India is a tough place to cycle. People seem to either love it or hate it.
I’d suggest avoiding the Ganges valley altogether. It’s full of people, flat, crowded and difficult to find good places to camp each night. The traffic is bad (it’s bad over all India) and the roads are hit and miss as is the food.
Don’t drink the water. Filter your own, boil it or use iodine. Getting sick in India isn’t fun. I used to think I had an iron stomach until I was out for two months with Dysentery. It’s just not worth it.
Tibet (and how to sneak in!):
Tibet is a beautiful place to visit, especially on a bicycle. The scenery is stunning, the passes high and the people inquisitive. The cycling can be quite tough but it is also very rewarding.
There’s been a lot of interest from touring cyclists over the past few years about the situation into Tibet. It’s always changing for year to year, mainly due to the sensitive nature of Tibet, the politics and the odd uprising among the Tibetan people. The information from both those that have traveled there and those that haven’t is often conflicting – which is most likely a product of the situation on the ground as well as the ever changing rules and regulations.
All that aside, here is some handy more recent advice for those adventurous few cyclists hat may want to ‘sneak’ in and what they are likely to face. I contemplated sneaking in, but at the time couldn’t find the advice i was after or get in touch with anyone that had successfully tried. (For the record, it has to be said that I ended up going with a group. We had a guide who happened to also be a good friend which saved us a lot of money, but in truth, perhaps was not necessary).
Know who to listen to:
Don’t listen to those that haven’t been there! There’s nothing like direct experience and while there is an official position on the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) the reality on the ground can be quite different. A few years ago (2006) it was possible to cycle through Tibet no hassles, then you had to sneak through certain checkpoints at night (2006/2008) and now the situation is once again completely different.
Even those that live there (certain keen Chinese cyclists and bike shops) won’t give you direct advice as they are probably monitored by the Chinese Government and hence can’t express what they really feel or believe. (This is no joke, I had a run in with the Chinese Authorities who hacked my email account!). Most of them also have a vested interest in a tour company that they offer and you can never be sure.
How much it costs (why sneak in?):
What you need when cycling through Tibet is a good sense of adventure and a little, if not “dutch” courage. This will get you a long way. Even if you get caught and kicked out, you’ve saved a good few days of paying the guide, driver and truck hire. It’s probably cheaper than the fine!
To give you an idea the average cost per day to cycle through Tibet (based on a small group of 5 for 30 days) is about 450 yuan/day EACH!
This includes 6000 yuan for the permits, guide (300/day), driver (200/day), 4WD (800/day), fuel (300/day), accommodation for guide and driver (200/day) and food for the guide and driver (200/day). Then of course there is your own expenses.
Know what your risking:
So what happens if you do get caught? To be honest I have no idea and it will largely depend on the mood of the local police Captain that day. Chances are you may get fined (again I’m not sure how much) and asked to leave the TAR. If you do get caught, remember to always be polite and smile. The Chinese don’t care about your rights. We, in the West, tend to think we have lots of ‘rights’, but you don’t in China! Unfortunately getting on your high horse won’t help anyone (yourself included). If you feel the need, ask for the rule book in English where it says the amount of the fine (chances are they won’t have it). You could try bribing them but it could go either way. Remember to barter, even for the fine – if you think you’ll have to pay. Smile, relax, be polite and remember when it’s all over it will make a good story to tell you mates!
Which road to take:
There’s a few ways into Tibet. I cycled the Northern Route into Tibet from a place called Golmund (Pronounced Geermu) to Lhasa. I hear that the Southern-Eastern route is possibly the most scenic and challenging with the many passes and deep valleys. While i can’t comment directly as I didn’t cycle that way I hear that it is also the most difficult with many checkpoints and police patrols. In fact in 2010 the Chinese International Travel Service (CITS) probably won’t issue any permits for cyclists for then eastern route. The group i cycled with had an official invitation from the Tibetan Government and our permit was refused. Chances are that on the Eastern route (both Northern and Southern routes) the authorities will be on the lookout!
Go the Northern Route. It’s a lot more remote, there’s less towns, stunning scenery on the plateau and it’s a lot shorter route to the relative safety of Lhasa.
Food and Accommodation:
Don’t stay in any of the big cities! Some hotels may ask for a permit (some won’t), a bored policeman may see you in a restaurant or someone may rat you out! In fact don’t stay any length of time in these places as you will attract attention. Camp everywhere you can and buy food from small shops, villages on the way or from locals. There’s plenty of places to camp and most of the time there’s not as much traffic as you might expect so you won’t even need to hide (but then again, you may want to hind from the curious Tibetans who will find you!)
Get used to eating instant noodles and dry stale biscuits, tsamper (a barley flour mixed with yak butter) and yak butter tea. Plan ahead for food as some small towns on the map don’t exist – particularly in the more remote northern areas of Quinhai. If you get stuck, seek out a local nomad tent or passing motorbike. Chances are they’ll have (or know where you can get) tsamper and yak butter tea and may even offer a warm place to sleep or a place to dry your clothes. It’ll get you to the next town. Water you can get from the small streams or from restaurants. You may need to carry five or six liters depending on how much you use to cook and hoe much you’ve drunk during the day.
You may have trouble finding accommodation once inside Lhasa. But hey, Congratulations your already there and probably saved yourself thousands of yuan! The backpacker places will ask to see your permit but you may be able to find places to stay on the outskirts of town. If you don’t want to push your luck, here’s a great place to team up with a group and ride Lhasa – Kathmandu. There’s always plenty of cyclists and groups going in season. Ask at the local bike shops and tour companies. It will cost you about $1600 though.
Geermu – Lhasa
There’s only about 500 km of this route that is actually in Tibet. Before that you technically don’t need a permit until you reach Amdo. There’s a checkpoint 30km outside of Geermu, but it’s easy to get through if you say you are going to Yushu (a turnoff is about 4 days ride past the checkpoint). Past that (should you be questioned) say you’re meeting your guide in Amdo (the first city in Tibet). Technically your perfectly safe from getting caught until you cross the 5300 meter pass that marks the entrance to Tibet.
All the other checkpoints in Amdo and a few smaller towns on the way were only checking trucks. Have the guts to simply ride through at pace, smile and say “Ni how” as they won’t likely be Tibetan. If you can, team up with a group of Chinese cyclists. The Geermu – Lhasa route is also a bit of a Mecca for Chinese cyclists. In fact, there’s hundreds of other Chinese cyclists cycling this route. Pair up with them and if you still feel out of place, put on a disguise. Your cycling gear, windproof jacket, shades and a thin cloth over your mouth should do the trick to help you blend in. If you really want to blend in swap your clothes with a local Chinese cyclist. Rest assured the police don’t know the difference between a western style bicycle and a Chinese one.
I’d say there’s a good chance you’ll get to Lhasa without being checked. We never got checked on the road either, even as police cars zoomed passed.
There’s a beautiful lake north of Lhasa you may like to visit. It’s called Namtso, a spectacularly beautiful lake and a good bicycle ride on smooth asphalt. It’s a big climb to get there, but I hear it’s stunning. I never went, but another cyclist, Bill Wier who visited the lake in 2009 explains: “There is a gate where the road turns toward a narrow valley, but staff are only interested in collecting the admission price. I rode this solo last summer without a guide; no problem.”
Lhasa – Kathmandu (Everest Base Camp – EBC)
The only real trouble you’ll have on this route is just before the turnoff to Everest. Just cycle through any checkpoints on the road – they’ll be checking cars and trucks not cyclists. There is a town (I can’t recall the name but it’s the one before the turnoff to EBC) and just after this town there is a checkpoint. Apart from the backpacker place we stayed in Lhasa, we weren’t checked until here. Everyone (even Chinese) had to show their identification here. If you’re shadowing a group you may be able to show up with them, hang around in the office for a little while, pretend your part of the group and sneak past. If the checkpoint is really busy i think this could work if you hold your nerve.
Otherwise, if your feeling adventurous here (which you probably are – and full credit to you for getting this far!) you maybe able to cross the river. It has a fair bit of water flowing during the summer months and you will have to spend some time finding a suitable spot up or downstream. As the old adage goes, “where there’s a will there’s a way!” The bridge is unfortunately right next to the checkpoint. Perhaps sneaking through at night is an option or there may even be a local unmarked road going around. If your going to sneak past, be careful of the dogs. They will continue to bark as long as they sense your presence – put on the balaclava and cover your reflectors for this night op!
There’s also another checkpoint on the way to Everest. Actually there are two. The police checkpoint is at about the 65km marker (after a small village) which you will be able to sneak around at night (watch out for the locals who may give you away), the other is just before you reach Everest ‘base camp’ at about the 90km marker. This is just a small tent with a random guy stopping cars by the use of a rope. Here you will have to show your entry ticket to the national park (to get that you’ll need to show your permit). This one you won’t be able to sneak around as there’s a narrow gorge, but the good news is that you’ll be able to sneak through early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the guy is asleep or simply not there.
Once at ‘base camp’ you’ll be able to camp behind the old monastery (past the hotel, working monastery and the tent city) which will give you good cover while your there for R&R for a few days. We went a few days ahead of our guide and had no problems camping here although technically your not supposed to camp past the tent city (the old monastery site is only 800 meters past the tent city) . You can get food at the tent city there no problems (expect to pay more – but still bargin!), water you can get from the many springs. If you want to go further, to the actual ‘base camp’ for real expeditions (not the tourist hill!), you’ll have to sneak past the police checkpoint. We did this in the morning and found a Spanish team about to attempt a 30 to 45 day climb to the summit of Everest without oxygen. It was great talking with them!
(BTW the turnoff for the ‘other road’ out of EBC is well worth taking. It’s tough but we did it in a day. It’s at the 79 km marker and leads down to the river bank and across the glacial river flowing from EBC. Some of the best and hardest riding i have done since leaving Australia. The 4WD track is in poor condition, it’s narrow and muddy, the road turned into a small river at one stage, we cycled on pebbles and river gravels, some of the small climbs are really steep but manageable, and the scenery is stunning, your isolated (not even the nomads hang out here) and there are some beautiful villages along the way. It’s full of adventure!)
If you make it this far, BRAVO! You’ve saved yourself a swag of cash! You would have enjoyed the downhill run from the Tibetan Plateau, down the valley, through the clouds and along the steep, narrow road down the gorge seeing some spectacular waterfalls. I imagine you’ll will be feeling pretty chuffed that you made it. But your not out yet. Here they will ask you for both your guide and your permit and when you say you have none, they will be embarrassed and detain you. I’m not sure what will happen. They may let you past, maybe not. It’s a tongue in cheek gamble.
Together with a few cyclists, we got held at the border for hours trying to leave Tibet without a guide. After smiling, showing photocopies of our papers, sharing a cigarette that my French friend didn’t much care for, entertaining bored immigration officials and feigning we had nothing to worry about – they let us go. We were relieved, but are still in the process of finding out if the group we were with (that continued on the Mt Kailash) or our guide (who was also our friend) will be fined 20,000 yuan. But don’t let this scare you – if your on your own and don’t have much money, remember they can’t get blood out of a stone!
BUT, look at it this way, you’ve saved a bunch of cash (maybe $2000) and you can always go back to Lhasa, hire a guide for just 2 days, get him to driver you to the border with your bicycle and cross legally just a few days later.
Other ways in?
There are a number of other ways in. Salva – a Spanish cyclist i met in Lijiang was planning on taking one of the smaller back roads around Yushu. It may well have worked but in the end i believe he headed for Mongolia instead. There is very little information about these routes and no maps that i know of in English with any detail about the likely conditions. Outer Tibet isn’t a place you want to get lost in unless you really know what your getting yourself in for.
There’s also the western route in via Kashgar, but again I have no idea about the current situation for that route.
Take the Plunge
Hope this emboldens others to take the plunge and try your luck. You really don’t have much to lose, save a few hundred dollar fine that you would have saved by not getting a guide! If anyone who reads this does decide to try I would love to hear from you.
If you need any more specific information just drop me a line.