On a Wheel and a Prayer Flag

by Melissa Butcher

The first thing you notice about Tibet is its assault on all previous conceptions of scale. The plateau is endless, the mountains massive, and it's capped by a piercing, limitless sky that by 9am has bleached every colour out of the landscape.

This may not sound overly appealing, especially if your transport is a bicycle. Three weeks of riding almost 900km across this country involves being wind blown and sand blasted at high altitude, chased by wild Tibetan dogs, children, meandering yaks and some seriously aggressive nomadic sales women. But cycling also offers a rare chance to access the detail of Tibetan life... not to mention the promise of developing great legs while eating large helpings of egg and chips each day.

Our route took us along the Friendship Highway that links China and Nepal. While certainly 'Friendly', 'Highway' is a generous description for a fire trail that degenerates into corrugations, rock and ice. Mountain bikes are de rigeur and even with suspension a cyclist knows where their butt is at the end of the day. The other physical challenge is riding at altitude. Your body can feel very dislocated - like you know your legs are down there but just can't be sure exactly where. Our route crossed nine passes (up to 5220 m) and took in Everest's northern base camp in the Rongbuk Valley. Even if you have the lungs of a mountain goat, it's worth taking time out in Lhasa to acclimatise and explore this cosmopolitan capital. From a strategic position in a tea house, a traveller can idly watch nomads clad in cowboy hats clean goat skins as Chinese soldiers saunter past heading discretely for the local brothels. People from Tibet's three regions converge here. Monks and the relocated Chinese population congregate in the market squares where your senses are assaulted by the cacophony of street of hawkers, the rising smell of jasmine tea and steam from food carts. From the 7th century Potala Palace, row after row of concrete construction clashes with cobbled streets and jumbled houses. Cyber cafe´s serve chocolate brownies and yak burgers, and from their doors leak the sounds of Aerosmith and the Venga Boys.

Once on the road, average days saw us cycle 60-80 rough kilometres, so training was essential even on this vehicle-supported trip. After bailing on the first 5000m pass, I realised that coasting the few kilometres to Bondi Beach once a week for a latte may not have been quite enough preparation. Along with fitness is a need for flexibility. Lapses in concentration as a result of the spectacular views led to several solid meetings between ground and body. I escaped with only scratches and bruises, dirt encrusted hair and a mysterious rash.

The conviction to stretch each morning lasted about two days despite the stiff hips and knees. Sub zero mornings are not conducive to such bravery when your joints feel like they are frozen together. From the last pass we could see the storms of winter closing in on Everest. But the pleasure of cycling through snow flurries was worth the pain of frost-nipped hands that lingered a good few hours afterwards.

A quick mechanical course is a good idea. There are stretches of straight, very straight, road - sometimes an entire day would pass with only a couple of bends and often you're out there alone. The wind swirls in the wide valleys, throwing dust devils hundreds of metres into the air. A headwind, side-wind and tailwind all hit you at once. At times the dust is so bad it is impossible to see more than a metre ahead. Luck was on my side, and in almost three weeks of cycling I suffered no mechanical failures and only one flat tyre. Even then the support team magically appeared, my bike flipped over, wheel off and spare tube installed before I could stamp my foot and say "I know I'm a girl but I can do it myself!".

There is something very satisfying about being wrist deep in chain grease and allen keys after a year in Corporate Land, with nothing more physically taxing than a walk to the biscuit tin. Tibet is seriously dry and dusty. Only industrial strength quantities of engine oil successfully lube the chain - and it's always fun to get a smidgeon on your back rim to spice up life on the next big descent. And BIG is the word. If going up is sheer masochism, the descents are pure adrenalin - complete with corrugated scree and bull dust switchbacks, ravine drops and turquoise lakes at the bottom.

There are some local hazards to avoid, like the Tibetan mastiff. They litter the roadside, mostly sleeping, and are best left to lie unless the prospect of rabies appeals. Also neither maps nor Tibetan guides are particularly accurate. Our guide Tashi sang a very nice rendition of 'Take Me Home, Country Road', but was never quite sure how much further we had to go and couldn't fathom why we didn't want to jump in his nice jeep to get there. Such obstacles reinforce the need to pack a sense of humour along with your knicks. The bike is the beast of burden in Tibet: people and dead animal carrier; puller of produce, tools and small children. But touring is still a novelty - anything more contemporary than your sister's first bike is likely to be intensely admired. Helmets and lycra shorts cause amusement, not to mention groping (by women as much as men).

And finally, a couple of insights for the Tibetan traveller. In monasteries, always look up. In the shadows lurk half-lit figures and watching Buddhas. And on the bike, look back after every few kilometres. And listen. In a jeep, all you can hear is the engine. But on a bike you learn that Tibet is marked out by the sound of prayer flags, yak bells and the wind

Nitty Gritty

  • I travelled with World Expeditions but it's obviously also possible to travel independently. For more information on World Expeditions Tibet Cycle, contact 0800 350 354 (enquiries@worldexpeditions.co.nz). 
  • Thai Airways are generally the best value to get to Kathmandu. From there it's straight forward to fly into Lhasa if you're with a tour group. The Chinese authorities are still wary of independent foreign travellers in Tibet so most independent cyclists travel overland through China. Ask your agent to arrange visas unless you have time to hang out in Chinese embassies. 
  • May to November is the best time for travelling, although there is a mini-monsoon in central and western areas in June. Our trip was in October when the days are sunny but still cool - perfect for trekking and cycling - although the nights at higher altitudes were freezing. 
  • When you tire of camping, the larger towns in Tibet have ok hotels but be prepared for a lack of hot water and the occasional blackout (not a bad thing as it shuts down the all night Karaoke). There is a need for security awareness when camping, with food and bikes being obvious targets for the redistribution of wealth. 
  • A question of ethics... I was momentarily troubled by my decision to travel in Tibet while exploring a monastery in Lhasa and seeing Chinese tourists pose for photographs beside a monk. However the Australia Tibet Council encourages tourism, believing that it offers some element of protection to the Tibetan people and their culture.