Ziggy Stardust and the Tibetans

When we were in Kunming we picked up a MP3 player – or MPsan as they call them here, san being the Chinese for 3. Nothing fancy. A small 2mb iRiver, running off a single AAA battery. Originally we’d planned to podcast along the way, but accessing the site has proved too slow via the proxy we have to use in China. We also wanted to listen to tunes, and thanks to a tiny speaker (3GBP) we spotted in Kunming’s surgically bright electronics market, we can listen on the go when cycling side by side – as it even fits into the mesh side pocket of my Ortlieb bar bag. The speaker only lasts four or five hours but we can recharge it with our solar panel strapped to across the trailer, or in guesthouses. Best of all, the sound’s really not too shabby either.

Anyway, we were heading to Sichuan’s Tagong Grasslands. The sun had finally come out and absolutely everyone was waving hello from their houses, fields, even hilltops in a Trumanesque sort of way. The road was quiet, and for a change, even flat. Yes, Life was Good. And while music wasn’t exactly blasting from the bike – as it does from many of the motorbikes round here, thanks to rattly speakers strapped to the sides – you could definitely hear it as we rode along. A strange sight we must have seemed. Two bikes pulling bizarre trailers, two wrapped up head to toe riders, their hands lost somewhere admist thick motorbike ‘moose-mitts’ that sprouted with fake fur, and the gentle, beautifully crafted melodies of Belle and Sebastian wafting into the air.

We stopped at a small but lavishly gold crusted temple, and watched a young boy in a real, matted fur waistcoat working his way around and around a long line of six foot high prayer wheels, each inscribed with the Tibetan Buddhist peace mantra ‘On Mane Padme Um’; heaving with all his might to get them going. Some spun in a blur for minutes, others needed some extra oiling.

Nearing lunchtime, just as the road began to climb, we pulled over and settled down on a huge slab of rock surrounded by a clear stream that forked around it – the perfect spot for drying our tent, which we’d packed up when it was still crusty with ice like a frosty freezer. We unravelled the solar panel to give the speaker a boost, laid out the flysheet and snacked on some meaty baozi (bread dumplings) we’d picked up that morning.

It was a quiet spot, but it wasn’t long before a couple of young Tibetans guys pulled over on their motorbike to investigate. As always, our possessions – now handily laid out on the slab – proved a treasure trove of interest, each item as fascinating as the next, each warranting extended discussions and tutting. They checked out our SPD pedals and were impressed with our demonstrations of how to use them, inspected the trailers, tried on the bike helmets and marvelled at the size of the tent. We noticed one was carrying a foot long silver knife – for cutting yak meat, he explained. These guys were the real deal.

Then they came and sat down with us on the rock. I thought the occasion warranted some music; David Bowie seemed to suit the mood. So we sat together and listened to Space Oddity, then Changes, powered by the sun’s rays, sharing biscuits, warming ourselves after the cold start. I’d like to think it was the first time they’d heard Ziggy Stardust strutting his stuff, here in the peaceful grasslands at close to 4000m.

As usual we were in our shorts, which really surprises everyone, including our Tibetan friends. Like Russian dolls, they peeled back no less than three layers of assorted coloured long johns from under their socks. So that’s the secret of survival round here. When it was time to move on, they helped us load up the trailers and make sure we didn’t leave anything behind, then waved us on as we took to the road once more.

It was one of those unexpected, enriching encounters that refuels the spirit on a long ride like this, and reminds us why love to travel by bicycle so much.

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3 Responses to “Ziggy Stardust and the Tibetans”


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  1. 1 Photo-Story Laos « out there biking: the blog Trackback on January 24, 2008 at 9:05 am

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