Touring Tibet on a Motorcycle: Why Every Adventure Tourer Should Experience Riding “the Roof of the World”
Mystical, mythical mysterious Tibet. This enchanting land, home to the holiest temples and the mightiest mountain peaks is considered one of the final frontiers of motorcycle touring.
Access isn’t easy. If you’re a foreigner, independent travel in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is strictly forbidden.
But thanks to the newest venture from the team at Motolombia, a new global branch of their tour division called MotoDreamer – the incredible high-altitude roads and formidable passes of the Lhasa and Everest regions have been unlocked with a tour tailor-made for the discerning and experienced moto traveller.
Why You Should Tour on Two Wheels in the Tibetan Himalayas
Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the experience of being high up in the Himalayas. After all, it’s impossible to get any higher!
As sacred as the mountains are to millions of Hindus and Buddhists, a journey to the Himalayas doesn’t necessarily have to be a spiritual undertaking.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to feel the currents of ancient culture and mysticism that have survived here for millennia. Contemplating the sheer scale of nature’s creation and one’s place within it is a truly humbling experience.
Talk of spiritual transcendence aside, there’s no better way to travel long-distance through this region than by motorbike.
You’ll be dwarfed by towering peaks at every turn as you ride some of the highest highways on earth in the place they call “The Roof of the World”.
Imagine rounding a bend and coming face-to-face with the sheer, snow-covered face of an 8,000m high giant, it’s piercing white peaks clearly visible against a bright blue sky. That’s what riding in Tibet is like almost every single day during the peak summer riding season.
The Amazing Road Between Lhasa and Everest Base Camp
Once a slow, dangerous slog on a deteriorating dirt ‘highway’, these days, the 613km road between Lhasa and Everest Base Camp is almost entirely paved in near-pristine asphalt.
Despite the exhaustive upgrade, the Lhasa-Everest highway has lost none of its scenic beauty, winding its way through deep valleys, desolate high plateaus, glacier-carved lakes and rivers and tiny farming villages.
Just look at how cool this road is!
It’s almost like it was designed to an adventure biker’s exact specifications and brought to life by the awesome power of engineering (and loads of Chinese cash).
Don’t be fooled though – this is still challenging riding, with tight technical corners, stomach-turning cliff-edges to avoid and occasional traffic squeezes in tight, narrow sections of highway. There’s also extreme altitude to contend with – several days of prior acclimatisation is essential.
But to really experience riding the Himalayas, there are times you’ve got to put the pavement behind you and ride the rough-and-ready backroads like the locals do!
Tibet is of course known for its thousand-year-old Buddhist traditions and ancient monasteries. Some of the most remote and beautiful monasteries of all can only be reached via scrappy gravel trails through tranquil, barely-developed countryside – taking you back in time to the Tibet of long ago.
From cruising the incredible Lhasa-Everest Highway Tibet, to traversing the lonely passes beyond the tour bus trail and seeing five of the world’s 14 highest mountain peaks up-close and personal, Tibet is any adventure rider’s dream.
The (Somewhat) Tricky Business of Touring Tibet on a Motorcycle
Tibet was (and still is) off the usual motorcycle touring radar.
This is mainly due to access – it really can be a logistical and bureaucratic pain in the backside!
We call the region on the Tibetan Plateau (the highest region on earth) simply “Tibet”, but officially, it’s the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and very much a part of China,
Foreigners are subject to all the rules and regulations of travelling in China, plus a few extras, mainly created so the Chinese Government can keep an eye on the movements of foreigners in the area and generally let the people know who’s in charge.
Is Independent Travel Ever OK in Tibet?
No. Not legally anyway. Sorry.
If you’re not a Chinese citizen, you’re not going sightseeing in Tibet without a government-approved tour guide in tow.
Still, if it’s your dream to visit Tibet, don’t be discouraged. A good organised tour won’t stop you from seeing and experiencing the real Tibet.
Whether you are trekking, travelling by mini-bus or hitting the highway on your own wheels, you must have an accredited guide with you at all times.
However, being accompanied by a native Tibetan guide who speaks the local languages and knows the place and its people intimately can be an invaluable source of knowledge especially in a place as culturally rich as Tibet.
Being accompanied by a registered tour vehicle is also mandatory at all times. If you’re touring Tibet by bike, your tour vehicle can be a bike, ridden by your guide (way less weird than being constantly trailed by a CCP surveillance van, if that’s what you were imagining!)
Other Things You Need to Know
1. Chinese Tourist Visa Most foreigners require tourist visas for China. For most nationalities, obtaining one is not difficult, but to avoid getting all last minute panicky, apply at least one month in advance is recommended – two months in advance if you’re going to Tibet. That’s because you’ll need your Chinese Visa before you can apply for the Tibet Travel Permit.
You’ll need to go to your nearest Chinese Consulate to fill out the official application form, pay the visa fee and provide a copy of your passport, mugshot and details of your itinerary. If you can’t get there yourself, get an accredited travel agency in your country to assist you.
2. Tibet Travel Permit
Only Chinese passport holders may enter the TAR without a Tibet Travel Permit.
Getting this permit means first being in possession of a Chinese visa and secondly, having your accredited tour pre-booked through a travel agency. Your tour company will help arrange everything for you. Expect to wait around 10 to 15 working days for the permit to be issued.
Once you enter the TAR, you may be asked to show your permit at airports, roadside checkpoints, hotels, tourist attractions or anywhere bored police or security guards are hanging around waiting for something to do.
3. Chinese Motorcycle Licence
One of things moto-travellers find most off-putting about riding in Tibet (and China in general) is that foreigners must have an actual Chinese driver’s license to legally drive in China.
This license can be really annoying to get, especially if you don’t speak Chinese! However, MotoTibet and the local team will assist to make this whole process pretty painless.
You are also required to bring an international driver’s license which can be obtained from you local Automobile association, the AAA or motor vehicle office.
MotoTIbet: The Easiest, Safest and Coolest Way to Tour Tibet By Motorbike
Mike Thomsen and Diana Carolina Puerto (the duo behind Motolombia) have been running motorcycle tours in Colombia and South America since 2008.
On top of his South American exploits, rider-in-chief Mike has been touring the world (is it 100 countries now Mike?) by motorcycle for well over 20 years.
Mike has always dreamed of taking groups of passionate riders to some of his favourite non-South American moto-touring destinations. After years of research, planning and hellish amounts of paperwork, he has finally realised his dream with the soon-to-launch global motorcycle tour company, MotoDreamer.
Look out for more info on the epic worldwide riding destinations lined-up by MotoDreamer on this blog, and the soon-to-launch MotoDreamer website.
Tour Tibet on a BMW- Next Departure September 2019
Mike, Diana and the team will be running their second guided motorcycle tour to Tibet this September, having already successfully conducted the first 10-day Scouting tour from Lhasa to Mt. Everest Base Camp in the last year.
You can check out the itinerary and book your place on the upcoming tour at the MotoTibet website.
MotoTibet isn’t the first tour agency to offer motorcycle tours in Tibet. We can’t comment on any of the others personally, so feel free to do your own research.
If you do decide to ride with MotoTibet, you can expect the same impeccable service you’d get with Motolombia. So – fast, friendly, professional and personalised advice, assistance with absolutely everything, and a highly organised, experienced ground crew ensuring you get maximum enjoyment out of your time in Tibet.
A professional local tour leader will be riding with the group, and there’ll also be a support vehicle to carry luggage, spares and passengers who want to join the tour but can’t ride themselves or book on as a pillion.
Mike and the crew have commandeered a fleet of brand-new BMWs (750GS, 800GS and 1200GS) in Tibet in top-notch condition, just like you’d get straight out of the garage at Motolombia.
This is a travel blog. My primary aim is to offer ideas and advice for the adventure riding community – not just promote Motolombia/MotoDreamer.
But I’ll just say one thing, from experience. Having a reliable bike in a place like Tibet can be priceless. No one likes breaking down on top of a mountain pass at 5,200m. You want to be up there celebrating and taking amazing photographs, not fixing broken clutch cables.
So, if you’re still wondering why you should book a motorcycle tour in Tibet with a company based in Colombia… well, that’s something to think about at least!
Responsible Tourism in Tibet
Finally, Tibet is a very special place and despite its mighty mountain peaks, also a very fragile one. If you decide to visit Tibet, no matter which tour operator you end up choosing, choose wisely.
There’s no doubt Tibet has been harmed by poor tourism practices.
At the same time, the survival of the region’s pristine ecosystems and its century’s old cultural practices can benefit greatly from the support of sustainable tourism.
Try and understand a little about the land, its people, its religion and the current situation in Tibet before you leave home and your interactions with the locals are far more likely to be positive and re-affirming. Treat your hosts with respect and appreciation and you will receive the same, and so much more in return.
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)