Long-distance cyclists, the majority of whom are Chinese, are an increasingly frequent sight on the roads of Tibet, especially along the Friendship Hwy and Hwy 318 in eastern Tibet. For foreign travellers, cycling in Tibet is no longer a cheap or easy adventure; like everyone else, you'll need to arrange a tour with a guide, who will likely follow you in a support vehicle.
Most long-distance cyclists bring their own bikes to Tibet, though it is possible to buy a decent Chinese-made or (better) Taiwanese-made mountain bike in Lhasa. Do not expect the quality of these bikes to be equal to that of those you might buy at home – bring plenty of spare parts. Bikes have a relatively high resale value in Kathmandu and you might even make a profit if the bike is in good shape (unlikely after a trip across Tibet!).
Tibet poses unique challenges to individual cyclists. The good news is that the main roads are all paved and in excellent condition and the traffic is fairly light. The main physical challenges come from the climate, terrain and altitude: wind squalls and dust storms can make your work particularly arduous; the warm summer months can bring flash flooding; and then there is the question of your fitness in the face of Tibet’s high-altitude mountainous terrain.
A full bicycle-repair kit, several spare inner tubes, and a spare tyre and chain are essential. Preferably bring an extra rim and some spare spokes. Extra brake wire and brake pads are useful (you’ll be descending 3000m from Lhasa to Kathmandu!). Other useful equipment includes reflective clothing, a helmet, a dust mask, goggles, gloves and padded trousers.
Most long-distance cyclists will probably find formal accommodation and restaurants only available at two- or three-day intervals, so you will also need to bring camping equipment.
The Trailblazer guidebook Himalaya by Bike, by Laura Stone, has a small section on cycling the Friendship Hwy. The website www.bikechina.com is another good resource.
Obviously, you need to be physically fit to undertake road touring in Tibet. Spend some time acclimatising to the altitude and taking leisurely rides around Lhasa (for example) before setting off on a long trip.
On the plus side, although Tibet has some of the highest-altitude roads in the world (be aware that official pass altitudes are often off by hundreds of metres), gradients are usually quite manageable. The Tibetan roads are designed for low-powered Chinese trucks, which tackle the many high passes of the region via its low-gradient switchback roads. And apart from the military convoys, which can include a hundred or more trucks, you rarely have to put up with much traffic.
The most popular touring route at present is Lhasa to Kathmandu along the Friendship Hwy. It is an ideal route in that it takes in most of Tibet’s main sights, offers superb scenery and (for those leaving from Lhasa) features a spectacular roller-coaster ride down from the heights of the La Lung-la into the Langtang region of Nepal. The trip will take a minimum of two weeks, although to do it justice and include stopovers at Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya, budget 20 days. The entire trip is just over 940km, though most people start from Shigatse. The roadside kilometre markers are a useful way of knowing exactly how far you have gone and how far you still have to go.
Keen cyclists with good mountain bikes might want to consider the paved detour to Everest Base Camp as a side trip on the Lhasa–Kathmandu route. The 108km one-way trip starts from the Shegar turn-off, and it takes around two days to get to Rongphu Monastery.
Other possibilities are endless. Tsurphu, Ganden and Drigung Til Monasteries are relatively easy trips and good for acclimatisation (though the road to Tsurphu is rough and Ganden has a fierce final 10km uphill section). The Gyama Valley is an easy detour on a bike if you are headed to Ganden. Cycling in the Yarlung Valley region is another fine option. Some cyclists even tackle the paved road to Nam-tso, although the nomads’ dogs can be a problem here.
It’s currently not possible to cycle anywhere in Tibet independently. You must sign up for a ‘tour’, which essentially means being followed by a support vehicle and guide. There are no specific permits for cycling, but you will need all the usual permits as if you were travelling in a rented vehicle.
Cycling in Tibet is not to be taken lightly. Dogs are a major problem, especially in more remote areas. Children have been known to throw stones at cyclists. Erratic driving is another serious concern.
Wear a cycling helmet and lightweight leather gloves and, weather permitting, try to keep as much of your body covered with protective clothing as possible. It goes without saying that cyclists should also be prepared with a comprehensive medical kit.