After a good cycling tour of Japan and a pretty good randonneuring season in Alberta in 2010, I decided to capitalize on my cycling fitness by taking on Tibet, a long sought after goal. I had wanted to cycle from China into Tibet on my own, but the Chinese regulations still prohibit independent travel in Tibet. On my 2006 cycle trip in China I had connected with an American, Peter Snow Cao, running a cycle company called Bike China. After much soul searching I signed up for a lightly supported three week trip from Golmud in Qinghai province to Lhasa. I will fly from Calgary to San Francisco to Beijing to Xining to Golmud, over a four day period starting July 13. On the off-chance that my bike, equipment and body all arrive in Golmud, we will start riding south on July 20. The distance to Lhasa is only about 1100 km, but we will cross the Kunlun Mountains and a number of passes up to 5200 m, so altitude and the cold that comes with altitude will be the main challenge.
Once in Lhasa, I have a number of options regarding the rest of my trip, but will not know which will work until there.
Beijing – July 15, 2010
It is raining and almost more comfortable than the mugginess that pervaded my walks around the city, before the rain fell. I am spending two nights here on my four day sky-hop from Calgary to Golmud to begin my cycle trip to Tibet. I left my bike and main bag of stuff at the left luggage at the airport, and will collect it again in the morning as I continue on my way.
I arrived at around supper last night on the train from the airport. I had a couple of beer and a meal in the hostel followed by an early evening walk about, reminding myself of the sights, smells and sounds of Beijing. I miss the cicadas, not sure why they are not out. Things are so much more active than in Japan. The hot humid weather has people on the streets, eating, smoking, shopping and visiting. I had forgotten the heaps of dirt, chunks of pavement, tiles and stones stacked along the roadways that seem to be a part of all Chinese cities. I try to remind myself to be vigilant for pitfalls as I amble along the sidewalks drinking in the atmosphere. I had also forgotten the smell of sewer and rotting food, so much a part of life on the sidewalks. Beijing is great.
I guess my favourite “people park” anywhere is Jingshan Park, across from the north entrance to the Forbidden City. I was out there before 7:00, and spent a couple of hours appreciating the old people involved in their activities. I particularly admire the lack of reserve they display as they dance, exercise, shout, stretch, play their ancient instruments or just walk the intricate pathways of the park. They often are part of large groups, but just as often carry on solitarily. Style and skill does not measure highly amongst the participants, nor does dress. I guess this is one of the reasons that I admire the participants. It is only about their own enjoyment and benefit.
I also scouted out a few potential purchases for when I return in a few months. I will need a new bag to collect all of my stuff and will need something to contain my bike, as the ones that will get me to Golmud will stay there. As always I am attracted to the big foreign bookstore on Wangfujing, as they have a good supply of translated books of interest that could find a way home with me.
I wonder if I will ever see blue sky in Beijing.
The Golmud to Lhasa Bike trip
Summary: We rode 1176 km, by my odometer, and that included a small amount of riding in towns. The total altitude gain that my watch reported was 6345 m, but a gps measurement for the trip no doubt would vary somewhat. We gained a fair amount in the first three days, and then lost a lot in the last day, as we rode up onto the Qinghai plateau and stayed at or above 4500 m for most of the trip. We crossed a number of major passes, the highest being Tangula pass at 5230 m. Our trip took 19 days, two less than planned by Bike China. We had two rest days, one of which was used to go by van to Namsto Lake. As we had saved two days enroute, we had three days of tours with our van and guide in and around Lhasa. Our group felt the day at Namsto and the three days in Lhasa were extremely important to our appreciation of the trip.
Of the 18 nights, between Golmud and Lhasa, we had only four nights with showers in our resting place and two other nights (at Amdo) where we were able to take a public bath; so most day end cleanups were done in a wash basin, usually in public view. In most places pit toilets were the norm, but often it was “any place out back..”, and so these were often in public view as well. Because of these factors, this is a tough trip for women, and unless made of the stuff that Juliet is made of, women should beware. A sleeping bag and mat are pretty essential and we could have used a tent on at least one occasion.
Our food was incredibly good, mostly because of Abu, who often would pitch in and cook when all else failed. The food is primarily Chinese with a good mixture of Tibetan, but language knowledge is necessary to have the quality we did.
The ride itself is also very challenging, due mostly to the altitude and the amount of climbing. We had van support for about 40% of route (from Amdo to Lhasa), because of Chinese requirements. We took advantage of this by having the van carry some of our panniers and some also caught a ride at times. Should the requirement for a guide be dropped, some of us feel that the van could be dropped, but it was very nice to use it to go into Namsto and for the days in Lhasa.
July 17 – Golmud (Geermu) (2800m)
I did my two hops to get here. Yesterday was the longest, about 3 hours to get to Xining, the biggest city in Qinghai province. I arrived about 3:30, and took all of my stuff into the city by bus as there is no left luggage. I was dropped off, in a light rain, in the centre of town by a large square. I staggered with my two bags of stuff around the corner to get out of the rain and into a fairly cheap hotel. I walked around the square for a bit and then into a hot-pot type restaurant, where you cook your own food. I had three young girls working with my phrase book to pick out my meal. It was pretty good, a bit greasy, but proved to be very filling. I have yet to bump into anyone here who speaks any English.
In the morning, I took a cab to the airport and had a buffet breakfast there. Prices are interesting here. My breakfast cost 20 Y (about $3), which included fruit, juice, instant coffee, and my choice of about 15 hot dishes. At the other end of the hall is a coffee house that sells “handmade” coffee for 60 Y. While waiting for the check-in to open a young fellow introduced himself as one of the other bikers on my tour.
Paul is English, early thirties, trained as an engineer, but teaches English in an International School in Bangkok. He is an avid cyclist and tri-athlete and certainly the life of our little party.
Our flight was less than an hour followed by a short a bus ride into town where we are now checked into the Tian Long Hotel, our home for the next three nights. We will not likely see any others from our group until the 19th. The first thing I did was to dive into my bags to get organized, starting with my bike. The little clamp that holds my frame together was missing and I went through everything two or three times and had basically given up. We went to have a bit of lunch and then when I came back I started to go through things again, but putting things into their respective pannier. As I cleared things away the clamp turned up; it had blended in with the dark floor and so was not very apparent to my myopia. That problem solved, my chain was again all balled up, like in Japan, and I had to pull off the jockey wheels to straighten things out, and it did not go together well. I took the bike down to a bike shop where there was no help, and Paul helped a while and now I have given up on this problem for a while. Not much fun.
July 18, my birthday. I slept poorly and was up walking before 6:00. Sunday here and so not much action, but I had a pleasant walk and breakfast including steam rolls and rice gongee for breakfast. Back at the hotel, Paul is still getting up. I find that the hotel has a buffet breakfast, as part of our deal. In the people park across the street I got some writing lessons using a big sponge brush. I think the people here are even more open and friendly that I have encountered in other cities. Paul and I walked down the street to where he had found wifi access, on the steps of an apartment like building. I struggled in the bright light to get a few emails off on my laptop.
I headed off on my bike, using one gear, but the tire was flat. I pumped it up and rode to the train station. Flat again and so I changed the tube, getting very disheartened by all the bike problems. More riding and back to the bike strip I was at yesterday, having found no other bike shops.
This time I asked if they have a derailleur and a young guy looked at my bike and indicated that he would give it a go. On the sidewalk in the bright sunlight, with me holding the bike he changed my high-end $300 derailleur for one that you see on all the bikes here. He worked about half an hour setting it up and it seemed to work fine. The bill, for the derailleur and his efforts was about $14. If this gets me to Lhasa it will be a good lesson. He showed where the old derailleur had been pushed out of whack in transport, damaging a small retaining piece. Later in the day I rode about 20 km and all seems well.
A third ride turned up. Gabor is Hungarian, late thirties, working in Shanghai for an American Electonics company. He manages plants in China and Japan. He also is a strong rider and possibly our best bike mechanic..
I am getting around Golmud and quite appreciate the tree lined boulevards everywhere. Paul and Gabor went out with me for my birthday dinner, and then as we came back to the hotel our fourth rider appeared.
Edmund is an Austrian but with Italian and Romanish background. He is a philosophy professor five years younger than me, but thinks he is older. He cycles in the Alps and has done at least one organized cycle trip in China, with Bike China, before this one.
The next morning, the 19th, while we were having breakfast our fifth rider staggered into the breakfast room carrying a large duffle bag. Juliet is a very pretty, late twenties, New Zealander. She is a lawyer and has just resigned her job in Hong Kong and will head into an MBA program in Buenos Aires, after having a five month travelling break. Juliet hasn’t cycled much but runs marathons, and turns out to be very tough.
I did a couple of hours ride into the countryside and then back at the hotel we were all getting ready to head off for when our guide turned up.
Abu is a 23 year old Tibetan whose mother is Tibetan and father Chinese. He has lived most of his life in Lhasa, but has just completed a Mechanical Engineering degree in Chengdu. He has worked with Bike China before and is doing this tour before beginning the search for a job in his field.
And so we all headed off for lunch and our pre-ride meeting. We will be six, no one seemed to know until all turned up. After lunch the bikes were at the hotel; the other five, all are using Bike China bikes, spent the rest of the day working on them as they were not in great shape. My bike shop guy got some good business. Some had to buy things like coats and sleeping bags as well. We finished off getting our stuff ready to go, and will send a bag of stuff to Lhasa. I will send my tent and a few other things, as we agreed we would not be tenting.
I am quite looking forward to things. The group seems to be compatible and even though not all are hard core cyclists the slow scheduled pace should allow everyone to work into shape.
July 20 – to Natchitai (3564 m); 92 km, 800 m gross, 750 m net gain
We had a great breakfast in our hotel and were essentially ready to go about 8:00, but when Abu and I went to the post office with the stuff we wanted to send we had to wait until 9:00 for it to open. And so we didn’t get away until probably after 10:00. The road south, #109 that we will follow all the way to Lhasa, began with a slight (1 or 2%) grade and it continued this way until our lunch break at noon, where we found a nice restaurant. After that the grade varied quite a bit and we had some nice runs through gorges with the river and occasional reservoir often in view. We began to spread out a bit, but those in front would wait every 15 km or so and we would use that as a rest break as we were making good time and in no hurry. At 62 km, a large Sinopec service station rose out of the valley and it looked like we might be able to stay here, but there was a strong tailwind and we opted to carry on for another 30 km. Unfortunately the wind turned after about 10 km and so the day turned out to be quite a struggle, as we got into Nachitai about 5:00.
Everyone thought the day was wonderful. Once into the Kunlun foothills the terrain became very brown, dry and rugged, but beautiful in its own way. The big mountains will soon begin, but on these low ones the erosion has caused a moon-scape reminiscent of Arizona. But possibly the highlight was watching the sheep and herders, some of who were on camels.
Abu pointed out that they are Hui, a Muslim minority. We had one short stretch of road construction and the talcum textured dirt caused me some real problems, not a good harbinger of things down the road. By the time the others hit this section, where I was waiting, a slight rain had begun and perhaps that made it better. The rain continued for a while but quit before we finished the day.
Dinner was a riotous affair. We arrived at the restaurant at 7:30, but it was filled with soldiers heavily into their drinking. We were the object of much attention during our wait. In spite of good intentions I succumbed to the pressure to toast with a not too badly tasting clear drink not unlike Maotai. We were talked into taking group pictures in front of a police car only to have the police chief complain and then we had to delete the pictures under his observation. Finally we got a room, which we shared with four Chinese cyclists who turned up hungry.
Meanwhile it was raining continually and we paid a good price to have someone drive us back to the guesthouse. Possibly with the toasting and such it was a good thing. We were late getting into the sack and Edmund, crawling cocoon like into his new sleeping bag, cinched tightly around his face commented, “It sure is hot here”. I was sleeping on top of the blankets, and so it struck me as hilarious, but possibly that was also due to the toasting. As the night progressed I pulled out my thermarest to soften the board bed a bit and then pulled my bag over and drifted happily off.
July 21 – to Xitadan (4100M); (38/130 km to date); (700m gross, 600 net)
We had a excellent breakfast and were on the road by 8:30, an hour and a half earlier than the first day. As this was to be a short day with a lot of climbing we stopped often to gather the group. At one stop we were under the highest bridge on the Qinghai rail line. As Paul and I waited we continually heard a loudspeaker from a building high up on the bank. In response we waved, but when Abu arrived he indicated that they were saying we were not allowed to hang around under the bridge. We pulled into our day’s stop at about 1:00, the altitude beginning to hit some.
There is a gorgeous mountain right across the way that would show aspects of its self as the clouds came and went. The best views would be in the morning when we could finally get a full view. Yu Zhu Feng is about 6100m and heavily glaciated. It seems incredibly close to the road and would make a wonderfully straight forward climb.
Sitting in the restaurant for our dinner, which was very good, a large Chinese group, in two cars, were making noise indicating they wanted to move into one of our two rooms. The guys had one, Juliet the other. Some in our group were not happy with the guy’s room and so we told the owner that we would be happy to move into the restaurant, which was warmer and drier. This didn’t seem very smart to me, as I had no interest is hanging around until the dinning room cleared out. But the deal was made and we moved our stuff into Juliet’s room. Paul and Edmund with Juliet on the big platform bed, me on the floor. Gabor and Abu opted to wait until the restaurant cleared out, rather than squeeze in with us. There was still activity some time later when I made my first trip outside. There was not much attractive about this place other than the two, very shy, little boys who never stopped working, mostly cleaning and filling tea cups. Whereas the restaurant was very clean, there was no toilet and so you went where you wished. I waited until I was down the road the next morning, before doing my work.
July 22 – to Bu Dong Guan (4510 m); (55/185 km to date); (650 m gain, 220 m loss)
An interminable wait in the morning for breakfast, and we now started riding with warmer stuff on, and it stayed on most of the day. The morning ride, along in front of the snow covered giant on our left, was lovely. After an hour or so we could see where the rail line made a big sweeping curve to gain altitude and then headed west out of the valley we had been in since Golmud. The road cutting through the mountains followed a drainage bed at about 4-5% for 4 or 5 kms and then at a lesser grade across an open area, culminating in the first major summit, Kunlun Pass, that we crossed at about 4770m. We gathered there, along with many of the cyclists that we have been bumping into and probably 20 land cruisers of people. The run down, about 20 km, to our night’s stop went very fast, but was interrupted as we had to don rain outfits to deal with a heavy rain. I did not put on enough and spent the night trying to dry things.
We had two nice 3 bed rooms and a place to get our bikes out of the rain. The room that everyone gathered in was not a restaurant, but an attractive communal sitting area, kitchen, eating room. The Great Room. The establishment is run by a Tibetan family that seems to consist of a couple of men and about 4 women, all adults and one little boy who tooled everywhere on a scooter. The room has benches fronted by low tables along two walls. In the center, and the focal point, is a wood and coal burning stove. There are continually 4 or 5 large pots of water boiling away. That is unless someone is cooking, which is the way most of the other groups had their food. The owner let a few of the first to arrive use a little space to dry clothes, but the others had to make do in their rooms. We paid extra to have a coal stove lit, in our rooms, which cost Edmund a couple of shirts that he had hung up on the chimney in our room. In the second half of the large great room was the store, and that is where you went to buy the things that you would prepare.
We had cardboard noodle bowls when we first arrived, and then for supper Abu negotiated a tsampa meal. Six bowls were set in front of us, about 1/3 filled with hot water. Then a big slab of butter, a heap of wheat flour, another of barley and some sugar was set out. We proceeded to mix this all together with our right hand. It was very floury and very hard to get the little round lump that we were to eat, but most of us struggled through and it did not taste that bad to me, but I would use more fluid as it seemed too dry. There are 25 cyclists staying here in four groups including ours. One group did all their food in their rooms. The great room, with the family, the activity and the people watching was where we all wanted to be.
It was here that I had my first good talk with Tina. She is a tiny dynamo; the leader of a group of eight university graduates. She just completed a masters of Engineering. Her seven partners are all male and do nothing without Tina’s direction. I call her Pink Tina because she wears Pink. She is the slowest of all the riders we are interacting with, and I worry about her, but she is great to talk with, and is full of questions on all manners of things.
Back in the bedroom, Abu had negotiated a second load of coal in our rooms, largely to help dry things. He then headed off to visit and within the hour the room must have been 40C. He then bailed us out yet again by returning and digging the hot coals out and throwing them into the yard. In the other room, they had tried throwing water on the stove, turning it into a steam bath. Through all this, Edmund was able to remain in his sleeping bag muttering “shiezers, shiezer”.
July 23 – to Wu Dao Yeang (4647m); (90/275 km to date); (gross gain 305 m, loss 195)
Tibetan breakfast was Yak butter tea, which really only Abu and I could drink, a soft bread and a hard bread, neither of which seemed to be popular with our group. We headed out, along with the other three groups at about 8:30 again, for what would be basically a gently rolling ride across the Qinghai Gao Yuan, which is a lead up to the greater Tibetan Plateau. For most of the day, the high range we crossed yesterday was on our right, a seemingly flat-topped snow covered barrier. For the rest of the 270 degree vista it was flat rocky grass land. We saw what looked like a few little deer, but turned out to be the endangered Tibetan Sheep. The wind was mostly at our backs and so, at least for me, the day was pleasantly gentle. The others seem to be suffering today from a combination of altitude, lack of sleep and poor nutrition. But, not seriously I would say.
I arrived at our stop at about 1:30 with the leader of one of the other groups and he found us our nicest stop since leaving Golmud. The pit toilet here is at the end of the hall, thankfully a number of rooms away from our group, the room is carpeted, and the beds soft enough that our sleeping mats are probably not necessary. I may not even bring out my sleeping bag as the bedding looks pretty good. Most of us had a sponge bath in the sun in front of the building and some of us even washed some clothes until the hot water lady rebelled and said there was no more. We had a good meal, but will need to find a place for breakfast as they are not open early enough.
July 24 – to Erdaogou Preservation Station (4750 m); (83/358 km to date); (850 m gross, 100 net)
After our best breakfast, boiled eggs, rice and a soup which I kind of mixed, we had a 200 m climb right out of town, and then a rolling 25 km or so. We were often leap-frogging both other Chinese groups. We had our packaged rice lunch at about 42 km. After that we hit our longest climb of the trip so far. About 30 km to gain 500 m to a pass at 5010 m, our highest point so far. I did it with 2 brief stops; at the second I was quite fuzzy headed. It was not particularly steep; most of the time I was in the middle range, but the altitude certainly hits you. At the pass a neat encounter with a group of about 15 Tibetans, including one young girl and another dressed in traditional clothes. They were very interested in our bikes and one tried to ride Paul’s bike, which made for good entertainment.
The first to arrive, after Paul and I, were two girls from the strong Chinese group. Paul and I decided not to wait any longer for our group as it was cold and windy. I also figured that I wanted to be the first down to the next little town that had little accommodation. We had a nice fast run down for about 15 km as we lost 250 m.
The town was very basic and the people at the only accommodation made no effort to actually provide any service. We got two rooms, but only one bed. Five of us slept on the floor. No effort was made to provide hot water or in fact any water. There were all sorts of rooms, most occupied by locals, and our two rooms had to be entered to get to the other rooms, which made for a late night as people were in and out until about 1:00 am. Abu negotiated a rice meal in a local store, which was pretty good. He also arranged to have boiled eggs and congee in the morning.
The fast Chinese group also got a room and part of a hall way for the eight of them. I was very worried about Tina’s group. The first three arrived and decided to carry on when they could get no room. The rest arrived and finally Tina. It had been a long slow climb for her. I talked to her about squeezing in with us, but she indicated no concern, and proceeded to step out into the road to flag down cars for the five remaining riders in her group. Fifteen minutes, the last to leave, she got into a vehicle that would take her to the next village, 62 km down the road. I didn’t worry about Pink Tina any more. I wished I had a Chinese company I could hire her for.
July 25 – to Tuotuoheyan ((4550 m) 63/421 km to date); (150 m gross, -200 net)
Luckily today would be pretty easy, as most did not have a good sleep and our food was not great. Right from the door way we seemed to be coasting; down hill and down wind. The traffic was almost non-existent; the hills were moderate; the green rolling hills provided a peaceful atmosphere. Soon after the start we saw some good Yak herds. We stopped about an hour to let the elastic band connecting our group snap together and then it was off again. A hill right away stretched us out again, but we continued on, stopping periodically for pictures. Paul and I got to town at about 11:30, and all were in within the hour. We will have a better place to stay and eat here as it is larger and busier. After lunch four of us played pool at an outdoor pool hall, with the locals.
Edmund does not seem to be acclimatizing as well as the others and is now quite far behind as the day progresses. Abu rides with him and is so patient. Gabor is beginning to struggle with saddle sores; Juliet struggles too, but is very brave. Paul’s is a very strong cyclist and his only issue is his bike, which really does not run very well. Tina’s group is here, most having caught a ride in yesterday, today taking a day to recuperate.
July 26 – to Yanshiping (4660m); (93/514 to date); (305 m gross)
We started with a 200 m climb over 19km. It was fairly stiff as it continued without break. As I started last, riding with Tina for a while, I got to pass all 22 of our cycling community and 2 more who dropped into the mix from somewhere. Over the top, I stopped couple of times for pictures, where I was caught by the blue sweater girl, from the fast group. We then had a long lovely 40 km run during which time I gazed at the views and day dreamed extensively. When I saw a colourful group standing by the roadside I stopped for chocolate, which I shared with two lovely little girls. This sharing bought me pictures of the whole family who were later identified for me as drokpas (nomads). They were all dressed in what looked like their special clothes standing by a pretty nice looking truck. About 10 km further down the road a large gathering of people and many tents drew me in off the road. This was to be the Tibetan Horse race we had been hearing aboutr a few days, and the little family up the road were the starters.
There were well over a thousand people here, most waiting, 4 or 5 deep, on each side of a strip of grass about 25 m apart. I asked when the race might begin, and I think the indication was about 15 minutes, and so I walked around taking the odd picture of the wonderful assortment of characters, and I was similarly asked to pose for them as well. About 15 minutes after I arrived my blue sweater friend arrived, and then Paul, Gabor and Juliet and a few more of our Chinese friends. By now I was into my second hour of waiting and walking about, still no race, but the people watching was wonderful. We attract as much attention at the mostly nomad gathering and so it feels pretty good. Our bikes were laid on the ground in a big pile and began to challenge the fancy motor cycles for attention and so one or two of us were usually within sight of the pile as the little boys are all fingers when it comes to fancy doo-dads. Standing in the crowd looking for the horses to arrive became a bit of a happening. We would kibbitz with the locals and my monocular was a great attraction as it made its way around the crowd. Paul had heard that the race was starting 11 km away in the direction we had come from, no doubt where the family were.
Finally, we saw a cloud of dust in the distance out of which horse and riders appeared. As they entered the final 200 m, it was down to two, and the winner won by less than half a length. In all about 30 came in, spread out by 5 minutes or more. Immediately everyone rushed into the finish area and the horse and riders were paraded around and people were throwing their hadas (a long white silk scarf) over the horses’ necks. The winner of course got most of the attention.
A wonderful two hours, and then it was on the road again for the final 20 or 25 kms. The last few kms was up a slight rise into the wind and showed no indication that a cluster of buildings would appear, but they did. This was a fairly large settlement, in two clusters situated on the Yang shi River. As I entered the town, Abu shouted down from a cliff above the road that we were in the second cluster. Edmund had difficulties so they had hitched a ride for the last 30 km or so and unfortunately missed the Horse Race.
Not one of our better places to stay, but as usual Abu got us a good meal and arranged for a good breakfast. We were all six in one room, with separate beds, and a dung fired stove, which unfortunately Gabor and Abu felt the need to fire up at about 5:30 waking everyone.
July 27 – to Tangula Bingzhan (4840 m); (58/572 to date); (300m gross)
It was close to drizzly as we left town and so I put on my boot covers, knowing that I would be too lazy to put them on if it started to rain and not wanting to struggle drying my boots like the last time we got caught in heavy rain. The steady climb and heavy wind caused real havoc with our bike train as it stretched out many hours, even though the ride was short. Paul and I were together most of the day and we donned out rain gear about 20 km out, which immediately brought the sun out. I left the gear on and the rain came back a while later. As I passed our destination I kept going, under the impression that the best place to stay was in a second cluster of buildings a couple of kms further on. I am not sure where this impression came from, but I rode 4 km to a point where I could see there was nothing ahead. So I turned around and met Paul, who indicated that he had seen two of our Chinese friends, who had left at 5:00 am, in a potential place to stay. So this was really only a 50 km day. This place looks a lot like a rubbish heap, but it was in many ways was one of the friendliest places we have been in. Our group trickled in over the next two hours and we decided we would stay. The Chinese groups (only half of one still remained on their bikes, the others having headed some days on by van), were even later in arriving.
The six of us slept shoulder to shoulder on a long bench separated from the eating area by a curtain. It was here that we met two girls from Xian who were working to pay their accommodation. They were very industrious and almost seemed to have taken over things, particularly one who introduced herself as “I am Yaya and I am a girl”. For some reason she had shaved her head. The river bed here is 2-300m wide and in the middle is a concrete bunker that contains a small ceramic pool, fed by a hot-spring. We walked across the garbage strewn gravel, partly out of curiosity, hopeful of finding warm water. We had to wait as a couple of soldiers finished their baths and emptied the pool. The roof is mostly gone and the tiles that at one time would have made this fairly nice are now mostly broken. Still, as the extremely hot water began to rise cm by cm, we got our feet in and once used to the temperature it felt great. We still had a soldier in there with us, and Juliet was there and so I headed out with her, having done my feet, but Paul, Gabor and Abu persisted and got a full on bath. Edmund went over later but the soldiers were back and wouldn’t let him in.
July 28 – to Toudaoban (5040m); (58/630 km to date); (430 m gross)
Today we were to cross the highest point of our trip (Tanggula pass 5231m), and with the difficulties people had yesterday we had negotiated a van to take Gabor, who is still struggling with his butt, Edmund and most of our collective baggage over to our next night’s stay. Abu would accompany them and then return to ride in with Juliet who was determined to ride the whole way. The two Xian girls would hitch a ride with our van. We paid 1200 Yuan, or 240 Y each for this service.
As the three of us riders set off, Juliet broke her chain with the first good push and so she used Abu’s bike, which didn’t do her butt any good, as she didn’t switch saddles. Paul and I waited at the 10 km point to ensure she was doing well and then continued the lovely climb to the pass with the continual presence of large glacier covered peaks on our left. It took us about 3 hours to get to the pass and we waited until Abu and Juliet arrived some time later.
At 11:30 when we arrived at the pass Wuyang, the quieter of the two Xian girls, was standing by the road waiting for Yaya who had headed off towards the glacier that looked like you could touch it. Wuyang had already been standing in the cold wind for a couple of hours and would not take our offers of warm clothes. We headed down for a fast 8 km run to our night’s stop at an abandoned road workers compound. There we connected with Gabor and Edmund who had had a nice rest day walking in the area. We began to worry about the girls by 3:00 and finally at 6:30 as we were beginning to prepare supper in a cook tent outside of the compound Abu got a text message indicating they were safe and on their way down. Yaya had got lost and had trouble getting across some of the glacier streams. Both were quite at their end, but it was Wuyang who would suffer the most. Wuyang and Yaya tentatively joined in the meal that Abu had made and we got them into the warmest of the two rooms we had.
July 29 – to Amdo (4700m); (75/705 km to date); (240m gross, 550 m loss)
In the morning Wuyang woke so sick she couldn’t speak. We bundled her up and Abu stopped a truck by standing in the middle of the road and she was off to a large town where she could get attention. Abu got a text message in the afternoon saying she was recovering. Hopefully all will be well and no doubt these two lowland girls will have learned a lesson about the risks of heading off in the high mountains.
The ride up to little Tanggula pass (5170 m), with more headwind than yesterday was a bit tougher than we had envisioned, but everyone did it all fully loaded again and so the hard work was to be expected I guess. Along the road we passed a chao sheng; a pilgrim making his way to Lhasa (still some 500 km away) by taking 3 steps and then prostrating himself. He has wood plates on his hands and probably good protection on his knees. Depending upon where he started this will take six months to a year.
At the pass Paul and I again had some good time to take photos while everyone came in. A highlight was a Tibetan mastiff tied into the back of a pickup filled with Tibetans. Only his great head protruded from the load giving some indication of his massive size. He was completely calm and let us pet him. He only squirmed a bit when the truck fired up preparing to leave. I also got a good picture of one of the Tibetans with the classic high cheekbones and a gold tooth.
The 40 kms and 400 m down to Amdo followed a growing river and so had only the odd up and down. This will be the first day in five that we sleep at a lower point than the previous night and Amdo is the first reasonable sized place since Golmud. We all rolled in by 2:00, got loads off to a laundry and went to a public bath, for our first showers in ten days. We had a nice Chinese style hotel with all of the normal accouterments, but there is no water in the plumbing and the electricity has only worked for a few minutes so far. We had a lovely dinner and played cards past our normal bed time, as we are taking the day off tomorrow.
July 30 – Amdo
Abu, who is sharing my room, and I went to a little Tibetan restaurant and had breakfast. Everyone did their own things and we met for lunch. It was nice to see the sparkle back in Edmund’s eyes and he is recovering well, even though we are still at 4700m. Juliet looks lovely with her hair loose and her street clothes on. Mind you she looks lovely in her biking duds as well. Everyone, I think, is greatly enjoying their day off.
I have some serious internet problems and so was not able to connect. Will have to deal with this at the next place where internet is possible. We again have eaten well, Tibetan for lunch and back to the good Chinese for supper.
July 31 – to ? (4670m); (85/770 km to date); (500 m gain, 50m net loss)
We left our hotel in Amdo, late, a little after 9:00. We had a lovely 10 km fast start and then hit a 180m, 10 km climb, where we met our car and guide who has our Tibet Permit. Hua Dan is our guide and the driver is Tenzing Norbu, although he bears no resemblance to his namesake in any way. At the top of the climb we put some of our panniers in the car and continued on. This would prove to be a tough day, as we expected to ride 65 km, and found that the place we hoped to stay had been torn down. There were three significant climbs and losses on the day and we had a fairly heavy headwind after the first climb.
This day exhausted everyone and then when the scheduled place to stay did not materialize it really hit home. Our new support crew do not speak or understand English well and finally we were able to communicate that they should go ahead and find us a place, and they did.
As Paul, Gabor and I, in front, approached some buildings we saw our van coming across the field from a couple of big white tents. Our guide, indicated that we could stay there, and so we rode out across the field, through two creeks and up to the tent, where music was blaring, and people came out to welcome us. Into the tent and we soon had a lunch, even though it was 4:00 by this time. People were dancing and quite a few were drunk. It soon became obvious that we would not wish to stay in the tent, as the party would likely proceed into the wee hours. This was a prelude to a week long horse race, similar to the one we were at a few days ago. So, we negotiated a place in the town, with meals 800 Y, which is fairly expensive.
At the house, very Tibetan, belonging to the guy seeming to run everything. We cleaned up some dirty dishes sitting out on the tables. The wall benches will hold five of us, Abu will sleep on the floor and our two new support crew will sleep in the car. After settling in and doing a wash basin clean-up, we headed in the car back to the festival tent, all except Juliet, who is quite sick and stayed behind to rest and clean up. At the tent we each had a beer, which we understood were part of our deal, and when I tried to get another the bossman indicated, fairly rudely that I couldn’t have one. As it was now close to 9:00, I had had enough. This could have been a great atmosphere, but when I started to get these negative vibes headed off to walk back to our place, about a km, including getting across the two creeks. The others came along in the vehicle and we were able to buy a few things in a store. But at the house, Juliet was outside and 8 or 9 were inside watching TV and working around the stove. Finally, about 10:00 they all left, having prepared a very basic meal and we ate and went to bed.
I think everyone slept well until 5:30, when a bunch of people came in, turned on the lights and began firing up the dung stove, talking and moving around. I must have drifted off, because when I awoke it was quiet, the lights were on and Gabor and I had each gained a sleeping Tibetan woman on our section of the bench. It sounds interesting but what it really meant was that there was no longer any room. I had thought they had come in to make us the breakfast, but it seems all they did was move in with us. Abu again rescued us by making a stir-fry out of last night’s leftovers.
This was all a rich experience, but not all positive.
Aug 1 – to Naqu (4495m ); (55/825 km to date); (100 m gain, 185 m net loss)
I was away a bit after 8:00, as nature called and hopeful of beating the wind that killed us yesterday. It was still quite calm, the sun bright and the rolling green meadows covered with yaks and sheep immediately drove away the problems of yesterday. When I stopped to do my business Paul blew by and I could not catch him. His acclimatization seems complete which means that I will definitely be relegated down the riding pecking order and Gabor is closing fast.
We had the complete opposite of yesterday’s experience. Rolling along at high speed, moderate hills and no wind; Paul had waited about 40 km in, we rode into Naqu before noon. We had a couple of abortive communications with our support crew and it took them an hour after all the riders to find the hotel that Paul and I chose. Naqu is a large city and we no doubt had many choices for a hotel. Ours is billed as a 5 star hotel. We have hot showers and no sewer smell in our room. And, I have internet connection. We have all agreed that we will only communicate with the support crew through Abu. The support crew carry our luggage, the guide is licensed to guide groups inTibet, but it is Abu, with no such license, who is our real guide. When we checked into the hotel a leather coated policeman showed up and gave us some static about our permit, but it was cleaned up soon. Three days into Tibet and we are now beginning to get an idea of the bureaucracy behind this Permit thing.
Things are winding down a bit as we get close to Lhasa, and we will have a few more things to see as we ride in over the next five days.
Aug 2 – to Gulu (4700M); (94/919 km to date); (470 m gain)
We headed off from the hotel as a group, with the van trailing. It took about 20 minutes to circle Nagu’s ring road and to clear town. The day was sunny and we were riding pretty well. Paul and I waited about 10 km out until Juliet caught up and then continued on and up the first of three passes that we would do on this day. Juliet seems much better after our luxury stop. Paul is now very clearly in good riding shape and leaves me behind on the hills, particularly if they are steep. Near the second pass, at about 50 km we pulled off the road to get out of the wind in the lee of a mud fence, part of a cluster of three or four basic houses. Within minutes the little ones emerged. Paul had some chocolates that he passed out and soon the adults appeared as well. We had our snack lunch and enjoyed the joyous kids. Just as poor, but much happier than some of the roadside kids we have seen. The wind was now very strong as we continued along the road, up and over the third pass. We had a nice tea break in a strip of buildings that seemed fairly new. The clouds partly obscured the dramatic mountains off to our right (west), as we rode and we stopped periodically to take pictures. We drafted quite a bit in the second part of the day and that pulled us into town around 2:00. We knew we were quite a bit ahead of the others so the first thing we did was get into another tea house for some hot water. Two girls, nine and eleven served us. The older and much larger girl had severely crossed eyes. The younger and much more out-going enjoyed practicing her few words of English. They were both dressed in their school uniforms and seemed very proud. They directed us down the street to where we would find a binguan.
By the time we had found the binguan, Juliet, Gabor and Abu had arrived and soon after the van, which was supposed to be following Edmund, who arrived about 4:00. Edmund had ridden a little in the van as rain seemed to be threatening him. Most found this day pretty tough with the hills and strong wind. We had a room with six beds in it so the driver and guide would sleep in the car again. We headed off in the van looking for a hot-spring. We found it, a number of geysers each spewing out steam. We were able to soak our feet in a little pool about 20 m below the largest, the water finally cool enough to touch. Our feet came out bright pink. We had one of our better meals up the road and one of our best sleeps.
Aug 3 – to Damxiung (4300 m); (72/991 km to date); (130 m gain 550 m loss)
This was to be an easier day, as we would lose quite a bit of altitude. We headed off after breakfast into a grey day that was thankfully without wind, and the wind when it did come was not strong. We had a hundred meter climb that was quite noticeable. Paul and I stopped at some stupas along the road that we though might indicate a monastery, but it was not so. A fast run to a town at about the 40 km point where we considered stopping for tea, but it looked like rain ahead on each side of the road with a still clear path down the middle, and so we hit it hard and rode 10 km to Damxiung just ahead of the rain, before finally hitting some sunshine. In Damxiung, we found a very nice hotel and had just checked out the rooms and made our deal when the others came in, not much more than half an hour behind. They also had rode hard to stay ahead of the rain. Edmund came in by van at the same time, having been caught by the rain the rest of us had avoided.
We have a very nice place, separate twin bed rooms with good beds and a proper toilet and hot shower at the end of the hall. Luxury,for our two night stay.
Aug 4 – to Namsto by van – rest day
Paul and I had planned to ride to Namsto, the others planned to go by van. From Damxiung, Namsto is a 61 km, 900 m climb over the range we have been riding beside for the last few days. Namsto is a pretty sacred place to Tibetans, the second largest salt water lake in China and one of the highest large lakes in the world at around 4700 m. This was to be our only detour from the Golmud to Lhasa highway #109 ride.
At 7:00 am, the rain was pouring down, and so Paul and I pulled the duvets back over our heads and headed down to breakfast with the rest at 8:30. We would all van it today.
By 9:00, when we left it was still heavily overcast, but not raining. We could be riding, but it would be too late to make it in and out the 120 km with the dramatic climbs, particularly for me. There were about a dozen tour buses and some other Land Cruisers lined up at the gates, 11 km out of Damxiung, but I don’t think they asked to see our Tibetan Permits. At this point the road increased in gradient to around 8% and in short sections possibly 12%. This lasted about 10 km, then some 5% and finally more 8-10% to get us to Largen La (5190 m) , from which you can see Namsto 300 m below, but on this day it was still heavily overcast as we went in. From here it is still about 30 km down to the lake and to the peninsula containing the Tashi Do monastery where most people go. Along the whole way we could see nomad (drogpa) tents, most of which had a truck or motorcycle in front. I guess the Yaks, sheep and goats that we saw in the thousands belong to the nomads.
There were probably 10,000 people, 90% Chinese, the rest Tibetans here on this day. We dispersed, and I walked along around the peninsula, doing the Tashi Do Kora, or pilgrim circuit. Along the way I visited the monastery, where a little monk, not 5 ft tall, took me into each of the monasteries, which are really caves fronted by a structure. Very few people actually seemed to visit the monastery, preferring to wade in the salt water and get their pictures taken riding yaks or horses. There are many meditation caves spread out along the intricate cliffs and pinnacles eroded away from the cliffs. About 80% around the kora, a path took me to the top of the cliffs where I was able look out over the teeming masses below. The prayer flags are strung everywhere and it is all very colourful. Sadly, many of the nomads have taken to begging, usually with young children or babies.
We gradually gathered in one of the numerous restaurants and had lunch before heading back, stopping at the pass and down the road for pictures as the clouds had lifted a bit more.
Aug 5 – to Yangpachen (4400 m); (85/1076 km to date); (400 m gain)
After breakfast at the normal time we dropped a bit before a long gradual climb to our last pass, not named, at around 4700 m. Gabor, with a broken free wheel, and Edmund who had trouble with the increased traffic had both ridden in the van to the pass. For most of the morning we had faced a continual stream of buses and Land Cruisers coming out from Lhasa headed to Namsto; but by noon all of this traffic stopped. No doubt if we had still been on the road around 4:00, the traffic would have reversed and the stream would be returning to Lhasa. We decided to wait for Abu and Juliet to arrive and while waiting Gabor moved Edmund’s wheel to his so that he could continue riding.
The ride down from the pass went fast. Paul, Gabor and I gathered at the entrance road to Yangpachen. Annoyingly the van arrived soon after; they are supposed to be at the back of the line to provide help to anyone with body or bike problems. I started to go into town to look for a hotel and again the van whizzed past and right out the other end of town heading towards the hot springs, 10 km from the highway, with no sense that we may not want to ride out there and then back again in the morning. That is assuming there is a hotel at the hot spring. We waited for Abu who called and confirmed that there was a hotel at the hot springs. We rode out and found a big resort type hotel, but Abu again did his magic and negotiated free rooms and food for the driver and guide and greatly discounted rooms for us, which included the hot springs. They had originally wanted to charge us about $12, on top of the room price, for the hot springs.
We had a late lunch and then spent a couple of hours playing in the hot pools, which were very warm large swimming pools. They had inner tubes and beach balls and they formed the basis for some relaxing fun. This turned out to be a very nice last night on the road.
Aug 6 – to Lhasa (3600 m); (100/1176 km to date); (15 m gain; 600 m loss)
I was able to get a fairly good skype connection with Lilly in the morning and then we were on down the road. Now Edmund was back on his bike and Gabor had pirated Abu’s back wheel, so Abu would be in the van for the last leg.
We had a long winding run down beside a rushing river and everyone had great fun going along at 35-40, with many stops for photos. We soon began to see trees for the first time since leaving Golmud, and then fields with rich crops and small villages now set away from the road. Luckily, with the late start due to a late breakfast, the Namsto traffic, now only an hour and a bit out of Lhasa had already passed and so we had a bit of an idyllic morning. Edmund was so happy that he had decided to ride this last leg of our journey. We had one last noodle stop in a tiny roadside place and then began to hit the outskirts of Lhasa. We all grouped again and then rode down a super clean wide boulevard with modern buildings. This is the sort of thing that the Tibet purists detest of course, but after almost three weeks of littered streets and rough houses it all looked pretty good to us.
But my main focus was on spotting the Potala and my eyes rarely left the line above the buildings where I expected it to be. My first very brief glimpse was of some gold pinnacles seeming to stick incongruously out of a modern concrete block and then a minute or two later there it was, looming up at the end of the street. I stopped immediately for my first pictures. We continued riding to the large park in front, on the south side. We joined in with the other groups of people arriving from all over, but primarily from China, no doubt using all sorts of transport to get there. There was at least one other cycle group arriving. All groups have their pictures taken in front of this wonderful structure. We had never had any discussion about where our tour would end, but I am sure all felt that arriving at the Potala was the goal. For me it certainly is one of the major quests that I have had for so many years. The modernity that I mentioned before, probably should take something away from this feeling of completion but given the remote and harsh land that we have just made our way across my euphoria is whole.
The end had a wonderful interlude; something like the 19 th hole after a round of golf. We wheeled our bikes on through the parks in front of the Potala, and then around the back, following the Potala Kora in the wrong direction, and finally down an alley to the store run by Abu’s mother and father. We sat in the shade, with the Potala looming high above us, and drank beer and had snacks served by Abu’s beautiful Tibetan mother and his Chinese father. His extended family, which included all of the neighbours, contributed to the welcome that was provided for us.
Our trip finale then included a 10 minute cycle to the hotel that Abu’s mother had booked for us and we checked in for our five night stay in Lhasa. Coincidentally all of the others are booked to fly out on August 11, and we will tour Lhasa together, while I make plans for the next phase of my trip.
I could not be more satisfied with this trip; the satisfaction coming from the ride, the country, the country’s people, my companions and the opportunity provided by Bike China.