Backtracking in Tibet
By Ruth Lor Malloy, November 20, 2002
Tibet's backroads
Tibet's backroads

Driving across Tibet requires a good vehicle, a Tibetan crew... and the goodwill of the gods. But the views are worth the effort

Those who consider driving through Tibet in a rented Land Cruiser will need a driver, crew, a backup truck... and the goodwill of the gods.

Spending almost the whole month of July there, we covered over 2000 kilometers, taking in Lhasa, Shigatse, Mt. Kailash, Guge Kingdom, and Everest Base Camp. We toured west from the capital almost to the border of Kashmir and then south near Nepal and back to Lhasa.  

The major problems were the unpaved roads, which quickly made mincemeat of even the best all-terrain tires. Except for one major highway, approaches to towns, and Qomolangma Nature Preserve, we traveled only unsealed dirt roads - even on the main Friendship Highway between Kathmandu and Lhasa. 

The breathtaking scenery and clear air of Tibet that awaits travelers prepared to travel
 a more bumpy road to reach their destination

Then there was the unpredictable standard of accommodation, travel permits, the altitude, and the need for a good (English-speaking) guide. Our wonderful guide Gompo knew the best camping places, away from too many curious locals and broken beer bottles.  

Some of the major roads followed riverbeds with water rising well above our fenders - even before the rainy season. We rattled along one street and many roads full of boulders, and through deep sand, our engines groaning from the effort. We lost three bolts attached to one tire. Even though some towns along the way had repair shops, and Toyota Land Cruisers and Dong Feng trucks are the most common vehicles, we could find no spare parts. A mechanic welded on the tire until we could get back to a dealer in Lhasa. We never saw a tow truck.  

Travel in Tibet outside of the major cities of Lhasa and Shigatse is a real adventure worth the effort. The scenery is spectacular: majestic snow covered mountains in summer, and the world's highest mountain, Everest. Some peaks look like paintings, in shades of maroon, rose, and beige. In the far west lies a spectacular unheralded "grand canyon." And there was sacred Lake Manasarovar, 71 kilometers in circumference, a sip of whose waters forgive all sins of this lifetime.  

The mountains and plateaus are dotted with a few black yak-hair tents, the summer home of nomadic families who herd sheep, goats, horses, and yaks in these high pastures. We stopped to visit people milking lines of tethered goats. We looked into their tents and found yak dung used for fuel, transistor radios, and woolen carpets on earthen floors. There are no trees at that altitude. but the air, except for the road dust, is crystal clear and invigorating.  

Tibetan women and many men usually dress in their distinct costume even in the bigger cities of Shigatse and Lhasa. Most were friendly and didn't mind being photographed. Though some old folks and children held out their hands for money, begging is easily discouraged when met by friendly smiles and attempts to communicate. The monasteries are everywhere and unique, full of butter lamps, menacing gods, and maroon-robed monks.  

As for the dreaded wild dogs we had heard about, we found only shy ones who stayed away from us.  

Rather than stay in the simple hotels in western Tibet - often just beds in teahouse dining rooms with earthen floors - we chose to camp. We had our own cook, and crawling out of our tent to a cup of hot ginger tea on a frosty morning and a herd of 250 yaks was indeed mind-boggling. 

When we stopped for the night, our crew put up a toilet tent. Otherwise, we had to forget about modesty and use a ditch or hide behind a vehicle.  

I would have worried about the driving if we hadn't been self-sufficient. Drivers in Tibet have to know basic auto repairs, and all of them could fix a flat tire. And with our own tents, sleeping bags and kitchen, we could have slept and eaten anywhere - well almost anywhere. The region is very sparsely populated and tourist offices in two of our towns demanded that visitors sleep in their hotels or their campgrounds at their relatively high prices.  

We stopped at many of the monasteries, and at two we paid monks to chant prayers for world peace and our journey. We added our own cairns at the top of mountain passes, and posed in front of colorful prayer flags constantly flapping messages to the gods at the base of sacred Mt. Kailash.  

We must have done the right thing because one of our vehicles operated miraculously in spite of a broken clutch.  

I kept thinking how glad we were to have used a Tibetan crew who worked so well together. And with a truck, we were able to carry our own gasoline. Fuel sold in the remote regions was frequently dirty from road dust, or watered, or both, said our guide. 

Two of our group did succumb to altitude sickness; when our 31-year old son felt the prickles of oxygen deprivation at 4050 meters he decided to return to lower altitudes in Lhasa (3600 meters). In Darchen at the base of Mt. Kailash, the other young man in our group felt chest pains, his heart pumping harder to get oxygen through his body. The Swiss Red Cross clinic there prescribed an intravenous drip of Royal Jelly; this along with bed rest for one day solved the problem.  

We saw foreign tourists sick from the altitude and heard about the deaths of seven Indian pilgrims earlier this year at the Saga Dawa Festival near Mt. Kailash. Careful itinerary plans meant that our bodies had time to adjust to the ever increasing altitude and depleting oxygen levels: we did not sleep more than the prescribed 400 meters higher than the night before.  

For some unknown reason we three older women managed quite well, though we didn't do the planned 53-km trek around sacred Mt. Kailash, considered by many the navel of the world and the home of the gods. Pilgrims were flocking there in this Year of the Horse to take advantage of the belief that walking around the beautiful mountain this year means all one's sins in this lifetime are forgiven. 108 times around the mountain means the forgiveness of sins in all one's many reincarnated lifetimes. In the Year of the Horse, however, one circumambulation equals 13 - a quicker route to nirvana.  

It also seemed miraculous that after driving 100 kilometers out of Lhasa, our gas tank was still full and leaking. It had something to do with the altitude and air pressure at 5000 meters. But the tank did run out later, and Toyota's dual tank took only a minute to switch on. With our own supply, we never ran out of gas.  

Everything eventually worked out well. After three days in Lhasa, our son was better and met up with us later to go to Everest Base Camp (altitude 5200 meters). I like to think it was also because of the prayers.  


Shigatse Travels in Lhasa arrange driving trips across Tibet (26 days, US$2000/person, based on five travelers). Prices include transport, accommodation, guides, cooks, and camping equipment. For more details, email 

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