China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 153: Checkpost 40km South of Golmud to Xidatan

We had a long drawn out climb over the the next couple of days as we approached the Kunlun pass, a pass of 4768m about a day and a half ride from here. Until a bit after the pass we would be riding along the Trans-Tibet highway, and although we weren’t entering Tibet proper the region of Qinghai (the province we were currently in) that we were going to cycle through is part of the geographic plateau and most of the population there would be Tibetan. In fact Qinghai was traditionally a province of Tibet named Amdo.
The scenery we were riding through this morning was pretty arid by and large. As we get higher ther should be more flora and fauna around, but despite the somewhat desolate atmosphere it was still an entertaining ride. Not least for the scores of army trucks that passed us in each direction, each identical with a crew of two or three soldiers waving out at us. We couldn’t figure out if they were swapping out companies, bringing in new vehicles or just parading for the sake of it.


the convoy passing Finn in the morning


Tibetan and Chinese script

We ate lunch at a small trucks top that stood alone in the otherwise empty sandy mountainscape. The place was run by a Hui family, which is a Muslim minority in China whose people would have originated in eastern China (as opposed to the Uighers who are from Central Asia originally). The young cook was very excitable and very excited to have foreigners in his restaurant and called us in after our meal (red fried beef noodles) to take his photo with us.
After lunch we entered the Kunlun National Park Area. We hadn’t noticed it before, but now we started seeing many, many motorcycle tourists pass us, Chinese presumably. Most of them sped by (I’d say we saw over thirty that day alone) but one couple in a car stopped and talked to us for a while.


our fist prayer flags at the enterance to the park


a lovely resevoir

 Since this is a popular tourist area there has been some effort to provide some sights for tourists along the national park. We weren’t going through the whole park, but we did arrive at one of these tourist areas: a reconstructed Taoist temple. Nothing about the building is historical, except perhaps for where it was built. They claimed that an older temple stood here at one time. The new, despite being a completely modern fabrication is still quite striking, set as it is in cleft of two peaks surrounded by the bare rock walls.


the new temple build conveniently next to the road


It may be a completely modern fabrication but it get the idea across

We knew that if we cycled just a little bit longer than normal this evening we would arrive at a rest stop where we could find hot cooked food. We’ve really been enjoying the food since arriving in China, compared to Pakistan and even Iran the variety is immense and affordable. And it beats eating instant noodles for dinner. The rest stop we had expected to arrive at in the early evening ended up being a bit farther away than we anticipated. With the temperature dropping and the road continuing to climb we were extremely tired by the time we eventually found it. But what a place – they had got food and even wifi, all the way out here. We ate more than our fill than traipsed across the road into the empty field where we fell fast asleep. 


there should be somewhere to get food around the next corner


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 152: Golmud to Checkpost 40km South of Golmud

The night bus got us into Germu in the early afternoon. After putting the bikes back together and a grabbing some lunch we were underway. Anyone that started talking to us presumed we were going to Lahsa as its quite a popular route for Chinese tourists to travel on bicycle or motorcycle. Of course we weren’t going to Lahsa as its pretty much impossible to cycle independently in Tibet legally, and given the amount of checkpoints the government has built up in recent years, just as difficult to do so illegally.
It took us a bit of time to figure out if we were heading out if the city in the right direction. The railway that ran through the city had no level crossings in the centre of town so we had to ride all the way out to the city limits before we could get on the correct road out of town.
The road out of Germu hasn’t been completed yet so we were riding on dusty track for the first couple of kilometres. Although we were passed by some cars most of the traffic was made up of large trucks hauling freight into Tibet. After half an hour of riding in the dust trail of all these trucks the road joined the Trans Tibet highway that we were following for the next few days. The amount of traffic increased again and it seemed like a non stop stream of trucks were passing us by at all times.


some Chinese cyclists we met heading the other way

Before too long we arrived at the first police checkpoint. We knew it was coming up long before we saw any trace of a building by the long backup of trucks that snaked along the road for a good 5 kilometres before the checkpoint. We were a little bit nervous approaching the checkpoint, some cyclists have reported no being let through as the police think they’re going to try sneaking into Tibet. We had our map with our rout to Yushu, the next big city well to the east of Tibet at the end of the route S308: a road that travels generally East-West across Qinghai province towards Sichuan province. Along with a hotel booking in Yushu we had made (, free booking free cancellation) we felt we could prove we weren’t heading to Tibet if it came to it.


the back-up of trucks waiting to get past the checkpoint

As it happened we didn’t really need any of that. The map helped when one of the police asked where we were going, we could point to Yushu. He then asked ‘Lahsa?’ We said no, and then they just took copies of our passports and let us on our way. We stopped at a petrol station on the other side of the checkpoint where we are dinner.
As we were preparing to leave the petrol station and find somewhere to camp a young Chinese guy on a motorcycle pulled up and excitedly asked where we were from, and then if he could ride with us (this was communicated mostly through gestures, neither of us could speak the others language). We tried to let him know we were just riding for a couple of minutes until we found a somewhere to camp, which I think he sort of understood.


riding through the desert hills in the evening light

We found somewhere to camp, a small track that ran parallel to the main road behind a big rock. The Chinese guy hung out at our camp for a while. He downloaded a translate app on his phone at one point so he could ask us more detailed questions and seemed overall very impressed by the cycle touring and very happy to have met us. He was travelling to Lahsa himself. ‘Are you going to see the Potala Palace?’ Finn asked by pulling out a 50 yuan note and pointing at the Potala palace illustration thereon. ‘No’ he replied (through his translate app) ‘I travel to feel the feeling’.
He wanted to stay with us all night but it was getting cold so he moved on. We settled down to sleep, our first night in Qinghai.

camping next to a drained lake

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Xingjaing, China

China, Dublin to Nepal

In the Kunlun Mountains, Back to Qiemo and Leaving Xianjang

Since we had spent all that effort getting up into the mountains we decided to spend a couple of days up on the plateau before heading back down to Qiemo. It was nice camping somewhere with such a view, purely for the enjoyment of it, and not solely as a means to sleep as it is on a normal day of cycle touring.  

camping just for the sake of it, dawn over the plateau


chasing the camels out of the mountains

 The weather turned on our second day up in the mountains and rain and snow came in. It continued throughout the next day but had cleared up by the time we were making our way out of the mountains and back to Qiemo.
Altogether it had been a week since we left the city. We were now cutting into our visa time, André and I only had 60 days that we planned to extend in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan, two provinces over. Getting up into the mountains had given us a taste of plateau scenery, and the next province we were going to, Qinghai, was said to be in culture and landscape. Most of the province is up on the Geographic Tibetan plateau and was historically a Tibetan province. So we were very excited to get cycling out there. Knowing that there wasn’t much more on offer from the Xianjang desert that we hadn’t already seen and not wanting to be rushed for the next part of the trip that we wanted to enjoy we decided to hop on a bus into Qinghai and be done with it.
So we rode back to Qiemo, spent one more night there before getting the morning bus out to Roqiang where we transferred to the night bus out of Xianjiang. Getting all our stuff onto the night bus was a bit of a hassle, one of the guys working as a driver had loaded up a ton of freight in the luggage compartment to make a bit of cash in the side. This is pretty common almost everywhere we’ve been, and usually there’s enough space for the passengers luggage too, but we have three bikes and all the luggage on top of that. So there was a bit of an altercation when he saw everything we wanted to squeeze into the luggage compartment. We were happy to pay for all the extra stuff we were trying to bring with us, and once that was communicated everything was sorted out.
One night bus ride later we arrived in Golmud (Germu). We had left Xianjiang province behind and entered Qinghai. Golmud is the last stop in a city before Lahsa on the Trans-Tibet highway and newly constructed railway. We, of course, are not allowed to go to Tibet. Apparently just outside of Germu was a pretty serious checkpoint making sure everyone heading south along the Tibet road had the proper papers. We were turning East to ride across Qinghai towards Sichuan province, and by all rights should be allowed to continue. As long as the guards at the checkpost trusted us we should be allowed to continue… 

the route we were planning on taking, from Golmud (green pin) to Yushu. clearly doesnt go into Tibet

China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 151: Qarqan river to unnamed village with a checkpoint 

Clear weather this morning gave us another great view of the ups and down along the road as it snaked up and over the hills. We were climbing up against the flow of the river. As we got higher the plantlife became a bit more frequent. It was still dusty and sandy but every now and then a smattering of purple flowers in bloom would add a splash of colour to the landscape. 

winding up and over the hills


flowers blooming over 3000m in this arid environment must be pretty hardy

It was very remote up here but that’s not to say it was totally isolated. Occasional pick up trucks would pass by and some big army vans too. Yesterday we passed on settlement, today just before lunch we passed three in short succession. The last one had three aggressive mastiffs outside it who were mercifully chained up. The walls of the valley had widened as we climbed and by now we were cycling less in valley and more on plain between mountains in either side.


these guys were on chains thankfully

For lunch we pulled off the road and went down to the banks of the river. Before eating we jumped into the icy water for a swim – the last swim I had was in the Black Sea in Turkey. While eating lunch the wind, which had been a headwind, shifted 180 degrees and by the time we got underway again was pushing us along with ease.

The plain continued to open up as we cycled higher. The river pulled away from the road and now it felt like we were up on a plateau. The road had deteriorated somewhat, I’m not sure from the wind, from the cars or by design but the gravel had been shaped in a continued series of speedbumps, like a washboard, which was not the easiest to cycle over and slowed us down.

Still, it was a spectacular place to be. Grassland was beginning to creep down from higher up the plateau around the banks of the river. Around a corner a small settlement appeared. This was a surprise, we hadn’t seen much indication of a settlement coming up. We figured there was an army barracks somewhere but we thought it was further along the road. We cycled through the settlement, a collection of ramshackle building to the right and very clean and neat army prefabs to the right. At the end of town a barrier blocked our progress. 


we shall not pass

The guy manning the barricade came out to speak to us, but quickly realised we didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin. He called up someone on the phone who knew English. This guy explained that we were at the entered to a ‘national park’ that we needed a special permit to pass through. I’m not sure what kind of a national park has a whole army barracks stationed right beside it, and no amount of reasoning, pleading or cajoling could convince them to let us through. 
It was bummer not to be able to continue for sure, but we weren’t too disappointed. We were still happy to be up here in this probably very seldom seen part of the Kunlun mountains. We had enough food with us so we decided to hang out up here for a couple of days before heading back the way we came. We went out into the middle of the plain and found somewhere to camp, not too difficult in such an open isolated area.


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 150: 8km from the junction of route 591 and X260 to the Qarqan river

We were very eager to get going today, we were going to get up into the mountains! Sure, they were sandy, relatively understated mountains compared to those we had just been through in the Karakorum but still, anything would be more stimulating than the desert. 

We got on the road early and started climbing. Soon the foothills closed in around us and camels trotted up and down the peaks. We crossed a wide river basin, completely dry, and on the other side sat a small hut with a barrier over the road. We ducked under the barrier and cycled swiftly on. With that obstacle out of the way we were feeling good, and that was only compounded by the realisation that we were now in a river valley at the start of the Kunlun mountains, there were things to look at, the road changed direction and gradient frequently – it was so much better than the dull, dreary desert riding we had been putting up with so far.


someones enjoying the change of scenery



Water was scarce though, a small trickle of a steam ran along the base of the riverbed but that water was salty. We had enough for the rest of the day, but it was necessary we kept a lookout. The next stream we passed was similarly salty, so no good, but eventually (and conveniently) around lunchtime we found a larger, faster flowing stream where the water didn’t taste salty. There was still a definitive minerally taste but it was potable. 
This little stream had cut an overhang that provided shelter from the hot sun and, next to the cold flowing water and in the shadow of the rock we had lunch and waited out the heat of the day. We filled up all our water (we were carrying about 10 litres each just to be safe) after lunch and started up again. 


our little lunchtime oasis

After lunch the road didn’t follow the banks of the dried up riverbed, it was ran along the dried up river bed. It twisted and turned around meanders cut by the river over so many centuries until finally we came to the start of the pass. 


the road followed the path cut by the river. And sometimes the road was the river.


This pass would have been tough enough on good road with a normal load, but the road had long since deteriorated into gravel and sand and we were carrying an extra 10 kilograms at least. After a couple of attempts at cycling we all arrived at the same conclusion: there was no choice but to push the bikes over the pass. Pushing loaded bikes uphill is in no way easier than riding them, in fact it’s probably more difficult. It took over an hour to get to the top, hauling the bikes through thick sand and around steep turns.


getting up the pass proved difficult in the sand


looking back over the pass

A short descent after the pass and then another steep climb after that. Once over that peak though the view opened up and we found ourself in a wide open valley with a big, fast flowing river cutting through it. In my me memory this vista was a lush meadow filled with plant life. Looking back on the photos it still looks like a desert though, so I suppose the sight of a big, fast flowing river must have tinted my view. 

 It was late in the day now, we cycled for another half and hour along the banks of the river. At a wide meander we found a large sandy beach opposite a sheer cliff where we set up camp.


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 149: Qiemo to 8km from the junction of route 591 and X260

We flew out of town this afternoon (when your hotel has a 1pm checkout it only makes sense to take advantage of it) with another lovely tailwind. As we were heading out to the mountains the road was generally sloping uphill but with such a strong tailwind it wasn’t noticeable all that much. We passed through the heavily irrigated outskirts of Qiemo and then to the more arid, stoney fields that followed that. It was hot but the ever present haze and strong wind kept it from feeling too overwhelming.  

lovely paved Chinese roads

The road was perfect, wide and smooth but it was just heading off through the desert to the mountains, we weren’t sure what it and been built for; who was it supposed to service? Eventually the road forked. To the right it went off to presumably some town or village given to that to the left there defectively was nothing except desert and mountains. We took the left path which took us over a bridge, a huge two lane bridge that must have cost I don’t know how much to build, and gets used only a handful of times a day at most. I suppose that’s just China.


long, flat desert roads. This time we know we’re leaving the desert

 Once over the bridge we left the rocky desert and got into sandy, duney desert. The wind whipped across the road for a bit blowing that sand into our side as we peddled until we turned our backs to it again. The haze hung, ever present and we wondered when we might get to see the mountains we were pedalling to. We rode along this straight road, slightly uphill, for another two and a half hours. 

We camped behind the wall of a cell tower substation, the only building we’d seen since the bridge, to get some shelter from the wind. But not too close to the wall as the ground there was infested with Giant Monglian Camel Ticks. They lie in wait at places the camels like to rest, and I guess in the sun that wall provides some good shade. 


cant camp too close to the wall, the tics will get you

 As we sat out enjoying the sunset the haze started to clear and we could at last see the beginnings of the Kunlun mountains we were heading into. At last, a notable geographical feature after so many days of boring desert! We were excited to get going tomorrow, to leave the desert behind and get up into the mountains.

its gone at last! the haze has lifted, a view! mountains!

China, Dublin to Nepal


 Qiemo is a funny town. Like most of the major settlements along the southern Silk Road it has received the Chinese development overhaul, so all the streets are wide and and well maintained, there are large, imposing municipal buildings and new apart blocks and business hotels. Despite all this however, the city still a manages to maintains its Uigher personality. It’s not so big that development like this can overwhelm it. What helps most is that along the main street is a large traditional bazaar where most of the citizens spend most of the day, but the bazaar doesn’t contain all the street stalls which spill out along this main street.
So we grew kind of fond of Qiemo. I’m sure it helped that we ended up spending a bit longer there than we planned. The next leg of the trip would take us off the main road and up into the Kunlun Mountains, the northern boundary of the Tibetan Plateau. As far as we could tell this road would have us cycling for at least a week if not ten days without passing another shop so we had stocked up on a whole lot of food.
We spent three days in Qiemo cleaning and fixing everything that needed it and planning for this next part of our trip. The day we left the wind was blowing strong again, but this time behind us propelling us outbid the city. The route up into the mountains wasn’t signposted but we had seen it on our map and surveyed it a bit from the satellite images on Google Maps. It seemed to be a fairly straightforward cycle out of town, through some farmland then out into sandy desert for about 80km until we hit the mountains. 
We followed what we thought was the correct road but as we entered the farmland it soon deteriorated and we were on dirt track next to dusty empty fields. We were confused: the road should be sealed Tarmac all the way to the mountains, at least according to the satellite images. And the road by now should be cutting through the sandy desert. Eventually the road just sort of ended. We were in a shallow bowl framed in on either side by large dikes that had narrowed to a point in front of us, and the road had petered out. 


riding along what would turn out to be the wrong road out of the city

We split up to try and see where the road continued. I went to climb one of the dikes. Cresting the top I saw miles and miles and miles of sand. Nothing but sand dunes all the way to the horizon, and no clue of the road. When I got back to the others I saw an unmarked car had pulled up and three police had gotten out. One spoke English and was friendly enough. He assumed (probably quite rightly) that we had taken a wrong turn and were just looking for the main road. He offered to help us find our way, but only back to the main road not to the secondary route we showed him on our map. He had a funny way of starting every sentence with “I think”, which made his ultimatum:

“I think this is China. I think I am police. I think you should listen to me.” sound a lot less definitive than perhaps it was supposed to. We got the gist though and followed him back to the city.
It was late now, and we didn’t know what to do. We were still confused about what had happened to the road we were going to take. We must have ended up on a wrong turn somehow, but as far as we could tell we had followed the map perfectly. Since we weren’t making any more progress tonight we returned to the hotel.
We checked out the route on Google maps again. Turns out we had followed what we thought was the right road but that road didn’t actually exists a couple of kilometres outside the city despite being marked. We found the proper road to the mountains, which as it turned out was easy enough to navigate: if we kept going straight along Qiemo main street and out of the city eventually we should arrive at the mountains.

China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 148: under a bridge 110km from Qiemo to Qiemo

We knew that if we pushed it today we could arrive at Qiemo in the evening and have showers and fresh food, a tantalising prospect to push us on.
Not much to say about the morning ride: a dusty, dim, dull cycle with little visibility and a strong headwind. We had gotten pretty efficient by now swapping who was breaking the wind every 10km which enabled us to keep up a decent pace. 
50km from where we started this morning a structure began to loom out of the haze. Was it a petrol station, with a shop stocked cool drinks and tasty snacks? No, it was a police checkpost. In fact the police here were really friendly and after they got a photo with us allowed us to cook our lunch in the corner of the checkpost. A nice solid concrete surface to sit and cook on made a world of difference.
The police even came out with some bread for us to have, and a couple of passengers from a bus stopped at the checkpost came over to say hello. They returned with some bread too just before their bus left so in the end we had a great big lunch.
We were close enough to Qiemo now. Small homesteads and warehouses started to spring up indicating civilisation was close. 30km from the first petrol station emerged with a fully stocked shop where we got our cold drinks and snacks at last. Not long after that stop we took the turn off for Qiemo and out our backs to the wind for the first time today. A huge relief that propelled us all the way to the city.
At first it seemed that this might be a relatively under developed Chinese City with traditional style houses and market streets and stalls. We turned a corner though, and there it was: the modern Chinese City in all its wide-avenued, huge municipal building glory.
We were looking for a good, cheap hotel recommended by our guidebook. The address provided was vague and asking people with our limited, phrase book Chinese was not working. We wandered around the bazaar area eliciting “hellos”, toothless smiles and handshakes from old Uigher gents, request for photos and baby holding and small bands of schoolboy followers. Foreigners evidently were a rarity here. The interest in us here was much more digestible than the Pakistani loom as despite being insatiably curious the Chinese and Uighers provided a welcome amount of personal space.
Eventually André had the bright idea of asking someone working out of a computer shop. “They’re always intelligent” he asserted, and correctly too as the guy we ended up asking not only knew where we wanted to go but drew us a little map to help us along.
We got to the hotel, checked in and enjoyed some long, rejuvenating warm showers. The amount of sand and dust on the shower floor by the end was alarming.

bike tourers tend to take full advantage of the luxeries of indoor living

China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 147: approx. 100km from Niya in a featureless desert to under a bridge 110km from Qiemo

We woke up to a shifted wind! It was behind us, not blowing in our faces what a break! We eagerly broke camp and got underway. It’s amazing what a difference a tailwind can make, what yesterday was a boring stretch of lifeless sand was now a fun flat straight shot of Tarmac to open up.
We sped along, pausing only to fix a flat and converse with a father and son bike touring combo. They were Chinese and didn’t speak much English but we were able to understand enough of what they were trying to get across. The two of them were riding the opposite direction to,us add were headed across Tibet to Lhasa. Being Chinese they are allowed travel independently in Tibet, something us foreigners are forbidden from doing.


André and Finn look over the map with the Chinese father and son cycle tourers

After this encounter we came across a small,village where a man with access to a deep well provided water to those passing through. This was a godsend as all we had was about three litres of iodine tasting water between us. He also had a freezer filled with drinks and we gulped down some incomparably refreshing ice cold lemon tea drinks.
The tailwind was fun while it lasted but by mid-day it had returned to its usual position of blowing into our faces. We arrived at a truck stop that appeared like a mirage out of the dunes, a couple of shacks serving food around a petrol station. We are some beef noodles at one of the homes/food shacks which were delicious.

you know a town is coming up soon when the plants start to line the road


Im not sure if this Marram grass grows naturally or if its been planted

After lunch we were back in the desert again. A few more scrubby plants than normal indicated that maybe we were about to reach some sort of oasis or something, but that didn’t pan out in the end. We did come across a river though, and there we decided to stop. We pulled our stuff under the bridge to get out of the blasting wind and ate a dinner of instant noodles.