The snow stopped and it remained overcast for the morning. Finn woke up feeling the effects of the altitude, finding it difficult to focus his sight properly. The man in the shop opposite which we camped sold him a sheaf of tablets that seemed to cure the problem and so we got underway.
We had camped before a pass so a decent chunk of the morning was spent getting over that. As we approached the top so,e bad weather blew in bringing with it snow and hail, reminding us that we were cycling now at 4800m at the top.
On the descent we ran into another bike tourer coming the opposite direction. This was Alex, an American guy who had begun cycling from Bangkok. He was still new to bike touring had a bunch of questions for us. We spent over an hour talking beside the road, handing out tips about the road ahead. He informed us that there was a small town at the bottom of this descent where we could get lunch. It’d had been a long time since we’d met an English speaking bike tourer on the road (let alone a native English speaker at all) and Alex likewise so we indulged in conversation.
As we said our goodbye I felt a bit bad for Alex, he had been complaining of riding into a headwind for the last 600km and he would have to put up with it at least one more day as the wind was at our backs, pushing down the mountains. We came down from the brown rocky pass and back into the greenery of the grassland between the peaks.
The road joined up with a river now and followed a wide curve up into a nook in the foothills where a town had sprung up. The main street was lined with one story open front shopfronts that mostly seemed to sell auto supplies or perform auto repair but at the edge of town we found a noodle place to get some food.
Alex had provided us with a valuable piece of information: that the last pass before Yushu that we had yet to climb could be avoided by taking the newly constructed tunnel. The tunnel wasn’t open to traffic yet but was finished and functional, he had come through the tunnel himself on the way up. With this in mind we knew we could make it to Yushu tonight, even though it was still about 80km off and now lunchtime. The final 40km were all downhill, all we had to do was get to the tunnel.
The lunchtime ride had us following the length of this picturesque valley under a now clear blue sky through the grassland. Small huts and monasteries sprang up along the road occasionally. As the road trended upwards we passed another little village of government-built identical houses. On the other side of this village we arrived at the tunnel.
We pretty much descended right into the city of Yushu. We arrived in under the fading evening light in a misty drizzle, in some ways my favourite time of day and weather in which to enter a city. We pulled up at a cheap but satisfactory business hotel and had our first warm showers in
The weather cleared up the following day so we said goodbye to Tashi. His grandmother gave us a thangka, a thin white scarf given in Tibet as a good luck for travellers before we left.
The weather closed in again as we made the climb out of the valley in which Zhidoi sat. It started to hail then snow. The limited visibility was a stark contrast to the wide open vistas we had had the luxury of riding through before. The weather cleared up by the time we reached the top though, it seems to be a law of nature that as soon as you bother to put on the extra gear for bad weather it clears up.
It was a comparatively uneventful ride for the rest of the day. When we stopped for a break there was always at least one car that would stop and its passengers come over to take photos with us.
We spent most of the day climbing so by evening the temperature dropped significantly. A cold wind blew in and the snow started up again. We pulled into a small shop on the outskirts of a tiny hamlet and decided there was no point in continuing on and making ourselves miserable. We set up our tents in a field opposite the shop and crawled out of the wind and snow.
Tashi’s town of Zhidoi was very near a monastery, and a large once, that we were eager to see. Tashi taught some of the monks up there, including the young boy who was reincarnated Lama of this particular Buhdist sect and arranged for us all to go up there and have a look around. In return he wanted us to cook him his favourite western dish from his time abroad: mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes made with yak butter is an unusual but tasty alternative, and Tashi seemed quite pleased with the meal. After lunch we borrowed his uncles car and drove out to the monastery.
The Gongsa Monastery is huge, though not the biggest by a long shot. Tashis monk friend met us at the entrance and showed us around. Unfortunately we couldn’t get any photos inside the buildings. We saw first the prayer hall, lit by yak butter lamps the pungent smell of which you quickly learn to associate with Buddhist monasteries. Ere were a dozen or so monks in there chanting their sutras, and along one wall a shelf with that held all the monastery’s texts.
We then went to see two large halls that held, first a large statue of the founder of the yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism that held a Guinness World Record of some category. The second a large stupa, a shrine to one of the Lamas of the monastery. I’m not sure if the stupa held any record, but judging by its size I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Finally we visited a third hall that was in the decoration phase of its construction, about five young guys had been brought in from Tibet proper to paint the detailed iconographic imagery on the walls.
Afterwards our monk guide had to go off and teach, so we thanked him and said goodbye. The young novices of the monastery were playing in field at the bottom of a hill and Tashi suggested we go over and say hello to them, most of them hadn’t seen a westerner before and were very excited to see us.
We planned to leave Zhidoi the next day but a snowstorm blew in overnight and continued throughout the morning and then all day the next day, so we stayed an extra day taking shelter in Tashi’s place. We helped Tashi write application letters for scholarships to London Film School, where he had been accepted but couldn’t afford the tuition. Hopefully he gets the funding.
We woke up to a sunny day. We had breakfast (scrambled eggs and bread. Eating oats every day can get stale) and then hit the road. The old road that is, the new road ran almost in parallel to the old except 80m above along the face of the hill, rather than next to the river itself.
We passed through a small police checkpost, the police more interested in collecting photos with us than our details. Then then we proceeded along this green valley, picturesque and serene. After a while we got it into our heads that we may as well ride on the new road since it seemed, for all intents and purposes, complete. Just not fully open to the public yet. We kept our eyes open for some way to get up onto it.
The first on road ran right through someone’s house, so that wasn’t really an option. A couple of kilometres down the road though the new road dipped a bit and a dirt track led up to it. We hauled the bikes along the track up to the road, a difficult feat in the thin air that required a lot of breath-catching breaks. But it was worth the effort, we were up on the new road with fresh Tarmac all to ourselves.
As it turned out we needn’t have bothered exerting ourselves like that as not long after we got onto the road the old road merged with the new. From here we climbed out of the valley and up into a wide expanse of plains. A town lay on a river nestled up against the foothills of some mountains, we could have lunch there.
The town was another one of these newly renovated towns. We had lunch in a small noodle place next to a mani wall opposite a basketball court. The kids playing basketball found our presence much more amusing than their game and ogled us from the windows of the noodle place. They were a happy and excitable lot and accompanied us as we went to look at the mani wall after lunch, shouting out the Buhddist mantra ‘om mani padme hum’ as we walked around the wall to peals of laughter from their comrades. It would be the equivalent, I suppose, of a group of Chinese tourists out in some small village in Ireland looking at the local church while the local youths followed them shouting ‘our father who art in heaven’.
As we were leaving town a car driven by a monk pulled up and a young Tibetan guy in skinny jeans got out and started speaking to us in perfect, unaccented English. This was Tashi. He invited us to stay with him in his place tonight, ‘just for kindness’. Not to turn down such kindness we agreed. He had to go teach for a coupe of hours, so we had some time to kill. There’s only so much unfiltered attention from locals a person can take at a time, so we rode out of town and hid under a bridge on the dried up river bed and watched a movie on Finns laptop.
We went back to town and met Tashi at the appointed time, 7 o’clock. He took us back to his place where we spoke to his uncle and aunt and said hello to his old grandmother who sat spinning her handheld prayer wheel. Tashi’s parent s were away as it was a holiday period in the region. Tashi explained that now was the time the locals went out into the hills to pick the catapult fungus, a rare fungus with medical properties that would be the sold on to China proper. We didn’t really understand exactly what he meant by ‘harvesting’, ‘medicinal properties’ or even ‘catapilar fungus’ but this is Tibet, there are some things we can’t fully understand.
Tashi showed us the spare room where we got to sleep indoors in a bed.
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.
Last night it snowed but in the morning the sky was clear and the sun shining. We started the morning off climbing up to the top of the pass. The descent down the other side was long and exhilarating in the cold morning air of the plateau. Minivans full of Tibetans honked and waved and some even stuck their phones out to get photos of the crazy foreigners who had decided to cycle up here.
The descent terminated when we reached a clear, fast flowing river in a green grassland. We followed a wide meander in the river into the town of Qumarlê. As we entered a whole load of locals came out of nearby building and swamped us with hellos and greetings. It was as if they were expecting us, some of them must have passed in those minivans.
We spoke with this welcoming party as best we could, told them where we were from and where we were going then took a couple of photos with them and said goodbye. We decided to have an early lunch at this town while we were here and stopped in at the only restaurant in town, a place run by a Hui.
After our noodle lunch we went to go explore the small Buddhist monastery behind the town, set out higgldy-piggldy in the wide grassland. We looked around the mani wall (sutra-ensribed stones piled up to make a wall) and a small chapel containing a large prayer wheel. We then passed the young novices who, excited to see us wanted to take some photos of us on their phone. Then an adult monk, their teacher probably maybe the abbot came over with a stern look on his face. We thought we were about to be reprimanded but when he arrived he broke into a smile, took out his phone and asked for a photo of his own. Then he took us to have a look inside the chapel, a small building with detailed paintings of Buddhist iconography in the walls and a large gold coloured Buddha statue in the centre. The place was heavy with the musky smell of yak butter burning candles.
We decided that this would be a sort of cycling half day so after our visit to the small monastery we cycled for only two more hours, enough to get up over the other side of the next climb where we set up to camp and tried to relax on the windswept plain.
Last nights snow washed out all the colour of the landscape this morning, leaving only the shape of the rolling hills and flat plateau between. The layer of snow was thin though and had started to melt by the time we were eating breakfast.
It was fantastic cycling up here on the plateau, and especially compared to what we had been riding in in Xianjiang. The landscape was appealing, wildlife roamed all around and the air was clean and clear. As we rode we passed by the tents and livestock of the nomadic yak herders, a frequent sight up here. At the top of each hill colourful prayer flags fluttered in the breeze.
We had a long climb to contend with today before arriving at a town for lunch, but the gradient up here seems to be mercifully gradual. It was like a series of steps to the top, a climb along the side of a valley, with yaks grazing in the centre around a scattering of white nomad tents, them up over the top of the valley and down into another one. The thin air made the climbs slow as exerting ourselves too much would leave us breathless.
Near the top three western-looking cyclists going the other way sped past on the downhill. It was a bit disappointing that they wouldn’t stop for a chat, I can’t imagine they’d seen many cyclists up here. For us, at least, the last westerners we’d seen had been in Urumqi. At the top of the climb however a fourth member of their group had remained to take some pictures and I got talking to him. His name was John and he was from Ireland. Running into an Irishman up here was a very unlikely coincidence but it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. John and his group were cycling from Chengdu, a city about 1000km away in the province of Sichuan to Lahsa, Tibet. They had a guide and all the papers in order and were travelling a lot lighter than we were. In order to get into Tibet you need to be travelling in a party of four of your countrymen, so I assume the other three were Irish too.
John informed us that a town lay at the bottom of this descent and that somewhere there served food. We said goodbye and sped off downhill, pictures of hot bowls of noodles in mind as a brief squall of wind and hail blew up the valley.
In town we wandered around before eating as a bus load of passengers were taking up all the room in the one restaurant. The town was just one street, set below a hill on which stood a line of stupas and a load of prayer flags. The town was mostly Tibetans, the woman in their long skirts with colourful jackets and braid hair, the men in thick sheepskin coats with sleeves down to their knees. All of them wearing cowboy hats. There was also a small amount of Hui, a Muslim minority that look more Han (Chinese) than the dark skinned Tibetans.
We ate lunch once the bus left at a Hui run restaurant. Despite having a big poster on the wall with pictures of various delicious looking dishes they only served one noodle dish, but it was more than enough for hungry cyclists.
The town sat in between two high passes on the valley floor. We had come over one this afternoon and now began the climb out the other side. As usual it wasn’t too steep but the thin air made the going slow. Evening set is as we arrived at the top, where a group of Han labourers were working on the road.
The road looked to only descend a small bit before starting to climb again so we set up camp here behind a stone wall next to the road. In the night it snowed again.
To change things up a bit today we decided to cycle each on our own before lunch. The landscape was so flat and open and there were so few turn-offs (none really) that there wasn’t much of a chance of someone getting separated.
The plateau was not only stunning in its wind-swept openness but also fascinating in the variety and abundance of wildlife. I’m no naturalist, I couldn’t recognise any of the animal species but roaming around right next to the road were small gazelle like grazers, wild ass and tiny skittish rodents that ran for the cover of their hole was you went past. There were larger rodents too, like a capybara and of course yak. We didn’t see any on this day but later on foxes as well. There were many lakes and small river courses that cranes, geese and big red ducks swam around and way up in the sky soared vultures, eagles and kestrels or hawks (not entirely sure which).
We struck across the wide plains then up into the hills. We agreed to meet at the first settlement we hit, which was supposed to be about 60km down the road. I arrived at this small hamlet first. An old Tibetan man was watching me curiosity while I waited for the the others an by the time Finn arrived he had invited us in for tea.
His hut was a one room affair with a yak-dung burning stove in the center and his bed by the window. A small prayer wheel stood at the end of the bed which he spun with a stretch of rope. We showed him the map and some of our photos and then sat in silence waiting for the water to boil. We drank the tea and then said goodbye.
Walking into the settlement proper we came across a small shop run by a Tibetan family. They invited us in to their living room next to the shop and offered us some biscuits and tea. We bought some instant noodles in their shop and ate them in the living room for lunch. After lunch we waved goodbye to everyone in the village who had gathered to see us and continued cycling.
The road had climbed into the hills just before this hamlet and now ran along the side of the hills looking down into the wide plains below. The landscape was almost boggy, like the west of Ireland except 4000m above sea level. Coarse, stunted tufts of grass grew amongst loose black soil and small pockets of snow.
A nice camp spot presented itself beside the road. That night a heavy wind blew in carrying snow with it. Seems like it snows a bit every night up here on the roof of the world.
Just before dawn a light dusting of snow fell, as if to make a point that though it was nearly June we were still 4000m above sea level and at nights it would get cold. Breakfast in the same rest stop as dinner the night before and then we took off. We should cross the Kunlun Pass today, followed by leaving the Trans Tibet highway and joining the route S308, a road that runs for 530km across the Tibetan plateau from Budongquan to Yushu.
The road up to the pass was mercifully gradual as the thin air made the going slow. None of us had altitude sickness thankfully, but it wasn’t really an option to push ourselves as any level of exertion would leave us breathless for a couple of seconds.
The snow melted away quickly and the truck traffic stared up again. We had a shot rest under the bridge of the railway before making the final push to get up and over the pass.
It felt great to be up at the pass, with prayer flags whipping around in the strong wind and the plateau stretching out to the horizon in front of us it felt entirely Tibetan. Though it had been sunny all morning a cold, strong wind was blowing up. We wrapped up well for the descent.
We the turned off the Trans Tibetan highway and joined up with the S308, the road that would take us across the plateau to Yushu. Here the landscape opened up and it seemed like we had, at last, climbed up to the roof of the world. A huge sky stretched out above us and the windswept plains of the plateau rolled out all around, terminating in faint snowy peaks on the horizon. We cycled for some time and the made camp.