Tibet: The Road to Lhasa

Text: Rockwell T. Rookey • Photography: Rockwell T. Rookey

There it is, 20 horsepower of 1940's technology that will carry me on a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I have always wanted to visit Tibet but never in my wildest hallucinations did I expect to do it on a motorcycle. The plan is to depart Kathmandu, Nepal, and cover the 600 miles to Lhasa, Tibet, in 10 days. Experience the culture, visit the Potala Palace, walk on the Roof of the World, and of course see Mount Everest.

Closed to the outside world throughout history, first by the Tibetans themselves and then by the Chinese after their 1949 invasion, Tibet has always been a place of mystery and wonder. Many of us are aware of conditions in the country and the Chinese occupation through movies such as "Seven Years in Tibet" or the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama who fled in 1959.

This trip is extra special because it's the first time a visit is being attempted with a group riding motorcycles. Making this possible was no easy task. It took Patrick Moffat of Himalayan Motorcycles Tours and Burt Richmond of Lotus Tours three years of negotiations with Chinese authorities to obtain the permits. Our group of ten, lead by Patrick started out as strangers from a wide variety of backgrounds, riding experience, age, size and shapes, but sharing a common passion for motorcycles. The expedition also includes three Indian mechanics Alam, Oslam and Oslam, three support vehicles to carry bottled water, fuel, spare parts and luggage with Nepalese and Tibetan drivers and guides.

The chosen mounts are 1996 and 1998 models of the 500cc single-cylinder Enfield Bullets, manufactured in India since 1966 when the factory closed up shop in England. With a 6.5 to 1 compression ratio, the bikes are well suited to run on the local 79-octane gas. The 4-speed transmission (right-foot shift, 1 up 3 down), drum brakes, kick-starter and ribbed front tire take some getting used to and require concentration to ride. But the instructions are simple: keep it below 60 mph so the engine does not overheat and seize, try not to use the front brake as they grab (exciting on dirt) and don't use the headlight because that will kill the battery.

Beginning in Kathmandu at an elevation of 4,400 feet, the first challenge is a short ride through city traffic to the first stop in Dhulikal. Traffic is slow, dense and on the left side of the road. The air is thick with dust, diesel fumes and 2-cycle engine smoke. It is proper and the law to continuously beep - when being passed, when passing, merging, at pedestrians and cows on the road, and at bicycles. The right-of-way favors those of size. "Might has right," is the unsung slogan of the Tata truck and bus drivers. It is common to have a bus (beeping) heading at me in my lane passing a truck (beeping). Of course I beep back and for self-preservation drive off the edge of the road to give room. Actually not as big of a deal as it sounds because the speeds are slow but the quarters are close. Only one biker slid a bit under the rear of a bus, a touch of brain fade due to the foot controls being opposite of a modern bike and that grabby front brake.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the Spring 2002 back issue.