Monday, 21 December 2015 03:15

From the Tiger Leaping Gorge, an old boat takes people across the river from where we headed south and over a huge pass into Yulong Snow Mountain Scenic area a Chinese AAAAA classified scenic area. On the road passing through here, there was already the toll booth where they demanded a hefty fee for entering the park. As we just wanted to cycle through, we spent a long time negotiating and as it was almost dark and starting to rain, they agreed to waive the fee and allow us in. Fortunately we found an old and unused hotel of sorts which offered a dry camping spot and some great views:

 

Inside the park we passed by a pretty pool area from where the shuttle buses to the glacier park left from. The area was heaving with Chinese tourists following their flag wielding guides and wearing thick borrowed jackets so they would not freeze up at the glacier. It was as entertaining watching these people and their selfie taking as it was looking at the rock pools:

The next town on the Yunnan tourist trail is Lijiang which is on the UNESCO world heritage list and famous for its systems of waterways and bridges. More than anywhere else, Lijiang is heaving with chinese visitors and contains a large pedestrian area with 'old' buildings which I personally suspect are not so old. There are flowers growing everywhere and a network of small canals in which young children urinate. It is clear why this is a chinese favourite. The shops have a repeating nature and sell either drums, yak products, textiles, silver or some kind of food. I enjoyed strolling around, but Doctor and Pink Cheeks found the place way too cheesy and preferred to chill in the courtyard of our guesthouse.

 

Heading south the countryside remained attractive, the high mountains became more like hills and we descended to just over 2000m. The scenery is pretty and there is a lot of agriculture:

Erhai Lake is another visitor magnet and again the more sporty Chinese come here with their bikes and ride along the lakeside. It was really relaxing cycling with some constant nice views of the lake:

Dali is the last town on the Yunnan tourist trail and was something of a mix between Shangri-La and Lijiang. Similarly however it also had thousands of chinese tourists jostling down the narrow pedestrian streets.

I had no expectations for the rest of China, but the days cycling south of Dali towards Laos, were also a real treat. The climate became warmer and more humid.  Manjinglancun is one of the larger towns here and is a renowned destination for the migration of wealthy Chinese from the north. In their cold winter time they come here to seek the warmth and indeed in early November it was pleasant in the evening with just a t-shirt.

South of here is a further amazing piece of road construction. Through the rolling hills, a large highway has been built. Huge sections are on stilts or in tunnels. The old road still exists and of course as the spirit of the trip is to avoid large roads and travel the roads less used, this was the choice. It was narrow and went up and down every small hill. In parts it was being reconstructed for whatever reason and became like a mudbath in the rain. Nonetheless it provided several days of memorable riding. The main road would have been much easier....but what is the point in cycle touring if you are riding main roads???

Finally the border was in site and it was almost with reluctance that I passed through the smooth proceedings and crossed into Laos, but not of course before enjoying a final Chinese kebab ;-)

Monday, 26 October 2015 10:47

The following 2 weeks of cycling from Yushu was some of the best cycling we had done. We were blessed with sunny skies and despite climbing passes over 4500m, we could comfortably bike in shorts. The roads were quiet, food good, people friendly and the tibetan culture fascinating. This was certainly no longer China and we were greeted with waves and 'Tashi Deleg'. The first day from Yushu took us to Xiewu where we stayed in the only hotel in town. It occupied a large building in the centre of the small town and the rooms were on the first floor. It had no reception but a couple of guys who took some money off us and showed us to a room. We walked along the decrepit corridor and were shown a room with damp walls and basic beds. It was our only choice. We checked out our neighbours and this is what we found.........



The following day also presented us with blue skies and smooth roads. This evening could not have been more different though. We rolled into Serxu to find hundreds of cars and thousands of people. It was some kind of 4 day festival at the monastry here which is the largest outside of Tibet.

The surrounding meadows were full of tents and amazingly we managed to get a room at the hotel adjoining the monastry. It was a fascinating place and was a feast for the eyes and ears. As the only foreigners in town we were also quite an attraction and had many photos taken - some by more brave people who asked and others simply photos taken at any opportunity. Although not as bad as the Chinese, the Tibetans also offer little in the way of personal privacy.

We continued via Cacagoin and Zhuqin to Garze from where we then headed down the beautiful Yalong Canyon. The road was precariously built at the bottom of the cliff and although generally descending was a tough road with lots of ups and downs. On the other side of the river were various villages and every now and then a suspension bridge would lead across the river.

We camped on that side on a grassy ledge and on our second night in the canyon took advantge of some local hospitality. The people in the small village were very happy to put us up. We were invited into a grand house with typical local architecture where we were fed and given a huge room to sleep in in a seperate building. The whole house seemed set up for entertaining guests and along with us were several monks from the local monastry were also staying there. Sleeping was done on a mattress on the same bench as where guests sat to eat.


Cycling under blue skies and with some cute animals:

Nights were cold however and mornings frosty:

Litang was the next stop where my friend Pink Cheeks finally caught up with us. He had had to buy a new flight from London and this time chosen not to fly via Russia. Litang was a town under construction and nearly all the roads were being dug up. There were lots of cute and interesting shops though, all of which I found had very practical names and were very helpful to the tourist. Certainly the names were much helpful than something like 'Debenhams' or 'Migros'.


After another few days cycling with more mountains we were hit by some bad weather and had snow and rain to negotiate:

We weren't the only ones affected....these poor people had booked an outdoor wedding:

We also slowly came out of the tibetan influenced area and into a section of more mainstream tourism. Shangri-La is the start of this and is a small town being expanded with huge modern buildings. The wooden 'old town' was recently caught up in a fire and many of the buildings which were razed are now being reconstructed. From here we took a very scenic back road to the Tiger Leaping gorge whic now has a government controlled entry on the road demanding a totally unjustified 65 RMB (7 Euro). The gorge itself hwever is spectacular and has an impressive hiking trail partly cut into the wall.

It is a popular hike amongst the more active chinese people and the locals charge a small fee for the use of the trail which passes through their land. We stayed at Sean's guest house which is the oldest in the area and offers delicious food and amazing views of the gorge.

A tibetan face: 

 Tibetan architecture:

Saturday, 10 October 2015 10:30

The road to China was flat with a steady flow of traffic which eased off as the border neared. Leaving Kazakhstan was easy and the customs officer was an older chap who no longer needed a power trip. Instead he chatted to us about our journey for a while and as a token gesture scanned the front panniers before waving us on our way. The Chinese side was also quite easy and the no mans land this time consisted of a 6km long stretch of road that winded around before coming back to around 300m from where it started. The Chinese were efficient and in no time we entered the western side of the border town Horgos which was a concrete jungle with wide avenues, banks, shops and lots of high rise buildings. It was like arriving on a different planet. We certainly had not expected this from the small border town marked on the map.

Having got our first taste of chinese food, we set about finding a hotel. A very helpful man in a restaurant cycled down the busy main street with us and showed us the hotel. After requiring around 10 minutes to establish the price of a room, the owner suddenly made a total U-turn and told us that we could not stay there. Perhaps he did not like cyclists or we looked too dirty? Whatever the reason we had to continue our search. Having been turneed away by a further 2 hotels, we found someone who spoke good enough english to explain. A hotel has to have a special licence to accept foreigners. Most hotels do not have this and hence we could not stay. The only hotel in Horgos for foreigners was back near the border. Not wanting to backtrack we pushed on and camped on the edge of a vineyard. Many of our chosen roads were quiet and often had been taken over for the drying of corn.

The cycling in Western China was ideal with good roads and plentiful food. My now long term travelling companion Doctor Hush Bol and myself spent a few days in Urumqi to plan the rest of the China section and to learn chinese. We found many good teachers and soon were quite fluent in certain areas of the language. Teachers were to be found in coffee shops, restaurants or bars and all were very helpful in teaching us a few words, and those that had a better grasp of english could also explain some of the quite logical and simple grammar.

To get out of the city for a bit, we cycled up to Tien Shan National Park with the hope of a scenic overnight camp at the lake surrounded by mountains. It was mainly a pretty grim ride and it was astounding how much dirty industry and power stations were around. As we got around 15km from our destination, we were turned around by the police who explained in chinese and with hand gestures, that only guests in the official national park bus may continue. There was no possibility of a bribe or negotiation, so we had no choice but to turn back. After a nevertheless scenic camp in a meadow, we headed down to the official ticket office which was a monstrosity of a building with hundreds of national tourists bustling around. We enquired about tickets on the official bus, but learning that these cost nearly 40 euros, we declined and headed back to the city.

This it turns out is a typical chinese tourism scenario. People are packed into groups and made to take some official bus or tour. It was amazing that so many people were paying so much to go up to a lake for a few hours (It is also not possible to stay up there). Judging by how they were dressed to go up into the mountains, they also do not do much other than drink some tea and take some pictures with their 2 fingers in the air.

Fancy national park ticket office:

A friend was meant to arrive in Urumqi on Saturday, however I received the news shortly beforehand that he had been refused boarding in Heathrow as he had no Russian transit visa. Unfortunately, as he was connecting via an internal flight in Russia, a transit visa was necessary which he did not have. No visa = no fly. 

As we had now seen enough of Urumqi, we battled with hundreds of Chinese and bought some tickets to Xining. This was quite a major project and only with the help of a couple of queuing english speakers was this possible. Urumqi is also full of security due to ongoing tensions between the Urgur population and the chinese. There are tanks in the streets, all shops have riot shields, batons and helmets at the door and to get to the ticket office requires x-rays of bags and multiple ID checks. Having got our tickets, we checked in our bikes hoping that we would see them again in Xining..... 

Here a typical shop doorway:


Several hours later we were in the luxury of the soft sleeper down to Xining. This is an excellent railway experience and was a really comfortable way to travel. We had a private 4 berth compartment to ourselves and passed the time with food, sleep, music and the occasional walk to the toilet where we could further practice some chinese.

Waitin for the bikes....luckily they arrived :-)



Xining is a fairly non-descript town with a monastry and acts as quite a busy transport hub. It sits at over 2000m so was good acclimatisation before heading up to the Tibetan plateau.

Xining:

From here we took the overnight bus to Yushu. This was a specially modified bus with 80% reclined beds, 3 abreast with 2 corridors and 2 levels. The bus was comfortable enough and we stowed the bikes safely underneath. We unexpectedly stopped around 2am for a 4 hour break whilst both drivers slept. This meant it took 16 hours to reach Yushu.

Yushu is a modern town as it was totally destroyed in an earthquake several years ago. There is still some construction ongoing, but it is now very welcoming with several hotels and restaurants. It lies at 3700m and is scenically surrounded by some low hills. After a day to recover from the bus journey and acclimatise, it was time to put the panniers back on the bike and start pedalling again. 

Pretty town of Yushu with the monastry in the background:

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