Cycling to Tibet is Lhasa fun

And the wheels go round, round, round — for 12,400 kilometres. Darlene and David Sillery of Haines Junction recently returned home after…

And the wheels go round, round, round — for 12,400 kilometres.

Darlene and David Sillery of Haines Junction recently returned home after pedaling their bicycles for most of 2007.

Averaging 80 to 100 kilometres per day on their steel-frame mountain bikes, the couple explored both Western and Eastern Europe, Central Asia’s Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, parts of China, Tibet, Laos, and Thailand.

Their overall goal was to cycle Europe and Asia. Their target was to reach Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city. 

And they did.

“That’s the epic bike ride — Kashgar in western China to Lhasa, described as the toughest bike ride in the world. We both lost 14 kilos,” says David Sillery.

“We had a great time loading up on calories first, though, in Denmark where we started biking from,” he adds with a wry grin.

It was the couple’s third attempt to bike Tibet — the first being interrupted by the Tiananmen Square uprisings in 1989, and the second by 9/11 in 2001.

These two hearty adventurers — thin, smiling, and strong — express gratefulness.

“We’re just so fortunate to have done it when we did, just in time. We’d never get in with the uprisings now in Tibet,” says David.

The Sillerys are seasoned travellers. They met on a beach in Tanzania, in 1985, both travelling independently.

“In fact, that’s what made me admire Darlene in the first place,” says David, a tall, witty Brit. “I thought it was great that she would be brave enough to travel in Africa by herself.”

They began travelling together then married in Canada, and have since hiked and biked extensively in such places as Africa, Nepal, India, Laos, United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

When biking the Alaska Highway in 1991 for their honeymoon, they got stopped in their bicycle tracks on their way back from Fairbanks — just could not go back to Vancouver — and have lived in Haines Junction since.

The couple launched into their latest cycling tour in Denmark on Friday, April 13, 2007, after a full year of extensive research and planning.

It was a two-part journey — Europe and Asia.

The Sillerys glow with enthusiasm as they describe cycling Europe’s “wonderful bike paths and basking in the impressive romance of the old cities” — Dresden, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest.

They say biking alongside the Danube River afforded them exceptional pleasure.

Most campgrounds in the European countries went beyond their expectations. Some were serviced with a morning bakery wagon, which offers fresh rolls, breads, and sweets.

The Sillerys were charmed in Central Asia by remnants and stories of the ancient Silk Road.

However, as in every journey, physically or metaphorically, there are disappointments, hardships and lessons to reflect on.

The Sillerys express relief that they had ultimate success and good luck, but do tell a few stories.

One was of experiencing a revealing and shocking image in Krabi, Czech Republic.

The picturesque village nestles in a valley brooded over by an ancient castle on the hill above.

The Sillerys came across an abandoned, dilapidated, overgrown Jewish cemetery.

“As we explored, “we noticed two new graves,” says David. “It dawned on us that there was a gap of almost two generations. It was haunting.”

Before the Sillerys flew to Central Asia, they flew from Ukraine to Hong Kong to wait for a week to acquire visas for crossing China. They spent Canada Day there.

David describes that day in Hong Kong.

“Canada Day coincided with the 10th anniversary of independence from Britain, so there was a great celebration of fireworks and such.

“And the Hong Kong-Canadian Chamber of Commerce had a street blocked off and were celebrating Canada with flags, give-a-ways, contests,” he says.

“I won a T-shirt for naming a half dozen Canadian provinces.”

After touring Europe and attaining visas, the Sillerys flew into central Asia and continued biking from Uzbekistan, through Kyrgyzstan and into China.

Cycling across Tibet awarded the couple an extreme sense of achievement. From Kashgar to Kunming, they cycled 6,000 kilometres.

This route led them through a landscape of plateaus, mountains, and wild rivers. They crossed 47 passes, and for 49 days, the altitude did not drop below 4,000 metres.

 “For 6000 kilometres, we never passed through a major centre, except for Lhasa which is not much bigger than Whitehorse,” says David.

The Sillerys persevered through some grueling travel and skinny sustenance. They each had a giving-up day, but refused to quit.

 “In many parts of Tibet, there was very little for sale in the shops. We ended up eating crackers and instant noodles most of the time,” says David.

“And east of Lhasa, we encountered frequent climbs of 50-80 kilometres. One climb continued gradually for 250 kilometres.”

At one point, they had to resort to pushing their bikes for two days over 35 kilometres due to icy roads and high altitude. It became doubly bad, the couple point out, because pushing a loaded bicycle downhill is very annoying.

They camped in snow with a broken stove, so no hot food or water.

Storing their water inside the sleeping bags at night kept it from freezing in the minus-five temperatures.

On some legs of their journey, they pushed their bikes through and around deep sand, mud and boulders.

The couple had planned a triumphant ride into the centre of Lhasa where they would stand in front of the Dali Lama’s palace and have their photos taken.

“Instead, David says with a laugh, “we misread the distance in the guidebook, and my bike got a tire puncture, so we arrived in the city after dark. The street lighting was poor, hordes of people milled the streets.

“All we wanted to do then was find a hotel.

“We later reveled in Lhasa’s good food — yak burgers and steaks, french fries, and cheesecake. We also sampled tsampa (a dough of roasted barley flour and yak butter tea.”)

En route, the couple packed litres of water daily, and purified what they drank.

They compare the pilgrims, also en route to Lhasa, to visit the Jokhang Temple there.

“The larger groups have support vehicles, says David, “not the usual mini vans, but rather man-hauled carts loaded with bedding, pots, and pans.

“Some pilgrims are walking; many more are prostrating themselves the whole distance, a journey that must take years.”

Unguided tourists are not legal in Tibet.

One late night in Lhasa, four policemen pounded on the Sillerys’ hotel door.

 “I opened the door and stood there tall and disheveled, looking very angry in my undershorts and hairy chest,” recalls David.

“They flipped through our passports and went away.”

The money systems and language did not create major problems for the two cyclists, either.

 “For example, especially in China, it’s customary to go into the kitchen of a restaurant and point to what you wish,” says David.

“We ended up eating a lot of vegetable stir fry because that’s what they showed us. We were too shy to look in fridges.”

All in all,  “t makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something good. It gives me a lot more confidence,” he says. “You can’t fail to grow.”

Some of their greatest fun especially in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China was just the smiles, hellos, and expressions of disbelief as they passed people on the road.

David mentions a guidebook quote, “One big benefit of travel is seeing how other people do things and realizing the way you do those things is not necessarily the best way.”

If there is a right way to cycle to Tibet, the Sillerys must have found it. They certainly have experienced Lhasa learning and exhilaration…

And stayed mostly out of trouble.

Elaine Hurlburt is a writer based in Haines Junction.