The start of one of the worlds longest mountain bike descent trails to Kathmandu in Nepal at 1800m, begins high on the vast Tibetan landscape, in Lhasa at 3680m above sea level. Growing in popularity, this trail traverses Tibet through stark, isolated, yet awe inspiring scenery. Following the old famed Silk Road, the trail detours to the shadow of Mt Everest. Where else can you claim to have visited Everest Base Camp on your bicycle!
Leaving the narrow streets of Kathmandu, a one hour flight takes you into Lhasa. Here, you unpack your bike, acclimatise and explore places like Potala Palace, former palace of 14 Dalai Lama’s, and Jokhang temple. Here, pilgrims arrive to worship the Shakyamuni Buddha, prostrating themselves in prayer, incanting mantras and kindling butter lamps.
Day three dawns. The road from Lhasa beckons. Before you stretches the Friendship Highway. Heading out along tarred, tree lined roads, you ease into top gear and relax at the thought of a smooth journey to Nepal. Soon, you spot camp and after dinner, you nestle into your sleeping bag, excited about the days ahead. But before long, reality bites. The sun rises and you’re confronted with a long uphill climb to the top of Kamba Pass at 3700m. Fighting one switchback after the next you slip into low gear. Your heart pounding, you are suddenly greeted with your first of many breathtaking sights. Festooned in colourful prayer flags, the Tibetan tapestry opens to reveal the expansive Lake Namdrok; its azure blue water in stark contrast to the gray mountains above.
Soon you’re back in a valley, riding along the lakes shore when suddenly, the tarred road ends and the friendship highway becomes the friendship “gravel way.” This is the stuff of mountain biking!
The next two days take you along the toughest stretch, through deep valleys with looming craggy ice peaks toward the first of two passes. With the air rapidly thinning, thighs burning and temperatures dropping, you put all your energy into a climb up to 5010m. The trade-off? Glaciers tumbling down to the road, endless glacial lakes and a trail that leads all the way to Gyantse, a hot bath and a comfortable hotel bed.
Dreaming of your feather pillow, you hop back in the saddle and head out on flat, tar roads towards Shigatse Hotel. The landscape is desolate, decorated with the odd 10yr old nomadic herder tending up to 1000 goats or yaks, Making a rapidly beeline for the road, they try to make a few Yuan by charging you to take their photo.
Back on gravel, you ride towards Lhatse before encountering a long stretch of road works amidst picturesque canyons. Here, Tibetan’s toil night and day to tar the Highway that winds up the Gyamtso La. The “piece of cake” gravel way soon becomes a powder run of small hills, flat stretches, and the odd mud bath with hidden baby heads. This is the place for dabs, tea parties and occasionally, the call for the support van to load up you and your bike for the easy route to camp. But at the top of the pass you’re rewarded with your first views of Everest, Suddenly your aching rear feels insignificant compared to the size of this mighty peak.
The best is yet to come. Ahead of you lies the prairie town, Shegar and beyond that, Pang La Pass. Gritting your teeth, dropping into low gear and slipping into the zone, you tackle the next 4 hours with gusto and determination. Ahead of you; no less than 42 uphill switchbacks on the gravel road towards one of the worlds’ mind-blowing vista’s. 900m higher in altitude the skies curtains draw back to reveal the Himalayan peaks, with Everest looming in the center, accompanied by Shishapangma (8012m), Cho Oyu (8210m) and Lhotse (8516m). Time to dismount; wipe away the tears of emotion that rapidly stick to your dust clad face.
Everest base camp lies 20km away, down a quick Excedrin descent and a gradual climb. Soon you find yourself in the shadows of Everest, looming down on you from her lofty 8848m perch. Time to unwind, read a book or just bask in her glory.
With Everest against your back, you veer off towards Nepal along double track, boulder gardens and smooth gravel roads through Tingri towards the longest downhill descent on the planet. But first, two more passes, Llung La and Thang La. Then finally, a 142km downhill all the way to Zangmu. Dropping 4000m in altitude, you find yourself amongst crashing waterfalls, lush green mountains endless rice fields and smiling children.
Beaming with pride, deliriously happy, with aching bones and a sun-kissed face, you arrive back in the bustling city of Kathmandu. You have accomplished one of the toughest mountain bike trails, cycled to an altitude of 5150m, slept in the shadow of Everest and returned to tell the tale.
by Debra Bouwer