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10 Questions: Cycling Across Tibet


From 1999 to 2001, Bob Foster rode his bicycle around the world.

He began in Malaysia and headed north to China, Tibet and Pakistan. From there, Bob toured the Middle East and Europe before flying to Central America and meandering his way home to California.

In this edition of 10 questions, Bob tells us about his time in Tibet, one of the most challenging parts of the entire adventure. You can read more about Bob’s adventure, and his upcoming book, on his Cycle Nomad website.

Bob Foster In TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

1. How did you end up cycling in Tibet, and why did you choose that destination above any other route?

I was touring from Malaysia to France. Unable to traverse Myanmar because of visa issues, and without the desire to cycle through Mongolia or Siberia, Tibet was the only option. Also, I was intrigued by a romanticized Western vision of Tibetan culture.

2. Tibet has a reputation as being one of the world’s more challenging cycling destinations. Does the reality live up to the hype?

If you are well-trained the elevation will slow you down, but it won’t stop you. The difficulty, for me, lay in the winds and hail storms. They can zap every last ounce of motivation.

Tibetan roadsPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

3. Because the terrain and climate can be extreme, did you have to carry any special gear?

You will want a four season tent, a robust windbreaker and a balaclava. Essentially, be ready to cover every square inch of your body. Also, be sure to bring extra off-road tires. Although the Chinese are paving the plateau at a breakneck speed you will likely be off road for a good portion of your ride.

4. How did you load it all on the bicycle, and keep your wheels in sound shape while going over rough roads?

Being on a world tour, I had 22 kilos of gear. The most common mistake beginners make when touring (myself included) is to put the majority of the weight in the back panniers. When you stop to think about it this doesn’t make much sense because when you are sitting on your seat you put the majority of your weight on your back wheel. I have found that it works best if you distribute your weight 70/30, with the front of your bicycle carrying the 70%. And given the rough roads in Tibet, it wouldn’t hurt to have tandem-gauge spokes on your wheels.

5. Was it tough to find the essential daily supplies like food and water?

As long as you plan you’ll be fine. Bring lots of dried foods, a map with rivers and bodies of water, and two water filters (I’d suggest a Steripen and a high-end filter pump as a backup). You should never have to go more than 80 kilometers without finding a source of water.

Beautiful TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

6. Any local delicacies cyclists should know about?

Know that even in the most unimaginably remote parts of Tibet you will find kind-hearted nomads offering you yak butter tea. The salty, viscous sludge lines the back of your throat and oozes down the sides of your stomach. You will probably feel like a dog eating peanut butter, using your tongue at the roof of your mouth to try to remove the pasty film of salt. The preparation methods can be difficult on Western bellies, so you will likely be breaking into your Imodium stash if you want to ride the next day.

Tibetan Town

7. Tibet is also a place where you aren’t supposed to travel independently. Did you have any problems with police, or sneak under check point barriers at night?

When I was traveling in 2001 most of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials working the checkpoints were shocked to see someone alone on a bicycle. The usually cheered me on. The few that looked at my passport did so with a greater sense of curiosity than official duty. That said, the political climate in Tibet is constantly changing so be ready for anything.

8. Did you have much contact with the local people? What was their reaction to passing cyclists?

Children sometimes threw rocks at me as I rode by. At other points, groups of women and children would wait for me at sandy river crossings then grab hold of my bike and demand money and Dalai Lama photos to let me go. Please be considerate of the cyclists who will follow you and refuse to give in. On several occasions I held out for over 30 minutes before they let me go. I offered gifts to many gracious Tibetans who hosted me during my traverse of the plateau, but never did I pay ransom.

Tibetan SignPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

9. What is your most treasured memory of cycling in Tibet?

Leaving. Cold wind became the enemy in an exposed valley of the plateau, where on several occasions it forced me into dusty ditches the size of small cars, where I would feel ambition bleed out of my youthful body. When the wind would abate, I moved on, yearning for Kathmandu, shower and a moist slice of carrot cake with icing so buttery that you could slurp it.

The intensity of the wind met a serene hypoxia on the top of the last pass before leaving the plateau: Tong-La.

The drive to keep moving was like an incandescent cole that moved me with a fear of death, yet in the delirium of the hypoxia I began to laugh without ever contemplating stopping. Upon reaching the far end of the pass the peaks of the snow-laden Himalayas spread out before me with a grandeur that commanded reverence. For a moment I made no effort to understand or marvel. The stillness consumed me with the emotional rapture of riding a roller coaster on LSD. I subconsciously observed that the dirt road moved cut sharply down the most conservative grade of the slope. The valley I was to descend lie straight ahead.

As the bliss transformed into uncontrollable shivering I murmured to myself, “f*** it,” and let out barreling down the scree slope ahead into the glacial valleys of the Himalaya below. Bliss.

Mountains in TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

10. What’s one essential Tibet experience that no cyclist should miss?

Descending from the plateau because it is not any one experience that will change us, it is the context of the experience. Tibet is a psychologically grueling cycling environment. From the intense climbs to the gale-force gusts on the passes, it will wear you to the bone. When you come off of the plateau and hear the chirping of birds, feel humid air caressing your skin and bask in the glory of a warm shower you will never feel more alive.

Thanks to Bob Foster for answering the questions and providing the photos. Do check out his Cycle Nomad website for photos, maps and more. And watch for his upcoming book!

Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling Tibet:

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

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4 Responses to “10 Questions: Cycling Across Tibet”

  1. JEFF says:

    wonderful touring.

  2. Chris says:

    Inspiring. Good to read an unglamorous account of Tibet, but those photos still make me want to go there.

  3. Rich says:

    So, true!!! Thanks for sharing… I re-lived my solo cycling journey through Western Tibet in the Fall of 2006!!! The experience of the lifetime;)

  4. Stephane says:

    Great questions Friedel… as always ;D and great anecdotes Bob. If I may add one gear to bring to go to Tibet (and any other destination at high altitude) it would be a pair of mountainering sunglasses. And as far as the political climate goes, unfortunately things changed tremendously since the 2008 riot and it is much more difficult to enter Tibet nowadays. If anyone is interested, there is a very detailed article on how to cycle into Tibet here: http://www.cyclocamping.com/Asia/article_update_on_how_to_enter_and_cycle_into_tibet_independently_free_last_update_042709/ARTI_tibet_update-108.aspx
    Enjoy!

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