Tibet is an amazing place for adventurous bikepacking. However it has changed rapidly over the last decade and unfortunately it’s harder than ever to ride bikes there. If you want to join a tour group then that’s fine, but to me that’s too expensive and not the best way to explore the country so read on about how to take a bike independently and just explore….
Tibet, when an independent country covered a much larger area than the current Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which is the area closed for independent travel by China to most foreigners. However there are still areas outside the TAR which were in Tibet and are still free for independent travel. Interestingly enough the Culturally Tibetan area extends to a size roughly the same as Western Europe – it’s not small! These other regions are called Kham and Amdo and they are just as fascinating and beautiful to ride through but without the hassle of the permits and far less police checkpoints. The map below hopefully illustrates the TAR that is essentially a pain to ride in and those two areas open for independent travel;
While people try to enter the TAR from Nepal or Lhasa and hire a guide who they then leave after a few days when away from check points. This works better in touristy places but it is a gamble I’d not bother taking. Therefore this blog explains more about the practicalities of riding in Kham the area to the east on the map above.
1. Getting there
Flying into Chengdu in Sichuan, China is the cheapest option by far to access the region. From here you can book onward flights to Ganzi or Yushu. But if you do book onward flights then check if the planes are big enough to take bikes and also bank on weather interrupting schedules that are already infrequent
2. Getting about
Public buses will take bikes, the bus from Chengdu to Kangding is a good easy option, stay in a hostel in town and they can give you up to date details of times and even store your bike box for you. Going from main bus station it takes about 10 hours to Kangding.
Taxis can be arranged in most towns but these are not cheap options at $100 for town to town rides as you’ll need the entire taxi. We heard hitching is not super easy and the Chinese won’t offer rides as easily as Tibetans do but then most Tibetans are on Yamaha motorbikes! However when Ed got sick we hitched a ride pretty quick in a Chinese truck back to Kangding.
3. The riding
The roads are some of the best you’ll find…..if you like super smooth tarmac ribbons and enjoy tunnels. The Chinese are on a serious mission creating new roads across the region and seem to have got a good deal on tunnel boring machines, but not so much on ventilation for their tunnels, so take some lights, face mask for the dust and go fast to get the tunnels over with. Otherwise if you avoid the main through roads towards Lhasa or east to Chengdu you’ll find quiet smooth roads for the most part.
Essentially it’s hard to get off the tarmac because that nice gravel track has recently been paved and there are lots and lots of domestic Chinese tourists in the major towns, but you are unlikely to see any other foreign tourists here. There are lots of back roads so there are quite a few options for getting off the beaten track. We opted to stay on tarmac because Marion had recently had shoulder surgery so it was much smoother.
While Tibetans are the friendliest people (to non-Chinese) I don’t think many Chinese want to go too deep into the remoter Tibet villages alone so you’ll quickly leave tourists behind.
I would expect that most riders can use touring/gravel/adventure bikes with 35-40mm tyres to cover almost all eventualities. If you are planning going on a particularly wild route to remote villages then take something fatter, but you’ll be pretty experienced already if planning a trip like that! Don’t underestimate the size of the climbs, too the roads often drop and climb 1000s of metres.
Here is our rough route plotted on a map in link below, but bear in mind not all the roads and tracks are on the map so can be a bit confusing;
4. The Altitude
It’s high, very high, for large parts it’s over 4000m on the main roads that cross the plateau, so don’t rush up the climb onto the plateau or start off fast without a few days acclimatizing. We got caught out be how quickly the road climbed from Kangding.
Don’t forget to drink more at altitude too and ride downhill again if feel like not acclimatised, medical help is complicated, and probably many miles away.
It is a combination of Chinese food and traditional Tibetan fare.
Tibetan food is dumplings, fried bread but in homestays (nothing official just people’s houses who invited us in for few yuan) we often had Sichuan Hotpot served to us! You can pick up dried food like yak meat, fruit and even some veg can be found in Tibetan shops/stalls. In Chinese shops you’ll find a good selection but it’s hard to work out what lots is. For cooking meals rice takes too long to boil at altitude so you’ll eat a lot of noodles and noodle soup! With tofu (pronounced dough-fu) easily available in Chinese shops and Buddhism it means vegetarians will probably get on OK.
If cooking your own food be aware that petrol for cooking on multi-fuel stoves is restricted in sale into fuel bottles due to risk of self immolation by protesting monks. We paid a lot to a mechanic who drained a tank for us.
It’s pretty good for cycling in Kham; being cool in summer due to the often high altitude, in summer it is wetter than winter with July/August being rainiest and it can snow any month of the year with September often seeing snow so don’t be unprepared. In winter it is a great time with clear visibility, if it snows it blows away in stronger winds. Essentially in winter it is dry and very cold being below freezing in December, January and February!
7. Wild Camping
The region felt very safe for wild camping and it’s a cultural acceptance as Tibetans live in tents, however the main concerns are wolves and clean water supply when you are up high. If you are on the plateau then the stars are amazing but it will get cold, water may freeze overnight or there simply is no running water so plan your route/water carried accordingly. Don’t expect to be given a place to sleep in monasteries while not unfriendly places they are busy places and not hostels!
8. Mystical beasts and how not to find them
Huge Tibetan Mastif dogs are seriously scary we saw a few tied up by tents and they are huge, we had no issues but I would recommend a rabies jab to buy some more time as they are renown animals… here’s a picture of one below.
We heard and saw wolves in the remote parts not far from villages so be aware but they’re probably more scared of you!
Monasteries, there’s a lot of amazingly interesting monasteries to explore. We visited 19 we think, but lost count. Some are modern but many are really old and fascinating places. In one particularly remote one up a huge winding climb we were met by silent stares from young monks. We camped nearby and later they arrived carrying packs of noddles for us! You may find a mixed reception at some because they don’t want to be tourist attraction or don’t really know why tourists are calling by, so be respectful and don’t impose. Stop and chat with the monks and maybe you’ll be invited for a guided tour, if not there’s probably another one up the road! Many are just pleased to see non-Chinese visitors. Although some modern ones are Chinese backed monasteries so bear that in mind too – China seems to be funding some huge new Buddhist complexes – it’s a complex part of the world.
The towns and cities are changing fast with police stations, army barracks and hotels being built rapidly at the expense of traditional Tibetan houses and shops, however most towns still have interesting parts completely in tact, normally near the monastery. For example Litang, Dege (Derge), Baiyu etc. all look concrete but are interesting places to explore behind the recent construction.
The printing press and the library of Tibetan engravings in Dege was particularly worth a visit.
Yarchen Gar the largest Buddhist monastery (10,000 monks and nuns) is also an amazing place but was restricted to foreigners last I heard so check carefully.
10. Permits, Visas and bureaucracy
You just need a Chinese visa, no extra permits for this area unlike the TAR. Bear in mind that the visa requires an itinerary for your stay and evidence of flights or train tickets in and out of the country. If you are riding in or out of China then you’ll most likely not get a visa if you state this you on the form, you really do need to provide evidence of plane/train tickets. This has changed over the last few years and is now much stricter. In reality the itinerary doesn’t need to match what you end up doing and putting an exact itinerary down that includes Xianjiang or Tibet/Kham may result in not getting a visa.
Get your visa in your home country too, it makes life a lot easier and most EU countries will now get a 2 year visa as standard, we asked for single entry and still got a 2 year multiple entry visa from London which has been handy!
Getting into the country overland is always a bureaucratic pain but if you have a valid visa you’ll get in despite a LOT of questions. Flying in and out is very easy and straight forward.
Police checkpoints in Kham never stopped us and basically ignored us on bikes unlike tour groups in vehicles, in the TAR or Xianjiang where you’ll be stopped a lot.
I hope that helps, any more questions drop them below…..
Very good basic information package about the eastern part of Tibet, often totally forgotten, while the Chinese try to push TAR as the only real Tibet. That is totally false, as the Tibet proper also included Amdo and Kham. Basically it is legal to travel there freely, except some sensitive areas (Ngaba and Baima), and some areas require an Alien Permit from the security police, basically just a bureaucratic nuisance.
I have not ridden a bike there, but I have done two 4×4 trips there for 16 and 22 days, in 2013 and 2016. Main roads are getting better all the time, also many side roads are paved, even if sometimes totally neglected after the construction; landslides and rockfalls (counted 157 rockfalls in 70 km once, got hit once), or the road almost totally washed away by floods. So the conditions can change from new asphalt into 20 cm deep fording, mud, landslide, back to asphalt in 20 km. It is definitely worth taking side roads, we visited monasteries where few foreigners ever go (Chinese do not bother either, thank God), or which were not even known to the outside wolrd (not even by the Dharamsala government and Dalai Lama) until a few decades ago and where they had not seen any foreigners before.
Larung Gar has been closed to foreigners since 6/2016, and sometimes people have had troubles getting in or staying overnight at Yarchen Gar. We were able to stay there for 2 nights in 2016 (also in 2013), but that institute is also on the Chinese demolition list. Better go there sooner than later, or at least try.
One hidden gem in Amdo is the Repkong Shaman Festival held each year on the two last weeks of lunar July. Practically no tourists at all, only a bunch of annoying Chinese photo clubbers with their big cameras.
So, here is the link to my photos from 2013 and 2016, just to whet your appetite. Albums 1-3 and 6-9, REAL TIBET: https://www.flickr.com/photos/112698197@N08/albums
PS. There seems to be a growing number of Chinese cycle tourers pedalling from Chengdu to Lhasa on the roads. In 2013 not all that many, in 2016 quite a number. But on the main highway only.
Thanks, some good tips in there and some great photos! I suspect Yarchen Gar would be OK still if you rode in on a bike but I know tours in 4x4s have been turned away recently and Larung Gar is just closed unfortunately. That’s the beauty of cycling you can explore all the back roads and end up in some amazing places with the stress of having to hitch or drive a 4×4! In some monasteries we were just stared at in astonishment – there’s still so much to explore!
One small thing: you visited Garze twice, making a closed loop. It is also possible to make the Litang – Yarchen Gar – Pelyul – Derge – Manigango – Garze route in that direction by taking a new, paved shortcut road, which you apparently did not notice, north of Nyakrong turning west which connects with the Garze – Pelyul highway about 35-40 km north of Yarchen Gar. This would cut at least a day from the itinerary. There are also dirt roads from the vicinity of Nyakrong which approach Yarchen Gar from the south, but where you would need to ford a couple of rivers in the summer wet season. We originally planned to use those to guarantee a stealth entrance to YG as these roads are not guarded, but our 4×4 driver (who was from YG) said he can get us in by the side roads from the north also. In the end we entered via the main road, passports were checked and photographed, but no other problems, one car got through by mistake without checks.
We turned to the east from Pelyul and visited a couple of large, important monasteries (Dzongsar, with a really nice traditional guesthouse below the gompa, and Palpung) which do not get tourists at all. There is also a shortcut dirt road from Palpung to Derge climbing over a 4000m pass. North of Manigango there is the huge newly rebuilt monastic complex of Dzogchen, but to get there you need to cross one high pass again, and back unless continuing to the north-west.
The Flickr link above has photos of all of these places (Album 1).
One more thought about maps: while the general maps of Tibet available in the west are anything but accurate, it is possible to buy Provincial Road Atlases which show practically every road and track there is. We had a 64 page Sichuan road atlas with us, which was bought in a Chengdu book shop. Of course it is only in Chinese, but comparing it to an English or bilingual general sheet you can figure out what is what.
Hey Guys! Been reading many of your blog posts whilst on our cycle trip from London to China. It’s so well written and such a useful resource. Thank you! We are currently in Uzbekistan and heading through the Pamirs. We are trying to figure out a route through China and wondered if you could help? We will either cross over at Sary Tash towards Kashgar or further up from Kazakhstan towards Urumqi. We will decide this bit closer to the time but for now we want to get an idea of a route heading south east from Xinjiang region to South East Asia (probably Vietnam or Laos). We want to go through Amdo and Kham regions of Tibet (love this post in particular by the way). From your experience, have you got any ideas of a good route? Thanks in advance!!
Hi and thanks, glad it is useful. With your routes, bear in mind Xinjiang is really tough work from local police etc. hard to make it enjoyable, so I would consider if better spending time somewhere else. Like Amdo and Kham then into south eastern Sichuan too.
Yarchen Gar has been totally closed to foreigners since April 2019. To make the closure water tight the Chinese have also closed Pelyul – Garze highway to foreigners. Something one needs to be aware of in route planning.
Good to know, It has been shut for a while but that sounds like the end for visiting.