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the tortuous road to tibet

Written by Kate on July 12th, 2006

The road to Tibet is paved in pain: in the butt, in the legs, in the brain that can’t conceive an intelligent thought because all it knows is the jolting of body and bike to which it is connected. As I bounced along this abominable excuse for a road on my jackhammer bike, I often had to remind myself that, like vagabond Everett Ruess:

I prefer the saddle to the streetcar, the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, and the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway…

Occasional pining for paved highways aside, this bumpy pilgrimage to the Land of Snows was the most sublime, surreal, and soaring experience of my life so far. And like all great adventures, it began at a crossroad. To the right was the unknown allure of Tibet, to the left the safe familiarity of Xinjiang. Standing there with our bikes, hesitating, never had a route looked so daunting for so many reasons: the lung-gasping altitude, the scarcity of reliable food and water sources, the atrocious condition of the road itself. The fact that Tibet was closed to independent travelers meant that our fate was entirely out of our hands. If we got caught, we were finished.

With this in mind, we knew the first checkpoint in the Xinjiang town of Kudi could make or break our bumpy Tibetan pilgrimage, so we decided to go all out. At this point, Mel and I had accidentally leap-frogged ahead of Ben and two Germans, Matthias and Florian, two cyclists we had met in Kashgar. When Mel and I took a short nap by the side of the road, they passed us without knowing it, then we passed them after they’d camped for the night. We assumed, however, that they were still ahead, and when we didn’t catch them the next day, we also assumed they’d already made it through the checkpoint.

So according to the plan we’d hatched earlier as a group, Mel and I made preparations to sneak across. After covering all our bike’s reflectors with duct tape and dressing in our darkest, most criminal clothing, the two of us set off at 2:30 am. We approached Kudi using headlamps, but right outside town turned them off and rode in darkness, bike wheels purring in the opaque hush of night. At the edge of town, we rode right beneath a conveniently raised checkpoint barrier and my heart soared – could it be this simple?!

Next thing we knew, dogs were barking and a flashlight beam was ruthlessly scanning the road ahead of us. Cursing, we scrambled for cover, Mel in a ditch and me squashed against a building, desperately willing myself into two dimensions. A man walked by swinging a flashlight beam back and forth across the road. I think it shone directly on my fear-frozen face, though I can’t be sure – I was squeezing my eyes tight shut in the belief that if I couldn’t see him, quite logically, he couldn’t see me. If saw us, he chose to ignore the shady characters doing their damndest to disappear. A few minutes later – eons in our hummingbird heartbeats – we heard a truck start down the road and then it drove away in the direction we’d come.

Drunk on adrenalin and sweet singing relief, we got back on our bikes and rode to the edge of town, where the real checkpoint loomed out of the darkness: a daunting gate and guardhouse, and no way around. So we limboed under the gate, tilting our bikes to the side to squeeze beneath, and of course I just had to bang it with my backpack as I passed. The noise of rattling chains set dogs barking and lights snapped on in the guardhouse and I whispered GO! to Mel but she was already gone. We couldn’t see a thing in the darkness of the night and our terror, but we raced blindly ahead. A speedbump nearly proved lethal as did a violent collision with a road pylon. Ten kilometers later we stopped for a sanity check (failed, miserably, because we left our sanity back in Canada), and we concluded that neither of us were cut out for a life of crime – we lacked both the nerves and the night vision. Once we’d composed ourselves again, we rode into the dawn, toward Tibet. We’d made it.

There is, however, an ironic epilogue to this escapade. Later that same day, Ben, Matthias and Florian caught up with Mel and I – turns out they had been behind us all along. When they scoped out the checkpoint from a distance by day, they had observed big gates guarded by big guard dogs, and assumed it was rabies and suicide to sneak across. So instead, they biked right up in broad daylight, surrendered their permitless passports – and were waved through with no questions asked. Despite being teased mercilessly by them, and losing at least five years off our lives from stress, at least we’ve got them beat with a helluva story to tell the grandkids someday.

So up, up, up we climbed into and onto Tibet. In total, it took twenty days to travel from Kargilik in Xinjiang to Ali in Tibet. We covered 1054 km and nine passes, including the highest at over 5400m (17,700 ft), and spent nearly a week at elevations higher than 5000m (16,400 ft). It was insane. It was sublime.

From the dizzying heights of the Tibetan plateau, the sky was an intense deep-sea indigo, and the land below equally oceanic, rumpled with great waves of mountains, islanded with turquoise lakes. A blue and khaki planet of impossible dimensions: the lowest basin in sight hovered a deceptive 4900m in elevation, and the sloped, sleepy mountains all around reached well over 6000m. The roof of the world, so they say, but from up there we could just begin to perceive the real roof of our world, that faint and shimmering swaddle of air that holds us back from the heavens, or the heavens back from us. At night I swore that if I could only suck enough oxygen into my lungs – certainly impossible at those thin heights – I could jump up and swat the swarming stars like flies, they were buzzing that close.

With just over a month and a half left to go now, the trip continues to evolve. In a few days, Ben will fly home to Canada, and Mel and I will be on our own, although we’re going to ride for as long as possible with the Kathmandu-bound Germans – a few weeks ago, strangers; now great friends and partners-in-misadventures. The current plan is to ride to Lhasa, stopping to trek in a few places along the way. We turned ourselves in to the police upon our arrival in Ali, paid a $50 fine, and obtained an Alien Travel Permit for Tibet, so we’re delightfully legal here, at least for another few weeks. Who knows where the road will take us. All that is certain is that I am mad for this otherworldly land and life, forever doomed to possess “a homesickness for a country that isn’t mine”, as was Alexandra David-Neel:

I have a homesickness for a country that isn’t mine…the steppes, the solitude, the eternal snows and big skies up there haunt me. One remains permanently engulfed in the silence where only the wind sings, in the solitudes almost naked of greenery, the chaos of fantastic rocks, dizzying peaks and horizons of blinding light.
- Alexandra David-Neel, My Journey to Lhasa


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Max says:

    Your beautiful trip has inspired me to start training for one of my own… One day I am gonna quit this desk job and see where the road really goes.
    Awesome job, and good luck for the rest of the trip. I will keep checking up on ya.

  2. Dara says:

    Awesome,beauty,gorgeous,out of the world,most scenic,clean,healthy,you name it.Just want to start on my motor-bike from India.If anyone can help me with permits I am on

  3. rifaymokhammad says:


  4. Brian says:

    epic in all your descriptions, read several consecutive years, still a classic. good luck with the Cycling Silk book, it will be nothing less than a Classic.

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