The 5050m Northern Loop – part 1 (Ganzi to Dege)

We thought we might as well try and cycle the infamous 5050m pass to Dege from Ganzi. I was keen to visit Xinlu Hai Lake and as cycle tourers travelling independently, we were not going to get any closer to Tibet than this.

We didn’t have time to complete the ‘northern loop’ via Bayu detailed in the Lonely Planet guide book, which would have taken 7-8 days solid cycling. 

After finding a paper road map in a restaurant in Litang though, Paddy was pretty certain we could cycle to Horpo via Dege, and then cut across country via some ‘smaller roads’ back to the northern highway just above Ganzi. These roads were not on our OSM map but we were fairly confident of where they would take us and we were feeling fit after our previous cycles and up for a final adventure before heading to Chengdu.

We gave ourselves 7 and a half days (including a rest day in Dege) to complete the loop and we certainly got our ‘adventure’. This ‘off road’ route ended up testing our fitness, perseverance and stamina to the max.

Day 1: Stocking up, a frustrating headwind and camping by a holy rock

Stats: 39km / 2:35 hours 

Knowing that it would be a week of camping and cooking most of our meals we took the morning to stock up on supplies. 

Then after a final lunch with Emelie and Romain we hit the road, our panniers bulging. 

It’s a long steady climb out of Ganzi and we both find it tough. A strong headwind doesn’t make it any easier. 

We climb and then open out onto the flat plain above Ganzi, the snow capped mountain range keeping us company to our left, the river to our right. 

We remind ourselves that any miles we cover this afternoon will simply make tomorrow’s cycle up to the lake easier so we don’t push too hard. 

We pass some incredible gompas (Tibetan temples) with their golden roofs and collection of prayer wheels and eight white chortens.

Much like the past few days, by 5pm dark rain clouds had started to roll in so we made finding a suitable camping spot a priority. 

We settled on this lovely river bank. Snow capped peaks to our right and this beautiful decorated rock complete with prayer flags and bunches of colourful flowers to our left. It is obviously a holy site and we hope its ok to camp here.

Paddy captured the mood of the sky very well in this picture.

Day 2: Pilgrims, Glacial Peaks and the Paradise Lake 

Stats: 72km / 4:35 hours 

The next morning we had a late start as we were both tired. I guess we hadn’t really had a rest day since Litang… We got breakfast going and finally finished packing at around 9am.

We hadn’t been going long before we were waved down by five women who were sitting on the grass having their own breakfast of homemade baba bread.

As we sat together sharing bread and oranges they explained they were on a pilgrimage, walking to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Each night they would stop at a monastery along the way. 


After waving them goodbye and wishing them luck we carried on with our steady climb towards the town of Manigango which lies 15km away from the lake and where we planned to have a late lunch. 

Before reaching the town, there was one final important point of interest for us on this stretch of road, and that was where we guessed we might come back out to meet this road after completing the loop. 

As I mentioned before, the final stretch of the route was a slight unknown to us. Here is Paddy at a road intersection. The valley behind him is where we hope we will come through in six days time…


In Manigango we met a couple of guys from Beijing who were travelling by motorbike across China. Their bikes were beasts!


The final 13km up to the alpine lake of Yihun Lahtso took longer than we hoped but we did stop a number of times to take some photos of the very cool glacier clad peaks.

It cost us 60Y for us both to enter the lake, but boy were we glad to be camping here for the night – it is, without doubt, the most beautiful place I have ever been. 


The last few nights it had got to 4.30/5pm and the rain storms had rolled in but not this evening… 

The lake is a very holy place and the rocks around the water edge are carved with Tibetan scripture. 

Across the water we see a group of red robed monks packing up their camp.

A couple of the younger monks came to say hello. One of them was keen to try on my helmet.

It was perfect, and after 6pm we had the whole place completely to ourselves. 

Don’t listen to the guidebook (it says camping is frowned upon) which we find often to contain misinformation. We set up camp and cooked up one of the nicest a meals we’d had in a long time too.

We spent the evening in contented silence as we both lapped up the view. It was perfectly still and so silent.

Day 3: Chola Mountain and the long downhill to Dege.

Stats: 105km / 6:35 hours

We both slept well despite the frost! Getting up early was sublime and we lingered for a long time not wanting to leave this idyllic place.

We needed to press on though as we had the infamous Chola pass to complete today – a bumpy, dusty, busy road which would see us climb to 5050m – our highest yet!

Thankfully the road is nicely paved for a good distance after the lake. They are busy building a tunnel where the unpaved track starts and it seems that in a few years the chola pass will be blissfully truck free…

Constant upkeep by two teams, one on each side of the mountain, ensure the road doesn’t crumble away. 

The climb wasn’t that bad, we’ve done worse, but the dust made parts of the cycle pretty horrible. At least the trucks when they did pass tended to do so in groups… 

This meant we did get some restbite to enjoy the views! 

Trucks !
As we approached the summit we both commented on our acclimatised lungs as neither of us had any hint of altitude sickness.

We reach the top which is decorated with the standard collection of prayer flags and while we’re stopped we get showered in lots of colourful prayer confetti which drivers fling out the window as they pass.

The downward stretch isn’t too bad – about 70 mins – we concentrate on getting passed the trucks (we’re faster than them) and we finally get back onto paved road. 

It’s 4.30pm and we’ve done well for time. We weren’t planning to get to Dege until tomorrow but a closer inspection of the map showed it was downhill 40 or so km all the way to the town. 

On the way we pass by a guy who is wearing knee pads and wooden slats on his palms. Yes, he is undertaking the ultimate pilgrimage – bowing the whole way to Lhasa!

We pass through some lovely countryside including an impressive gorge and reach Dege around 7pm.

Rest day tomorrow!

Litang to Ganzi: Great scenery, great camping and great company

We gave ourselves 4 days to cover the 260km from Litang to Ganzi. We would be cycling with Romain and Emelie who were not feeling 100% having caught a cold a few days before, and the four of us had unreliable info about the state of the road. 

It turns out we managed it in three days. Romain and Emelie are troupers and we liked camping next to them (in our identical tents!) and enjoyed their company very much. They have been travelling for over a year on their bicycles and were good at getting us up in the morning! 

The good thing about travelling with other tourers is that you pick up other ways of doing things. Emelie and Romain taught us many things, the best being boiling our eggs before leaving for a few days cycle… The easiest way to do this is in your hotel room kettle…

Here is an overview of our ride together.

Day 1: 101.3km

excellent for around 80km where we then hit major road works and had to follow a bumpy, dusty road for the final 20km… there is a long tunnel (3km) just outside Litang which helps a lot.

Because we’re on a tandem we have more momentum than a single bike so we tended to lose Emelie and Romain on the down and flat sections of the ride. We passed some beautiful scenery on the way including the most amazing valley, peppered with yurts and mountain top stupas.

At the top of the climb we are invited into one of the tents for tea. As we come back out to get back on the bike we see E&R coming up the hill. Perfect timing as its nearly lunch time!

We all enjoy the long down hill section and it’s incredible how warm it is at the bottom of the valley. 

There is some pretty crazy bits of the road which are just collapsing into the to river though.

Mobbed by interested children when we stop to fill up our water bottles!

Later in the day we find the perfect camping spot near the river but have to cross this rather precarious bridge to get there.

Day 2: 90.14km

Road: very nice. Take the tunnels where possible.

We wake up early to another clear, beautiful morning.

We follow the river and pass some big Tibetan temples and monasteries.

What a place to live huh?!

After lunch we have to navigate all three bikes through some serious inner-town road works…



We agree we will stop and find a camping spot at 4.30pm. The weather threatens rain and sure enough by 5pm there is a big thunder storm. Luckily we find an abandoned shack which is big enough for both our tents so we shelter here for the night.

Day 3: 77.2km

Road: very up and down but road surface is generally good.

The weather luckily clears and we set off hoping to complete the final 75km to Ganzi by late afternoon.

Snow capped mountains come into view as we climb up.

We have a final lunch together before completing the final 30km to Ganzi.

We reach Ganzi and manage to find a reasonable hotel to stay in. There is a power cut half way through our hot showers though…

Romain and Emelie are still feeling pretty ill so we venture out of our dark cold hotel and find a great cafe where we gorge on Tibetan yak pie and rich butter milk tea before turning in.


One of the main reasons for us both looking forward to reaching Litang was the prospect of potentially meeting some other travellers.

However great it is to get off the tourist trail and spend the evening trying to communicate with the locals (armed with your smart phone and dictionary app), occasionally you crave a more ‘fluid conversation’.

Apart from our couple of nights with JK and a brief evening with some people during our trek in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Paddy and I had spent the last 28 days being each other’s sole connection to conversational English.We were in serious need of some fresh topics of conversation!

Litang didn’t disappoint, and we not only met other travellers but also managed to meet a number of other cycle tourers.

We met a French cyclist, Jerome as he cycled into town looking for a hostel. Jerome has been on the road for a long while having cycled all the way from France, through the Pamir, down into Pakistan and up into China.

We also met another French cycling couple, Emelie and Romain, (also been on the road a long time) while they were trying to extract cash from an ATM in town. They ended up staying in the same hostel as us.

To complete the group, JK, our South Korean friend who we had last seen on a snowy mountain 5 days before turned up at our hostel on the eve of the first day.

We didn’t do a huge amount of touristy stuff while we were in Litang. We were all recovering from our epic, week long, cycles over the mountains from Shangri-la. Instead, we spent most of our time either servicing our bikes, talking about bikes, writing blog posts about our bikes or shopping around town (usually on our bikes!)

We also enjoyed eating scrummy Tibetan dinners together and having our early morning oatmeal breakfast parties…

Paddy, JK and I got up early one morning to attend a sky burial which we had heard was taking place on the hill above town at 7.30am.

For those who haven’t heard of the sky burial (or Jhator) before, it is the final act in the Tibetan funeral ceremony. 

In an area of the world where soft ground and timber kindling is hard to come by, ordinary Tibetans are instead, honoured through Jhator.

The body arrives having already gone through a number of rituals and ceremonies. It is taken to the offering site which is home to a large pack of vultures.

I expect you have guessed what happens next.

Although this custom initially sounds very alien to us, it’s not as macabre as it sounds. When you stop to contemplate it, there is something quite philosophical, even poetical about the concept – you are (quite literally) returned to the sky.

We cycled up to the site and a couple of other travellers were also there with a local guide. 
The colony of birds were all sitting up on a nearby hill. At around 8.30am a number of cars arrived. A group of around 12 monks sat facing the hill reciting prayers while one car drove up onto the hill and a group around 45 men (there were no women present) gathered around the vehicle. Naturally we sat a respectful distance away and once the car arrived we didn’t take any more photos. 

We weren’t sure what to expect but, compared to funerals back home, it all felt quite informal and, well, matter of fact. Everyone was dressed in normal everyday clothes and apart from the monks, there didn’t seem to be any ritual to the proceedings. 

It’s a bit of a shock when suddenly the group of men stand aside and you see the group of vultures urgently flock towards a point on the ground but thankfully we were too far away to see anything ‘detailed’.

The only other point of interest in town was a quick visit to the house where the seventh Dalai Lama was born. 

Sadly JK wouldn’t be able to cycle the next stretch with us as he was heading straight to Chengdu and Jerome had headed off a day earlier than the rest of us, but Emelie and Romain would be heading north to Ganzi (where they hoped to renew their visa), so the good company would continue for the next few days at least. 

Up, Up and Away: 7 days, 440km, and 6500+m

No wifi access, a series of epic climbs, rural Tibetan villages, dirt track roads and lots of camping – here is an overview of our solid seven day cycle between Shangri-la in Yunnan to Lithang in Sichuan, China.

Day 1: Back on the road out of Shangri-la

Distance: 72km / Ride time: 4:08 / Average Speed: 17.5km/h

Today passed without too much drama. It was the first proper rainy day we had had cycling so we got rain geared up. Here is Paddy in his bright yellow shoe covers.

We passed through some nice valleys and a weird semi-abandoned village called Gezan which was mainly made up of buildings which were falling down – we wondered whether they were the remains after the earthquake which I know hit western Sichuan 4-5 years ago…

We eventually found a camping spot near a river just before the next big climb. We pitched the tent quickly and cooked up dinner in the vestibule. Twin Peaks is keeping us occupied before going to sleep!

Day 2: We meet JK and discover that there are still places in the world where the air is so clean lichen hangs like giant cobwebs from the trees

Distance: 39.4km / Ride Time: 2:58 / Average Speed: 13.2km/h

With the knowledge that tomorrow would be a very long and hard day in the saddle we planned a relatively short day today.

In fact, we didn’t get out of the tent until 10am as it was still raining… We cooked breakfast and enjoyed a lie in with coffee in our double down sleeping bag.

With the rain clearing we pack up and are about to set off when I spot another cycle tourer puffing his way towards us.

JK from South Korea had pitched his tent 10km back down the road and was heading in the same direction as us. It would be nice to have some company so we set off up the climb together.

We plough up the valley, pine forests as far as they eye can see. 

The rain clears and the three of us marvel at the amount of lichen hanging from the trees. It looks like spooky green cobwebs and we fill our lungs with the amazingly clean air.

We reach the top at around 4ish. Great views at 3900m!

Then enjoy the decent and drop back down to 3000m.

We stop for dinner and then cycle 5km up the valley until we find a basic guesthouse. We have our standard ‘shower’ round the back of the house with a bowl of hot water.

Day 3: Snow, crossing the border into Sichuan and discovering our love of tarmac 

Distance: 61.9 / Ride Time: 6:26 / Average Speed: 9.6km/h

A stunning and perfect day for cycling up the mountain!

We leave the Tarmac road behind but the dirt track really isn’t too bad and there is barely any traffic.

We pass a collection of prayer wheels all being continually spun by a small stream below each of the ‘temple huts’.

This lovely couple stop and give us fruit and sticky honey rice cake.

We say goodbye to JK after sharing lunch as he decides he will only go on a bit further and set up camp. We push on wanting to get over the second climb so we can drop down before finding a camping spot.

We had climbed for 4.5 hours – around 35 km – and reached the top which sits at 4400m. This marks the gateway into Sichuan. There is a lot of snow and it’s very cold!

The weather really starts to close in and we’re keen to get down as far as possible before setting up camp. The road on this side of the mountain is REALLY TERRIBLE! Please please give us back some tarmac!

It’s a bumpy ride and we still have another small climb before we can really lose some height and get down to under 4000m.

We’re glad to see a makeshift building in the valley and there is smoke rising from its chimney! 

The guy lets us in and we get warm by his big fire. We don’t have much in the way of food but he sells us 4 noodle pots which we add some boiled rice to. Not a great meal considering how far we’ve climbed but at least it’s something.

We pitch our tent on the gravel lay-by opposite the hut. The pigs attack our loose rice bag but otherwise we sleep pretty well. We hope JK is ok and that he’s not too cold in the snow.

Day 4: A bumpy descent

Distance: 80.5km / Ride Time: 5:05 / Average Speed: 15.8km/h

Another great day weather wise but the bumpy road continues for a long time and we have a small climb to complete before a very uncomfortable decent all the way down to below 3000m where we find ourselves in a green lush valley. 

Tarmac! Sweet sweet Tarmac! 

All the houses are built and painted in the same Tibetan style, this time with flat roof so. I think they are beautiful!

We stop in Qung Mai Xiang for lunch where we gorge on a big feed. It’s good not to be eating instant noodle soup again.

We keep climbing back up to 3000m where we stop at a small village directly above a large hydroelectric damn. This marks a good place to stop as it is directly before the start of the big climb tomorrow. We find an hotel of sorts (former digs of all the workers who obviously built the damn.) There’s a warm shower which is sublime!

We spend the evening with the family next door and the kids practise their English on us.

Day 5: The big one – 4718m!

Distance: 62.4km / Ride Time: 6:19 / Average Speed: 10.2km/h

Another stunning day – we have been so lucky with the weather!

A big big climb today so we start early.

We climb steeply for about 4.5 hours and then stop for lunch. The road remains blissfully paved.

We then continue up through a beautiful valley – Spring is really in the air.

We reach about 4400m and we both begin to feel a little light headed from the altitude. We just take it slow with plenty of stops

Considering the height it’s really quite warm. Paddy is still in his shorts and cycle top when we reach the summit.

To put this in perspective, you could easily fit Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in the UK) 3 times under us with plenty of room to spare.

So back down we go towards Sangdui where we will stop for the evening.

From far above Sangdui looks like the dullest, ugliest town we’ve ever seen but as we get closer we see that actually all the houses are incredible fortress like buildings, with beautiful turrets, gates and doorways.

They are like mini castles – I guess you need houses like this to keep out the bitter weather up here.

We find our own cosy haven and I sleep very soundly.

Day 6: New breakpads, groundhogs, glacier valleys and tooth ache

Distance: 71.1km / Ride Time: 4:08 / Average Speed: 17.1km/h

We have a late start as we needed to fit new breakpads – all those hills have been tough on the ol’ disc break!

We get going and follow the Haizishan Rock Glacier up 45km to another high point. To our right are all the spherical rocks deposited by the glacier.

The high plateau at the top boasts a huge colony of four legged, sandy coloured mammals (the size of a small badger) but we have no idea what they are? They ran too fast for me to snap them on the camera.

At the top it starts to snow!

We drop back down and cook lunch before the last climb of the day. Here is Paddy dutifully collecting water.

At the top of the last climb some Chinese ladies all in pink give us red bull and apples. We also have a celebratory swig of rice wine.

Then the long decent down – great incline through another spectacular glacial valley and at one point we reached 66km/ph (!) – through the protection of my down hood under my helmet I can hear Paddy’s intermittent, gleeful cries of ‘this is cool’ and ‘weeee’. 

Once we reached the bottom the road openes out to the most spectacular plain surrounded by mountains. 

We pitch our tent in one of these ruins and build a huge fire to stay warm.

Day 7: Final 50km to Litang

Distance: 50.1km / Ride Time: 2:50 / Average Speed: 17.6km/h

It ended up being a very cool night and we woke to find icicles on the inside of our tent.

Paddy had a bad night due to very sore cold tooth ache.

It is the most beautiful morning, and once the sun gets going we soon warm up.

The night before a teenage girl had turned up to give us some tinned food. One of the tins contained SPAM. This next picture is for you Katy Sheen.

After a champion breakfast of potatos, scrambled egg and fried spam (the first time either of us had tried this) we cycle through some spectacular countryside and complete the 50k to Lijang by 2pm.

Phew! Looking forward to a couple of rest days but it has been a great week of remote cycling!