Pedaling odyssey to the roof of the world

Traveling to the top of the world was quite a feat for Chen Junwei, 20. He wasn't driving; he was pedaling. 
Chen Junwei / Ti Gong

Chen Junwei finds companions along his cycling trip from Shanghai to Tibet. 

Start underneath the Yan’an Elevated Road and head out on National Highway 318. In 4,235 kilometers, you will reach Tibet. Those directions from his granny were the start of an adventure that one young man will never forget. 

Traveling to the top of the world was quite a feat for Chen Junwei, 20. He  wasn’t driving; he was pedaling. 

“I was sort of obsessed with the idea of traveling to Tibet, for no particular reason,” he said of his bicycle odyssey. “Maybe it’s just because I wanted to do something wild at this stage of my life. I wanted to feel like I made to Tibet by my own two feet.”

Chen kicked off his trip in People’s Square on July 9 and clocked over 150 kilometers a day. He kept his bike pack light at 25 kilograms of basic essentials. “I saw mountains and terrain that never seen in Shanghai,” he said. “I ate well, trying all the local specialties along the route. I met interesting people along the way.”

Chen Junwei / Ti Gong

Chen poses on a pass over Dongda Mountain, attitude of 5,130 meters.

The first day of the trip was the hardest, Chen said, though it began amid high spirits. By the end of the day, his leg muscles were sore and he was tempted to turn back. He resisted the urge.

Attempting the trip alone was a great risk. Experienced cyclists will tell you that it’s best to travel with other people if you want to go to Tibet. By luck, Chen encountered two former soldiers on his second day out, and they all agreed to cycle together for at least part of the trip. Companionship lightened Chen’s mental isolation.

“People often ask me what’s the biggest thing I gained from the trip,” he said. “I tell them I have become more outgoing because of the people I met along the route. Total strangers bonded, sharing their assistance and generosity. It’s rare to see that happen in big urban societies.”

Many have cycled to Tibet, and some haven’t made it. A few days before Chen embarked on the infamous “72 turns downhill” in Nujiang in Yunnan Province, a cyclist fell from the mountain and died.

“There were two times when I nearly lost my life,” Chen recalled with a shudder. “Once was on a downhill when I fell off the bike at a sharp turn. Luckily, I fell toward the mountain and not off the cliff on the other side. I hurt my knees badly, but the first thing I felt wasn’t pain but rather the fear that I might not be able to continue the journey.”

He added, “The other time was when altitude sickness almost killed me.”

Chen Junwei / Ti Gong

Chen gets a welcome khata scarf from a Tibetan after arriving in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

With glimpses of Mount Everest in front of him, he ascended the forbidding mountain pass of Gyatso La. At an altitude of 5,248 meters, he had finally reached his destination.

“I was standing there, soaking in the view,” he said. “I was overcome with a contentment and sense of fulfillment that I had never felt before.”

With oxygen thin at that altitude, Chen began the downhill when things spun out of control. He felt a sharp pain in his chest and paralysis in his limbs. Unable to breathe easily or move, Chen rolled down the road. He was far away from the main highway and feared no one would find him. 

The prospect of death crossed his mind.

“Maybe it’s hard for people to relate to that kind of fear,” he said. “It’s not like being injured or sick when you know you can go to a hospital. At that moment, as I lay there alone, I wasn’t sure I would be rescued.”

He mustered all the courage he had, telling himself that he had to survive. 

Fate intervened. A military truck passed by, and soldiers gave him water and oxygen. Then a van of photographers passed and agreed to give him a lift.

Chen remains quite humble about his achievement. It isn’t as impressive as it looks, he said. 

“Of course, I’m proud of myself,” he said. “But now it’s time to focus on university study and think about all the adventures ahead in my life."

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