Bicycling the High Roads in Asia
by Michael Buckley

Before you travel, you dream. My dreams have taken me to the high roads of Asia--old trading routes with lofty mountain passes, immense space, and supreme calm. Two routes in particular have burned into my brain cells because I bicycled along them. Compared with a bus or rented vehicle, biking proceeds at a slower, more intimate pace, and brings you closer to the sights and sounds--and dangers--of these extraordinary places.

Riding the Karakoram
Call me superstitious, but for this ride I set off on the day of the full moon with a Tibetan blessing-string around my neck and a talisman in my pocket. I was pushing off from the town of Gilgit in northern Pakistan; up ahead was a switchback ascent to the 4,700-meter Khunjerab Pass, which marks the Pakistan-China border. But I wasn't carrying the good-luck charms for the altitude or the terrain--it was Chinese officialdom that presented a greater stumbling block.

The Karakoram Highway has been blasted right through the Karakoram range. Here and there, mountain slopes seek to reclaim what gains the road builders have made. At one point I teamed up with a Japanese cyclist to clear huge mudslides that had broken the road. We handed the bikes across, sometimes sinking past our knees in the mud. In Karimabad, we took time to rest up and savor the views of snowcapped Mt. Rakaposhi, presiding over the luminous greenery of the Hunza Valley. The Japanese cyclist wasn't going any farther north, but I carried on. Near Passu, jagged peaks lined the route, glaciers reached right down to the road, and banks of scree loomed above the highway. Tiny stones whizzed past my nose occasionally, which did wonders for my acceleration. Not all the stones derived from scree slopes: some were thrown by pint-sized urchins who found a lone cyclist an amusing target. Once my temper got the better of me and I chased one child; he ran straight into the arms of his father, who meted out justice on the spot and then invited me home for some tea.

The Khunjerab Pass lies at the junction of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia. Roaming the area are Tajik and Kirghiz nomads. After camping out overnight at a Pakistani army patrol camp, I huffed and puffed my way to the top. Stone markers indicate the summit of the pass: once past these, you have to switch from left-hand riding (Pakistan) to right-hand (China). You also switch time zones, and more bizarre yet, there's a change of mountain ranges--from the jagged Karakoram range to the more rounded-looking Pamirs. But the change I was most interested in was gravity--from here it was downhill to Chinese customs in Pirali.I arrived at Pirali along with two busloads of wild-looking pilgrims and traders, and the resulting confusion helped me to bluff my way through another Chinese checkpoint and coast off into the Pamirs. This route was the one used by Marco Polo when he entered China in the 13th century: nomadic Kirghiz still live in yurts here, just as they did then, and I soon found myself sitting in a yurt drinking tea and wolfing down delicious homemade yogurt and flatbread. Outside, the scenery of surreal dreams--a stunning ring of high peaks. I cycled around the flanks of one of them, 7,500-meter Mt. Mustagh Ata, which seemed to hang in front of my nose. Before me the way was open to the grand oasis of Kashgar.

Guidance: Gilgit to Kashgar is 700 kilometers and takes about two weeks by bicycle, allowing for stops en route. The Khunjerab Pass is snowed in during winter. The Pakistan side of the Karakoram is the more scenic part of the ride and more accessible for cyclists, with accommodation and food along the way. Riders often go from the Pakistan side up to the top of the Khunjerab Pass and turn back. There are no facilities on the Chinese side and police are fond of packing cyclists onto buses to Kashgar. To ride the route, Chinese officials expect cyclists to pay ridiculous fees for passage.

Lhasa to Kathmandu Bicyclists are a peculiar breed. When they get together, they rave on about headwinds, gradients, gravity, brackish water, the demeanor of dogs, and the disposition of the locals. On this road cyclists have plenty to talk about--ferocious dogs, thundering yaks, crippling headwinds, cat-and-mouse games with Chinese police, and a devilish 4,500-meter drop from Tibet right down into Nepal.

I and a companion, Scott Harrison, flew our bikes into Lhasa from Chengdu. After some acclimatizing rides in Lhasa Valley, we set off over a series of passes toward Nepal. Yaks were not a problem on this route--they bolted at the approach of the bikes (thinking we were a rival species?)--but the dogs were not fooled. At times, village hounds performing their guardian duties came straight at us, fangs bared. We were ready for them: we lobbed Chinese fireworks purchased in Lhasa that went off with a deafening din. This way, the dogs weren't hurt, and we weren't attacked. We also encountered Tibetan herders
who were eager to examine our bikes. They were convinced our heavily laden bicycles were motorcycles, and that the water bottles held fuel.

We toiled over a high pass, traveled along the shores of turquoise Lake Yamdrok Tso, and forged on to Gyantse. Gyantse is one of the few places in Tibet where you can still see traditional architecture. Up one end of the town is a fort; at the other is a huge walled monastery; between the two lies a market town. Most of the monastery was destroyed by the Chinese in the 1970s. The same fate befell the majority of Tibet's monasteries--and its wildlife. Vast herds of wild yaks, gazelles, antelopes, and donkeys were decimated by the Chinese, hunting for food or sport. Along this route, with a more extended stay, we began to realize the extent of the suffering of the people of Tibet, and the scope of Chinese military operations. Along the road we saw Chinese army convoys, troops on maneuvers, and garrisons of soldiers in towns.

In the refined air at 5,000 meters, you become giddy from the elevation and wonder if you're hallucinating when a snowcapped peak pops up right in front of you. The clarity and intensity of color on the Tibetan plateau are extraordinary. Even more startling is the drop off the plateau. A switchback road winds straight out of the Himalayas from the barren highlands of Tibet down to Nepal, dropping from snowcaps and glacial rubble down below the treeline, down past tropical foliage, down into banana groves. We enjoyed two glorious days of downhill cycling I will never forget.

I was in such a euphoric state when I reached the Nepalese border that I almost fell under the wheels of a bus when proceeding along the right-hand edge of the road; Nepalese traffic proceeds on the left, and I had forgotten to switch sides. Then came one last major pass to climb over, at the top of which was a tiny place called Dhulikhel Lodge, where we had our first showers in three weeks, and stuffed ourselves silly with grilled cheese sandwiches, banana pancakes, and apple fritters. When we hit the big smoke--Kathmandu--the eating started in earnest.

Guidance: Lhasa to Kathmandu is 1,000 kilometers, with six high passes en route. Depending on which way the political winds blow, you may or may not be allowed to bring a bicycle into Lhasa. There is some coverage of mountain-biking the Lhasa-Kathmandu route in Tibet Travel Adventure Guide, by Michael Buckley (available through and Also available through is Cycling to Xian, a travelogue by Michael Buckley about cycling across China and Tibet.

Michael Buckley is author of the newly-published Heartlands. He has also written the Tibet Travel Adventure Guide, Moon's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Travel Handbook, Cycling to Xian , Tibet, and has guided VeloAsia tours in Sumatra and Vietnam.



home | tours | company | stories | photos | readings | travel resources | other services | sign up

VeloAsia Cycling Adventures: © 1992-2004 VeloAsia