The first SpiceRoads Lhasa to Kathmandu tour was full of surprises!
The first being that we had to go in the opposite direction due to the airline blocking seats on our departure date. Luckily, our 8 intrepid cyclists were ready to do it the hard way, and we all met in Kathmandu as planned on October 6. So, overland we traveled from Kathmandu and broke up the drive to our ride cycle start point with an overnight at the Last Resort located on top of a gorge formed by the Bhote Kosi river. A morning walk lead us up a trail through terraced rice fields to get a better view of the gorge and the scenery left us in awe as we took in the bright green colors from the rice stalks.
The last green we saw for days, terraced rice fields of Nepal. Sadru crossing the bridge to the Last Resort and Sandra heading up the trail.After an hour drive on a landslide strewn and bumpy road we arrived at the border with Tibet. We crossed the Friendship Bridge by foot and after having our luggage searched by Chinese authorities we crossed into Tibet and drove up and up, leaving behind the green and entering the brown of the Tibetan Plateau. As we were now at an altitude of 3,700 m we had to spend two days in the town of Nyalam to acclimatize to prevent any illness. A short 10 km ride back down the gorge we drove up made us quickly realize our lungs weren’t working at full capacity and it was good to go slow.
The next day we drove off and stopped to visit the monastery and meditation cave of the famous Buddhist mystic Milarepa who famously sat for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days in the cave in the 11th Century. Under clear blue skies with the peak of 8,000 m-high Shishapangma, the highest mountain solely in China, was brilliantly white. We were all bundled up and ready to go down briefly before climbing to the top of Lalung pass at 5,200 m. Then it was a truly downhill with a swooping descent of about 1,000 m. We arrived at our riverside camp near the base of the pass for a late lunch and time to relax as we were still in acclimatization mode. Luckily, a few headaches and sleepless nights were the only symptoms so far.
Our first night camping we were all taken by surprise by how drastically the temperature drops at 4 am. Despite our good sleeping bags and a nice hot water bottle prepared nightly by our crew to lull us into sleep, it was more than brisk each morning and we eagerly awaited the sun to rise up over the mountains to warm us up. The day’s riding was quite flat, with just a few slight hills as we rode past mud brick ruins, which may date to the 1791 invasion of Tibet by Nepal, and the small towns of Sumo and Gutso. As we rode up to our overnight we spied more white peaks in the background and quickly ascertained that it was our first glimpse of Mt. Everest. We were so excited and took endless photos of it, even though we knew we’d be much closer the next night. Our camp was at the base of a hot spring with a hotel and learning that rooms were available we quickly commandeered the last ones to avoid another cold night. The hot springs had a public pool which was, well, very public with lots of locals coming in to soak for hours at a time, even adding a television to the pool in the evening. Their tan lines started at the neck and made us wonder if we would look the same after our days of cycling so close to the sun on the plateau. There was a small private pool for hotel guests which we used to wash off the dust from the road and the water temperature was perfectly hot. Spick and clean we spent the afternoon doing laundry with hot water from the spring and gazing at Mt. Everest through the hotel’s telescope trained on the peak.
The next morning we drove to Tingri and turned off the smooth tarmac onto the gravelly road that would lead us to Everest Base Camp. We passed some nomads on a horse cart and wondered what it must be like to live in this cold and stony world. We started our cycle down from the top of a pass with stunning views as our companion throughout the descent. A stop in a village brought out lots of children to stare at the white strangers wearing funny clothes on bicycles. We had a picnic lunch at a river that was flowing down from Mt. Everest and enjoyed the warming sun. The afternoon was the final push up to Rongbuk Monastery, 17 km on a very dusty and corrugated road at a very high altitude. The thinning air forced all but two of our group into the support vehicle the closer we got. Our camp won the location, location, location award that night! It was perfectly situated in front of the highest peak in the world and at the base of Rongbuk Monastery, also the world’s highest. As the sunset we watched the changing light on the peak as we were lucky to have a cloud-free view. Once the sun went down so did the temperature, and at -12 C it was our coldest night of the tour!
Early the next cold morning, for many it was already late as they hadn’t slept much, we left our camp and took the required government bus to the viewing point. There we each unfurled prayer flags, adding to the many already flapping in the wind coming down from Mt. Everest. We spent the rest of the morning exploring the monastery, learning that it was one of the few monasteries with both monks and nuns. As we entered the prayer room we were most impressed with how the butter lamps heated the room and the beautiful paintings that decorated all surfaces. Lunch at camp was followed by a drive to the top of Pang La pass up a seemingly endless number of switchbacks. We took in expansive views on the jarring 26 km descent down to the valley. This ride was loved by the mountain bike junkies among us. On the flat we were waylaid at a checkpoint for nearly an hour and then finally made it to camp next to the LoLo River just as the sun set and the moon rose.
A warm breakfast helped to heat us up as we prepared for our longest day of biking yet, 90 km. We drove up to the top of the 5220 m Gyatso-La pass and started with a chilling downhill through a narrow gorge, to the small market town of Lhatse. Then it was a 7 km climb to the top of Tso La where we rode under so many prayer flags it felt like we were winners of a race!
Over the next two days we visited two important monasteries, the Tashilumpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, and the Gyantsze Kumbum. We walked away from both visits being a bit overwhelmed by the complexities of the various Buddhist sects and also by the hordes of Tibetan pilgrims from Ando and Kham. Both monasteries were very impressive and we were grateful they were spared being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
At the top of Simi La pass we were treated to a jewel of a reservoir that glittered an exquisite turquoise blue. This was the beginning of a ride that would take us tobarren flats with herds of sheep seeking sustenance and the up to the foot of a spectacluar glacier near the top of Karo La pass at 5010 m. On the downhill we met some struggling cyclists who were not only climbing at altitude but had to contend with a strong headwind, making uis realize that it might not be so bad to heading in the opposite direction. Our last camp was on the edge of Yamdruk Tso, one of three sacred lakes in Tibet. The morning was bright and clear with not a cloud in the sky, again, making for excellent photos as we skirted the lake. Our last pass of the tour was Kampa La at 4,785 m, then it was a glorious freewheel of 26 km down to a valley formed by the Yarlung Tsangpo River. What a thrilling way to end our cycling portion of the tour!
Our next two nights were spent in Lhasa which is fast becoming a modern city, but there are still many old parts of town to visit, including the immense Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple with its steady flow of Tibetans circumnavigating the perimeter. The descriptions we heard of the immense army presence were not exaggeratted, as there are patrols everywhere and even soldiers posted on roofs. Our Tibetan guide took us through the Potala Palace and though only a portion is open to visit, it’s enough to make you realize the vital significance of the structure and what it represents to the Tibetans. Lhasa is surrounded by monasteries but we chose an afternoon visit to Sera to see the saffron robed teachers and students gather in a courtyard to debate Buddhist philosophy with gestures to emphasis their points. It was a lively afternoon!
On our return flight to Kathmandu we were again lucky enough to have a clear view of Mt. Everest and had a chance for a final glimpse at the peak that was one of the highlights of our tour.