Published: December 20th 2007November 14th 2007
From a narrow point in the valley we glimpse the friendship highway for the first time. Wow, we have been cycling to this point for so long and now the road to Kathmandu is before us, but happily we do not have to turn right up the long climb and another 5000 m high pass. Instead we turn left and downhill for once towards Lhasa, passing a large chorten and ruined fortifications, and swing on to the wide but surprisingly still bumpy and corrugated main road. White washed Traditional Tibetan houses dot the valley and loads of ruined forts and manor houses cling to the edges. This was obviously a well fortified and prosperous region in the past with many different big family houses around. Of course for hundreds of years this was the main trading route into Tibet and the aristocratic families obviously prospered well and built large houses. Now we are amazed to see ploughed fields! We are still at around 4300m but obviously the valleys here are warmer or more importantly have more water. We have not seen arable land for over a month. Also the sight of normal cows (not yaks), chickens and the frequency of the
villages we pass is novel.
That night we reach Membu, a traditional Tibetan village but with a distinct difference. For the first time in Tibet all the houses are double storeyed - in west Tibet such a house was very rare. They are all painted with Buddhist symbols and we have the impression of being in a very different country. We stay inside one of the the big 2 storey traditional houses - we had asked a guy where the dormitory was and he just showed us his house and a spare room. It was great to see inside one of these houses. The ground floor was all store rooms and the family lived on the upper floor which was a bit like a court yard of rooms around an open roof, through which we could star gaze that night. The kitchen was the focal point of the house with a big dung burning stove, a large dresser showing off all the pots and pans and a huge, ornate copper barrel full of water (all water has to be carried in from the river). The floors and walls were all mud and cloth had been pinned to the walls
Cycling to the top of the World
If you hadn't guessed already, that big mountain is Chomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest.
to stop too much dust rising when you leaned back against them from the cushioned benches that lined the walls. Quite a bit of dust did rise from the floor though but in the kitchen anyway this was solved by chucking all waste liquids (cold tea and dish washing water) on to the floor to damp it down.
We were also happy to find indoor long drop style toilets. This was a first for traditional villages for us in Tibet. These toilets were similar to the compost toilets we knew from Ladakh, earth and ashes are added to improve the compost and stop smells. We were really happy to find the toilets since in the west there were no toilets and stray mangy dogs are relied onto clean up what would be mountains of excrement otherwise. Of course in the West of Tibet there is no use for compost since the people do not grow anything out there, but I am sure the health of everyone and the pollution in the towns would be much improved with a bit more education and the building of some toilets.
The next day we cycled east along the rutted road following
a river valley towards Tingri. As we get close we pass some hot springs and suddenly the valley opens out and we have a view south to some massive mountains. It is quite surreal as we realise the huge long ridge of rock and snow must be the Cho Oyu massif, and that the sharp peak beyond, completely clear, must therefore be Chomolungma. As we ride on our eyes are continually drawn upwards from the road, across the marshy plains towards these peaks. These massive snowy mountains were so close, it was weird to finally be this close to the top of the world and the thought that we had got here by bike was a bit hard to believe.
Five kilometres short of Tingri we rediscover asphalt again for the first time in weeks. We are still distracted by the mountains so don't really care about the road surface, and anyway we are about to leave this road for some really rough tracks to get up close to Chomolungma. The guest house we found was run by a really nice family, they gave us a good price and directed us to a great cosy traditional thupka joint for
dinner. The thupka (Tibetan Noodle soup) was great, it had handmade noodles, huge chunks of yak meat and was filling and cheap. We had avoided many of the touristy guesthouses which were full of landcruiser tour groups and double priced menus and loved staying in our little mud room which had pretty brightly decorated wooden beams. We were now quite good at spotting the best/cheapest guest houses/truck stops by looking out for big courtyards with traditional mud built rooms around the sides. These simple places were not only cheaper than more touristy hotels but also a lot warmer and closer to ordinary Tibetans who were always really happy to see us there too.
We stocked up with supplies for our cycle towards Chomolungma (a.k.a. Everest) base camp and found about half the businesses wanted to charge us double for things. We now truly were on the tourist route and this was also reflected by children who came to beg from us. Not until Tingri had we encountered any beggars in Tibet. In the west of Tibet most people were actually a lot poorer financially than here, but they did not see so many tourists so their reaction to us
The Road to Everest
Heading towards Cho Oyo.
was more honest and curious.
It took us two days to cycle the 80 km to Everest base camp. We followed a cart track from Tingri that is now used by tourist jeeps too. At times the track was really bad with big rocks and stones, but we had great views going up the wide valley directly towards Cho Oyu and there were some really impressive cliffs and big rushing rivers. Our route then turned out of this valley up a steeper side valley towards a high ridge that separates the valley leading up towards the Cho Oyu base camp from the Rongbuk valley. The way was steep and rough and we often had to push on the steepest, loosest sections, but by late afternoon we reached a stream just below the summit of the 5000m Lamna La and set up camp in the midst of pika colony. In the morning we aet our breakfast in the sun, warming after a cold night along with the hundreds of pikas also sunning themselves, and watching a huge saker falcon swooping low across the hillside in the hope of getting some breakfast too.
We cross the pass and speed downhill
as fast as the track allows, excited and keen to get to Rombuk and Everest. The track down into the Rombuk valley is really bad and is an amazing off-road mountain bike route, although fully loaded it is a bit of a challenge at times as we cross huge slabs of rock and big sections of track covered in solid ice, but we make it down in one piece and join the new, widened dirt highway to Rombuk that comes up from Shegar (allegedly widened, and soon to be surfaced?, in preparation for the Olympics!!). The valley is wide with a huge glacial, gravel and stone filled river bed and we have glimpses of the summit of Cho Oyu again as we ride upstream. The road then turns into another, narrower valley and we have close up views of many impressive snow peaks. At least they would be impressive anywhere else in the world, but we know the real giant is still hiding somewhere. As we climb a steep section just before Rombuk we glimpse a big peak over the brow of the hill and know instantly which mountain it is. The first close up view of Everest's North Face
was incredible. The mountain is so big, it is hard to describe. It is just so colossal from this close range, you don't need to know or be told it the worlds highest mountain, you can just feel it, it is just obvious looking at this massive face and steep peak directly above us.
From the Gompa at Rombuk the road became a narrow rough track again for the last 8km up the Rombuk glacier. We camped beside the Chinese Army at the Base Camp, they check our passports but nothing else. We are supposed to have a special permit to travel here and also to have bought an expensive "entry ticket" but we have neither, and our route took us past no checkpoints and nobody has asked to see either. All the climbing teams had long gone and we had the base camp and amazing views to ourselves.
Sitting looking at the worlds highest mountain as the last rays of sun turned the north face and summit peak first gold, then orange and finally pink was pretty idyllic. We think of all the famous climbers who have summitted and stood up there, and the many who never
returned. Somewhere on this northern face are Mallory and Irvine. I never thought I would ever desire to climb this mountain, but I think any climber or mountaineer who sees Everest up close is drawn to it in some way. I defy anyone who loves climbing mountains to sit at the Rombuk base camp, looking up at Chomolungma and not admit there is at least some small part of them that wonders what it would be like.....
Even for Erika, who has no desire to enter the "death zone" above 8000m, there was something about the peak, and she admits it doesn't look so hard! Perhaps this is how Mallory got started.....
Most other tourists turned up in their landcruisers took their photos and stayed a maximum of twenty minutes. They have paid a small fortune to travel agencies to get there and most of the day will be spent in the overpriced hotel at Rombuk Monastery. Whilst we had been eating at this hotel before we cycled up to the camp we overheard some very disgruntled and angry tourists who were battling with their guide and driver to be allowed to go to the base camp
I hate Mountain Biking!!!
Erika enjoying another great Tibetan road.
for sunset views of the mountain. We wondered who was in charge, since we would expect that if you had paid serious dollars you would be able to instruct your driver as you wished, but it seems not. These poor tourists were even trying to bribe their drivers to go to base camp for the magnificent sunset, but the local driver and guides want to sit at the hotel and drink tea, and it seems that the drivers won. We think again that we are so glad to travel by bike, since it is the only way apart from walking to go independently in Tibet. So many of the landcruisers that speed passed us in a cloud of dust are full of bored looking or else asleep tourists. A few tourists do look excited, awake and in awe of where they are, but even for these keenies the speed at which they are driven means they miss most of the details and wildlife and they end up in one tourist site after another, I too would find it boring. For example on our way up to Rombuk we spotted some wild sheep really close to the road, we got wonderful
views, but while we watched them several tourist jeeps sped past without even noticing them..
Unfortunately that night at base camp my stomach parasites decided make their presence known with a vengeance and I had to pass on Robin's (illegal) early morning walk up onto the Rombuk Glacier for a dawn view of Chomolungma. Luckily I had a few stomach drugs left and the cycle out was all downhill for the first 50km. We re-trace our route back down the Rombuk valley but continue on the main road out towards Shegar. As we drop lower down the valley widens and we are back amongst villages and ploughed over barley terraces. As we stop to admire the late afternoon sunlight Robin is puzzled by some strange shapes on the far side of the valley. After some time he finally realises what they are - trees - and bursts into laughter. He was actually completely stumped by them - we have not seen real trees for over 6 weeks and his brain didn't know how to process the visual information. He admits himself how ridiculous it is - he used to make detailed ecological surveys for a living and here he
is unable to even identify a tree as a tree!!
After an overpriced (the whole road was suffering from "tourist price") but relaxing stay in Tashi Dzom we pressed on towards the Pang La. It was here that we got the most fantastic views of four male wild sheep.
I was cycling behind Robin the newly rebuilt road wound up a steep sided gully with a steeply terraced village tucked in below us and a massive ruined fort perched high up on the big rocky outcrop above decorated by ubiquitous prayer flags. I had just emerged from a tunnel on a particularly steep section of the road and I looked up to see above me framed against the sky a huge pair of thick curving horns. I was scared of making too much noise for fear of startling the sheep but they were not bothered and so I yelled to Robin. We spent ages gazing in wonder at 4 huge male sheep, the same species that we had seen nearer Rombuk. We later learnt that these guys were the rare Blue Sheep, we had not dared to believe at the time that they were in fact Blue Sheep,
Everest by Bike
When we left Banchory we never imagined reaching here...
since they are supposed to be really hard to see and these guys were just staring back at us even when jeeps raced passed beeping their horns. We wonder now if in fact many of Tibet's wildlife is more numerous than previously thought, because it seems that most people miss a lot of it since they drive through surrounded in a speed induced dust cloud.
The rest of the climb up the Pang La was a long slog. The road had been recently upgraded so the surface was great, but endless hairpin bends wound up and up. We wished for slightly steeper sections as then it would be shorter and at times we were almost level only to turn sharply at the corners. However once we were close to the top a massive panorama revealed 5 peaks over 8000m, from Makalu to Lhotse and Chomolungma, Cho Oyu and even a distant Shishapangma again. The long climb now seemed worth it, but up here the wind was back with a vengeance. We enjoyed a hurried, cold lunch but with one of the best views in the world.
After a fast, steep but cold descent we arrived back on to
the tarmac of the friendship highway and cruised on to Baipa (Shegar turn off) back on the main road and another nice traditional and simple Tibetan guesthouse complete with homemade Thupka. Our hosts even put on an old 1970's HongKong kung-fu film for our benefit complete with English subtitles, but we were too tired to appreciate it. In fact most afternoons on the bikes we were feeling really tired, it had been over 3 weeks of cycling now since Ali and this, coupled with my stomach upset, meant we crashed heavily into our beds most nights.
The smooth tarmac of the road ahead was now a dream but the long climb to the next 5000m pass over to Lhatse was a bit of an effort and my pace was now definitely slower because of my dodgy stomach. We passed loads of horses and carts, the ponies looked healthy and well fed. They happily trotted along the road with bells jingling. Whole families, sometimes including a few sheep, sat wrapped up in big coats on the carts. The women have plaited hair often with bright threads woven into it and different shells and semi precious stones, they wrap their two
What are they again?
long braids around their heads. Often the men have long braids too but they only seem to weave red material into their hair. There are many styles of hats about too, but it seems that it is quite dangerous to be a fox in Tibet.
This day we meet 9 other cyclists all going in the opposite direction. Wow, it was really strange to see other cyclists but the Friendship Highway really is not such an unusual cycling destination anymore. On the top of the pass there is a group of Polish cyclists who seemed a bit put out by the fact we were there too and that they were not so unique, especially when we told them that there were others ahead of them. It seems that some people really want to think (or have others think) that they are really hardcore, but as we have discovered there is always someone else more adventurous or tougher than you. What is really important is that you enjoy your own personal challenges no matter what level of toughness they are. It is only by achieving what at first seems tough that you get more skills and confidence and then the
people you meet who have "better" tales than yours just serve to give you more inspiration.
The road out from Lhatse was fast and smooth. We were making great progress when Robin was flagged down by a group of Tibetans who were standing around their vehicle. They had a puncture and were really happy that our small pump fitted their tyre valve. Whilst the guys took it in turns to painstakingly pump up the tyre we inspected their vehicle, it was an engine on wheels attached to a trailer. We have named these contraptions Mechanical Donkeys since they pull carts and seem to be able to slowly but surely climb even the roughest of roads and highest of passes. The guys were obviously finding the pumping a bit taxing and kept stopping to drink what looked like muddy water. I was a bit concerned about the murky state of their water and was glad we did not have to drink any of it.
Our good deed done, the tyre inflated the many women, children and men piled back on to the trailer and we sped off again. We loved the cycle onwards up the new hairpins of the
Climbing the Pang La
View of Cho Oyu and Everest & Lhotse
next pass, it was steep but short and it was fun, I suppose we do like hills! The afternoon was ace; a long downhill on a great road at over 30 kmph, we hadn't gone that fast in months.
That night the mystery of the "muddy water" was revealed. We were staying at small village guesthouse and were enjoying the friendly and busy atmosphere in the cosy main room which was full of Tibetan travellers who were hitching along the road on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Shigatse. Whilst we were waiting for huge and hearty bowls of yak thupka Robin was offered a small glass of what he is told is tea, though he is suprised that it is cold. Spluttering slightly in surprise he exclaimed "Not Cha, Chang?" this was greeted with lots of laughter and approving nods and his glass was instantly topped up by the potent home brew as it is explained to him that it would be impolite not to down 3 glases in a row. This continued all night, all on the house. Chang was rare in western Tibet, but in these parts we soon learn people rarely drink much else,
they drink chang like we drink water.
The next day we arrive in Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet and the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama. Whilst looking for a guest house we are almost killed a few times at chaotic traffic junctions. It has been ages since we encountered such traffic and noise and signals and we are definitely not used to it; it was quite a shock. We remember cycling in India, Cairo, Istanbul and laugh at ourselves yet again - in comparison Shigatse is a sleepy little city with hardly any traffic. But we are definitely out of the wilds and this is our first encounter with urban Tibet. We decide to have a rest day, take a shower and do a bit of laundry. It was 27 days since our last shower (a new record for us), but unfortunately it was not the hot shower I had been longing for, more like a trickle of lukewarm water, but it did help remove tonnes of dirt.
We liked Shigatse, most of it now is a new modern Chinese concrete city, with wide streets and
Climbing the Pang La
Erika with Makalu, Lhotse and Chomolungma in the background.
empty shopping malls (these Chinese style malls are expensive and don't sell anything local people seem to want). The town is dominated by a newly rebuilt fort and is famous for the huge monastery there which houses the treasures of past Panchen Lamas. We were put off by the large entrance and photography fees for the gompa so instead we joined the many other Tibetans in a Kora around the Gompa. There was a lovely atmosphere as together we span the many prayer wheels that surround the gompa and we enjoyed the religious "graffiti" that has been dabbed with lovely detail and colour on the rocks of the slopes above the Gompa. The kora walk gave good views into the Gompa which once housed 4000 monks and has ornate golden roofs.
The square near the Gompa was filled with pilgrims all drinking chang and they were more than happy to invite us to join them in downing cups of this homemade brew. There were also really funny bronze statues in this square, of Western tourists pointing cameras at traditionally dressed Tibetan people, there was even a bronze cycle tourist meeting a shepherd!
Now our route took us along
The Roof of the World
Makalu, Lhotse, Everest & Cho Oyu from the summit of Pang La.
a more touristy road towards Gyantse. The ride was easy and flat but again our rest day had thrown our rhythm and we found it harder than it should have been, all those kilometres were finally catching up on us. Robin insists that rest days are bad, and is even blaming the shower for his more-tired-than-usual legs. It was interesting to pass along the farmed valley; big houses, lots of trees and we even saw the first pigs since India! The landscape here was still Tibetan, but a world away from the high plains of the west. A drop of only 500m altitude had changed everything, different wildlife, abundant trees, even greenhouses with vegetables growing inside them during the winter!
We arrive in Gyantse later than we had planned and so stayed the next day in order to look around the famous tiered stupa there in the monastery. We really enjoyed the Stupa, although this was the first time we have ever had to pay to enter a Gompa (definitely on the tourist trail now!). Again many businesses tried to charge us double the normal price, so we find a nice Hui Muslim restaurant to eat in.
Gyantse the smooth new road took us up past new hydro power schemes and a beautiful reservoir. The water was intensely blue, the hills were bare and brown, but the light makes everything awesome. A lonely fort was left stranded by the rising waters caused by the dam, its reflection perfect on the really smooth clear water . A great spot for some well earned high-calorie Chinese Army biscuits (which are great by the way, the closest thing to that magical elf bread stuff there is outside Middle Earth). The scenery this day was amongst some of the most dramatic on the road; small villages, vast blue lakes, wide open high plateau grasslands dotted by yaks and the most fantastic close up views of an awesome icefall/glacier high up at 5000m on the Karo La.
The next day was arguably even better. The vast, many-limbed blue goddess that is Yamdrok Tso (Lake) was framed by high snowy peaks. Ducks, geese and cranes enjoyed the sunny warm morning and we enjoyed the easy riding around the beautiful blue expanse. Robin joked that this is Tibet's seaside and it certainly did look like an inviting place for a dip. An easy
Pumping a tractor tyre with a bicycle pump.
pass with a massive view of the lake was followed by a huge zigzagging descent.
That night we camped by an old friend; The Tsangpo/Bramaputra and for once the water did not freeze overnight. We were now well below 4000m and we passed many villages and trees on the easy cycle to the holy city of Lhasa. The road was much busier now, but it was a beautiful ride beside the Lhasa river, which was full of thousands of honking ruddy shelducks.
Erika spotted the Potala way off but it was a full 10 km ride on a nice wide cycle lane(!) through a brand new shiny industrial "special economic development zone" before we got to the heart of the old city and were finally before the Potala. The famous Royal Palace whose photo decorated the homes and businesses of Buddhists and many Tibetan refugees we had met all over India and Nepal, not to mention here in Tibet. Although we were familiar with the image, the view of the Potala in reality does not disappoint - it is a massive and impressive building and it emanated sacredness.
We found a clean and cheap guesthouse close to
Ploughing the fields for winter.
the Jorkang, Lhasa's main Gompa and a huge pilgrimage centre for all Tibetans. We made ourselves at home and looked forward to a long, well earned bout of eating and sleeping for several days. Cycling Information:
if you are planning to cycle this route then we have made a detailed roadbook which you can downlaod from cyclingnomads
There are more photos below