Volume 46 Number 2 Article 1
Ian and Liz Lawton
Imagine cycling under wide open skies, clear blue and uninterrupted by clouds. Imagine only seeing a dozen vehicles in a whole day and camping in a secluded spot by a stream for the night, miles from the nearest village. Imagine starting the day by brushing the ice off your sleeping bag, starting the stove with numb fingers and trying to get away by first light in order to beat the afternoon headwind. This is cycling in Tibet.
The idea for this trip came whilst researching cycling the Karakorum Highway. We came across a book and accounts of people having cycled from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Tibet to Nepal, the Forbidden Kingdom to the trekking capital of the World. This sounded far more appealing than the route further west.
We flew into Lhasa from Chengdu in China and felt the immediate effects of the altitude of over 3600m. As we had come from the 2007 Tianxing caving expedition we arrived with little more than a basic tool kit, bike shorts and camping gear, the rest we’d figure out. The permission for the venture was the easiest bit of the trip to sort out “don’t ask for it as you won’t get it” was the advice, so we didn’t. Some shops had opened in the city selling Giant mountain bikes and while Liz had plenty of choice bikes for 6’2” westerners were a little rare and I think we bought the only 21” frame in Lhasa! Racks were fitted and we found some 2nd hand panniers for one bike and mounted shopping baskets either side of the other rack then strapped a rucksack over the top, beautiful!
After 5 days of sightseeing and acclimatisation we set off down the main road west and turned off onto the southern Friendship Highway that starts with a lung busting 23km climb over a 4800m pass. An incredible ride along the shore of Yamdrok Tso (Scorpion Lake) follows with a backdrop of snow capped peaks. Another pass of 5000m, the cessation of tarmac and a fierce headwind heralded the most memorable part of the trip. With nowhere to put the tent up out of sight we turned into a lonely Tibetan village Lungma and asked about food. With no shop a villager offered to cook for us and we spent a wonderful evening with him, his brother, son and wife, eating, talking and drinking chang around their Yak dung stove before spending the night in their ‘best room’ while they slept around the stove. Rice, Yak butter and sugar served with Yak butter tea saw us right for the road ahead in the morning –magic.
Tibet’s 2nd and 3rd cities, Gyantse and Shigatse (it only has 3!) were passed through without attention from the authorities, and with long days in the saddle through wide cultivated valleys on the main central highway.
After Shigatse another 5100m monster pass preceded the gateway to the Everest region and we teamed up with a group of Hong Kong Chinese to hire a couple of Land Cruisers with drivers to take us on the side trip to Base Camp. We spent the night at the refuge next to the Rongbuk monastery before returning to the bikes.
Back on the road we passed the last of the tarmac and the last of the major towns at Tingri before around 100 miles of very dusty washboard dirt road along wide sparsely populated valleys. The Lalung La is the final big pass at 5200m and is flanked by the 7000m+ Langtang peaks to the left and Shishapangma 8013m to the right, plus it’s the top of the descent onto Nepal. In one day we rode from arid permafrost to lush forest down an ever deepening valley/gorge to the border town of Dram where our head to foot coating of mud got us turned away from several hotels! The road continued downhill through crowds of people, busses and lorries, past banana and orange plants, giant tree ferns and wildlife, in stark contrast to the emptiness of Tibet. We were even cycling on the left. To the uninitiated cycling into Kathmandu must rate as one of the most frightening low velocity activities on earth! But with the delights of one of the most culturally diverse cities on offer….that’s another story.
970km – 2 punctures – 15 days cycling (plus rest days and EBC side trip).
Postscript: Tibet would delight and disappoint on many levels, small Tibetan children would run across fields to slap our hands as we rode past, whilst those in the Everest region would throw stones at us if we did not give them sweets. We would have a laugh and a joke with Monks in the monasteries then see forced labour out of sight of more normal tourists on their package tours. We made a big effort to communicate in the native Tibetan language but we often had to resort to Mandarin Chinese, a result of Tibetan no longer being taught in school.
We shall be back for more of this wonderful country and its fascinating people.