by rushing down to the river and falling on my hands and knees on the ice to lap at the slim trickle of water like a dog, quenching my burning throat. I spluttered and finally erupted into a harsh volley of joyous coughs before gladly drinking again.
I had passed supposedly the most difficult checkpoint on my Tibetan journey.
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.
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