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Traversing the Tibetan Plateau: Part I - Eastern Tibet to Lhasa

Updated: May 20, 2020

In the autumn of 2007, I made one of my most memorable journeys; from Xinjiang, in far Western China, I crossed the Aksai Qin and over the Kunlun Mountain Range, entering the high Tibetan plateau. For the next seven weeks, I traversed Tibet - from Ngari in the far West, through Amdo and Lhasa to Kham; the culturally Tibetan regions of Sichuan and Yunnan.

This article covers the first part of the journey: from Khargilik, an ancient oasis town of the Silk Road, into Tibet by way of the army town of Ali (Gar). A visit to Zanda (Tholing) and the ancient Guge Kingdom, a pilgrimage around Mount Kailash and onwards to Lhasa.


Khargilik to Ali (Gar)

Welcome to Tibet. Covering 1135km over some 33 hours on "The Highest Road in the World". We gained 1290m in elevation, crossing a pass of 5250m. I was in a government sleeper bus (no toilet on board...); except for an Israeli and three Chinese tourists, the rest of the passengers were Chinese military, heading to the garrison town of Ali. The sudden altitude gain made me super sick, and I can confidently say this 33 hour journey was one of the worst of my life.

The route passed the Aksay Qin, a region claimed by India but controlled by China, that led to a border war in 1962. The view was consistently desolate, not a tree, a bush or a shrub. The route was peppered with a few truck stops where we stopped to show our passports or eat instant noodles. I almost got eaten by a giant Tibetan Mastiff at one stop; this gave me a very healthy fear of these enormous, wolf-eating dogs that were never kept on chains.

I would have been more thrilled with arriving in Ali if I hadn't been so eager to find a loo...It was technically illegal to enter Tibet this way, but in the September of 2007, it was known that the officials looked the other way as long as you "handed yourself in" upon entering Ali and paid the 300 yuan fee.

Ali has little going for it, except that the Indus river, arising at Mount Kailash, passes through here on it's 3200km journey through Pakistan to Karachi and the sea.

Crossing the Kunlun Mountain Range
Truck stop in the Aksai Qin
Ali & the Indus River
Ali town, in far western Tibet

Ali to Zanda (Tholing)

Can you guess how long this 200km journey took? 7 and a half hours. That should give you an idea how shockingly bad the road was. I took a public mini bus with a handful of Chinese tourists and locals through the Gar Valley and across the Lalung Pass (5175m). As we approached the Sutlej River, the broad sweep of the Himalayas emerged on the horizon, from Nanda Devi in the South to the Ladakhi range in the North.

We passed a handful of tourists on the journey; all Chinese men in landcruisers.