Aussie Motorbike Ride to Tibet

THE PLAN WAS to ride our 500 cc Royal Enfields from Kathmandu to the Tibetan border, and then another six days riding all the way to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the traditional home of the Dalai Lama. Our trip would take us across the formidable Himalayas in the shadow of Mt Everest travelling the high and remote Tibetan plateau.

Day 1: Kathmandu to Kodari on the Tibetan border.

Our group consisted of Australians on six bikes, a Landcruiser to carry our Tibetan guide, Tashi, and our Nepali mechanic, Naresh. When we crossed into Tibet we also added a small truck with a Chinese driver to carry spares, petrol and our luggage. How many languages can you have in the one group? It was a real Chinese whispers game as our road captain spoke English and all communication had to be interpreted down the line.

My position was Tail-End Charlie which entailed following the group of riders and stopping with them if there were any breakdowns or giving them directions if they fell behind. What happens when Tail-End Charlie runs out of petrol? He pushes, that’s what! So it was—about five km short of our first night’s lodgings. Everyone else was on their second beer when I rolled in. Fortunately, some of it was down-hill. Just made the first rum taste all the better.

Our accommodation was appropriately named the Last Resort—run by a Kiwi as it turns out—as it was the last decent spot before the border. Also, it’s the location of the second highest Bundy jump in the world set up on a suspension bridge over a deep ravine!

Day 2: Tibetan border to Nyalum.

I’d heard nightmare stories of this border crossing. After negotiating the seething mass of people at the border, we pulled up and are checked through the Nepal border check post. This crossing is like a closed crossing which means that all freight and trade goods are unloaded on the Tibetan side and ‘portaged’ physically across the joining bridge by hundreds of locals to the Nepal side and vise versa.

The Chinese run the show on the other side of the bridge so no cameras. A quick check of our documents/passports and it’s on further to customs. The road is being upgraded as well, so piles of reo rod and mesh as well as construction vehicles add to the bottleneck.

Customs are out to lunch so we decide we’ll do the same. After lunch it’s a perfunctory check of our bikes and a receipt for the $227USD per bike ‘observation fee’.

Alas, the road further on is also undergoing a major rebuild and we are not permitted to travel until work ceases for the day at dark! It is mainly a single lane road so traffic travels down the mountain from 6 pm to midnight, and up traffic from midnight to dawn.

A good feed of Chinese—what else? A snooze, and at 11 pm, we head out to the starting line avoiding (hopefully) the traffic jam by pushing our way to the front. The backup vehicles are left to their own devices. From here we have to zig zag our way climbing 2600 metres in elevation up the face of a very steep valley for 30 km to Nyalum.

The night is clear with a full moon, which helps as the Enfield headlights are just enough. We pass by road workers sleeping where they work, by the side of the road in tents made with plastic sheets. The dirt road/track varies from undulations to thick mud and minor creek crossings. It starts to get very cold as we climb. There is more than one ‘step off’ by Steven—now nicknamed Dudley (as in Wild Hogs)—before we get to the top and arrive at our lodgings for the night. It was now 2 am—it had taken us three hours to do just 30 km and it was impossible to tell what colour our bikes were! We have a hot tea and clean our clothes while waiting for the backup vehicles.

  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet
  • Motorbike ride to Tibet

Day 3: Acclimatisation in Nyalum.

Cold as, during the night, but local doonas do the trick. Nobody had trouble sleeping and sunrise is at 9 am followed by breakfast.

We have to have a rest day to acclimatize and avoid altitude sickness as we are now at 3750 metres. As another precaution, I advise the group to take Diamox to assist with the process as well as no alcohol for a couple of days.

Bikes are cleaned down and riding gear brushed off as good as possible. Naresh, our mechanic, adjusts and oils chains and cleans air filters while we stroll around town watching and being watched by the locals, mostly Tibetans but also many Chinese. We practice our Tibetan ‘G’day mate!’ Wayne has a movie camera and intrigues the population by them viewing themselves.

Most of the buildings are very old traditional and colourful Tibetan flat-topped buildings with wood and cow dung drying on the roof. These were juxtaposed with modern (Chinese inspired?) buildings of the square concrete architectural style.

Day 4: Nyalum to Shegar.

Plans are for an early start, but at 10.30 we’ve just finished repairing a flat tyre and a sticking throttle. Never mind, finally we’re off and the late start is quickly forgotten when we’re surrounded by the spectacular Himalaya on the climb up to Yarle Shring La (pass) at 5050 metres.

“How cool is this,” I say.

“About minus 8 degrees, actually,” Stefan replies, soon to get a reputation for his dry humour.

We take in the views from the top and have a cuppa from the prepared thermos—the backup crew is earning their browny points.

Speedo shows 113 km/h on the good dirt road as we head down the other side to Tingri for lunch. We’re spread out to avoid each other’s dust. Binod, our road captain, gets some air time over a bump and his battery abandons ship. A bit of stuffing around with an occy strap, a push start—not easy at this altitude—and we’re away again.

From New Tingri (the old one’s a bit further up the road) it’s bitumen (blacktop as the locals call it) all the way to Shegar. Very nice hotel here, quite modern, hot showers and with sit-down toilets—much appreciated after the squat type in use for the last couple of days.

Day 5: Shegar to Shigatse and on to Gyantse.

Very cold this morning. Streams are frozen. Sunrise at 8 am. We’re on the move by 9 when it is warm enough to ride.

All of China only has one time zone; everything is based on Beijing time. The road markers are the same—all distances to Beijing more than 5000 km away. Riding time is spent doing mental calculations to figure out how far to the next destination!

Today we ride on blacktop and are climbing through the most amazing switchbacks up to Lhakpa La at 5160 metres. We catch our first sight of Mt Everest in the distance. The Enfields are suffering due to the lack of oxygen—at 5000 metres there’s only 50 percent as much oxygen as there is at sea level and can only pull 50—60 km/h in third gear. Over the top and down and up again to Yulang La, and then all downhill to Shigatse.

With adopting a racer’s crouch and some slipstreaming between each other, 120 km/h top speed is recorded on Wayne’s GPS. Consensus was “That was it” and even if you threw the bikes off a cliff they wouldn’t go any faster.

From Shigatse we follow the Nyang Chu River through fertile valleys. Very populated farming area, thus we are always on the lookout for animals wandering along. Dudley almost scored a little porker that bolted under his front wheel which would have been ironic as he’s Jewish.

Chris would cruise by and then drop back as he was taking video with a helmet cam. He’s going to make a movie called The Black Snails—the group’s combined nickname—one day?

Tonight we sleep at over 4000 metres for the first time!

Day 6: Gyantse to Lhasa.

We manage to sneak through some roadworks with our Landcruiser just out of Gyantse and christen a new bitumen road. The truck with our gear is not so fortunate and will have to take the long way. The road has only just been completed; in fact, we sidle by roadworks laying bitumen at one stage. The road follows the edge of Lamdruck Tso (lake) and it has the most incredible curves and switchbacks I have ever seen.

I was following Stefan with his partner Flossie on the back when he ran over a house-brick-sized lump of tar and got some major air time. Both wheels had daylight under them as well Flossie could have fitted a helmet between her arse and the seat. It looked like a sad ending in store, but after a couple of tank slaps, Stefan was back in control, only to receive from Floss, the best punch to the kidneys I have seen for a while—he would have been pissing blood for a week!

We cross Karo La at 4960 metres and then down to Lakatse by Lamdruck Tso, a natural lake that holds more water than Sydney Harbour. It is topped up by snow-melt that balances the evaporation. However, the Chinese have installed a hydro plant and concern has been raised now that the lake level is dropping.

After lunch it is up again to Khamba La at 4994 metres and views all the way south to Mt Kanchenjunga in Bhutan. Then it’s downhill heading for Lhasa 50 km away.

The group was going for it! I even managed to scrape the pegs on the Royal Enfield—no mean feat—when a white Landcruiser came around the corner in front of me straddling the centre of the road. I had been cutting corners for the last half hour and momentarily couldn’t remember that in Tibet I should be riding on the right hand side of the road.

I was yelling to myself—“Right, you idiot, get on the f$#*ing right hand side of the road. Faaaark!”—as the Landcruiser swept by.

Lhasa is a big city and has very modern wide roads but also a peak hour and we were in it. Very hard to keep the group together. Tashi, our guide, knew where the hotel was so it was everyone for himself and follow the 4WD.

The Sun Island Hotel was very palatial with views to the Potala Palace, the ex-Government House and religious centre of Buddhist Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s residence. It’s 13 stories high and was built in the 7th century.

Day 8 & 9: Lhasa.

Today we were tourists and visited the Johang Temple (647AD) and saw the statue of Sakymum brought from China as a wedding gift longer ago than anyone could remember.

It was a lazy afternoon so after a some gifts had been bargained for, we settled into a few Lhasa beers while watching the passing parade.

I knew a girl working in Lhasa as a doctor so a couple of phone calls had a get-together with some Aussie/English expats organised for the night. Starting off at the Dunya Bar for dinner, progressing on to several other drinking holes of note, then finally to a cook your own sort of Korean BBQ, drinking local firewater. At one stage I was offered BBQ duck’s feet—very chewy!

The next day was recovery day. We managed to get down to the market area by lunchtime and sat around on a rooftop garden sampling local cuisine and bottled water. Very quietly.

Day 10: Lhasa to Shigatse.

But first we tour the Potala Palace. 13 stories up—all stairs no lifts here mate—even though we had semi adapted to the altitude it was a bit of an effort. The Dalai Lama’s bedroom is on top, reputedly the first place in Lhasa the sun strikes when rising in the morning.

We leave the city by a different route and are making good time when Wayne’s distributer lets go. However, roadside repairs from our mechanic who had become known by this stage as ‘Naresh the professional’ soon had us rolling again.

Not much further on we are stopped by local cops at a roadblock and told to keep the speed down a bit. Apparently one of the group—head down and arse up—had passed a cop vehicle. The cops were interested in the Enfields that are not seen over here. Most of the local bikes are little Chinese jobs and are only ridden slowly; definitely no sporty riding.

It’s Flossie’s birthday today so we made a point of not mentioning it all day and take her out to dinner with a surprise birthday cake; she cried.

Day 11: Shigatse to Shegar.

Morning tour of local monastery then head off about 12 noon. Repeat of inbound route: three high passes and good bitumen; beautiful curves and switchbacks; long straights that we slipstream each other; the bikes are very even. We resort to laying down on the bikes with our feet over the tailight to gain an advantage.

I stop for a young couple with a tandem bicycle that is broken down. They are having trouble with their chain and derailleur as it’s stuffed and they can’t get decent parts. They are French and have been riding for 1½ years! towing a small trailer. They are so grateful someone has stopped for them, but not when I tell them the condition of the road entering Nepal.

As we are turning off on a sidetrack to Mt Everest, we arrange to meet them in two days time in New Tingri. They believe they can struggle on the next 60 km. Then we will transport them and their gear in our truck back to Kathmandu.

Hotel room nice, but water pipes are all frozen so no hot shower and have to use a bucket of water to flush the toilet.

Day 12: Shegar to Rongbuk.

Not far out of Shegar we have our passports and papers checked and show our permits for the Everest area. Dirt road and 102 km to Everest Base Camp, our objective. More switchback heaven (maybe 100) to the top of Pang La at 5200 metres. The bikes are chugging along, just making the climb.

Fantastic clear views towards Everest, Pumori and Cho Oyu.

Down the other side to a small hamlet at Tashi Zong for a lunch of noodle soup.
Another 50 km to Rongbuck Monastery and our humble lodgings for the night. Bedroom window looks up the valley to Mt Everest towering above. Wind blowing but sunny.

A few celebratory drinks of Lhasa beer and we turn in under mountains of doonas.

Day 13: Mount Everest Base Camp and return to New Tingri.

It’s minus 12 degrees at sun-up, but climbs to plus 10 by the time we set off. Even though it’s been very cold overnight, the bikes are dry as there is no dew.

It’s eight km along the track to Everest Base Camp. The Chinese have a presence here so no further progress is possible. But they also have a mobile phone tower so we all text everyone we know and tell them where we are!

Very close to Mt Everest, or the Mother Goddess Chomolonga as the Tibetans know it.

Further on Wayne holes his inner primary and once again roadside repairs are quickly affected with Araldite by the intrepid Naresh.

Consensus has us taking a little used side-track/shortcut from here to Tingri. We ride through traditional villages of amazed Tibetans—the children run beside us shouting—obviously not an often-seen occurrence. The track is really trail-riding at times with many streams to cross and short, sharp rises. It takes 3 hours to do the 90 km and we cross another pass at 4916 metres. We were hoping for more height, but the map was wrong. Stefan trowels it once, and Dudley has a few more step-offs and gives it away and Naresh hops aboard.

A fast flat plain on the other side as we cruise into New Tingri for the night. A couple of very broad smiles on the faces of the French couple greet us.

More beers later, we find out that the Frenchies are making short films for TV France to supplement their trip. They want to know whether it’s okay to film us. Don’t know whether we ever made it famous in France but it was a lot of fun posing it up for the next couple of days as we rode back and forward past the vehicles while they were filming.

Day 14: Tingri to Nyalum.

Melbourne Cup Day but couldn’t get a bet on anywhere!

Dirt road again all the way to the border. Very dusty and corrugated; got caught behind a couple of trucks and just too dusty to pass. Beautiful views once again from the high passes—a bit more re-enacting for the film crew—and then down to Nyalum for the night.

Sat around the cow-pat heater in our lodgings shared with the owner’s family and watched the day’s events as the Frenchies downloaded video to their laptop. Surreal!

Day 15: Nyalum to Zhangbu on the border.

Wakeup before 6 am. We aim to start the road-work section to Zhangbu before it’s closed at our end at 8 am. Slow progress for the first two hours until 8 when the sun comes up.

We can now see the enormity of the task ahead for the road workers. Parts of the mountain are near vertical and the workers hang from ropes while chipping away. Not much technology—or for that matter, OH&S—around here.

We stop a few times to marvel at the steepness and what we had achieved in riding up this track a few days ago in the dark.

Reach Zhangbu on the border and check into our lodgings for a late breakfast/lunch.

As we are a day ahead we have to wait until tomorrow to cross the border. A day spent strolling the town, getting our kit in order, watching the traffic jams and snoozing. Naresh, ever the professional, is hard at it attending to the machinery.

Day 16: Border crossing to Last Resort.

Suffice to say customs were in fine form and accused us of not having some appropriate paperwork. When it was explained that it was their problem as they had let us in without the paperwork, it descended into a Mexican standoff. We went off and had lunch while they had a meeting, and then went back and pushed the bikes through—miraculously everything was stamped—all in just six hours!

There is a sauna and plunge pool at the Last Resort. We hadn’t had a decent wash for a few days so it was a quick shower and into the sauna. We are back in Nepal and the land of Khukri rum and guess what—the drinks waiter serves drinks in the sauna! A couple of drinks turned into a couple of hours drinking, alternating between the sauna and plunge pool.

Day 17: Back to Kathmandu.

A slow and late start as partly from the night before and partly that everyone realises this is the last day of our adventure. Three hours back to Kathmandu, we are all riding on the left again and hit the city on peak hour.

A couple of days later we land at Melbourne airport and are still smiling.

article by Stewie from Albury

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