China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 157: Qumahexiang to Qumarlê 

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. 

Finn greets a Tibetan on a motorcycle

  

André the Swede, happy to be back in snow

 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.

 

all smiles after a long descent

  

the town welcoming party inspects our map

 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.

 

the small monastary on the outskirts of town

  

a large prayer wheel in one ofmthe chapels

  

the Buhddist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” carved infront of the prayer stone wall

 
 

with the novies and their teacher

  
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.

   
 

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China, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 156: ~90km East of Budongquan to Qumahexiang

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.   

Finn enjoying the brisk morning temperature

 
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.

 

prayer flags at the top of a hill

 
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.

 

the grass starting to get greener

 
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. 

 

I dont know why they felt the need to build those fake mountains next to 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.

we may have camped a bit too high up tonight

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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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