MacGyver of Tibet
You all remember it…the cheesy show where the main character, MacGyver, is locked in a secret dungeon on a deserted island in the South Pacific. All he has with him is some duct tape, chewing gum, and his own bodily effluvia, and he somehow escapes, fashions a raft, and manages to sail across the Pacific a la Kon Tiki. Well, we have a Tibetan MacGyver in our midst…maybe not quite as dramatic as the scenes in the classic show, but still impressive nonetheless.
We left the canyon country two days ago, rising steadily from the labyrinth onto the Plateau. Snowy peaks – indicative of a monsoon that is hesitant to exit stage left – rose in the background, wiht snowline coming down to about 16,000 feet. We continued our bouncing along, following dirt roads that crisscross Tibet like a child's scribble…a switchback here, a shortcut there, a random road to nowhere every once in a while.
Massive lorries ply the roads here, bringing goods to faraway cities like Ali and Kashgar. As they approach, a game of chicken is always played – Who will apply the brakes and slide to the side of the road first. Logic would say we, the small Landcruiser, should give in first, but no truck driver wants to be responsible for sending a load of tourists down a cliff…so usually we win the game, passing with a wave and a cloud of dust. But suddenly a truck approached that did not know our rules of the Tibetan road. He did not budge. At the last possible minute, our driver, Dorje, realized our impending peril and swerved right onto the rough, jagged rocks lining the side of the road. Seconds later, we could feel and hear something unnatural on the left rear tire. Sure enough, it was shredded – a nasty sidewall puncture right through the steel belts. But, fortunately, Dorje had our spare fixed in Tholing (it had punctured a day before), and we had it on and were moving again in good time.
Things went well for the next three hours. Stu, Kirk, Dave, Cynthia, and I were listening to tunes on our mp3 players (love the technology!) and enjoying the scenery as we cruised up and over a 16,500 foot pass dusted with snow and splashed with red, green, maroon and dusty hues. Finally, when we were all about to our limit of bumpy roads, we rejoined the new dirt road, which was smooth as silk compared to the ones we had been on. Confidently, Dorje pushed the envelope…The speedometer crept up to 80 KpH – quite a speed for Tibet! But, within minutes, there was a loud hissing from the left rear tire followed by a familiar thwump-whack sound. Sure enough, that same tire was gone again. Hmmmm…our spare was flat. The second Landcruiser – the nice one – had passed us several mintes before and was already out of sight. Not the best of situations, especially at 4:30 PM at 15,000 feet in Tibet. We got the newly flattened tire off and, minutes later, our big truck, bearer of all our equipment as well as Panuru and Bal Bahadur, emerged from the dusts down valley.
Smiling, the driver, Pasang, lept out to see if he could help. Like a whirling dervish, he set to work, whispering orders in Tibetan to Dorje who seemed at a loss for what to do. Out came two tire irons rigged from old pry bars. Using them, a couple of rocks, and his white, patent leather shoes, Pasang popped the tire from the rim and pulled out the tube that had been inserted to "fix" our previous flat. Interesting technique! Pasang looked at the 18" tear in the tube, mumbled something in Tibetan, and moved confidently back to his truck. Tools clanged and bonked, and soon he emerged with a new tube, a five foot plumbing lead, and a massive bowie knife. In minutes, our Tibetan MacGyver had the new tube in and re-seated with his rocks and pry bars. Pulling out the knife, he gingerly hacked the end off the plumbling line and popped the Schraeder valve out of the new tube. The cut end of the plumbing was attached to the flat tire and the other to a lead coming off the underside of the truck. Smiling, MacGyver hopped into the driver's seat and began pumping the air brakes frantically…and I saw the light. He was building pressure to in turn bleed the brake air into the flat tire, inflating it. Sure enough, after 30 pumps of the brakes, he ordered Dorje to hold tight onto the makeshift valve, fired up the truck, and opened the bleed valve for the air brakes. Within minutes, our tire was inflated, remounted, and we were off…this time with Pasang and his skills close by.
We made camp last night again on the banks of the Satlej River. Today another 5 hours of bumpy roads took us past Kailash, between sacred Manasarovar and Raksas Lakes, and, at long last, to Gurla Mandhata Basecamp. And, finally, the mountain is not being bashful…she rises above us, a towering mass of rock and ice some 10,000 feet above us. I impressive, exciting, and a bit intimidating, as any mountain should be.
As I sat in my tent this afternoon, I had my own MacGyver moment as well…but not as impressive as Pasang's. Three days ago, as I duck-waddled through the narrow passageways of Guge, I managed to tear the crotch of my jeans. As I have many times before, I pulled out my Speedy Stitcher to make a quick repair. But, this time, a flood of memory, ironic in its timing and significance, rushed forward. It was 1997, in a room in the Annapurna Hotel. Quinn and Soren and Tom had just returned to Kathmandu. Soren tossed me his Speedy Stitcher, saying that, given his injuries on Gurla, he would not be needing it anymore.
Soren, thanks for the Stitcher. It has been useful once again…If you ever want it back, I know you can put it to good use and I'd be happy to return it to you.