The Border Roads, Tibet

/ Routes / Asia /
  • Distance

    213 Mi.

    (343 KM)
  • Days

    5

  • % Unpaved

    72%

  • % Singletrack

    0%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    100%

  • Total Ascent

    20,392'

    (6,215 M)
  • High Point

    16,060'

    (4,895 M)

Contributed By

Matthew Crompton, Bikepacking

Matthew Crompton

Guest Contributor

Matthew Crompton is an award-winning writer and photographer preoccupied with bikes, hikes, and the mystical solitude of the way-out. His latest project for 2017 is a 29+ fat-tyred expedition from the Tibetan Plateau thru Central Asia and onward to Europe. Follow Matthew’s travels on Instagram or his website.

A high altitude, multi-day, dirt-road bikepacking route though the Kham region of Tibet taking in incredible mountain scenery, Buddhist temples, and genuine Tibetan culture... all outside the restricted Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+

Tibet is much more than just the tightly restricted Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The Tibetan Plateau extends far to the east, with the ancient Tibetan region of Kham existing — accessibly — in the far west of the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, allowing visitors to the area to experience a Tibetan landscape and culture without the restrictions of travelling to the TAR. Likewise, with its breakneck pace of road construction, it can be difficult to find off-pavement routes in China lasting more than a part of a day.

This route follows a series of dirt roads and tracks skirting along the eastern border of the TAR, taking 4-6 days and starting in the west Sichuan crossroads town of Manigango. It crosses the spectacular 4900m Cho La pass on dirt, descends to a river valley at 3500m, then turns north into the Si Chu Valley along unnamed backcountry track through high grassland dotted with grazing yaks and past tiny villages populated by herders. A spur northwest leads on through unpopulated country on increasingly rough and river-crossed track before climbing to a pass at 4500m, with a fast, rippy descent to a river valley on the other side, and a more gradual descent to County Road X038. This winding dirt road runs west along the hillside high above valley grassland below, passing villages and monasteries, with a wall of snowcapped mountains rising all along its length to the south. It then descends to the market town of Luoxu, following the Chiang Jiang river west on sometimes hairy dirt road cut into the cliffside above the river. Crossing the river on a single-lane suspension bridge, the route climbs north along the west bank of the river before turning west into a broad valley bounded to the north and south by high mountains. This eventually leads on to major highway G214, and about 30 paved kilometres north to the city of Yushu. The centre of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yushu has transit connections onward by air and road to the rest of China.

  • Tibetan Border Roads, Bikepacking Route, China
  • Tibetan Border Roads, Bikepacking Route
  • Tibetan Border Roads, Bikepacking Route
  • Tibetan Border Roads, Bikepacking Route
  • Tibetan Border Roads, Bikepacking Route

This route is best suited to those with a bit of time in the region who would like to get off the pavement and explore rural Tibet away from the popular routes connecting the big monastery towns. It can, however, also be done by bikepackers on shorter schedules, with reasonable access to the start of the route possible with a few extras days by catching transport onto the Tibetan Plateau from Chengdu. Total vertical ascent for the route is around 5500m. I did this route on a rigid 29+ platform, which was ideal. Much of the route would also be suitable on gravel bikes running high-volume tyres. An extended section of the backcountry track, however, is very rough and would pose a problem for skinnier tyres.

Route difficulty: This route was assigned a 6 out of 10 based on the challenge of getting to the start as well as the sheer altitude. The route is not technically difficult for the most part, and the climbs are generally of a very manageable grade. The main difficulty for the route comes from the altitude. If you haven’t been in the region for a while to acclimatise, coping with the route’s elevation (between 3500 and 4900m) can take a toll.
  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Incredible mountain scenery across the whole route
  • Rolling across the Cho La Pass at almost 4900m
  • Rough backcountry riding through the Si Chu Valley
  • Fun, fast descents from the high passes
  • Some gorgeous wild-camping spots
  • Heaps of Buddhist temples, shrines, stupas, prayer flags and mani stones
  • A genuine look at real Tibetan culture away from the cities
  • When to go: Passes in the mountains will generally be open by May and start getting snowed in by October or so. The route will generally be greener the later in spring you go, and you run less risk of being caught in serious storms (though snow is possible on the passes at any time of year).
  • At present, no travel restrictions under an ordinary Chinese tourist visa, though this being China, access to the Kham region (or anywhere in it) can be suddenly closed down at short notice. If applying for a Chinese tourist visa it’s generally best not to mention that you’re heading to a Tibetan area. The city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province is the closest major international airport to the route.
  • Reaching the start of the route from Chengdu will require two days of long bus trips from Chengdu to Kangding and Kangding to Ganzi.
  • At the end of the route in Yushu, there are flights to Chengdu, Xining, Lhasa and Xi’an.
  • Dangers and Annoyances: The possibility of snowstorms in the mountains, heavy trucks on the Cho La pass, and aggressive dogs (I carried a few rocks in my top-tube bag to throw if they got too close).
  • The route is a wild-camping paradise – just pick a hidden spot off the road and set up a tent.
  • The exceptions to this are the ascent and descent of Cho La pass, which features no reasonable places to camp, and the much of the section along the river road between Luoxu and Yushu, which is between a cliff face and a sheer drop.
  • Given that this is Tibet, you may also ride up a hidden valley to camp only to find a family of herders living at the far end. In practice, this is seldom a problem, but if you’re setting up camp in someone’s pasture it’s polite to ask if it’s okay when you see them (generally when they’re rounding up animals just before sunset).
  • Being the high mountains, fresh water is available at countless places along the route, so you shouldn’t need to carry more than a couple litres at a time. In some cases the streams and rivulets are pure snowmelt with no upstream habitation or grazing, but even in the worst case, much of the route follows rivers that can be safely drunk from with proper treatment (though I generally drank treated water from side streams).
  • The towns of Manigango and Luoxu are the major supply points for food, having reasonably well-stocked stores. Smaller villages along the way often have a shop (look for advertising posters pasted to the side of a building) where you can buy basics like instant noodles and biscuits.
  • There are a number of excellent Buddhist temples and monasteries near the main route that are worth a detour or side trip. These include famous monasteries in Dege and Ganzi.
  • A tunnel is currently under construction that goes beneath the Cho La Pass, and skips 1000+ metres of climbing. Chinese road tunnels are, however, terrifying.
  • Language presents a significant difficulty. Google translate is often useless, as few of the people you encounter will be literate in Chinese, which is a second language here, and sometimes may not even be able to speak it.

Additional Resources

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Robert Thomson

    Achingly beautiful. The highlands of China have a somewhat special quality to them. Thanks for sharing.

    Rob
    http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-cycle-touring-routes

  • Ben C

    Tibet is a beautiful place no doubt, it makes me and others sad to think of it as a province of ‘China’ Rob.

  • Christian

    Thanks for sharing – looks amazing (and cold). The Tibetan areas are for sure something special. Back in 2004, I cycled from Yushu to Lhasa, starting on the G214. Amazing trip, but even then a bit tricky to travel independently within TAR.

  • Matthew Crompton

    Thanks! Tibet is definitely special, even among other beautiful places — a true culture of the high mountains.
    It’s also pretty crazy spending weeks at a time near or above 4000m. =)

  • Matthew Crompton

    Being there, the Tibetan regions definitely felt like ‘occupied territory’, it’s true. Even moreso than other Chinese cities the cities in the Kham region — Litang, Ganzi — were swarming with police. That said, compared to what I’ve heard from visitors in the past, the atmosphere there was pretty relaxed when I was there, which was very welcome. I think the level of tension is highly variable and the security situation (and even access to the region) can change very quickly.

  • Matthew Crompton

    Yeah, the TAR pretty much allows no independent travel now for non-Chinese citizens, which is a real shame. You can go in tour groups, of course, but where you go and what you see it seems are often very tightly managed now, which is one of the regions that travelling in the Kham or Amdo regions which are largely located in neighbouring provinces is such a nice alternative. As far as cold goes, I actually got caught in the first thundersnow storm of my life up above 4000m descending from the Cho La pass — absolutely wild (and a little scary)!

  • ross

    Please stop posting such amazing routes I’m trying to get a career together!

  • Cake Carrot

    Highlands of TIBET, Rob. Kham is one of the first regions the Chinese started occupying back in the 40s- but not without a fight. There was a standing TIbetan Army, mainly made up of Khampas (people from Kham), who held back occupation with sub-par weaponry and even more inadequite US-CIA training for much longer than aniticipated. To say that this is the Chinese Highlands is to forget the lives lost in defense of the very existance of this space and that is just heartbreaking.

  • Cake Carrot

    Thanks Ben- felt good to see this comment from you. see my response to Rob below.

  • Cake Carrot

    Did you have to get any special permits or visas to do this trip? I’m Tibetan-American with a very Tibetan name and I’m wondering if I would be able to navigate this politically.

  • Matthew Crompton

    I was just a a standard ‘L’ tourist visa, and access to the Kham areas of Sichuan / Yunnan / Qinghai seems to *generally* be unrestricted, though as with anything this can change quickly and access can be suddenly closed down or restricted. With the Tibetan last name, though, I really don’t know. The Chinese government is a) hypersensitive, especially about Tibet and b) often completely inscrutable and arbitrary when it comes to what they allow or don’t allow at any given time. My best advice would be to apply for a tourist visa but when you give your proposed itinerary, absolutely don’t mention anywhere near Tibet. It’s easy enough to book hotels for an entire proposed itinerary on booking.com for example without prepaying, and then just cancel once the visa is granted. Once you’re in the country, you don’t have to follow that itinerary. Because the government can be arbitrary and inscrutable, I got this particular visa with advice from thevisamachine.com, who were super-useful for telling me what to say on my application, and well worth the $100 AUD I paid them. =)

  • Thanks for the post on an amazing ride and photos! I live in Lijiang in Northern Yunnan and really want to ride into Tibet (like my local friends can) but can’t without hiring expensive guides. This route would be great to ride with my son this fall/winter and somewhat easy to get to from here.

  • Matthew Crompton

    It’s definitely a good option. People I’ve talked to who have been to both Kham and the TAR proper don’t view Kham as any less a part of Tibet even though it’s outside the TAR’s borders. Kham also has the benefit of being quite diverse geographically, with everything from high mountains to high desert to alpine valleys and grasslands.