[hide]To all cyclists… have a look at the Quick-Facts, Route and Elevation-Profile at the bottom of the article
Waiting for our bicycles to be handed out to us at the parcel station, we inhale the fresh morning air of Xining. The city lies on 2250 meter above sea level and after a almost three days train ride we feel released getting back on our bikes. The sight of passing Tibetians with babies on their back, colorfully dressed bread sellers and Chinese businesspeople gives us a first impression of the ethnic mish-mash in Xining. However, when we cycle into the hearth of the city we find out that modern China with huge living complexes and architectural projects is dominating. Being sick of big cities, we use the opportunity to buy food for the next days and leave the city behind us as soon as
Along the smooth main road (to Lanzhou) the construction sites won’t end. This makes our task to find a campsite more difficult than expected. What has been quite easy in scarcely populated Kyrgyzstan turns out to be a real challenge. After dusk we find a small spot next to a field near the road.
The next day, we leave the main road towards Lanzhou and turn into a wonderful valley. As we climb up the mountain slopes we seem to travel in seasons. The road leads us through colorful autumn scenery with people harvesting on their fields and hanging out corn. The further we go the cooler it gets. Then it starts to snow. There are dozens of turns leading up to the the pass.
When we finally reach the top of the pass it is already dark. We are wet and cold from sweat and snow. But we know that we have to ride down some kilometers to find a camping spot. It is here where we realize that our gloves are definitely not proven for winter conditions. The ride down with freezing fingers is very painful and just before we really get to our limits we find a spot to camp.
The next day rewards us for the fatiguing climbing of the day before. We roll down through a beautiful valley with red rocks. In villages with colorful mosques the farmers are reaping grain and vegetables. The crop, that has already been cut down, lays in the road. The farmers spread the chaff crops on the middle of the road, where vehicles would be sure to hit them. This is illegal. There is no other act that so publicly violates both traffic safety and food hygiene. In rural China, though, it is still widely tolerated, because threshing is easiest when somebody else’s tires do the work. We don’t like the idea to ride over food so we stop before every pile and look at the farmers to confirm us that we can pass.
In the town at the bottom of the valley we find sorts of bread we have never seen or tasted before (who has told us there is no bread in China? there sure is!). Besides corn- and the steamed rice-flour-bread there is bread with dates in the middle and curry-bread, some of it filled with nut-paste. Here, people from two valleys meet to exchange their products. The valley we come from is mainly populated by Hui-Muslims and the one we head to, by Tibetians.
After another pass we decide to cycle some extra kilometers to visit Tongren. The monastic town is famous for its Thanka paintings. As the Thanka galleries are closed we ride to the town to find some accommodation.
But in the modern town, hotels are very selective about accepting foreigners. After some search we find a guest-house where the owner is willing to host us for a night. The shabby room and the open-air toilet on the balcony wouldn’t be our first choice but we are happy to get at least a room. Here we find all we need: a backyard for our bikes, a place to wash and a bed.
Ready for the next mountain pass we get an early start. After a tough climb we reach a pass where we are invited to warm up in a hut and have our first butter-tea. After a few kilometers descent we arrive in a mountain village where we realize that the pass before was just a foretaste of the serious mountain pass that still lies in front of us.
Opening our eyes after a good sleep in front of a monastery we look into brown faces and black eyes. Some local shepherds have discovered our tent on their morning walk along the prayer mills. Obviously they are very curious and thus open our tent to see what is hidden inside. We crawl out of our tent and eat our breakfast under observation of the locals. The last climb up to the 3640m pass is an easy task and soon we ride down towards Xiahe, where the biggest Tibetian monastery outside Tibet is located.
The town itself is separated into a Chinese, a Muslim and a Tibetian part and it’s amazing to see the architectural differences in the buildings. By far the most impressive however, is the Tibetian part with big temples, monasteries and hundreds of living-cells for the monks clustered in-between. The religious sites are very busy with red-robed monks walking around and pilgrims praying with intense movements.
The ride down towards Lanzhou is not that spectacular anymore. A lot of construction work is going on along the riverside. However, the next day which we expected to be a lazy day, (just rolling into Lanzhou) surprises. The road winds along the marvelous field patterned hills. It’s a steadily up and down but never really gets into high altitude. We feel relived to be on the last ascent and expect to skip the peak through a tunnel which we find on our map. But we discover that the tunnel is under renovation. Therefore we have to climb the last snow-topped pass. The dirt-road which is definitely not made for heavy traffic is in a horrible condition. It starts to snow again and we have to push our bikes through the mud on the last few hundred meters of the pass. The descent is even worse. Urs’ break pads are completely down and changing them with breaks covered in mud and almost frozen fingers isn’t a easy task. As dusk is near and we don’t want to risk anything we decide to stop a truck and get a ride for the last 30km of the route. Finally in Lanzhou we cycle around the busy city to find a hotel where we can relax and reflect over the amazing trip we had, which often brought us to our limits.
Duration: 12 days in October
Total ascent: 12’540m
Weather conditions: The temperature at this time of the year is definitely a matter to consider!
While it is comfortable to cycle in the valleys, crossing high passes covered in snow can become quite a challenge. We were lucky that we didn’t experience to much snow and none of the passes were closed.
Accommodation, camping sites: Agriculture makes it hard to find a spot for camping and communication is difficult. However there is always places between fields and farmers don’t seem to worry. One night, we even camped in front of a monastery.
Food: Except from the cities where food and restaurants are available everywhere, it is hard to find something else than Chinese snacks (chicken feet are available everywhere).
Water: Rivers carry a lot of sediments which makes water filtering a tiring task but we still recommend it. It’s hard to find bottled water in the mountains.
Highlights: Stupas, Mosques, Buddhist flags and the colorful autumn leaves turn the rocky landscape into a colorful place. We enjoyed the diversity of people as well as the food.
Lowlights: Cycling down from the 3800m snow topped pass after sunset freezing off our fingers.
Traffic: Moderate on the way but in both cities (Xining, Lanzhou) traffic was quite dense. Most annoying are the always honking (friendly gesture) trucks and the three-wheeled brick transportation-vehicles that pass by surrounding us with a black cloud of car-fumes.
Road condition: Except for the 3800m Pass, which is unpaved, the roads are in perfect condition. Many road-workers can be seen repairing, cleaning streets or repainting road-signs.
Bicycle shops: none visited