Shoote The Breeze: Ed Heads to Tibet for More Bikepacking Adventures
August 16th, 2017
August 16th, 2017
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The mountains and plateau of Tibet are one of those great bucket list bikepacking destinations. Who's not dreamt of long days' riding past Buddhist monasteries on winding gravel roads? Struggling with cold air and lofty views in the land of the snows. Well the situation is complicated on the ground because the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is off limits to foreigners without a guide and a permit. Some regions are totally closed to all; such as Qamdo province. This makes it almost impossible for the average independent bikepacker. You have two options, hire an expensive guide or do what we did. Tibet was much bigger than the TAR, the regions or Amdo and western Kham were part of Tibet but are not covered by the same restrictions. There's no permit required to travel there. Problem solved. We simply hopped off the bus in Kham and started riding through Tibet.
Bikes loaded up with Apidura bar bags and saddle packs we're travelling light but there's no gentle introduction; we're steadily climbing up to 3800m and it's only day one. With no acclimatisation it's a struggle - we're in silence and both feel jet-lagged, which is only made worse by the lack of oxygen. The turns are never ending onwards and upwards until we stop for dried yak meat and dried fruit at a roadside stall. Intended for tourists but the guys serving felt so sorry for us they refused payment!
That night we wild camp on the Steppe under the most spectacular stars we've ever seen. Bikepacking wouldn't be complete with out nights like this. Tibet's dry and high conditions mean the milky way is incredibly vivid from horizon to horizon.
Each day we ride up to a 4000m pass and enjoy dodging yak, which are everywhere it seems. The landscape is steep, towards higher peaks with sections offering glimpses of snow capped summits. Whenever we stop it seems we're quickly offered Tibetan butter tea from huge hot flasks, that locals at roadside stalls try to sell. This cheesy, salty tea is an acquired taste but appeals to the starving stomach of a cyclist.
The roads here are well built and the Chinese have invested billions across the region in an attempt to integrate it into wider China. One feature is long tunnels. This particularly unpleasant one is six kilometres long with no ventilation, which at 4200m is disastrous for our lungs! We survive it and see the city of Litang. Construction is booming here. New hotels, apartments and government buildings are changing the town's character fast. Beyond the dust is the more peaceful and charming traditional Tibetan sector, nestled below a sprawling Buddhist monastery and temple complex.
On the first evening we arrive the sun is setting with a beautiful diffused golden light. We wander up the hills around the town to get a sunset view. We also get our first glimpse of sky burial sites, higher still above the town. In the distance flags flutter where the funerals of Tibetans leave the deceased for the vultures - it's brutal in some ways but perfectly completes a circle of life. Circling overhead is a healthy population of vultures. The bearded vulture is the biggest with its nine foot wingspan ready to pick off a weak cyclist!
Over the trip we will visit 15 monasteries and we quickly learn that Buddhist monks love bikes, especially my titanium Tripster. In most monasteries we visit we're given an 'exclusive' tour of the temples in return for a spin on the bikes. Once again bikes prove such a great instrument for sparking unexpected but rewarding interactions. They also help to build up a huge appetite for local food!
For dinner we are met with a challenge to order what we want. Language barriers are hard to break when so few comprehend any English. The worst case scenario was getting served a plate of chicken feet and green chillis. The best case is asking for ”momos" and we get to sample the traditional yak dumplings which are ideal cyclist food: deep fried and super tasty. In general the food here is a mix of spicy Sichuan noodle shops and Tibetan style bread, cheese, dumplings and yak meat – some cater for the Chinese tourists with other regional Chinese specialities too. Hotpot is big here too; an incredibly spicy broth that you dip literally anything into, to cook and then eat. Tibetan fondue is you will. It's a social meal and we've been kindly invited to join locals a few times. Mostly for them to laugh at how we deal with the spice and our polite chopstick eating!
From Litang we head north on quieter roads and the villages here are far less impacted by Chinese development. They're surprisingly grand in scale with bold decoration. The living floor in the middle, normally has an 'en-suite' toilet, which consists of a wooden box latched onto the outside - they're just long drops, so we're careful what we walk under!
One evening we ride up to a particularly beautiful old monastery perched on a sparsely forested mountainside. The track up is sandy and steep, reducing us to pushing. Once inside we're met by blank stares; it feels like we're the first westerners these young monks have ever seen. After a few minutes it’s clear we won't camp here. We set up the tent further down the track on a wide flat corner. Overnight we get awoken by what we think are dogs looking for food, but turn out to be wolves. It's fair to say it wasn't the best night's sleep. By morning we're tired but alive - they came back three more times during the small hours. We've seen a lot of stray dogs but we didn't expect wolves.
We soon reach the biggest challenge of this bikepacking trip; Tro La pass at about 5050m. We are now ten days into riding and we're acclimatised and ready for the 2000m+ climb up on hairpins of gravel road.
Gentle but steady the top actually comes sooner than we expected and the views in both direction are astounding all the way. Small metal oxygen cannisters discarded by Chinese drivers tell us that we're doing well not to be panting like the wolves we heard a few nights before. The wind is whipping into our faces and gusting among the colourful arch of prayer flags.
The descent was epic, continuing for 60km of varied riding; first on steep gravel switchbacks then through pastures before into a steep sided gorge to the town of Derge. Here we reach a larger river defining the border with Chamdo and the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This border is closed to all foreigners. Numerous police guard the bridge and modern CCTV cameras have no doubt tracked our every move along the road into town.
Derge is home to a temple which houses one of the largest collection of wooden carved Tibetan Buddhist scriptures: a deeply religious site and a fascinating place to wander. We don't stay long as the first snowflakes of the trip start falling.
Apparently hidden in the mountains near here is the world's largest Buddhist monastery with 10,000 nuns and monks. Yarchen Gar is not on maps and few westerners have ventured there. It sounds fascinating and it's on the way home so it'd be rude not to call by.
As we push the final climb towards the edge of Yarchen Gar we are met by views over a vast monastic shanty town dwarfed by four vast temples. With thousands of burgundy-robed figures on the move below us it's one of the most surreal sights we've experienced.
After taking a few photos a couple of young monks wander over, interested in the bikes. The older one is soon riding Marion's bike but the younger one is just too small. He sits on my saddle and I push him about, then Marion shouts “give him a backie!”. He happily sits on my Apidura saddle pack while I stand up pedalling, we're both whooping as we go. It's great to see their beaming smiles even if I nearly collapse from the effort at this altitude!
That night we try camping and it is freezing cold, at 4000m the air is thin and bitter. Just as we start eating dinner a friendly monk invites us to sleep in his prayer room – we can't say no! It was an honour to be invited and an amazing opportunity to experience everyday life here.
The rest of the trip flew past; I ended up naked in a hot spring with a famous Lama (Buddhist monk not the animal), we gate crashed a locals' only Tibetan festival, tried to acquire a pack horse and finally on the last day of riding I became very sick but still had to climb a final pass. I only remember Marion flagging a lift, then me trying not to vomit while staggering into a hotel. A sour way to end the trip but was it worth the effort? I don't think I even need to answer this question. To me, living life is all about riding your bike and having unforgettable experiences like this.