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

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, 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.


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 146: Niya to approx. 100km from Niya in a featureless desert

Ok, I hope I don’t come across as too negative, but this was another day of desert riding where a lot didn’t really happen. Riding in the desert tends to be a case of mind over matter as mile after mile of nothingness provides little to motivation to continue. It also means I don’t have much material for these daily write ups so they will probably be pretty short.
In the morning we left our field and filled up water in a gas station. The morning started in what I would describe as sort of savanna type environment with dry grassland and a few scattered trees. Small streams coursed intermittently, I presume what allowed these trees and grass to grow. This was a nice area to ride through but after about two hours we stared to climb out of this basin and up into sandy, exposed, windy desert.


gotta stay hydrated

We cycled in the desert for the rest of the day,mouth so little stimulation you tend to obsess over small thoughts over and over until you become a little bit crazy. For me I couldn’t get the thought of a full Irish breakfast out of my head. I suppose because it presents the highest concentration of tasty foodstuffs from home that I haven’t had in eight or nine months: Good bread, creamy butter, delicious pork based products: bacon, sausage and of course pudding. I don’t think a day went by in the desert that a fired breakfast didn’t float through my brain. At lunch we took shelter under a tree and ate instant noodles.


around the base of the tree lived a whole bunch of Giant Mongolian Camel Ticks. lunch wasnt the most relaxing

We were starting to run out of water, though we should be passing a village tomorrow according to the map we needed to try and find something. Finally towards the end of the day we passed a small building that was trying to irrigate the dusty sand and turn it into a fruit farm. The pumps were turned off but there was a barrel of clean looking standing water. We took a couple of litres and threw some iodine pills in it to sterilise just in case.

We came across a small scattering of trees in the evening and decided to camp. Despite the desert appearing devoid of life in the day as the sun went down a swarm of mosquitoes emerged and chased us into the tents for the rest of the night.


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 145: Rezai Keyouti to Niya

Not a whole lot to say about today’s ride. It was in the flat desert with limited visibility and into a headwind, not much else to say about it. The desert was sandy but marram grass or something like it had been planted alongside the road to prevent the sand from blowing out into it.  
This morning we saw our first Bactrian camels, the shaggy-furred two humped cousin if the single humped camels we’d seen in Iran and Pakistan. Spotting them provided a bit of excitement in an otherwise uneventful morning.

We passed nothing most of the day. At lunch we took shelter under the large solar panels of a cell tower and ate instant noodles.

More desolate desert riding after lunch and eventually we came across a police checkpost that signalled the return of civilisation. After the checkpost a long avenue lined with trees where serious irrigation attempted to repel the desert. A petrol station was the first shop we passed since yesterday and we bought cold drinks and tested outside a while.

We pulled into Niya, another surprisingly large and well developed town and found a noodle place for dinner. In the vanishing light we rolled out of town into the irrigated belt which surrounded the town. We pulled off the main road onto a dirt track until we found a disused field to set up camp.


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 144: Qira to Rezai Keyouti

Most of the day was spent spent riding through a pleasant little oasis region where grassy pasture fronted the road left and right and tree lined routes through small villages provided welcome shade. A real effort was being made to stop the encroachment of the desert into this comparatively verdant region. Large wooden frames formed tunnels along walkways that ivy and other climbing plants would soon cover to create shaded paths from house to house.  

sand dunes yesterday and grazing cows today

Riding along this cool, flat road with a tailwind we were making great time.mwe took a rest at a small shop along one of these tree lined roads. The young girl who was looking after the place brought us out some bread and tea while we sat by our bikes. She had a smattering of English which she shyly practiced on us.
By lunchtime we had made it to Keriya, a medium sized town with the usual, somewhat out of place wide roads and high rise buildings at the centre. 
After lunch and out the other side of Keriya the desert returned again, dusty and sandy as ever. The road was straight and flat and there wasn’t much to see all around. A haze hung on the horizon. Off in the distance a line of trees indicated a welcome change of scenery. But soon we couldn’t see the trees, even thought we had gotten closer. They were swallowed up in the haze, which was moving towards us.


the desert isnt so bad

 It wasn’t haze, it was a sandstorm barreling down on us. The wind hit then the sand, we donned sunglasses and buffs to cover our face as the wind blew right into us and the sand streamed around. The sand only lasted about ten or so minutes mercifully, but the headwind continued and the dusty haze stuck around to limit visibility to about 2km.


Andre slips into the sandstorm

We only found this out later: the sandstorm was the start of a season dust storm that would last for the rest of this leg to Qiemo. Normally the wind blows from the west, which would have provided a tailwind all the way to Qiemo but around this time of year for a week or so the wind changes direction and blows from the North East, picking up dust and sand as it crosses the Taklamakan.
We passed a small checkpost as evening closed in filling up our water and then walking our bikes out to one of the barren fields next to the road. A raised earthen barrier, designed to protect the crops from the wind when the field was fertile provided us with some rudimentary shelter from the wind that night which howled until the early morining.


China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 143: Hotan to Qira

Free at last, we awoke ready to cycle and eager to get going without the ever present looming of the Pakistan police escort. This was China, we were free to travel where we please as long as it wasn’t Tibet or any other region off limits to foreigners.
We left our little field and rode to a nearby town where stalls set up at the central crossroads were selling food. Im sure they get very few foreigners stopping in this towns outside of a major city so our presence caused quite a ruckus. Mercifully they have a concept of personal space in this country so we weren’t immediately surrounded and were able to enjoy a bit of banter with the locals. We bought three meat pies, the meat encased in a crusty, bagel-y sort of bread. We hadn’t a clue how to eat it so one of the guys came over and showed us how to cut the bread open with a knife and us that to pull out the meat. They then gave us some tea and wrapped it all up with watermelon, a fantastic breakfast.
We were riding in a desert region, and from what we had seen from the bus it was quite a dusty, sandy desert (unlike the rocky deserts of Iran). However around most of the towns and cities some serious irrigation work had and was going on to reclaim the land, so for most of the morning we were riding next to farmland and stunted trees.


starting to enter proper sandy desert


Sign for Qira, Kerya and Xi’an

 By lunchtime though we were well and truly in the desert. Long lonely road wound through nothing but sandy vistas. A strong tailwind brought a bit of excitement to the ride but it was hot and dry and empty nonetheless. We had better get used to it though, we have 600km of desert to cover before Qiemo, the city where we will get to turn off and ride up along the plateau for a while.
Intermittent cell phone towers dotted the sandy nothingness and provided much need shade at lunchtime. We waited out the heat of the day and then rode off, but after lunch the wind shifted to a crosswind and the sand was whipped across the road buffeting us as we peddled. 


the only shade in the desert

 We created a hill and down the other side we turned away from the wind. Here we ran into some policemen who pulled us over – but only to give us some bottled water. Not long after we pulled into the town of Qira. Qira is one of these newly built Chinese towns with wide roads, large municipal buildings, traffic light, street lights but only about half the population it can accommodate at capacity. To us it was the sprinkler irrigation all around the town watering trees and flowers that was the most attractive part of the city, after the afternoon in the sandy desert.


enjoying the shade of a park

We rested a while in the shade of one of these trees before eating dinner, a tasty noodle dish, and riding out of the city to find somewhere to camp. The desert didn’t come right back though, irrigation meant trees and far land lined the road and we came across a little patch of dirt away from the road to set up camp in.