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Whew! The snarling Tibetan mastiff was chained. Then I heard the other one

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures.

Tibetan mastiffs weigh up to 85 kilograms and live on the high grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau, a bleak, beautiful and unforgiving part of Asia. Darling puppies soon grow into bone-crunching psychopaths that are equal parts dog, lion and Hannibal Lecter. Some are chained and some are not. Having just cycled 600 kilometres across one corner of the Plateau, I can tell you that the unchained ones are not a cyclists' best friend.

Mastiffs are used as a kind of alarm system for guarding sheep, goats and yaks. During the day they are chained nearby to alert the herders to the approach of strangers; at night they are allowed to roam free, and are known to engage the wolves that prowl the higher plateau. When you are the guest of nomadic herders, as I was, you soon learn to go outside for a midnight pee with great care. One night, I turned around to have my headlamp light up a set of eyes standing silently five metres away. Nice doggie. I backed away; he just watched.

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My next encounter didn't go as well. I had come to the Plateau with a friend who buys yak down for his garment business and we spent a lot of our time with Tibetan nomad herders. One morning my buddy went off to a neighbouring county to look at wool. I decided to stay back and ride my bike around the town – a place called Maqu, in China's Gansu province – and to visit the birthplace of Gesar, a king who features in an epic poem of Central Asia. (It's interesting that Maqu claims to be the birthplace of Gesar, because he's a fictitious character, but that's another story.)

I turned off the main highway near the Yellow River and started up a dirt road where a sign said Gesar was born. Soon I came upon a mud-walled Tibetan village; it was cold and very quiet except for the wind, which whipped up dust devils. Rounding a corner, I came upon a chained mastiff, which immediately went berserk at the sight of a bicycle. Delighted at seeing his chain, I continued to cycle past, looking at him on my left.

Then I heard the other one. It was coming fast under a barbed-wire fence on my right and making a snarling noise I won't soon forget. In terror I quickly dismounted – on a bicycle you cannot outrun a mastiff – but in my panic I fell hard, sprawling onto my back as the beast lurched toward me. I had visions of a terrier shaking a rat.

I seized a rock as I scrambled to my knees and flung it at the dog. I may have hit him, or perhaps he was just startled by my attempt at defence. Either way, he stopped and just looked and growled – but he was not going away.

My knee aching from my spill, I picked up my bike and kept it between me and the mastiff. He followed me about 100 metres down the road, and every time I tried to remount he would charge toward me, teeth bared. Eventually he lost interest as I exited his territory, and I was able to get back on, knee throbbing, heart pounding.

I pedalled gingerly back home, disappointed at not having found Gesar. But probably not as disappointed as Hannibal the Mastiff, who was likely rueing the one that got away.

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