The road got better after about 60km of suburbs, satellite cities, and sights like this. We called it at 75km for the day in a friendly small town.
Definitely nowhere to camp…
Rolled into a small town after our first 2000m+ climb, and found an amazing hotel run by a Bai minority family that offered a special discount for cyclists.
Visitiing a prayer wheel after a short day to reach 'Shangri La',. Formerly known as Zhongdian, the town has a Tibetan heritage and is home to the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in south-west China. The town won the right to be recognized as the mythical location popularized by James Hilton in the 1930s in the novel Lost Horizon, in an effort to boost tourism..
A slogan on the side of a building in an abandoned village. “The Party emphasises education, the local administration prioritizes education, the people support education, and the teachers bring joy to education”
The start of a descent from about 4000m to just under 3000m. That moment when you feel the gradient of the road change from up to down and 50kg of bike/luggage do your acceleration for you instead of make every few feet a struggle.
Struggling up the second peak of the day, just before a long rainstorm, which accompanied us all the way down the descent to the next village.
After a long descent in the storm, after the sun went down, inching along a rutted road., we were found and welcomed by this awesome couple. They fed us dinner and poured us copious hot tea.
Our first look at where we had come from in the rain the evening before. The village had mountains on each side – we had come from “small snow mountain” and next up was “big snow mountain.”.
Slowly making our way up the switchbacks.
The top of a 4000m+ peak. After you get the expectations of jagged alpine peaks out of your mind it has a special kind of majesty.
The start of another descent in the dark.
The penultimate day before Litang was spent pushing through headwinds on a long flat at about 4600m. This viewing platform made it worth it though, just after an attempt at cooking lunch failed in a hailstorm.
The roof of the major monastery in Litang. No photos allowed in the six floors of intricate murals and statues below…
A long slog up a slight incline with headwinds is not nice, even if it looks nice...
Visiting a hill-top monastery on a day off from cycling.
Finally managed to go to the printing house - what Dege is known for, where Buddhist scriptures and thankas are printed in their thousands. It also houses many holy works. There are locals and pilgrims perambulating all of the day.
Me grumbling while others prostrate themselves on the floor every three steps...
Setting off towards the climb up to 5000m. It wasnt actually that bad - as you can see there are long, gradual straights to get you up to the top.
Road turned into a packed dirt track higher up.
Pretty swift progress - still daytime 🙂
Pretty epic though to be able to look down.
View of the top, after a few more switchbacks..
Looking down from the top! Not that dramatic compared to others to be honest, but a nice sense of accomplishment.
Day off spent joining some other travellers with a car for a trip to Yaqing temple. It is a huge site filled with ornate temples and shrines as well as vast districts of hand made wooden houses. Home to about 10,000 monks and nuns, it is apparently the second largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world.
This is the nuns district - men are not allowed to enter the site on this side of the river. Was a bit spellbound and mystified by what was going on in the top right - huge number of people in bright orange emerging from the main temple to circumambulate the nearby shrine.
I followed some advice to have an easy day and stop for the night in Zhuqing Town, home to a large temple hidden up in the hills.
The entrance gate to the monastery in the distance, and the path covered in scripture-painted stones and rocks.
Really nice town. Ended up staying another day. Regular breaks!
Awesome dude! Went to a local shop and asked if there was anywhere to stay nearby and this guy, a customer, invited me to his home. The three of them had just come down from the mountains, where their wider family were gathering chongsao for the summer moths. Great dinner of sausage, cabbage, and rice, and a long chat about Tibetan Buddhism.
This was a really cool monastery town. Met two young monks when I arrived about 9 or 10pm, who treated me to dinner they were so excited to meet a foreigner. This is the next morning.
Starting to really feel it now and keen to arrive in Yushu. Lots of late night riding, but also cool wild animals - deer, eagles, and, here, horses.
The border between Sichuan and Qinghai - at the top of a 4700m pass of course.
Looking back towards Sichuan at the border to Qinghai.
Getting back into the groove after three days stumbling around Yushu eating cake.
Beautiful scenery here - and even this high you can see all of the tents full of Tibetan families spending May, June, and July gathering the root chongsao. Always a good welcome from the kids as you cycle past.
Same same but same..
Eagle day! I literally saw 20 eagles in one day. All gliding down the valley on the wind in the opposite direction to me. Even saw them take off from 5 metres in front of me while I fumbled unsuccessfully for my camera.
Finally a close enough picture..
Pushing hard this day to make it within a days ride of Budongquan. Nowhere to stay here - got a bit worried when I realized I had loads of yak meat on the bone in my bags in my tent. Oops...
Nice spot for the night. Felt like camping on Mars.
At the top of the last pass of the Tibetan Plateau. 4800m.
Qinghai-Tibet Railway - goes up to 5000m. Mental to think about all of the construction at an altitude where people struggle to breathe properly in a climate like that. I met some of the workers that built it though a few days ago - hard as nails.
All getting a bit Mad Max.
More Mad Max.
The cue for the checkpoint to go towards Tibet. It is very difficult to get through as a foreigner, even if you are turning off at Budongquan and not entering Tibet, the route I arrived from. Someone told me it took them one day of stubborn resistance to get through! In any case its not much better for Chinese truck drivers - this queue must have been well over 500 almost stationary trucks.. even 1000...
Last sight of the mountains 🙁
Sun going down over the industrial facilities surrounding Golmud - time to head into a very different part of China..
The area is home to an absolutely immense array of factories and production facilities. Lithium is the key for the batteries used in electric vehicles, and prices more than tripled between 2015 and 2017. Every one of China's major leaders, including Xi Jinping, make the state-owned enterprises driving production one of their first visits.
I had been told that morning that the next towns were 70 and 260km away, by someone I believed. I decided to commit to the town in 70k for lunch, which turned into a bit of a struggle, hungry, in the heat. Some familiar decorations convinced me to take the camera out of the bag though.
I knew that the road heading into an orange-tinged ball of brown, and the adverse wind I was cycling through, were not good things. But I was minded to do another stint into the evening, following up my 200k first day with a 160k second day, for some reason, and suppressed these thoughts.
Then I saw it for what it was. A sand storm coming towards me. I turned around to try and find cover. A car passed and the panicked driver gestured wildly to bail. I pushed the bike through the sand, soil-like, crunchy, and fine in turn, and found, well, this spot, which was pretty much the same as everywhere else.
I positioned my loaded bike in the direction of the wind and lay down behind it. My facemask and ski goggles protected my face from the sharp, rasping stream of fine sand particles. And after a while in a cleansing sand shower, which was clearly settling in for the night, I tried to do the same.
The furthest I could manage was to get three tent pegs into the loose ground, weighed down by bags, at each of the tents corners. And then I crawled in as the rest of the tent lashed up and down in the wind, and smiled. I even slept! And emerged to a great view.
Looking back from my chosen spot to sit out the sand storm, looking back at where I came from. Sparse. The winds remained very, very high all morning, but I decided they had died down enough to set off by 11. It was by my estimates over 150k to the next town, so I needed to do a good day to make sure I would have enough water.
Later on, when the sun was high, I found a large round tent near an industrial facility, locked, but with a tiny open window; there was rice wine and toothpaste in reach, and iced tea just beyond. No dice.
Occassional plastic police officers have been placed alongside the road. This one hasn't been made very welcome; the character means 'kill'.
Mountain over and big skies reigned. The first foothills of the Himalaya on the left and vast desert on the right. And my longest day on a touring bike, 252k, in a slight tailwind to great music. Perfect.
I spent an hour with this Uighur couple. Nice experience. They didnt give me an easy time when I tried to get into the gas station to buy water (not the simplest task in Xinjiang; see left of picture :-/). But when I came out they invited me into their guard post while I ate my snack, to shelter from the sun.
By chance their boss dropped in to give them their wages. Four twelve hour overnight shifts a week: 2500 RMB between them per month. About £300. They mentioned they have a 22 year old son living nearby. "Ah, he works locally? No. Ah, then he is looking for work? Er, no." My little insight into local job prospects.
Nightly ritual of: stop; turn 90 degress to the right; walk forward 100 metres; set up inner tent; sleep. This picture was taken in the morning - one day left to get to Hetian.
A classic rendition of THE ROAD. This particular one, the G219, was my companion for 2215km.
My illness combined with heatstroke, headwinds, and moderate sandstorms. This day and the day before were my most difficult days on a bike, Nearly there! But first, just after this picture, a lengthy police interview!
Brighter days. Towards Kashgar the scenery changed a little: green towns like this one became more regular, the sky cleared a little, and, eventually, the vast mountains of Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan appeared in the distance.
Kashgar!! The Old Town, which was a maze of winding alleyways, was demolished and reconstructed. But it is pretty well done to be honest, and the wide boulevards beloved of Chinese cities are few and far between.
"Civilized household". Labels like this are everywhere in Kashgar and elsewhere in Xinjiang; "peaceful homes"; "civilized homes" ; "safety personnel".
Kashgar Old Town. The police presence is everywhere, but it is nothing compared to some of the southern towns such as Hetian (Khotan).
The centre of Kashgar's Old Town. Plenty of shops and stalls normally open here. Traditional musicians often play on the packed balcony of the teahouse. The impending New Year celebrations made for a much more peaceful scene in this picture though. A policeman eats his lunch, inspected by a local resident, at the roadside.
"New Strategy. New Development. New Kashgar." Lots of oilfields it seems. In some of the smaller neighbourhoods, en route to the Pakistan border.