Snowy Passes and Windy Roads
"Many times I find myself in a comfortable position - and I don't feel happy about it. It is... an enormous desire to go further, to travel beyond my own limits."
I did two trips in Tibet in 2004. This, the first, was a 3047 km winter ride - january to marts - where the goal of the trip was to explorer myself physically and especially mentally during prolonged very rough conditions while being on my own. Cycling in Tibet's wintertime was perfect for this; Temperature sometimes plundged down to - 35 C and the persisting strong headwind harassed me most of the way from Golmud down to Lhasa. Fortunately, the bumpy ride though southeast Tibet was more pleasant, taking me through astonishing scenery.
Here the travel reports I made during the trip - pic. yet to come
"I would rather cross the Desert of Gobi a dozen of times than travel through Tibet once again in winter. It is impossible to form any conseption of what it is like : it is veritable via dolorosa"
A short travel update:
I am at the moment in a town called Golmud in the Chinese Qinghai province,
situated at the beginning of the Tibetan high plateau, more exact at the
northern edge the plateau. In front me awaits a long journey to
Lhasa by bike.
I didn't have the money for going to Tibet this summer and had to drop out
a team attempting to cross Northern Tibet's Chang Tang nature reserve this
autumn due to working matter in Denmark. Very frustrating! Maybe it wasn't
that bad after all. The expedition was an success in the sense that Janne
Corax and Nadine Saultiner crossed Chang Tang in 46 days.
their 1000 km. trip across the desolated 600.000 km2 area was a plain nightmare
- they didn't see human beings for some 30 continues days, experienced very
strong wind conditions and temperatures down to - 30 C - they ran out of food
for real and in desperation even considered eating a
long time dead wolf they found. They were completelyworn out, almost near collapse when returning to civilization, Janne with frostbite on toes and fingers.
In that light, my forthcoming 2300 km bike trip from Golmud to Lhasa by road
looks like a picnic trip.
The goal of this trip is to explorer myself physically and especially
mentally during prolonged time in very rough conditions when being on my own.
Cycling in Tibet wintertime is perfect for this; Temperature sometimes falls
below - 40 C and the persisting strong wind occasionally reach hurricane
force, increasing the effect of low temperatures dramatically.
If winter conditions turn out too brutal, I have the opportunity to
stop cycling and catch a truck instead, but will surely hate myself if doing
If this winter "test ride" goes well, I'll strongly consider attempting
to cross Tibet's Chang Tang wilderness solo and unsupported - something never
done before. I have written a bit more about this staggering area on my web-
The plan now is to start cycling from Golmud at 2800 meters altitude today
and will within some 160 km cross over the first pass at 4800 meters. From
then it will mainly be cycling above 4500 meters altitude up to 5500 meters.
However, this depends on whether I successfully manage to get around a police
check point some 35 km out of town, something I have consider to do at
nighttime to be certain to enter Tibet. The plan is now: if the police
officers at the checkpoint not are willing to let me pass during daytime,
I'll make it a nigh-time event while they are sleeping instead!
The fist 700 km. will be biked on asphalt to a city called Amdo, mostly along
the new railroad to Lhasa scheduled to open in 2006. From here it becomes
more interesting when heading in western direction.Some 1300 km by gravel
road awaits on the edge of the Chang Tang nature preserve and the way down to
the southern parts of central Tibet (amdo, gerze, lhatze,Lhasa for those
I don't really dare to set exact time on the
duration of the trip to Lhasa, but is should be feasible within two months.
The trip to golmud was mostly routine travel in China. I landed in Beijing
the 6. jan and flew shortly after to Xining, probably the most air polluted
Chinese town I ever have been in. A good proportion of people here wear
masks. It seems to be out of season for travel, as I didn't meet any
foreigners in this large city.
By "luck", I met a bus-driver telling me about a bus going to Golmud
day. I instantly bought a 13 $ ticket to the 700-800 km trip. When my gear
was packed on the roof of the bus, the inside partly filled with heavily
coated Tibetan monks, I went away to get some food supplies for the
forthcoming rough trip. When returning, the bus conductor suddenly insisted
on paying back my money. I was dumped off the bus.
Quite furious as I was, I demanded an explanation and it turned out that the
police had ordered the driver to dump me. There were no way around it. I went
back to the hotel and with the help from a English speaking girl at the hotel
I managed to get a ticket to the train instead, leaving the next day.
Apparently, going by train was acceptable for the police. Clearly, the
authorities in Western China have not adapted to real world yet.
When leaving the next evening, I found to my surprise I was at the beginning
of getting involved with the girl from the hotel and was tempted to stay in
town. My eager for cycling in deep-frozen mountain landshape was however too
I shared room with a Chinese teacher in the soft-sleeper carbine (another
name for first class) on the night train. He quickly felt loudly asleep
while I sat starring out of the window for hours on the vast expanses of the
flat plains in full-moon, dark silhuettes of distant mountain ridges passing
by. My playground was fast approaching.
The train passed through tamed landshape, illustrated by distant
light everywhere. I sat thinking how eager I was to flee this place to the
very edge of civilization in northern Tibet at normads domain along the
southern boundary of the second largest nature preserve on earth, the Chang
The morning light revealed frozen rivers and salt lakes when reaching Golmud,
a noisy, dusty place thrown down below a low mountain chain on the edge of
the enormous Qaidam basin. On they way in, brown-yellow grass and
compact brown-black bushes were the only spartan vegetation, while
telephone poles and a nearby road accompanied the train line in an
unbreakable monotonous rhythm.
On arrival in town, I went to the only allowed hotel for foreigners and found
I was the only of the kind in this +100.000 people town. Difficult not to
feel alone in the huge mass of starring people. At least I can flee into one
of the many internet places mostly inhabited by young Chinese playing online
computer games all day.
I now have a really sore throat due to city pollution accompanied by a bit
fever as well. This place really goes on my nerves and I'll try to begin to
wind my way up the first pass in a few hours. The next mail
will probably come from Amdo, some 700 km from here. It may take up to 14
days to reach it,depending on winter conditions and my altitude adjustment
A bit disorganized writing, but I don't have energy to structure it better.
all the best
First of all, thanks for all the encouraging mails! They certainly are a
tremendous boost for motivation! Cycling alone is much more demanding than
sharing the experiences with someone else. I have not seen a white person for
more than three weeks by now and the daily sporadic contact with
locals don't fill out this empty space. Instead, I discover myself fleeing to
mailing instead when possible.
I am in Nagqu now, some 350 km north of Lhasa. A city located at 4500 meters
altitude with some 100.000 citizens and a cultural mixture of Kampas
(the old Tibetan warrior people), Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan and Han-Chinese.
The streets are empty in early sunlight due to the intense cold, but rapidly
wakes up into chaotic traffic, trading of religious items, animals, winter
clothing etc. till darkness suddenly empties the streets. Temperature
falls down to - 28 C at night in town.
The original plan was to cycle to Amdo and from there turn west and start
cycling on gravel roads. However, winter wind conditions have been crazy in
northern Tibet, I have directly been blow off the bike several time by the
prevailing west/southwest gale force wind and the prospect of cycling some
600 km. in direct head-wind slowly changed my mind in regard to route choice.
Instead, I'll cycle directly to lhasa and if everything is OK in Denmark, I
extend the length of the trip considerably by cycling across East Tibet.
East Tibet got a crazy topography, very few flat kilometers. Long
climbs and descends in the Yangtse, Mekong and Shangpo river gorges awaits.
This is certainly not my favorite terrain, but I'll do anything to avoid that
howling wind in the north. Paradoxally, I already crossed the Mekong and
Yantgse rivers close to their sources when cycling in north Tibet. Terrain
might not be the only obstacle, hassle with the police possibly turns up.
Many cyclist have been caught here in the past and been heavily fined, but it
seems like regulations are loosening up and I might get through without
The feared checkpoint some 35 km outside Golmud was rather easy. I just
adjusted my speed till a truck covered the view for the policeman inside the
control building and untroubled cycle through the place.
The first part of the route up to the plateau was dominated by sickness and
altitude adjustment trouble. First a sore throat, then a food poisoning
keeping me awake a whole night and on the top of it I caught a plain cold.
Also, using a different pre-trip strategy this time didn't make thing easier.
Normally, when going to Tibet I train daily before take-off. This time, I did
absolutely no training and instead focused on fating myself up to
incredible 90 kg. This extra energy reserve is now nearly gone - I have lost
at least 6 kg. It took unusual long time to adjust to altitude, not that I
had head-age, but my heart raced for about a week at a rate of 90 beat/min
when resting untill the body had produced the extra amount of red blood cells
required in altitude.
Cycling up the plateau has been experiences of vast expanses of open
monotonous plains, distant unbroken mountain ranges. I mostly have crossed
over sandy plains, then following frozen rivers to their source, eventually
cycling over pass-saddles, downward following riverbeds in hilly terrain
until another plain at an altitude near the summit of Mount Blanc opened up,
typically with a village or a city at the beginning or at the end of the
Wildlife has been much more dominant than on former Tibet bike trips. While
cycling on the road marking the eastern border of the Qin Hat Hoh Xti
national nature reserve, I have seen abundant amounts of Tibetan antelopes
(chiru), in some sense confirming. Dr. George Schallers report that the
population in the area is recovering. On one occasion I cycled side by side
with four antelopes for 5 km. - an incredible experience. Other animals have
been readily spotted as well, Tibetan gazelles, eagles, wild donkies (Kiangs)
and wild Yaks.
I slept in the main nature preserve center when invited inside by the leader
of the place. This 24-years Kampa showed me an exhibition room containing
samples of Shahtoosh, wool from the Tibetan antelope, also call "Kind of
Wool". Being wool of the finest quality in the world, it is highly priced in
the western countries in the shape of shawls. This sadly meant Chirus on the
northern plains of Tibet were being uncontrollably slaughtered by poachers in
the 90's., something which now fortunately seems to have stopped with the
establishment of patrol stations.
The leader told about his field trips, some 30 days long, tracking down
poachers in the reserve on the size of Denmark. He described how his group
had been shot at, how one group of poachers was sentenced 15 years in prison,
how he experienced a major earthquake in the reserve opening massive cracks
in the ground, how his land-cruiser had been attacked by a furious yak. In
the end, I felt so humble that I gave my beloved high-detailed map of the
area as a present before leaving. When leaving, he warned me against wolf
when camping. Just what I needed!
I have have only slept in my tent twice. Generally, I have been invited to
stay overnight many places. When asking for accommodation in military
camps, the answer has been negative when the commander of the place
eventually had to be asked.
This trip has until now generally been in the shadow of the construction of
the 1200 km. railroad to Lhasa, bound to change the dynamic of economy in
Tibet when finished. Scattered along the Golmud road lays dusins of railroad
construction camps, closed down due to winter conditions, but guarded
typically by two unbelievably bored policemen. My appearance seems to have
opened small windows of entertainment and often have I been invited to sleep
at the places.
One policeman told how he had been attached to the project for three years,
and still had four years of service to come. He also told the project
involved 10.000 workers and had a budget of 20 billion yuan (1 $ = 8.5
It has not always been pleasant to stay overnight in those constructions
camps. One place was certainly not guarded by policemen, but by two poor guys
escaping reality by heavy Marijuana smoking which they wanted me to take
part in. Thinking about the next day's challenges I kindly declined.
And the next day certainly became hard work. Here I had the highest pass on
the route, the Tangula - some 5300 meters high. One thing was the climb up,
but getting down again and over the next smaller pass was difficult due to
icy road conditions.I managed to crash four times. Along the way I saw a
crashed truck in the snow next to the road. Cycling down the last pass in
near night conditions ended in the lowest cycling temperature until now, -24
C and I had to wear all my clotting.
But much worse have those days with some - 10 C and gale
force wind been. Here it has been difficult to keep my hands warm, sadly
keeping the camera in the bicycle panniers more than intended. It was during
those hours difficult not to think into catching a truck and arrive in Lhasa
in one day. It would have been easy, truck drivers have repeatedly stopped
and asked if I wanted a ride for free. When I have declined, they have
pointed their thump up and wished my good luck.
Another major encouragement! No doubt, I come back to this magic high
all the best
I leave Lhasa in two hours in order to cycle some 1800 kilometers through
East Tibet's crazy topographic landscape, not many flats meters here.
Together the climbs nearly adds up to climbing Mt. Everest twice from the
surface of the ocean. I have lost 9 kg. until now and together with the 7 kg.
of gear, films and books I brutally sent home, I should be as ready as can be
for this. Big climbs are not my favorite cycling terrain for certain. Guess I
can be compared with the Swedish Tibet explorer Sven Hedin's camel
called "Pass-hater", stubborn and difficult to handle when going uphill it
was. I don't hope I will share it's destiny - It died on the way up a pass!
Reaching Lhasa was a shock in terms of striking contrasts.
Red-coated monks with top-of-the-line cellar phones. Pig bodies for sale on
the pilgrim circuit around the Potala palace, two meters from the golden line
of well-oiled prayer wheels constantly being rotated by passionate pilgrims.
Wooden carts being pulled by thin muscular men with tired eyes, new Toyota
land-cruisers driven by anonymous sun-glassed persons passing by. Monks and
pilgrims prostrating around the religious center of Tibet, the Jokhang,
the "I love you" yelling prostitutes in the neighboring clusters of hair
cutter salon hideouts. The depressed, dirty Tibetan shoe polisher kid passing
the progressive Chinese businessman. The middle-aged overweight sleepy
policeman sitting booredly watching the pilgrims while helping a kid with
schoolwork, the tv-program showing efficient young policemen running out in
nighttime into tear-gas firing battle-wagons when commanded. The Tibetan
whitewashed boulder-walled low houses, the tile-paved towering Chinese
reinforced concrete buildings.
I was here last time 5 1/2 years ago and this city of the clouds has exploded
in size, the dirty streets are gone, immense amount of traffic and noice now,
a international oriented atmosphere has emerged, streets with latest fashion
cloth shops, etc...
The 350 kilometer way from Nagqu to Lhasa took four days in mainly headwind
along a broad valley fenced to the west by the massive Nyenchen Tanglha
range with the towering snow-covered 7111 meters Nyenchang Tanggla Feng.
Cycling over the last pass before Lhasa was quickly followed by a narrowing
of a valley into a steep gorge where the construction of the railroad is
more demanding with the building of tunnels. On the way down toward Lhasa, I
saw trees for the first time in three weeks, fields and settlements
everywhere. When reaching the "Welcome to Lhasa" sign, I was stunned when
cycling along 13 kilometers road with shops before reaching city center.
The change from Nagqu's 4800 meters cold climate to Lhasa's 3800 meters
situated streets is unbelievable, the heat nearly unbearable with the arctic
environment rated boot I have. Finding a size 45 boot here has been
unsuccessful, shoeshop owners starring and laughing when asked. Instead,
I'll use cheap sandals when dropping down below 2000 meters in the east, and
use the big boot when climbing over 4500-5000 meters passes.
The only city of any significant size from Nagqu was Damxung where a tall
self-confident Tibetan woman around 25 I met on the street helped me checking
in on a hotel on arrival in town. After helping bringing my gear to the
spartan single-room, she urged me to rest. After a while it became clear
she intended to bring my comfort to a higher level, but a whole day of
frustrating headwind had knocked me out mentally and physically. Instead I
heard myself inviting her for dinner and together we found a good Chinese
restaurant. The first hours the next day of cycling was used to tell how big
a fool I was. Instincts change dramatically when cycling extremely hard for
long periods, food and rest become main priority, but still...
In Lhasa, I visited the main tourist attractions with British Robin who
had been teaching English in Japan for 5 months and now was on the way back
home overland. The first morning we had agreed to visit the Jokhang, but he
had seriously stomach problems and I went there myself. The day after, when
visiting the Potala palace was over, we went to the bus station together to
buy a bus ticket for his trip down to Nepal. The clear answer was "no-
Chinese - no bus!", forcing Robin to join up with other backpackers for a
expensive landcruiser trip to the border. In a way, I am a bit envious on the
way Robin travels. It took him only 17 hours to get from Golmud to Lhasa on a
bus with a crazy driver. The same route took me 24 days including a three
days stay in Nagqu!
Last time I was in Lhasa, I didn't't really take the time to inspect the most
important sights, making it a must this time.
The Jokhang, the most important religious structure in Tibet, is unrivaled
the most fascinating near-religious experience I had during my four bicycle
trips here. Outside the Jokhang I met a young pilgrim boy with the outfit for
doing prostration, (throwing oneself to the ground to measure the length of
the road with the body - some do this for up to several 1000's km.), a worn-
out spring-green sweater, dirty long hair fastened by a hair-net, a
black pig iron colored apron with two straps crossing over the shoulders. His
belt held two items of handshaped-cut wood to protect his hands when throwing
himself to the ground.
He led me in-between the crowd of prostrating people in front of the Jokhang.
I felt like an alien entering a bee hive buzzing with ever-present fast
energetic prayers. Inside, the crowd of pilgrims pushed their way through the
many narrow doorways to small religious side-chambers, using elbows and
shoulders without hesitation. A acrid smell of centuries old burned butter
hang in the walls mixed with unwashed close-by passing pilgrims from nomad
areas. Well inside the Jokhang, A old woman with brown leather-skin suddenly
hurried over to me and grabbed my hand with both of hers and shaked it
intense for what felt a long time. She smiled.
All this went on for about 45 minutes and when out again, I felt
immensely touched by the total compassion the pilgrims obviously felt when
being in this religious center. I came back to the place yesterday, where I
sat chatting with a monk on the roof of the Jokhang for half a hour during a
rest in a crazy foto session.
The summer palace for the Dalai Lamas, the Norbulingka wasn't as pleasant as
during summertime. Still, enjoyable and nice to escape the everpresent noise
and beggars in the city center. Nearly unnoticable and dumped among garbage
in a corner of a walled garden were the remains of two cars being at least 60
years old. A qualified guess is that it is the cars Heinrich Harrer
describes in his book "seven years in Tibet" - the first cars in Tibet
carried all the way from India - now dumped in a corner!
The 50% increase in entrance ticket price was apparent partly justified in
the construction of better trails for visitors inside the Norbulingka zoo.
The money should instead have been used on improving conditions for the
Tibetan brown bears lucked inside small 4x5 meters cells. Really
heartbreaking to see this animal here normally enjoying the ultimate
freedom on the vast expanses of Northern Tibet's Chang Tang nature preserve
The Dalai Lamas winter palace, the Potala's towering outside
appearance was contradicted by it's dark and cold inside. Standing on the
roof watching over the whole of lhasa was a special experience when thinking
the young Dalai Lama the 14. was spying down on the town through his
telescope, leaving no-one in safety. The Buddha/Dalai Lama statues here were
not big, but astonishing impressive when knowing some of them are covered by
4 tons of gold foil added layer upon layer over the centuries. Some places
were 100 USD bills donated by pilgrims fastned by rubber band to whatever
I am now fed up with the place after staying here for five days
and just want to resume the bicycle trip. I have not been using much time
on taking care of the bike. Basically, in terms of mechanic, I have been
lucky until now, no punctures at all on the first 1200 kilometers. The only
seriously problem as been the gear-changers on the handlebar didn't function
in the cold northern environment, forcing me to invent a strap-gearing system
until it got warmer again down toward Lhasa.
Next report will be in maybe some 14 days, if not I run into serious trouble
facing strict-after-regulation policemen in the east. I don't have the needed
permit for cycling there, and I actually don't care - it's part of the
all the best
I'm now in in a small town called Baxoi, 874 kilometers east of Lhasa and
have stayed here for one day. I cycled hard for 10 days and needed a day of
rest to recover a bit before starting on the remaining 936 kilometers to
Lijiang, a city I visited in 1995.
While I have been cycling, I have repeatedly had memory flash backs on my
Tibet trip in 1998 when I cycled from Shigatse to Kathmandu with Spaniard-by-
heart, charismatic Fernando Juncar (together with Christoph Fuhrbach).
His stories from East Tibet were scary, He told how he sat most of a whole
day behind a rock waiting darkness to cover his access through a nearby
checkpoint - how he celebrated his 30 years birthday completely on his own -
how he saw a truck making a deadly crash down into a deep gorge when trying
to pass a landslide area.
I fell privileged. The road, constructed in 1954-55 as a military road is
now undertaking a general upgrade these years, landslide areas being better
secured, road-sections paved. Also, it seems like regulations have been eased
for traveling in this part of Tibet. Still, I have been taking big chances,
sleeping mainly in towns, except for the notoriously bad reputated Bayi which
I passed through in nighttime during a hard 10 hours 155 kilometers ride.
A Chinese poet once wrote: "Fear is your biggest enemy". I fear the
but until now they have not created trouble. They scared me tremendously in
Pomi where a police land-cruiser constantly patrolled in town, passing me
very slowly but they didn't stop. I didn't dare going down from my hotel room
to eat on a restaurant in the evening and choose to starve instead.
In Rawu when coming to town, a bar and three police officers blocked the
road. I thought I was busted, but fortunately the leader ordered the bar to
be raised and yelled "hallo" while smiling when I entered town.
However, the worst experience was when reaching Nyingtri 10.00 in the evening
20 kilometers after crossing through Bayi. I had just cycled 150 kilometers,
was dead-tired and asked a old woman about a place to sleep. She took me the
a way-to-nice-looking hotel in the middle of town, but the manager wouldn't
let me in unless she saw a "piece of paper". My passport didn't do the
trick. Before I had the chance to react, the old woman went for the
neighbouring building complex.
Hastily, I followed and to me horror I realized she was on the way into the
yard of the local police station, a line of police land-cruisers parked
there. First, I tried to stop her by repeatedly whispering. "Bu xie, bu xie"
(no thanks), but she just continued, eager to help me. Within a moment, I got
really desperate, my trip was about to be destroyed and I yelled
lout "MEIYOU!!" (NO!!). She stopped looking confused and bewildered. Hastily,
I thanked her and fled out of town, pitching my tent in complete darkness 5
kilometers away. The next morning, I had to climb 29 icy kilometers up a
I have until now cycled over three major passes. The highest climb, 2 1/2
kilometers was easiest in terms of cycling over the actual summit. Much
worse were the two gravel road sections on the way up. One section rose 600
meters over 50 kilometers, but the frustrating amount of ups and downs added
up the effectively climb to more than 1300 meters just here.
However, the worst thing about cycling in wintertime is the snow there have
been falling on the south side of the passes, coming in from India/Myanmar.
On the second pass, I had to cycle 29 kilometers up on slippery road, some
sections so ice that I had to push the bike for long stretches.
Unfortunately, two pilgrims doing all the 1450 km way dege to Lhasa by
throwing themselves to the ground (prostration), told me there is a pass
waiting near Markam which is completely unbikeable. Since they did 10
kilometers per day, I hope conditions when they were there some 60 days ago
Going downhill to the low points between the passes has been pleasant in the
sense it means lower temperature. When diving down under 2000 meters, I
cycled in sub-tropic forest for a short period, looking amassed at houses of
wood, hearing the birds twitter, something I didn't experience in
Northern Tibet's bitterly cold January climate.
I took a rest-day yesterday. Tomorrow, I start cycling the last stage of East
Tibet which can take up to 14 days. When reaching Lijiang, I'll gap a bus to
Kunming and from there fly to Beijing. From here it's back to everyday life
I'm already planning my next Tibet trip, this time hopefully not solo,
because sharing the experience with someone else is always better.
I plan to do the northern route across the whole of Tibet, starting from
the east part of the plateau, despite this means I will face major head-wind.
The plan is to get to Amdo somehow from Chengdu, then Nagqu, Silling Co,
Gerze, Rutog, Sumzi. From here it's three weeks off-road adventure in nomans
land to northwest to a gold-mine situated in the fault formation seperating
the West and East Kunlun mountains. There is a high risk of being caught by
the police on the northern route in Eastern Tibet. IF it happens, the backup
plan is to go back to Chengdu and fly in to Lhasa and cycle up to the
northern route via Shigatse.
If I manage to collect the money needed, I'll try to go late this summer.
One thing is certain: I'm not yet ready to do a solo crossing of Northern
Tibet's Chang Tang - at least 30 days in complete solitude. The desolated
plains and mountain ranges scares me, but I'm afraid my fascination of the
place is too big to stay away forever.
Next update will be in some 12-14 days - there is no Internet the next 800
all the best!
Very short update.
Just want to tell I'm in Beijing now after seeking the rest of the way
through East Tibet. When the bike trip was finished, I rushed to Beijing
where the last days has been spend fighting a food poisoning characterized by
frequent toilet runs and throwing up sessions. I still need to write the last
travel report, but it have to wait till I come to Denmark and fell better.
One thing is certain, I already miss Tibet!
all the best