Traversing Tibet

Ed and Marion Shoote set out to ride across an open corner of Tibet, hoping to embrace traditional and genuine Tibetan culture. “It seems I have an addiction for taking my bike and riding through remote mountainous parts of the world,” Ed says. “Areas I am scared will soon be forever changed; architecture replaced by concrete and the culture diluted only leaving behind a few tacky tourist sights.” Here Ed shares some experiences from their trip.

“As we pushed our loaded bikes up the final steep grassy bank I wasn’t prepared for the scale of what lay before us. At 4000m altitude and miles from any town lay a single storey shantytown wrapped around a meander in the river, punctured only by vast temples. All together it forms the worlds largest monastery; home to 10,000 burgundy robed monks and nuns. With the sun setting it’s one of those moments that we’ll never forget.”

“As we watch the golden light fade, two young monks approach us, interested in the bikes. The bigger one happily gets onto Marion’s bike and spins off in excitement, the smaller child can’t get on mine, so I tell him to jump on the back. If you’ve ever given a monk a backie at over 4000m you’ll know it’s bloody hard work, I nearly collapsed, but it made the kids day judging by his grin.”

“During our trip we had a map tucked into the side pocket of my frame bag but at 1:1,600,000 scale: it was awful. For example, it didn’t show that on day one we had to climb from 2500m to 3800m. Maybe it was for the best given the tough start. On the second night, we slept at 4200m. Without acclimatisation, we were lucky not to have had any issues bar a sleepless night and a frozen tent in the morning.”

“We rode on smooth tarmac through high altitude pasture; all scorched brown by the autumnal dry season and covered with nomad’s yaks. The road had a frustrating habit of going up and down a lot but I guess mountains do that. Never much below 3000m but a couple of 4300m passes each day. Riding these passes was hard work but the sense of reward at the top was more than worth it, the views for miles, the confused Chinese drivers wanting selfies with the tall foreigner in funky lycra. I loved the dramatic Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze everywhere. We passed spectacular 7000m peaks and while I remember the climbs, the scale of the mountains meant that the downhills were the truly memorable part: going on for up to 60km.”

“In Litang, a Tibetan city home to Buddhist temples and a huge monastery, we explored the back alleys filled with craftsmen and traditional stores selling robes, horse saddles, yak cheese and butter. We sat on a hill looking across the city as the sun set on the monastery.”

“The following day we left the Chengdu-Lhasa highway with its endless military convoys and onto a back road due north. It was freshly paved by the Chinese but empty, no cars, just the dots of nomads’ tents to the sides and constant Yak attacks. At one stop a group of Tibetans brought over flasks of butter tea and homemade yoghurt.”

“The road meandered down through traditional Tibetan villages, bar the mobile phones and cables they were the same as centuries past. A constant companion were the numerous vultures overhead. With a wingspan of up to 9 feet it’s best not to take a nap anywhere too long.”

“We spot yet another beautiful monastery perched on a hillside. After much pushing on a precarious sandy track we strolled up into the monastery, interrupting – bizarrely – a lesson on using chainsaws. All the young monks stood still and stared. I guess not many foreigners, if any, have ever ventured up here. A friendly lady pointed out flat land we could camp on, just to the side of the village. The locals all came to investigate our bikes, stove and tiny tent. The staring young monks then came running over with packs of noodles – happily feeding the poor foreign travellers! Little did we know then we would be circled by wolves in our tent that night.”

“The big challenge of the trip lay ahead; the Tro La pass stands at about 5050m. It is a gravel road and was the highest pass we’d done anywhere. The night before we camped out at a Holy Glacial lake about 25km from the summit. The lake was a beautiful spot flanked by tall peaks and snowy glaciers with prayers carved in stones around it.”

“We slept well and started the climb early. It was a steady gradient and I’d love to say it was a huge epic challenge but we took it slow and the top seemed to come much easier than we both expected.”

“The way down was more direct and somewhat terrifying, as it zigzagged across a very steep face. The idea of getting one of the buses back up those narrow hairpins put butterflies in my stomach – I was glad to be on the bike. I started to enjoy the descent and even overtook some tankers on the way down – like the wolves overtaking tankers was an experience not to be repeated.”

“It was here we decided that we should try to find the mythical Yarchen Gar Monastery. We knew we needed to explore this place as it’s future is uncertain with the Chinese getting nervous about big assemblages like this – to us it sounded amazing and unique. Very few foreigners have ventured here.

A taxi driver set us off on the right road before we finally saw a sign for the place marked.”

“After soaking up the view we set up camp. By the time our water had boiled, the tent was frozen solid. It was going to be a cold night. A monk then walked by and offered us a place to sleep. We followed to his shack like home and into a cosy prayer room. It was warm and perfect. He would sleep in his meditation box on the roof leaving us to eat dinner and sleep. He then came down with an instant cappuccino while I was out ‘experiencing’ the communal toilets. As a thank you I gave him a large pomegranate I had been carrying. He gave me a ceremonial dagger along with a sticker of a famous Lama. Surreal is an understatement. In the morning he checked we were OK and went off to prayers. We let ourselves out and never saw the kind stranger again.”

“The people we met along the way had truly made this trip. One final act of generosity saved us.”

“On the last day riding I got sick. We were camped in an isolated spot and by morning it was clear I was really struggling. Between us and civilisation lay a ride of about 600m vertical over 20km. The only option was to ride it, although I tried to borrow a horse without success. With rehydration salts, cola and dextrose the only things staying down, it was a struggle. Pedal by pedal I inched closer. Just 5km away and I was done, I collapsed onto the ground, knowing I would pass out if I carried on. As I lay back watching stars, a miracle pick-up drove by, then stopped and offered us a lift.”

“When we finally arrived, I had never been happier to crawl into a hotel bed and sleep. What a trip. It almost destroyed me but what a part of the world to ride a bike across. It is developing and changing fast and I’m glad I didn’t leave it any longer before visiting this part of Tibet. In regions like this travelling by bike is the only way to embrace the experiences that open doors to the local way of life and gain the trust and respect of the people you meet. “

Writer and expert