The 700km from Yushu to Golmud took me through one small corner of “Kekexili”. One of the most barren places on earth, the plateau is almost devoid of human life, and extends 83,000 square km at an average altitude of 4800m. It was the most sparse place I have ever been. A slow, slow struggle over gradual, windswept hills on the roof of the world.
Leaving Yushu was a challenge. As I fought off my first bout of altitude sickness, a Swiss lady that ran a local cafe introduced me to the town and some of its people. With the epicentre of the 2010 earthquake 30km away, the town was literally flattened. Almost everybody lost members of their immediate family and 2,698 people died. It had been completely rebuilt. Not a ruin in sight. Ambition occasionally even exceeded demand. A vast museum complex was as yet locked and almost empty. She had been there for ten years – before and after the earthquake, living for a time in disaster relief tents with local families – and provided an informal support network for several local teenagers that had lost parents. It was a community, a level of engagement with China that is much more impressive than my own, and a welcome home from home for a while.
But there was no way but forward, and before entering the barren plains there was a town about 190km away. Arriving after a 122km day spent in the rain and hail, I was met with never-ending, four-lane highways flanked by empty government buildings (“district trade measurement and weighing bureau”) and distant neon barely enough temptation to keep the pedals going. Eventually, shaking uncontrollably from the cold, I made it within a metre of the room on the fifth floor I had just paid £12 for. There was a certain football match on and I was set on popcorn, beer, and football somewhere warm. The receptionist opened and then closed the door, and after a few minutes of confusion she admitted they were actually fully booked. I probably looked ready to break down so they returned my money, fed me a spicy hotpot, plied me with beer and let me sleep in the staff quarters. And I had a good excuse to miss my teams inglorious final league match. Bonus!
I didn’t write a diary for the following days. It was about 350km to Budongquan, a small town on the train line between Golmud and Lhasa. From there a turn off to start a very gradual 185km descent to Golmud and the end of this leg of the trip. I had my heart set on finishing it in 5 days. The photos probably tell the story better than I can. Every day was a complete joy and a complete struggle. I was used to cycling at altitude by now, but progress was eerily slow in the wind and the empty silence. On the second day I made a gradual ascent through a wide valley, and saw at least 20 eagles. They were all coasting on the wind in the opposite direction to me. Sometimes I was alerted by the flicker of a shadow, and I would look up to see one of them soaring above my head. As the sun went down I could see wild horses walk slowly in single file on the horizon.
Arriving in Budongquan at about 10pm was definitely one of the most overwhelming experiences I will ever have. Struggling to complete the final 20km under awe-inspiring stars, after three days of barren plains, and, no joke, more eagles than cars, the rumble and screech of the monumental Qinghai-Tibet Railway announced my impending return to an industrial, polluted, busy world that I hadn’t really realized I had left behind. Flanked by all of its ancillary parts – the truckstops, KTV joints, and gaudy neon – it was a visceral change to the environment as well as my frame of mind.
I had been looking forward to the descent to Golmud for months, but didn’t enjoy it. The truck drivers clearly didn’t either – not a smile to be seen on sleep deprived faces. All the same, I made it the 187km to Golmud, my longest day on a fully-loaded touring bike, through Mad-Max like scenery that made me wonder what the rest of this trip, through the heartlands of China, would be like. Only one way to find out!