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Conquer the Himalayas in the saddle

News   •   Mar 09, 2014 00:00 GMT

Anyone who turns up at Everest Base Camp on a push-bike can expect a raised eyebrow. I had joined a group who pedalled 400 miles from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to Base Camp. As I stood transfixed by the view of horsetails of snow spume, whipped from the 29,029ft summit, a trekker from Kiev, the size of a brown bear and just as scary, smacked me across the back, exclaiming: “You’s hero!” Then he grabbed my bike and demanded his photo be taken with his new trophy held aloft like a specimen fish.

I was cycling a further 200 miles, to Kathmandu, Nepal, and I’d do it all without delving into my hypochondriac’s sack of medical supplies. No Diamox, the go-to pill for altitude sickness, not even codeine for the inevitable headache. No need for my syringes, needles or rehydration kit. Or indeed the guide’s portable altitude-chamber (PAC) tent.

I confess I did carry a tab of Viagra to dilate the arteries in a cycling emergency, but never dared take it. I was worried about how the laws of attraction might get warped while crawling up a 15,000ft pass on the edge of consciousness. Who’s that gorgeous girl with the cow eyes and the fashionably tangled hair? Uh-oh, she’s a yak.

The trip isn’t as hard as it might sound. It’s fully supported, and anyone with decent fitness and reasonable bike skills can survive and thrive as long as they’re determined, and can put up with basic, group living. Most meals were rustled up by our Tibetan cook from the back of his truck (tasty and excellent body fuel). Guesthouses were simple (mostly clean, but few showers). Toilets were of the long-drop variety (sociable).Our Nepalese tour guide, Mangal Lama, a 28-year-old mountain-bike champion hoping to compete in the next Olympics, had an appealing mix of drollness and commercial ambition. “I’m not Buddhism, I’m not Hinduism. I’m tourism,” he was fond of saying.

He managed the competing needs and abilities of our group admirably. Of the 11, six spent some time resting in the accompanying kit bus because of altitude sickness, the effects of the desiccating sun or just fatigue. Which was fine, because it wasn’t a race.

The secret, everyone agreed, was not to rush it. Three nights of acclimatising in Lhasa was essential. Then, climbing the sequence of 15,000ft passes at the biggest peaks — Kamba La (15,728ft), Karol La (16,551ft) and Gyatso La (17,217ft) — had to be tackled slowly and evenly. Any sudden burst of activity got you into trouble — the first inkling was a sense of tunnel vision, followed by a wider disorientation. Mangal’s mantra of “drink three litres a day, keeps altitude at bay” worked well.

Much of the ride was on the Friendship Highway, a snake of Chinese tarmac with road trains of oil trucks and 4x4s full of hooting Chinese tourists thundering back and forth. A dust mask was essential. The route slashed through one-horse towns clinging grimly to the roadside like abandoned sets from a Sergio Leone movie. But it was motorbikes rather than horses that were tied up outside the bars. The road across the roof of the world offered up views of five of the world’s highest peaks, dripping in supersaturated colour: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma. They drifted past like icebergs floating on the edge of the horizon, a visual trick that almost convinces you the Earth is flat.

Straying from the tarmac, we hit the true rural Tibet, where the single track is invariably a rocky riverbed that clatters your teeth to bits. Passing yak herders looked at us quizzically, asked for a cigarette and waved us on.

Eventually, the climbing gave way to the vast rolling expanse of the Himalayan plateau, studded with 18thcenturyTibetan dirt forts, all now toppled like kicked sandcastles on a beach.

Apart from Everest, the great lure of the trip was the chance to storm down the longest descent in the world,a 12,000ft drop from Tong La, the last big Tibetan pass, all the way down to Kathmandu. So it was a bitgalling to face a headwind of more than 30mph that actually blew you uphill if you stopped pedalling. TheGoPro video looks like it’s stuck on freeze-frame. No Red Bull bragging rights there.

But the next day it was calm and, as promised, we hurtled down into the lush gorges of Nepal, surrounded bya deepening foliage and ribboning waterfalls hundreds of feet high. It felt like re-entry from Mars.Richard Caseby was a guest of Exodus (0845 287 7595, exodus.co.uk), whose 21-day Lhasa-Kathmandu ridestarts at £2,999pp. Bike hire and travelling cost extra. Other Nepal-Tibet operators include Dawn Till Dusk(nepalbiking.com) and El Yak (elyak.com)

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