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ARTICLE: Update on how to enter and cycle into Tibet independently? (FREE)
 
 

 
ARTICLE: Update on how to enter and cycle into Tibet independently? (FREE)
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Last Update: 01/02/2011

Since the question of entering Tibet pops up a lot, and since the situation dramatically changed since I cycled Tibet myself in 2006, I did some research and contacted some knowledgeable friends and connections to find out what the current situation is like.

Overview


  

First I will give a summary to those of you who are unfamiliar with the situation of cycling in Tibet. Traveling on your own in the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) is illegal; if you get caught you will be subject to a fine and sent back to China, or out of China, depending on where you are. So, in order to travel in Tibet, you are required by Chinese law to buy a permit and to be accompanied at all times by a Chinese guide. This is almost always accomplished by joining a tour group.


So, what one needs to do to enter Tibet independently, is to sneak in. Travelers go through checkpoints in the middle of the night and avoid sleeping in hotels, as the owners are known to call the police (known as the PSB) on tourists without permits. For doing so, the owners receive a cash payment and the tourists are fined and sent out of Tibet by bus.

It used to be easier because the PSB didn't used to care if you passed them on the road during the daytime, as long as it was between checkpoints and not at the checkpoints themselves (the PSB would even sometimes wave hello as you passed by, with your heart pounding).

The 4 routes to enter Tibet are the following:

  • From the south by the Friendship Highway from Nepal. This route has always been by far the most difficult to go through illegally (I haven't heard of anyone who sneaked in that way for many years).
  • From the east by the Yunnan or Sichuan Highway (both join at Markham) - arguably the most scenic route. This route from the east used to be relatively accessible as long as you followed the two rules mentioned above (checkpoints at night and no hotels).
  • From the north through Golmud. This route has fewer checkpoints than the routes coming from the south and east.
  • From the west.  This route is known to be the most challenging (higher, drier, very remote, poor road conditions). This route used to be the most accessible, but because of the the checkpoint in Kudi, this route is, according to Ben Koons, "pretty much impassible without a permit" when coming from the west (see details below).  This checkpoint is not really an issue when coming from the east because you will be exiting Tibet at that point.  

These were the rules of thumb before the riots that took place in Tibet in March of 2008. Since the riots, the Chinese government started taking drastic measures to stop solo travelers from sneaking into the TAR.


Warning for Forum Users



There has been evidence that the PSB is following travelers' forums to spot illegal travelers on the road. I highly recommend not leaving any names, or worse, any times and locations while you are attempting to cycle independently through Tibet. For example, imagine you managed to cycle to Lhasa.  It is probably not a good idea to mention it on a forum, saying "Hey guys, I did it! I'm currently staying at this hotel, or tomorrow I'll be heading that way, etc."


Tibet's Situation post-March 2008



I contacted some knowledgeable contacts to understand how the situation has evolved since the riots in 2008.

Janne Corax: I contacted Janne (March 2010) on his way to Argentina. For those who don't know Janne, he is probably the most knowledgeable Tibet bicycle traveler (see Janne Corax website). He biked almost every single paved road, dirt road, and path in Tibet. If there is one experienced Tibet Cyclist, it is Janne.  This is what he told me:

"Tibet became very, very strict and hard for independent traveling. Even my Chinese biking friends have problems. There are mobile checkpoints now, and the PSB actually controls travelers on the road between checkpoints. Also, some bridges have military at night. The PSB checks all hotels. Also, the locals are supposed to tell the police if they see a foreigner, so it's very hard to get away. A friend of mine was handed over to the police by Tibetan nomads. No safety anywhere. There are many more hard checkpoints and also the military will arrest you and that wasn't the case before. They actually used to help you against the PSB sometimes. If any police see you along the way, they will stop you. That was the way my Chinese friends ended up in trouble. That said, things may change soon. A lot depends on how the "critical time" in March goes. If it's calm, perhaps some of the restrictions will be lifted. Some persons I judge knowledgeable say there will be very tight security, as it's the 50 year anniversary of the liberation of Tibet.

In Fall 2008, I went straight over the Kunlun mountains and then over the Chang Tang Plateau. Over one month with no roads and no people.  A total of 54 days in the wilderness. Caught on the southern side and then kicked out of China, to Kyrgyzstan."

My friend Lee. Lee is a good friend of mine, he is Chinese, and a hard-core bicycle traveler himself. He has been living in Lhasa for the past 6 years. He confirmed that there are now many more checkpoints and that the PSB runs mobile checkpoints all the time on all 4 roads. He also said that the Chinese army set up several settlements on these roads, which are used as checkpoints and as a base to patrol the area. The route from the west now has some of these army points as well (apparently this route is mostly patrolled by the army but also by the PSB as you get closer to Lhasa). Lee has not heard of any cyclist who managed to enter Tibet illegally since 2008 (and believe me, this guy knows a LOT of people, he would know). He heard about several cyclists who got arrested on the northern route in 2008 and in 2009, and also a solo traveler on the western route in 2009. He told me that there are rumors in Lhasa that it will take at least two years before China cuts back on the budget to control these roads. Finally, Lee told me that every cyclist he sees in Lhasa belongs to a tour group.

 

Internet Resources



A lot of information on these websites is outdated, but some will never change, so they remain excellent sources of information.

Janne Corax Website: Excellent information about Tibet with route descriptions and elevation charts.

Fred Ferchaux website: Fred gives tables with descriptions of what you will see every half a mile. In French, but the tables are understandable for English speakers thanks to the link "understand table" found at the top of most of the tables.

AutonomousCycling.com From March to June 2009, Ben and Nils managed to bike the Yunnan Highway to Lhassa and then all the way to Kashgar (see details below: "update from Ben").

Ray's travels A good source of information, maps, and links.

Tip: In China, a lot of websites are censored so you won't be able to access any url you want (especially if Tibet is mentioned). However, some people reported that you were able to access many more websites by using this link first: Anonymouse.org


Maps



Yunnan Highway (Kunming - Lhassa)

Tibet Maps

Maps of Himalaya


Elevation Charts



Chengdu - Lhassa (click to enlarge)



Dali Lhassa (by Corax)

Golmud Highway (by Corax)

Kargilik - Katmandu (incl. Route 219) (by raize.ch)

Other routes (by Corax)


Yunna / Sichuan Highway Info


Route details with tables indicating km. markers, water, food, passes, altitude, asphalt, checkpoints, etc.


Golmud Highway Info



Route details with tables indicating km. markers, water, food, passes, altitude, asphalt, checkpoints, etc.


Kashgar / Lhasa Info



Route details with tables indicating km. markers, water, food, passes, altitude, asphalt, checkpoints, etc.


Update from Ben Koons



The account from Ben and Nills is the only one I have of cyclists who managed to bike independently through Tibet after the riots of March 2008. From March to June 2009, they cycled and hitch-hiked from Kunming (Yunnan) to Kashgar (Tibet) via Lhasa. I spent almost an hour on the phone with Ben to get as many details as possible on the experience he and Nills had going through Tibet. I would like to thank him for his time and this valuable information and thank Anne for emailing me Ben's blog.

This is the google map of their route: Kunming - Lhasa - Kashgar

General Information:

Ben and Nills used the two tables "Lhasa - Zhongdian" and "Kashgar - Lhasa" (see links above) to find checkpoints, towns, food, water, etc. "They are very accurate and only a few have changed." Ben reported about 20 PSB checkpoints east of Lhasa. Except for a few checkpoints that they had to sneak around, most most of them were " pretty easy to slip through at night with mostly just gates."

"Between Lhasa and Kashgar there are fewer checkpoints, but they mostly are army ones and seem to be much tighter."

In 3 months, they didn't see any mobile checkpoints. The PSB, police, and army passed them numerous times on the road but never asked about their permits. They just waved or even stopped to take photos.

To pass the checkpoints, they went through at dusk or dawn when they didn't need flashlights to bike.

" Every encounter with the army and police, although sometimes inconvenient, was pleasant.  For the most part, they are very nice to foreigners, although they are sticklers to rules."

They were busted 3 times. Once at the Mekong bridge on the Yunnan Highway, once west of Paryang (Kashgar - Lhasa route) and once at an army checkpoint just before the Myrium La Pass. They were asked for permits 4 times in the whole trip - when they were arrested in eastern Tibet, in Lhasa, when arrested at km 1474, and at the Kudi checkpoint.

They never ate in a restaurant, they stayed in hotels only in Ali and Lhassa (and were reported to the PSB in the first one). "In those two cities, we just found a local hotel that didn't deal with foreigners and didn't know or care to ask about papers or try to register us with the PSB as they are supposed to. They bought food only in small- to medium-sized towns and never in towns with checkpoints and stopped as briefly as possible.


Checkpoint highlights:

"Even with the increased security, we found that you are still dealing with a pretty unorganized network with little communication and there are plenty of holes to slip through. Most of the outposts are isolated and they have little idea outside of Lhasa and Kudi what to do about foreigners because they never encounter them. We were arrested early in eastern Tibet and they wrote our names down on a piece of paper that stayed in the station and never made it further. So after we slipped by them a second time, there was no follow up.  Apart from Kudi, the checkpoint situation in western Tibet is much easier than eastern Tibet, although the riding is harder."

Yenjing: The 1st checkpoint comes up in the town of Yenjing, about 8 km. after passing the official TAR border (large arch). They came up at midnight, saw some lights from a distance with some guards, so they turned around, camped, and waited for dawn to pass under a series of 3 barriers.

Markham: They biked through at night.

Mekhong bridge: On their way to cross the Mekhong River, they met an Austrian who just got busted at the Mekhong checkpoint and was shipped back to Sichuan on a truck (he actually stopped the truck to warn Ben and Nils of the checkpoint). They decided to camp a few km. before the bridge, but they were getting too confident and didn't hide much, so several cars spotted them. They were probably reported, as the PSB woke them up in the middle of the night and took them to the checkpoint station, where they spent the night. During that night, they witnessed the activity of the checkpoint and realized that the guards do not sleep and control everything passing through. The next day, they were sent back on a truck to Markham and were supposed to be sent back to Sichuan on a bus, but they talked the PSB out of it and were allowed to leave by bike. They pretended to leave Tibet, but instead turned around and hitchhiked back to the Mekong checkpoint. The checkpoint is actually a few hundred meters after the bridge, so they snuck around by climbing right after the bridge, crossed a field, and rejoined the road (see dotted line on the picture below). The climb is difficult but feasible.



Bomi: There is a checkpoint before Bomi and outside of Bomi. Be careful, the latter is not really a problem but it is NOT mentioned in the table "Zongdhian - Lhasa". This part of the route is in a long flat stratch in a wide valley, so if you see any guards at the checkpoint you can easily go around it.

Lhasa: There are no checkpoints, but hostels and hotels are required to report you to the PSB to check for your permit. This is what happened to them and the PSB came to question them and told them they needed to buy a permit and a tour to pursue their route.  They basically said, "Ok, we'll think about it" and changed hotels. They went to several hotels until they found a local hotel run by a Tibetan who didn't speak English and was not used to foreigners.  They felt as if he wouldn't report them, and he didn't.  After a few days, they were on the road to Kashgar.

Shigatse: They stopped at a restaurant. Easy checkpoint with no barrier.

Lhatsi: Town at the Junction with the route to Katmandu. The checkpoint is well-guarded so they sneaked around.

Saga: After rounding a corner, they came upon a checkpoint that was earlier than they expected.  The PSB arrested Ben and Nills, confiscated their passports, and gave them one day so that they (the PSB) could figure out what to do with them.  Ben and Nills used that time to buy food and check out a way to sneak around the checkpoint. The army told them that they had to go back to Shigatse, they said "ok", and then camped a few km. down the road and sneaked around the checkpoint at night. There is a way south of the checkpint along the river bed. They had to cross a few streams and sand dunes to rejoin the road.

Km marker 1474: At that point, they were running out of time for their visas, so they hitchhiked almost the whole way to the western frontier. There is a flat riverbed before Maryum La Pass. This is a large army base in the middle of nowhere used as checkpoint. They attempted to sneak around, but they think they were reported (by locals or by the driver) because they were found where they could not be seen from the road. They attempted to sneak around by crossing the river that goes along the road. Again, the PSB didn't know what to do with them. They finally let them go and told them to get a permit in Darchen.

Darchen: "... at this point, we were getting lazy about checkpoints because we figured the worst that could happen was that they shipped us out, which was ultimately what we wanted since our visas were running out." So they were not hiding, and after hiking to Mount Kailash, they were arrested in town. They had to pay a fine and buy a permit for a total of 450 RMB per person ($65).

Kudi: This is the last checkpoint going westward. According to Ben this is, by far, the worst checkpoint they had seen on the entire road. " The Kudi checkpoint is pretty much impassible without a permit. It has probably only gotten worse after the Xinjiang Uyghur riots." The checkpoint is in a steep and narrow gorge. It is guarded 24/7 by guards armed with machine guns. There is a gate, spike strips, and even a fence going across the gorge. This is the only checkpoint that they saw that was equipped with computers. Ben said that if you're really adventurous, you might be able to go around on the east side and the far side of the river. However, although he thinks that it might be feasible by foot, he can hardly see how it would be possible with a bike and panniers due to the steepness of the gorge (remember that Ben is pretty fit, as he is an Olympic athlete competing for NZ).




Update from Anne @ transhimalaya.blogspot.com (September 2010)



Back in September 2010, Anne from transhimalaya.blogspot.com and her friends Celine and Pierre attempted to do the western route (Kashgar-Lhassa-Khatmandu) by bike. They were arrested 60 km. after the Ali checkpoint and sent back to Kashgar. We emailed each other back and forth when she was preparing her trip and gathering some information and helping me with this article before hitting the Karakoam Highway. I will give only a summary of the info related to checkpoints that I gathered from her blog. For the fun stuff and their experience biking one of the most challenging roads on earth, I invite you to visit her blog: http://transhimalaya.blogspot.com.

Kudi checkpoint: They entered Tibet on route 219. First, they met a Spanish cyclist near Yarkand who had been turned around by the Police. He confirmed the heavy presence of the Police and army in Kudi but this is how they successfully snuck through the first checkpoint in Kudi: They camped 6 km (4mi) before Kudi and biked through the town around 4 AM. The first barrier at the entrance of Kudi was open but the real checkpoint is on the other side of the town. At the checkpoint, the barrier was closed, so they turned off their lights and silently went underneath of it. They quickly took off and heard "Hey!" from one of the guards and decided to bike even faster. Of course, at this point they didn't know if the PSB would be looking for them, so they biked until dawn, then hid again during the daytime. They heard about a Dutch cyclist who got caught 10 km after Kudi so they kept low key and biked only at night the following day. Perhaps the guard didn't say anything, worrying that he might get in trouble for letting them slip by? Then they hitchhiked the last 50 km to Mazar.

Domar checkpoint: Several hundred km. farther on, they reached the next checkpoint at Domar, a large Tibetan village. They went through it at 2.30 AM.  There was some light, the police were present, and a rope was "closing" the road. The cold and the dogs didn't make it easier but, again, they silently went underneath the "barrier" and made it through.

Ali checkpoint: A Chinese cyclist warned them about the checkpoint 2 km after the town of Ali. They went through at night at 4AM; the guard was inside watching TV, and the rope was laying on the ground, so they just went over it. Up to that point, they passed the PSB several times and never had any problems, but unfortunately 60km after Ali (km 1120) they passed a pickup truck with not only the PSB inside of it, but also the person who is actually in charge of delivering permits. Anne and her friends were first taken back to the PSB office in Ali, where they stayed a week (negotiating?) and then the PSB shipped them back to Kashgar. In 48 hours, they retraced the same route that had taken them a month on their bikes.

After that, they traveled in Tibet the "legal" way: airplane to Xining and train to Lhasa, where they joined a guided bike-tour Lhasa-Katmandu via the Friendship Highway with the required permit and the required - and expensive - Chinese escort. For more details on their adventure and to see some of their stunning pictures, visit their blog  http://transhimalaya.blogspot.com and check their journal from September to November 2010.





TO KEEP THIS PAGE UP TO DATE AND TO HELP OTHER BIKERS, PLEASE LEAVE ANY INFO YOU MAY HAVE IN THE REVIEW SECTION AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE OR BY EMAIL at info(at)cyclocamping.com. If you managed to go through, please indicate the route and date and details on how you did it and/or complications you encountered. If you got arrested, please indicate where, how, by whom, and the outcome. Of course, the more details, the better. If you wish your name to be added to the update, let us know. Thank you.





 
     

 
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