This morning it was out of the mountains and back on tarmac to the border. No problems getting back into China. All of a sudden I see things I have not seen in weeks. Traffic lights, road signs, factories, vegetables, wind turbines, fruit, taxis... All in all Mongolia has been quite an experience. Up there with the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and the Andes of Peru as the best cycling I have done. Also the hardest. Maybe it's my age and it coming so early in my trip (fair to say I wasn't in tip top shape when I set off a month or so ago). Ewan McGregor said biking across Mongolia was the toughest thing he has done and he had an engine and a support team. The combination of bad/non existent roads, exposure to wind and navigational issues meant it was a constant challenge. A very memorable one though. It's a beautiful country largely untouched by what we call progress. My marathon schwalbe tyres were not ideal for the terrain especially in the west. The locals always shook their head with a smile when they saw what I was riding. This isn't F1 though. You can't change your tyres in 4.2 seconds every time the conditions change. Going to stick to tarmac for a few weeks.
Today I set a PB for the trip. 180km. Doesn't look like I covered much ground as the crow flies but I cycled north west into the wind for 60km. It was a dull trudge but I knew the road then turned south 135 degrees and from there I would be laughing. I reached the turn at 2:30pm and then managed 120km in the remainder of the day without even trying. I'm back in desert like country with long distances between food and water. After my experience in the Gobi I was determined to make hay whilst the wind was behind. I had a much harder day a couple of days ago and only managed 40km.
Day 41. Made good progress in the morning on a peaceful road through an almost lunar landscape before taking the road towards Urumqi where it became a dour battle with ten tonne trucks. I am very curious to note the differences between western China and the more affluent east I cycled through on the way to Mongolia. I am now in Xinjiang province. Xinjiang has a reputation as a mysterious place riven by cultural conflict, the indigenous Muslim Uighur groaning under the yoke of Han Chinese rule. I tried to cross from Kyrgyzstan by bicycle a few years ago but my visa application was turned down, largely I suspect due to the unrest in this area that culminated in the 2014 riots. An event largely unreported in the west. There are regular police checkpoints. Every day I have been through at least one. For the locals they involve getting out of their vehicles and going through airport style security whilst their cars are searched. For me they begin with a stern demand for passport and end with smiles and photos. The petrol stations are all barbed wire, barricades and security guards. Entrance is carefully vetted. They look so uninviting I have not tried to venture into one even when thirsty. Other than that it's just farmers and herders going about their business like anywhere else in the world.
Not a good nights sleep. I must have picked up a bug. I'm pretty careful about what I drink. I purify, boil or busy all water. Even the water I brush my teeth with. I do eat in some ramshackle roadside restaurants though which is probably where it happened. Maybe it's the lukewarm green tea they always give you. Either way it was head out of the tent to vomit at 3am this morning but the stars looked nice. Dehydrated all day but managed to proceed towards Urumqi where a proper rest looms. Dull cycling on busy roads but did get my first view of the Tian Shan mountains looming imperiously in the distance.
Day 43. Finished the job into Urumqi. Started off on a motorway (mistake), managed to get off and onto an A road before finding myself alone on a sealed road (don't know how this happened) and finally ended up in the Urumqi suburbs which went on forever. Urumqi (pronounced ooh-room-chee) is quite famous for its claim that it is the most inland major city in the world, that being the farthest from any ocean; 2,300 kilometres or further (Information courtesy of Ian Rann).
Days 44 - 49. My aim for my time in Urumchi was to do as little as possible and i have succeeded admirably. A lot of eating and sleeping. I am very bad at taking in the tourist attractions when I find myself in a foreign city. This is not a problem in Urumqi. There are no tourist attractions. This place is not really geared up for westerners. I have barely seen any in my time here. The vast majority of hotels do not accept foreigners. Everywhere I go I get looks of friendly bemusement. That could be the ginger beard. There is no Irish pub. I can't even find anywhere to buy a postcard. I am not complaining. It makes the place all the more interesting. I always get a bad first impression of big cities because cycling into them is such a jarring experience but I have grown to like Urumqi. The grand bazaar, an Islamic market area and main Uighur enclave is lively and excellent for people watching. The black market is always fascinating to amble around. I spent a lot of time trying and failing to get my pannier rack fixed. The real find was a quiet little outdoor swimming pool where i have been for a couple of gentle swims.
I have basically been getting some rest whilst I wait for my old friend Ray who flies in from Hong Kong tomorrow. We are going to do a week of walking in the Tian Shan mountains to the east of the city. Very little has been written about walking in these mountains. Strictly speaking you are not meant to venture into them without a guide. We have no map. There doesn't seem to be any maps. We are just going to buy food for a week, get a bus to a lake in the heart of the mountains and walk. Ray and I have done a lot of walking over the years. The lakes, the pennines, the highlands, the alps, lycia in turkey, the brecon beacons...it will be like old times. He speaks mandarin! He is also a teacher so maybe he can impart some of that mandarin onto me. Although I seriously doubt that. I'm not sure how he's going to cope with a whole week without Whatsapp.
Whatsapp has been blocked in China. It has not worked since I got back into the country. Apparently the Chinese are looking to tighten online censorship ahead of the communist party's national congress next month which is held every 5 years. The Chinese people will hardly notice. Everyone here uses WeChat. WeChat offers little encryption so the Chinese authorities can happily spy on the nations messages. They like this. Whatsapp is mainly used by foreigners and offers end to end encryption so the authorities have no idea what is being sent. They don't like this. Will be interesting to see if the block is lifted after the national congress. I suspect it will join Facebook, Twitter and Google on the banned indefinitely list. Those who know me will be aware how little all this social media censorship affects me but I do use whatsapp to communicate with a few people back home. If you are reading this I am alive and well and not ignoring you.
Went to meet Ray at the airport. He arrived at Terminal 2. I waited at Terminal 3. After that fine start we took a combination of taxis and buses to the park entrance to the mountains. A prime example of the worst excesses of the domestic Chinese tourist industry. It was all a bit Alton Towers. Turnstiles, security, extortionate entrance fees, souvenir shops, buses and enormous hotels. We arrived quite late and they wouldn't let us through so we camped on a patch of grass by the entrance.
In the morning we took a mini bus up to the lake. This is as far as the local tourists go. They take a million photos and take the bus back down. Ray and I walked around the lake and from there we didn't see a single person for the next couple of days which is quite a feat in China. We were soon climbing up into the mountains. It was tough going with our backpacks full to the brim. Unsure of our route we decided to bring 6 days of food in case we were unable to top up our supplies. I suffer from extreme anxiety about going the least bit hungry. Cycling on an empty stomach is a miserable experience. It is like trying to drive a car without any petrol in it. It doesn't work and you feel stupid. I ensure it never happens. When cycling I always carry emergency spaghetti. Stored at the bottom of one of my panniers should the unthinkable happen and I run out of food. My secret stash of spaghetti. On the trek I was carrying raisins, spaghetti, pasta sauce, biscuits, porridge, muesli, cereal bars and enough noodles to feed an army. Ray brought enough for a quick picnic. He is hardcore and considers eating to be some kind of hedonistic excess and brought enough food to merely survive. Unfortunately he has been reading about people who have survived in the mountains for days on a bag of nuts and packed accordingly. Between the 2 of us we probably got it just right.
Conscious that we needed to camp as low as possible to deal with the cold we found a good spot in a forest by a stream and made a fire to keep warm.
Day 52. I awoke at 5am to a dull thudding sound coming from outside the tent. At first I wondered if there were bears in these mountains. Turns out it was Ray chopping wood to make fire because he was too cold to sleep. We are doing this very late in the season with temperatures below freezing every night. Four season sleeping bags are what you need. Needless to say we did not have these. Perfect weather for walking though. Clear blue sky and we soon got warm as we climbed up to a pass over 3700m including a mad scramble for the final few hundred metres. Amazing views all the way up. We were unable to get down as far as we would've liked and had to camp at 3200m. Ray made a fire out of horse dung. Pete you would have been proud. I was impressed and also careful not to get downwind. Then fully clothed into sleeping bags to attempt sleep.
Actually saw some local trekkers this morning. They could well have been on a photo shoot for highly technical clothing. They gave us some advice for getting out of the mountains. Ray's boot was falling apart. The sole on one boot had pretty much come clean off and was being loosely held on by one of his laces and a strap from his rucksack. No way he could walk on some of the high terrain like that so we came up with a change of plan. Instead of exploring the eastern Tian Shan we would head down out of the mountains, fix the boot and then head off to explore the mountains to the west of Urumqi. A great days walking and ended up with an ideal camping spot down in warmer climes, by a river at the foot of the mountains. We were on the outskirts of a village and one of the locals bought us lamb and bread to eat round the camp fire and offered us a lift to the road in the morning. Saving us a 20km trudge.
Made the transition from the eastern mountains to the west. Stopped in Urumqi. Just round the corner from the bus station there was a man sat on the street with a sewing machine and Ray was able to get his boot fixed. Took the opportunity to enjoy an enormous meal in a restaurant before leaving the city. We were soon walking again up a steep sided canyon, past a waterfall and back into the high mountains.
Awoke to a winter wonderland. It had snowed during the night. Explains why I was so phenomenally cold. Everywhere looked very picturesque but not really what we needed. We gamely decided to head up into the white and see what happened. The sides of the valley were so steep we had no choice but to follow vague herder paths on either side of a stream snaking up into the mist. Many times we had to cross the stream. Leaps of faith onto slippy rocks on the other side. We both lost our footing at one time or another. Feet submerged into the icy water. Eventually common sense prevailed. We had no idea where we were going. No idea if there was a pass up ahead. No idea if we could get over the pass if there was one. No clue as to whether we could then get down to an altitude where we could camp without freezing our nuts off. We sat down to enjoy the peace in the mountains and then headed back down. A good call. The weather deteriorated. Cold and wet we decided to head back to Urumqi a day ahead of schedule and got drunk. Wayhay!
Hanging out with Ray in Urumqi before his flight back to Hong Kong. Went to the Xinjiang museum which was interesting. The weather was atrocious so we spent the afternoon drinking and playing pool in a basement snooker hall. Ray and I spent a large part of our teens playing pool in his garage so it was like old times. So was the result (hahaha sorry mate couldn't resist). Ray has been a legend all week. Excellent company as always. Did an amazing job making fire every night to keep us warm in the mountains. His ability to converse with the locals was invaluable. He walked for 2 days, including a high pass, with half his boot falling off and never once complained. Thanks for coming out mate! See you in HK. It goes without saying but if anyone ever fancies a cycling/walking/motorbiking/drinking holiday then come find me.
Good to be back on the bike. After a week of rest and a few days trekking I feel refreshed and ready for some winter cycling! Relatively straight forward leaving Urumqi and I was soon in a frozen landscape heading into the mountains. I didn't get very far. After the last town in the valley the road was cordoned off. The road up to the pass at 4200m was closed. Too much snow apparently. There was plenty of snow at 2000m so it wasn't hard to believe. I had no choice but to retreat. There is an alternative route, albeit a 130km further, which takes a lower route through the mountains.
I wasn't arrested today. Merely detained for a couple of hours. I had just come down out of the mountains and into a small town when the police came up alongside and beckoned me to pull over. At the station i handed over my passport and calls were made. I was there about 2 hours. I stuck to the golden rule in such situations. Smile like an idiot at all times. Eventually they will give you up as retarded and let you go. I was treated courteously throughout. Given tea, apples and bread. I was allowed to charge my phone. Eventually my passport was handed back and I was allowed to leave. There are so many police in Xinjiang. Obviously with a history of unrest in the area they are keen to make their presence felt. The result is in periods of calm they don't have a lot to do.
Great cycling up into the mountains following a river upstream. Just as I was worrying about getting too high for camping I hit a roadblock. I was expecting the usual delay but this time it was the end of the road. The 2 lads in charge explained that I was entering a military zone and I required a special pass to continue. We sat down, I got google translate out, and tried to persuade them that I was a harmless cyclist just passing through. They were having none of it. Just kids following orders (see photo). They were sorry they couldn't help and gave me a bag of fruit. It seems the high mountains are a no go zone. I'm aware that there are specific areas in Xinjiang that are off limits to foreigners. There is, of course, no list of these anywhere and things change all the time. I will just have to deal with problems as they arise. I had no choice but to go back. I was now onto Plan C. Plan A had been blocked by snow. Plan B was off limits. Plan C is the long way round. I'm trying to get through the mountains to Korla. 120km away as the crow flies. I now have to take a 400km detour. As if China wasn't big enough.
Another day. Another run in with the police. Run in is misleading as both times I was well looked after. I'm beginning to factor these police stops into my days. No need to rest on the road. I can rest at the police station. No need to find somewhere to charge my phone. I'll do it at the police station. It is slightly frustrating to keep getting pulled but it is always an interesting experience. I wanted to see the differences between east and west China and I am finding out. Slightly perturbed on the first police break of the day when I was shepherded into a car and whisked off. They were just taking me to a restaurant for lunch. All offers of payment were refused. Back to the police station I was eventually let go and sent on my way with a big bag of pears and nuts. 60km to the next town and I was pulled again. This time the boss man tried to persuade me to stay in town and not camp in the mountains. There are wild animals in the mountains. I managed to convince him if I set off now I could make it up and over the mountains by nightfall. I failed to do this and camped in the mountains worrying about wild animals.
Whenever I am cycling in far away places I am always helped along by the locals. A bottle of water here, a bag of fruit there. None more so than in Xinjiang. Today I was given an enormous bundle of grapes, a bottle of juice and some cake. Yesterday on a climb into the mountains I was handed a can of red bull, a bottle of water, a Greek yoghurt, one of those coffee smoothies I dont really like and a big piece of naan. All gratefully accepted. I was also offered a lift and numerous cigarettes. All politely declined. I met the guy who gave me the grapes a few kilometres before a roadblock. He was smartly dressed in an impressive jeep. He happened to pull up alongside at the roadblock just as I was about to be shown into the police station for my daily detainment. He started yelling at the police. Naturally i couldnt tell what he was saying but probably something along the lines of leave the tourist alone. He must have been of some importance to speak to the police like that. I was promptly handed back my passport and waved through.
Made good progress towards Korla. There was a side road closed to cars and bigger and I was able to zip along in peace. I stopped at an Uighur restaurant for lunch and they refused to let me pay for my meal. Had a police escort to the station when passing through a town. I'm beginning to pick up names of places I have been to when they phone in with my passport. They clearly have a file on me. I have no problem with it. I have nothing to hide. The girls on duty went through the photos on my camera. I'm not sure why as all they seemed to do was giggle at what they saw. They then gave me more water than I could carry and i was on my way again past fields full of chilli peppers. Didn't quite make it to Korla. Slept in an orchard.
Day 64. I spent more time today in police stations than cycling and seemed to have reached the end of the road in Xinjiang. Cycled into Korla and was promptly hauled into the police station. I carefully explained the route I was trying to take and they wished me well and let me go. Cycled 40km south into the Xinjiang desert and hit a roadblock. They told me I needed a special pass to continue and had to return to Korla to get one. I returned to the same police station and was sat down with a senior policeman. No amount of smiling was going to work with this guy. He explained that foreigners need a special permit to go south and I wasn't going to get one. I pointed out that I have stopped in countless police stations over the last week, including this one today, have been clear on the route I intended to take and no one ever mentioned the need for a special pass. He replied that most police are unaware of the real problems in Xinjiang. I responded, a little flippantly, that maybe I should just get the next bus out of Xinjiang. He replied yes you should do that. Right. I left with my tail between my legs and only too aware that I had run out of options.
Spent the day in Korla working out my next move. The police presence in Korla is like nothing i've seen. Small police stations every couple of hundred yards. Armed police on every street corner. I have seen waitresses, hotel receptionists and shop assistants wearing bullet proof vests. I am stopped on the street and asked for my passport wherever I go. I can only imagine the frustrations that many Chinese experience on a daily basis. Went to the train station and bought a ticket to somewhere. To Lanzhou I think in the next province. Shame to be leaving Xinjiang in this fashion. I've enjoyed my time here. The warmth and generosity of the locals I've met along the road has been a joy. Even the police I've met, more than i would have liked, have been friendly and hospitable. That said there is something bubbling beneath the surface in Xinjiang that they do not want me to see. I dont particularly want to find out either. Time to leave.
I didn't know the Chinese for high speed bullet train please so I got what I was given. Cattle class on the slow overnight train. Always better to hangout with the real people anyway and I practiced my Chinese. Many of the people on the train have been working in Xinjiang over the summer and are now returning to their families in various parts of China. Lanzhou is further east than I wanted to go so I will now head back on myself south west towards Sichuan and the Tibetan border.
Today I saw something I have not seen in a few years. My face. I hacked off my beard. It was getting a bit out of hand and is unnecessary weight after all. Cue horrendous sunburn. The cycling was all about getting out of enormous city of Lanzhou and getting to the road that turns off into the mountains. This I managed although it wasn't enjoyable. Didn't see a policeman all day!
Up into the hills. Good cycling. Lots of sharp ups and downs with amazing views. The generosity of the Chinese people continues. Fell into a photo session with the restaurant owners at lunch and they waved away all attempts to pay for my food and sent me on my way with a bag of apples.
Big climb first thing up to a high pass. There was a main road alternative so there was no traffic as the road snaked up to the highest point of the trip so far at 3816m. The view from the top was incredible. I'd like to come up with some lofty and poetic words to do it justice but I'm not very good at that. Sat down to listen to some music. When faced with such natural splendour you can't just listen to any old music. I listened to Rings Around The World, Bizarre Love Triangle and What The World Is Waiting For. Cold descent and rolling hills for the rest of the day. Camped next to a cliff above a dirty river.
This morning it was steep hairpin bends back up into the mountains looking down on a reservoir. Half way up it began to snow. I wasn't expecting that. I was wearing shorts. I lost the views but cycling up into the snow was exhilarating. Did my good deed for the day as I helped free a sheep who had got his head stuck in a fence. Took a while to get him loose. He then sprinted away but he couldn't find his mates who had all wandered off. I wonder how long he had been there. I left him bleating miserably all alone in the snow.
Off up into the hills again. The road was disappointing to begin with. There was a big factory about 40km in which meant lots of trucks going to and fro kicking up dust. Once past the factory it turned into one of the great mountain roads. Endless hairpin bends. Often dug into the mountain side with sheer drops. The road wound up, down, left, right, through forests, alongside streams, past sleepy villages and high up into the mountains. I have been playing altitude pontoon at the end of each day. Stick or twist. Today I found myself at 3000m with the road rising and daylight fading. Do I stick and face a very cold but bearable night at 3000m or do I twist and hope I can get up and over the pass and down to a comfortable altitude to sleep. I have no idea when the pass will come. I decided to twist. Went bust and had to sleep in my bobble hat and three pairs of socks. I picked a fine week to shave off my beard.
The mountain road continued to amaze up to the first pass at 3908m. The road then dropped a few hundred metres and then back up to another pass at 3898m before finally descending into the valley. In my idle moments back home I have read countless 'Top 10 world cycle destinations' articles. None have mentioned Huangnan province in China. It has certainly taken me by surprise. Huangnan is a largely Tibetan province. Tibetan flags everywhere. Lots of monks on motorbikes and pictures of Lhasa. In today's round of altitude pontoon I decided to stick at around 3000m which was a good call as the pass was miles away and I never would of made it.
Awoke to a blanket of snow. For a minute I wondered where my bike was but it was just buried beneath the snow. Proper winter cycling now up to a high pass. The road only descended to 3700m. I was now on a cold bleak high altitude plateau. I hit the Tibetan town of Zeku just as the snow began to fall once more. Holed out in a hotel.
One of the great things about cycle touring is it gives you a finer appreciation for the simple things in life we all take for granted back home. Water, mattresses, food, hot showers. Today it is radiators. After a few weeks of high altitude camping I was now in a hotel room with a radiator that simply emanates heat. I've just spent the last hour staring at it in wonder.
Rejuvenated after my night next to a radiator I continued across the high altitude plateau before a climb to the pass at 4300m. Great descent meandering through a gorge. I was relieved to be able to get down to 3400m. Funny how your perspective changes so quickly. Less than a week ago I was baulking at camping at 3000m. Now I'm grateful if I can get below 3500m. Everyday the depths of winter draw a little closer. Everyday I creep a little further south towards warmer climes. It's like a little race. It's fair to say I am losing the race at the moment. I am prepared to suck up the cold nights and continue to explore the mountains as this is the cycling you will remember whereas hopefully I'll forget the cold nights.
Beautiful day cycling under clear blue skies. 3 mountain passes over 4000m. Now that I'm getting further into Tibet the police stops have begun again. All quick and painless at the moment. Will see how long that lasts. Late in the day I descended into the valley at 3700m. Sat in a warm restaurant steeling myself for another cold night in my tent when I got talking to a Tibetan guy who spoke a little English. When I told him I was planning on camping he laughed and invited me to sleep at his home in the mountains with his family. Very interesting guy. He was based in Dharamsala in India for years where many Tibetans live in exile. To get back to China he walked 18 days from Kathmandu across the high Himalayas to Lhasa where he was arrested. He spent 3 months in prison before being driven to where we are now and let go. He told me if the police found a picture of the Dalai Lama on his phone he would be arrested. He said many times, 'It looks like we are free, but we are not free.'
Another big climb today. It is tough climbing at this altitude as the air is so thin. Any minor acceleration can have you gasping for air by the side of the road. Near the top I began to struggle. I know when I'm in trouble. I'm cycling along in bottom gear, I know full well I am in bottom gear, yet I keep tapping the gear lever just in case my bike has magically developed a lower gear. That's when you know you are goosed. Still the more you suffer the better the feeling when you hit the pass and the views were once again spectacular.
Twenty star jumps first thing this morning to get the blood moving after another freezing night. The sun threatened to come out but then didn't bother and it was a very cold cycle 60km to Jimai, a small Tibetan town. I decided to take the afternoon off and warm up in a hotel. 10 minutes after checking in a policeman comes into my room and says you cannot stay in this town. I must pack my things and leave immediately. I tell him in that case I will need to go to a shop first to get some food. He follows me around the shop a yard away at all times. I deliberately take 20 minutes to choose which flavour noodles to buy. I went for chicken. I always go for chicken. I'm then given a police escort to the road they want me to take. Having successfully kicked me out of town he then has the nerve to ask for a selfie. He is only following orders I suppose. Still I put on my best frown. Back on the road I got my altitude guesswork all wrong and slept at 4300m. Fully clothed in my sleeping bag with a hot water bottle at 6:30pm.
The road stayed high this morning. Seriously cold but amazing cycling. It's not often you get to cycle through high mountains in winter. A sea of white in every direction. I descended down into a valley and kept losing altitude as I followed a river downstream. Turned onto a dirt road late in the day and promptly cracked my front right pannier rack. The front left went in Mongolia. One guarantee of cycle touring is that things will fall apart. It's not a matter of if but when. I now have to put all the weight on the back pannier rack. Many cycle tourers ride with the majority of the weight on the back so it's not a big problem. I prefer to spread the weight across the bike. My back pannier rack has been with me since the beginning. Over 50,000km. Only the frame and the saddle have also been there from the start. Every other part has needed replacing at some point. That means one of two things. Either my back pannier rack is nails and can go for another 50,000km or it's due to fall apart any minute. I will assume the former. Shuffled things around and with my bungee chords I got everything strapped to the back in a way I was happy with. I then sat on my sunglasses.
Big climb on a dirt road up to the highest point of the trip so far just over 4600m. The last kilometre the road was all snow and ice and I had to push my bike over the pass. Incredible views from the top. Big descent into a lush valley following a meandering river. I now wanted to take the road that led further into Tibet up into the mountains to a Buddhist temple considered holy to the Tibetans. I thought the police would have something to say about me taking this road and I wasn't wrong. In the village at the foot of the climb was a serous looking roadblock heavily guarded by police. As expected they told me the road was not open to foreigners. I dealt with the the disappointment the only way I know how. Went into a shop and bought a beer. Here I got talking to a couple of likely lads and I explained that I was barred from taking the mountain road. They beckoned me to follow them. Before I could think I was following them down the village side streets, squeezing me and my bike through a hole in a fence and down more back alleys to the other end of the village. Bypassing the roadblock. I thanked them and shot off down the road. I am now cycling in a forbidden area of Tibet. Awesome. Camped out of sight. Tomorrow could be interesting.
Keen to avoid any police I set off just as it was beginning to get light. Great hairpin climb up to the high pass but there the weather turned. It had been snowing lightly all the way up but now it really started to come down and the temperature plummeted. All the way down I flexed my fingers and wiggled my toes. Half way down the little Tibetan farm houses began to appear. I looked for the first one with smoke coming out of the top and basically knocked on and said can I come in. The family were slightly surprised when they opened the door but took one look at me shivering in the snow and beckoned me over to the stove. They plied me with hot water until I thawed. I was very grateful. The temple was very impressive cut into the mountain side. I passed a massive police training camp. Maybe this was what I'm not meant to see. Hundreds of young recruits going through their drills all beneath a massive image of the all powerful president Xi Jinping. I sped past. On the road I only saw a few police and they left me alone. They know that there are roadblocks controlling entrance to this area so maybe they assumed I had a special permit. Camped well out of sight once again.
Followed the river through a gorge. Saw some wild monkeys. Passed through many beautiful Tibetan villages. Multi coloured Tibetan flags flapping in the wind. The mountain side is covered with them. The only thing I was worried about now was the roadblock at the exit of the restricted area. I decided to cross that bridge when i came to it. Turns out the roadblock was a bridge. Fortunately exiting the forbidden area is a lot easier than entering it. It had been raining heavily for an hour. I was cold and wet. The police were cold and wet. No one could be bothered. I was asked how I got here but I just pretended I didn't understand and was waved through. Now back where I'm allowed to be I checked into a hotel for a much needed bed and once again stared at the radiator in wonder.
Up and over a relatively low pass and down the valley towards Garze. Seemed a little colder today. Every few days I jump on wifi and check the forecast the best I can. Trying to ensure I don't get caught in my tent at altitude if the temperature is set to plummet. I can see in 2 days time it's going to drop to -15 overnight. My sleeping bag can't cope with that so plan is to bosh south and make sure I'm in a hotel that night and take it from there.
As a concession to winter I took the low road towards Jiliaxi. I say low but the road never goes below 3000m. It just doesn't include a pass over 4000m. Still a great road. Dug into the mountainside following a river downstream. Lots of little dips and rises. Will try and get to Litang tomorrow before the cold sap takes hold.
Had a very bad night in my tent. I seem to have done something to my back. Oh to be young again. The only position I could find that wasn't agony was flat on my back with my knees tucked under my chin. Very much like when you do a dive bomb into a swimming pool. I don't know if anyone has tried to sleep in this position. I don't recommend it. I had a 140km mission to Litang which I was in no shape to take on. I went back 5km to Jiliaxi and found a hotel. Here I bumped into Julian whom I met on the road the day before. A Geordie living in Leeds. After the break up of a 25 year marriage he got on his bike in Yorkshire and started cycling. Now he is in China and showing no signs of calling it a day.
Sitting out the cold in Jiliaxi doing back exercises. Spent a lot of time in local restaurants. The food everywhere in China is amazing. You often here it said that it is very different to the Chinese food we know back home. Initially I hoped it wouldn't be as I used to love my Friday night sweet & sour chicken/fried rice from the chippy. It is so much better though and I enjoy sitting in restaurants waiting to see what I've ordered. I love the table manners here in China. None of the pomp and ceremony we go in for back home. The locals just put their heads an inch from their food and shovel it in. If the restaurant is full all you can hear are a cacophony of slurping noises. Fantastic.
Did a little test ride this morning to see how the back was doing and fortunately cycling is 10 times more comfortable than walking. Took it easy down the valley before a little climb to a simple hotel in the village of Junba. I am now in Sichuan province. Still a largely Tibetan area but here there are no roadblocks, the police aren't interested in you and when you walk into a hotel and ask do you accept foreigners they say 'Of course' instead of 'No'. A breath of fresh air.
30km climb this morning. I filled up with water at a stream at 8am and by the time the sun peeped over the mountain side at 10am it was already turning to ice. That said the great thing about cycling this time of year is the settled weather. Pretty much everyday you get clear blue skies and is perfect for cycling. Uphill that is. Downhill is cold as you like. Amazing views from the pass at 4600m. Another small pass in the afternoon before holing out in another hotel as the cold sap continues. I passed many ideal camp spots but it's too cold to consider. This is a shame but it's nice to piddle about in hotels also. No radiators recently but they have kettles and electric blankets. They all have wifi that never works.
The road to Sangdui was incredible. The road rose to 4,600m but then stayed there or thereabouts for the rest of the day before descending a short way into the valley. Snow capped mountains and frozen lakes all around. I feel very lucky to get to cycle such roads. I have little idea when I set off each morning what I'm going to get. I make it up as I go along generally choosing the minor roads with hairpin bends as they take you away from the trucks and high into the mountains.
Today didn't quite work out. The road I took is being dug up and resurfaced. It was a bit of a mess. Like being back in Mongolia but worse as there were a million trucks going back and forth. Felt like I was cycling in a dust bowl. Lots of little delays as they temporarily close the road to allow work to be done. On the plus side I descended to below 3000m for the first time in weeks and was able to camp. Found a quiet spot away from the road on the edge of a forest, next to a stream with mountain views. All that was missing was a babbling brook.
Another amazing day in the Sichuan mountains. 3 passes today. Like a stage in the Tour de France although I only managed 80km. The view from each pass was staggering. The best road I have ridden in China. Also the worst. The road was rubble. Took me 90 minutes to descend 1km in altitude at the end of the day. Still if you could choose your Groundhog Day I would happily do today over and over again.
I have now crossed into Yunnan province. Known for its all year round spring climate. Spring in Greenland maybe. -8 in my tent last night but that was my fault for getting caught out by the state of the road yesterday and not descending as far as I would have liked. Climbed up to yet another pass through a forest. The road improved and I was also able to get down low making for a comfortable camp.
Up and over a small pass and down to Diqing. A big modern town with a thousand hotels all of which seem to be empty as it's the close season. My hotel owners seemed so amazed to have a guest they took me out for lunch. The town is famous for the Dongzhulin monastery that overlooks the town. Built in 1667. Diqing sits at an altitude of 3400m and with another cold sap on the way I took a day off and did some bike maintenance.
Today I cycled through the Shangri-La national park which was every bit as good as it sounds. Not a flat kilometre all day. Alpine esque scenery. Mountain sides covered in evergreen coniferous forests. Each descent was slightly longer than the ascent and I gradually lost altitude to the dizzy depths of 2,200m.
Descended further into the valley and cycled along a spectacular gorge. Tiger leaping gorge. Approximately 3790m from river to mountain peak it is one of the deepest gorges in the world. The river, a tributary of the Yangtze, is fast flowing and is not navigable. In the early 1990s four rafters attempted to go down the gorge and were never seen again. There is a road dug into the cliff side. Amazing to cycle. Big tourist attraction. I've never seen so many selfie sticks. Also some interesting signage...
Today I descended to 1500m and followed a back road up into the hills. The good thing about spending so long at altitude is my lungs have become attuned to thin air. Your body adapts and becomes more efficient at transporting and using oxygen. I have spent the entire last few weeks above 3000m with numerous 4000m passes and a couple of nights sleeping above 4000m. Now when I descend to a low altitude where there is oxygen in abundance cycling becomes a joy. This morning I climbed steadily for about an hour and my breathing was like I was sat at home reading a book. You can give it some on the small ups without collapsing by the side of the road. You feel like Lance Armstrong after a wee jab. I can kid myself that I have finally got good at cycling. It won't last so I will enjoy while it does.
It's warm! Last night I slept without socks on for the first time in a month. Today I cycled in shorts and a t-shirt. I can resume work on my tan lines. I'm now far enough south and at a relatively low altitude that the battle with the cold may just be over. Actually got a proper sweat on climbing up and then down to big city of Dali. Give me a couple of weeks and I'll be moaning about the heat.
Got run off the road this morning by a truck coming the other way. He was attempting a crazy overtake on a narrow road. I had just enough time to get out of the way and give him a WTF look but he didn't see me as he was tapping into his phone! That said Chinese drivers are generally pretty good. No better or worse than anywhere else in the world. They don't understand the concept of giving way. Everyone just pulls out in front of me but I got used to that pretty quick and am ready on the brakes whenever i see a vehicle about to join the road.
Took in the Dali old town but it was a tourist trap so headed out of town by the lake. Awful climb out of Dali with enormous trucks polluting the air making it hard to breathe. The road gradually improved as I put some distance between myself and the city and i eventually made it to a back road that would take me up into the hills. Camped by a river. All day sunshine. Made no impression on my solar panel however.
Climbed up into the hills. There were many simples wooden houses on the roadside and I was attacked by dogs on a few occasions. There is an old Swedish proverb, "Barking dogs don't bite". It is nonsense. Going downhill it is no problem. Uphill I have no chance. Even on the flat it is a close run thing. Dogs are quick and they love a good chase. Often if I just stop they will slink off. Disappointed that the chase is over. Some though will persist. In which case I get off my bike, pick up a stone and fling it at them and they scamper back where they came from. You should aim to miss of course. Unless your aim is bad in which case you should aim to hit.
The cycling of the last couple of days has been very close to how I always pictured rural China. China has historically always been an agrarian economy but the numbers of rural Chinese has fallen just below 50% in recent years as people migrate to the cities to make the most of the country's rapid economic growth. Just less than 50% is still shed loads though. The hills are well populated. Every spare inch of the mountainside is terraced and farmed. They grow rice, corn, chillies and vegetables. Enough to eat and any surplus is taken to market. Everyday I passed through a small local market selling an amazing array of vegetables and fruit. I've been enjoying the local tofu in a spicy vinegar sauce. Along the road the farmers live in simple wooden houses. Everyone else lives in courtyard houses packed close together in the centre of the village. In most the kitchens are outside. The kids go to school or watch TV. The youngsters play on their phones. The adults work the land. The old people sit around and play cards/chess. Some of the old women look like, and probably are, 110 years old. They have probably lived through the warlord period, Japanese occupation, civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural revolution. The roads wind through the mountains. You never go more than a 100m without a bend in the road. Up, down, up, down all day and wonderful to cycle.
Continued on through the hills. The road stayed high most of the day with amazing views. Lots of dogs wanted a piece of me once more but fortunately they all seemed to be chained up. I feel sorry for these ones though. They see me coming and come racing out until the chain becomes taut and they are yanked back violently. Being dogs they just do the same thing again and keep getting yanked back. Going mental with the frustration. Poor things. They only want to give me rabies. I have had the rabies vaccine but all that means is that I have 48 hours to get to a doctor if bitten instead of 24.
Big climb first thing. No snow capped mountains in Yunnan. No 4000m passes but the climbs are longer. You start very low down in the valley and the hairpin bends wind up and up. I climbed in a cloud but eventually it evaporated and I emerged high up with glorious views all around. Camped in a pine forest on top of a pass.
I awoke in my tent with it lashing it down outside and the occasional clap of thunder. Hard to get out of your sleeping bag in such circumstances so I decided to wait for the rain to stop. It continued to rain for the next 3 days. I didn't lie there for 3 days though. After a couple of hours I realised it wasn't going to stop and I needed to man up. Got a proper soaking. None of my clothing is actually waterproof. I shop at TK Maxx. Managed 40km before holing out in a hotel and spent the next day and a half listening to the Ashes on the radio.
Still raining but only a drizzle so got going. A thick fog soon descended. No point going the scenic route in such weather so boshed along a main road looking to make some progress east. I've been doing a lot of exploring the last few weeks. Incredible cycling but I'll still be trying to cross China in March if I carry on in this fashion. Time to suck up some main roads and make some yards towards Hong Kong. In this part of China I see lots of men sat outside their homes smoking cigarette bongs. Harsh.
Some of the main roads in China are good to cycle. Others are Armageddon. Today was the latter. The road was covered in a thin layer of red mud. I was soon covered in a thin layer of red mud. Grim looking factories filled the valley which meant trucks galore roaring past every 10 seconds. All pretty miserable really so got my head down. Churned out 100km and dived into a hotel to get clean. The hotels in this part of China require me to register my stay at the local police station. I went over in the evening. Woke the guy on duty up. He then took an hour to enter my name and passport number into the computer. To be fair he did manage to smoke 6 cigarettes in this time. I think all men in China smoke (can't blame them at £1 a pack). I don't think any women in China smoke. I can't recall seeing one.
Great road today. A big climb in the morning. Started in a cloud but the climb went on so long I was able to ascend through the cloud and emerge into the sunshine. Always a good feeling. Rain returned in the afternoon so took another hotel. I'm fine with this as the hotels are very cheap in this part of China (£6/7) and are surprisingly comfortable. The only drawback is KTV. Karaoke TV. Each hotel seems to have a few karaoke rooms where the guests can wile away the evening belting out Chinese pop songs at full volume until all hours. They love it. I don't.
I didn't have high hopes for today but it worked out well. There was a motorway over in the next valley so all was quiet as the road wound through the mountains. The road stayed high and I spent most of the day above the clouds. Back in my tent tonight. No karaoke in the hills. Wild camping is becoming more of a challenge as I head further east. It is admirable the way the locals farm every spare inch of land but it makes it difficult to pitch a tent. I start looking an hour earlier than usual and take any option I can get. I'm not exactly inconspicuous. The farmers come across me as they return home from working the fields. They are cool though. They always stop by for a chat. You are more likely to get invited in for dinner than moved on.
China is very big. This probably isn't a great revelation to anybody but attempting to cycle across it does give you a sense for the sheer enormity of the place. It just goes on and on. I cycled from London to Istanbul in less time than it has taken me to cross China. I'm not even there yet. I have around 1300km to go although in China terms that is just around the corner. Today I passed into Guangxi Zhiang province. I think this is the 9th province I have passed through. It has been fascinating to see the differences between each area. Each province is like an individual country with its own identity in terms of culture, dress and religion. There are a vast array of ethnic groups throughout China practicing a number of different religions. Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity amongst others.
I felt good this morning and made short work of a couple of climbs and then my legs went pop. Took me a little by surprise but apart from the occasional day off here and there I haven't had a proper rest since Urumqi. Maybe it is beginning to tell. The altitude training has clearly worn off. All of a sudden every little hill looked like the Ventoux. No use to anyone. I toiled for an hour and then saw a reservoir on my map about 5km east of where I was collapsed on my handlebars. I took a dirt road hoping it would take me straight to it. It did. I camped on its edge and chilled with the fishermen.
I think today must have been national 'get rid of your fireworks' day in China. In 3 villages I passed through they were letting off fireworks during the day. Scared the living shit out of me in one village when I'd just stopped to check my map. No one seemed to be watching. No other festivities. A bit odd. Pleasant day. Slight tailwind. Made good progress and camped by a river.
Decided to have a short day. One because I am goosed. Two because there is a ton of sport for me to lie down and listen to. Cycled 40km into Bama and found a hotel. Hotels are being funny about foreigners again but eventually found one who were overjoyed about having me and even handed me a note as I was leaving, in surprisingly good english, saying how pleased they were to have an Englishmen stay in their hotel.
Found an excellent minor road that sauntered through the hills. No big climbs anymore. Short ups and downs. Alongside languid rivers and through sleepy villages. Headed down a quiet road at the end of the day and camped on the outskirts of a village. Kid on a motorbike clocked me pitching my tent and a few minutes later half the village joined me for dinner. They bought food and booze along and kept me company for the evening. It only takes a few minutes for me to have used up all my Chinese. From there on in i just smile a lot and pose for photos. This is arguably the greatest thing about cycle touring. The people you meet in the places in between. No tourist would ever stumble across this village. The younger people will have never spoken to a foreigner before. They bend over backwards to make you feel welcome and comfortable. You get such encounters everyday and for me the brief connection you have with people you will never see again is priceless.
I am now in east China. Predominantly rural areas have given way to predominantly urban areas. Everything has gone up a notch. Prices have gone up. From dirt cheap to very reasonable. The villages are now like towns. The towns are like cities. The cities...well I keep well clear of those. The minor roads are now dual carriageways. The main roads are horrendous. Cycling is still good though. With so many roads to choose from it's easy to get away from the traffic. Despite there being a choice of roads I see a lot of new ones being built. When a new road is requested clearly the first question asked is 'Would you like it to be 4 lanes or 5?'
Spent the morning piling down a dual carriageway. Straight road. Nasty headwind. Rubbish conditions for cycling but ideal conditions for 'truck surfing'. It's a little like catching a wave. When you hear a truck coming up behind you pick up the pace. As it roars by it very briefly creates a little air pocket where you are protected from the wind. Now you really accelerate and are able to take some momentum back into the wind which then knocks you back. If you get a succession of trucks whizzing by you can actually maintain your momentum and make light of the headwind. Not something I would recommend as a hobby. In fact I recommend you never try it. Helped pass the time though and kept the kilometres ticking over on my march to Hong Kong.
Excellent day exploring the karst mountains around Yangshuo. Soaring limestone peaks, lazy rivers and apple orchards galore. Narrow roads meandering through peaceful villages. Yangshuo itself is a surprisingly smart looking city with a small town feel. Popular with backpackers. I saw more tourists today than I have in the entire last month. Went to check out the old town but the first thing I saw was a McDonalds so sacked that off and continued south.
I am now making a beeline for Hong Kong. No more exploring. Main roads all the way. I would like to catch up with Ray and family before they leave for the UK on the 15th. It's my old friend Andy's 40th on the 16th. Last but not least my visa runs out on the 16th. 3 excellent reasons to get my ass into gear. 600km to go.
Just going through the motions now as I head for the coast. I am ready for a new country. I've been giving it a lot of thought the last few days. Where next? I will get some rest in Hong Kong and start afresh after Christmas. Options are:
Vietnam/Laos/Burma and then head across India to the Himalayas: Pro's: No flights. Never been to Burma. Indian Himalayas will be awesome. Cons: The Burmese government seems to think ethnic cleansing is OK. Have been to Vietnam/Laos/India before.
New Zealand/Australia: Pro's: South Island NZ will be incredible. I have family/friends in Australia. English speaking. Cons: Australians. A few flights involved. Crazy heat in Australia.
Vietnam/Indonesia/Singapore/Malaysia: Pro's. Not been to any of the south east Asia islands. Can camp on beaches and swim in the sea. Cons: Cycling will be dull.
Go home: Pro's. See family and friends. Drink pints in pubs. Cons: Will have to get a job.
Option 4 is unlikely. Not overly excited by option 3. Between 1 and 2 at the moment. I may of course come up with a completely new option and do that.
A good day. Followed the Xi river on a narrow road devoid of traffic. The main road and the towns were on the other side. I passed by a number of small villages. An interesting glimpse into river life in China. Add in a slight tailwind and it was one of the easiest and most pleasant days I've had in China.
I can't leave this country without giving a big shout out to the Chinese roadsweepers. They are everywhere. I have come across them on 4000m mountain passes in sub below temperatures diligently clearing the road of debris. I have seen old ladies in the middle of nowhere painstakingly sweeping a road that didn't really look like it needed sweeping. They always give me a nod, a thumbs up, a smile or a wave as I go by. The roads are mostly immaculate in China and it is in no small part to the great job these guys and girls do.
I followed the river. I got to the sea. My first glimpse of the sea in 4 months of cycling. A big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in. China finally comes to an end. It has been an incredible ride. The scenery/cycling has been spectacular. The mountains down the middle of the country through Huangnan Tibet, Garze Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan will live long in the memory. The food has been great. The highlight though has been the people. The Chinese are good, honest, hard working folk. In every province I've travelled through the curiosity, encouragement and generosity I've received has made my time here a pleasure. It was very interesting to cycle through Xinjiang at the time of the national party congress. Tightened security in an area tight on security. The congress was considered a mighty success for Xi Jinping as he more than consolidated his position of power. He seems to be a popular leader and has certainly done a lot in terms of economic reform, improving foreign trading and most importantly addressing the corruption that has dogged China for so many years. When I asked people in the east what they thought of Xi Jinping they would smile enthusiastically. However when I asked people in the west they would shake their heads sadly. Xinjiang and Tibet in the west are police states. Fascinating to cycle through but here the people lack the basic freedoms we take for granted. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech. A couple of times I heard Tibetans talk of close relatives that live a few hundred kilometres away that they have not seen for many years because they are not free to travel. A story that could no doubt be told thousands of times by the Tibetan people. A major blemish on an otherwise wonderful country.
Took the boat across the water to Hong Kong and suddenly everything is like home. Hong Kong has more in common with Europe than China. No one gives you a second glance, there are joggers, double decker buses, google works, whatsapp works, its expensive and they drive on the left hand side. I never knew that. Made for an interesting first minute cycling from the pier. Cycled to Ray and Andy's in the hills and got drunk. I will now rest for a week or three and pick up this blog again in the new year. Thanks for reading. All that remains is to wish you all a very merry Christmas...x