This is my Lhasa to Kathmandu cycling narrative. I provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos on associated posts or pages. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.
Narrative continued from post…
It turned out that my fears concerning the jeep group were unfounded. For some reason the Fates decided to be kind to me in this case (perhaps because of what they had in store for me later in the journey). The group turned out to be a solid mix of characters that were easy-going and fun to be with. Although from different countries, backgrounds, ages, and perspectives, we fit together well and got along well during the day and exceptionally well in the evenings.
Our tour had included two days of accommodation in Lhasa and the standard tourist venue (temples, palace, markets, etc.). I skipped most of the scheduled activities in order to find and acquire a respectably outfitted bicycle. I eventually settled for a Giant CTX 260 model for 700 Yuan ($80) with minor additions such as a rack, fenders, handle bar extenders and simple repair tools. With the purchase of the bike and some food supplies (Pepsi and dry noodles) I was set to depart on the eighth (and final day of the jeep trip).
I said my goodbyes to my new friends and headed out of the hotel parking lot on the morning of June 30th in the direction of the Patella Palace, the most recognizable landmark in Tibet (altitude 3680 m and my kilometer 0 starting point).
The first day was a sunny and easy 61 km day of flat riding thru the city, suburbs, and along the Kyi Chu (Lhasa River) to the tiny town of Chusul (3600m). Most of the towns in Tibet are actually one-street villages, but if they contain any commercial establishments they are considered towns (red dots on road maps). While typical Tibetan villages contain no commercial establishments since they are subsistence-farming communities (and only Chinese families seem to have the drive or permission to open business ventures). I found a bed in the dumpy ‘hotel’ in Chusul. Later I would realize that the dump was actually above average compared to the remoter places on the road ahead.
Link to Lhasa to Kathmandu Photos
My confidence from the first day ride remained with me for the first thirty kilometers of day 2, but quickly evaporated with my body fluids as I began the ascent of my first high Tibetan pass. The Khamba La (4794m) was to be a lesson in humility (and foreshadowing). I spent the remainder of that very long and hot day cycling, and then pushing my bicycle, up an endless series of switchbacks that wound slowly to a summit far off in the distance. The last five km were especially difficult as I ran out of Pepsi, emergency orange drink, and finally Tang flavored water in my camel pack. The sun and heat were enough to sap me of my strength, but I was also contending with the affects of altitude. After each short stretch of only a half km I was winded and dizzy. The altitude was robbing me of what little stamina and reserves I had as the sun continued to creep lower in the sky and more and more tourist jeeps and buses stopped to film and photograph the lone cyclist struggling ever upwards. At first I was touched by such attention, but in time it simply annoyed me because at times I had to continue riding/pushing my bike because tourists had stopped in at my target rest stop to take photos of me. On the first day I had already started to hate the jeeps and tour buses that would fill my lungs with dust and torment my future.
Upon clearing the pass I began a fast downhill ride that followed Yamdrok Tso (lake) at 4490m. Due to my weakened state and the late hour I cut my day short and stopped at the first village and made hand signs inquiring about a place to sleep at the first person I saw. The old woman took me to a traditional Tibetan mud home were an old man rubbed his first finger and thumb together in the international sign of ‘how much’ money. I offered 20 Yuan ($2.50) and he accepted. We dragged the bike into the courtyard and then were shown to the main room of the house, which followed the standard Nepalese guesthouse layout. The main room was a large square with couches/beds around the outside walls with an inner ring of tables and a wood/dung-burning stove in the center. I dumped my gear in the corner as an old woman brought me a glass of boiled water with a spoon full of sugar added. For the next hour she kept refilling my glass with hot water as more and more guests appeared. Each one added a small food parcel or packet of candy to a pale and then began to pick at my arms and legs (they are fascinated by the hair on Westerners’ arms and legs), and then picked thru my belongings. The party continued to grow more festive as more people arrived. Throughout the proceedings I continued to yawn and make signs of sleep until finally I signed that I was going to go outside and sleep in the courtyard with the livestock.
Although reluctant to let their main attraction leave, the old couple took me to a storage room, cleared away some very old blankets and let me lie down on an old wooden cot. Within a few minutes I was oblivious to the world and the periodic noise of people entering the storage room and turning on the light. They each pretended to be searching for some artifact in the jumble of junk, but clearly were really actually staring at the apparition of a tall well-fed westerner in their presence.
Late the next morning I awoke to an empty house and the old man waiting to be paid. A small bowl of gruel was offered for breakfast and I made every effort to eat it quickly and whole-heatedly, but it was a chore to swallow the lumpy substance without gagging. Eventually I cleared enough of the bowl to make a respectable sign of pleasure and a quick exit.
The day started hot and in a generally downhill direction, which was simply a short reprieve. By lunchtime I reached the major town of Nakartse (4410m) that had two commercial streets, a number of hotels, and many Chinese noodle shops. I ate lunch and then began the relatively easy 13 km ride to the start of the next pass. My map showed an isolate hotel 12 km before the pass (Kaor La, 5015m). That was my objective for such a hot and dry day.
About 5 km before the objective a chain was stretched to closed the road, and a guard was turning back vehicles. I had been warned that the road was closed for construction, but figured that a bicycle would not constitute a vehicle or an issue in this case. As it turned out I was correct. The man at the chain simply lowered it and waved me on as I approached. I spent the next few hours slowly climbing the switchback dirt, gravel, mud road as it wound its way toward the pass. The entire route was populated at intervals with hordes of laborers. Very little of the construction was done with machinery since human labor is cheaper and more expendable. The laborers always stopped and hooted, whistled, cheered or simply waved as I past. They found a lone cyclist an encouraging sign of free will and entertainment in their boring and hot life.
At Longla, the location of the hotel, I discovered an abandoned and mostly demolished building and a Chinese military post. The military took a view entirely different from the laborers. The soldiers didn’t know what to make of a dirty westerner on a bicycle so they detained me until an officer could be found. In time one materialized and looked just as confused. Finally he brightened and pointed the direction I had come and indicated I should go back. This solved his problem since I would simply go away. I smiled and agreed. I then went for a walk down to the river to refill my Pepsi bottle and wait for the guards to change or wander off. In time the officer got into a pickup truck and left and the soldiers disappeared to shadier and remoter locations. I quickly jumped back onto my bike and continued riding towards the pass without looking back.
As the day wore on and the headwinds picked up it became apparent that I was not going to reach the pass before nightfall, so I started looking for an appropriate campsite. About 5 km before the pass I spotted a shelter of stones perhaps built by a yak Sheppard. It was also near a large culvert that spanned the road that I could use to hide the bike for the night. I parked the bike and then walked down into the hollow to use the stone shelter as my open-air camp for the night.
I was so tired that I simply ate some chocolate bars, rather than take out my cook-set to prepare noodles. Within 15 minutes I turned in for the night. I awoke much later to a cold, windy, clear night. I had woken up because my hip was digging painfully into a rock. I check my air mattress and found that it was deflated. The used air mattress had been a bargain for an obvious reason. The shopkeeper in Kathmandu must have known it had a leak and was happy to get rid of it at cost. I refilled it and went back to sleep, too tired to worry about it at that moment.
The day dawned clear and windy. I reached the first pass fairly easily after an initial push. Beyond the pass the gravel road dropped steeply for a short distance and then leveled out for a 30 km generally descending run, followed by a 13km final rise to a second pass called Simi La (4330m) at the base of a newly man-made lake and dam. After this pass the road wound down into a new valley and then across a flat dry open expanse until reaching Gyantse at 3990m (a town with an ancient monastery on one bluff and an ancient fortress on another). During the previous jeep trip we had spent a night at Gyantse so I was familiar with the layout (three commercial streets) and the location of the hotels. I knew from this point forward (at least for a few hundred km) the road would once more be paved and easy. I found a cheap hotel room (with bath) for the night (80 Yuan or $10) so that I could wash the construction dust and mud off the bike and myself.
Day 5 was the easiest and prettiest day to date. It involved a 94 km paved level road through a dry valley, but within a green belt along the watercourse of the Nyang Ghu River, to the town of Shigatse (3860m). I had also stayed in that town on the jeep trip and was at least familiar with some of the layout. Shigatse is the second largest ‘city’ in Tibet and has numerous sections, hotels, restaurants, and even a few cash machines. I arrived late in the afternoon as rain clouds gathered. I found a very cheep room for (without a bathroom or window) and settled in for the night.
The day was a typical day as it turned out. It was extremely hot. Due to the altitude and strong sunlight I was acquiring not just my first sunburn ever, but rather a third layer of sunburn. The first burn had peeled and the second layer of new skin had also burned and peeled and now the third and very pink layer was starting to burn. Even though it was extremely hot I was now forced to wear a long sleeved sweatshirt or my windbreaker at all times to protect my arms, plus long pants (since my knees were also sun burned) and a hat and sunglasses. Even with these precautions, my skin sizzled and my evenings were becoming painful.
That morning I had another pass to tackle (Tra La, 4050m) and then a long dry dusty road to a tiny village with one guest house 81 km away. Naturally my grumbling about the sunshine became ironic when dark storm clouds appeared on the horizon. I took photos and was fascinated that rain clouds could form in such a dry desert environment. However, very soon I lost my awe of the clouds as a whistling cold headwind struck with a volley of hail and cold rain. I was stranded on a flat stretch of road with nowhere to hide but the shallow ditch. I got off the bike and hunkered down in the ditch with my back to the cold lashing rain. Naturally a number of tourist jeeps picked that moment to zoom past me at 150 km hour with passengers gaping at the fool with a bike in the rain. My resentment towards jeep groups continue to grow more palpable as their drafts washed dirty road water into the ditch that I was hunkered down in.
After an indeterminable time the rain stopped and I continued on my way. The road turned at the mouth of the valley and started a slow meandering climb towards my destination. I reached Lepu around 5:30 and found that it was simply a string of Tibetan homes along the road with one very humble building standing alone. I asked around (hand signs of sleep once again) and was pointed to the isolated building surrounded by trash and discarded equipment. Two very shabby young girls greeted me and indicated that I could sleep in the filthy main (only) room of the building for 10 Yuan (15 cents). I was skeptical and sat down outside to consider my options. My map showed the next place with accommodation was 55km away and beyond another pass. Yet the two dirty and disheveled girls didn’t look too stable or hospitable. I had the feeling I was entering a scene from the old film, Deliverance. Something about the place and the woman felt out of balance. Just then a bicycle pulled up to my parked bike and young man jumped off to meet me. We greeted each other warmly, fellow cyclists in the wilds, and shared our stories.
It turned out that Wouter was Dutch and was planning on riding his bicycle around the world. He had been riding for the past two months from Beijing and was heading to Kathmandu. Without any overt statements we tentatively joined forces and agreed to stay at the strange non-guest house. He then pulled out a large bowie knife and started to spread peanut butter on numerous bread rolls. For some reason the sight of the knife or the fact that we asked if the girls served fried rice (we found out later that fried rice is slang for sex in Chinese) they became frightened of Wouter and indicated that we could not sleep there that evening. When we figured out that they were serious we determined that it was probably wise to move on for an additional 12 km to the next town and see what turned up.
He finished his sandwiches (which turned out to be his main staple every 2-3 hours); we climbed onto our bikes, and then road to the village of Daoban. We reached this typical Tibetan village (no commercial buildings) near sundown so stopped to indicate our need for a place to sleep to a young girl tending two cows. She smiled and took us to her home. Her elderly father took us in and showed us a spare room with very dusty cots. I tried to determine what the accommodation would cost, but the father would not acknowledge a need for payment. They brought us hot water to drink (without sugar) and then showed us some dry rice and indicated eating motions. We declined since we had taken the opportunity to use the boiled water at the previous nut house to prepare and eat a typical bucket of dry Chinese noodles. After the family had spent sufficient time touching my hairy arms and legs, and going through our belongings, they blew out the oil lamp and left us to sleep.
We got up early the next day (at least it was early for us), drank some hot water and then prepared to leave. Before setting off I left a number of gifts for the family (as I used to do in Mongolian nomad homes). The father refused the gifts but in the end could not resist accepting them. I gave them a toothbrush, a new disposable razor and a small sewing kit from one of the Lhasa hotels. These items, especially the sewing kit, were marvels and a worthy haul for taking in two strangers for the night. Outside many of the villagers had gathered to see us off so (and touch us naturally). We departed as quickly as possible (both to cut down on the amount of touching and in order to find a place to do our morning calls of nature).
Later in the hot and sunny morning we stopped to take photos at the 5000km road marker and then start another long ascent to a pass (Yulong La, 4520m). After the pass the road descended and then became flat for an easy, but hot 67km ride to the major town called Lhatse (4050m). I had also stayed at this town as part of the jeep trip so knew the layout once again (one main commercial road) and the few very cheap hotels. We took a room and then looked for a noodle shop in order to catch up on the last few days of lost meals. Afterwards we stocked up on supplies (Pepsi and Tang for me and bread and jam for Wouter). At this point Wouter and I had decided to part company the next morning. He had made arrangements with the hotel to store his bike and he was going to try to hitchhike to western Tibet and Mt Kailash, while I was going to continue on my way towards Kathmandu with a side trip to Chinese Everest Base Camp.
The next day I awoke to find Wouter gone (as planned). I ate some breakfast and then set off at a comfortable pace since I knew the morning included another killer pass. At the crossroad, beyond the vehicle checkpoint (bicycles excluded), I found Wouter patiently waiting for a ride. We talked a while and then I set out for what would be an extremely long and tiring day. After a difficult 26km twisting and winding ascent I reached the Lhakpa La (5220m) pass. I had made this pass without walking my bike, even though I had to stop and rest for each of the last five kilometers. The altitude was still robbing me of my stamina, and yet I was steadily making headway over the passes. As I was preparing to leave the pass I heard a familiar voice and turned to find Wouter. He had waited patiently until noon for a ride and then gave up to return to the hotel to reclaim his bike and gear. He then used his frustration to fuel his ascent of the pass (and hitched a ride to the back of a construction tractor that was carrying gear to workers near the pass). In time we both became adept at letting slow moving tractors or trucks pass us and then we would dash up behind them (in the driver’s blind spots) and cling to the vehicles (like leaches) with one hand while controlling the bike with the other. This was arduous and dangerous (hence my two bad tumbles), yet every km gained on a pass was worth the risk and tension. If a driver spotted us he usually popped the clutch to make the vehicle jump forward, which could dislocate your shoulder, send you for a tumble, or force you to let go.
We greeted each other warmly and then set out for our day’s destination, the village of New Tingri, 66km away. This small dot on our map turned out to be a newly created tourist trap with numerous Chinese owned guesthouses and expensive noodle shops (at least according to our standards of pricing). We did ultimately find a cheap place to stay (20 Yuan each – 30 cents) that served reasonably priced but limited food.
The next day turned out to be a confusing and frustrating day. We left New Tingri early, cleared the frontier checkpoint (passport and visa/permit registration only) and then proceeded to the village of Tse, and the checkpoint and entrance to the Everest National Park. We knew that this main 100km road to Everest Base Camp was under construction, but assumed that we would be permitted access since we were on bicycles. We were disappointed twice over. It turned out that the fee for the park had just been raised from 65 Yuan to 180 Yuan ($8 to $22) per person and that the gatekeeper would not allow us to ride up the road and over the pass (Pang La, 5150m). He advised us to continue on to Tingri (58km to the west) and to take the dirt bypass road. Having no choice we continued to Tingri for a late meal and then backtracked a km to the dirt road. We hoped to sneak up the dirt track and avoid the park fees and administration.
Our hopes were dashed quickly. The road was a miserable dirt and sand affair with more ruts than a pair of corduroy pants, plus we naturally had a wicked headwind to contend with. Our progress was heads down tiring and very slow. After a difficult km we rounded a bend and ran into the village of Razam and dozens of begging and screaming dirty children. The squealing of these begging brats alerted the two gatekeepers in the converted chicken coup that served as the check post. We argued for a time that we didn’t want to visit the park, but simply wanted to go into the valley and take some photos. When those efforts (and the broken English of the gate keepers) ground to a halt we agreed to pay the entrance fee. However, they did not have tickets to sell and would not accept money directly. So after more wasted time we agreed to pay one of them 20 Yuan (30 cents and the equivalent of four local beers) to ride his motorcycle to Tingri and buy us two entrance tickets. We settled down for a long wait while the dirty children hounded us and the locals (all old people) shuffled over and touched my hairy arms and legs and then went through our gear.
By the time our tickets arrived the sun was starting to set and it looked like we would have to ask for a place to sleep in that extremely dirty mud village. Rather than stay in that dustbowl we climbed onto our bikes and rode up the very sandy road, against the brutal headwind, and into the valley. A few km out we crossed a stream and found an abandoned mud mill that was full of goat dung and dust. By this time the wind had grown to near gale force and it was growing dark. It was too windy to set up our tents so we gladly settled into the dwelling for the night. The night was uneventful, cold and dusty.
By the morning of day 10 the winds had died down sufficiently to encourage our departure. However, we quickly found that the dirt track was extremely sandy and bumpy, which made it impossible to ride fast and very soon we found ourselves exhausted at a major river crossing. We tested various crossing points by tossing rocks into the fast flowing current and then waited, as a steady convoy of morning jeeps appeared to coat us in dust as they cross at random points. By observation we determined what appeared to be a safe crossing point, took off our shoes, and walked the bikes across. Later in the journey we would simply ride across open expanses of moving water without a second thought, but at this early stage we were still getting our water legs, so to speak.
Once across the creek we noticed a large empty dump truck approach a small construction camp. I signaled the driver for a ride and he nodded his head in agreement and then went to the camp to fill his fuel tanks from stockpiled drums. After a while he returned and we loaded our bikes in the back of the open truck to begin a bone jarring and teeth rattling, dusty 60km ride of salvation and pain. The track was so sandy and so rutted that we estimated it would take us at least two extremely difficult days to read base camp. Depending on how far the truck went, we might be able to save a lot of time and energy. Along the way the driver stopped to pick up random Tibetans, goats, stores, and school children that were making an 80km hike to the Rongbuk Monastery. We were in high spirits and hoping that he would at least take us over the Lamna La (5000m) pass or even beyond. Not surprisingly, just before the pass the driver stopped, got out and started to negotiate a price for our passage by drawing various numbers in the dirt. We negotiated back and settled for a price of 30 Yuan each for the ride (45 cents or 5 local beers each). With that topic settled he continued along one of the craziest and sandiest and muddiest roads on the high earth. At last we cleared the pass and started a steep descent until he stopped the truck to kick everyone off. We then paid our dues (the other passengers got the ride for free since they were dirt poor) and then he drove off around a bend and out of site.
We settled down next to a stream so Wouter could eat more sandwiches and I could let my bones settle back into their prospective sockets. When we set out later we quickly reached the bridge at the Rong Phu Cho River and found the road even more unmanageable. Slowly we manhandled our way to the main base camp road a few kms away as jeeps periodically passed us (and coated us in grit and sand). Once we reached the main road we started a 25km ascent on a construction road that was heaven in comparison with the track of that day. We weaved our way in and out of construction zones (they were using both heavy machinery and scores of laborers on this important road project) and reached the Rongbuk Monastery by late afternoon. This was the last eating establishment for some distance so we settled in for a large and reasonably priced plate of fried rice and then discussed our options. Wouter wanted to stay at the monastery for the night, but I wanted to spend it at base camp if at all possible. His guidebook said there were tent guesthouses available at base camp, plus we had our own tents, so we agreed to test our luck and push on.
Five km later we reached a tent village and a checkpoint. The gate keeper stamped our overpriced tickets and then told us we could proceed to base camp and even camp there (for a fee of 20 Yuan payable the following day) if we could cross the river that flooded the road each evening. Or we could stay in the relative comfort of the tent village, which had numerous group jeeps parked at its outskirts. I opted to avoid the jeep people and we continued up towards Everest Base Camp (5200m) for another 3 km of gale force headwinds and a steep incline. By this time I was spent and extremely frustrated with the constant obstacles of dirt, dust, rain, mud, bumps, heat, cold, and finally headwinds. For three steep rises that faced directly into the teeth of the wind I had to dismount and push the bike. I fount this galling and repugnant, yet had no choice if I wanted to spend the evening at base camp. Eventually I rounded a bend and found a straight shot to a rushing river, the crossing point, and Everest Base Camp a mere 100m beyond that. We crossed the water without pausing and zipped into base camp hesitation. A great deal of our exhaustion evaporated at the sight of the base camp marker. We settled our bikes next to the marker, opened celebratory beverages (Pepsi for me and beer for Wouter) and then took photos as we congratulated each other. Our energy reserved drained in time with the liquid in our bottles so then we set about putting up the tents, eating more cold noodles and chocolate bars, and then turning in early.
The morning of day 11 I got up extra early to take photos and film Everest and the surrounding mountains as the sun rose. Then a steady stream of wagons with noisy jeep tourists began to arrive. We took this as our cue to depart. We broke camp and were on our way back down the dirt road within 30 minutes. Naturally Wouter was hungry and couldn’t stop talking about eating breakfast at the Monastery even though I was impatient to get down the main construction road as early as possible. We reached the tent check post to find that the guard had not woke up yet, so we continued on our way without meeting the Chinese administrative needs (avoiding fees is always a positive activity in my opinion). We stopped at the Monastery so that Wouter could restock his calorie count and then started the long 50km descent down the main access road. We had determined that we would avoid the side auxiliary road at all cost based on what we had experience the day before. We would take our chances with the construction road and hope that the workers would continue to be happy at our distraction and independent mode of transport.
After the steady and extremely dusty 50 km descent we stopped at a shop to rest and then started the grueling 19 km ascent to Pang La pass (5150m). As we slowly made our way higher and higher towards the pass we realized that the new construction had lengthened the road in may sections. The climb seemed endless and naturally as evening set in our nemesis, the headwinds, picked up. I was completely baffled by the winds since we had regular headwinds the previous evening when heading south to base camp, and now we were getting similar brutal headwinds while heading in the opposite direction on the same road. How could there be headwinds in both directions? We were also concerned about very dark and ominous rain clouds forming at the top of the pass. We stopped 7 km from the pass and contemplated setting up camp to avoid getting caught out in a freezing rainstorm at 5000m, yet could not find any shelter for our tents. The wind was so strong that it would be impossible for the tents to remain standing throughout the night, let alone in a downpour. We contemplated spending the night in a culvert that ran under the road just as a pickup truck happened to approach (miraculously the first we had seen all day). We flagged the driver to a halt and then made signs asking for a ride to the pass and indicating the looming dark clouds. He ultimately agreed so we stuffed our bikes into the back and climbed in with his two amused passengers (who immediately started touching my hairy arms and laughing). We smiled back and hoped that the driver would continue all the way to the pass. The road wound on and on and seemed to go well beyond 7km before we finally reached the cold and wind-swept pass. Relieved, we indicated that we wanted to get out and they were amazed when we indicated that we would spend the night on the pass rather than ride down the other side. They laughed and watched us thru the rear of the pickup as they drove off into the rain clouds.
By this time it was already starting to rain so we quickly found a slightly sheltered area about half a km away and set up our tents. I then broke out my cook stove and we each prepared noodles before settling in for a rainy and uncomfortable night (at least for me). Like my used air mattress that was defective, I had purchased my tent used and without a rain fly (after all, how often does it rain on the high Tibetan plateau in the summer?). Naturally it poured buckets all night long and very quickly my tent became a small swimming pool. I used my towel to continually soak up the water but I was steadily losing the battle, as my sleeping bag became a large sponge. Eventually I was soaked thru and shivering. Finally unable to sleep from the cold and the water sloshing around in my tent I called out and woke Wouter to explain my predicament. He agreed to make some room in his tent and give me some of his dry clothes. Even with his dry clothing I spent the remainder of the night curled up at the foot of his air mattress shivering.
By morning I was numb with cold and ready to depart the pass without a second glance. Naturally it was still raining when we set off and the amazing views of Makalu, Everest, Cho Oyu, and Xixipungma were not to be had. Even the pass 100m from the tents was shrouded in mist and rain clouds.
We spent the next few hours on a joy ride of downhill slide through mud, water, and mist. It was exhilarating and frightening at times as we fought to control the bikes on the slippery hairpin turns. We appeared as apparitions out of the fog to the construction workers who hooted and cheered as we made our sliding cameos in and out of the fog.
By noon we reached the checkpoint village where we had previously been turned back. This time there was a different gatekeeper and he didn’t bother to even give us a second glance as we zipped through the arch and on towards the main road. I wondered if we had originally met him would we have been turned back and forced to take the sandy road from hell. In any event we were quite pleased to reach the paved Friendship Highway again and retrace our previous route for 50km back to the village of Tingri (4340m).
We reached Tingri in the early afternoon as new rain clouds chased us for the last 5km. We checked into a dump of a guesthouse with a friendly little girl running it and her mother, who was summoned from another location when we wanted something to eat. We washed our bikes with water we fetched from a well and then turned in early for the night.
The next day as we covered 60km along a mostly gravel and bumpy road (the black top ended at road marker 5199) to a guesthouse village, called Sumdo (4500m). We spent very little time admiring the arid valley, with green patches along the Men Chu River, and dry New Mexico style red mountains that day and focused on the ruts, sand, and bumps. It was an exhausting type of road that made the bikes constantly bounce and my rear extremely painful. Naturally near the end of the tiring day a headwind picked up and rain clouds began to chase us for the last 10 km of the ride. By this time I was extremely tired of eating noodles, crossing high passes, riding on dirt and bumpy roads, headwinds, and cold rain showers. Naturally we settled into another extremely primitive guesthouse for the night (no toilet facilities and only dry noodles for dinner) as it began to pour buckets of cold rain outside. The mud courtyard (and our mud building) became damp and slippery as the brown pools grew through the night. Although I was angry with the Fates, I was at least grateful that I was not spending the night in my swimming pool tent.
By morning I was ready to leave Tibet without a backwards glance, but first we had two more passes to clear that day (Lalung La, 4990m and Thang La, 5050m). My map showed that we had 11 km of gradual ascent and then a hard 13km ascent would begin. We psyched ourselves up for the climb and then started off at a reasonable pace. By this time Wouter was also impatient to get out of Tibet and vowed that he would reach Nyalam by that evening (78km away) or bust. I agreed to the plan if I could manage to cross these last two passes. My energy reserves were gone and I felt each km as a struggle. About half way to the first pass the day’s only vehicle approached slowly. It was a small farming tractor with four passengers and all kinds of junk pilled in an attached wagon. We waited for it to pass and then dashed up and clung to it (one from either side). Very soon the driver noticed that his little tractor was struggling up some of the steeper rises and then observed his two unwanted passengers. He gestured for as to let go but we pretended not to understand. Eventually he stopped at a mass of prayer flags to refill the tractor water tank (water cooled) so we rode on ahead slyly. Once again he approached us and then passed us as quickly as possible. We had timed our pace so that he would have to pass us on a rise, which would force him to gear down and therefore give us the best chance of becoming human leaches once. We hitched again and hung on thru the curves and clutch bursts and swaying from side to side. Eventually my arm became fatigued from the stress and I found it difficult to hold on. Just at this point the driver reached a flat section, sped up and moved to the side of the dirt track so that I was riding through the sand and bumps in the middle of the road. Before I had time to react to this maneuver I found myself flying through the air as my front wheel sunk into a deep sand trough and the bike buckled forward with a jolt. I tumbled to a stop and looked up as Wouter let go and circled back to see if I was intact. I limped to the side of the road and announced the end of my bicycle hitching experiences as blood ran down my leg and I flexed my leg to keep my bruised knee from locking up.
We patched up the cuts and scrapes and then slowly closed the 2km gap to the first pass. We stopped only briefly at this pass because a work crew of approximately 20 Tibetans left their shovels and hurried in our direction when they saw us stop at the pass to take photos. The standard procedure at passes is that tourist jeeps stop to take photos as hordes of Tibetans pop out of the ground or near-by tents to beg for money and food. We looked like walking wallets or grocery stores to all the high altitude laborers so we beat a hasty departure from a swam of extended arms and shouts that reminded me of a scene from the film, Dawn of the Dead.
According to Wouter the next (and final) pass was only 7km away after a drop of a few hundred meters and then a rise of about 600m. The drop was fast and fun, but the rise turned out to be an additional 5km and not fun at all. He was so determined to make Nyalam that he headed off to wait for me at the pass as I slowly made my way toward the pass, one painful km at a time.
Naturally as the day progressed and I approached my last Tibetan pass the headwinds picked up to spite me. The last two km were a chore but I pushed on because I knew that beyond the pass was the longest descent in the world, and I planned on taking that descent at break neck speed. I reached the pass with my last reserves spent. We took some photos, filmed a little, congratulated ourselves and then set off for a wild and fast descent. However, the headwinds refused to give way and in many places we had to keep peddling in order to maintain forward progress. After a quick 10km the dirt road opened into a green valley and leveled out. At this stage the wind was so strong that I had to peddle in first gear simply to move forward. I told Wouter that it was ridiculous for us to fight the wind for anther 30km just to reach Nyalam this evening when we could simply ride comfortably downhill in the morning when the wind subsided. He refused to give up on Nyalam so I bid him farewell and made camp at the first (and only) unexposed rock formation in the valley. I set up my tent behind a ledge that was clearly used by local yak or goat farmers for protection against the raging evening winds. Fortunately it did not rain that night so I was comfortably sheltered from the tempest. Naturally dinner was noodles prepared on my tiny cook set. I was getting tired of subsistence food and dirt.
The next morning I awoke to sunshine and a light wind (at least when compared to the previous evening). I set out quickly and found the going easy and predominantly downhill. I reached Nyalam (3750m) around 11am, looked for signs of Wouter, ate fried rice, and then set out down the best and craziest road in Tibet. The road from Nyalam to the boarder checkpoint town of Zhangmu (2400m), 27km away, follows a raging river thru steep canyons and switchback steep descents. Add to this the fact that the entire road is under construction and crossed by waterfalls every few hundred meters and you have the making of a mountain bikers dream.
I spent the next few hours flying through construction teams, along mud turns, under waterfalls, and waiting at numerous spots for the constant landslides to be cleared. It was pure adrenaline, cheering workers, honking and waving machinery drivers, fabulous photos, and great filming opportunities as I set up my video camera and then zoomed thru various scenes. I reached Zhangmu wet, covered in mud, and grinning from ear-to-ear. The customs and passport counters looked the muddy apparition and simply waved me on.
From Zhangmu I continued down the mostly dry dirt road to the bridge that constitutes the actual boarder with Nepal (a red strip marks the center point of the bridge and the respective sides belonging to each country). This last section was particularly difficult because my brakes had been reduced so much that day that I had to pull with all my strength (with both front and back) simply to slow down enough to control the bike in the turns. I cleared the last Chinese checkpoint easily and the crossed into Nepal. I walked the bike through the Nepalese customs area and then parked the bike as I enter the Immigration office in the town of Kodari. I filled out the paperwork, provided my photo and was given a free 30 visa and then wished a happy stay in Nepal. I walked outside and felt relief at finally leaving Tibet and my version of hell behind. I found a tire shop that let me use their tools to make limited adjusts my back brake enough to allow me to continue my journey that day.
Once again the route continued the steep descent that followed the same river through gorges but at least now the road was mostly paved. By nightfall I reached the town of Bahrabise (870m), found a cheap guesthouse, took a cold shower, ate some food, purchased Pepsi, and then went to sleep to the sound of steady rain. I felt very grateful to be inside a building within Nepal and not wet and cold in Tibet that evening.
The next morning I tried to find someone with an Allen Key so I could further adjust my breaks. No tools were to be had so set out for the Dolaghat 31km away with very poor breaks. My map showed that the town was at the foot of one last pass that separated the two Nepalese valleys. My plan was to ride carefully to Dolaghat (with very limited breaks as I streaked down hills and around blind turns) and then find a bus to take me across the last pass (buses in Nepal allow passengers, livestock, and all kinds of stuff on the roof). In Dolahat I waited by the side of the road until a bus stopped at which point I pointed to my bike and myself and then repeated the name of my target town (Bhaktapur). The ticket boy hanging in door nodded agreement so I handed my gear and bike to fellow passengers on the roof. I climbed up to join a many of people, packages, farm produce, two goats, and jabbering children. As the bus slowly wound its way up the turns and switchbacks I felt extremely happy to be so close to Kathmandu and avoiding this last hot pass.
Within a short time we crested the pass at the town of Dhulkhel, and then continued down towards Bhaktapur. I would have liked to have ridden down this last descent, but my breaks were so bad at that point that I feared for my life every time I rounded a bend and found myself speeding towards small homes with children in the streets or raging dogs who jumped at my peddles and chased the bike. So I stayed on the bus until we reached Bhaktapur where I exited my ride on the flat lands of the Kathmandu valley. The last short push to Kathmandu was a traffic nightmare, but tame compared to the previous 15 days, so I took my time, even as it began to rain. I enjoyed the unique bustle of Nepal and masses of humanity vying for space on the cluttered road.
My first stop upon reaching Kathmandu was my favorite lunch spot, the Momo Star Restaurant. I settled down at my regular table, ordered my regular lunch, and contemplated my last three weeks, the 1090 km I had ridden, the 10 passes I had crossed, the people I had met, the mountains that I had seen, and the heat and cold I had endured.
I ate my lunch contentedly and then cycled the two blocks to the comfortable Kathmandu Guest House where the staff greeted me like a regular and didn’t even raise an eyebrow at my dirty, muddy, disheveled state. They’ve seen all kinds come and go over the years and like McDonald’s, they simply smile and welcome you with open arms as the cash register chimes with another transaction.
Click the big yellow button to become a patron!
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Link to Lhasa to Kathmandu Photos