Our Unlimited Cycling Dream: Sichuan and Qinghai, China

Wide, empty landscapes where nothing but grass grows, yaks are herded and Buddhist monasteries stand. This is the Tibetan Plateau, and we experienced it in its finest.

Shangri-La to Wild Camp on X214

Sunday, April 17, 2016 – 64 km

Having lost so much time on the extension process and sickness already, we would have to cover more distance in less days. Our eyes were set on Dunhuang, a silk road town about 2700 km northwest, where I read about some travelers successfully getting a second extension. With 7 days of my 30 day extension already used up and the route leading over the 5000 m high Tibetan plateau, this was impossible to cycle. Besides, I wanted to leave a 5 day grace period for arriving in Dunhuang anyway in case my second extension gets denied, a very real possibility, so I could make alternative plans.

Our cunning plan to make it was to hitchhike large parts, especially when the weather was bad. We were encouraged by Tibetan hospitality and many of them driving pick-up trucks, so our hopes that this would work were up. The first leg was to Xiangcheng, 200 km north, over a 4600 m pass and apparently some very bad roadworks.

We had some great weather that morning although it took us till 11 am to get everything ready. We cycled out of the city and the country road that followed was great with beautiful scenery. We wouldn’t have to hitchhike like that!

Unfortunately Yuily was uncomfortable, so we gave it a try. 30 minutes later, no one stopped and we cycled on. This was trickier than imagined. At least Yuily was fit again.

After more beautiful scenery and some downhills we spotted a nice spot by a river to camp. My attempts to light a campfire went futile, but we had extra gas for our stove so no problem.

Wild Camp on X214 to Daocheng

Monday, April 18, 2016 – 237 km (by hitchhike)

Some bad roads climbing over 4600 m mountains meant hitchhiking here to save on visa time would be a good option. We started straight from our campsite. Traffic was low but our hopes were high as a few cars stopped. One wasn’t going far and another one didn’t have space for our bikes (but the passenger even spoke fluent English!). Finally a small truck stopped and agreed to take us if we pitch in for petrol a bit – how much was up to us.

Soon into the drive we saw how much relentless climbing the lift saved us. The road was ok at first but for the big 4600 m pass it turned into a gravel-dirt road that was so bumpy that I was almost convinced our bicycles in the back would get damaged.

Our driver, who was of course Tibetan, explained that he gave some cyclists a lift before on this road. It was evening by the time we reached a turn off to Xiangcheng, with our driver taking a new road to Daocheng that wasn’t even on Baidu maps. We agreed to go there with him as it would save us the next pass despite giving us 30 km more to cycle.

Into the night we drove this new road which didn’t have any villages or services for almost 100 km. The truck constantly needed water to cool its brakes and engine and at one point was dangerously low. In the middle of the night we then refilled its tank from a creek using bottles and a bucket.

At 2 am we rolled into Daocheng. Our driver wanted to drop us at a hotel, but we asked if we can camp where he is staying, which was his sister’s place. He agreed and invited us in. After a late dinner we were shown to a room where we could sleep – very nice.

Daocheng to Nomad camp on S217

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 – 78 km

After just 5 hours of sleep we were woken up for breakfast and unloading our bikes. Surprisingly they were unharmed – he secured them really well.

Unfortunately, when we offered him RMB50, he laughed and demanded 500, reasoning with long distance, accommodation, food etc. We explained that we only have 100, which was really all that was in my wallet, and that our bank cards don’t work in rural Chinese branches. He accepted eventually – I think because he liked us. Otherwise things could’ve turned more ugly. That left a sour aftertaste of our hitchhiking experience.

We cycled out of town and saw the landscape in daylight. It was spectacular – just like you imagine Tibet. We were cycling in a 4000 m highland.

Progress was slow and we soon reached a climb. It didn’t look like much from the bottom, but each time we thought we reached the top there was another hill behind it. We were on a plateau, slowly rising in altitude, and it was getting later.

We came past a summit sign for Mt. Haxi at 4500 m. Annoyingly there were two more hills behind it and after the second one it was already 7 pm. Camping here could be miserable as the temperature could plummet to -10°C and there were dark clouds coming in.

Just as I carried our panniers down to a drainage ditch to camp in, a tractor stopped, the drivers of explaining that there is a village just 3 km further. We didn’t hesitate – they carried the panniers on the tractor and told us to follow.

3 km turned out to be 8 and the village just a collection of 4 nomad tents. But it was downhill and a good bit warmer. After our experience from the morning we were worried they might demand money from us. Their Mandarin being basic at best, they still managed to clearly state “we don’t want money”. Relief.

We were shown a space in their storage tent where we could pitch ours and told to come to warm and eat at their wood stove. Delicious yak meat, yak butter tea and barley bread were had. As I went out to take a leak I went into…

… a blizzard.

If there is a god, he didn’t want us to die that night. Ok, die might be an exaggeration, but a night at 4500 m camping in a blizzard would’ve been very miserable for sure. Here we were very safe and in good company, enjoying meals together and showing photos. As their Mandarin was not much better than mine, I had no problems understanding and communicating in simple ways. What a wonderful experience.

Nomad camp on S217 to Litang

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 – 79 km

We woke up to a winter wonderland. Everything outside was covered in snow while the sun was shining without a cloud to be seen.

After breakfast with our hosts we went on our way. The road went straight up some switchbacks to the Rabbit Mountain pass at 4600 m. From there we could clearly see its peak looking like rabbit ears.

An awesome downhill followed, dropping us into a plain as the snow around us disappeared. People everywhere were extremely cheerful, waving at us, shouting “Have a rest”. It was a huge contrast from eastern China, where all we got was mostly blank stares.

We were slowly climbing up a river valley soon again. After crawling up we were deposited into another plain, one that contained the town of Litang. We were hungry so searched for some food and found a self-declared cyclist friendly inn.

After food we got informed that they have dorms for RMB25. We were considering to stay somewhere anyway to charge our stuff so we accepted. The cyclist friendliness later turned out to be true as they had free laundry. Excellent.

Today was one of our best so far. West Sichuan is proving to be a cycle touring paradise.

Litang to Worker’s dorm on S217

Thursday, April 21, 2016 – 88 km

A rather late start got us going a bit on the G318, where we saw lots of other touring cyclists. This was the road connecting Chengdu to Lhasa – a bike tour to there is a very popular thing in China it seems. Unfortunately we would require a guided tour to go there, so that was out of the question for us.

After a long tunnel we rejoined the S217 again, this time almost devoid of traffic, gently climbing up a river valley to a 4400 m pass. The weather turned a bit more cloudy and we were soon getting snowed on. This was not an issue as the hard but small snowflakes just bounced off us – rain would’ve been a lot more unpleasant.

I already knew that a 50 km downhill would follow, dropping us all the way to the Yalong river. It started out with snow falling onto our faces, followed by blasting down a river valley at up to 70 km/h.

After a stop to unfreeze ourselves at the now warmer altitude, we descended further, averaging 40 km/h, eating up kilometers. We stopped for dinner in a village and attracted quite the attention, Tibetans being as cheerful as ever.

We descended further to find a camping spot. Unfortunately soon the road became dirt as we arrived at a construction site. No spot in sight, we rolled into a workers dorm and asked for permission to pitch our tent there. Instead we were shown to a simple room where we could use our sleeping mats on a wood platform. This was good as later rain started to fall. Nice people!

Workers dorm on S217 to Buddhist monastery

Friday, April 22, 2016 – 102 km

Today was my birthday so I hoped it would be a good one. The workers told us that only some sections of the road were under construction, most of it was good.

Indeed, after 2 km the road was excellent again. The scenery was great as usual as we were gently going up the Yalong river. People were giving us very frequent smiles, waves and shouts of encouragement.

We were in shot of making a century and pushed on to that magical 100 km mark, after which we would look for a spot to camp. It somehow crossed my mind how many cyclists in Buddhist countries like Thailand or Myanmar report staying in monasteries, and how I never tried that.

Just at that moment a monastery appeared around the corner. I convinced Yuily that we ask to camp there. Walking in, we were stared at by monks who were in the middle of studying. We approached the head monk and asked awkwardly for permission to camp.

As it often happens in these situations, after a bit of debating, they decided to show us a room instead. The whole thing was dream-like and so foreign, with only a few of the monks speaking (broken) Mandarin.

With the monks looking at our bicycles, we got a small request, too. The head monks printer was not working – yes, even Tibetan monasteries use technology nowadays! No problem for a former IT technician! After trying to figure out what “Error code 3” means, a factory reset of the machine did the trick. I was glad it worked, it was the least we could do in return!

Monastery on S217 to Garze

Saturday, April 23, 2016 – 79 km

The night brought the downpours that seem normal for this area, and they continued until morning. So we had a relaxing morning, watching some shows and waiting for the rain to stop. It did eventually and with blue skies at 11 am we thanked the monks once more and got going.

For the past 100 km yesterday we already went through quite a canyon the Yalong river carved out, but now it was even narrower. While it looked spectacular, it also meant that the road made complicated up- and down patterns which were brutal to cycle. At one point a long downhill also got ruined by roadworks.

We arrived exhausted at the intersection with the G317 and dropped into the first restaurant. Language barriers became more apparent as the shop owner spoke rudimentary Mandarin at best. Interesting to see that language assimilation still has a long way to go in China.

We cycled 10 km further into Garze to find a supermarket since we needed supplies for camping. It was quite late already and the town much bigger than expected – the surrounding land was all cultivated, so if we wanted to camp somewhere we would need to ask for permission.

We saw a sign towards a temple. Last night’s experience made us hopeful so we checked it out. Sure enough, a very friendly monk showed us a spot of grass where we could pitch our tent and offered to lock our bikes in the temple. He later invited us for tea and barley bread.

Later we went to see something of the town, which was surprisingly active at night with countless shops and food stalls on the street. It was the first thing of its kind we’ve seen since Lijiang!

Graze to Longqing

Sunday, April 24, 2016 – 81 km

There was the usual night rain, but our tent held out well – we packed it only slightly wet. We said goodbye to the monks, leaving a small temple donation and went our way.

The G317 annoyingly left the Yalong river and went up a smaller valley towards the humongous 7000+ m Mt. Gonga. We climbed above 4000 m again and the weather came in. First snow, which harmlessly bounced off us, but on the downhill it became rain. Problematic as we didn’t put on our waterproof gear yet.

We pulled in to a shelter and luckily only our gloves and shoes were damp – it was not much above zero so getting soaked would be bad, especially in combination with camping.

Pressing on, our goal was the intersection with the S217 (again). We could’ve made it, but saw another rain shower coming in fast. Without much debating, we quickly asked a farmer if we could camp in his yard.

Of course we could. 5 minutes later, his son came up and offered to stay in the house instead on the couches. Fantastic. A nice family, the young daughter also had the chance to practice her Mandarin with Yuily.

Longqing to Xiewu

Monday, April 25, 2016 – 16 km (by bicycle) and 320 km (by hitchhike)

I had a cold, sleepless night – the room was dry but very cold, colder than our tent would’ve been. We were invited to sit by the wood stove so we could warm up and had some tea and delicious tsampa (barley porridge).

It was humid and thus the 16 km cycling to the intersection felt very cold. We would try to hitchhike from here to Yushu, almost 400 km away, to save some time. The sun came out and warmed us.

Traffic was very low, so we waited around 3 hours. Two cars stopped, but didn’t have enough space for the bikes. In general almost all cars were stuffed to the brim with luggage, including the roof rack.

Another car stopped, and even though it was almost full, the driver claimed he could fit our bikes. He also went straight down to business, asking how much we’d pay him. After negotiating he demanded RMB300, which we dismissed with our offer of RMB200. He drove on.

I wondered if we missed our chance, but I saw he was stopped and waited a km up the road. After a while he turned and offered RMB250. We reluctantly accepted. After shifting the whole luggage and removing our front wheel, we indeed managed to fit our bicycles. The driver revealed that he had to turn off 50 km before Yushu, but that was ok for us.

The drive was spectacular and dangerous – a gravel road went over a pass where a tunnel was under construction and we later drove through a blizzard. We were glad we were not cycling but at the same time regretted it. Anyway, the ride saved us around 5 days of cycling, so we were glad for that.

We rolled into Xiewu, just over the border to Qinghai province, and paid our driver. As it was still snowing heavy, he offered bringing us all the way to Yushu for an extra RMB100, but we declined, mentioning us having not a lot of money and camping in town to cycle to Yushu tomorrow. He then offered to find a cheap hotel for us.

Driving around town he found nothing, but still wasn’t having any of us camping in the snow. He started going to peoples doors to find somewhere for us to stay until a young woman opened. He frantically discussed matters in Tibetan with her. First she seemed reluctant, but when she saw Yuily in the back of the car she agreed to host us. Awesome! Our driver went great lengths for us here and we couldn’t thank him enough.

The woman was awfully friendly. She bought us dinner, refused any money for it and let us sleep in her beautifully decorated living room next to the wood stove. Tibetan hospitality at its best – we were very touched. There are many genuinely good people in the world!

Xiewu to Yushu

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 – 51 km

As seems usual on the Tibetan plateau, after a night of snow, the next day would be sunny. Our host brought us some Chinese buns and after thanking her we were off.

We only had about 50 km to go to Yushu and debated on whether to stay there or go past it. A need for a shower, an update to our Facebook page, some laundry and relaxing seemed to warrant this.

The ride was easy as we could cycle on an expressway that had its pavement finished but little else. It cut off a bit of distance with a tunnel, too.

We then saw that Yushu was a surprisingly beautiful city, which only cemented our decision to stay. It was clean and modern but still oozed Tibetan art and architecture everywhere. Even the commieblocks were painted in differing tribal patterns, making them much less monotonous.

Unfortunately the only hostel was under renovation, which made us choose a cheap guesthouse on the outskirts of the city. It was pretty grubby, but it had a (common) hot shower and Wi-Fi, so good enough for us.

We checked out the city and some sights in the afternoon. A department store was great news for Yuily to pick up new pants while a huge supermarket got us fully restocked on food for the next few days. Overall, Yushu was the most beautiful Chinese city I’ve seen so far – the only disappointing thing were a few beggars.

Yushu to 5 km before Longbao

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 – 60 km

We were far from done with our blogging work so only managed to leave at after 11 am. We would’ve liked to have a rest day here, but my visa had us pressing on.

Soon however the beautiful landscape reminded us that that’s why we are here. From planning the previous day I knew the next sizable town was 75 km away and there was a 4600 m pass in the way. Making it today was unlikely after our late start.

As the big climb was about to start, we saw the road going through a brand new tunnel. This was awesome, as it not only saved us several hours of climbing, but also over 10 km of distance. We were still in shot of reaching Longbao.

Towards the evening we saw a small tornado going across the plain in front of us. Afterwards a strong headwind hit us in the face, freezing us and slowing us to a crawl. Forget Longbao, a farmers house in the distance was now our goal.

I shouted a few hellos and a monk came out to greet us. We asked for permission to camp and got shown to a storage room inside the house, shielding us well from the wind. Later we were invited for dinner and warmed by the stove along with other inhabitants, all monks and nuns.

5 km before Longbao to farmers house on S307

Thursday, April 28, 2016 – 56 km

We had a late start again as it was a cold night and we lay in in the slightly warmer morning hours. The head monk was quite a direct guy though and banged on our tent, laughing loudly to wake us up.

We soon reached Longbao and stocked up a little more – the next sizable town was 118 km away. After town there was a 4800 m monster to climb, the Hasho pass, which took us most of the afternoon. We hoped for another tunnel, but there was none. Instead it would mean topping our altitude record. None of it was very steep, but the thin air meant cycling in our granny gears most of the time.

At the icy top, after a short feeling of accomplishment, we saw the valleys below covered in very dark rain clouds. They moved quickly though, so by the time we arrived the clouds moved on already. Thanks to our lie-in that morning, otherwise we would’ve been hit in the face by a blizzard.

The people were awfully cheerful as ever and some youngsters even invited us for tea, but we cycled on. A bit later I wondered why we did that as our hands sure could’ve used some un-freezing.

A bit later a farmer came up to me and after the usual questions of where are you going and where from (the simple, rudimentary Mandarin people speak here really helps me communicating!), invited us for tea. This time we took the offer.

Not just tea was offered, but all kinds of tasty Tibetan food. He offered to stay the night – even though it meant losing around 2 hours of cycling, we accepted. We simply couldn’t refuse such an offer.

Farmers house on S307 to Farmers house on S307

Friday, April 29, 2016 – 82 km

After a comfortable night and some breakfast we deeply thanked our host and were off. It was easy cycling. The road went gently down a river valley for 30 km from where it climbed gently to 4400 m.

On top of that pass a blizzard waited for us. We avoided many so far, so it was only a question of time until one hit us in the face. Thankfully, we fully waterproofed ourselves so we got through it without much issues.

We rolled into Zhiduo to grab a late lunch and on into a gorge that would lead us to the Yangtze river. Before reaching it we looked for a place to camp. As usual we asked at a farmers house. This time we indeed camped in their yard.

They did invite us in for tea later, which quickly became dinner. Finally, they also offered a blanket, which was very welcome as our sleeping bags weren’t quite cutting it in those sub-zero nights.

Farmers house on S307 to Wild Camp on S307

Saturday, April 30, 2016 – 66 km

We were given some barley bread and filled up with yak butter tea for breakfast – the hospitality of Tibetans will be really hard to beat!

The road from here on was not finished yet so it followed the path of an old road through a river gorge. It was pretty broken in many places so we made slow progress. It crossed the Yangtze river – this is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world. Seeing it so close to its source where it’s quite small was memorable.

After some annoying up and down the old road was doing along the Yangtze, we got to Qumalai, likely the biggest town on the way. We had some delicious noodles for lunch and even shortly considered staying, but went on instead.

A 4600 m pass was no big problem in some great weather. The road dropped to 4200 again and would rise to 4600 soon after – we wouldn’t make the next pass before dark so had to camp somewhere in between.

There were only a few houses and no power lines anymore – Qinghai was definitely getting more remote! A car pulled over in front of us and suddenly the people gave us plenty of cans of Red Bull, Pepsi and beer. They were Han Chinese on their way to Golmud – a very nice gesture!

We pulled over to a house to ask for permission to camp, but found no one. A couple of buildings next to it looked abandoned, so we planted our tent in a corner between them to shelter it from the wind. Finally we could use our stove again! Haha!

Wild Camp on S307 to Farmers house on S307

Sunday, May 1, 2016 – 56 km

It was a cold night and Yuily used her emergency blanket. Not because of an actual emergency, just to feel a little warmer. This thing has the negative effect of trapping condensation, so the next morning our sleeping bags were wet. Luckily we woke up to brilliant sunshine which dried everything in minutes.

It turned out these buildings were not abandoned at all as a family turned up in their car, surprised to find us there. No hostility though, friendly as Tibetans are they waved us goodbye.

With all the sunshine it should’ve been a brilliant day cycling. We were wrong. We had a furious headwind all day. We climbed three major passes and could enjoy none of the downhills for the wind always slowing us down so we had to pedal. On the climbs we barely made 5 km/h and had to make frequent stops. At least the scenery was spectacular as usual.

Knowing we had to hitchhike again to make up time, now seemed like a good moment. Traffic was so low however that we instead decided to push on to the town of Yege and try from there the next morning.

Or so we thought. On a wide valley, I saw a sandstorm approaching fast. We quickly took cover under a bridge, waiting for it to pass as the daylight hours ticked away. Yege would be impossible to reach before dark now, and the sandstorm wasn’t getting lighter, so we pushed our bikes up a track where I’ve seen a small house before the storm. We reached it and the three farmers living inside quickly ushered us in. They offered us the leftovers of their dinner, which stuffed us and let us crash on the floor. Tibetan hospitality saved us again.

Farmers house on S307 to Golmud

Monday, May 2, 2016 – 16 km (by bicycle) + 400 km (by hitchhike)

Today we would have to do some hitchhiking. The most desolate, underpopulated stretch of the road lay ahead of us, where people warned us there would be no houses, icy temperatures, permafrost and wolves roaming at night. This all sounds very exciting to cycle and none of those was the reason to hitchhike – the only reason being my visa time. Really disappointing when none of these things can scare you, but government bureaucracy can.

We had the same headwind as the day before, so 15 km to Yege were a struggle, and we were cursing at it several times. Finally rolling into town, we needed to buy some more supplies. Buying cookies in a small shop quickly led to being invited to tea and lunch by the shop owner. We would surely miss this hospitality soon!

At a spot at the end of town we started attempts to hitchhike. Traffic was so low that no car came past for what seemed like an hour. Finally a sedan stopped, the driver going to Golmud. It would be a squeeze to fit the bikes, but we thought it might be possible. Since this driver had a planned detour and he knew there was a bigger car behind him, he encouraged us to try with that one instead.

The bigger car came soon and stopped, the driver agreeing to take us around 150 km further. As we were loading the bikes, the sedan driver surprisingly returned, saying he will take us to Golmud after all. Awesome! Fitting the bikes involved removing the front wheel, pedals and my front fender with his back seats folded, but it worked. Me and Yuily had to squeeze both on the front seat.

The drive was great along some increasingly desolate valleys and plains, where we saw wildlife and permafrost. On one hand it was a pity not to cycle here, but each dust devil we passed reminded us of the headwinds and made us glad to be in a car instead. Our driver was great, saying he enjoys camping a lot as well and mentioning how great it was that we found each other, enjoying cycle touring and camping together – something he couldn’t do with his wife.

Upon reaching Golmud he dropped us in the city center and, unlike other rides in the past, didn’t want any money for it. I knew from reading that Golmud is a bit difficult to stay at as almost all but the most expensive hotels don’t take foreigners. I wasn’t so worried as I found a HI hostel online – well, when we got to the location we only found a “for sale” sign. True to it’s reputation, two hotels we tried afterwards refused us. We decided to have dinner first and try two more afterwards before camping in the city park. Luckily, we found one for RMB70 that took us.

Why do the hotels here and in many other Chinese cities refuse foreigners? The reason they give is most of the time that they cannot register a foreign passport. This is clearly bullshit as the registration system has a tab for a passport and there is no Chinese law preventing a foreigner from staying in any place they like as long as they are registered. So why? The reception lady at this hotel explained that up until two years ago the big luxury hotel owners had a deal with the police that they check, evict and redirect any foreigners staying elsewhere to those expensive luxury hotels. So basically a hotel mafia working with the police. Great. Apparently the luxury hotels went to different owners now, so the smaller, cheaper ones can take foreign guests with less fear of the police showing up and (illegally) evicting their guests.

Rest day in Golmud

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 – 10 km unloaded

Our skipping was not over yet, as Dunhuang, the possible visa extension point, was still 550 km away. While we could ride this before my visa expires, it would leave me with no time to get out of China if it doesn’t work. Also, the most direct road connection was expressway only – no bicycles allowed, although I was certain we could sneak on somehow if necessary. There were direct buses connecting the two cities, one day and one night bus, I found out online. We opted to take the night one in order to save on accommodation, so we took our time getting up.

When we finally got down, we told the reception woman our plan. She mentioned there is no night bus anymore, and was awfully helpful trying to find out times and dates for us. Eventually we cycled out to find out for ourselves though. After going to two wrong stations, cycling all over the city, we got to the right one. RMB105 plus RMB70 for the bikes. Well, in my case it had to be done. There were two buses, 9 am and 11 am – it meant we spend another night in town. We booked the 11 am one.

The rest of our time was spent cycling around and stocking up in a supermarket. I heard of Golmud being a gritty desert mining town with a lot of unfriendly people. This is not true at all. There is nothing outstanding about the town, it’s just a Chinese city. But it’s not gritty and we met our fair share of friendly and curious locals. Besides, after the remoteness of the Tibetian plateau, it was nice for us to be in a place where you have 3-floor supermarkets, lots of food stalls, bicycle lanes and the first clean toilet we’ve seen since two weeks ago in Litang! Also, it was nice to cycle around in a t-shirt again – no more cold.

Our plan for the night was to camp outside in the desert. We told the reception lady as we picked up our bags and used the WiFi in the lobby. She became worried about us and offered us a room for RMB50. We accepted. I cooked up a delicious curry that night thanks to the big supermarkets ingredients as we prepared for our bus.

Golmud to Dunhuang

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – 550 km (by bus)

We cycled to the bus station and luckily ours was rather huge – the bikes easily fit upright in the undercarriage. During the ride, the conductor was rather stern about the passengers manners and reminded everyone to wear their seatbelt, not spit and not smoke. When a passenger did smoke later after all, he got a harsh talking to! This is a novelty in China and I’m glad to see a stricter stance towards the endless ignorance to smoking bans here.

The road was flat and endless desert. There were two mountain ranges we went through, properly ending the high altitude areas north of the Tibetian plateau. One of the only excitements along were two herds of camels we saw.

Arriving in Dunhuang, we already saw a sign for a hostel coming into town. We cycled back to check it out and successfully bargained the price of a twin room down to RMB50. On first impression I liked the city already – very colorful and multi-ethnic, it had a very good atmosphere. I hope the PSB staff responsible for extending my visa has a good mood the next morning as well!

Rest day in Dunhuang

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Today was the day of truth. Would the second extension be possible? If not, I would have to organize to get myself and my bike shipped to the Kazakh border, where I can enter visa free, in time while leaving Yuily behind for a while, as she cannot get a visa for Kazakhstan so quickly. Besides, I really liked China so far and would be sad not to cycle the rest of the way. While the official rule was that only one extension is possible, two cyclists managed to get a second extension here in 2014. This slight shimmer of hope was there that it could work.

A first hiccup already was that our hostel couldn’t register me. The manager mentioned she would get a fine from the police if she hosts and registers a foreigner. Ah, great, more corrupt police. Even though this practice of fining hotels was clearly illegal, we promised her not to mention that I stay there. If the PSB asks, I would quickly go to check in at a nearby YHA hostel.

I went to the PSB and stated my business. I was quite hopeful as they told me to wait and took quite a long time to do things. But, as it turned out, all their tinkering was just to find out which one my most recent visa was! When I told them which one, they asked for what purpose I wanted to extend. I mentioned further tourism. They then mentioned that because of an upcoming culture exhibition, they wouldn’t extend any visas at the moment. It sounded very much like an excuse – why didn’t they tell me so in the first place? But I had to accept it. I asked if there was anywhere else to get the extension done. They mentioned a few cities, and I asked them to call to find out. It turned out only the provincial capital of Lanzhou could do it at the moment. Given the enormous size of Gansu province, it was over 2000 km away. Not an option.

I was pretty shattered. The previous extension didn’t even seem to be the problem, the problem was the stupid exhibition! Argh! Whatever. I was prepared to get this kind of answer anyway. Now I had 6 days to leave China, somehow. The plan B was to hurl myself to Kazakhstan by train. I also researched plan C, to get a new visa abroad, but the prices of flights made this not an option. I broke the news to Yuily, who was already prepared anyway. This second extension was a slim chance from the beginning.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the hostel researching our options. Thankfully trains in China are fairly fast, so I could reach the border, 2000 km away, within 24 hours of riding different trains. We already thought out a different plan for Yuily weeks before in Shangri-La in this case. Because a Kazakh LoI (Letter of Invitation) and visa would take around 2 weeks to process for her, we would have to separate. The enormous cost of this visa and LoI (up to $200) also almost made up for a flight from Urumqi to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the next country we would visit. So while she cycles to Urumqi to catch this flight, I cycle through Kazakhstan to Bishkek – so we will arrive around the same time in lovely Bishkek!

That evening we went out to purchase some tools, as several of ours have been shared up until now. There were good bicycle shops in the city with very knowledgeable mechanics. I changed my chain on the occasion, while they also noticed that my front wheel was out of true and fixed it up. Along with a pump, everything cost us RMB150.

Rest day in Dunhuang

Friday, May 6, 2016

It was time to organize the travel further. Since delivery of a bicycle seems to take a bit longer than for a person, I already checked in my bicycle today, while I gave myself another day. I planned to go to Horgos, one of the two border crossings with Kazakhstan reachable by train.

When I went to the freight office, they told me that they cannot do a delivery to Horgos! I asked if Alashankou, the other crossing, was possible and it was. Combined with it being slightly cheaper (RMB118), I agreed to send it there. It would just mean I had over 900 km to cycle in Kazakhstan as this crossing was further north and a lot further from Almaty and the Kyrgyz border. It seemed to be through a scenic part of the country and a historic silk road pass so I didn’t mind the increased distance much.

I then purchased train tickets to Alashankou, a series of 3 different trains, two of them overnight, that would leave me a day of sightseeing in Urumqi even. All hard seat of course, hopefully empty enough that I can lie down. Combined RMB226. All done, we went shopping in a supermarket.

In the evening I showed Yuily some more essentials of bicycle service. She was a bit worried about cycling alone but very much up for the challenge. Even though I would miss her a lot, I was also looking a bit forward to cycling solo for around two weeks…

Dunhuang to Urumqi

Saturday, May 7, 2016 – 1000 km (by train)

We successfully separated our equipment so we could cycle solo from now on. Yuily had the tent while I carried the stove, planning to find a cheap tent somewhere. I did a check of Yuilys bicycle and watched her practice to change a tube and aligning the rear brakes when I noticed that they didn’t fit properly. The wheel was heavily out of true!

185 Warehouse might be awesome but it seems they missed that! Yuily went to the shop to get her wheels trued and after that even got a puncture. Hopefully no bad omen. We got it fixed as we walked to the bus stop and then had to say goodbye and good luck. I will see her in Bishkek if everything goes to plan. We have been annoying on each other the past weeks but I felt a part of me is missing suddenly.

At the train station I was the immediate attraction. People asked me lots of questions and had countless photos with me. My minuscule Mandarin was enough to answer most of them luckily.

4 hours later, the train took me to the main line in Yumen. I had to wait 3 more hours for a train to Urumqi, which became 4 as the train was late. Finding an eatery not far away wasn’t a big problem except the panniers! Lugging all of them around in my hands for any distance was not easy!

The train arrived and my hope of sleep faded as it was packed and humid inside from all the people! I still didn’t regret choosing Hard Seat class as it is half the price of a sleeper. Later I did manage a couple of hours of sleep in an awkward position, sitting on my backpack, face on the seat.

Urumqi to Alashankou

Sunday, May 8, 2016 – 450 km (by train)

The train arrived an hour late in the morning. I was surprised to still see desert all morning until almost in the city, when some trees and fields appeared. I hope Yuily doesn’t die of boredom out there!

I located the left luggage office, annoyingly paid RMB30 to leave my stuff (might as well spend a night in a hostel for that price!) and went to explore. I heard about the crazy security in this city and it’s true: Every bigger building has x-ray baggage scans at the entrance and bigger malls are guarded by soldiers with sub-machineguns and maybe even an armored vehicle!

All this I suppose is to make people feel safer, though there is little actual safety gained by these measures – staff almost never even bother to look at their x-ray screens. It bothers me though and made the city a lot less enjoyable.

Which it actually was. I really enjoyed the bazaar and even found a cheap tent. The Uighur people really look like Turks, and with my beard I’ve even been talked to in their language once! It was weird to see so many faces that could almost be mistaken for western in a Chinese city.

After walking off my feet for the day, it was time to board my train to Alashankou. Hopes of sleep fulfilled themselves as the seat next to me was empty, even though the train was packed. An interesting multicultural mix of people and languages.

Stuck day in Alashankou

Monday, May 9, 2016

As the title spoils it already, I was not meant to cross today.

I left the train and in the exit of the station my passport was already checked twice. The Chinese take their border security really serious. I located the freight office, waited for it to open and successfully retrieved my bicycle. The gears were changed, proving that some workers had a joyride. Should’ve removed the pedals…

I loaded it and went straight to the border – I hoped to exchange my remaining RMB70 once across. I arrived and only found a ticket office for something. The attendant called an English speaking border guard and handed me the phone. Unfortunately, I got told it’s closed today but would open tomorrow. Furthermore, I couldn’t cycle across, I would have to take a bus for RMB50. Damn.

I read about this before, that at several crossings, China is afraid that people wander off in no mans land between the posts, so they mandate a bus. Had to be done. The woman urged me to get the ticket today and the attendant gave me directions and lead me there in his car. Arrived at the bus station, he made sure I get the right ticket!

The following events even proved more that this is the nicest border town ever: a family got talking to me out of curiosity. After talking about my trip, they found out about my money situation – I only had RMB20 left. Told them I would just camp, but they replied that it’s not good since the security is very tight. The woman then got a few policemen’s attention.

Those policemen insisted on treating me lunch first and then paid a hotel for me! They were the friendliest ever and asked lots of questions about my trip. A rather fancy room at RMB100 was found, fittingly in “Hotel Astana” and they bid farewell. This was a very welcome goodbye to China! Central Asian police would be not so helpful for sure! All of these conversations were in Mandarin, making me feel proud about my language skills.

A lazy evening in the room followed, me cooking instant noodles there and sleeping a lot – I was wrecked after 2 nights of sleeping in hard seat trains. Tomorrow I would see how the border crossing goes.

Alashankou to Dostyk

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 – 16 km

I arrived early at the station and already saw four other obvious foreigners there I already spotted on the train. They were stuck just like me. It turned out they were Tajik. With my Russian in its starting skills at best, we had no common language. Still, really friendly guys, sharing cookies and helping me with the bike.

When we boarded the bus, China showed its ugly side once more – they demanded RMB50 for the bike. I argued I didn’t have it, to which they mentioned USD10 then. After a bit back and forth, I reluctantly paid up since they clearly mentioned that the bike is not getting on otherwise. At least they gave me change of RMB10. This whole thing was also enforced by a policewoman.

My bike had to be put in the aisle as the undercarriage was too small. A bit of a squeeze since the bus was packed, much unloading and reloading to be followed. First was Chinese immigration, which also had a customs check weirdly. A young officer here spoke good English. They also wanted to see my laptop and what was on it. After 2 minutes of trying to navigate it, he gave up. I guess it’s for finding sensitive material of China…

I was stamped out on my last day and squeezed the bike on the bus again. We rolled into no man’s land, the actual border soon following and clearly visible, not only by the military checkpoint but also the road changing abruptly from modern and marked to a potholed tarmac strip.

Kazakhstan customs was next, everything unloaded again. I waited for over one hour for everyone else to go through, courtesy of my huge bicycle. When it was my turn, the officer asked me where my Kazakhstan visa is, to which I replied I don’t need one. He insisted I do, I insisted Germans don’t. Finally he stormed off, presumably to call a supervisor. Moments later he came back and stamped my passport without saying anything – I assume he got a stern talking to.

The bus driver was getting impatient and that helped me to rush through customs – the other passengers wanted to catch a train from Dostyk. Hopes of making it vanished as the army checkpoint after the border was unmanned with the boom lowered. It took 15 minutes for someone to come and open it while I explained to them that it was immigration’s fault for me being late.

The bus raced into town only to see the train pull out of the station. I felt bad for the people – they would be stuck another day. Not me, I had a bicycle! Haha! And other business to take care of…

First, money. Surprisingly there was an ATM in town with MasterCard symbol on it! It didn’t want to take mine though. The office was closed for lunch, so I waited in the ATM room for it to open to hopefully exchange.

This border is called the Dzungarian Gate, a term for a rift valley making a passage through the mountains. It was the only way into China on horseback, and consequently very important on the silk road. Also it was famous for its fierce winds. And that is very true! I was happy for the ATM to be in a room.

Come 2 pm and the bank still wasn’t open. Some other customers managed to explain over our language barrier that it would remain closed today. Rats. He also mentioned there was a withdrawal limit of KZT20,000 (about EUR50). It turned out that was the reason why it didn’t take my card first as I always tried for a higher amount.

Successfully gotten money, the next task was to shop. It was bizarre. Just a few km from China, all the shops were stocked with bread, milk, pasta, yoghurt, chocolate and tomato paste – all things incredibly rare and expensive in China. I happily stocked up, anticipating to make my first pasta in months tonight.

I set out to find a SIM card next. The shops said to go to the “Bazaar”. It took me over 2 hours of asking people and being pointed in different directions. At least the Kazakh proved to be very friendly, many shaking hands with me first and being very polite. Finally someone lead me to an unlikely bazaar-y area of shops run out of shipping containers, pointing me to an even more unlikely one with a tiny shop inside. But, behold, they indeed had SIM cards.

Just as I picked one, I heard a man behind me say “Kann ich Ihnen helfen? Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.” Awesome! He was a former German teacher in Soviet times and greatly helping me to choose the right card – which got me 10 GB of internet for about EUR1! I was indebted to him and wanted to talk a little more, so invited him for tea.

He greatly thanked me as well as he hadn’t spoken German in years and was wondering if it’s still ok. Apparently German was the most popular foreign language in Soviet times, but now it’s of course English, so he lost his job and now works as railway security.

After an interesting hour of talking it was time to go. It was already late and with the constant fierce wind I only aimed to get out of town and find a campsite. The wind eased as the rift valley widened and after just 16 km I spotted some trees by a river that might provide good shelter.

Just as I stopped, a car stopped as well and a very friendly driver gave me some milk, wishing me good luck. The reports about Kazahs being very friendly are certainly true!

I found a beautiful flat spot in some sand among the trees next to the river and set up the tent. I hoped to hell it wouldn’t rain as I already noticed improper stitching on this cheap-ass tent. After my delicious pasta dinner I put everything critical in the panniers and closed them.

Final thoughts on China:

What a country. It’s difficult to impossible to summarize it. To make it short: I enjoyed China. I read many bad stories before from people who cycled here, and I guess they prepared me for some negative aspects.

Yes, there is a lot of pollution. Yes, there is a massive wealth gap. Yes, cars honk a lot and people spit a lot with a zombie-like sound. Yes, kids shit in the street. Yes, some hotels refuse foreigners. Yes, communication is next to impossible without knowing any of the languages. Yes, the roads are horrible and covered in grit and mud. All things I heard about and was prepared for.

Taking a touristy route paid off and is what I would recommend anyone. These places are where the Chinese actually take care of making them pleasant to be in, which cannot be said about the vast majority of other cities.

Cycling in Tibetian areas was the best thing and my favourite memory. The high plateau had unforgettable landscapes and the people were some of the most cheerful, friendly and hospitable ones we ever met. I guess the harsh environment and isolation makes them instinctive of helping strangers out.

Get the longest visa you can to cycle here – usually 60 to 90 days are possible in your home country, abroad the best you can hope for are 30 days usually. You can get even more if you get a Chinese friend to write you a letter of invitation, up to 180 days. This is a huuuuge country and from day 1 I was constantly worrying about my visa so we never could take it easy and always had to think about hitchhiking or taking trains to make it in time, taking a lot of enjoyment…

Blue = Cycling; Red = Hitchhiking; Green = Bus; Black = Train

Back: China Part 2