Nomads, yaks, and butter tea: Searching for singletrack on the Roof of the World (Bikepacking Tibet)


After a challenging but wildly interesting summer in sweltering Hunan province, I finished my “Invited Faculty” tenure at Central South University of Forestry and Technology and was all set to travel by train to Sichuan Province in western China where I would begin an 800km bikepacking trip at nearly continuous elevations above 4000m.
Having spent the previous I year in Ecuador biking in the high Tropical Andes, I figured I was an expert at high elevation riding, but the next few weeks would be a true mental and physical endurance test. However, before I could begin the trip, I had to bike 20km through the traffic and choking smog across the 15 million person metropolis of Changsha, Hunan to drop my bike off at the Chinese Railway Shipping office to send it ahead of me for pick up in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. No one spoke a word of English nor were they willing to try to use my translator phone app, so it was impossible to convey what I was trying to do.
After numerous failed attempts at communication, I decided to bumble around in the throngs of humanity at the massive Changsha Railway Station until inevitably someone would ask to take a selfie with me. I figured if their English was good enough to ask for a selfie, then they could help me ship my bike across the country. This is the degree of desperation one often encounters in China if you don’t speak Chinese. Fortunately, it worked and before long a teenage girl came up giggling and coyly asked me for my photo. I said sure, but first she had to help translate at the shipping office. We walked to the office together and with her smattering of English, we managed to fill out the necessary forms, and I hesitantly handed over my bike with the hopes of somehow finding it at the Chengdu train station 1200km away a few days later.
I then spent my last night in Changsha, and took my own train to Chengdu the following evening. I had hoped to ride one of the amazing high speed bullet trains, but they sell out quickly and so was forced to take the slow 22 hour 1200km ride across the country. The scenery was actually incredibly boring for the most part. Just small agricultural villages and the occasional sprawling metropolis that I had grown accustomed to in Central China. One of the city-states we passed through, Wuhan, has an unfathomable population approaching an estimated 40 million people! The sheer mass of humanity in China is nothing short of mind boggling. The train ride was pretty uneventful (a welcome event in China where ordering meal had often been a major operation) and I was able to get some sleep. I arrived in Chengdu late at night and had to find a hostel for the night before trying to recover my bike the next day.
Chengdu was even bigger than Changsha, though it was a much more inviting and interesting place. The city center has an incredibly modern, chic feel while some of the surrounding neighborhoods feel like you stepped into a time warp of tight pedestrian alleyways, paper lanterns, and teahouses. As with all Chinese cities, the size and density of the city was mind boggling. I managed to find a hostel after searching around with my tuk-tuk (small 3 wheel moto-taxi) driver for nearly an hour.
The next day I took a taxi to the Chendgu Western Railway Station (not to be confused with the Chengdu Railway Station!!) which is quite possibly the biggest single building I’ve ever seen. I was quickly dispirited when I saw the size of the place and settled in for an epic day of trying to locate the shipping office. It literally took me several hours just to locate the railway shipping office/warehouse. I asked numerous people and showed them my receipt, thinking mistakenly that they could surmise from the receipt that I was seeking to pick up something I had shipped, then easily point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, everyone I asked pointed me in opposing directions so I kept going in circles for hours. Just before reaching my breaking point, I noticed the Chinese character logo on the receipt matched a sign in an adjacent building and walked on over. As I approached, I miraculously saw my Chumba Stella leaning against the warehouse wall (I’m sure some of the employees had been taking it for a joy ride-I hope they had fun!). I produced my receipt and they handed the bike over. I couldn’t believe it. I figured that would be an ordeal to get them to release the bike to me, but they handed it right over- easier than ordering a meal!
I hopped on the bike and braved the Chengdu traffic and smog and managed to navigate, with difficulty, back to my hostel. The last thing I had to do that day was get my tickets for the bus up to Kangding. I quickly strapped on my #sawtoothhandlebarbag #divideframebag and #sawtoothhandlebarbag bikepacking bags from Wanderlust, loaded my stuff, and set out across town to the special bus station for trips to Kangding in Western Sichuan, which makes up part of the Kham region of the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately there were no tickets until the next day, so I found an adjacent hostel then spent the evening riding around the city sampling the excellent spicy Sichuan cuisine and the famed Chengdu teahouses.


The next day I miraculously managed to get through bus station security with my bike and  get it loaded onto the bus with minimal grumbling from the bus driver. I was finally on my way to the Himalayas! The bus ride lasted about 7 hours as it wound its way up from the lowlands of around 500m to nearly 3000m. The drive through giant panda country is quite stunning, climbing through bamboo forests waving in the wind, past large mountain lakes, until finally reaching the Qionglai mountains of the Garze province. Despite the rugged beauty of the landscape, I was dismayed to see the rampant proliferation of dams, pipelines, and other evidence of unfettered natural resource development. I imagined there were few if any environmental safeguards involved in these efforts. I hope to return to the area one day to study the environmental impacts of these projects. But, for now, I assumed the level of development would dissipate as I traveled further west into more remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau and tried to focus on and enjoy the landscape instead of ruminating about the environmental degredation.
I arrived in Kangding and braced myself for the typical onslaught of humanity you experience in Chinese cities, and Kangding, despite being a small village (pop. ~100,000) by Chinese standards, did not disappoint. That is another marvel of China, village or bustling metropolis, there always seems to be jostling crowds, rampant honking, and a general sense of chaos and nonstop activity. After reassembling my bike, I set off to find a hostel for the night. I luckily stumbled on the lovely Zhilam hostel high up on the hillside above town where I met several western and Chinese tourists including an American owner of a bike shop in Chengdu. Wish I could remember the name of the shop, as it would be a great asset to bikepackers hoping to explore the Kham region of the Tibetan Plateau. After a pleasant evening with some Chinese speaking Argentine expats, I went to bed early, knowing I’d have a big day ahead getting to Tagong, about 120km away.



My plan had been to spend two days in Kangding to acclimate, before climbing up the 4500m pass on route to the high Tagong grassland-land of yaks, Tibetan Buddhist temples, and nomadic herders. But, I felt quite good that night and figured I was accustomed to breathe-taking altitudes after living in the Andes, so I got a pre-dawn start to begin the long climb up to the pass. Getting out of town was kind of a maze, but I finally found the muddy road under construction that lead out of town. Another interesting thing about China is that massive infrastructure are built by oceans of laborers yielding rudimentary tools. The road was going to be paved, and hundreds of villagers were mixing up the asphalt in woks and other cooking pans by the side of the road! Once I made it to the outskirts of town, I could relax and take in my surroundings. I was finally seeing glaciated Himalayan peaks, including the famed Gongga Shan, highest peak in Sichuan at around 7600m or 25000ft!


I had searched in vain for fully singletrack or unpaved routes leading up to Tagong, but instead had to settle for staying an improved road for the first 60km or so, before turning off onto a dirt track once I reached the plateau. So despite the lack of interesting biking, the yaks, stunning mountain views, prayer wheels, and other symbols of Tibet kept me entertained during the unending climb.


I finally reached the pass at about 4500m the after steadily climbing all morning up and was rewarded with the typical Tibetan adornments found across the Himalayan mountain passes.


I had been traveling on the main “highway” that leads from Chengdu to Lhasa, which has become rite of passage for Chinese mountain bikers, so I was often in the company of numerous other cyclists. While the “highway” to Lhasa is now mostly paved, several of high passes are still muddy, rocky, rutted thoroughfares, so the route remains the province of mountain bikes, but will soon be handed over to the roadies. This will be a sad day indeed!

After the pass, I dropped down a few kilometers before turning off the main route and onto some much more enjoyable dirt roads (though at the current rate of road building in China, the road might be paved by the time of writing this!). But for now, I was glad to find some peace and solitude among the yaks, grasslands, and stunning mountain views.


I also began to pass by nomadic herder huts for the first time around this point. As I traveled through Tibet, I continually witnessed the clash between traditional Tibetan culture and rapid Chinese development. I was only a couple of kilometers from a major road and all of the development , yet these herders preserved the way of life their people had been living for generations. I sadly wondered how long they could possibly continue a nomadic lifestyle as the modern world encroaches all around them. I admit that its easy to romanticize this way of life, which is obviously not without its struggles, and development can bring many positives to these communities. I just hope a balance between tradition and development can be struck in this magical land before its too late. Sadly, after my trip, I am not very optimistic about this prospect.


After managing to buy lunch (a bowl of the ubiquitous packaged fried noodles found all over rural China) from a nomadic herder family, I passed by a few traditional Tibetan villages along a small river before coming to a massive Tibetan Bhuddist Temple.


I then began climbing my 2nd pass of the day thankfully much shorter than the first climb of the day as I was now starting to feel the altitude. At the top of the pass I was rewarded with a view of the Tagong Monastery and surrounding grassland. What a stunning area. The sun was out, I was finally in a remote land of yaks, grasslands, and mountains. This was what I had been looking for in a bikepacking journey in Tibet. And this was all on day one! I could barely contain my excitement at this point.

I rolled on past a few more small villages before reaching Tagong where I was met by some Chinese bike tourists and a group of Isreali travelers who had travelled by van via the main road from Kangding to Tagong that same day.


Although I was carrying camping gear, the proliferation of Tibetan guesthouses across the region proved to be a much better option where available. Staying in guesthouses provides income to locals and gives travelers the opportunity to interact with the community and learn about their culture. Not to mention, the interior of Tibetan homes are incredibly unique and ornate. So, if you find yourself bikepacking across Tibet, be sure to stay in the occasional home of a villager or in nomad hut or tent!


After dinner with a nice group of ladies, I turned in early for the night and set off the next morning for a 150km stretch that would involve a mix of dirt road and pavement and thousands of meters of elevation change. I stuffed myself with yak yogurt and momos, not knowing when I’d next find such a nourishing meal.


The ride from Tagong back to the Lhasa road was one of the most pleasant segments of my trip. The terrain sloped gently downhill as it wound through canyons, following the path of a beautiful crystal clear mountain stream. I passed several small temples and prayer wheels along the way, and was rewarding with nice views, before rejoining the main road to Lhasa, where the sense of peace and solitude was quickly shattered.


After a painfully long stretch of climbing on pavement, the road returned to rough dirt and large sections of road could be bypassed via singletrack. Despite climbing up to over 15000 ft, I actually enjoyed this climb. I rejoined the groups of Chinese mountain bikers as we struggled up loose rocky singletrack until the trail became unrideable, at least at those elevations, and I was happy to help my comrades with bike carrying and pushing.



We finally topped out on the pass and enjoyed some strange Chinese bike touring snacks as group after group asked for selfies and took envious pics with my bike and bikepacking bags as the bikepacking revolution hasn’t yet taken hold in China.

The route stayed high up on the plateau for a several more kilometers before dropping down nearly 2000m into a deep canyon. The landscape changed from high Tibetan grassland to pineforests and the temperature climbed dramatically. Over the past year or so I’ve ridden and bikepacked on 4 continents, yet I was still consistently blown away by the dramatic relief of the Himalayas.

I descended for what felt like hours past picturesque Tibetan villages, winding my way down another canyon to the low point of approximately 2500m!

I stopped for some snacks and to shed some layers as the temperature had grown quite hot, and a group of riders passed by and wanted to ride with me. Against my best judgement, I jumped in with them and it quickly became a Strava-esque impromptu hammerfest at race pace up a 20km steep climb to the next village at about 13,000ft where we would spend the night in guest houses. Even though I was reeling from the 130km+ I had ridden that day, I couldn’t let them best me so we all held a painfully fast pace, rolling into the guesthouses completely spent and bonked with exertion and lack of calories.tibetriders

The guesthouse was beautifully intricate, with a traditional open fire stove in the center of the room. The evening meal took hours to prepare, but was a much needed feast. After eating nearly my bodyweight in Chinese and Tibetan dishes, I climbed up to my bed, and crashed hard for the night. The next morning, after braving the rickety outhouse suspended forty feet above the open pit sewer below, I set off for another punishing day.


My goal that day was complete the 200km stretch on the Lhasa road and turn off the main road at Litang, a mid size Tibetan village at 4014m, 400 meters higher than Lhasa! I had planned to do 150-200km a day for the entire trip, which was ambitious in any mountain range, but after a couple days of managing to push that far at these elevations with one 1500-2000m climb after the other, my body was starting to feel the punishment, and I began suffering mild altitude sickness.
The day started out with a burly 2000m climb that began on pavement and transitioned over to rough doubletrack as I approached 4659m (15,285ft), the highest pass yet. At this point I was really struggling with the altitude and exertion, and my pace had slowed considerably. When I finally crested the pass, I was rewarded with stunning views of Mt. Gongga peaking above the clouds.

The next several hours were stunning, but remained at these dizzying altitudes, so I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I might have had I been better acclimated.

One advantage of remaining on the Lhasa road was that there were always plenty of fellow bikers suffering their way up the passes right along with me which helped keep spirits high.


Climb after climb, the day wore on and I began to realize I wouldn’t make it all the way to Litang. I was really worn out, and by the time I stumbled into Honglonxiang, an unappealing town about 50km shy of my goal for the day, I don’t think I could’ve pedaled another 2km. I found an absolutely wretched little roadside inn which would be home for the night. This town really exemplified the ugly side of Tibetan occupation for me. The ramschackle buildings were a far cry from the artistic, ornate interiors of the more traditional Tibetan homes. The children in this town had only trash for toys. Despite the undeniable natural and cultural beauty of the region, I was really saddened by much that I had seen up to this point. I wearily lay down on the bed at around 4pm and remained there in a high altitude stupor until the next morning.

The next day, still exhausted and unable to acclimate (a first for me in 15+ years of high altitude climbing and now biking), I decided to only ride 50km that day to Litang and stop there for a day or two to try to recover. After a while on the mixed pavement and dirt road, I found some yak herder paths that seemed to be heading toward Litang, and decided to follow them. I was rewarded with some muddy, though enjoyable single track through unending grasslands until finally descending into Litang, birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas.

Litang was a true clash of cultures. The Chinese government had literally ripped up the entire town and were replacing the roads and structures with typical Chinese highrise tenement buildings and plazas. Fortunately, some of the old town remained as well as the famous Litang Monastery (Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling). The weather had turned foul and I needed to recover so instead of bivying outside of town, I found a hostel and met an incredibly interesting Japanese Photographer named Kotaro Okamoto who had spent nearly 10 years photographing the changing face of Tibet and the loss of a unique cultural heritage. Kotaro said that Tibet was unrecognizable from what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 more years, it would be just another Chinese province with some Tibetan tourist sites. This was the first town I had stayed in since Kangding that was large enough to have Wifi, but unfortunately the Chinese government was jamming all wifi signals across the plateau in an effort to control civil unrest due the Dalai Lama’s birthday a few days before.
Kotaro had been in Litang for weeks waiting for an upcoming festival and getting to know the local people. He offered to take me around the old part of town which turned out to be an amazing experience.


We walked through the ancient alleys where Yak dung patties are smeared across the walls to dry and use for fuel as we made our way up to the temple.


Along the way we met some monks that were just as interested in me as I was in them. We all took pictures of each other and Kotaro was able to translate for us as he speaks fluent Tibetan! Notice the ipad in the one of the monk’s hands!


We toured around the monastery and met some michevious young monks-to-be. As one of the boys was bowing down to worship, candy spilled out of his robes! Kids will be kids, whether Bhuddist monks or western suburbanites!

After touring the temple we made our way through the old town to the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama before heading to the chaos and filth of the “new town” construction zone where we found a place to eat and met young nomadic herder who was really intrigued by his own picture, as though he hadn’t seen such technology before-which very well could have been possible.

That night I was rudely awoken by Chinese police making their rounds to the local Tibetan businesses and hostels to harass the owners and ensure there were no planned acts of defiance in response to a local dissident who mysteriously died at the hands of Chinese authorities in prison that day. It was kind of a tense situation as they checked my passport, but luckily they left myself and the owners alone.
After spending most of the previous day resting and being a tourist, I had recovered from my AMS and exhaustion enough to continue on my route. The weather had turned grey and cold which was disconcerting because I would be traveling through Haizishan National Reserve that day which would be my highest sustained altitude segment of the trip. After a short flat section out of town, I began my first ascent up to a pass for the day, taking me past limestone cliffs decorated with the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags, banners, and other adornments before dropping down to elevations much lower than Litang. I passed a couple villages as the road meandered along the river before I caught my first glimpse of the wall of mountains I’d have to pass over to reach the next major village, Daocheng.

I began my steady ascent mid morning, and would continue ascending for the remainder of that day (and into the next) as the steep mountain roads led me to dizzying altitudes, reinvigorating my mild AMS symptoms. The scenery was beautiful but my physical condition and the looming threat of a blizzard made it hard to enjoy my surroundings.


At around 15,000 ft I climbed above treeline where the wind picked up and the temperature dropped discernibly, but I still had a lot of climbing to do. My limited and inaccurate maps also showed that once I crested the first pass, I would remain at ~16,000ft for 50-60km, making it unlikely that I’d be able to descend low enough that day to avoid freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions. I was prepared for inclement weather, but knew it would be a punishing night out in the open.

After the first pass the steady drizzle turned to a heavy wet snow and I was completely soaked despite having donned my gore-tex shell and pants. I knew I had to get out of the elements and into my bivy sack quickly or hypothermia would have become a real threat. I finally descended a bit into a small valley and dropped below snowline where I came across an abandoned nomad hut. I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t passed a single structure in hours, and right at the point where I knew I’d have to suffer through a wet cold night in the bivy, lo and behold a herder hut appears!

The interior was moldy and full of refuse, but to me it felt like the Ritz Carlton. I set up my bivy inside the hut, warmed myself with some instant noodles and hot tea, then passed out for an unknown period of time. I was jolted awake by the feel of scampering feet over my face and a scratching noise on my bivy sack. In my groggy state it took me a while to register that mice were trying to invade my bivy sack. I quickly unzipped and tried to swat them off. They had chewed into most of the food I left outside my bivy sack, but luckily I salvaged enough to get me through the next day. While I was able to doze for brief periods of time for the remainder of the night, the mice attacks never really let up, so I didn’t get the restful respite I had hoped for, but at least I was warm.
The next morning the storm had passed and I lounged around the hut until the snow melted off. The riding that morning was cold but the scenery was stunning, and I was glad for the lack of precipitation. The hours rolled on and I began to wonder when I would begin descending. I was ready to get off this high plateau and warm my bones!

After a while I started to descend slightly and began noticing more and more nomad camps and vegetation until I finally began an earnest descent into a warm river valley. The river crossing was treacherous, but fortunately the sun peeked through the clouds as I made it to the other bank and was able to sit back, dry out, and enjoy the warm rays.


From there I began an even steeper, seemingly unending descent to a stunning temple perched on the side of a massive cliff.



I continued descending into a fertile valley dotted with several traditional villages, monuments, and temples, before arriving in Daocheng just before dark. Daocheng has few redeeming qualities other than an abundance of cheap hostels and food, both very welcome after the night before. If it ever was a traditional Tibetan town, no remnants of it remained. It just felt like a hectic, crowded typical Chinese town. I spent an uneventful night there, before gladly continuing on the road.

From Daocheng to Shangri-La, Yunnan, the riding was hard but uneventful. The scenery was nice and there were only a few towns on this remote stretch, but more traffic than expected despite being a rough, muddy, steep track.

At this point, I was just ready to finish the trip. Tibet was amazing in many ways, but overall the experience was somewhat disheartening. From the bikepacking perspective, dirt roads and nomad trails are being paved over at rate I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’d be surprised if there are any dirt tracks left in a few years #firstworldproblems. Moreover, although many of the local people were amazing, the evidence of cultural repression and environmental was nearly inescapable, making it difficult to feel the same sense of amazement and wonder I constantly felt in the high Andes of Ecuador. My final destination, the famed “Shangri-La” epitomized the sense of “loss” or at the very least, transformation of a unique cultural gem of the world. If this was once considered paradise, then it’s well on its way to becoming [in the words of John Milton] “paradise lost”.


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