A splash of color in Shangri-La. These ladies are gathering for an evening of folk dancing on the town square.

 

Independent Tibet travel for foreigners has been officially off-limits for years.  The occasional intrepid cyclist does manage to sneak in, but most who try it get booted out by the ever-vigilant officers of the PSB (Public Security Bureau).

Unwilling to risk potential lock up in a Chinese prison, we opted for the next best thing to an actual ride to Lhasa : a tour in Sichuan’s Tibetan regions.

Cyclists are starting to carve out a well-worn trail from Zhongdian(Shangri-La),to  Xiang Cheng, Litang, Yajiang, Danba, Xiaojin and on to Chengdu.

It’s a demanding route.   The road winds its way up one 4,000 + meter pass, only to dip down into a steep and narrow gorge before rising up again for another trek over a mountain top.  This cycle repeats itself for around 1,200 kilometers.

The high altitude valleys are inhabited almost exclusively by Tibetans.  Prayer flags flutter from the roofs of their lavish multi-storey trapezoidal homes.  Old folks tending yaks give a cheery wave as we trundle past and call out a friendly “Tashi Deleg!”

Towns tend to be a mix of Han Chinese (many relatively new to the region, encouraged by their government to resettle in the less populated regions of western China) and Tibetans (who have lived there for centuries).  With the Chinese middle-class mushrooming, tourism is taking off in this part of the country.  We had the unfortunate luck of touring the mountains during Golden Week, China’s seven day autumn break from the daily grind.

Happy families in shiny SUVs tear through the mountains as if they were being pursued by a gang of dangerous Mafiosos.   This, apparently, is their idea of a relaxing holiday.

Suffice to say we had a few tense moments when impatient drivers didn’t like the speed at which we cleared the way for them.

With high demand for hotel rooms, prices can double during Golden Week.  You know what that means.  We spent a lot of nippy nights in the tent.

But I get ahead of myself.  Bike issues nearly brought the tour to a screeching halt before we  conquered even the first pass out of Shangri-La.

It all hinged on my headset.  The cartridge somehow opened up and the bearings came out.  That meant my steering was shot.  Normally, one would simply replace the cartridge.  Problem was, there was none to be found in Shangri-La (paradise it wasn’t).

In the end, a local mechanic jury-rigged a solution.  It held up over the bone-jaring Daxuenshan Pass and I limped into Xiancheng, barely able to control the bike.

Here’s part 1 in pictures of our tales from Touring Tibet for Foreigners.

Shangri-La Rooftops. Sadly, much of the old town burned to the ground in a recent fire. Tourism is way down and the economy is suffering.

 

You can still hike up to what locals claim is the world’s largest prayer wheel and soak in the Tibetan flavor of the town.

 

This is the bustling market in Shangri-La (Zhongdian). We had several days puttering around town trying to sort out the headset issue and stocking up on provisions. We ended up stuffing our panniers with a head of cauliflower, some eggplants, boiled eggs tomatoes, garlic, onions, 1 kilo of honey, a jar of peanut butter, several packets of oats, raisins, instant ramen, milk powder, bread and some apples. Ever since some long stints in Africa with meager food options, I’m vigilant about being well-stocked with sustenance.

 

Markets in China have got to be the best in the world. Amazing selection and dirt cheap. A good-sized cauliflower goes for about 6 yuan ($1) and you can grab a couple of eggplants for about 3 yuan ($.50).

 

This is superdog!  He tagged along for a whopping 55 kilometers all the way up and over the first pass out of Shangri La. He actually had to wait for us a few times because we were so slow with those bursting panniers.  I thought doggy would turn around and run home at the top of the pass.  Not a chance.  He was obviously having too much fun on his big outing.  He sprinted down the mountain with us and appeared to have no intention of losing our scent.  As much as I wanted to adopt him (I think he's probably just a highway dog with no loving family to look after him) I knew that was impractical.  Finally we convinced a passing motorist travellig in the opposite direction to return Superdog to the spot where we encountered him.  If any other cyclists spot him, let us know.
This is superdog! He tagged along for a whopping 55 kilometers all the way up and over the first pass out of Shangri La. He actually had to wait for us a few times because we were so slow with those bursting panniers. I thought doggy would turn around and run home at the top of the pass. Not a chance. He was obviously having too much fun on his big outing. He sprinted down the mountain with us and appeared to have no intention of losing our scent. As much as I wanted to adopt him (I think he’s probably just a highway dog with no loving family to look after him) I knew that was impractical. Finally we convinced a passing motorist travellnig in the opposite direction to return Superdog to the spot where we encountered him. If any other cyclists spot him, let us know.

 

This is the second pass and the one I was really, REALLY worried about. It’s a triple top (3 mini-passes in one go) with the highest point at 4,487 meters. Naturally, I was worried about the altitude. But what really makes Duxuenshan tough is the state of the road. It’s really rough. Just a bed of massive rocks in some parts. Plus when we passed, it had been raining every day for the past week.

 

Who should we meet on our way up to the second top but German solo cyclist Heike Pirngruber, better known as the Push Bike Girl (www.pushbikegirl.com). After just a short chat we had to be on our way–dusk was approaching and the outlook for camping options didn’t seem promising in either direction.

 

There was a magical late afternoon sky and suddenly I didn’t want the ride to come to an end.

 

 

Amazing views of the jagged peaks beyond. A humbling landscape that reminds us of the insignificance of our own existence.

 

After zooming down from the second top for around 15 kilometers we finally settled on a camping spot. Not a great one, mind you, but we were happy to have a small patch of land on which to pitch the tent.
After zooming down from the second top for around 15 kilometers we finally settled on a camping spot. Not a great one, mind you, but we were happy to have a small patch of land on which to pitch the tent.

 

The next morning we were back pedaling on our way to the third and final top.

 

I was truly ecstatic to make it up the final pass. My worst fears did not come to pass. Neither of us fell ill due to the altitude and we survived a frigid night in the tent at around 4,0000 meters. And we were able to tackle the passes in spite of all the sh*t we’re lugging around (those two extra tires and the spare rim really are not essential).  I finally had the feeling we might actually make it through the mountains all the way to Chengdu.

 

[box]

More photos and tales from Tibet for Foreigners coming soon.

Follow along on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news.

[/box]

Tibet for Foreigners: Part 1
Tagged on:     

10 thoughts on “Tibet for Foreigners: Part 1

  • Heike Pirngruber
    October 13, 2014 at 2:26 PM
    Permalink

    Hi crazy cyclists 😉

    Very nice….I enjoyed the ride soooo much as well….great scenery !!!
    Enjoy China…

    The pushbikegirl 🙂

    Reply
    • World Biking
      October 14, 2014 at 12:26 AM
      Permalink

      You ought to be on to warmer weather by now–hope you’re liking Yunnan!

      Reply
      • Heike Pirngruber
        October 16, 2014 at 4:12 AM
        Permalink

        yes, the temperature is perfect !!!!
        I am in Dali….didn’t cycle a lot the last 2 weeks….
        yes it’s green and so different to what I have seen before in China…
        BUt less exciting 🙂 Anyway I am winding my way through the hills down
        to Laos….I might see you there again…

        Keep warm up there !!!

        Cheers Heike

        Reply
  • Logan
    October 13, 2014 at 8:29 PM
    Permalink

    Awesome. Were you guys there in September? I assume from December-February, this would be a tough route…

    Reply
    • World Biking
      October 14, 2014 at 12:25 AM
      Permalink

      Late September-early October is when we cycled this route. Deep winter would be brutal on the high passes–only for the truly tough (ie not me).

      Reply
  • John NZ
    October 14, 2014 at 8:11 AM
    Permalink

    Seems like one of the most amazing parts of your travels.

    Reply
  • Tural
    October 14, 2014 at 8:51 AM
    Permalink

    Hi. Great scenery and tough work. Well done, guys. A quick question on Chinese visa – what is the max length of stay that the Chinese allow for tourists to stay in the country?
    Thanks

    Reply
  • Brad
    October 15, 2014 at 2:35 AM
    Permalink

    Great photos, can’t wait to get there myself.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share
Tweet
+1
Read previous post:
Another Beautiful Ride for your Bucket List

  Southwest China deserves to be near the top of any adventure cyclist’s must-ride list.  The last 3 weeks biking...

Close