Lhasa to Kathmandu is an epic 1,100 kilometer journey, but more so if you power your own way across the high plateau and across even higher passes. It may be a bit easier nowadays with more black-topped roads. We had the advantage of an organized trip with a truck to carry our luggage and a guide to save us from getting lost. However, it still remains a tough ride, and five of the seven members of our group had to get a ride in our truck on one or two of the longer days.
Tibet is for cyclists, as mountain ranges are separated by very wide flat valleys which would be very boring if one were walking. I bought a bicycle in Bangkok, flew to Kathmandu, got two days of acclimatization in Helambu National Park and flew with the group to Lhasa at 3,600 meters, where we had four more days to acclimatize before starting to cycle.
Lhasa felt like a Chinese city to me. Only the area behind Jokhang Monastery and the outskirts of the city remained Tibetan. I loved Jokhang Monastery, where the Tibetan culture and Buddhism were still fully alive, notwithstanding a few Chinese guards. The Potala Palace was an impressive building but unlike Jokhang it felt dead, an empty shell with no function and no life.
Our first cycling day was easy and before midday we had completed the 70 kilometer flat, paved road. If it gave some the impression that it was going to be an easy trip, the next day was the opposite. We soon found ourselves on a dirt road climbing forever to Kerela pass at 4,900 meters. Soon, James fell behind, then Dale got altitude sickness and even the young guys were struggling. After lunch Peter, the oldest participant and I reached the pass first. On the next stretch to Yamdruk Tsho, the others one by one got into the truck. Peter, I and the guide Tilak, plodded on at times through deep mud, which was especially hard for Peter who was more of a road biker. We reached our guesthouse well before the truck which got stuck in mud. Our tired friends had to push it on several occasions. Luckily we had a decent hotel that day, without rats running around the room and across some of us at night as happened the night before.
A hundred and twenty kilometers and a high pass proved too hard for most of us, so we decided to skip our rest day to avoid having another very long day. We rode every day staying the nights in small guesthouses serving local dishes including mo-mo’s, which after the Dalai Lama is the best known export product of Tibet. One night we stayed in the isolated Rolong monastery, where ruins on the surrounding hills indicated where before the Chinese invasions other monasteries stood. Other nights we had nice rooms in guesthouses in villages and towns such as Shigatshe, which felt more Tibetan than most of Lhasa.
One of the highlights came on day 5 after we struggled across one of the worst corrugated dirt roads to Rumbuk with its neat monastery and views of Mount Everest. The next morning we cycled out to the Everest Base Camp at 5,200 meters, an amazing ride with the north face of Everest towering far above us. We met a couple climbers who had given up their attempt to climb the mountain: one was not feeling well and was on his second course of anti-biotics, and the other decided that he wanted to live rather than die trying to climb Everest.
From Rumbuk we made it via some quiet back roads to the main Freedom Highway where our freedom to breath fresh air was badly tested by trucks belching black smoke and throwing up huge dust clouds. Luckily the nuisance can be greatly reduced by cycling on the wrong side of the road if the wind comes from that direction. Rules for bicycles are virtually non-existent in China and if they exist no-one enforces them.
Eventually we made it to the border after a beautiful downhill ride down a steep valley. The last day started with a long downward ride until we reached the Sun Kosi River, where scores of red-clad women were celebrating Teej festival. From there we had a hot thousand meter climb up to Dhulikhel. Peter set a murdering pace, Tilak had no problem following, but I got cramp in my legs. I fell behind, and then fell off my bike into the grass along the road. I tried to massage my legs, ingested salt, drank more water, ate bunches of bananas and walked when I could not cycle. After a while Tilak came back looking for me. By then I had recovered enough to be able to cycle again, albeit slowly. After Dhulikhel it was luckily mainly downhill to Kathmandu and my legs had fewer problems with that. We cycled right to the centre of Kathmandu, braving the dust and fumes that pervade its crowded streets. The clean, crisp air and beautiful views of the Tibetan plateau were already just superb memories of an unforgettable trip.
Author – Piet van der Poel