Photo Epic: The Kora - Joey Schusler's Himalayan Bikepacking Adventure

Nov 25, 2018
by Joey Schusler  

High in the Himalayan hinterlands of China’s Sichuan province, three massive mountains soar above the sprawling floodplains and sweltering bamboo forests below.

For Tibetans, a successful pilgrimage around the base of these sacred giants - know as the ‘Yadding Kora’- is believed to purify a lifetime of negative karma.

Inspired by this, three adventurers set out on a 10-day self-supported journey to complete this Kora on mountain bikes.

The Tibetans believe a completed Kora will purify a lifetime of negative karma. In preparation of this journey, Brice and Sam get their legs acclimated with a game of ring around the rosaries.

We ducked under the low-slung doorway and let our eyes adjust to the dim interior. It was a sanctuary, with a Tantric Buddhist shrine on one wall and a blazing woodstove on the other. A family spanning three generations was sitting on a woolen carpet.

'Mantra rays’ on a Tibetan hillside.

The massive peaks of the Tibetan hinterlands loom in the distance. Brice and Sam gaze at the sheer walls of granite and mist as thoughts of the impending adventure fills their minds.

It felt like all that negative karma was landing squarely on our shoulders. Not only were we hampered by heavy bags holding ten days’ worth of supplies, but the heat itself was smothering, a factor that made breathing feel like an act of desperation.

There was no choice but to press on. The trail we were following would eventually lead to a path we could pedal up to higher elevation. This was the price we’d have to pay for singletrack salvation.

This is pure agony,” I grumbled, resting my bike against a cluster of bamboo and swatting irritably at the shadowy veil of vectors. “At this rate, it’s gonna take us ages to climb out of this mess.”

“Not only were we hampered by heavy bags holding ten days’ worth of supplies, but the heat itself was smothering, with a humidity factor that made breathing feel like an act of desperation.”

We turned toward the mountains, gaping as the sun seared through the haze. A family of Tibetans appeared from the gloom, spinning prayer wheels and chanting in unison. Just a few hundred feet above us was the trail we’d suffered the last four days to join.

Having the bikes back underneath us was a novel affair—and one we didn’t take for granted. We sprinted along the slender corridor, popping over rocks and plowing past the shrubs that plucked at our pedals.

If the Tibetans' spinning of prayer wheels conveyed their mantras to the heavens, the act of self-propulsion on our rubber-encased wheels paid homage to our other-worldly surroundings.

The Kora’s third peak, Chanadorje, sulked ominously in the distance, all but its icy summit obscured by a tremendous thunderhead. Its presence was disquieting.

In Tibetan, the word ‘Chanadorje’ means ‘thunderbolt in hand,’ and the protector deity is considered a wrathful bodhisattva. In my depleted state, I was not sure whether it was with us, or against us.

At 16,100 feet above sea level, the air was shockingly thin. There was little time for ceremony.

We woke to the familiar pitter-patter of raindrops on the tent, signaling a continuation of daily discomfort. Every day so far, the skies had anointed us with their tears, and every item of gear—including down jackets and sleeping bags—was damp.

Trench foot was now another thing the three of us had in common, and we took perverse pleasure in placing wagers over who would be the first to lose a toenail.

Ripping through the dense evergreen forest the next morning, our saddlebags emptied of the food we’d devoured, we thought we were home free.

Completely forgetting the age-old axiom that one should never enter a Chinese river gorge during monsoon season, we plunged headlong into it, descending several miles until it began crisscrossing a river that was rapidly rising.

Within an hour, we’d lost more than a thousand feet of elevation, and we found ourselves coasting into a wildflower-filled pasture dotted with dozens of yaks and horses. Content in the knowledge that our last day would be mostly downhill.

I was worried. Each wooden bridge was in a worsening state of disrepair, and wading through swift, waist-high currents quickly became the norm.

Eventually, our luck ran out. A bridge over some intimidating rapids was completely destroyed, and we opted to march along the riverbank in the hope we could rejoin the trail.

As we waited for Sam to slide back down for a powwow, I noticed another black raven - a bird Tibetans consider magical - watching us from its roost on a tree limb. It let out a grating caw and flew upstream, circling back above us once before continuing its aerial arc up and out of the gorge. It was our sentinel.

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  • 11 1
 You did a really good job capturing what that part of the world looks and feels like, the wet, cold, clouds, forests, mountains, people. I lived in Sichuan for a few years and the mountains there are really special and unlike anywhere else I have been. Thanks for bringing back good memories!
  • 3 0
 As beautiful as it may be... kind of sounded like a little slice of hell (weather-wise).
  • 1 0
 @richierocket: looked alright to me
  • 1 0
 @WillCoates: To each their own. Coming from the rain west coast though I would prefer a dryer climate for an adventure getaway is all. Other than the rain, it looks fantastic.
  • 1 0
 @richierocket: I grew up just south of you in the wet so totally understand avoiding it. They did hit this region at the peak of the rainy season - I have had any dry trips in those mountains. It's not the desert, but it isn't always this bad.
  • 5 1
 Somebody had a bit too much fun with the thesaurus on this one.
  • 3 1
 Haha Brice is a pretty verbose writer! And multilingual at that!
  • 4 2
 Outstanding photos as usual. The film was awesome, hitting a wall is part of adventuring and I like that the film shows this. Keep on breaking new ground Joey.
  • 2 0
 Cheers! Always a challenge to try something new.
  • 2 1
 Wow-amazing images and experience! Such a great culture, still surviving colonial attempts to erase it.
  • 2 1
 So did you guys get to finish riding Kora or have to turn around and go back the way you came?
  • 2 0
 Just ended up climbing back up and descending the next gorge over. All part of the adventure, something is bound to go wrong! Just glad we didn’t try to risk it crossing the current, we almost thought that was a good idea haha.
  • 2 0
 @joeyschusler: should have taken your packrafts, that river looked totally runnable with a bike strapped to the bow Wink
  • 2 1
 FYI, dont bring down sleeping bags and jackets if you know it could be wet for days Great adventure you guys!
  • 1 0
 Oh yeah. There was no hope keeping stuff dry on this one! Cheers Smile
  • 2 1
 Incredible videography and story. So, how'd it end?!
  • 2 0
 Thanks! Once the camera died, we ended up climbing up and out of that drainage, and taking a gamble descending the next one over. Not every ride you feel trapped up in the high peaks! But we got out scoff free.
  • 1 0
 @joeyschusler: That’s such an epic trip. Glad it all worked out in the end. Thanks for sharing and inspiring adventure.
  • 4 3
 Tibetians in china? no real Tibetians FREE TYBET
  • 4 3
 Look at those beautiful YETIs in the wild!
  • 1 0
 Incredible imagery! Stunning.
  • 1 0
 This is the type of adventure that you remember for a lifetime. ????????
  • 1 1
 Very cool. If it was me, I would have ridden an xc bike, so much easier on the acutal mountains.
  • 1 0
 such a rad trip, is amust
  • 3 3
 Ah, the brilliant keyboard criticism! Get out and ride.
  • 2 2
 I'm going to write Om Manni padme hum on my bike tires.
  • 1 0
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