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'The Charm of Kham' Published in Action Asia Magazine

My friends in Hong Kong have just run a feature of mine about bikepacking the spectacular Kham region of Tibet. I loved riding here (scary and difficult though it sometimes was), and can very highly recommend it to anyone looking for a cycle-touring destination that’s a bit off the beaten path!


PUBLISHED: "The Border Roads, Tibet" (

Tibet is much more than just the tightly restricted Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The Tibetan Plateau extends far to the east, with the ancient Tibetan region of Kham existing — accessibly — in the far west of the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, allowing visitors to the area to experience a Tibetan landscape and culture without the restrictions of travelling to the TAR.

If the idea of bikepacking Tibet -- crossing 4900m passes surrounded by snowcapped mountains and riding rough backcountry track thru highland pastures dotted by grazing yaks -- captures your imagination as much as it did mine, take a look at this five-day route for The Border Roads, Tibet.

Litang Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Litang Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Litang at 4100m in the high Tibetan grasslands. Brown hills rising over flat-topped roofs, dust swirling in the streets. Nomads on motorbikes with long wild hair, gold teeth, greasy shearling jackets hanging off their shoulders. A fine market with fruit, butchered meat, dry goods, shoes and clothes. Police, of course, everywhere.

The old quarter of town up on the north edge of the city still feels like Tibet, unreconstructed or improved. I wander the dirt streets behind houses with outer walls of mud and straw, old women spinning prayer wheels at small temples along the way. The Gelugpa monastery at the top of the hill is all new, bricks and lumber still piled around the courtyard. This is China: everything is in the process of being built.

More touristy than expected, Litang, with signs in English on the main street and a few westerners in my hostel. They hold sky burials here still west of town. From here on the road turns north, deeper into Kham.


Ganzi Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Ganzi Photographs (Kham Region of Tibet, West Sichuan)

Most of the information you'll find calls this superb market town 'Garze', but most of the locals call it 'Ganzi'. No matter what you call it, though, it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place to relax for a few days on a tour of Kham. Like most of the ethnically-Tibetan towns here on the Plateau, the ratio of police to residents here seems to be about 1:1, but practically what that usually means is big groups of 20-something cops standing around chatting with each other, driving around going GRNK! GRNK! at traffic with their sirens, or occasionally just napping in lawn chairs on the street. Johannesburg this is not.

Regardless, the real attraction here comes in two forms. First, the looming, sharp, snowcapped mountains of the Gongga Shan range rising in a high grey-white wall to the south of the town, as pretty as anything you've ever seen. And second, the enormous Khampa Tibetan community resident here, including hundreds of monks from the monastery in the old quarter up the hill, populating the streets, shopping for sneakers or mobile phones, or just hanging out in restaurants drinking tea. Like pretty much everywhere I've gone in Tibet, the welcome is noticeably friendlier than you get in many of the culturally Han parts of China --  the number of 'Tashi Deles' you'll get just walking down the street typically numbers in the dozens. Beyond that, there are good supermarkets, restaurants, street food and -- thank god -- real beer, a welcome respite from the watered-down 2.5% stuff sold everywhere else. 

Set in the high Tibetan grasslands, Ganzi is exceptional. Visit and you'll probably end up staying longer than intended.

Zhongdian (Shangri-la) Photographs

Zhongdian (Shangri-la) Photographs

Zhongdian, the city in northwestern Yunnan province cynically rebranded as 'Shangri-La', is a giant construction zone like so much of the rest of China. The Old City was largely destroyed in a fire in early 2014, and while much of the northern part of the Old City has been rebuilt, the southern end of the quarter remains a warren of half-finished buildings and half-laid streets, making it easy to see how manufactured the experience of Shangri-La's 'Old City' really is. That said, I can't be too hard on Zhongdian, with its backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Even if it's manufactured and touristy, the Old City is still an incredibly pleasant place to wander, and this is the first real stop on the Yunnan tourist trail where you can experience a bit of actual Tibetan culture, being the jumping-off point to the Tibetan Plateau itself. There's dancing in the streets at night (somehow all the locals seem to know the steps) and some very picturesque temples and what I'm told is the world's largest prayer wheel, though such designations are nearly always apocryphal. If you're interested in Tibet and Tibetan culture start your trip in Shangri-La, don't end it here. But for an accessible peek and a pleasant place to spend a few days, you could certainly do much worse.

Litang to Xinlong: Tunnels and Friendly Strangers


Litang to Xinlong: Tunnels and Friendly Strangers

Safe and sound in a shit, literally subterranean hotel room in Xinlong, where I've stopped for a short day after a big day of 100+km yesterday coming off the Plateau. Xinlong, a muddy, unprepossessing concrete plop by the riverside, is not a place that merits much discussion, except as a place to get plenty of sleep and binge-watch Archer. Instead, and in its place, I would like you to consider a topic near and dear to my heart: tunnels.

On the ‘pro’ side of the tunnel debate, I submit the following: hundreds of vertical metres of climbing saved, travel time across the mountain cut to a fraction of what it would otherwise be, grateful legs.

As for the ‘con’ side of tunnels: TUNNELS ARE FUCKING TERRIFYING.

On my map, the G318 running east from Litang shows as a predictable squiggle climbing the mountain, complete with about 400 metres of up-down. Naturally though, this being China, as I approach what ought to be the climb, instead of a climb, there is a yawning black hole in the mountainside. You should grow accustomed to this travelling here: if the map that you are using is more than six months old, the roads have changed. This is not an exaggeration: you can actually count on it.

The sign at the entrance gives the tunnel’s length as 2830 metres. This is an insanely long distance to be trapped underground with the speeding gamut of cars, trucks and heavy equipment in a dark, close, poorly-ventilated space, if you hadn’t given yourself ample time to consider the psychic gravity of what actually entering this tunnel means.

Emerging from the tunnel’s mouth in the opposite direction are a small group of Chinese cyclists who, even if they most probably evince the national tendency to be incredibly cavalier about personal safety, also have not passed out from carbon monoxide. Canaries in the coal mine. Fuck, here we go.

There’s a narrow kind of elevated walkway along the side – I think, I’ll stay out of traffic and just walk the bike here. But the walkway is full of giant, hidden, yawning holes with a half-metre drop, and anyway is randomly scattered with construction debris that wholly prevents progress. Plus by a couple hundred metres in, the light from outside is gone, and the idea of being trapped in this dark, loud, terrifying, echo-y, airless tube for the 40 minutes that it would take me to walk to the other side is not psychologically viable. I wait for the trucks behind me to pass, then get on the bike and begin to pedal like hell.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a jerk, and this is the age of social media, so of course I stop to take pictures. And I’m also reliably craven, so when a giant truck rumbles up behind me, I jump up onto the walkway and wait for it to pass. Which seems wise, given that the insane drivers in the tunnel are doing things like driving in the oncoming lane to pass each other, with generally zero visibility.

The part of me that worries about flossing is likewise worried about the fumes I’m breathing as I’m pumping along, which really seems pretty academic given the speeding, murderous traffic in the confined space, but I keep sprinting and – thank god – light begins to spread along the walls. And then, just like that, I’m thru. Out onto the nomad plains, the brown hills dusted with light snow like confectioner’s sugar. Appreciating the tableau of yaks and marmots and the periodic dots of white tents where nomads are probably watching cat videos on their smartphones, because of course even nomads have smartphones now and there isn’t really much else out here in the way of entertainment.

Hours later I’m down in the lowlands again around 3000 metres and the sun is about forty minutes from going down. I’ve been riding along the river road with its steep canyon walls and generally enjoying the fact that the construction along the way means that the road is both pleasantly bad and low on traffic. But the steep walls mean that there are zero hideouts to camp in with flat space, and I’m not super keen to be out on the roads after dark, for a variety of reasons. Hell, even if I were, Xinlong is 50k away. It’s too far to ride tonight.

So I do what any sane person does: I ride up to the temple (hint: look for the gold roof) of a small village by the river and ask if they have a safe place I can put up my tent for the night. As an interesting aside, travelling here Chinese literacy is actually a pretty big problem: of the four people hanging out on the temple grounds, only one can read Chinese.

Ah, but we get there. Of course I can stay – no need for a tent, there’s a bed near the wood stove in the kitchen. And would you like dinner? We made vegetarian steamed buns. Here’s some butter tea! Oh, you are a western person and like butter tea! How wonderful!

Doing a night’s worth of communication via mime, tiny bits of shared language and Google Translate is a bit exhausting, but also pretty amazing. And here’s the weird thing: when you travel Tibet, you’ll see huge piles of stones everywhere carved with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. And you think, who in the hell has gone and carved Om Mani Padme Hum on these anonymous thousands upon thousands of stones? Well, my hosts, as it turns out. They show me the work they’ve done over the last six months; it’s a yard filled with stones, plus another, plus the wall ringing the gilded prayer hall. For a kwai a repetition, they carve the mantra, over and over and over, earning merit as well as a living. And when they go back to Ganzi, their home for which I’m bound in a couple days’ time, they tell me they will begin to travel to Lhasa.

I make the walking gesture with my fingers. No no, the big guy, the one with the belly says. Then he makes the gesture for a full prostration. Then he does it again. ‘Ganzi to Lhasa?’ I ask. ‘All of you?’ They all just smile; he makes the prostration motion again.

It is 1600 kilometres to Lhasa.


Onto the Tibetan Plateau - Yading to Litang


Onto the Tibetan Plateau - Yading to Litang

Yading – Daocheng – Litang

My lips are a constant paste of half-dried mucus and dead skin. It’s been that way for days, since the sickness in Yading when I lay shaking in a fever sleep for 36 hours straight, the bedclothes twisted around me and reeking of sweat, and myself wondering if I can really go on? But what else is there?

The sickness becomes like a well that you have to climb out of, so far down into your own tiredness and weakness and reluctance that all you want is something comfortable, something familiar –Netflix and coffee and sleep and Mexican food. But no. I leave the Super 8 in Yading on the third day, and the manager is clearly glad to see me gone, speaking into Google Translate on my phone: ‘This stay the Chinese Communist Party has no knowledge!’ Out into the sun, 25km along the river road, exhausted and crashing in a hollow hidden beside the highway, instant noodles and twisting sleep and into another endless morning of climbing.

I am over it. I am beyond over it. The road climbs up onto the Tibetan Plateau proper above 4000m and the earth is brown and bare and sun-scorched and rocky and dry and my head is swimming with dizziness and lightheadedness from the altitude. Every structure, with its walls of flat stones and wooden windowframes, flies the red banner of either China or the Communist Party. There is no choice. Tibet has always been a part of China.

I inch on for hours, crawling across the skin of the Earth like an insect, wanting just to lie down and sleep. Yet somehow, each time I’m done with it, over it, there comes some fresh wonder, and suddenly I am back in the experience again. There on the S216 the road crests, and I swoop down into Daocheng.

I descend past a wide dry stony riverbed and all along it there are the yellow-green buds of spring poplars, the houses brown and flat-roofed with animals behind walls of stones. Rewu monastery stands like some kind of ancient, austere, gilded vision across the valley. Vast chortens of broken mani stones dot the landscape, and there – smiling and fingering strings of prayer beads and saying tashi dele! are actual Tibetan people.  It’s all so like a postcard of Tibet it immediately makes me smile.  

In Daocheng itself, the city centre seems weirdly overdeveloped for such a small place, and is filled with literally dozens of empty restaurants, a single bored employee seated inside just looking at their phone. I wander the centre until I find a restaurant that’s actually patronized, and when I sit down, what do they serve but noodle soup? Lord, anything but noodle soup again.

Up again the next morning, cycling past endless fields of stones, red-cheeked Tibetan women waving from the roadside, their hair in long black plaits. Dogs barking in dusty yards behind walls of stone; yaks, rangy cows. Following the olive-drab river valley, winding slowly uphill, men gathering dead wood with the hollow thunk of axes into little trailers attached to ubiquitous puttering tractor-motors. People circuiting around the stupas like community living rooms, a place to gather and socialize while they walk clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels. Climb up into a strange high landscape above 4000 metres, endless fields of boulders left over from a vanished ice-cap. In a very Chinese detail, there is a point of interest by the roadside to commemorate an interesting geological feature that was destroyed in the construction of the road itself.

I descend from the pass at 4600m with the air suddenly frigid and the wind blowing a gale, and ask if I can shelter in the lee of the large vinyl tent of some nomads, and they’d invite me in, share food and tea. Of course they have smartphones. A teenage boy, Jongja, follows me out to my tent and watches me make up my camp bed and lie down with such intentness and for such a prolonged period that I can only conclude that a) there is essentially nothing to do here but stare at the walls, and I’m accordingly high entertainment, or b) he is going to murder me. But though I’m happy in my little tent sheltered from the wind, just before nightfall a new man arrives to the camp on a motorcycle, and the vibe off him is strange, ulterior. I resolve to leave before he wakes in the morning.

When I wake at daybreak the sky is cold-pressed lead and there are a few flakes of snow in the air. I’m dead tired, but I immediately begin packing up my tent, a single cold hard Snickers bar in my stomach, which is quickly becoming a staple of my cycling diet.

By the time I’m halfway up to the top of the pass on the other side of the valley, legs shot and screaming with lactic acid, the weather’s developed into a full-on snowstorm, and the ice flakes are blowing sideways into my face like needles.

Yet Litang is still 75 km away, and after the rough transit of the last week – a wreck, a sickness, and more than 10 vertical kilometres of climbing, I need a real sanctuary and not just another night in a tent with instant noodles.

So: up to the top, so tired, so cold, then down, down, down. Numb hands, numb feet; my glasses are fogged over and covered in water droplets and I can only see thru a small window in the corner. The road curves down into a haze of snow and cloud, and I’m wearing so many layers beneath my helmet that it feels like I’m packaged.

Yet far beyond exhaustion, the whole day spent endlessly thermo-regulating, putting layers on, taking layers off, chilled or pouring sweat, I finally make it into Litang. Checked into my hotel, the evening is cold, drizzly and damp, people wandering the tumbledown streets in the murk, passing like apparitions. The town feels rough, Tibetans like frontierspeople in broadbrimmed leather hats, fingering prayer beads or spinning prayer wheels. Monks in maroon robes and sandals, the strange floppy yellow hats of the Gelugpa sect on their heads. Even after days at altitude I’m breathless climbing the stairs to my room. But I’ve arrived.

In the monastery up above the town a gargantuan 10-metre-tall statue of Tsong-kapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect, dominates a prayer hall. The ceilings and walls are a riot of Tibetan Buddhist iconography – benevolent dieties, fierce deities engulfed in flames – and offerings of yuan notes overflow from nooks and niches where supplicants have stuffed them.

I feel like there’s something to be worthy of here, the landscape and the culture so wild and unique, and myself so privileged to be able to witness and to transit it.  But really what is there to say? The Tibetan religious aesthetic seems to be things piled and heaped and tangled – prayer flags and stones, statues and skulls, mandalas and thangkas – such that the accumulation bears testament to piety and to intent.

I wonder if what I am doing is so different – this tangle of words, of photographs? It signals intent, yes. But does it add to something worthy? That very much remains to be seen.





The Secret Road: Zhongdian to Yading


The Secret Road: Zhongdian to Yading

On the highway forty kilometres north of Zhongdian there's an unassuming turnoff to a rough dirt road thru the high mountains. I'd been told about this 'secret road' by a cyclist named Matthew Harris back in Sydney. He said the road was truly very bad, but also very beautiful. That sounded perfect to me.

It was a long steep hellish climb along the road past a large-scale earthworks project, complete with dynamite blasting and a cracking altitude headache. Waking the next morning and continuing on into the high mountains, though, the views felt well earned. The mountains were wild and snowcapped and sharp and I drank snowmelt straight as it poured into freezing streams off the huge snowfields there. Past the flapping prayer flags at 4600m, the road wound down in rough, rocky, muddy tracks crossed by torrents of meltwater, an hour of white-knuckled ripping downslope that's as fun as any riding I've done. 

It ended, like so much here, in a raw gouge in the earth snaking ambiguously downward, which presented a navigational problem. A paved road? Well, that naturally leads somewhere. A battlefield-like maze of Chinese construction tracks coming off a mountain at 3800m, pocked and rutted and covered in moon dust two inches thick? Well, let's just say that just because you have a GPS doesn't mean you aren't lost. The roads you're on don't technically exist yet, and they're all the more treacherous for it. My brake rotors were too hot to touch, and bouncing from one gigantic, dust-covered pothole to another, I found myself pitched off the bike and lightly bleeding. Nonetheless, this was the precisely the route I'd chosen my equipment for. The 29+ platform, even fully loaded, made the secret road not just possible, but fun.

And when I finally reached the tarmac again near the hamlet of Geka, filthy and aching, I bivvied by the river, washing the dirt off my body by moonlight beneath the high steep walls. In the morning, a gorgeous 2000m climb on landslide canyon roads to a freezing pass in the spooky twilight, then descending screaming-fast to the village of Echu, where I found no lodging but instead a group of ambiguously friendly strangers who bundled me into a van to a Super 8 Motel in city I had no idea even existed, just in time for me to become violently ill.

That secret road thru the mountains, though, was indeed the real deal.


Lijiang to Zhongdian (Shangri-La) - The Back Way

Lijiang to Zhongdian (Shangri-La) - The Back Way

A great empire builds great roads. China by that metric is almost certainly great – pick a road that shows as dirt on Google imagery from 2016, and like as not by now it’s been paved, or is in the process of being so.

This holds true even in this far corner of Yunnan, vastly closer to Burma than Beijing. The roadside as I wind panting up the mountain outside Habacun on day three, switchbacks pitching drunkenly back and forth, is gouged and scarred by countless gravel quarries and ad-hoc road construction camps dug straight from the living hillside.

In that manner peculiar to China the roads themselves and the raw structures that rise periodically beside them throughout the miles seem poised on some razor’s edge between spanking-new and falling-utterly-into-ruin. I pass endless sporadic collections of construction detritus: piles of cinderblocks and tangles of rebar, dark irregular rough-cut planks spilled like toothpicks. Cement trucks rumbling uphill in low gear, spewing exhaust. Another great leap forward, but into what?

At the end of the first day’s ride, the high sharp snowcapped teeth of the mountains looming all day to the west as I wind on goat-haunted roads thru terraced fields, the road finally crests, and on my thankful tired legs I swoop 30km down down down the mountain to Daju. 

In Daju, the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hotel: a dark concrete room with two hard dusty single beds. Strip and shower in a bare concrete block, a hose with weak warm water, the proprietress's toothbrush and just-washed underwear on a low wooden bench in the cubicle. Outside in the dusk a dog lies in the dust of the empty street and the shop on the tiny main square sells only the barest dry goods. The mountains are high and brown and beautiful all around and the town feels entirely left behind. Rural China, an afterthought. I am warned against drinking the water.

I think: what to make of a nation that can build bullet trains and six-lane expressways and send taikonauts to outer space, but can't provide clean water for its people to drink? And then I think: is it so different from my country of birth, with its grand bellicose ideas and poisoned water in Flint and West Virginia? We no longer even build things.

Leaving Daju I ferry across the muddy Jinsha River and, climbing, skirt the mountain on a single-lane poured-concrete backroad thru tiny villages. Great views, sheer drops; no guardrails. Muscle fibres utterly burnt, beside the bike and pushing uphill for an hour or more. It isn't the long climbs that kill you, it's the steep ones.

Evening, morning, sleep and wake, more climbs, more descents, more villages. Off a long winding ascent I emerge into a spread-out hamlet in the winding crease of a beautiful, incredibly steep-sided valley beneath high mountains. The fences and buildings are mostly rough dark split wood, but dozens of unfinished, obviously centrally-planned two-storey cinderblock dwellings stand in rows like sentinels down the centre of the valley. At the roadside, an old man squats in a Mao-era blue suit and cap, a cigarette in his lips as he pokes at trash burning in the gutter. I camp hidden high above another village 20km beyond, the hillside covered in trees bursting with pink flowers and conifers draped in some kind of dust-green Spanish moss, the smell warm and dry and piney like the Sierra Nevada.

One more day, spinning, and I reemerge into modern China. The city of Zhongdian beneath grey skies feels half deserted, the shopfronts and guesthouses of the old town half shuttered and the streets outside this small quarter again on that razor’s edge between half-built and half-razed. Huge armoured police vans rove Changzheng Rd, all part of a harmonious society. The Yunnan Airline Aviation Sightseeing Hotel, a vast blocky Brutalist edifice, stands empty, dust and debris choking the revolving door at its entrance.

At my guesthouse in the old town this morning, a Taiwanese guy readies his mountain bike for a 13-day ride around the pilgrimage circuit at Khawa Karpo, camping gear and food lashed to a small trailer behind his bike. I wish him safe journeys and he gives me a little hug. 'I'm kind of scared,' he says, and I tell him that it's normal; I'm scared too and it will all be fine. Just start riding. But the fact is that for all the photos of mountain vistas and the romance of the way-out, this riding out into the unknown really does fill me with both fear and intense resistance. The next leg to Litang, which I estimate will take nine days, will take me onto rough roads on the Tibetan Plateau above 4500m. It would be easier to simply stay in town, sleeping in and drinking coffee.


Shuhe Old Town - Yunnan Province, China


Shuhe Old Town - Yunnan Province, China

Shuhe -- Lijiang's oft-overshadowed sibling. Rough stone-cobbled streets, grey slate roofs and shopfronts of dark wood. Wooded hills rising behind, and all thru it streams and channels of clear rushing water. For an hour of daylight each morning before the crowds arrive it's perfect. I walk the streets in the quiet and watch banners of intricate Chinese calligraphy float and snap in the breeze.

Shuhe is a confection, of course, the waterways rough stone mortared over cinderblocks and PVC pipe, and the 'ancient' buildings mostly built in the internet age, but it's a deeply pleasing one in that quiet hour nonetheless. By 10am the streets will be full of day-trippers taking joyrides on broken ponies and being wooed into shops by girls in local minority costume hoping to make a sale of Pu'er tea or silver or any of a hundred other assorted varieties of tourist junk.

Not that it matters to me: I'm not the target market. A lone laowai going back and forth on various minor errands, anonymous and mute and mostly just trying to get my gear in order before I set off tomorrow, north over the pass at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and down the winding road to Daju at the far end of Tiger Leaping Gorge. 

I pass the day anxiously packing, repacking and re-repacking, and in the evening my little guesthouse in an alleyway off the main street throws a dinner for the guests in the central courtyard. It's huoguo: hot-pot (of a kind), a salty broth to which is added tofu and mushrooms and veggies and curiously unidentifiable-as-individual-parts-of-the-animal chunks of bony, black-skinned chicken. We drink watery 2.5% Dali beer and sticky-sweet Yunnan dessert wine and twilight paints the sky indigo as the lanterns glow red in the dusk.

I speak no Chinese, but I feel warmly welcome. The other guests are from Tianjin and Guangdong and from Chengdu, and they make round after complicated round of toasts, drinking beer from tiny glasses after each one. The bubbling hot-pot steams voluminously in the dark as the night cools, and as the alcohol continues to flow a guitar is produced, and I find myself, at considerable insistence from the other guests, singing 'Knockin On Heaven's Door' in my inept tuneless tenor.

Not that it matters: everyone loves it. I say goodnight as the other guests trickle away and go snuggle beneath the heavy blankets in my room,  thinking I start tomorrow, I start tomorrow, I start tomorrow. Years of thinking about and planning this, and somehow finally it's here. No more days to live in between, the time machine of life delivering me right to the doorstep of the moment. 

I start tomorrow.