Tibet on a bicycle

Travel Writer: The easiest way to get into Tibet? Michael Cusack has plenty of insider tips

 

“It cannot be done,” said the man at the travel agency. “No individual travellers allowed in Tibet. ”

My plan was to rent a bicycle in Kathmandu and ride 100km to the Nepalese border town of Kodari before crossing the so-called Friendship Bridge and entering Tibet.

Flying via Hong Kong, I went straight to the Chungking Mansions to obtain a Chinese visa. I had first visited this broken down labyrinth of a building a decade earlier, and had learned that anything in the material world could be obtained there. I signed a form, handed over $50 and within an hour I was in possession of a laminated card and assured that this was my passport to the promised land.

“Do you know what this is?” asked the agent in Kathmandu. “A visa that permits you to travel anywhere in China! Where did you get it?”

Things got interesting after the rear gear on my three dollars-a-week rental bicycle snapped when I was about 30km from the capital. It had already been a harrowing ride, as I weaved around other cyclists, broken-down vehicles and pedestrians, while nervously avoiding dozens of diesel-spewing trucks.

I had walked the crippled machine to one of the tea shops by the side of the road and sat there wondering what to do next, when a motorbike roared alongside. Its rider, a Nepalese with a profound moustache, enquired in perfect English as to what exactly I was doing.

“I have been watching you from up there,” he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of Mount Everest. “I thought you were a woman.”

Despite his disappointment, the man, who called himself Surendra, suddenly announced that he would come with me.

“It’s years since I have been to Tibet,” he said. “You buy the daal bhaat, noodles and boiled eggs, and I’ll be the interpreter.”

That night I stayed at Surendra’s idyllic family farm in the Kathmandu Valley, and the following day we followed a rugged road skirting the glacial Sun Khosi river. In places, landslides had created crossings that were rather more exciting than one might expect.

“Lucky it’s not the monsoon season,” said Surendra. “You would be swimming to the border.”

The scenery was sublime, with immense waterfalls, terraced valleys and meandering streams feeding the great river. Two days later, we approached the Friendship Bridge just outside the town of Kodari.

“Just be confident,” said Surendra. “They don’t like us having our own transport, so we’ll hide the motorbike and, if they let us in, we’ll just run back and get it!”

Our friends at the bridge did not fall for the bike trick, and we were forced to abandon the Harley in a local dormitory and proceed up the steep and narrow road to the “real” checkpoint at Khasa by clinging grimly to the sides of a military vehicle until we reached the grey guard house.

“Welcome to China,” said the man at the gate.

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