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A two-week, 2,380-km bike expedition to Tibet is a trip of a lifetime

A two-week, 2,380-km bike expedition to Tibet is a trip of a lifetime

brunch Updated: Feb 28, 2015 16:30 IST
Zabeeh Afaque
Zabeeh Afaque
Hindustan Times
Himalayan Odyssey,Tibet,Kathmandu

Easy riders: Bikers take the India-China Friendship Highway en route Lhasa (above).

I love my job. And I’m not a freak. Because my job lets me get on a motorbike to explore new terrain at least once every year. So yes. I’m sorry if you’re jealous, people, but I love my job.

A few months ago, I rode to Ladakh in a group of 100 bikers, part of the Himalayan Odyssey organised by a bike manufacturer. But this time, I was offered a ride in another league altogether – to Tibet, the roof of the world.

Fifteen of us were set to bike 2,380 kilometres over 14 days, at an average altitude of 4,500 metres above sea level, from Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa in Tibet and onwards, negotiating the tough Himalayas and romancing the landscape. We knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride. But no rider worth his bike would ever give up this opportunity. And so off I went.A stiff start

The first day in Kathmandu was dedicated to two things – eating all sorts of momos at Momo Hut in Thamel, and getting our bikes checked at Kathmandu Handle Bar – the bike repairing station-cum-bar. We spent the day hanging out, soaking in the spirit of Kathmandu (quite literally in the evening, drinking at the iconic Handle Bar & Restaurant), and mentally preparing ourselves for the tough fortnight ahead.

The terrain outside Kathmandu was arduous.

But nothing could have prepared us for the hurdle nature had set up for us the next day, as we set out for The Last Resort in Kodari, our accommodation for the night. Our route was damaged by a massive landslide, so we had no option but to ride off-road through slushy and slippery terrain. The bikes refused to move, no matter how much power we pumped into them.

After just 14 kilometres of the 30-km off-road ride, we had to put our bikes on a truck and then trek to the plains to take a bus to The Last Resort. Just to get to the next motorable road took us six hours, trekking the upward, almost unwalkable path.

Transiting into Tibet
The thing about riding into Tibet is that you can never do it alone. The only visas available for riders are group visas which makes this tour of Tibet a great chance for bikers to explore its magnificent terrain. The visa process takes a long time.

The bikers are checked, so are the papers of the machines and the people riding them. But once that’s done, you are free to explore Tibet and its spectacular canvas of sights. Rugged and dry at some places, lush green at others, the landscape looks like paintings that can’t be translated into words.

The roads inside Tibet are wonderful – smooth as silk and almost empty. The ride was so calm in some places that you almost ran the risk of dozing off on the bike. On the ride from Nyalam to Tingri, two things stood out for me – riding into the sparkling waterfalls that lash the roads, and the sudden sight of the desert plains of the Tibetan plateau with the proud Shisha Pangma mountain as its backdrop.

Sometimes, while riding through the plateau, the sun shone into your face so hard that you were blinded by its light, and yet it was like riding into a world of golden mystery.

With glimpses of Mount Everest on this stretch, we continued to the mighty mountain pass of Gyatso La and rode through the India-China Friendship highway on our way to Lhasa.

Knowing vs seeing

Think of Tibet and you immediately conjure up images of yaks, large tracts of barren land, dragon dance shows, lamas and monasteries. Tibet is that. But it is also much more. And possibly no other place in Tibet embodies that as well as Lhasa.

For the outsider, the first stop in the Tibetan capital ought to be the Potala Palace, the original home of the Dalai Lama that is now a museum and a world heritage site, followed by a host of other monasteries that proudly uphold the Tibetan culture.

Feeling like royalty: The expedition members line up against Lhasa’s majestic Potala Palace, the original home of the 14th Dalai Lama.

But there’s also a very distinct modern side to Lhasa. Huge malls, youngsters in international fashion labels, sports bikes, large cars – Tibet could be any country in the world. Interestingly, the sports bikes from leading international brands are apparently made in China. The same is true for cars – Mercedes, Aston Martin and the like.

The fakes aren’t restricted to the roads. I discovered this from the mechanic at the bike workshop. His iPhone 5S turned out to be a Chinese version of the Apple phone. The fake iPhone 6 was available even before the official launch of the real thing.

This makes Lhasa a great place to shop for branded clothes, sportswear and of course Tibetan kitsch. And, as improbable as it may seem, the nightlife in Tibet is better than in most Indian cities. There are clubs so vibrant and huge that they could put some Delhi clubs to shame. For an entry fee of Rs 1,800, you can pick up 24 bottles of beer, and then the party just moves from table to table and grows bigger over the night.

Survival kit

What to carry:
Besides biking gear, a full face helmet is a must. Take warm thermals, jackets, a cap, dark glasses and a hydration pack.

The food in Tibet is very bland and even the momos are unlike Indian ones. Yak meat is nice, but obviously not for vegetarians.
Carry chocolate and energy bars to keep you going. The local chocolates and biscuits aren’t bad either. Sometimes, all you get is fruit.

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Photos by Zabeeh Afaque
The writer’s trip was sponsored by Royal Enfield

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First Published: Feb 28, 2015 16:13 IST