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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.