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CHINA: EPISODE II - THE TIBETAN PLATEAU

December 25th, 2016 in Kunming, China

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We were nervously heading into the Qilian mountains, wondering if this route was really such a good idea. Should we have stayed on the main road? Will there be places to stay along the way or will we be alright camping in the cold? We were finally heading south again but that didn't in any way mean it would start to get warmer. On the contrary, the temperature was dropping steadily as we kept climbing higher and higher onto the Tibetan Plateau.

The Tibetan Plateau is not to be confused with the country Tibet (let's see if that sentence makes it through the Great Firewall of China). Instead the term refers to the 2 500 000 square kilometer elevated area that covers parts of China and India as well as most of Tibet. The area is however home to the majority of the Tibetan people and culture. 

As the landscape changed and the mountains started to loom over us we quickly pushed any fears to the back of our minds in favor of what was right in front of us. The small road we were following wound itself between the narrow canyons. A beautiful Buddhist temple appeared by the road side and prayer flags flapped in the wind. We had left the desert behind and were entering a new and different part of China and the distinction between the two couldn't been clearer. As this metamorphosis continued our confidence in our choice of route grew with it. 

Not that it wasn't still freezing, it was, but now we started to feel that it all might just be worth it. No more barren desert or fenced off highway roads. Instead we would have hills, snow-covered mountains and prayer flags to feast our eyes upon. 

On our first day we climbed a pass at 3 600 meter that was clearly marked in colorful flags. The pass also marked the border of a new province (Qinghai). The pass was covered in snow but thankfully the road was not, making our ascent down to the small town of Obo easy. We arrived in Obo early afternoon but as the weather rapport predicted temperatures of -18 degree we decided to stop early rather than continue and camp out in the cold. 

We had already had our fair share of cold nights in the desert. Waking up to frozen water bottles and starting our days well below zero was nothing new to us. However, the cold was never really a problem during the day nor at night. During the day we would keep warm by cycling and at night our double (and later triple for Robin) layers of sleeping bags would keep us comfortable. Instead the problem arose in the evenings and the mornings. When we stopped to camp we always had to rush to pitch the tent, prepare our beds and cook dinner. It all had to happen as fast as possible so that we wouldn't get too cold before getting into our sleeping bags. In the morning it was the same thing all over again, but in reverse. So in order to minimize our suffering we tried to make it to a hotel as often as possible while on the plateau. 


Another day, another mountain pass to conquer! This time we were rewarded with more snow covered mountains, meadows full with furry yaks and skies with birds of prey hunting tiny rodents that ran from hole to hole along the road. At the top of the pass there were even more prayer flags than last. To outdo it further, a car stopped at the pass just moments after we reached it. From it poured a bunch of people that quickly started to pray (we think) by lightning incense and throwing liquor and paper around them. 

And just like the day before we decided to stay at a hotel to escape the cold. This night, however, wouldn't pass as smoothly as the night before… 

We had been out for dinner and just returned to our room with snacks, preparing for proper movie night. We were quite pleased with ourselves as we had scored a quite fancy room for only 100 yen between the three of us. But just as we'd settled ourselves in, there came a knock at the door and in came five police officers… 

This is no means the first time we had a visit from police but it was the first time they didn't just look at our passports and then left again (after the obligatory selfies of course). This time one of the police men promptly told us that we were not allowed to stay at this hotel and furthermore, that we weren't allowed to stay in this village at all. Instead they told us they would put us on a train to Xining. As you can probably guess, we weren't having it. There were no way they would get us on a train when we cycled this far and as it was pitch dark outside we were not really keen on cycling out in the dark and finding a campsite in the cold either… So after much persistence, refusal and some we're-going-to-die-in-the-cold-if-you-force-us-to-leave (all done via Google translate) we finally convinced the police we didn't need to leave. Or almost so. Apparently we still had to downgrade to a hotel across the street as well as promise to leave first thing in the morning… but all in all, we considered this a win. 

In China, hotels need a special permit to host foreigner. The problem with this town (and many others) is that non of the hotels have such a permit. You can't really blame the police as they are just doing their job but it really feels like quite a silly system, limiting foreign tourists in where they can go. 

As promised, we left early the next morning just as the sun was creeping above the horizon. We had a long and hard day in front of us if we were going to make it to Xining, the provincial capital, in one day. 

In Xining we found a much unexpected surprise - a place that served craft beer! It had over a dozen beers on tap and an additional hundred or so on bottle. They even had three kinds of Swedish beer (only Dugges though). The beer on tap was cold but all the bottled beer was, as always in Chinese, warm (even though they were all in a big refrigerator…). 

The Chinese believes that it is unhealthy to drink cold beverages, especially water. This means finding a cold beer in a store or at a restaurant can be quite a mission. It also means it is almost impossible to get non-boiling water to refill our water bottles with. Hence, by now all our plastic water bottles are a bit misshaped. 

Once rested and refueled we continued forward, exchanging the pulsating city-life of Xining for a more laid-back and spiritual vibe in the monastic town of Xiahe. 

Here we walked the kora, a pilgrim pathway around the Labrang monastery, together with crimson-clad monks and old bend-over ladies in beautiful Tibetan clothes. We spun hundreds of prayer wheels, some almost noiseless while others squeaked loudly with every turn. 

We stayed at a warm but spartan guesthouse run by a chatty Tibetan. The guesthouse restaurant had a perfect view of the praying wheels but more entertainingly, it overlooked a weird goat that hanged about eating everything in its way (including the collected money of a homeless person) and rolling it head at us. 

Walking around town, the majority of people was Tibetan; men in baggy cloaks and arm sleeves hanging down to the ground and women with long neat braids and dark skirts. Mixed among them were all the “ordinary” Chinese, a few western tourists and the Buddhist monks, ironically enough, glued to their smartphones. 

On the day we left Xiahe we met two really unique cyclist, SuperCyclingMan and Crazy Eddy (as we nicknamed him). SuperCyclingMan, aka Will, is cycling around the world dressed as Superman, cape and all. And he's always in the costume even when it's freezing or hot as hell. But crazier still is Ed. Ed is cycling around the world on a unicycle! The unicycle is crazy for two main reasons: you have to pedal in downhills to keep your balance and you can't really carry a lot of luggage or you won't even be able to get on your bike. So, unsurprisingly, it has taken Ed 1 ½ year to get here from England… 

By now, the landscape had fully turned into what we had imagined a plateau 3 000+ meters above sea level would look like; a cold flat wasteland with mountains in the far distance.

We continued to avoid the worst of it by going from hotel to hotel, only resorting to camping a couple of times. With the help of a WhatsApp group for long distance tourers in China we were able to keep tabs on which hotels would take foreigners. Knowing where we could and would stop every night made everything fairly smooth and easy.  

We stopped for half a day in Langmusi, a small village that straddled the two provinces Gansu and Sichuan. The village was semi-closed to tourists due to winter but it was still full with monks in all ages. The young ones chased each other down the street, throwing fire crackers while the older ones strolled around town more dignified. 

We took a short walk up a canyon filled with prayer flags and shrines, enjoying walking instead of cycling for a change. 

After Langmusi we only had two days left on the plateau before the downhill would start. But first we had one final pass to climb and it was the highest pass we would conquer in China at above 3 800 meters above sea level. The actual pass was somewhat of a disappointment. We had gotten used to the beautifully decorated passes, sprinkled across the plateau, so when this one only had closed up houses and a few flags it didn't feel like anything special at all. The downhill that followed, however, was truly not a disappointment. 

In Songpan, just as we had started our continuous downhill from the plateau, we decided to stop for a couple of days and do a two-day-trip to a nearby national park. Bob, however, decided to continue. He was heading to Dali where he had heard of a monastery where you could learn Kung Fu from Shaolin monks. It was strange saying goodbye after travelling together for so long. But maybe we'll see each other again… the idea of living and training in a Shaolin temple had started to sound quite appealing. 

So while Bob continued downhill we left our bicycles at a hostel and took a bus to Jiayuguan national park. The park was pretty but in all honesty we can't really handle when a place is so commercial and has that much people packed into it. And this was apparently low season…

Back in our saddles we continued rolling down the edge of the plateau. It was getting noticeably warmer and more humid by the day. That first night we found an obvious place to pitch our tent inside a river dam. But most importantly that was the first night since the beginning of the desert that we could sleep without double sleeping bags! 

And with that we had survived the winter. We had survived the Tibetan plateau. And all things considered it hadn't been as hard as we imagined it would be. Now we just hope that the rest of China will be as easy… 

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