This trip starts on the very edge of the Tibetan plateau, in the city of Xining. Arriving in the early morning on a sleeper train, we did not know quite what to expect. Like everywhere we had seen so far in China, brand new apartment blocks have sprung up everywhere; the city centre is full of high-rise offices. After dark the skyline lights up with neons signs, flashing displays and the hustle and bustle of so many people pressed together. It served as a stark contrast for the days come, as we ventured into one of the most sparsely inhabited places on the planet in the world’s most populous country.
After an unsuccessful attempt to find our hostel, we ended up booking another and managed to get a spicy meal to start the day. Like any expedition we had to sort out the last logistics, mainly food and cooking gas, as well as a slightly more important addition: our bikes. We had originally planned to rent them and had contacted a company beforehand. But on arrival in Xining we soon saw that there were plenty of cycling shops with competitive prices and ended up deciding to buy our transport outright. The main reason was that we would have more independence: if we were not able to find transport for the return journey we could just abandon them and hitch-hike (we planned to cycle one way). The company we had contacted had also been unhelpful about travelling towards Yushu, saying it was not possible for foreigners. Other sources told us otherwise and we were soon the proud owners of two shiny new bikes.
With that sorted, we spent a day and a half preparing our maps and gear before everything was ready. We set off slowly, cycling down one of the main avenues, weighted down by the panniers. We were heading south-west, towards the mountains. A couple of hours later the city had disappeared behind us, and we travelled through industrial estates, road works and car dealers. Further still, they gave way to fields and open ground. After passing one last huge chemical plant, the road opened out before us. It was quite amazing how in the space of a few tens of kilometres we had gone from a busy metropolis to a calm rural environment. And this was to change once again as we started our first long climb in the afternoon. It was long but thankfully the gradient was feeble. Coming over the pass, a temple hailed our first accomplishment. In front of us there were no more villages, just grassy slopes and the road stretching out in front of us. It was a view we would be very familiar with over the next few days.
We had planned to acclimatise by breaking up the main climb into various smaller ascents and descents. This turned out to be much harder work than anticipated. We lost altitude, following brand new roads, the sun warming us up after a chilly night. We started to see our first prayer flags, attached to steel pyramids placed on rocky outcrops. The ground became steadily redder, and soon the whole valley was a beautiful shade of orange. The wind had carved wonderful shapes into the crags, making strange decorations. As we reached the end of our descent, we approached one of the huge reservoirs that collects water from the Yellow river. Over the course of the next few days we would be heading towards its source, deep on the Tibetan plateau. But first we would have to gain altitude again.
This we did during the afternoon. After having crossed the village of Guide, we took the road that went through Laxiwanzhen. It had started to rain slightly and with Thomas having to stop due to our first puncture it was tough going. A highlight of the ride was stopping for a bite to eat in front of one of the Buddhist temples, beautifully decorated with flags and bright paintings. Dragons adorned the prayer wheels. After admiring the architecture, we set off. We could feel the previous day’s efforts in our legs, but kept trying to gain height and find a good spot to camp. As the evening approached we took a small track off the main route and pitched our tent on a ridge, overlooking the climb. As the clouds dispersed, the stars came out and we enjoyed the view from our vantage point.
Next morning we were awoken by the sound of a small motorcycle carrying two passengers up the steep path. The small motor coughed and spluttered. It was sunny, and after Thomas had repaired yet another puncture (probably caused at the same time as the first) we set off. After a few hours the terrain had flattened out and things were getting interesting. We could see for kilometres, and it was calm. We saw our first yaks roaming in the distance, and small rodents scurrying for cover as we approached slowly along the road. After winding its way up onto the plateau, it stretched out in a straight line, a foretaste of the days to come. Crossing the highest point at around 3750m we stopped to take in the view. It was stunning, the landscape barren and wild; the only sign of humanity the farmhouses off in the distance, and the road slicing across the highlands. Our next treat was the descent; although not too steep it lasted for over ten kilometres, putting our cheap brakes to the test! Our next surprise was the small section of desert to our right, complete with sand dunes and fine sand. It looked like a piece of the Sahara had been dropped on the Tibetan plateau. Checking the satellite images shows a small, isolated area, strangely cut off from its surroundings. This small region must be well known to the inhabitants of Xining, for we encountered a group who had come to collect some of the yellow sand. Unfortunately they had driven their 4×4 off the tarmac, where the wheels could no longer get a grip and had managed to slowly sink deeper into the ditch. Seeing their plight we decided to help, digging out the sand and placing stones and pieces of cement for the car to roll on. After much pushing, pulling and by tugging the stuck vehicle with another car we managed to get it out. I must say that digging at over 3300 really takes its toll! Having waved goodbye we set off again, and after discovering the half-finished motorway to Gonghe we ended up staying the night in a dilapidated, once luxurious, hotel. Leaving our bikes on the stained red carpet we made use of the shower and were soon out looking for a meal. It was one of the best yet. Gonghe is a middle sized city, sitting on the edge of a vast, empty plateau, which we crossed the next day. It turned out to be a straight line, over 90 km long. Setting our sights on the far off mountains we kept going dead ahead for over four hours, just stopping to eat and take a couple of pictures. In the early afternoon we passed our first village, where we bought some water and attracted stares from the locals. They clearly didn’t see too many cyclists coming their way. From there it was a solid climb up to almost 4000m where banner-strung posts hailed us into the wild plateau. Having paced myself just right for the climb it was an ecstatic moment reaching the top, the strong wind ripping at the prayer flags and making the long lines of pennants dance. The sheer amount of decorations, combined with the noise made by all the fluttering was impressive. The col marked the entrance into the wilder part of our journey, with mountains extending into the distance as far as the eye could see.
One of the interesting parts of any trip is the influence it has on food. Being lucky enough to eat a different meal every day we no longer appreciate this diversity. By forcing yourself to eat the same thing, day in day out, often badly cooked and sometimes not enough, has the miraculous benefit of making you rediscover even the most basic of ingredients. Clean water, fresh bread and crisp salad can suddenly take on another taste altogether. Many accounts of polar exploration, such as Mawson’s or Shackleton’s expeditions illustrate how mealtimes would become the main even of the day. This trip was of course in no way extremely long or difficult, but even the moderate physical effort and the relative simplicity of our evening meals (rice) meant that the contrast with cooked food we sampled along the way was just that little bit more intense. This juxtaposition gave us some memorable meals.
The first that sticks in my mind was not far out of Xining. We had decided to have one last meal before attacking the mountain pass not knowing if there would be other places to stop. We walked into a little room where several people were dining. The fact that there was a large tea urn and no beer to be seen pointed to it probably being a Muslim eatery. We ordered what the girl next to us was having, which turned out to be thick, handmade noodles in a spicy soup. And I mean spicy! The slightly elastic texture and their slippery consistency made it extremely hard to eat with chopsticks, even after a week or so of practice. Maybe taking pity on our suffering, the owner came over, and after introducing himself and made in clear that the meal was on him. It was very touching to be greeted in this manner on our first day on the road, and after a few pictures we waved goodbye. The stains on our jersey from our inadequate table manners would remind us of this man’s kindness during the rest of the trip! This was not the only occasion when we were greeted with random acts of kindness. Several days later, having stopped to eat in the middle of knowhere a car drove up and stopped. The driver got out, handed us each a can of red-bull energy drink and after smiling, hoped back in and left the way he had come. We wondered in amazement from where he came from and of course kept our treasure for the next hard climb…
Another gastronomic chapter came about when we had stopped for brunch. We had not eaten the previous evening having fallen asleep, exhausted after setting up the tent. We had therefore pulled over early to get some energy and keep pedalling. With this in mind Thomas argued we should fill up as much as possible on carbohydrates and pointed to one of the pictures on the walls that looked like a noodle-based dish. I wasn’t having any of it so ordered my all-time favourite: beef with spicy green peppers. When they finally served Thomas, it turned out to be a massive plate of grilled yak meat, with not a noodle or grain of rice to be seen! We never did understand the mix-up, but enjoyed the meal anyway, packing some of it up to complement our evening fare.
Thanks to the Qinghai having a mixed population and being of the edge of the Tibetan regions of the Ando and Kham, we were able to sample various styles and types of cuisine, all as good as each other. I was always amazed at the variety of dishes that were presented on the menu taking into account the small size of the kitchens. Unfortunately the language barrier meant it was difficult to ask about the ingredients , but thankfully flavour knows no limits!
During our trip I read and thoroughly enjoyed Peter Kessler’s book “Country Driving”. It is a very interesting source of information about the country we were, ironically, cycling though. It explores China from different perspectives, following the changes undergone by different environments during the expansion and social upheaval of the recent years. Though it we discovered the evolution of a rural village which starts to experiment with tourism and an industrial estate that sprouts up from scratch. By painting a detailed picture of personal relationships and multiple anecdotes it reveals the transformation of modern day China. This vision, so well described in the book, was all around in plain view. Brand new roads drive past dilapidated buildings, and people sell home-grown vegetables while chatting on their smartphone. Not just the landscape and habits have evolved; the population has undergone physical, as well as social change. Looking for something to eat in one of the streets in Xi’An, the school bell suddenly rang. I was suddenly surrounded by uniforms that filled up the bars and cafes. The difference with the older folks was striking: the students towered head and shoulders above their elders. It is impressive what an improved diet and more resources have done for the younger generations!
The social and technological changes we had seen in the city seemed to go so much faster than in Europe. Having caught up with the middle classes in a few years, it seems that everyone is more prepared for change and innovation. The spread of phone applications for everything is pervasive, with online-only systems for unlocking rental bikes or paying for train tickets. Although this exists in Europe, there is a certain reticence from part of the population, often on grounds of privacy and data concerns. I am of course perhaps mistaken, but there seems to be a better predisposition towards these novelties in China, perhaps because so much is already new. This also helps explain maybe one of the characteristics of Chinese society which is illustrated in Yu Hua’s book “China in Ten Words”. It is the copy-cat behaviour or shānzhài. It is often seen from outside with negative connotations and associated with the stealing of ideas and forgery of luxury items. But it also contains elements of counterculture and opposition to strict rules. The current arguments put forward for trade protection are partly based on these issues. It is interesting how a society’s behaviour can evolve without the same constraints and rules imposed in a more rigid culture. The comparison is made in Kessler’s book, where a parallel is drawn between the development and expansion of the United States. In those times it was industrial espionage and copying of European goods that helped propel many early businesses forward, also in a climate of new ideas and innovation. It is that very spirit of innovation and problem solving that has characterised American inventions and unorthodox market practices from then on. As more laws start to come into practice and tighter control becomes standardised, it will be interesting to watch how this copy-cat behaviour evolves and if it can transmute into true innovation.
But all this is still far away on the immense Tibetan plateau, where little villages are many kilometres apart and families live almost completely cut off from the world. As we progressed deeper into the plateau we felt the modern world disappear, it’s only presence the never ending road and the huge trucks, ferrying construction materials back and forth. We were going into the modern Far West.
For the next few days we cycled non-stop, only stopping to buy a few supplies, eat and relieve ourselves. I clearly remember one day when we cycled past what we initially though was a small herd of black sheep. I was suddenly horrified to realise they were Tibetan mastiffs, sleeping lazily in the sun. They are famous for being extremely fierce and guarding the herds from wild beasts. There were eight or nine of them, more than enough to finish off a couple of cyclists. Hoping that they wouldn’t take offence at our passing we kept going at a steady rhythm, the open road looking very barren indeed in case of a chase. We also saw hundreds of yaks, both white and black, grazing the infinite pastures. Huge birds of prey would also swoop down into the grass, where the ever present rodents would jump back into their burrows. When the birds weren’t hunting they would sit and watch us go past. As we kept going higher the weather got steadily colder, and on one particular morning it snowed during the night. The wind was also unpleasant, but luckily we didn’t have much rain. On sunny days the sky would be decorated with fluffy white clouds that scampered from one horizon to the other chasing each other in and endless game. Although it was quite dry, we were nearing one of the most important geological features of the Asian continent: the birth of the Yellow river.
The Tibetan plateau is in fact the origin of three of the world’s most important watercourses, both in terms of volume but especially in terms of history and geopolitical influence, let alone the sheer quantity of people that depend on their water for their well-being. They are of course the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow river. The history of the Yangtze and especially the Yellow River are intertwined with that of the development of ancient Chinese civilisation. The Yellow river of course gets its name from the amount of silt that it carries, which fertilises the lower plains and has been the basis for it’s important influence of crop growing. The expression “when the Yellow river flows clear” is an idiom to explain something that is clearly impossible! The Mekong on the other hand is especially important for the economy and development of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. As explained in Steven Salomon’s book “Water, The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilisation”, dominating the regions where these huge rivers start their journey yields immense geopolitical power and allows China to exploit their resources. With the rise of global temperatures and water needs, controlling the river’s main basins and headwaters will become of ever more strategic importance and partially explains China’s interest in developing the region and expanding influence. Both the Yellow and Yangzte rivers, once so fearful, have been tamed by dams and power stations, such as the famous Three Gorge Dam in Hubei province on the Yangtze. This development can also be seen in the small town of Madoi, not far from the Gyaring and Ngoring lakes. As we arrived, multiple official looking buildings were half finished and the horned symbol denoting the birth of the Yellow river had taken pride of place. It looks like there are plans for the town to become a tourist hub, from where tourists will be able to visit start of what has been for centuries a mythical river. Although the building forewarns of more development, the route to Ngoring Lake is still just a dirt road, running straight across the plateau. We would be heading out towards the lakes before coming back and hopefully catching a bus back to Xining.
Heading toward the lake we were entertained by a wonderful scene: a group of wild donkeys, called Kiangs, had got separated from one of the herd members. The poor beast had somehow ended up on the wrong side of the fence that closed off the road. The herd raced down the mountain, but was afraid of the few cars that sped past. We tried to keep apace on our bikes, as the lone donkey also ran parallel to the group. Finally they crossed and tried to reunite but alas were defeated by the fence. Crossing the road again they kept up the pace, galloping and trying to find a weakness in its defences. Once again they crossed and this time the herd threw itself into the wire, breaking down the lines. They all followed, jumping over the remains. They herd surrounded the solitary animal, clearly jubilant to be reunited as they bucked and danced around it. Calming down, they all set off together, heading for one of the small lakes not far from the path… By mid-afternoon we had changed the road for a the dirt track, and were bouncing along towards the lakes hoping to find a place to camp. Having crossed a few returning tourists in their big jeeps, we had the place to ourselves. As darkness fell we found a perfect spot, right next to the lake. We waited until nightfall to set up the tent, not wanting to risk getting into trouble in such an idyllic and perhaps forbidden setting. After a beautiful sunset the moon rose slowly, casting its reflection on the lake and the stars shone down upon us in the middle of the infinite.
Next morning we were up before sunrise, the first rays giving some colour to the icy ground. It had frozen very hard, and some snow had turned the road white. Packing up as fast as possible we set off. That morning we found that frozen roads are much easier to cycle on than muddy ones. As the snow melted into the road, it turned into a sticky, muddy mess through which we pushed forward. We also discovered that the country around Ngoring lake is magnificent. The contrast between the blue sky and lake, stood out against the bright green grass, the red plants and the white of the snow and clouds. We finally stopped above the lake, having almost gone halfway round it. A prayer pyramid waved and fluttered it’s multi-coloured flags in the breeze like an excited sports fan. From our vantage point we admired the immensity of the landscape, and watched the ever present clouds racing across the heavens. This would be our furthest point, our pilgrimage from city to start of the Yellow river. Here its water has still not picked up any of the silt and it is called River of the Peacock. Seeing the amazing colours around us we could understand why.
A good place to find information about the region on the website “Land of Snows”. The author, Jamin “Lobsang” was very knowledgeable and helpful, giving us advice before we left.
Navigation was done, like so many times with a mix of old paper Russian army maps and the phone app Oruxmaps. For more info check out my Maps and Cartography page.
Trains need to be booked in advance, the day that the reservation opens (2 months beforehand) and tickets run out fast (a couple of hours).
There is plenty of cycling gear, most of it good quality. A mediocre bike like hours cost just under 180 euros and it goes up from there. There are also plenty of road bikes too. Taking into account the beautiful, new roads it must be quite something to get out there! On that note the famous Quinghai road bike race takes place each year, going round the lake of the same name.