The ride from Tagong back to the Lhasa road was one of the most pleasant segments of my trip. The terrain sloped gently downhill as it wound through canyons, following the path of a beautiful crystal clear mountain stream. I passed several small temples and prayer wheels along the way, and was rewarded with nice views, before rejoining the main road to Lhasa, where my sense of peace and solitude was quickly shattered.
After a painfully long stretch of climbing on pavement, the road returned to rough dirt and large sections of road could be bypassed via singletrack. I actually enjoyed this climb, despite climbing up to over 15,000 ft. I rejoined the groups of Chinese mountain bikers as we struggled up loose rocky singletrack until the trail became unrideable, at least at those elevations, and I was happy to help my comrades with bike carrying and pushing.
We finally topped out on the pass and enjoyed some strange Chinese bike touring snacks as group after group asked for selfies and took envious pics with my bike and bikepacking bags as the bikepacking revolution hasn’t yet taken hold in China.
The route stayed high up on the plateau for a several more kilometers before dropping down nearly 2000m into a deep canyon. The landscape changed from high Tibetan grassland to pine forests and the temperature climbed dramatically. Over the past year or so I’ve ridden and bikepacked on 4 continents, yet I was still blown away by the dramatic relief of the Himalayas.
I descended for what felt like hours past picturesque Tibetan villages, winding my way down another canyon to the low point of approximately 2500m! I stopped for some snacks and to shed some layers as the temperature had grown quite hot, and a group of riders passed by and wanted to ride with me. Against my best judgement, I jumped in with them and it quickly became a Strava-esque impromptu race up a 20km steep climb to the next village at about 13,000ft where we would spend the night in guest houses. Even though I was reeling from the 130km+ I had ridden, I couldn’t let them best me and we all held a painfully fast pace, rolling into the guesthouses completely spent and bonked with exertion and lack of calories.
The guesthouse was beautifully intricate, with a traditional open fire stove in the center of the room. The evening meal took hours to prepare, but was a much needed feast. After eating nearly my bodyweight in Chinese and Tibetan dishes, I climbed up to my bed, and crashed hard for the night. The next morning, after braving the rickety outhouse suspending forty feet above the open pit sewer below, I was off for another punishing day.
My goal that day was to complete the 200km stretch on the Lhasa road and turn off the main road at Litang, a mid size Tibetan village at 4014m, 400 meters higher than Lhasa. I had planned to do 150-200km a day for the entire trip, which was ambitious in any mountain range, but after a couple days of managing to push that far at these elevations with one 1500-2000m climb after the other, my body was starting to feel the punishment, and I began suffering mild altitude sickness.
The day started out with a burly 2000m climb that began on pavement and transitioned over to rough doubletrack as I approached 4659m (15,285ft), the highest pass yet. At this point I was really struggling with the altitude and exertion, and my pace had slowed considerably. When I finally crested the pass, I was rewarded with stunning views of Mt. Gongga peaking above the clouds.
The next several hours were stunning, but remained at these dizzying altitudes, so I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I might have, had I been better acclimated.
One advantage of remaining on the Lhasa road was that there were always plenty of fellow bikers suffering their way up the passes right along with me which helped keep my spirits high.
Climb after climb, the day wore on and I began to realize I wouldn’t make it all the way to Litang. I was really worn out, and by the time I stumbled into Honglonxiang, an unappealing town about 50km shy of my goal for the day, I don’t think I could’ve pedaled another 2km. I found an absolutely wretched little roadside inn which would be home for the night. This town really exemplified the ugly side of Tibetan occupation for me. The ramschackle buildings were a far cry from the artistic, ornate interiors of the more traditional Tibetan homes. The children in this town had only trash for toys. Despite the undeniable natural and cultural beauty of the region, I was really saddened by much that I had seen up to this point. I wearily lay down on the bed at around 4pm and remained there in a high altitude stupor until the next morning.
The next day, still exhausted and unable to acclimate (a first for me in 15+ years of high altitude climbing and now biking), I decided to only ride 50km that day to Litang and stop there to try to recover. After a while on the mixed pavement and dirt road, I found some yak herder paths that seemed to be heading toward Litang, and decided to follow them. I was rewarded with some muddy, though enjoyable singletrack through unending grasslands until finally descending into Litang, birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas.
Litang was a true clash of cultures. The Chinese government had literally ripped up the entire town and were replacing the roads and structures with typical Chinese highrise tenement buildings and plazas. Fortunately, some of the old town remained as well as the famous Litang Monastery (Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling). The weather had turned foul and I needed to recover so instead of bivying outside of town, I found a hostel and met an incredibly interesting Japanese Photographer Kotaro Okamoto who had spent nearly 10 years photographing the changing face of Tibet and the loss of a unique cultural heritage. Kotaro said that Tibet was unrecognizable from what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 more years, it would be just another Chinese province with some Tibetan tourist sites. This was the first town I had stayed in since Kangding that was large enough to have Wifi, but unfortunately the Chinese government was jamming all wifi signals across the plateau in an effort to control civil unrest due the Dalai Lama’s birthday a few days before.
Kotaro had been in Litang for weeks waiting for an upcoming festival and getting to know the local people. He offered to take me around the old part of town which turned out to be an amazing experience.
We walked through the ancient alleys where Yak dung patties are smeared across the walls to dry and use for fuel as we made our way up to the temple.
Where we met some monks that were just as interested in me as I was in them. We all took pictures of each other and Kotaro was able to translate for us as he speaks fluent Tibetan. Notice the iPad in the one of the monk’s hands!
We toured around the monastery and met some michevious young monks to be. As one of the boys was bowing down to worship, candy spilled out of his robes! Kids will be kids, whether Bhuddist monks or western suburbanites.
After touring the temple we made our way through the old town to the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama before heading to the chaos and filth of the “new town” construction zone where we found a place to eat and met young nomadic herder who was as interested in us as we were in him.
That night I was rudely awoken by Chinese police making their rounds to the local Tibetan businesses and hostels to harass the owners and ensure there were no planned acts of defiance in response to a local dissident who mysteriously died at the hands of Chinese authorities in prison that day. It was kind of a tense situation as they checked my passport, but luckily they left myself and the owners alone.
After spending most of the previous day resting and being a tourist, I had recovered from my AMS and exhaustion enough to continue on my route. The weather had turned grey and cold which was disconcerting because I would be traveling through Haizishan National Reserve that day which would be my highest sustained altitude segment of the trip. After a short flat section out of town, I began my first ascent up to a pass, taking me past limestone cliffs decorated with the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags, banners, and other adornments before dropping down to elevations much lower than Litang. I passed a couple villages as the road meandered along the river before I caught my first glimpse of the wall of mountains I’d have to pass over to reach the next major village, Daocheng.
I began my steady ascent mid morning, and would continue ascending for the remainder of that day as the steep mountain roads led me to dizzying altitudes, reinvigorating my mild AMS symptoms. The scenery was beautiful but my physical condition and the looming threat of a blizzard made it hard to enjoy my surroundings.
At around 15,000 ft I climbed above treeline where the wind picked up and the temperature dropped discernibly, but I still had a lot of climbing to do. My limited and inaccurate maps also showed that once cresting the first pass, I would remain at ~16,000ft for 50-60km, making it unlikely that I’d be able to descend low enough that day to avoid freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions. I was prepared for inclement weather, but knew it would be a punishing night out in the open.
After the first pass the steady drizzle turned to a heavy wet snow and I was completely soaked despite having donned my GoreTex shell and pants. I knew I had to get out of the elements and into my bivy sack quickly or hypothermia would become a real threat. I finally descended a bit into a small valley and dropped below snowline where I came across an abandoned nomad hut. I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t passed a single structure in hours, and right at the point where I knew I’d have to suffer through a wet cold night in the bivy, lo and behold a herder hut appears!
The interior was moldy and full of refuse, but to me it felt like the Ritz Carlton. I set up my bivy inside the hut, warmed myself with some instant noodles and hot tea, then passed out for an unknown period of time. I was jolted awake by the feel of scampering feet over my face and a scratching noise on my bivy sack. In my groggy state it took me a while to register that mice were trying to invade my bivy sack, but I quickly unzipped and tried to swat them off. They had chewed into most of the food I left outside my bivy sack, but luckily I salvaged enough to get me through the next day. While I was able to doze for brief periods of time for the remainder of the night, the mice attacks never really let up, so I didn’t get the restful respite I had hoped for, but at least I was warm.
The next morning the storm had passed and I lounged around the hut until the snow melted off. The riding that morning was cold but the scenery was stunning, and I was glad for the lack of precipitation. The hours rolled on and I began to wonder when I would begin descending. I was ready to get off this high plateau and warm my bones!
After a while I started to descend slightly and began noticing more and more nomad camps and vegetation until I finally began an earnest descent into a warm river valley. The river crossing was treacherous, but fortunately the sun peeked through the clouds as I made it to the other bank and was able to sit back, dry out, and enjoy the warm rays.
From there I began an even steeper, seemingly unending descent to a stunning temple perched on the side of a massive cliff.
I continued descending into a fertile valley dotted with several traditional villages, monuments, and temples, before arriving in Daocheng just before dark. Daocheng has few redeeming qualities other than an abundance of cheap hostels and food, both very welcome after the night before. If it ever was a traditional Tibetan town, there were no remnants of it left. It just felt like a hectic, crowded typical Chinese town. I spent an uneventful night there, before gladly continuing on the road.
From Daocheng to Shangri-La, Yunnan, the riding was hard but uneventful. The scenery was nice and there were only a few towns on this remote stretch, but more traffic than expected despite being a rough, muddy, steep track.
At this point, I was just ready to finish the trip. Tibet was amazing in many ways, but overall the experience was somewhat disheartening. From the bikepacking perspective, dirt roads and nomad trails are being paved over at rate I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’d be surprised if there are any dirt tracks left in a few years. #firstworldproblems. Moreover, although many of the local people were amazing, the evidence of cultural repression and environmental was nearly inescapable. My final destination, the famed “Shangri-La” epitomized the sense of “loss” or at the very least, transformation of a unique cultural gem of the world. If this was once considered paradise, then it’s now almost certainly [in the words of John Milton] “paradise lost”.