Riding the Longest Downhill Road in the World in Tibet
By Rebecca Gados
This is the last push to the edge of the Tibetan plateau. There is one more pass after this one, and after that, it’s all downhill into Nepal.
I am excited; our cycle map of Tibet labels it, “the longest descent in the world,” or the Longest Downhill road on Earth.
But right now, my tired legs feel like bricks and refuse to pedal faster when ordered to. My fiancé, Jon, is far ahead of me, lost from view amidst the barren rocks and wind-swept yellow grasses of the high altitude plateau. Not far now, I tell myself. Keep pushing.
Finally, Jon appears, his bicycle free of panniers. He tells me his bags are at the top of the pass, locked to some prayer flags with a spare bicycle lock. I gratefully switch bicycles with him, and free from my load, my legs begin to work again.
Now, the cycle is almost pleasant.
But as we reach the top, Jon points fervently to the place where he had left his panniers.
“They’re gone!” he cries.
There is nothing there, only cut prayer flags laying on the ground. Shit! Our sleeping bag! Our stove! Our water filter! Jon’s warm clothes! Gone, gone, gone!
I glance at the sky. It is late afternoon; only a few more hours of sunlight before the cold Tibetan night will set it. With no sleeping bag or warm clothes, I begin to fear for our safety. We are in the middle of nowhere. In a panic, I cannot think straight.
Jon is the one who finally begins to speak rationally. Only two Tibetan vehicles passed us, he explains a horse-drawn carriage and a tractor. A few jeep tourists also passed us, but they would not have taken the bags.
He says that he will start down the pass towards Nepal, following the horse-drawn carriage, who he believes stole the bags. I agree to cycle back down the way we came, following the tractor…
Wild Country of Tibet
How did we get ourselves into this mess? Ah yes, we wanted adventure.
The Tibetan plateau averages more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level. It boasts the highest peaks in the world. The culture is fascinating. Ever since I first learned about Tibet as a child, I wanted to go there.
So, when Jon and I found ourselves cycling through China, it was only the next step to enter Tibet. We took the new Quinhai-Tibet railway, which had opened only a few months before, in the summer of 2007.
This railway was both a blessing and a curse: it allowed us easy access into Tibet, but with increased Western tourism, Chinese immigration and trading, many fear it will bring fast change to a dwindling Tibetan culture.
From Lhasa, we left carrying with us on our bicycles everything we would need to survive in this high altitude desert. We started on a sunny day in October and headed west along the Friendship highway towards Nepal.
The climate did not seem harsh or severe. Yellow fall trees lined the road, surrounded by a vibrant blue sky. The weather was warm and pleasant.
The first few days, we enjoyed the newly paved Chinese roads. The only cars that passed us were tourist jeeps and maybe a few tractors or trucks.
The scenery was stunning: the severe blue sky overhead contrasted the arid brown Tibetan plateau. We were not close to the Himalayas yet, so there was no snow, just dusty brown mountain tops, but there was a sense of unlimited space, and the wide expanse of the land stretched as far as the eye could see. This was a wild country.
The Road to Everest
Shortly after the town of Lhastse, we turned off from the Friendship Highway, along the unpaved road to the Everest Base Camp. At 8848 meters (29035 feet), Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world.
By this point, the climate was quite different from that closer to Lhasa. The temperatures had dropped considerably, and most vegetation ended, as did internet connection, running water and most other signs of modern times. We had stepped back in time.
After paying our 90RMB ($20US) entrance fee, we followed the wash-boarded road up the windy and cold pass. The cycling was slow, tedious, and tiring.
After two grueling days, we arrived at Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world, near Everest Base Camp.
Everest Base Camp itself was deserted, except for jeep tourists and a few other independent cyclists. The climbing season was well over, so all of the climbing tents had been taken down.
At night, and indeed any time of day, the only warm place to be was inside the monastery restaurant, where everybody sat around a yak-dung burning stove.
Every once in a while, everyone in the room would break out coughing from the smoke, and doors would be opened to let the cold air rush in and the smoke out.
Back to the Friendship Highway
Returning from Everest Base Camp, we decided to take a shortcut back to the Friendship Highway. This involved going over the top of a remote pass through a very rural Tibet on an almost non-existent dirt road. The climate was harsh but had a severe beauty to it.
Within view, almost the whole cycle was Mount Cho Oyu (standing at a mere 8,201 meters; 26,864 feet).
Mount Cho Oyu looked like a giant had sculpted it unskillfully by hacking a monster ice cube to pieces and leaving its jagged points exposed to the electric blue sky. We passed through one dusty, forsaken town, and the rest was pure high altitude wilderness.
It was beautiful.
We spent a very cold night near an old disused stone wall that had contained yaks during warmer weather. Old, frozen yak dung covered the ground, but at least the stone wall provided a little relief from the relentless wind.
Sleep was not easy to come by, as is common in the high altitude. We slept lightly, waking up every hour or so in the night, shivering under our sleeping bag that was just not warm enough. When the sun finally hit our tent in the morning, it could not have been more welcome.
The Top of the Himalayas
We finally made it back onto the Friendship Highway. This part of the road to Nepal was currently “under construction,” but had been so for some time now. We had the feeling it would remain so indefinitely. For us, it meant we would follow the now familiar Tibetan dirt road to the border of Nepal.
We could now see the white peaks of the Himalayas surrounding us, but they did not look so tall at this altitude. Instead, they looked like small white mounds atop of brown horizon in front of a vivid blue background.
Only two more passes to go before the great descent into Nepal.
And that’s when our bags left us. With the failing light, we had no to time to lose. We split up: Jon chasing the carriage and I the tractor.
After a wild ride downhill, flying over wash-boards, Jon caught up with the carriage and found it driven by an old man and his son. After making them swear on the Dalai Lama that they did not have the missing panniers, he cycled back up the same pass for the third time that day.
Meanwhile, I caught up with the tractor and found three men and women who promptly showed me that they indeed had the bags on top of the tractor. But instead of giving me the bags, they asked for money.
So they had stolen the bags in order to sell them back to us. I see.
I maintained that I would not give them any money, and finally, after much negotiating, Tibetan on their part, and English on mine, they gave me the bags “for free”.
Nothing was taken from the bags except for one Snickers bar, which we considered a small price to pay to retrieve our warm gear and sleeping bag.
The Longest Descent in the World
After a cold night (even with the sleeping bag and warm clothing) between the two passes, we woke up the next morning more than ready to cycle into warm weather.
We left the Tibetan plateau, embarking on the “longest descent in the world”. The descent down the Himalayas actually took two days because of the strong headwind, and truthfully, it wasn’t all downhill. There were a few disheartening flats and even slight uphills.
The second day, however, was the best cycle of my life. The “road” consisted of mud up to our ankles and free-flowing rivers up to our knees. It was closed to all traffic during the day due to construction, but as bicycles, we could just cycle past the roadblocks.
We felt like kids again, splashing around in the mud and water. The elevation drop was over 2000m in the only 30km.
We went from the austere bleak landscape of the Tibetan plateau to the lush rain forest of the border towns. With every new bend in the road, new forms of life appeared. First, a small shrub. Then, a few blades of grass. A bigger shrub, a full-blown tree. A waterfall!
If this was not heaven, I don’t know what is.
Travel to Lhasa:
The cheapest and easiest way to enter Tibet is by the new Quingzang railway that links Lhasa with the rest of China. From Xining, the train takes 26 hours (Beijing is 48 hours). Sleeper beds are highly recommended.
Other options include a long and arduous (and expensive) three-day bus ride into Tibet from Chengdu. You can also take a very expensive flight directly into Lhasa.
Travel within Tibet:
There is no public transportation once inside Tibet. The most common mode of traveling is the numerous jeep tour companies. Independent travelers’ options include traveling by bicycle or hitch-hiking.
It takes about 15 days (not including breaks) to cycle from Lhasa to Kathmandu. The distance is about 1,000 km.
Because guest houses are few and far between, it is critical to be self-sustainable. It is necessary to carry food for up to two or three days, warm clothing, a sleeping bag, and tent.
A water filter is also recommended, as clean water is not always available.
If you are not up to cycling independently, there are also many bicycle tour companies that will carry your gear, cook, and set up camp for you.
In order to enter Tibet legally, you must purchase Tibet Travel Permit for about $50US, which allows a foreigner to enter Tibet. This is in addition to the regular Chinese visa. You will not receive any hard evidence of this travel permit, except for a printed out copy from your travel agency.
This travel permit will allow you to travel within Lhasa and surrounding towns of Shigatse and Gyantse without being fined. If you wish to travel outside this area (for example, the Everest Base Camp), you will officially need another permit, which you can only receive through booking an organized tour.
However, these permits are rarely checked. Our Tibet Travel Permit for Lhasa was never checked, and outside of the allowed area, we were not fined.
Best time to visit:
Peak season is from May to September, but the best time to visit is anywhere from April to October when the days are cool and the nights cold. July and August are the rainy months, which can make travel along dirt roads difficult.
Rebecca Gados grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After graduating from Colorado College, she taught English in Japan for one year. From there, she traveled for 14 months by bicycle around Asia and Europe.
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