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.
More photos and tales from Tibet for Foreigners coming soon.