Vail travel: Into the Mystique
Vail, CO Colorado
Summer to me means biking and camping, thus it seems peculiar to some people that I flew 7,700 miles around the world to do exactly that.
I recently returned from a bike trip through the Himalayas, from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal. At times, I wondered why I was cycling at an elevation 16,000 feet, but it was the only way for me to experience this region as intimately as I did. While traveling in Tibet and Nepal, cycling and camping became so much more than my connection to nature – it was my connection to the culture of the Himalayan people.
I theoretically knew they existed – places where the kids had never seen a television or surfed the Internet, a place where nothing was consumed that was not grown, a place without accessible schools or traces of Western culture.
I do not know what my experience would have been had I traveled through the Himalayas in a bus or car, but I do know it would have been drastically different. I probably never would have slept in a tent amongst pastoral nomads, changed a tire while being chased by Chinese authorities, shared a meal with Tibetan children or been taught traditional dances by sheepherders. My bike granted me access to the cultures and sights off of the tourists’ path.
I first arrived in Kathmandu, where I spent a few days exploring this crowded, vibrant city. Kathmandu overwhelmed my senses. What I remember more than the sticky feeling from the humidity, the incessant honking of horns, the ringing of prayer bells and the smell of incense being burnt in an effort to mask the odor of human waste, are the colors.
Kathmandu is a place of vibrant colors. The women’s sarees are stunningly bright shades of oranges, yellows and pinks. Purple and red flowers spill off bushes, flowing into the streets. Brown monkeys and fluorescent birds populate lush green trees. Red, yellow, white, green and blue prayer flags adorn each hill.
After exploring Kathmandu, I boarded a plane, flew over the Himalayas and arrived in the Forbidden City of Lhasa, Tibet.
Tibet has long been a source of mystique, romanticism and wonder to the Western world – this could be due to the fact that foreigners have long been forbidden in the area.
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and once home of the Dalai Lama, presents a distinct juxtaposition between new and old. It is the sight of many sacred Buddhist monasteries and its people practice venerated customs. In contrast, its streets are well paved, facilitating access to the many factories that surround the city.
The Chinese military’s presence in Lhasa was palpable – they guard the monasteries and lurk on the street corners. They seek to keep peace, to monitor the potential for uprisings and to hush all political commentary and query.
I have never been more acutely aware of the freedom of speech granted to me by own country than I was when traveling in Lhasa, Tibet.
Once I got over the fear induced by the omnipresent military machine guns, I was able to settle into the scene of the city. The intricately adorned monasteries serve as both a place for monks to practice their religion and as a public place of worship and devotion.
The monasteries were teeming with pilgrims showing their devotion with offerings of money and yak butter. While visitors circled the monastery in a clockwise procession – to walk counter-clockwise would be to disrupt the motion of the universe – the monks subtly went about their daily chores and devotions.
Outside of the monasteries, cars sped past pilgrims prostrating themselves in ritual worship. Tibetans proceed about their daily chores, walking the streets as they spin hand-held prayer wheels.
Leaving Lhasa, I saw more of the old Tibet and less of the new Tibet as experienced in Lhasa. I would cycle for hours without encountering any development. Then, to my surprise, I would come across one tent that housed a nomadic family. They would be removed from all other people, living off their sheep and yaks. These remote peoples were as fascinated by my fellow cyclists and me as we were by them. We would often spend our evenings together playing simple games that transcended all language and cultural barriers.
While my life is drastically different than these nomadic peoples’ lives, I was aware that our similarities were greater than our differences. Through the course of my cycling tour in the Himalayas, I would find ways to communicate and engage with the local culture, relishing in the comfort of knowing that all of humanity is related and united by basic biological and emotional needs.
After biking between six and nine hours a day for 10 days, I arrived at the base of Mount Everest – a mountain that seduces mountaineers and adventurers from around the world. This mountain is the source of a plethora of legends and myths. It has claimed over 200 lives.
At 29,029 feet, it is the world’s highest mountain. Despite its international mystique and notoriety, I was not prepared for the profound impact it would have on me. I booked this trip two weeks before I left – I was in Mexico doing graduate work when I purchased my flight to Kathmandu – and arrived with few concrete expectations.
Visiting Mount Everest was something that I had never considered, yet when I arrived before this majestic peak, I lost tangible thoughts and became overwhelmed with emotion. Everest evoked an ethereal sense of wonder, beauty, authority and stoic enchantment. The experience of Everest cannot be accurately articulated – the sense of its omnipotent mystique supersedes rationale descriptors.
After leaving the base of Mount Everest, I spent the next four days biking over a few more Himalayan passes, en route to the Tibetan-Nepalese border. After climbing Thang Pass, on the border of Tibet, I commenced the several day, 4,600-meter descent into Nepal.
As I left the high, dry, lunar landscape of Tibet, I cycled back into the humid, lush rainforests of Nepal. The women were no longer clothed in multiple layers of faded wool, but once again in brightly dyed silk. The bike trails became laden with streams to hop over and mud to skid through. As I cycled back into Nepal, the silence of the Tibetan mountains was replaced with the clamor and color of Nepalese commerce and chaos.
Upon my return to Kathmandu, I happily spent a few days cycling through the city, trying to absorb the many sights, sounds, smells, feelings and tastes it has to offer. I then sold my bike and flew to Delhi, India, where I spent a few days darting around before I returned home.
The more I travel, the more I deepen my appreciation of my home and of my country. Travel leaves me with a renewed appreciation for my own passport. My United States passport allows me to leave the country in order to explore others, all the while providing me with the security associated with American citizenship.
I am always thankful and delighted to return to the freedoms, opportunities, privileges and comforts that are embodied by America. Travel would not be so sweet if I did not have a return ticket home.
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