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Ros and Paul Whitelegg
"Whiteleggs on Wheels Through China for Starfish"

Ros and Paul Whitelegg's story of cycling through China for Starfish Charity.

copyright © Ros and Paul Whitelegg, 2003

Whiteleggs on Wheels - Update Four

Latest News: Whiteleggs on Wheels - Update Four

27 June 2003, Lhasa, Tibet

Camping with Nomads and other Escapades

We have just arrived in Lhasa after an incredible 2100km, five week cycle from Litang in Tibetan Sichuan, on some of the highest roads in the world. The route we took was exhilarating, exhausting and, without permits in the middle of the SARS crisis, it was also rather improbable that we should have arrived here at all. We are very relieved and extremely excited to be here and also rather chuffed with ourselves for having made it in such difficult circumstances.

On leaving Litang, our first reward for having cycled out of Lonely Planet Guidebook coverage was to cycle into the lives of Tibetan nomads. These hardy people herd yaks and the 'dzo' - a cross between a yak and a cow - which both make highly entertaining noises that sounds like a confused attempt to snort and moo at the same time. Slingshots made from Yak hair are used to move the herds to different grazing areas. The loud crack as a stone leaves the slingshot can be quite unsettling and often left us holding our breath, waiting to see if the stone was heading towards us or onto the back of some unsuspecting bovine. In the evenings as we cooked (two packets of instant noodles every night) and rested, the nomads took great interest in our 4kg nylon tent, just as we found their homes intriguing. Most are made from a dark brown canvas supported by wooden poles and ropes, sometimes brightly decorated with colourful prayer flags. A stove pipe protrudes from the roof and the dried yak turds which serve as fuel on the largely treeless plains and valleys over 4000 meters, smoke heavily. When the time comes to move to new pastures, the tents, poles and what other few possessions they have are all packed on to the back of the larger yaks and the whole caravan moves off.

The yaks provide many things for these people - meat, material for clothing and most importantly milk. Yak milk has more than twice the amount of protein and calcium as cow's milk, but unlike the cow which produces around twenty litres of milk a day the female yak yields only one litre. While the milk is sometimes drunk itself, butter is the main yak dairy product. The butter is mixed with tea and spices to produce the distinctive flavor of Tibetan tea. While this may sound disgusting, we only found it impossible to stomach when too much butter was added or when the sun had rendered the butter the rancid side of fresh. Butter is also mixed with ground barley to produce tsampa, usually rolled into balls and eaten. This can be rather dry, but is great with fresh yak yogurt.

Despite the hardships of their daily life most rural Tibetans are incredibly well turned out. In bad weather, their clothes are often hidden beneath thick woollen, long sleeved coats tied in the middle with a sash. Once the sun comes out however, the one or both long sleeves are worn tied around their waists and a tremendous array of colours are revealed. The women wear bright aprons and sometimes scarves. The men braid their hair with red fabric and both sexes wear huge amounts of jewellery. Large silver rings set with red and turquoise stones, ear-rings, bracelets and necklaces made from amber and in their hair, which in some cases almost reaches the floor, are entwined all sorts of decorative pieces.

Having had the privilege to spend some time in the company of a nomadic people and witness a way of life that is vanishing under pressure from the modern world, in the town of Jeykundo (Yushi in Chinese) we encountered two other aspects of Tibetan life. We had the good fortune to bump into Virginia who is a volunteer teacher at an local orphanage. The children most of whom had lost their parents prematurely through disease, are given a home and schooling in the the basics of Tibetan medicine and Tibetan, Chinese & English languages as well as mathematics and . The objective is that those able, should complete further studies in Tibetan medicine and then return to the communities from which they came, to work as Tibetan doctors. In doing so, they may be able to contribute to breaking the cycle of preventable deaths and so reduce the number of new orphans.

In the same town we also were the victims of aggressive begging for the first time on our trip. Surprisingly this didn't come from snotty nosed kids or even the crippled, but from the lamas (not the South American animal that is, rather the Buddhist monk variety from the local monastery). During a typical hour spent eating in any of the town's restaurants at least six or seven different groups of monks would walk in chanting, clenching in their hands a dirty wad of notes. They would walk round the tables, chanting all the louder if you tried to ignore them and in most cases would be extremely reluctant to leave until they had secured additional cash from everyone eating. We acknowledge of course, that the monks have had a particularly bad time since the 1950's given Chinese policies and that money is needed for the restoration of the monasteries. But (besides us) the people from whom they are begging don't appear to be in such a great financial position themselves. This contrast was particularly striking when we would see the majority of the townspeople walking or maybe cycling around and the lamas zooming around on their motorbikes. We couldn't help but wonder whether the money we had given them would go towards the monastic building fund or was simply used to fill their tank with petrol! Fortunately in the last few days, the monks we have met in the monasteries in and around Lhasa, have helped to restore some of our confidence in the spiritual aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.

From Jeykundo we headed south towards the border with the Chinese province of Qinghai and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). While initially we had hoped to get hold of a permit to enter Tibet 'legally', our efforts had proved fruitless due to the SARS crisis. It was partly for this reason that we chose this rather obscure entry point into the TAR. We were hoping that in this backwater of a backwater both the closure of Tibet due to SARS and the usual fortress like security and permit regulations of the region might be more loosely policed. With one notable exception this proved to be the case.

As we approached the border area we found ourselves in a situation any James Bond scriptwriter would be proud of, our bikes (OK so not quite the Aston Martin) were hidden out of sight and we were crouched down behind a pile of earth focusing the binoculars on the policeman standing next to the barrier that rather ominously blocked our progress into Tibet. After deciding that he didn't have a vehicle to chase us in (at least not one that we could see) and not wanting to hang around until he was asleep, we decided to make a dash for it when he retreated inside the nearby hut. With our legs pumping the pedals as fast as our adrenal glands were kicking out their hormones, we flew towards the barrier which thanks be to Buddha, proved high enough for us to pass underneath. We didn't see the police man but his dogs spotted us and gave chase for a good 500 meters. Just as they started to give up (we had the slope in our favour) we were horrified to see another barrier with people standing nearby, but not only that, these people had the means to chase us - a motorbike and a truck. It was impossible to go back, so we just kept going, we passed under this one and yet another barrier that appeared a kilometre later. When we saw a fourth barrier thirty seconds later we thought we had nothing to lose so ploughed onwards regardless. This was our mistake. The fourth barrier was next to a large white building with a red Chinese flag flying. This was the home of eight border police and a shiny white police car, as we later found out.

It took them a while to get their uniforms on and the car started but after a few kilometres of pleasant downhill cycling the unmistakable and dreadful sound of a police siren began to reverberate through the gorge. We were stopped, our passports and visas inspected and enquiries made about where we were going. For a happy fleeting moment it seemed like everything was going to be OK and this was just a routine check. It wasn't however, they wanted more, some sort of paper with a police stamp on it we gathered from their sign language. Without it the only direction we were going was back the way we came. Ros left this precarious situation up to the skills of her diplomatic Englishman, who pleaded and then pleaded some more and then some more again. They seemed adamant that we could not carry on but did keep saying "sorry". Eventually the officer that seemed to be in charge suggested that he could radio the police in Jeykundo and maybe, just maybe they would give permission for us to carry on. It seemed unlikely given Tibet's current closure due to SARS, but at least it was a positive option. They trailed us most of the way back to their police station, where we had to face the rest of their group and the satisfied grins of uniformed men in a police state. Our four hour "detention" had begun.

As "Detentions" go however, it was a pleasant if stressful experience. We were kept warm by the fire, given hot water to drink, entertained with police training videos and even fed our first cooked lunch in almost a week. To power the radio involved taking the battery out of the police car, messing around with a multitude of wires and the efforts of all eight policemen. While sitting silently together waiting, the thoughts in Ros's head were "If we get turned around, I am NOT cycling back and I am NOT cycling up any more mountains." The stress of getting into Tibet, early morning starts, high mountain passes every day, the cold, the snow and the vicious yellow eyed Tibetan dogs we had to fend off daily with sticks and stones, were taking their toll. Four hours later however, contact had still not being made, so finding the boss on his own a little more gentle pleading secured a nod of the head in approval of our departure into Tibet. After saying thank-you and shaking his hand we raced off before he changed his mind or got through on the radio and was told to send us back.

After escaping from the clutches of the border police we felt we had earned the right to be cycling through this "closed " part of Tibet. Thirty kilometres later as we approached yet another barrier across the road, it dawned on us that we still didn't have a permit or even the linguistic abilities to explain that we had been given verbal authority to enter Tibet. After the emotional stress of the police station we decided that to spend the night this side of the barrier would be too much to take. Paul stood up and said "Lets just do it", Ros stood up and said "Okay"and so we set off at full speed towards the checkpoint. We were both surprised and delighted to be greeted by nothing more fearsome than a group of men playing pool, whose only response to our frantic pedalling was to interrupt their potting to offer us their waves and friendly smiles. This was the turning point emotionally, the stress dissipated as if we had been waiting for the results of an important exam and had just found out we passed.

For the rest of our journey toward Lhasa the police at the various checkpoints offered us nothing more than puzzled and vacant looks, along with the occasional smile. Instead of worrying about permits and SARS, we were able to turn our attention towards enjoying the fantastic scenery that was unfolding before us.

As we made our way up the mountain roads, the first sighting of a prayer flag was always a happy moment, it meant we were close to the top of the pass and would soon be rewarded with a view of our next stage. From 4800 meters, if the rain, hail or snow was not battering down on us, we could relax at the top, enjoy our daily ration of chocolate and marvel at the natural wonders of Tibet. The five and six thousand meter snow-capped peaks of the Nyainqentanglha and Tangula ranges, huge grassy valleys that stretched out for hundreds of kilometres before us, along with rivers that started as small trickles but all too rapidly became huge and muddy, impossible to cross without bridges.

The rainy season arrived with a vengeance during this time. From entering the TAR to our arrival in Lhasa, we had only one day without some form of downpour. Fortunately on Ros's 32nd birthday it was only a light shower and it was also the one day in three weeks we did not do a pass. These deluges also meant that despite this particular road being more stable than many other routes in the rains, there were numerous swollen rivers and tributaries that simply swept down the mountainsides across the road and blocked our progress. The rocks carried with the water meant we couldn't cycle through, but had to wade, on some occasions up to our knees. Wet and cold feet are unpleasant at any time but in the snow and freezing temperatures, with no radiator or sunshine to dry things out it dampened our spirits somewhat.

We saw foxes, marmots, deer and ridiculous amounts of mice scurrying in to their holes. These were amusing to watch until the day that one decided to head straight for Ros as she was sitting in the tent filtering water. Ros shrieked and dived to the back of the tent, the mouse squeaked and fled for safety under our boots and Paul was left with the task of coaxing the frightened little thing out and away from our home. Overhead flew huge eagles and vultures, along with many other birds we did not recognise. Watching the eagles soaring never failed to cause ours hearts to be uplifted and appreciate where we were and what we are doing. On some tough days Ros did wonder about this but she has only cried once when she felt Paul was too far ahead, she was tired and he had all the comfort food! In big cities we stock up on Oreos and Chips Ahoy biscuits and Dove chocolate - thank you Nabisco and Mars companies! Local biscuits and chocolate are not something to look forward to eating as one ascends yet another mountain pass while subjected to yet another snowstorm and the freezing cold that turns a cyclists hands, feet and face to ice.

Nomadic and settled Tibetan life was visible around us, although the canvas tents were often high up in the hills, away from the road. The villages were small when we passed through them, although on occasion they offered a store, well a hole in the wall of someone's house, where we could re-stock on our staple of instant noodles and basic (read "not very nice") biscuits. The houses were smaller in this part of Tibet than those we had seen earlier, often dwarfed by the stacks of drying yak dung stacked around them. We thought the people seemed poorer, they walked or rode horses decorated with bells and brightly coloured fabrics, very few had motorbikes or bicycles. We also noticed fewer religious symbols - flags, white stupors and mani stones - than we had seen in the parts of Tibet that now lie in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai. Once inside the bigger towns of the Tibetan Autonomous Region the density of army and police personnel makes it clear who is in control and by what means. On just two days during our cycle from Nagqu to Lhasa we were passed by no less than 176 Chinese army vehicles. Rather tiresome as many of them hoot and wave and waving back is not something you particularly feel you want to do but good manners make you feel you should.

As we approached the outskirts of Lhasa we had been cycling for 19 of the previous 20 days, not had a shower or used a toilet for three weeks, and eaten far too many packets of instant noodles which had become both our lunch and evening meals. Our arrival in Lhasa was therefore an exciting moment for both of us, it was however, also cause for celebration for those in the local tourist industry. We were the only foreign tourists in Tibet's capital city and the first ones that had been seen for almost two months.

The closure of Tibet due to SARS had indeed been watertight, with however, the important and fortunate exception of a small crack in the north-east that with determination and a great deal of luck we had forced our bikes through.

Ros and Paul

Whiteleggs on Wheels - Update One | Update Two | Update Three | Update Four

Starfish - Turning the Tide on AIDS

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, as he looked along the shore, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

"Young lady", he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"

"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."

"But young lady, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying:

"It made a difference for that one."

Adapted from the story "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley

Starfish was formed in response to the unfolding tragedy of children orphaned or affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa. South Africa has the highest number of HIV positive people of any country in the world. By 2010, HIV/AIDS will kill as many as 7 million people, leaving 2.3 million orphans in its wake. (Source: UNAIDS)

Starfish was founded in London, England by a group of young South Africans and their friends in 2001. Motivated by our founding parable, Starfish believes that each of us can make a difference to the lives of the children of South Africa orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.

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