One of our coldest mornings out on the plateau this morning, not least because we had decided to camp so high up. A biting wind was blowing down and being thrown around in many different directions, funnelled by the multitude of valleys and bouncing off the mountain faces. It was overcast and a light snow had fallen yesterday, hard to believe it’s almost June but it makes sense now why the plateau is referred to by some as the third pole.
We pedalled up and down many hills through quiet, empty landscape punctuated by prayer flags and yaks. We climbed a short pass and then down into the neighbouring valley where we began to climb a bigger pass with long switch-backs that would stretch for almost a kilometre before turning. Up here above 4000m the internal combustion engine powering the heavy trucks and machinery don’t work effectively, on account of the oxygen deprived air. As a result the road can’t be too steep or else a heavily laden truck won’t be able to get over it.
We got up the pass eventually, it’s the highest pass of this leg so that was a nice relief. From the top we could see a pretty big town down in the distance, and where there is a big town there’s the promise of a hot lunch. We took in the view from the pass for a while, waving at the Tibetans who would pass by on their motorcycles or watching the colourful paper flutter in the wind, thrown out of a car as it reaches the highest point on the road. We flew down the other side, propelled not only by gravity but also by the strong, stiff wind which seems to have finally decided which direction it wants to blow.
The town of Qumalai was in the middle of receiving what we had started calling ‘the Han treatment’. If the desert towns we had passed through in Xianjiang were the finished product, Qumalai was midway through its transformation. We road in on a wide new boulevard, freshly laid, lined with workers building the footpath. To our left, stretches of identical government housing, to the right building sights with the soon to be towering monoliths of government building in various states of completion. We passed by a huge new hospital, from the outside bright and gleaming though if it was up and running yet I don’t know.
Eventually we got into the old Main Street of Qumalai, where shops and restaurants and hotels were up and running. The road was in the process of being resurfaced and with all the building going on around town and the strong wind blowing through a haze of dust had been kicked up. We had lunch in a Han run establishments, a delicious meal of red fried beef and potato.
Leaving Qumalai we had our backs to the strong wind. Out of town the new road wasn’t open yet so we followed the old road through a narrow valley beside a meandering stream in lush green grass. This valley then met the wide river valley that the stream fed into.
The scenery here was dramatically different from what we had been through the previous days. Everything was much more green than before and landscape had left behind the open plains and low rolling hills for the steep spurs of the river valley. The Chinese obsession with construction and improvement here was startlingly evident when we saw the bridge that had been built for the new road to span this valley. It was huge and looked completely out of place, as if some aliens had come down and placed this concrete behemoth in this pastoral scene. Which in some ways is exactly what happened.
The old road followed the banks of the river. We kept cycling until we came across a big concrete sign slightly apart from the road which could act as a wind break and provide us with some shelter.