This entry is part 12 of 33 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#24


” THE HIGH TIBETAN PLATEAU WORDS/PHOTOS ROBERT CRICK This is riding like you’ve never imagined; and could never experience anywhere except in this mysterious and enchanting land called Tibet “

If your dream ride is an almost endless, twisting climb to the peaks of high passes well over 5000m, then crossing the Himalaya Ranges of Northern India will satisfy you.

But if you’re looking for something extra, like staying on top of the world for 10 days of high altitude motorcycling, then try riding across the Tibetan Plateau of far western China.

There’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s an overflowing flood plain of the main Himalayan Range. It’s Mt Everest, several of its accompanying Eight-Thousanders (the peaks over 8000m) and too many other peaks, passes and valleys to count – all spread across the world’s largest and highest plateau with an average elevation in excess of 4500m.

This is riding like you’ve never imagined; and could never experience anywhere except in this mysterious and enchanting land called Tibet.


Tibet remains difficult to access. It’s an historically controversial and politically sensitive land. However, Extreme Bike Tours has worked hard to retain the confidence and support of the relevant authorities; and has one of the few motorcycle tours that can take you behind the age-old veil of Tibetan mystique and show you life on the roof of the world.

The tour starts in Kathmandu, Nepal.

This helps facilitate an array of formalities relating to China visas and Tibet entry permits, all of which are adeptly handled for you by the tour operator.

Tibet Tour 1 starts with a ride out of Kathmandu ending in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with a flight back to Kathmandu.

Tibet Tour 2, which I did, starts with a short flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa and ends riding back into Kathmandu.

At a relatively low 3700m, Lhasa sits astride river flats in a valley, providing an opportunity to acclimatise over a couple of nights while spending a day exploring its wonders, not least its eponymous 17th century Potala Palace, so long symbolic of Tibet itself. And, yes, we did climb the hundreds of steps and explored the interior with its over 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines, including the golden caskets of past Dalai Lamas.


On a previous tour across the main Himalayan Range with Extreme Bike Tours the bike of choice was the Royal Enfield Bullet – with its reversed gear and brake levers and upside-down gear box. For Tibet, however, it’s the Royal Enfield Desert Storm: still a 500cc single, but with conventionally positioned gearand brake levers; and which seems to have met with easier approval for local registration and entry into China.


Despite Lhasa being something of a modern metropolis – quite contrary to what one might instinctively imagine – the ride out of Lhasa ahead of the morning rush was easy and pleasant following the Yarlung River with bright autumn yellows all round.

Soon enough we had to leave the river flats and start the climb onto the main part of the plateau by scaling the first pass of the trip: Khamba La at 4800m.

There were some pleasant, tightish turns but not like the switchbacks on the Himalayan passes of India or Bhutan.

The striking feature was the rapidity with which we reached the top of the pass.

Then it became evident why: the Tibetan Plateau is higher on average than the highest pass in Bhutan. Lhasa is about 3700m; and the highest pass in Bhutan was 3800m.

With one exception (on the road to Everest Base Camp), despite the elevation of several passes over 5000m, there wasn’t the same sense of conquering them as there was in the Indian Himalayas. In fact, with a few, you might have easily missed the top of the pass were it not for the twisted array of prayer flags fl uttering in the breeze.

Although KhambaLa was reached almost imperceptibly, it was unmistakably the top of the pass if only for the spectacular view on the other side of the luminescent, blue-green Yamdrok Lake. At Karo La, the next pass, which appeared even more suddenly, a glacier hanging from the mountain top heralded the peak.

After a night in the small town of Gyantse (pron something like Jung-tse), we stopped by a vantage point in the centre of town to view the Dzong, a 14th century historical fort that has been fully restored. It was all but destroyed by the 1902-1903 British incursion into Tibet known as the “Younghusband Expedition”.

We then headed for Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city after Lhasa.

The centrepiece of Shigatse is the Tashilhunpo Monastery founded in 1447. It is one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet. It’s a huge complex spread along a hill side and consists of several golden-roofed chapels. Shigatse’s other notable feature is the imposing castle of the Shigatse Dzong. It’s a smaller version of the Potala Palace. It’s not open to the public so we had to settle of photos taken from the local market.


We headed out of Shigatse across agricultural country until the side walls of the valley began to converge bringing an end to the wide plains. It wasn’t long before the road left the fertile valley and turned to follow a wide, mostly dry river, its only water a trickle winding its way in all directions across and along the sandy river bed. This was another valley whose imposing walls of rounded reddish rock dominated the view. When the river valley opened a little further downstream, the colours of the rock walls changed to greys and browns.

Remember this is at some 3800m. It was all quite surreal.

One valley led to another until it was evident that the side walls of the valley were converging inexorably with no way out. This would necessitate a climb up the sides, winding back and forth until reaching the first pass of that day, Simi La at 4500m. It didn’t seem all that far down the other side, suggesting that the plateau on the other side was much higher than the plateau from which we had climbed.

We wound our way along rivers, through valleys and up and around the bulging hills that brought us to the highest pass on the Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Kathmandu: Gyatso La at 5250m. We had some light rain on the way up and sleet floating around at the top. Unfortunately, cloud prevented seeing Mt Everest. This would have been our first sighting of it.


Mt Everest Base Camp is reached by turning off the main highway and leaving any semblance of sealed road for two days. In fact, most of the second day, there was at times precious little evidence of a road at all: just rock and rocks and sand.

Not long after starting our trek south on the Everest Base Camp road, we began the climb to Pang La at 5200m.

Several sources attest to the fact that there are 42 switchbacks to negotiate to get to the top of the pass. I didn’t count them. I was too preoccupied with getting the bike round the seemingly endless turns where all the rubble and sand relentlessly gravitate to the apex. Pang La certainly left one with a feeling of conquest on reaching the top.

The view from Pang La is said to be spectacular providing a vista of five of the Eight Thousanders, the 14 peaks above 8000m. The dominant one would be Mt Everest. “Everest” is a British-bestowed name dating from the time of “British India.” Nobody at the time told the Tibetans that; and they still call it by the name they have presumably called it for generations long before the British had built their first ship: Qomolangma (pron something like chew –moo- loong – ma).

However, there was to be no panorama today; only thick white clouds, which at times gave tantalising glimpses of what lay behind them. Cho-Oyu, 6th highest, was the only peak willing to give a real hint of its true glory. After several “let’s give it another 20 minutes”, we cut our losses and continued our trek south.

Getting round thickly piled rocks and sand on apexes of switchbacks is no easier when you’re going down; and there were 54 of them before we entered the Rongbuk Valley with its high walls, sandy-bedded river and small, isolated Tibetan villages. The gravel road took us almost sneakily back up to around 5200m by the time we reached the “Qomolangma Base Camp” as the welcome signs announce it.

Just short of the base camp is Rongbuk Monastery. It looked tired and desolate, lacking the sparkle and colour of other monasteries we saw. Adjacent to the monastery as an annex is a rectangular, stone, single storey building that provides accommodation and meals to travellers. We would come back to it for the night; but for now we rode another few kilometres to the first of the Everest Base Camps.

“Everest Base Camp” on the Tibetan side can mean either of two places. One is a large area a few kilometres past the monastery consisting of several tented ‘hotels’ and restaurants organised in a large rectangle in the middle of which are 4x4s galore and small busses whose passengers are taking shelter for the night in the hotels. The other is the base camp for climbers 8km further up the valley and 200m higher. This is a hive of activity in the climbing season but at this time of year it’s simply an open, barren expanse.

We could ride only as far as the lower Base Camp. After that small buses take entry-paying tourists to the upper Base Camp. From there you seem to be unrealistically close to the highest mountain in the world; and we got to appreciate that spectacle as the clouds graciously skirted across and around it, but leaving frequent openings long enough to feel overwhelmed by its might and grandeur. You couldn’t help but feel mesmerised trying to absorb the wonder: this is Everest – I pondered as I sat on the edge of a mound and let the reality seep into me, allowing my mind to use a name that had more familiarity to it than its “true” name of Qomolangma.

Next morning, having fought my way from under a doona and any number of thick blankets (all of which were necessary to keep warm in our totally unheated, bathroomless, stone-walled cell), a wander past the frost-covered bikes to the outside of the annex rectangle provided a stunning reward.

Taking advantage of the early morning, dustless, chilled, clear air, Everest was revealing itself entirely, having cast aside all semblance of the modesty cloud cover might provide. The massive mountain opened up and beckoned one to pay homage.


With our ‘luck’ at the two passes from which we were supposed to see Mt Everest, I did wonder if we might have been cursed. But, no! We got to see, feel and live the might of Everest.

An early start from Everest Base Camp meant a very cold ride for about an hour before the day picked up warmth which eventually had me remove a few layers and change to summer gloves. But the day was a challenging one. We retraced our steps out through the Rongbuk Valley for about 10km where, according to the plan, we would turn off to the North West directly to Old Tingri.

We certainly got off the road and followed one of innumerable but barely discernible tracks, as we had done on the way in the day before; I had thought then the reason was because, rough as they were, they were better than the road. It quickly became obvious that the tracks (I don’t think anyone necessarily followed the same track as the person ahead) were getting rougher and less discernible with every kilometre; and seemed to be going in no clear direction.

We eventually crossed the river (by bridge thankfully) indicating that we had by then diverted from the road along which we had come the day before.

But still there was no road as such; just a maze of minuscule wheel depressions in loose rocks and traces of previous traversings over solid but corrugated bed rock. The nature of the terrain and the complexity of vestiges left from previous vehicles demanded several thoughtful moments on the part of our lead rider as he desperately tried to search for some sign of familiarity that would steer him (and us) in the right direction.

The relief of freeing ourselves from the bone-jolting sea of rock waves and eddies was to be followed by more readily visible wheel tracks that deceptively camouflaged sand of varying viscosity and depth. Relentlessly the tracks took us across (or through) deep sand patches, loose stones, a couple of water crossings and through traditional villages.

We finally re-joined the Friendship Hwy at Old Tingri in agreement that we had just had the most exciting and satisfying two days riding to Everest and back.


Although at Old Tingri we were getting close to the border with Nepal, we still had a couple of passes to cross as we continued our ride across the high Tibetan Plateau. We were still at 4300m and would need to climb another 1000m to cross the high points of the passes.

By the time we got to our next stop of Nyalam, we had already dropped to about 3800m. The road to Nyalam was mostly good condition bitumen – a merciful change from the previous two days.

Nyalam is a quaint town built on the steep valley wall. It was our last night in China, in Tibet and on the Tibetan Plateau. It used to be nicknamed ‘The Gate of Hell’ by the Nepali traders because the old trail between the Nepali border and Nyalam was so treacherous to negotiate. South of Nyalam the road drops abruptly through a deep gorge, descending 2000m over 40km.

Next morning, we were to tackle this gorge that had earned Nyalam its title.

Apart from a short uphill ride to get out of town, we had an unending downhill run along almost perpendicular valley walls spotted with waterfalls across the valley and water fl ows across the road.

In contrast to the dry, barren rocky landscape we had been riding through, everything on this fi nal downhill run was lush green. It was a very pleasant but cautious ride through several wet and slippery corners.

The fast declining road leads to the twin, scruffy, border towns of Zhangmu (China) and Kodari (Nepal), bustling with tourists, traders and Nepali porters; both towns clinging to the sides of a precipitous ravine joined by the rattling bridge that serves as the border crossing.

Once across the border, we made our final run into the wild, sprawling metropolis of greater Kathmandu, with its wall to wall traffic of buses, trucks, cars, 4x4s and motorbikes; and with forever lingering memories of Tibet, the Tibetan Plateau and Mt Everest.

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