CHINA #2 - ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
It will be a challenging month. I have 27 days to ride around 3600km through China and over the border into Kazakhstan. Furthermore rather than taking the easier route skirting around the northern fringe of the Tibetan Plateau, I have decided to go straight over it. I know the sensible choice considering my time constraint would be to take the path of least resistance but I have always wanted to explore Tibet and it should, I hope, be far more interesting than the northern route.
Leaving Kangding, I immediately get stuck in to a 30km climb back up the pass I arrived from. Another 50km of backtracking and I turn off and begin riding northwest through a gorgeous valley of grasslands. I follow a river gently upstream through tiny villages and past several Buddhist temples. The road is wonderfully quiet and relaxed after the stress of all the maniac Chinese drivers on the highway. As the sun begins to dip the weather turns and it begins raining hard. Dramatic forked lightning illuminates the sky ahead and a strong headwind blows up. I quickly push my bike up off the road, and with some difficulty find some flat ground to lay my tent and camp for the night.
The next morning is clear and the wind has relented. As I set off I realise guiltily that I had camped on only 120km. In order to make it through China before my visa expires I have already decided I want to average 140km per day, slightly more than I need but I think it prudent to allow for any setbacks. I set off, determined to get back on track. I ride hard all day, following several rivers as they flow in to successive valleys. I stop briefly at a magnificent temple where I walk clockwise around the perimeter turning literally hundreds of golden prayer wheels. I hope it will bring me luck.
I pass through a number of ghost towns, brand new settlements built in the Tibetan style which have been created for tourism but which have not yet got any tourists. I had seen a number of these further south, but although the architecture is quite beautiful I do not much like them. They feel very hollow and I find it quite sad that as so much of Tibetan culture has been snuffed out by the Chinese it may soon be that it survives only in artificial tourist towns like these where misinformed Han tourists can go to see what they think is ‘authentic’ Tibet.
I keep going until I reach 160km for the day in order to get myself back on target and then camp next to a river, falling asleep almost before my head hits the pillow. The next morning I awake feeling sore, but I am again on the road at first light, spending most of the day following the river gradually uphill before coming to a steeper 20km pass. I grind slowly along and then halfway up I seize the opportunity to put on a sprint and grab on to the back of a heavily loaded lorry as it slowly passes me.
I have given some thought as to whether ‘truck surfing’ in this fashion constitutes breaking the rules of my self imposed ‘bike and boat only’ restriction. In the end though I have concluded that I don’t really care. It’s too much fun, and anyway, they are my own rules. Besides, holding on to the back of a moving truck with one hand whilst steering a loaded bicycle around glass and potholes with the other, all on a steep and winding road, is not as easy as it sounds.
My arms are burning when the truck finally crests the pass and I gratefully let go to take in the view. An enormous plain is spread out below me and an impressive wall of dark rocky mountains stretches into the distance, the peaks capped with snow. A tour bus pulls up and dozens of Chinese tourists file out, snapping a dizzying number of photographs of everything from the gorgeous view to the strange blonde cyclist sitting nearby. I am pestered for selfies until their guide herds them back onto the bus, giving me a smile of encouragement and the gift of a small bag of beef jerky. I fly downhill, quickly overtaking both my tow-truck and the tour bus, and reaching speeds of almost 80 km per hour. I pass the city of Ganzi and camp in a large corn field.
The weather has been dry all day but shortly after sunset it once again takes a turn for the worse. The wind batters down on my tent as thunder rolls around the hills and the rain comes down in torrents. The lightning is right overhead. I cook rice and spam in the vestibule of my tent, pretending not to notice that there is no delay between flash and boom. I take some solace in the silver lining that at least it is not particularly cold, with Ganzi lying at an elevation of only around 3000 metres. For some reason I have always enjoyed camping in storms so it is not long before I am lulled to sleep.
The next morning it is still raining and I find myself surrounded by small puddles of water. My relatively cheap tent, which has already seen almost two hundred nights, is not what it once was. Thankfully the rain fly is still waterproof, but the groundsheet absorbs rather than repels surface water and so my tent has been soaked from the bottom up. I myself have stayed mostly dry on my foam matt, so I use my towel to mop up as much of the water as I can, eat my breakfast and then pack up my sodden tent in the rain.
Although packing up camp under heavy precipitation is one of my absolute least favourite things, I am greatly mollified by spectacular views of the surrounding mountains wreathed in cloud. I climb steadily uphill in the rain for two hours before disaster strikes. A large truck overtakes me on a straight, then only fifty metres ahead attempts a blind overtake of a bus on a tight corner.
This ‘blind overtaking’ on corners is something which has both terrified and baffled me throughout my ride in China. Right before my eyes, the overtaking truck roars around the corner and ploughs straight into an oncoming car. It all happens so fast that I have barely time enough to register, by which time the second truck has also gone into the back of the first. The overtaking truck has ridden right over the car and its wheels are on top of the drivers seat.
I reach the scene moments later. Both truck drivers are unharmed but I cannot even see the driver of the car beneath the crush of metal and I have no doubt that I have just watched someone die. Additional cars arrive shortly afterwards and several people are soon talking quickly onto mobile phones so I know help will be coming, though I fear that little can be done other than to clear the road. Half a dozen people other than myself saw the accident so I know I will not be needed as a witness, and I will only be in the way if I linger so I sadly wheel my bike around the wreckage and continue on.
I have seen collisions on the roads almost every single day in China, so I am not surprised by what I have just seen. Yet, I am a little shaken for I know that had I been another fifty metres ahead I would almost certainly have been caught up in the fray. It is a stark lesson as to the fragility of life and a reminder to embrace every day. I think a lot about my own mortality for the next hour, about hopes and dreams, about the importance of the now and the folly of living a life for the future. Because you never know; you might not get a ‘later’. It occurs to me that if I had been caught in the crash and killed, I would have absolutely no regrets. I would rather risk death doing something I love than risk life doing something I don’t.
I have a lot on my mind as I ride on. I reach the pass, descend and then immediately begin climbing again. As if in response to the awful scenes of the morning the weather is miserable all day. Grey cloud blots out the sun and a strong headwind stirs from the northwest. Intermittent rain further dampens my spirits until the road turns to dirt and I finally reach the top of a long and bumpy pass.
The sun is beginning to set and I don’t have time to descend so I hike my bike even higher up above the pass to find flat ground, finally camping at around 4900 metres to one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. It has been a long day with over 3000 metres of climbing into the wind and I am tired but elated as I sip a cup of tea and look down at the world around me. The sense of space is incredible and I have goosebumps as I watch the sun go down. Moments like this one make it all worth it, moments that take my breath away and make my heart quicken.
The night turns bitterly cold at such high altitude and I wake in the morning to a horrible freezing sleet. It shows no signs of stopping so I hastily pack up and begin making my way down from the pass. The sleet has me sodden in minutes and, exacerbated by the driving wind, the cold seems to go through right to my very bones. My gloves are woefully inadequate so I am forced to stop every minute or two during the descent to stick my numbed hands under my armpits to regain some feeling; I am having to lean hard on the brakes to safely navigate the slippery dirt road. I eventually make it down, where the temperature has risen and the sleet turned to rain. The mountains around me are topped with snow and cloaked in white cloud making for a truly magnificent vista.
The next few days are all of a kind. I begin riding at dawn and pedal all day into the freezing and unrelenting winds. The sky remains almost completely overcast and it rains often, the water driven straight into my face by the wind. The landscape is dark, barren and desolate and the road follows rivers up out of progressively wider valleys only to quickly fall down into the next. There is little traffic and few signs of life, with mostly only a few yaks populating the land. Nothing grows except for very short yellow-brown grass which covers the hills. I see very few people or cars, though I do sometimes see groups of Buddhist monks.
Every day I pass a number of small Tibetan settlements, simple shabby buildings often consisting of just a single room, inhabited by people who often look as worn and weathered as their surroundings. It is a staggeringly harsh place to live. I stop a few times to accept invitations from Tibetans to join them in their homes, usually for cups of butter tea and tsampa, a powder made from barley mixed with sugar and water and rolled into balls. Although our communications are usually limited to smiles, hand gestures and confusion, I enjoy the experience and am always touched by the gentle kindness and warmth of the Tibetans who open their homes to me.
On the other hand, I am becoming increasingly irritated with many of the people I am encountering on the road. Many times every day I am subjected to motorbikes coming up behind me, pulling alongside and then slowing down to gape open mouthed at me for several minutes. One particularly annoying chap follows me for a good twenty minutes before finally becoming bored at my refusal to do anything entertaining. Even the orange-robed monks, who make up the majority of the people I encounter, are no better when it comes to courtesy.
I am used to attracting stares and can understand how rare it is for these people to see westerners, but the form of attention I am receiving often feels extremely rude and inconsiderate. Another young man who pulls alongside holds out his hand to me, ostensibly for me to shake. When I go to shake it however he waves it at me in the Chinese gesture for ‘no’ and rubs his thumb and forefinger together, accompanying this with repetitions of what is apparently the only word he knows in English: “MONEY!”
I am continuing to see accidents on the road every day, the unceasing rain making the roads slippery and the visibility poor. The brutal headwinds continue day and night, sapping my strength and significantly slowing my progress. In order to hit 140km per day I am having to ride almost non stop from sunrise to sunset. The road is almost never flat but always at a gradient and I climb several passes every day. It is fortunate that I am by now well acclimatised to the altitude for I am now rarely below 4500 metres. From time to time I see empty oxygen canisters strewn by the roadside, discarded in the traditional Chinese fashion by altitude sick tourists.
Because the landscape is so dark and dull I am also becoming bored by the monotony. I have not had a conversation in days. The perpetual headwind, the constant cloud, the cold, the rain and the rigours of my daily mileage; it all combines to make me feel more and more irritable. One afternoon I am passing a small settlement when three big dogs suddenly come racing after me, teeth bared and snarling ferociously as they try to snap at my legs.
This has been a common occurance in Tibet; I am not worried overmuch by the dogs themselves but rather by the risk of rabies, which is potentially fatal. On this occasion however all of my built up frustration is released as I stop and let out a primal roar of anger at the top of my voice. All three dogs immediately stop in their tracks and back off, looking utterly stupified. My throat is sore but I am feeling better as I nod to myself and continue to pedal obstinately onwards.
Three days before the end of the Plateau I awake feeling terrible. I have a splitting headache, feel weak and worst of all seem to have gotten food poisoning. I vomit both before and after breakfast and am getting sharp stabbing pains in my stomach. Feeling supremely sorry for myself, I pack up in the usual rain and set off into the usual wind. Slowly, and with regular breaks, I make it up to another pass at just under 4800 metres, where the rain turns to hail. I do not pause but immediately begin descending, though because of the wind I am still forced to pedal hard downhill, gritting my teeth against the stinging hail.
I end the day on only 125km, having had what I consider to be one of the most miserable days of my life. I have no idea how I have managed to hit even 125km. Regular toilet and vomit stops have broken up the gruelling ride into the freezing wind, and my head and stomach continue to ache. I feel incredibly weak and have had to push up some of the steeper hills. I have had cold wet feet all day, just as I have every day for the last week, with no sunshine to dry out my socks and shoes.
Under these conditions I must confess that I am not enjoying the Tibetan Plateau. It has become a test of physical and mental endurance. The landscape is monotonous and dull, and the perpetual grey has become depressing. I am running out of energy. I finally fall asleep feeling low but determined, telling myself that I have only two days more to the city of Golmud, which at less than 3000 metres will be significantly warmer and will signify the end of the Plateau and the start of the second, much easier part of my race through China; the Taklamakan Desert.
As I have travelled further west it has got progressively colder every day and my tent has been hammered by powerful thunderstorms every night. The temperature is now below freezing and it is lightly snowing at dawn. I have slept for over eleven hours and mercifully wake feeling much better. My stomach is still delivering stabbing pains but my headache has gone and I no longer feel sick. Best of all, my appetite has returned. When I don’t want to eat, I REALLY know I have a problem.
The snow brings out the beauty of the Plateau and I am pleased to find that my mood has greatly improved. So much of the challenge in a trip like this is mental and it is so important to bounce back from bad days and stay positive. I ride hard all day to make up for lost miles, remembering to smile as much as I can. Although the ride is tough and I am greatly fatigued, I am still very happy to be here.
The Tibetan Plateau is one of the most desolate places on Earth. It is a wild place, a harsh place, but I also feel incredibly free here. Most of the time, the silence is undisturbed and I am the only human for miles. Even the bland monotony of the hills and valleys has a cold beauty to it. The Plateau has made me feel small and helpless; overwhelmed by the vast expanse of such bleak landscape and the power of the elements. But when I look up and see birds of prey circling overhead, or crest a pass to views of spectacular rocky mountains on the horizon, I truly feel the wonder of this place.
I finally come out onto a plain so wide that I cannot at first see the other side. I draw closer and make out a wall of snow capped mountains in the distance: the Kunlan Range, which forms a palisade along the northern boundary of the Plateau. The end of Tibet in sight at last. I watch a spectacular sunset over the mountains from my tent, put on every piece of clothing I have, including my raingear and even my towel, and burrow down into my sleeping bag. I sleep poorly becuase of the temperature, awaking at dawn to find the temperature is -10C, the coldest I have ever encountered. The wind, which has not let up for more than a week, has somehow got even stronger and the wind chill saps the heat from my body leaving me struggling to function.
I set off quickly, eager to get pedalling in order to warm up. I reach the crossroads and turn onto the Qinghai-Tibet Highway where the traffic immediately increases tenfold. It is still below freezing as I fight into the wind and slowly grind up the last pass in Tibet. The road is potholed and narrow so I am regularly blasted off the road by the many huge trucks roaring through. The Chinese army seems to be mobilising too, for I pass a seemingly endless convoy of more than five hundred trucks and armoured cars coming the other way. Trains glide past on the nearby railway, loaded with tanks, and several helicopters fly past overhead.
I reach the final pass at 4768 metres and stop to catch my breath and savour the moment. It is still beautiful, but this pass is different to most of those I have overcome in Tibet. It is swarming with tourists, most of them heading east on the highway towards Lhasa. Trucks thunder past endlessly, shattering the silence. Everywhere I look, selfies are being snapped. My own road through Tibet has been so far off the beaten track that I have almost always had passes to myself. Indeed I have almost always had the entire place to myself. The Plateau has challenged me, pushed me to the limit, but it has been MINE. At least for a while. And that is what has made it special.
I begin the long descent through the mountains and off the Plateau, feeling a little cheated as I am still having to pedal hard into the wind. At least the sting of this is tempered by the breathtaking mountains to my right; after more than a thousand kilometres of terrain dominated by gradual brown hills and grey sky, the spectacular glacier-strewn row of mountains under a brilliant blue sky is all the more breathtaking. Tibet has saved its best for last.
I pass by several military bases as well as dozens more army trucks until finally I turn away from the gorgeous white peaks and down into a landscape that is strikingly different from anything I have seen before in China. Rocky, crumpled brown desert mountains surround me; mountains which I imagine as belonging to somewhere like Afghanistan. I had no idea mountains like this would be found so far east. It is a shocking departure from anything I have ridden through before and I am grinning like a child as I gaze around in wonder.
It is amazing how suddenly these mountains have appeared and how quickly the terrain has changed. The place is truly awe inspiring. I roll down through steep canyons and past rivers and vibrant lakes. The sky is clear for the first time in what seems like forever and I am overjoyed to feel the sun on my skin once again. As I lose altitude the temperature increases and I am able to shed some of the layers of clothing in which I have been cocooned for the last week. It feels so good to be warm again! I watch another stunning sunset and then camp hidden in a small canyon only 90km short of Golmud.
If I am hoping for an easy finish I am to be disappointed however, for during the night my food poisoning episode resurges with a vengeance. Several times I wake to excruciating pressure in my stomach and am forced to burst from the tent to squat and relieve myself. The remaining ride down to Golmud in the morning is unpleasant. The scenery remains beautiful but I have to stop regularly to run to the toilet and my stomach ache is very painful. In order to cure myself I have decided to fast for the day, drinking lots of water and Coca Cola in order to flush myself out, a makeshift treatment that has worked for me in the past.
I leave the mountains and come down into the start of the desert, a vast expanse of flat nothingness as far as I can see. I finally reach Golmud intending to check in to a cheap hostel, but unfortunately in China only certain hotels are allowed to accommodate foreigners, and I learn that in Golmud the only places I can stay are extremely expensive hotels that are well out of my budget. I therefore stay only long enough to buy food and pick up some new pedals to replace one of mine which is packing in. I then ride west out of town to camp in the desert.
My Coke fast seems to have worked as my stomach has recovered in the morning. I climb out of my tent and eat my celebratory Snickers whilst watching the sun rise orange over the sands as it finally sinks in. I have actually done it! The Tibetan Plateau is behind me, conquered. Everything has been against me; rain every day, devastating and unceasing headwinds, even my stomach has betrayed me. But I have made it through. I am even on schedule – I have managed to cycle almost 1700km through Tibet in only 12 days and hit my target of averaging 140km per day. I now have 15 days to ride the remaining 1900km to the Kazakh border and as most of that will be through the desert I am expecting the road to be fairly flat. The hard part, I figure, should be over.
The Tibetan Plateau has been a battle. The weather, and particularly the wind, has made it an ordeal beyond anything I have endured before. But it has also been beautiful, and it has been very special to me. I have had to push myself harder, both mentally and physically, but I have come to realise that we are all capable of so much more than we think. I am stronger for the challenge and am glad that I did decide to go over the Plateau rather than around it. It has been an experience which I will never forget. It was worth the fight. It doesn’t always have to be fun to be fun.