Tibet: Roof of the World
Getting to Tibet
Is Not Easy
It’s an interesting process getting
into Tibet. In fact there are two alternative processes: one for entry from
Nepal and one for entry from anywhere else (invariably via some port-of-call in
China but outside Tibet).
My original choice was the latter.
Together with four friends from previous meanders abroad, the plan was to take the
pressurised train on its 48 hour journey from Beijing to Lhasa. That was to
follow two and a half weeks touring “mainland” China (for want of a better term
since Tibet is also part of China); and would give us a few days in Lhasa
before the rest of the motorcycle tour group arrived by plane from Kathmandu.
That plan was thwarted by visa issues so we had to fly from Beijing to
Kathmandu, re-apply for visas and enter Tibet from Kathmandu.
As it turned out, we ended up being a
total of four, so travelled, as in the age-old Bhutanese Buddhist tradition, of
the “Four Harmonious Friends.”
After flying from Beijing through
Guangzhou to Kathmandu, we met up with the rest of the group there and spent a
few days getting new visas for China and a special entry permit for Tibet, the
latter being an essential requirement in addition to a China visa. The big difference
with the Nepal process is that the visa and entry permit come as a package deal
– and nothing appears in one’s passport; it’s all in accompanying papers
applying to the whole group.
Anyway, be all that as it may. The
only important thing is that, in the end, it was a straight-forward process in
Kathmandu that opened the door for us to enter the timeless land of Tibet.
The Tibet Tour was undertaken with
Extreme Bike Tours who managed all the visa and entry permit issues in
Kathmandu; and guided on the ride across the Tibetan Plateau with expert and
influential assistance from our very professional and gregarious Tibet-based
guide. This was their Tibet 2 Tour.
Map of Our Route
The map is in Satellite mode because it’s more
interesting to get a view of the terrain. You can change the map to Map mode to
get a better idea of the locations relative to towns. Have fun zooming in and
out to appreciate better the nature of the Tibetan Plateau.
Movie of the Tour
Here is my movie of the tour: once it starts, click on settings (the cog at bottom right of video screen) and select 720HD. Then watch it in full screen. Hope you enjoy it.
Guide to the Tour
Prior to the tour, I prepared a short guide,
which you can view here.
Lhasa: Capital of
from the airport into Lhasa is a very special feeling brought about by a
conglomerate of thoughts, feelings and events. Tibet has a long fascinating
history of documented centuries; a rich cultural and religious soul; symbolic
places such as the Potala Palace; and, of course, we had the expectation from
the outset of riding across the Tibetan Plateau with its plains, high passes,
Everest Base Camp and the crossing of the Himalayas into Nepal.
We four harmonious friends should have been
arriving in Lhasa by train, but missing that part did not detract from the
overall absorption in this unique experience. Dropping in for some extra days
in Kathmandu hadn’t been a bad fall-back option.
The flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa was only an
hour, but the time difference is 2 and a quarter hours, despite the longitude
being much the same (China has only one time zone across a vast distance of
longitude). The flight, of course, crosses the Himalayas which are the border
between China and neighbouring countries to its south: Pakistan, India, Nepal,
Bhutan. Unfortunately, it was very cloudy but that didn’t stop a few high,
sharp, snow-covered peaks protruding through the clouds making one wonder if
the plane is comfortable in flying higher than the 8,000m that several
mountains in the area exceed.
First impressions of Lhasa itself were of a
broad-avenued city with lots of traffic, billboards, advertising and, as night
progressed, brightly lit neon signs. In the evening the city seemed dominated
by the flood-lit Potala Palace. It was a strange mix of the old and the new. In
many respects, it seemed at times like any modern city; at other times you
could feel the history and mystique of this fascinating place.
Our initial plan had allowed for three full days
in Lhasa, but because of having to change our plans to accommodate visa
restrictions, we had to settle on just one day along with the rest of the tour
First we had important business to attend to: a
practice ride of a couple of loops round the streets of Lhasa –early enough to
avoid the traffic. On three previous tours riding in India, Nepal and Bhutan,
the bike had been the Royal Enfield Bullet – that notoriously “misconstructed”
machine which has the brake lever on the left, the gear lever on the right and
the gear box upside down! I was missing it already as we were introduced to the
Royal Enfield Desert Storms, with conventionally mounted levers and gear box.
Our early morning excursion was followed by a tour
of Potala Palace, dating from the 7th century and home and final resting place
of many Dalai Lamas over the centuries. Potala Palace is the single most
recognisable symbol of Lhasa and the whole of Tibet. It’s a special place that
inevitably conjures up so much of what constitutes Tibet.
We then visited Sera Monastery just on the edge
of the city. It dates back to 1419 and is the second biggest monastery in
Tibet. It’s an operating monastery so had monks performing rituals and
practising their debating of theology and philosophy. That was an interesting
Finally we spent time in Barkhor St Market –
consisting of a wide square with a temple crowded with pilgrims and lots of
side streets with every item of local manufacture, predominantly religious
items, antiques and handicrafts. Part of that time was enjoying coffee at a
roof top cafe from which we had a totally unexpected but memorable view of
Potala Palace across the roof tops.
Heading out onto
the Tibetan Plateau
the whole of Tibet – or, as it’s officially called “Tibet Autonomous Region” or
“Xizang Autonomous Region” – stretches across the vast Tibetan Plateau, the
world’s largest and highest plateau with an average elevation in excess of
At a relatively low 3700m, Lhasa sits astride
river flats in a valley, so there is a sensation of heading out of Lhasa along
the flats of the Yarlung River, following its wide river bed as it meanders
through bright yellow autumn colours, before, soon enough, leaving the river
flats and diverting onto the high plateau to rejoin the river and highway next
day at Shigatse.
left the river flats, it was the start of the climb to the top of the first
pass of the tour: Khamba La at 4800m. There were some pleasant, tightish turns
but not like the switchbacks on the Himalayan passes of India or Bhutan. The
striking feature was the rapidity with which we reached the top of the pass.
Then it became evident why: the Tibetan Plateau is higher on average than the
highest pass crossed in Bhutan. The highest pass in Bhutan was 3800m.
exception (on the road to Everest Base Camp), despite the elevation of several
passes over 5000m, there wasn’t the same sense of conquering them as there was
in the Indian Himalayas. In fact, with a few, you might have easily missed the
top of the pass were it not for the twisted array of prayer flags fluttering in
Khamba La was reached almost imperceptibly, it was unmistakably the top of the
pass if only for the spectacular view on the other side of the luminescent,
blue-green Yamdrok Lake.
pass, Karo La at 5074m, was an even shorter ride to the top, with hardly a
sharp turn. Obviously the height of the plateau between the passes is quite
high. At Karo La, a glacier distinctively hangs onto the mountains above the
top of the pass.
The rest of
the day’s run into Gygantse (pron something line Jung-tse) was across by now a higher part of the Tibetan Plateau
than Lhasa as the road ambled along a broad valley between rising hills and
past small typically Tibetan hamlets.
night in Gygantse, we stopped by a vantage point in the centre of town to view
the Dzong, a 14th century historical fort that has been restored. It was all
but destroyed by a British incursion into Tibet in 1902-03 which came to known
as the “Younghusband Expedition”.
headed for Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city after Lhasa.
It was only
a half-day ride to Shigatse across flat farm land which swept out on both sides
of the road to the high hills beyond. I
understand most of the crops are barley. Later in the trip, in a small village,
we saw much threshing of (presumably) barley, so I’m assuming it was threshing
season. There was certainly a lot of activity in the field and several
tractor-drawn carts on the road laden with cut crops.
centrepiece of Shigatse is the Tashilhunpo Monastery founded in 1447. It is one
of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet. It’s a huge complex spread
along a hill side and consists of several golden-roofed chapels which house the
remains of many of the Panchen Lamas (the heads of a sect of Buddhism).
other notable feature is the imposing castle of the Shigatse Dzong. It’s a
smaller version of the Potala Palace. It’s not open to the public so we had to
settle of photos taken from the local market.
Highest Pass of the Tour
Where we stopped the night after
Shigatse was as confusing being there as it had been researching it beforehand.
I was assured that we were staying in New Tingri. However, there’s a sizable town 7km off the
highway that’s always been called Xegar (pron Shegar and sometimes spelled that way), but now called New Tingri.
It’s the administrative capital for the district and also serves to house and
support climbers and trekkers heading for Mt Everest and nearby mountains. I’m
not sure how the name change came about. There is another Tingri, 60km or so
along the highway, now called Old Tingri. Maybe they moved the administration
of the Tingri District to Xegar so thought they had better call it New Tingri.
The turn off to New Tingri is right
at what was a small village in its own right but has more recently become a scrappy
town with a major fuel supply, a large comfortable motel and a few smaller
abodes and restaurants. It also calls itself New Tingri (in fact any sign I saw
simply said ‘Tingri’). This settlement
seems to have developed on the highway as a one street town to cater for
passing tourists just wanting to spend a night as they make their journey
between Lhasa and Kathmandu; and to save them the trouble of driving another
7km to the main town. We stayed in the
But back to Shigatse. From Shigatse
we rode through similar flat plains that we had crossed the day before: lots of
farms and farmers, tractors pulling trailers of harvested crops along the road.
After about 70km, the side walls of the valley began to converge bringing an
end to the wide plains. However, as they converged, it became evident that they
had left a gap which the road could slip through into a much narrower valley
but one that still supported some farm activity.
It wasn’t long before the road left
the fertile valley and turned to follow a wide mostly dry river, its only water
not much more than a trickle winding its way in all directions across and along
the sandy river bed. This was another valley whose imposing walls of rounded
reddish rock dominated the view. When the river valley opened a little further
downstream, the colours of the rock walls changed to greys and browns. Remember
this is at some 3700m. It was all very surreal.
One valley led to another until it
was evident that the side walls of the valley were now converging inexorably
with no way out. This would necessitate a climb up the sides of the valley
winding back and forth until reaching the first pass of the day, Simi La at
It didn’t seem all that far down the
other side, suggesting that the plateau on the other side was much higher than
the plateau from which we had climbed to Simi La.
Further along the highway came the
significant town of Lahtse where there is a major split in the road, with one
arm heading North West to the far reaches of the Tibetan Plateau and another
heading South West towards Mt Everest and Nepal. We paused at the intersection
waiting for the support vehicles and the inevitable paper work that goes with
frequent check points. We soon became the centre of attention of a group of
young tourists from Shanghai fascinated by our journey and mode of travel.
After Lahtse, we wound our way along
rivers, through valleys and up and around the bulging hills that brought us to
the highest pass on the Friendship Hwy between Lhasa and Kathmandu: Gyatso La
at 5250m. We had light rain on the way up and sleet floating around at the top.
Unfortunately, cloud prevented seeing Mt Everest, which would have been our
first sighting of it. But nobody told us we would need to walk 600m or so up a
fairly steep hill to get the view. I’m not sure I would have done it even if
the day was clear.
Mt Everest Base
Just a few kilometres along the highway from New Tingri (the smaller version on the highway!), there’s a
southerly turnoff to Everest Base Camp as the highway continues west to Old
Tingri, where we would meet up with it in two nights.
Turning onto the Everest Base Camp road
we left any semblance of sealed road for two days. In fact, at times – most of
the second day – there was precious little evidence of a road at all: just rock
and rocks and sand.
Not long after starting our trek
south on the Everest Base Camp road, we began the climb to Pang La at 5200m –
just an arm’s length shorter than the highest pass of the tour we crossed the
day before. Several sources attest to the fact that there are 42 switchbacks to
negotiate to get to the top of the pass. I didn’t count them. I was too
preoccupied with getting the bike around the seemingly endless turns where all
the rubble and sand relentlessly gravitate to the apex of the turns.
The view from Pang La is said to be
spectacular providing a vista of five of the Eight Thousanders: the 14 peaks
above 8000m. The dominant one, of
course, would be Mt Everest.
I should divert briefly to explain
that “Everest” is a British-bestowed name dating from the time of “British
India.” Nobody at the time told the Tibetans that; and they still call it by
the name they have presumably called it for generations long before the British
had built their first ship: Qomolangma (pron something like chew –moo- loong – ma).
There was to be no panorama today
from Pang La; only thick white clouds, which at times gave tantalising glimpses
of what lay behind them. Cho-Oyu, 6th highest, was the only one willing to give
a real hint of its true glory. After several “let’s give it another 20
minutes”, we cut our losses and headed out.
Getting round thickly piled rocks and
sand on apexes of switchbacks is no easier going down; and there were 54 of
them before we entered the Rongbuk Valley, with its high walls, sandy-bedded
river and small, isolated Tibetan villages. The gravel road took us almost
sneakily back up to around 5200m by the time we reached the “Qomolangma Base
Camp” as the welcome signs announce it.
Just short of the base camp is
Rongbuk Monastery. Historical references place a monastery or places of worship
here hundreds of years ago, although the present monastery was built in 1901
and has been rebuilt since because of fire. It looked tired and desolate;
lacking the sparkle and colour of other monasteries we saw. Adjacent to the
monastery as an annex is a rectangular, stone, single storey building that
provides accommodation and meals to travellers.
We would come back to it for the night; but for now we rode another few
kilometres to the first of the Everest Base Camps.
“Everest Base Camp” on the Tibetan
side can mean either of two places. One is a large area a few kilometres past
the monastery consisting of several tented ‘hotels’ and restaurants organised
in a large rectangle in the middle of which are 4x4s galore and small busses
whose passengers are taking shelter for the night in the ‘hotels.’ The other is
the base camp for climbers 8km further up the valley and 200m higher. This is a
hive of activity in the climbing season but at this time of year it’s simply an
open, barren expanse, with a conveniently located viewing mound.
We could ride only as far as the
lower Base Camp. After that small buses take entry-paying tourists to the upper
Base Camp. From there you seem to be unrealistically close to the highest
mountain in the world; and we got to appreciate that spectacle as the clouds
graciously skirted across and around it, but leaving frequent openings long
enough to feel overwhelmed by its might and grandeur. You couldn’t help but
feel mesmerised trying to absorb the wonder: this is Everest – I pondered as I
sat on the edge of a mound and let the reality seep into me, allowing my mind
to use a name that had more familiarity to it than its “true” name of
Next morning, having fought my way
from under a doona and any number of thick blankets (all of which were
necessary to keep warm in our totally unheated, bathroomless, stone-walled
cell), a wander past the frost-covered bikes to the outside of the annex
rectangle provided a stunning
reward. Taking advantage of the early
morning, dustless, chilled, clear air, Everest was revealing itself entirely,
having cast aside all semblance of the modesty cloud cover might provide. The
massive mountain opened up and beckoned one to pay homage.
With our ‘luck’ at the two passes
from which we were supposed to see Mt Everest, I did wonder if we might have
been cursed. But, no! We did get to see, feel and live the might of Everest.
An early start from Everest Base Camp
meant a very cold ride for about an hour before the day picked up warmth that
eventually had me remove a few layers and change to summer gloves. But the day
was a challenging one. We retraced our steps out through the Rongbuk Valley for
about 10km then, according to the plan, we would turn off to the North West
directly to Old Tingri.
We certainly got off the road and
followed one of innumerable but barely discernible tracks, as we had done on
the way in the day before; I had thought then the reason was because, rough as
they were, they were better than the road.
It quickly became obvious that the tracks (I don’t think anyone
necessarily followed the same track as the person ahead) were getting rougher
and less discernible with every kilometre; and seemed to be going in no clear
direction. We eventually crossed the river (by bridge thankfully) indicating
that we had by then diverted from the road along which we had come the day
But still there was no road as such;
just a maze of miniscule wheel depressions in loose rocks and traces of
previous traversing over solid but corrugated bed rock. The nature of the terrain and the complexity
of vestiges left from previous vehicles demanded several thoughtful moments on
the part of our lead rider as he desperately tried to search for some sign of
familiarity that would steer him (and us) in the right direction.
The relief of freeing ourselves from
the bone-jolting sea of rock waves and eddies was to be followed by more
readily visible wheel tracks that deceptively camouflaged sand of varying
viscosity and depth. Relentlessly the tracks took us across (or through) deep sand
patches, loose stones, a couple of water crossings and through traditional
A significant consolation was the
spectacular view looking over your shoulder as we moved away from the clump of
Himalaya’s highest peaks
We finally re-joined the Friendship
Hwy at Old Tingri in agreement that we had just had the most exciting and
satisfying two days riding to Everest and back.
Last of the High
Although at Old Tingri we were
getting close to the border with Nepal, we still had a couple of passes to
cross as we continued our ride across the high Tibetan Plateau. We were still
at 4300m and would need to climb another 1000m to cross the high points of the
passes. By the time we got to our next stop of Nyalam, we had already dropped
to about 3800m.
The road to Nyalam was excellent
condition bitumen – a merciful change from the previous two days. Well, it
seemed that was going to be the case: until we met road works that took us onto
side tracks of dirt and gravel for the final 7km climb to the higher of the two
passes we had to cross before reaching Nyalam.
As in any other place where there are
side tracks, detours or “short cuts”, there’s never one single track to follow.
There’s a multiplicity of tracks each undoubtedly formed by vehicles who were
impatient or thought they had a better idea! There was no logical way of
selecting the best or shortest or smoothest track; it was all guess work.
It was at the start of the diversion
that we encountered an unexpected spectacle: a group of like-minded tourists,
but in their case on motorbikes with sidecars. The bikes were Chinese
knock-offs of an early German model of the currently popular BMW ‘boxer’
The pass boasted sights of the
smallest of the Eighteen Thousanders, but, as with earlier passes, cloud
hindered any view of the mountain.
Nyalam: The Gate
Nyalam is a quaint town built on a
steep valley wall. It was our last night in China, in Tibet and on the Tibetan
Plateau. It used to be nicknamed 'The Gate of Hell' by the Nepali traders
because the old trail between the Nepali border and Nyalam was so treacherous
to negotiate. South of Nyalam the road drops abruptly through a deep gorge,
descending 2000m of vertical height over just 40km.
Next morning, we were to tackle this
gorge that had earned Nyalam the title of the Gate of Hell. Apart from a short
uphill ride to get out of town, we had an unending downhill run along almost
perpendicular valley walls spotted with waterfalls across the valley and water
flows across the road. In contrast to the dry, barren rocky landscape we had
been riding through, everything on this final downhill run was lush green. It
was a very pleasant but cautious ride through several wet and slippery corners.
You could easily imagine what
traversing this road might have been like with a narrow goat track and no
definable outer edge. Little wonder about Nyalam’s title. For us, however, it
was a bitumen road with a safety fence.
The fast declining road leads to the
twin, scruffy, border towns of Zhangmu (China) and Kodari (Nepal), bustling
with tourists, traders and Nepali porters; both towns clinging to the sides of
a precipitous ravine joined by the rattling bridge that serves as the border
We struck an unexpected delay here:
it was some sort of holiday and the Chinese customs official needed to clear
the bikes out of China had slept in, presumably after a celebratory night! –
and then we encountered some difficulty negotiating a mutually agreeable entry
arrangement for the entry of the bikes into Nepal. All in all, we lost several
precious hours ‘hanging around’ on both sides of the border.
Final Run to
Finally on our way, it was no
surprise, as we had been warned, to have one of our roughest rides on the
so-called main road coming from Kathmandu to this border crossing into China, a
crossing that obviously was a substantial source of Chinese goods coming into
Nepal. There were innumerable quagmires of mud and silt; stretches of rock; and
just plain torn-up ‘road’. By the time we extricated ourselves from all that
and got onto a decent bitumen road, we were nearing the Kathmandu Valley and
Our run through the wild, sprawling
metropolis of greater Kathmandu, with its wall to wall traffic of buses,
trucks, cars, 4x4s and motorbikes, was all in the dark. No street lights; just
headlights, but not consistently – lots of vehicles drive without them! Our strategy was to stay bunched up tightly
with a sharp eye on the riders ahead. It almost seemed a miracle that we all
made it to the hotel in this totally confusing cacophonous nightmare.
It was celebrations all round that we
were safely in Kathmandu. It was late, very late; but not too late for a cold
Here is a slide show of photos from
the tour. Click on “slide show” and opt for full screen when it opens.