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Racing The Dragon

June, 2006

Tibet to Nepal By Bike

1000km of Himalayas, a 42km/hr dog chase, arguing monks and a sudden faith in Tibetan prayer flags!

The pressure was on to plan a trip by bicycle from Lhasa to Kathmandu before the maiden voyage of the worlds highest and most controversial train journey begins in June 2006 from Beijing to Lhasa. My goal was to beat the land of the Red Dragon by completing the 1000km trip across the roof of the world stopping at some of Tibet’s most important cultural icons along the way before the first train load of passengers set off from Beijing.

The trip would take in freak dust storms, exhausting 16 hour days in the saddle, six passes (four at 5000m+), wild dog chases at 42-km/hr (fastest recorded), arguing monks and meeting some of the warmest people in a time of much political confusion.

My route followed the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s (TAR) Friendship Highway from the old political and spiritual capital of Lhasa high up on the dry oxygen starved plateau of Tibet to the hot and humid bustling city of Kathmandu, 1000-km and fourteen cycling days later. My ultimate goal was to visit Tibet before the effects of the train change this beautiful region forever, the race was on!

The Jokhang Temple, Lhasa


These days, Lhasa is a sprawling city divided in two, the Chinese side and the Tibetan side.

The first couple of days were spent acclimatizing and lazily walking around the Barkhor Circuit, the spiritual heart of the holy city and Tibet’s most famous pilgrim route which surrounds the Johkang monastery and fills the air with the scent of juni- per pouring out of two giant Sangkang (stone pot- bellied burners).

The Johkang was built in 639AD and is the most revered spiritual building in all of Tibet. Some of the pilgrims who prostrate before and around the Johkang have taken many years on foot to reach Lhasa from their far away home towns and villages.

I followed the throng of pilgrims as they twirled their prayer wheels through the tiny medieval-like streets as they prostrated their way around the quadrangle, fascinated by these peoples devotion to the lord Buddha. I spent many hours exploring the back streets of the Tibetan quarter which has become isolated on the eastern side of Lhasa. To quote the Lonely Planet “Even these lingering en- claves of tradition are under threat despite official protection. Lhasa has probably changed more in the last 20 years than in the thousand before that.”

Brail without borders, Lhasa

Traditionally the political and spiritual seat of the Dalai Lamas, the Potala Palace today is more of a museum than anything else but it is refreshing to see Tibetans allowed back in to pray openly. The current 14th Dalai Lama left the Potala in 1959 when he was exiled to India during the cul- tural revolution of Tibet. The Potala overlooks Lhasa like a guardian, it is simply the most impres- sive piece of architecture I have seen, it’s majesty fueled by the mystery and spirituality that lies within it’s walls.

Sera Monastery

Situated 5km North of Lhasa, Sera Manastery was a great place for a trial ride at altitude in preparation for the much longer ride ahead.

Here, the monks practice the ancient art of philosophical debating, in their hundreds! The courtyard us full of maroon robed, shaven headed monks of all ages arguing one point over another on a topic seemingly of their choosing. It can get quite heated but the good thing is no one gets hurt as the monk doing the arguing hits himself - not his opponent! Definitely worth a visit!

Monks Debating at Sera Monastery

Leaving Lhasa for Kathmandu

The route I chose began in Lhasa and followed the Southern Friendship Highway 150-km south west to Gyantse. The detour from the main route is a great way to ease into life on the corrugated road ahead. The first 100-km or so are sealed road winding it’s way up to the 4800m summit of Kamba-La over looking the beautiful scorpion- shaped holy lake of Yamdrok-Tso.

After three nights of camping on the side of roads, I arrived at Gyantse, located in the Nyang-Chu Valley. Gyantse is home to the mighty Kumbum Stupa (meaning 100,000 images). It is also home to the Gyantse Dzonge (Castle) which has com- manding views of the valley and well worth the hard walk to the top.

The sleepy Tibetan quarter is exactly how I imagined a Tibetan town to be, largely unchanged since the Chinese liberation of Tibet. The route re-joins the main Friendship Highway at Shigatse, 100-km west from Gyantse, for the remainder of the 600-km ride to Kathmandu. The name “Friendship Highway” is misleading. Not exactly a highway but more of a dirt track and dusty 4WD trail for 95% of the route.

It winds it’s way up several 5000m+ passes and rewards the weary traveller with some of the most amazing views of the Himalayas one could ever dream of. Qomolangma (Everest) National Park boasts a glorious view of the Himalayas before dropping from 5,250m into to the town of Tingri. 600-km west of Lhasa, after some of the most exhausting cycling have ever done, I arrive in Tingri, a popular pick up point for trekkers making their way to Everest Base Camp.

Mt Cho Oyu from Tingri

I spent an evening in Tingri resting before the final climb in Tibet, Tong-La at 5120m. Sad to leave the mountains which had been my home for the best part of three weeks (I circled in the road for 20 minutes before gathering the courage to leave), I composed myself and pressed on for the 150-km descent to Nepal-the longest descent in the world and something of a highlight of the trip after so many climbs. The memories of cycling past Mt Cho Oyu and Everest will last with me forever.

150km of Downhill to Nepal

For the next 150-km, the road winds it’s way down steeply from the Tibetan plateau into a land of mossy gorges, clouds and powerful cascades leading to the border town of Zhangmu before the last leg of the journey to Kathmandu. After cycling in the baron and dry lands of the plateau for two weeks, it was pleasant to be surrounded by green, lush valleys and heading home. The cloud was so dense at one stage I had to switch my lights on so oncoming lorries could see me, visibility was only 5-10m at best! 14 days after setting out from Lhasa at 5.30am on 19 June, I arrived in to the mid afternoon heat, hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. I learnt so much about this relatively misunderstood area of our little world but more astonish- ingly I learnt more about myself...and...I beat the mighty red dragon’s train before the face of this little known region changes regretably, forever.

Dropping like a stone into Nepal

Ride Stats


Maps & books

Outdoor Equipment from

Tent: Exped Velo-1
Sleeping Bag: Aktiv8 -2
Ortlieb Backrollers

Pannier Racks


Full Story: Download the full Tibet Story as a pdf here

"They say the journey can be more important than the destination, in mountain biking there is no destination, just a bike, a rider and a place to ride"