- December 2009
The end of another fantastic year and as the weather is beginning to cool here in Yangshuo we are busily preparing and planning for 2010, which is already shaping up to being an awesome year. We would like to extend our sincere thanks and appreciation to all of you for your ongoing support throughout the past 5 years of Bike Asia’s operations because for us it continues to be about the journey and we love nothing more than to share our passion, knowledge and experience with you.
Japan and Tibet both offer unforgettable experiences with strong cultures and bewitching beauty but could not be a stronger contrast. This issue we are excited to give you a glimpse into the land, culture and some of our encounters in these two enchanting destinations.
Scott, Bike Asia director and co-founder, lead the August/September 2009 departure of our “Roof of the World” tour and is still raving about how sensational it was. These are his thoughts on just one awe-inspiring day!
Tibet: A Mountain in Memory
Crossing the Himalaya by cycling from Lhasa to Kathmandu across the Tibetan Plateau is an unforgettable journey that looms large in the imagination and lingers long in the memory; it is also one of the iconic cycling adventures on the planet. For me the great thing about this trip is how it unfolds…each day becomes increasingly dramatic: the people get hardier but friendlier, the landscapes ever changing and increasingly vast, and the mountains bigger! The start point and ultimate destination, Lhasa and Kathmandu, couldn’t be more different but are equally exotic and culturally fascinating. Sure, there are highlights but also there are so few lowlights that the whole experience is an ongoing joy. One of these highlights is definitely the expectation that builds each and every day as you edge closer and closer to Mt Everest, or Qomolangma to the locals.
The day we were to climb Pang La (pass) at 5200m was a near perfect day – few clouds and the promise of another endlessly deep blue Tibetan sky. The rising sun warmed the ridgelines and also our expectations for what would be our first panoramic view of Everest. Spirits high, we left our picturesque campsite by the banks of the clear-flowing Lolo River and quickly warmed the legs on the incredibly smooth and sealed Friendship Highway to a military checkpoint outside the small village of Shegar. The open plains and islands of ridges were a blend of ochre, pink, cream and muted orange almost as if the sunrise had been stirred into a land made of yak butter. Soon after getting the looks “up and down” and, eventually, the nod from the Chinese officials we turned off onto an unsealed road. Before us lay a never ending snake of a road that climbed through endless switch-backs, high into the sky. With a quick “cuppa” and a snack we hit the climb, 1100m up over 20km of road to the top.
As a cycling leader you learn to tell when people are looking forward to something; when the anticipation is high. Sometimes it’s excited, chatty talk; sometimes it’s a quiet focus; sometimes it’s laughter; sometimes it’s tears. This time it was all those things as people sought out their own way to meet the challenge of the climb and the emotion of coming face to face with the object that many feel symbolizes this tour: Everest. Breath-taking views echo the breath-taking altitude on the way up but the heart still manages to leap at the sight of the prayer flags fluttering in the chilly breeze marking the Pang La pass. Just over the rise and laid out in front of us, it seemed almost close enough to touch: Mt Everest, Lhotse and Cho Oyu like a postcard and as white, bright and wide as our smiles. Even here, the locals had set up tents and were serving hot cups of yak butter tea and selling trinkets.
The biting cold was eventually enough to pull us away from the view and back onto the bikes. A dizzying downhill over 40km’s took us through more endless switchbacks and rural villages where farmers would throw up their hands waving as we sped past. Into tunnels cut-through ridges, past ancient fortresses growing out of the rock-face, across pebble-strewn glacier morass and down tricky sections of jeep-track. The sun was low on the horizon as we rode into camp with the smell of dinner in the air and a cold beer on the mind. We were spent, overwhelmed and utterly satisfied. It was then that one of the participants jokingly remarked, “After that day I can hang up the bike now… I’ve done it all … time to try a new sport as there’s nothing left to top that!”
This was a day we’ll never forget, but I knew there were more equally as thrilling days yet to come!
More than just spectacular natural beauty Tibet has a very strong, distinctive and fascinating culture.
In Praise of the Yak
The yak features strongly in traditional Tibetan daily life. Often thought of as only as a working animal to cart goods or be ridden as transport, this curious shaggy bovine is designed for the harsh climate and strives at altitudes above 3000 metres.
The strong distinctive smell of yak butter permeates the atmosphere throughout the region as it is not only used to make tea but also is a key ingredient in the staple dish of Tsampa (an unusual mixture of grounded barley and yak butter tea). And believe it or not, yak butter is also used as a fuel for candles or lamps as well as being a popular material for the colourful carvings and statues seen in many temples. Rich in fat, yak milk is also used to produce cream and yoghurt.
A scarcity of wood and trees on the Tibetan plateau sees dried yak dung being burned to create an excellent energy source for cooking and heating, sometimes it is also used as a material in building a yurt (nomad’s tent/home).
Yak meat is a fantastic source of pure, lean protein and is said to contain less fat than chicken breast or up to 1/16th that of beef. Its blood is used for medicinal purposes and bones are carved into combs or other household objects while the hair and fur provide a wide range of uses from clothing and blankets to ropes and tents.
If you are lucky enough to be around during a Tibetan festival in the grasslands the yak races are an entertaining and exhilarating sight for all. With so many uses and functions it is difficult to imagine the Land of the Snows without these hardy beasts.
Often when people think of Lhasa they immediately think of the Potala Palace that presides over the city. While the Potala is an amazing sight perhaps to get a more cultural and emotional introduction to the devotion and strength of a Tibetan’s faith, then stopping by to experience the Jokhang is a must.
As one of Tibet’s holiest shrines, the Jokhang receives a never ending stream of pilgrims coming to worship amongst its sacred labyrinth of deities and icons.
Located in Barkhor Square and surrounded by a flurry of market stalls this is where you are likely to run into Tibetan nomads traditionally dressed with brightly coloured turquoise or coral jewelry. Perhaps some will also be adorned with an animal pelt or two and be casually toting a dagger or sword slung around their waist.
A visit to the Jokhang and surrounds on your first day in Lhasa is an awe-inspiring experience that will literally have you revved up and yearning for more of this rugged, enticing and sometimes confronting destination.
Our next departure for “Tibet & Nepal: Cycle Across the Roof of the World” is 28 April 2010, for more details check the website: http://www.bikeasia.com/cycle-tours/tibet-nepal/btn.html or get in touch with us.
NOTE: These trips were very popular and tended to book out quickly before the region was shut down in 2008 so if you missed out back then don’t leave it too late to secure your place on one of our 2010 departures.
Naomi, Bike Asia director and co-founder, had the opportunity to spend some time in the Land of the Rising Sun helping out on our April 2009 departure. Naomi shares with us a couple of her highlights.
Okonomiyaka, A Cyclists Delight
One aspect of travel that I really love is sampling the huge and diverse range of foods on offer. It’s also about learning of dishes or ingredients which may be unique or special to a region, and to be perfectly honest, I found eating in Japan to be one exquisite experience after another. Everything was so fresh and of such high quality.
This was our last day of cycling on the trip and we were all ravenous by the time we arrived in Hiroshima, which is truly a wonderful and vibrant city. After checking into the hotel we immediately headed out to a nearby indoor food market that serves a local specialty called ‘okonomiyaka’.
Cooked in front of us, the chef starts with a crispy pancake for the base which is topped with generous portions of bean sprouts, green onion, cabbage, noodles, egg and your choice of sliced pork, shrimp or even oysters. Finally, this delicious tower of goodies gets a smattering of sauce, which tastes a little like BBQ sauce. There are competing varieties from Hiroshima and Osaka but if you ever find yourself in either city don’t miss sampling one. Served with a cold, frothy mug of beer this dish is a cyclist’s delight!
One of the first things I noticed when I went to Japan was the architecture and how all buildings have been integrated with the natural environment.
The island of Shikoku is very mountainous and remains heavily forested. Perched high up on the edges of the steep mountains are old farmhouses, some of which date back to the 17th and 18th century. While they can be a little difficult to spot when cycling the narrow island roads any opportunity to explore one should definitely be pursued. Thatched straw roofs, wooden floors and walls all atop stone foundations make these ancient dwellings very picturesque. However, it is not until you step inside that you gain a full appreciation of the structure – exposed thick wooden beams and always one or several “irori-hearths”. These open fireplaces were usually sunken in the centre of the floor and was often considered the traditional heart of the home. Used to not only cook and keep the inhabitants warm but also to dry tobacco, cure meat and possibly most importantly to keep the thatched roof dry, and free from small animals and rodents. While these homes are valuable for a family’s cultural heritage and as an ancestral resting place, many have fallen into disrepair after being abandoned as the rural population migrates to cities in search of work and wealth.
Fortunately there are some moves to save and restore these farmhouses with some now being used as traveler inns. An excellent example of this can be seen at: http://www.chiiori.org
At the risk of sounding like all we do in Japan is drink beer and eat sensational food, Japan’s Cherry Blossoms are a phenomenon that cannot be overlooked.
Truly Unrivalled: Japan's Cherry Blossoms
For up to six months each year Japan is awash with gorgeous pink cherry blossoms. The flowering season usually starts in the south during January and as the temperature warms up the blooming rolls northwards like a chain of tumbling dominos.
This is more than just a pretty sight - Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, has been a cultural tradition for some 1,500 years. Hanami parties are very popular and simply involve people having fun – eating, singing, drinking – all under a fragrant, pink haze of petals. One of the most common foods to eat during Hanami is Dango – a sweet, rice flour dumpling served on a skewer.
Other treats to indulge in:
- Yakitori (grilled juicy chicken pieces threaded onto skewers)
- Oden (a large pot of meat and vegetables cooked in a broth or soup at the table and shared amongst a group)
- Sushi rolls
- Inari-zushi (rice inside a fried tofu pouch)
- Teppanyaki BBQ (bite sized pieces of meat and vegetables grilled on demand, at your table)
Wash all these delectable bites down with some saki or beer whilst simply reflecting in the sheer, delicate beauty of one of Japan’s most famous attractions.
Join us for the April 17, 2010 departure of our Islands, Mountains and Monasteries tour offering sublime cycling through incredible landscapes and the opportunity to experience an alluring mix of historical and cultural sights. Why not arrive a few days earlier or stay a few days longer to see the beautiful cherry blossoms and celebrate with your own Hanami!
For more info: http://www.bikeasia.com/cycle-tours/japan/bjs.html or email us ASAP as bookings for this trip will close on January 31st 2010.
We look forward to hearing from you or seeing you on the road in 2010.
Happy holidays, and of course happy riding/cycling!!!
Scott, Naomi and the whole Bike Asia team!
PS: We will also be running fantastic trips in Mongolia and China in 2010, as well as a few new destinations that we hope to announce soon. Check out our website: www.bikeasia.com
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