The (Iced) Tea Road: Lhasa to Yunnan

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December 23rd 2007
Published: January 11th 2008
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Namche BarwaNamche BarwaNamche Barwa

At roughly 7,900m the world's 15th highest peak, from the top of a frozen Sekye La.
I am wearing most of my clothes; leggings, trousers and waterproof over trousers, 5 tops, a down jacket and my over jacket, plus two hats, 3 pairs of gloves and 2 pairs of socks. My fingers and toes are still completely frozen, but none of this is bothering me as the amazing night sky full of stars is reflected in the big river which is gently flowing past me on my right. The moon rose at about 4 am as we were packing up our camp, struggling with the ice encrusted tent and stiff bags. Now this silver light casts long weird shadows of the spidery poplars across the frozen road. We pedal along in the dark, our head torches switched off for this clandestine ride.
This really does feel like madness, the afternoon before it had snowed on us properly for the first time in our cycle across Tibet. Big wet flakes had quickly covered us in a coat of white and soon our gloves were soaked and we were wet and miserable. Thankfully the sun had come out again just before it set and the sky had cleared. A lot of the snow had melted but this meant the
Best Road to Cycle in the World?Best Road to Cycle in the World?Best Road to Cycle in the World?

Well I think it comes pretty close, Look at these views!!!
air was damp and then it quickly froze. We had managed to dry out our gloves by cooking them on the lid of a pan as we waited for the instant noodles and tea to heat underneath. But as we snuggled into our big down bags to get a few hours sleep that night we were conscious that the inner of the tent was now decorated with the most ice crystals we had seen on the trip, they sparkled in our torchlight and our breath quickly iced over the openings of the sleeping bags. Man it was cold!
We were 5 nights out of Lhasa pedalling silently, hoping to go unnoticed as we passed through the notorious towns of Bayi and Nyingchi. We had met a German cyclist in Lhasa who had been arrested in Bayi the week before and put on a bus back to the capital. So here we were like many cyclists before us cycling through checkpoints at night. We had no permit to be on this eastern road towards Sichuan and Yunnan, apparently it was possible to get one, but only if we paid for a tour and had a jeep accompany us the entire way. This removes all your independence and is also obscenely expensive, so armed with enough cash for the double fine each if we are caught we decided to give it a go and cycle to Yunnan. Of course this meant that we had to avoid all towns where there were strict police stations and we could not stay in any guesthouses for the whole way until outside Tibet. Fine we thought, but it was December!!

I was cycling along sometimes glimpsing Robin in the moonlight in front of me. Under all my layers of clothes I start to sweat on the uphills and I can't change gears because all the bike is frozen. We pedal on urgently but steadily concentrating and alert for ice on the road. A burning pain starts in my fingers and toes; they are starting to return painfully to life, I suppose it is a good pain really and it is one we have become used to on this part of our trip. We breeze around the bypass at Bayi passing an army base with noisy dogs, our hearts race but the soldiers don't pay too much attention. Some other bikes are on the road, a
Cold Sunset Cold Sunset Cold Sunset

Rawu Lake
couple of three wheeled bike carts loaded with vegetables going to market very early, wow these people work hard! Passing the checkpoint in Ningchi we group together to rush past the open barrier in the hope we are just not seen, and at exactly that moment my gears which I had managed to change down eventually decide to start clunking and trying to change, ahahaha, not here! I have no traction, but eventually they stick and standing up in the pedals I heave the bike uphill round the corner out of sight. Yes we made it!

The Eastern Tibet Highway is an amazing road. It has been so good to cycle this route, famous as a historical trade route between Tibet, China and South East Asia to transport tea and horses. It showed us more of Tibet where people actually live in the rich valleys, a great contrast to the extremes and the sparseness of the west and central high plateau. In the east, massive rivers rush along banked by forested slopes full of pine trees. Rivers are the colour of Colgate blue minty gel and once I have this in my mind I can't help thinking of all the big boulders lining and sometimes in the middle of the rivers as the earth's huge dentures and the foaming waters as some kind of toothpaste induced scouring!

A friend told us that it is not dissimilar to British Columbia in Canada, I can easily believe this yet it is still Tibet, there are still yaks/dzohs, gompas and many many pilgrims! Everyday we pass pilgrims. We had been used to seeing pilgrims in Lhasa, but here we realise what they have endured to get there. From the east where the majority of Tibetans live, they have crossed 5000m high passes and had huge climbs up and down from the deep valleys. Although this route does not cross such inhospitable terrain as in the west it is hard. The climbs are bigger since the descents are deeper and once we get further east we have 4 massive rivers to pass.

We stare at the pilgrims, they stare at us. Some are prostrating the entire way apparently going at a speed of about 7 km a day! Other family groups pass pushing their stuff in handcarts, many prostrating groups are monks and nuns and have brightly flagged support tractors who go ahead to make camps. The pilgrims have wood burning stoves in their tents and some have solar powered lights and seem to have packed up most of their houses to take with them. They can camp anywhere at the road sides, but we have to be more careful and hide.

After the night cycle we took a rest day. The sun eventually popped over the mountains and thawed out our frozen feet. We enjoyed that coffee a lot, and the day slid past easily as we sat amongst baby fir trees longing in the sun resting and hoping that the weather was improving the pass ahead which must have caught a lot of the previous day's snow. It took ages to eventually get to the pass the next day, there were big sections of road covered in compressed snow and this slowed us down a lot. We were nervous about how icy it would be descending on the other side and were keen to push on so we would not have to camp too high up. But we were just not prepared for the view from the top. A huge snowy spike pierced the sky. We were looking at the world's 15th highest mountain and it stretched from the earth's third deepest canyon up to 7900m almost straight up. It was magnificent, our climbing friend had warned us of "super difficult" mountains, but these have to be seen to be believed.

It was like this for the next few days as we descended down, down and down to meet the Polung Tsangpo River and the lowest point of the road, down at 1700m in the rain forest, one magnificent snowy mountain and glacier after another. All the time we were exclaiming how beautiful it was. The ride takes you through amazing ecozones. In one day we came out of the snow into pine forests and cedars down into the ferns and jungle. The birds changed with our descent and we enjoyed two nights of warmth! Well, I managed to cook dinner sitting outside and the tent didn't have ice all over it in the morning! This was the first time we had dropped below over 3000m for 2 months.

We have crossed 14 passes to get out of Tibet and on to the first big city of Shangri-La in Yunnan. The road ran along deep gorges
What a beautiful roadWhat a beautiful roadWhat a beautiful road

Day two after Lhasa
with massive cliffs and all along we have loved it. Even though it has been winter and descents made from over 4500m passes have been icy and frozen our fingers more than we can count. The air has been crisp, the sun has been strong and so much appreciated. The landscape looks wonderful. The snowy tops have shone brilliantly and frozen waterfalls and rivers we have passed have been so beautiful. Only one day at Rawu Lake at almost 4000m did we run into what could have been trouble... We had made slow progress up a particularly cold, shady gorge. The tarmac had disappeared and snow lay compacted and icy on the bumpy road. We overtook a convoy of tractors who were inching along the icy sections loaded up with huge stacks of straw. We were heading to Rawu Lake which we had been told was set in a delightful Alpine meadow surrounded by pine trees ideal for camping. When finally we found the tarmac again at the Lake we looked out over a picturesque but frozen landscape; 4 inches of snow on the ground and the Lake seemed to be frozen solid.

Beautiful as it was we needed
What a place for a rest day!What a place for a rest day!What a place for a rest day!

After the night cycle we enjoyed this view down towards Ningchi all day
help, our 3 season tent is just not good enough for camping on top of snow. Somehow though we were both not too worried, I cycled ahead and asked a woman where there was a guest house, we had decided it was definitely worth risking arrest rather than risking some of our fingers and toes sleeping on the snow. This women didn't really understand me (Tibetan language varies massively and my version learnt in the west has been completely useless in the east, where even the Lhasa dialect is difficult to comprehend), but she led us into her wonderfully warm home. Finally we were inside a wooden Tibetan house. Most of the house was dedicated to animals, many cows,goats and pigs shared the same roof as us that night. We were so happy to be inside by a warm stove, our muscles relaxing properly for the first time in ages now they were warm rather than just not-cold. We slept deeply on the floor that night and many cups of butter tea later left to cross yet another freezing pass.

It was a good job we had stayed with local people because the police checkpoint in Rawu town about
Up up up into the snowUp up up into the snowUp up up into the snow

The way up to the Sekye La pass after Ningchi
8 km further on was one of the most active we had seen, stopping all the jeeps on the road. We just cycled quickly under the barrier and luckily were not spotted. Anyway later that day up near the top of the pass (our water bottles freezing in the sunlight!) the Police beeped and waved at us in encouragement when they saw us cycling along the snow. Almost everyday we saw police vehicles but it seems that if you are not actually at a checkpoint they don't bother with you, of course cycling this route without a permit is all a bit about luck, but by not staying in official guesthouses we think we avoided most trouble.

The ride down to the Polung Tsangpo ( a tributary of the Brahmaputra) and up again and been a lengthy one; a couple of hundred km down then a couple of hundred up. Now the frequency and the steepness of the route changed dramatically; we were entering the UNESCO World Heritage zone of the 3 Great Parallel Rivers. Spectacular and severe, a biodiversity hot spot with the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze River valleys running in parallel and our road bisecting all three.
Almost there!Almost there!Almost there!

steady pedaling on the slippy stuff
It made for fantastic, daunting and extremely tiring riding. One day we were down in the arid landscape of the Salween river and then 72 switchbacks later on an extremely dusty unsurfaced 40km steep road we were again up at 4600m and we seemed to be above all the surrounding snowy mountains that stretched into the distance. Our eyes only distracted from the amazing wide views by a group of 7 Tibetan Snowcock who cackled as the flew away so easily over the terrain that had taken us almost 24 hours to slog up.

The highest pass of the road now lay ahead of us and it was a double pass to boot. We camped high up on the road and were doing well the next morning before the wind decided to punish us! We were cycling over thick ice when huge blasts of freezing air forced us to the ground, even blowing us uphill at one time. Falling, slipping and fighting sometimes just to stay up we eventually crossed the 5000m pass and could see the road winding brown though the snowy landscape below us. We were grateful the ice and snow on the road only lasted for
The World's 15th Highest mountainThe World's 15th Highest mountainThe World's 15th Highest mountain

And Robin, very happy to be up here. Check out the road surface for that descent though...!
couple of km on the descent. The road was now unpaved and would stay like this until we left Tibet.

A day later we meet the Mekong at Chuka Bridge,and warmth! Up and Up through scattered villages we found a lovely camp high up above the terraced land in the grazing land and an obvious pilgrim camp area. It was a small double pass between there and the town of Markham at 4000m. We turned south on a terrible road into a strong headwind. I was tired and just could not keep up with Robin even though it was relatively easy terrain; flat along a river. As night was falling I asked to camp by a big Tibetan house and we were invited in to a huge building. This house was completely different from the last Tibetan home were in. It was huge but freezing, literally. The water in the kitchen was iced over in the morning. The house was double storied and big. All the animals were below usthere heat did not really make much difference to us as huge beams held up a high roof and there was a vast and cold living room. The walls and
Tree BeardsTree BeardsTree Beards

Amazing Lichens in the high altitude pine forest
cabinets were decorated with amazing details ands there was the huge traditional hearth decked out in massive copper pots like the last home but there the similarilty ended. This house was big and cold not cosy at all and although big power lines ran along the valley there was no electricity here . Still the children didn't seem to notice the cold and the family all keep warm by a wonderful heartfelt harmonious chanting session as the old grandfather kept rhythm with his prayer wheel. The mother spun sheep's wool so skilfully, it seemed magical to me how easily reams and reams of wool were produced by her every evening.

Finally the last pass in Tibet and we left the high plateau scenery behind us to descend to the Mekong once again. Again spikey and magnificent mountain peaks made us gasp at every turn as we went down and down on the bumpy road. A huge effort is being made to widen and improve this road and in a few years it should be tarmaced all the way except probably the lowest and highest points!

Finally, jolted and jarred, we reach the Mekong and the town of Yenjing,
Rushing RiverRushing RiverRushing River

imagine cycling downhill all daythrough lush green trees and roaring invigorating rivers.
and a church! It is really odd to see what looks just like a Tibetan Bhuddist Gompa (monastery/temple), just with a strange tower at one end and a funny cross symbol decorating the walls. Everything else about the building is Tibetan. We later learn that this is the most remote church in China and as far as Christianity penetrated into Tibet. So the missionaries never made it over the mountains!

Only 50m into Yunnan and the road has turned to a single lane bumpy track and we encounter our first South East Asian mud! The day before we were cycling over ice and now we are in red mud! We pass a village of massive pigs! And there are bamboo plants, cacti, grape vines and orange trees, and the air has a warm, mediterannean aroma. The terrain does not really lend itself to camping. It is a steep sided gorge with the beautiful river in it. We ask at a small village and we are happily surprised by the guestroom attached to the chemist's house. We now realise that probably all the small villages had guest rooms/accommodation but only now we are legal again in Yunnan can we use
Down Down DownDown Down DownDown Down Down

Along this valley towards the Polung Tsangpo

Unfortunately we have to leave the warmth of the river in the morning and climb back up into the pine forests and snow. But the view at Meilishushan was awesome. This is the furthest south glacier in the northern hemisphere and it sits on one of the amazingly huge mountains that rises straight up from the Mekong far below. Deqin was a welcome rest stop for us and we decide to stay and spend a day catching up with emails and eating lots.

Only a triple pass and one other to go before the fabled city of Shangri La and a christmas rest for us. I find the snowbound triple Yak La pass tiring and hard and just can't get right on the icy descent. The cobble stones didn't help and it is in the moon light that we find Benzilan and only the next morning do we get our first view of the Yangtze. But we have left the frigid zone, that night in the moonlight we heard insects!!! The "Golden Sands River" (Yangtzi) flowed past serenely inviting us for a swim on its many beaches, we later learnt that it has really treacherous undercurrents. Tempted
Rainforest TreeRainforest TreeRainforest Tree

down near the lowest point
as we were by the prospect of a wash in the warm sun (it was 24 days since we had our last shower) we had to press on up our final climb, the last 80 odd km's to Shangri La.

We were now officially outside Tibet (well the Autonimous Region of Tibet anyway) This area of Yunnan though is still very Tibetan, but now there is more of a mix of tribes as Yunnan is one of China's most ethnically diverse regions.

Cycling Information: if you are planning to cycle this route then we have made a detailed roadbook which you can downlaod from cyclingnomads

Additional photos below
Photos: 55, Displayed: 34


One Line WaterfallOne Line Waterfall
One Line Waterfall

near Tangme, down near the lowest point

The glacier full Geopark we cycled through
Steady NowSteady Now
Steady Now

Icy cycling ont he way up again towards Rawu. The ice and cold did not bother a mother and two young Blue Sheep we spotted along the riverside just after taking this photo.

12th January 2008

What an awesome journey
Great photos and such a wonderful experience for you. I look forward to reading about your next adventure ... keep them coming!
12th January 2008

Yes, I am in awe of your journey...what an incredible trip....and nice to know that there a few "holes" in the bureaucracy that let you cycle through. Maybe it indicates a slightly more relaxed attitude?...which if true, could lead in the future to a more welcoming official attitude to adventurous tourists. Maybe some high level officials should read blogs like this and realise that they actually inspire people like me (who are too old/busy/unfit etc to do such a bike-ride) to think about visiting such wonderful lands.
14th January 2008

i was pretty close to you guys...but on the other side lol... at Yumthang and Yumsedong at North Sikkim...not allowed to cross border! lol!
30th January 2008

Hey. I have just read your adventures and they make my mtn biking seem pretty lame - I prefer to take the lift to the top of the mountain before I dive off. Really glad to see you are doing so well and not locked up in a cubicle somewhere being nerdy! It looks like you made an awsome choice.
10th July 2010

you guys rock!
I stumbled upon your blog while searching google for the distance on foot between Aqaba and Cairo. I'm watching "Lawrence of Arabia" here in San Diego, California. You two are now my heroes. officially. I thought "long way round" was unbelievably gutsy. It's nothing compared to what you two are doing. My husband has a spinal injury, but surgery after surgery we keep saying we'll take one big fabulous trip when his back feels stronger and we can enjoy life again. You've inspired me to do something that scares us, something epic, something we'll remember for the rest of our lives. Thank you. Stay strong, love each other and keep on pedaling!

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