Lhasa to Kathmandu by bike
August 2011 by Brett Murphy
It began with a one line email : Hey Brett , why don't you shut the shops in May and come and ride across Tibet with me. Cheers, Ben.
My reply could only be : Yep , I'm there. I'm 100% willing, 75% able. Let me check tickets and work schedules tomorrow and I'll be 95% there. The last 5% will be me having a beer on the plane. Cheers, Brett.
And so it was, that after a couple of hurdles due to strict Chinese visa regulations, and overzealous airline check-in staff battling my oversized, overweight luggage, in August 2011 my bike and I boarded a plane to Kathmandu, and I enjoyed that last 5%.
The plan was to ride from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal via Tibetan Everest Base Camp. The trip would entail 1100km of riding over 15 days, mostly at an altitude above 4000m. It would take us across the Tibetan plateau over several passes in excess of 5000m, finishing with a 150km descent into Nepal, from an elevation of 5200m to 600m.
Foreigners cannot easily enter Tibet , and so we engaged the services of a Nepali trekking agency : Makalu Adventures, that offered guided trips and vehicle support along this route. All my previous trips have been self-sufficient, and although we were at first resistant to the idea of 'porters', as the trip progressed we grew to appreciate the cups of tea and biscuits waiting for us at camp after a long day in the saddle.
We met our crew in Nepal, and another two riders. Carlo from Netherlands, all shaved legs and matching team kit, so strong on the bike that he looked like he'd inhale a Dutch crosswind and blow it back across the North Sea. Ruth from Germany, a hardened cycle tourist who had cycled the regions around Tibet on five different occasions, and now had the chance to ride within the Tibetan Autonomous Region. My friend Ben, a rockclimbing genuis in his younger days who had quit his high paying job in Hong Kong and who planted the seed of this trip within us. And me, Brett, twenty years of racing bikes and I still haven't figured it out. I'd started telling people that I'd 'retired' when asked if I was riding, but this trip sounded too cool to skip.
After two days of sightseeing around Kathmandu region and finally receiving our Tibetan visas late in the evening before our early morning flight, we tossed ourselves back into the chaos of Kathmandu airport and in no time we had an incredible view of the Himalayas laid out before us as we flew north.
Arriving in Lhasa at 3600m the effect of altitude was immediately apparent, but diminished by the comedy of watching our Tibetan tour guide figure out the logistics of squeezing four bikes and five people into two sedans. Driving into Lhasa, I was lulled into a nap by the altitude and the relentless lane changing of my driver. Arriving refreshed at the hotel, I saw our second car approach, the open boot lid and some recycled shoelace trying to keep two bike boxes and luggage from crashing across the road.
Modern Lhasa is a hybrid city. The old city retains the feel of centuries ago, with storekeepers trading in narrow streets, crowded with Tibetans in traditional dress. When you step out of the old city, a thoroughly modern Chinese version has emerged, with wide boulevardes, traffic, and Chinese businessmen wearing beige trousers, wandering the streets in groups, always with a lit cigarette pursed between their lips. We enjoyed two days exploring Potala Palace and other monasteries, wandering the old city and adjusting to the altitude, but we were all keen to leave the Chinese version of Lhasa behind and hit the open road.
We woke to rain, a diminished sense of enthusiasm around the breakfast table, discussions of clothing, bets placed on the numbers of flat tyres encountered. Then bags loaded in the truck and we rolled out of our hotel for a departure photo in front of Potala Palace. Our Nepali guide (who thanks to his good looks and regal stature we quickly nicknamed The Fresh Prince) was resplendent in his pink poncho and perfect white sneakers that he cleaned daily.
We cleared the city of Lhasa and relaxed as the rain and traffic eased. Out into open farmland we followed a wide river, the mountains all around us shrouded in cloud. By lunch we were riding in dry conditions, and so I was introduced to one of the great deligts of organised trips : the Camp Cook. Our Camp Cook, a gnarly Nepali gentleman named Kami, came from the high country below Mt Everest, always quick with a smile, and a supportive word, and throughout the trip revealed an impressive ability to drink the local liquor beyond what his stature may suggest. Most importantly, Kami was an exceptional Camp Cook, and we looked forward to each meal, riding along and guessing what he may have cooked up for the evening.
After an easy, flat 90km on day one, day two saw us negotiate our first major pass: Kamba La. Climbing straight from the camp at 3600m, we climbed through the mist for 25km to 4800m. We spread out along the climb as we variously stuggled with the effects of altitude. We were riding the Friendship Highway. 'Improved' by China before the Beijing Olympics the road was perfectly smooth and the climbs consistent in their gradient to allow overweight trucks (and cyclists!) to climb the passes. The view from the top was magnificent as we looked down upon Yamdrok Yumsto lake, and after a quick descent and lunch, we meandered along the water's edge to camp.
The following few days of riding continued along the Friendship Highway, over several more high passes of 5000m. The traffic was almost non-existant, the mountains higher and covered with snow, and the passes continued to yield the longest downhills we'd ever ridden. Our sense of place was reinforced when we rode past a non-descript dirt road turn-off, which the Fresh Prince casually informed us was the road to Sikkim in India. For a moment, my tyres turned south.
We followed long fertile river valleys filled with crops of barley, into the town of Gyantse, with it's fortified monastery on the hill. It was a quick final thirty kilometres as we tucked in for a motorpacing session behind a local small tractor transporting three men, a bunch of luggage and their barley liquor, all bouncing around on the ute tray. Although they kindly offered, we declined their advances of barley liquor from an old Coke bottle as we rode. We arrived the day before the annual horse races, and wandered the streets in the evening as Gyantse filled with out-of-town Tibetans arriving for the festivities.
Further westward, we rolled towards the highest pass of the trip: the 5250m Lakpa La. By now, the negative effects of altitude were lessened, but at that height, any hard pedalling is impossible. The key is to find your gear and rhythm, settle into your own pace, and accept that you will still probably be riding up the same hill in three or four hours. You begin to enjoy the slow rise , the subtle changes, stop for a rest and enjoy the space. The lightheaded feeling clears your thoughts and the rhythm of your breathing calms the mind. Then you reach the top, see the prayer flags, and a whole new world opens up on the other side of the pass. In this case, it was our first view (in perfect, clear weather) of the high mountains : Makalu, Lhotse and Everest. For all that hard work, there is always reward, and then another impossibly long descent !
We were now in drier country, and heading further into the mountains. After all trip so far on bitumen, it was a relief to turn off the main highway onto the dirt and begin climbing towards Mt Everest Base Camp. Straight into another 25km climb, this time on dirt we came across a group of Chinese bicycle tourists, on fully laden mountain bikes. They had ridden from their home west of Beijing, taking six weeks to reach Everest Base Camp. They would then turn around, and ride home. We felt humbled by the loads they were carrying, but more so by the rider on the folding city bike with 20inch wheels, that were small enough to completely disappear into some of the potholes on the dirt road.
After 42 odd swtichbacks in 20km of dirt road climbing, we lunched on the top of Pang La (5150m), a magnificent view of the big mountains before us. I spied some locals on motorbikes riding up to the pass on a small side track. "Hey Prince, is that another track down there??"
"Yes sir. That is another way. It is narrow and steep, but if you would like to ride it then it is possible."
"Oh, maybe about 15 kilometres or so." The Fresh Prince replied, with the characteristic Nepali head wobble.
Finally a chance to get the tyres dirty, and we bombed the loose gravelly singletrack, running too close to the drop off into the gorge below, uncontrolled whoops and yells as we'd pop out onto the main road, cut in front of a tourist bus, then drop back onto the singletrack on the other side. We slept satisfied that night.
After numerous passport checks, we rode up the valley towards Rongbuk Monastery. Everest grew larger with every pedal stroke , and as we reached the monastery the monsoon clouds parted giving us a perfect view of the North Face. We camped on the lawn at the front of the monastery and spent our time wandering the monastery, riding up to 'base camp', and enjoying the feeling that we were now over halfway through our trip.
We enjoyed a few more days of riding on the dirt. After another 5000m pass, we lowered the tyre pressure and spent an hour with the brakes off, swooping down the valley on the loose gravel track, with Cho Oyu just peaking out from behind the clouds. A few more hours in the saddle brought us to Tingri and we camped on the other side of town, views back to Cho Oyu and Everest from where we'd ridden, and views to Shishapangma westward.
Only one pass now separated us from 'the world's longest downhill'. With a lifetime spent riding around the Blue Mountains, I have always enjoyed ascending climbs on the bike, and so it was with a hollow feeling I climbed what our final pass in Tibet.
I rolled into our last night of camping in a beautiful arid valley, our campsite nestled by a small stream, not too far away from a large camp of nomadic Tibetans. Wherever we travelled, we drew a crowd of curious locals, but the particular interest that the local ladies paid to our tall Dutch friend kept us laughing well into the evening.
It was a cold start to our last day riding in Tibet as we cleared the short climb to Thang La (5050m). We stopped at the top to take photos as the snow blew around us, then headed straight onto a descent that we would still be following the next afternoon. We were chilled to the bone early on, but the enthusiasm of three boys looking for the perfect line around every corner warmed our souls. The altitude drop came a change in vegetation and as we passed through the town of Nyalam we saw trees for the first time since we left Nepal. The forest became thicker as the river in the gorge below grew in size and intensity. A group of Malaysian motorcyclists rode past, and with a few quick pedal strokes, I was tucked in behind one of them for the motorpace into the border town of Zhangmu, precipitously built on the edge of the gorge. Then it was a warm shower, and a celebration of our last night in Tibet, with a few too many Lhasa Beers courtesy of a group of Chinese businessmen.
Waking the next morning feeling a little groggy, we rolled down to the border crossing, and quickly found ourselves back into Nepal, and another world. Gone was the perfect tarmac and open spaces of the Tibetan plateau, now we were back on dirt roads, lots of smiling people and hot, humid riding.
We had one more climb to ride, onto the Kathmandu Valley Rim, and the town of Dhulikhel. Carlo and I started the climb together at 600m altitude at an easy rhythm, dodging the traffic and waving to the locals, and generally just enjoying this beautiful valley. The climb wandered around ridges, and we had no way of knowing how far we had to ride. All we knew was that it was hot, and the culmulative effects of 14 days on the bike started to catch up with us. We met Kami at a roadside restaurant and he bought us Coke's and filled our water bottles. I let Carlo ride on ahead alone as I wanted to set my own pace. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. It got hotter. Drinking lots, and feeling low on energy. I wonder if I had a spare gel left in my pack? Damn, no gel, no food. No idea how far to go. Damn its hot. Just keep pedalling. Sit on the side of the road if you need to rest. Get back up. Just turn an easy gear. Lucky you aren't cramping. Damn , spoke too soon. Okay drink some more stretch it out. Just keep pedalling. Kids walking home from school. Still climbing. Humidity, I've forgotten how you felt. Sweat in the eyes, sweat on the tongue, just keep pedalling. Damn I'm hungry. More kids, but where is the town ?? How can I still be climbing ? Have another rest. Turn a corner. There is Dhulikel! And whenever you see the finish you start riding quicker and flick through the town joyous and elated, and there is Kami waving on the side of the road, and there is our hotel, and so finished a day on the bike that makes it into my Top Three Hardest Days on the Bike, Ever.
We all suffered on this day. Ben's temperature gauge measured a maximum of 38 degrees in the valley. The riding itself was beautiful, and although Nepali roads were very busy we found the drivers to be exceptionally courteous and respectful towards us cyclists.
After a restful night involving lots of hydration, we rolled off the rim of the Kathmandu Valley for the final 30km push into town. Peak hour traffic did nothing to slow us down as we enjoyed the thrill of riding busy roads with all manner of vehicles. Sometimes barely pedalling, the thrust of the traffic carried us along, and never did we feel in danger. The Neapli drivers again showed amazing respect for other road users, showing it is possible to fit six lanes of traffic into 3 lanes, and showing that if everyone just gives an inch, we might all gain a mile.
Before we realised we were in familiar surrounds, riding into the narrow streets of Thamel, and back to our hotel where we started three weeks ago.
The statistics from Ben's bike computer yielded just under 1100km ridden, with a total ascent of 15,700m. His riding time was 75 hours, at an average speed of 14.1km/hour, and average heart rate of 139 beats per minute. We returned to our homes weighing less, looking fit, and with a clear mind ready to start plotting our next adventure.