China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 155: Budongquan to ~90km east of Budongquan along the S308

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. 

perfect riding conditions

 
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).

 

I was trying to get a photo of the wildlife but the iPad camera can onky really capture landscapes. Im sure Finn or Andres photos will have some good shots of the animals

  

the Han industry even makes it out here

 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.

 

a nice lake

  

Yak, first time seeing them on the plateau

 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.

 

Andre cycling

  

Finn cycling

 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.

  

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China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 154: Xidatan to Budongquan

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 thin air wont keep their spirits down

 
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.

 

the road as we approached the top

  

approaching the pass with the trans tibet railway running alongside

 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.

   

windy up at 4700m

 We rolled down the other side of the pass, the bad weather front in constant pursuit. Soon we arrived at the town of Budongquan, a ramshackle place of restaurants, shops, auto supplies and dormitories that’s sprung up around the near constant stream of trucks passing through it. We are lunch here at a place run in part by an ex-tour guide, a Tibetan guy who used to work in Lahsa. His English, as a result, was fantastic and we had a great talk with him while eating dumplings and fried rice.

 

trying to outrun the front that blew in over the pass

 
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.

 

riding on the much quieter S308

  

Andre taking it all in

  

the seemingly endless space makes finding campsites easy

 

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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

   

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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 (booking.com, 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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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.

  

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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

  

camels!

 
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.

  

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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!

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