Arriving in Paradise.

Kashgar -> Irkeshtam -> Sary-Tash -> Osh -> Bishkek.

Paradise found, Astrid looking at the stunning view.  (Photo by Neil @ H2Htrip.com)

Paradise found, Astrid looking at the stunning view. (Photo by Neil @ H2Htrip.com)

The road signs were all now in Mandarin, Uighur, English and Russian.  It would be two days until we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, yet the excitement of a new country filled us with energy.  There are two international border posts near Kashgar, the Torugart Pass – stunning and stunningly expensive due to Chinese permit requirements, and Irkeshtam where the Chinese border checkpoint is in Ulugqat – 142 kilometres from the actual border.  As I have often said, things in China are rarely based on logic.  We chose Irkeshtam and pedalled out of Kashgar early in the morning hoping to make it to somewhere near Ulugqat.  Two days earlier as we cycled the last 20kms downhill into Kashgar, we expressed our dread at the 20km backtrack to the turnoff.  Funny how after some rest, what we thought would be a painful climb was now a quick morning cycle.  Since Google Maps last visited the area, a new road (an extension of the ‘dirty 30′) has been built – right through the centre of many small Uighur villages.  As usual the road has been fenced with barbed wire and trying to get off the road to purchase food and drinks was difficult.  So too was getting back on, therefore we cycled along the secondary road for a while and just as we found an entry ramp the skies opened up and it started hailing.  While golf ball sized pieces of ice fell from the sky, we scrambled down an embankment to sit it out in a irrigation tunnel.  Now we had experienced it all – searing heat to constant rain, dust storms to hail storms.

Cycling out of Kashgar.

Cycling out of Kashgar.

Signs in Mandarin and Uighur.

Signs in Mandarin and Uighur.

Watching the rain clouds come over.

Watching the rain clouds come over.

Our last campsite in China.

Our last campsite in China.

Neil keeps the fire stoked to cook dinner.

Neil keeps the fire stoked to cook dinner.

That evening as we sat watching the rain storms roll in over the mountains, the last of our stove fuel ran out (thanks to the petrol paranoia) and dinner was cooked on a fire that had to be constantly tended to.  Our love for China was waning and the next day it was skating on thin ice.  First there was the final flat tyre on the ‘Dirty 30′ 2 kilometres from Ulugqat; at the checkpoint we were to discover that they had banned hitching rides in trucks to the border; now we had to hire two taxis (at twenty times the price of a truck) to the border so that our three bikes would fit; the officials at the checkpoint sat us in a waiting room for over an hour for an unspecified reason; they wanted to x-ray all our gear and bikes before leaving but didn’t look at the screen (we refused to dismantle the bikes to put them through the machine); our driver displayed the usual fantastic driving skills that all Chinese seem to possess (most of our trip was spent on the wrong side of the road); when we made it to the actual border the officials were on their three hour lunch break; and after spending an hour sitting around, approximately 50 metres from the crossing, our driver raced to the border and gave us less than five minutes to unpack our bikes and gear and put them together as he had to hand in our paperwork.  By the time we had cycled the five kilometres through no-mans land we weren’t sure what to expect on the other side, but it had to be better than what we had left.  And it was!

Cycling the road to Ulugqat.

Cycling the road to Ulugqat.

Waiting for an unknown reason - better eat a peanut butter sandwich.

Waiting for an unknown reason – better eat a peanut butter sandwich.

Yep, that's two bikes in the boot of the taxi.

Yep, that’s two bikes in the boot of the taxi.

The last of the dry barren hills for a while.

The last of the dry barren hills for a while.

Waiting for the border guards to open the gate after their 3 hour lunch break.

Waiting for the border guards to open the gate after their 3 hour lunch break.

Cycling through no-mans land, hoping for things to get better.

Cycling through no-mans land, hoping for things to get better.

Kyrgyzstan is paradise.  The change is immediate.  The landscape is no longer a barren desert with brown hills, but green fields and rivers surrounded by snow capped peaks.  You can actually drink the water from the streams.  You can buy petrol without needing a permission slip from the police.  You can camp wherever you want – so we did.  After purchasing some fuel from a small village about 5 kilometres from the border, we pedalled up a hill and decided that our first camp in Kyrgyzstan should be on an open grassy plain with a view of all the mountains surrounding us.  We celebrated with cups of tea and a hearty dinner.  Basking in such beauty we couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces.

Passing the caravans that surround the Kyrgyz border post.

Passing the caravans that surround the Kyrgyz border post.

We loved Kyrgyzstan from the moment we arrived.

We loved Kyrgyzstan from the moment we arrived.

Celebrating Paradise.

Celebrating Paradise.

With views like this from our campsite, how could we not love it here...

With views like this from our campsite, how could we not love it here…

Sunrise on our first full day of cycling in Kyrgyzstan.

Sunrise on our first full day of cycling in Kyrgyzstan.

Sary-tash is the closest big village to the border and our next place to pick up food supplies. Being only 80 kilometres away we assumed we would be there by the next afternoon.  Kyrgyzstan would teach us that our perception of our cycling speed and distance would need some serious adjusting.  Xinjiang had been relatively flat and over the last month we had lost our ‘hill legs’.  This too would need some serious work which we discovered as soon as we set off in the morning.  We undulated over hills, down into valleys, just to climb back up the next hill.  The gradients were steeper than anything we had encountered since Laos, usually about 9% for all you cyclists and engineers.  Altitude was also playing its part, as we had climbed while driving the 142km to the border.  As our legs and lungs burnt, our eyes feasted on the never ending grandeur of the countryside.  The snow capped 6,000m peaks that border with Tajikistan were on our left, rocky smaller peaks to our right, a red river below us and green rolling hills between.  By lunchtime we came to the end of a climb that had been going on for a couple of hours.  From here we sailed down into a grassy valley dotted with yurts and animals.  The summer life of the nomads was in full swing as they rode their horses and donkeys, herded their livestock and milked their horses to make the country specialty – kumuz (fermented mares milk).  Greetings were exchanged with everyone we met and the kids were super excited when we passed by.

Perfect cycling road!

Perfect cycling road!

The red and blue waters of river ways combine to make a good fishing spot.

The red and blue waters of river ways combine to make a good fishing spot.

Rolling green hills surround us.

Rolling green hills surround us.

The yurts of the Kyrgz nomads.

The yurts of the Kyrgz nomads.

View to our right.

View to our right.

And the view to our left.

And the view to our left.

Jude is just about to reach the top of the long morning climb.

Jude is just about to reach the top of the long morning climb.

By mid afternoon it was decided that we were in no hurry and that a grassy patch next to the river looked particularly inviting.  I also had some bike maintenance to attend to – my chain was sounding as if it was about to snap and my rear breaks weren’t working.  The tents were pitched and we settled in to the slow life.  More cups of tea, some tinkering with the bike, some reading and writing, some staring at the scenery and more cups of tea.  Heavenly.

Astrid loving it here.

Astrid loving it here.

The road is shared by bikes, donkeys, herd animals and the occasional car.

The road is shared by bikes, donkeys, herd animals and the occasional car.

Nomad's yurt and livestock.

Nomad’s yurt and livestock.

Friendly locals and Russian tourists.

Friendly locals and Russian tourists.

Many children request to have their photo taken.

Many children request to have their photo taken.

Time to stop for the day and enjoy the scenery.

Time to stop for the day and enjoy the scenery.

Our homes.

Our homes.

Morning life in Sary-tash was just kicking off as we rode in.  Needing supplies we stopped at the first magazin (what they call the local shops here) and squealed with delight at all the produce we could buy.  Cheese, they actually had cheese!!!  Now I knew we were in paradise.  It would be another few days until we reached Osh and we didn’t know about the availability of food along the road, so we stocked up on all the staples and a few extra treats – yes cheese and chocolate are back on the menu.  Then it was time to find second breakfast.  A little restaurant on the village outskirts was the only place open and fortunately the ladies cooking was excellent.  We had been warned prior to coming that the meals in Kyrgyzstan were meat heavy and they weren’t wrong.  Stew of mutton, dumplings with mutton or plov (rice with mutton).  My inner vegetarian wasn’t sure what to do.

Cycling into Sary-Tash.

Cycling into Sary-Tash.

Everyone has their own cycling gear and style.

Everyone has their own cycling gear and style.

Paradise found - CHEESE and SALAMI!!!

Paradise found – CHEESE and SALAMI!!!

Two passes awaited us as we pedalled out of Sary-tash, the first at 3550m and the second at 3615m.  A dog from the restaurant had decided to join us and he enjoyed himself padding along side our bikes and then chasing birds and critters in the fields next to us.  Watching him run with unadulterated joy and abandon, it reminded me of how I feel cycling.  By the time we had reached the first pass we were over 15km from Sary-tash and the dog was still showing no signs of going home.  Luckily, as we sped down the hill we were able to wave goodbye to our four legged friend who couldn’t keep up.  The next climb was easier and 200 metres from the top a truck waved me down and offered us a lift first to Osh and then to Bishkek.  I was hesitant initially but when the others arrived we made a group decision to catch a ride to save ourselves riding the same route twice (we will return this way to cycle through Tajikistan).

Jude's excited to reach the top of the first pass.

Jude’s excited to reach the top of the first pass.

A mare being milked so 'kumuz' can be made.

A mare being milked so ‘kumuz’ can be made.

Our four legged friend taking a rest at the top of the pass.

Our four legged friend taking a rest at the top of the pass.

The truck that pulled over and offered us a lift to Bishkek (almost).

The truck that pulled over and offered us a lift to Bishkek (almost).

Mohamed helped us to load our bikes in the back and we jumped into the most deluxe truck cabin I have ever seen.  I must admit that if it wasn’t so luxurious I would have been more upset about the fantastic downhill we were missing.  When Mohamed stopped for prayer time we had a wash in the river next to the mosque, an hour later he pulled over and made fresh Brazilian coffee for us, we abused the police when they pulled him over just to collect a bribe (police corruption is huge here), and an hour out of Osh he out manouvered us by buying a melon and Snickers for us when we wanted to get him a watermelon to eat that night when his fasting ended (due to Ramadan).  Unfortunately Mohamed was heading to Bishkek, just not for a few days. So we had him drop us off at the turn-off just before Osh and after Jude turned down his second marriage proposal (don’t tell people in Central Asia you’re not married), we pedalled into town to enjoy some R&R city style.

In the luxurious comfort of Mohamed's cabin.

In the luxurious comfort of Mohamed’s cabin.

Cycling into Osh - yes Jude is swerving to avoid being hit by a car despite having right of way..

Cycling into Osh – yes Jude is swerving to avoid being hit by a car despite having right of way..

Relaxing in the local park.

Relaxing in the local park.

Osh bazaar where you can buy anything from a shipping container.

Osh bazaar where you can buy anything from a shipping container.

Relaxing with other travellers at our favourite outdoor restaurant.

Relaxing with other travellers at our favourite outdoor restaurant.

After the soulless mega-cities of China, Osh was a breath of fresh air.  Old buildings stand side by side with Soviet era greyness, people swim in the river that runs through the centre of town, couples walk in the shade of tree filled parks and children play on the footpaths.  The bazaar is made from shipping containers and it’s bustling with people buying and selling everything from spices to t-shirts with the Kyrgyzstan flag, the most delicious pecans in the world to the handmade felt hats that the local men wear.  Men and women sit on day beds in outdoor restaurants drinking cold beers while shashliks are being barbequed over coals nearby.  Women sit on the side of the road with big kegs of iced tea, kvass or kefir, and locals stand around drinking it to provide relief from the heat of the day.  Mashutkas (the local minibuses) are the only things that seems to be in a hurry here and the pervasive feeling is one of relaxed calm.  We spent our days chatting with other travellers in the rose lined garden of the TES guesthouse, wandering the bazaar, swimming in the river, and drinking cold beers and eating shashliks at our favourite restaurant in the local park.  As the song goes ‘Summertime and the living is easy’.

Locals swim in the river.

Locals swim in the river.

So do we.

So do we.

Camping at the TES guesthouse.

Camping at the TES guesthouse.

Neil checking that the bikes are secure on the roof.

Neil checking that the bikes are secure on the roof.

Views from the road.

Views from the road to Bishkek.

While in Osh we made a plan for our remaining three weeks in Kyrgyzstan.  Visas needed to be applied for in Bishkek and as most of the ones for Central Asia are date specific we needed to map out the next few months too.  It was decided that we would catch a shared minivan to Bishkek to get all of the admin stuff sorted and then we could skip over to Karakol, a town on Lake Ysyk-Kol, and from there we would cycle back to Osh and then on to Tajikistan to cycle the Pamir Highway.  The following morning we squeezed into the minivan with four others and a baby, our luggage piled in the back and our bikes strapped to the roof.  Bishkek was a whole days drive away and from the backseat we would learn that the drivers here are crazier than the ones in China.  For 12 hours we sweated in the back, our legs aching from not moving, wishing we were cycling through the stunning countryside that we were passing by at breakneck speed.  But we made it and that night we pitched our tents in the backyard of Nomad’s Home guesthouse, the place we would call home for the next five days.

Camping at Nomad's Home.

Camping at Nomad’s Home.

Jude celebrates COFFEE!!

Jude celebrates COFFEE!!

Excited by the care package send by Heide - dried food for the Pamirs, chocolate and more!!

Excited by the care package send by Heidi – dried food for the Pamirs, chocolate and more!!

Rest day coffee break.

Rest day coffee break.

Bishkek is a fun, vibrant city that we cruised about exploring on our bikes.  Grey soviet buildings are hidden by the myriad of parks that dominate the city.  The errands we had to perform found us cycling through all parts of town, bouncing our bikes along the back streets in desperate need of repair, the houses reminding us of the older suburbs in Melbourne.  After spending the last 11 months in Asia it was nice to again somewhat blend in with the locals, as the population of Kyrgyzstan cities are as culturally diverse as those of home.  Being Eid al-Fitr embassy opening times were changed and luckily we still managed to procure our Tajikistan visa.  To enter the Pamir Highway requires a different permit (a GBAO) which normally corresponds with your visa dates.  Unfortunately the embassy was only issuing one week long GBAO permits at this time (later that week it was only 5 days or not at all).  The route we want to cycle will take us at least three to four weeks so we have employed an agency to help us procure a longer permit – we will only find out the length in 10 days time.  Besides running errands and catching up on all the little things (like this blog) we have spent a good amount of time just relaxing and hanging out with other travellers.  It really feels like a home away from home, another reason Kyrgyzstan continues to be paradise.

Street art.

Street art.

Cheeky beers at Steinbrau.

Cheeky beers at Steinbrau.

Chilling out with other travellers.

Chilling out with other travellers.

Mika cuts the locks off - best haircut ever (Thanks Mika!).

Mika cuts the locks off – best haircut ever (Thanks Mika!).

Tasty homemade treats.

Tasty homemade treats.

More cycling in paradise to come (yes that's Jude!).  Photo from Neil @ H2Htrip.com

More cycling in paradise to come (yes that’s Jude!). Photo from Neil @ H2Htrip.com

The shifting winds of Xinjiang

Dunhuang to Kashgar

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Xinjiang sits in the far west of China, a province dominated by desert, skirted by momentous mountains and filled with ancient tales of the silk road traders. Culturally it is barely China at all, populated mainly by the Uyghur minority, a Turkic people from Central Asia. They look different from the Han Chinese, speak a different language, their food is different and most follow Islam. There are tensions between the Uyghur’s and the Chinese government which have often spilled over into bloodshed in recent times. While I won’t go into the politic’s any great detail, I will say it is here that we began to feel the force of Chinese paranoia, insecurity and control. From being moved on by the police, seeing security camera’s in Uyghur towns, barred petrol stations, x ray machines in shopping centres and having our passports scrutinised on numerous occasions.

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The Northern Silk Road

We left the oasis town of Dunhuang with a heavy heart, at least I did. The break had been wonderful, almost too wonderful and it was hard to get going. I was having a rare blue day, where I missed my friends and family a lot. Cycling however, often makes things better. There is something about being on the move that clears the soul and lets the light back in. At first we pedalled passed lush vineyards, crops and the small mud dwellings typical of this part of China. This soon gave way to the starker, dry desert landscape full of bare brown hills. As the afternoon wore on the lovely tailwind suddenly turned and violently spun in our faces, dark clouds flying towards us. A sign of things to come. Quickly we pushed our heavy bikes behind some hills and made camp.

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The next day saw a rainy morning that had us sheltering in a petrol station. It was also the first time we had to give i.d. to buy petrol for our stove. Another sign of things to come. Once the rain had become less torrential we ventured out onto the G30, the main highway, as there were no more secondary roads. Luckily the road is smooth and the shoulder wide, and the trucks not too annoying. That afternoon we cycled over the border, out of Gansu and into Xinjiang, our last province in China. The landscape was desolate, marred by powerlines, and strangely, a never ending barbed wire fence. Why fence the desert? It was particularly annoying for us as we had to keep cycling until there was a break in the wire and awkwardly manoeuvre our bikes through to find a place to camp.

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Fencing the desert..

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Wind farms in the desert. They may offend Joe Hockey, but we love them.

We thought the previous morning had been wet, but now it poured. After Astrid fixed her flat we pushed our bikes up onto the highway, already wet and exhausted. Heavy fog descended and our visibility was at about 150m. Crazy desert cycling! Eventually it lifted and we slowly dried out. For lunch we stopped at a truck stop, these desolate outposts reminded us of a run down version of the Australian road houses we had seen during our outback leg. They serve immense plates of noodles for about $2, perfect for a ravenous cyclist. The food almost makes up for the human excrement found scattered on the road around these abodes, as it seems truck drivers do not like to bury their poo. Looking on the bright side, it did lead to the invention of the game ‘dodge the poo’. Due to the barbed wire it was difficult again to find a place to camp and we had to make do pitching our tent behind a dirt embankment, not far from the noisy road. Still, it was the first clear night we had had in ages and the sky was amazing.

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Is this the desert?!

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The rain approaches

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One of our camps

The following morning we pedalled into Hami after experiencing the most amazing bread, being gifted cucumbers and having two flats. It only took us 4 hotels to find somewhere affordable to stay and this became our home for the next three nights. It was only supposed to be two but Astrid was unwell and needed an extra day off. Aside from visiting the supermarket and one night out, we were mainly hermits. Long term travel is so different to short holidays, sometimes you just don’t feel like ‘seeing the sights’ but would rather recharge and watch Orange is the New Black in your underwear while eating yogurt.

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The G30

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Into the headwind

Once out of Hami we were a little perturbed to learn that Turpan was 100km further than we expected. The problem with not being able to read Chinese characters. From here on in it grew hot. Really hot. The sun beat down relentlessly, the wind was temperamental, often starting as a tailwind, only to spin around mid morning to become a sheering headwind. Plus we were climbing, often in 40 degree heat, wind in our face. Although the climbs were tough, they afforded views of the most dramatic and beautiful landscape. Petrol stations were our saviour, offering cool drinks and respite from the heat. At night we sheltered under road tunnels because the sun didn’t go down until 10pm (everything runs on Beijing time here) and it remained stiflingly hot until it sunk below the horizon. The day before we reached Turpan it was so hot we could literally cycle only a few kilometres without stopping to rest and guzzling water. Luckily we were on the edge of oasis’ towns and irrigation channels from the snow capped mountains in the distance offered much needed relief. It was remarkable how quickly our clothes dried after being saturated.

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Cycling into Turpan

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After 4 days of tough cycling and a hot, sleepless night in another road tunnel we rolled into Turpan, the second lowest and second hottest place on earth. The cycle in was absolutely stunning and the hostel we found a true refuge. One of the first things I saw when we arrived was another touring bike. A heavily laden one, suggesting a long adventure. The owner did not appear to be around though. Logging on to my email I found a private message from someone responding to a post I had put up on Caravanistan (the place for all things Central Asian). It was from a cyclist called Neil, he had seen my post and wondered whether our paths would cross. It was his bike that stood in the foyer of the White Camel Hostel as he was on a visa run in Urumqi and would be returning the next day. Beers were planned for the next afternoon. Although we were tired, we decided to tag along to see the Minaret in Turpan with two other travellers we got chatting to at the hostel. It was stunning and the first Mosque I have ever been in to. The rest of the evening was reserved for beers and Street food.

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End of prayer time, Turpan

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After visiting the museum in Turpan and learning more about the Silk Road we relaxed until the arrival of Neil the mystery cyclist, a South African living in Taiwan and cycling back to Cape Town (h2htrip.com). There was an instant connection (something about our Southern Hemisphere commonality Neil reckons) and we laughed and shared stories from the road. It turns out Neil (who speaks Chinese) had heard about us, and had even been shown our photo by a noodle lady who had taken our picture. He knew that we were two days ahead and had tried to catch up, but when we turned off to Dunhuang, he had given up. However, because we stayed there so long, we had ended up behind him and now our paths had finally crossed. Neil however was going to Kashgar, not Urumqi and Kazakhstan like we had planned. The more we talked, the more the idea of continuing on the Northern Silk Road with Neil and culminating our China trip in Kashgar, a town that embodies the Silk Road appealed. And for Australian’s Kyrgyzstan is visa free, meaning no lengthy waits for embassies to process our visa (we were looking at 7 days for Kazakhstan). This along with the fact that Kazakhstan is immense and we would not spend much time there anyway, changed our minds and we decided to join Neil. Having the freedom to do this was awesome.

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Outside the White Camel

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Breakfast

So it was the three of us that set off from the White Camel the next morning, both parties happy for the extra company. Astrid and I love cycling alone together, but having someone else along is a lot of fun too. Being the second lowest place on earth we inevitably had to climb. After a cruisey morning looking at the range coming closer, we began to climb. It was hard going in the heat, but drivers gifted us cold water and a massive watermelon. Nearing the top we pulled off and made camp in amongst some beautiful, stark brown hills. Taking encouragement from Neil, we ditched the tent and slept out under the stars.

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Amazing camping

 

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Sand dunes!

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The next few days saw us alternatively climb through beautiful rocky landscape and sailing along the G30. Well, not exactly sailing. More stopping and fixing flats. This part of the highway is notorious amongst cyclist for the staples from the truck tyres that puncture our inner tubes. Our situation wasn’t helped by the fact that our tyres had done over 15,000km and were looking rather worn. Plus, our elderly inner tubes had started to break at the valve, something we couldn’t easily fix. This was complicated further by the fact that our French valves (common on touring bikes) were not common in China and we had been unable to purchase any inner tubes in Turpan. There was some potential for disaster but luckily we were spared. However after having 5 flats in one day I finally conceded and replaced my aged rear tyre with a shiny new one. It was during this time we began referring to the G30 as the ‘dirty 30’ and we tried to avoid it as much as possible.

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Smashing some biscuits

There weren’t always back roads, but when there were we were dually rewarded. They passed through poplar lined oasis villages where we snacked on bread, samosas, cold noodle, and were gifted melons, and dried apricots. At night we camped in tree plantations, or at the edge of fields, the only thing people wanted, was ask us to dinner and to let us know that we could contact them if we needed anything. We slept under brilliant star lit skies, the mountains of the Tian Shan on our right, the immense Taklamakan desert on our left. The people who live on this thin strip of land between these two immense forces of nature, channel the snow melt from the mountains for irrigation, the same way it was done when the caravans passed through these regions a thousand years before. With all its modern infrastructure it is not always easy to get a sense of the past until you get off the main road and spend some time in these villages.

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Camping in amongst some young poplars

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Cooking delicious samosa

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Bread was our staple. So amazing when fresh.

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Curious locals check out Neil’s trailer and bike

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Apricot orchard camping

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Passing a donkey and cart

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So many second breakfast options..

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Perfect cycling

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Bosten Lake, a short cut that turned into more of a side trip

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And the road bloody ends!

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Unfortunately it was not all villages and open skies. This is still China, which means huge, ugly, soulless cities. Korla was one such city, where we stayed in a backpackers for a night. We kind of regretted it and left as quickly as possible. Kuqa was another such monstrosity, but we had decided to stay just outside of it so we could visit the Bazaar the next day. Unfortunately, the police had other ideas. We had been invited to camp behind a small Uyghur village and were just getting stuck into our second cup of tea when the police turned up. Even with Neil’s mandarin we were unable to talk ourselves out of being escorted back into town to a dingy hotel. Apparently it was Chinese law that we stay in a hotel and the village was dangerous. Yep, that 80 year old Uyghur grandpa certainly looked like a killer. The hotel was an absolute dump. I don’t think the toilet had ever been cleaned and ‘man shower’ had piles of dirt in it, and possibly the floor was going to collapse at any moment. And it wasn’t even that cheap. Massive fail.

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Washing time

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Rage. Being made to move

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Police escort into town

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Room of doom and fest

What was even more of a fail, was that the bazaar wasn’t happening till the afternoon. We did not want to wait around, Kuqa felt oppressive and unfriendly, the tension between the police and the Uyghur’s palpable. So we left and cycled into what we named ‘The valley of paranoia’. It was off the G30, a valley that ran behind a mountain range and the massive Tian Shan (pretty much parallel to the G30). We thought it might be nicer than staying on the ‘dirty 30’. Well, it was, except for the police harassment. It’s nothing compared to what the Tibetan’s and Uyghur’s face, but after going through checkpoint after checkpoint, being approached while having lunch, our passports scrutinised and questioned where we would be staying (Neil managed to convince the police we could cycle 200km in a day) all three of us felt uneasy and slightly anxious. We also began to run into problems with our fuel. All through Xinjiang the petrol stations are barred. Drivers must let all of their passengers out and only then can they get fuel. Motorbikes must collect it in a jerry can and walk out to their bikes, which are not aloud in the petrol station. Foreign cyclists are not allowed to park their bicycles inside, nor buy petrol for their stoves, unless they have written permission from the police. Something about petrol bombs. Far out. It would take till Kyrgyzstan for us to be able to buy fuel again. Luckily we had just enough. The ‘valley of paranoia’ was however beautiful. Mostly tree lined oasis villages and right at the end 7000m snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan and spectacular camping.

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No bikes in the petrol station!

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Cycling into the valley of paranoia

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The truck offers some protection from the headwind

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Tired and sick of checkpoints

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Beautiful

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The police find us everywhere we go

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Sunset Donkey

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Camping an amongst the beautiful rocks

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The 7000m peaks of the Tian Shan

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Once out of ‘the valley of paranoia’ Kashgar was within our reach, albeit a long reach. All three of us were tired and looking forward to some days off and we pushed hard to make it in a short amount of days. This meant cycling until nearly 10pm most days. Out in this part of China, we really began to feel the desolate and immense nature of the Taklamakan, as before we had been cycling mainly through Oasis’. In the headwind and heat, it seemed to stretch on forever to our left, inhospitable and threatening. One day we battled it out for 10 hours in the headwind, falling exhaustedly under a train tunnel after 113km. The next day we breezed 172km in 8 hours, a raging tailwind at our back. Xinjiang, wait five minutes and the wind will shift.

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Taklamakan desert in the heat and headwind

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At the edge of nothingness

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sheltering from the heat with Hami melon

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Holding the upside down rainbow. The desert is strange..

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Sheltering from a sand storm in a railway tunnel

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Tunnels offer much needed shelter

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The dry cracked earth..

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Locals pack two melons into Neil’s panniers

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Sometimes you cannot find level ground to camp on!

 On our final day into Kashgar we woke up early, anxiously wondering whether we would have a ferocious headwind to deal with. Luck was on our side as an uncommitted tail/cross wind blew unenergetically. We reached the lively old town of Kashgar in the late afternoon and were no longer in China. Culturally anyway. I have not been to the Middle East but it felt how I imagine the middle east to be. Venders pedalling their wares, sheep being slaughtered, spices, a thousand different aromas, old men in traditional Muslim dress watching the world go by from benches, motorbikes honking, carpets, women in beautiful Hadjib’s, the bustling and chaotic nature of the place was intoxicating. I loved it. We all did. In amongst this was Old Town Hostel, the place we would call home for the next 2 days. Travellers share conversation and beers around a courtyard, discussing routes in and out of China, long distance cyclist’s tinker with their bikes, and when the dorms are full people simply sleep outside on mats. It’s relaxed and wonderful and the three of us felt incredible happy to be there. We shared delicious dark beer, celebrating our epic 12 day 1400km journey along the Northern Silk Road.

We were really and truly on the edge of Central Asia now.

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Camels!!

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Made it!

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Lifting a cow into a ute at the Livestock market, Kashgar.

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Fat bottom sheep. They exists.

All my love

Jude

Wild weather in Gansu.

Wuwei -> Zhangye -> Jiangyuan -> Dunhuang

Amazing cycling.

Amazing cycling.

Rules in China. Either they are followed to the letter or just completely ignored. As a foreigner how do you know which one’s which? When we entered China we were under the impression that we could get two extensions on our initial visa, giving us 3 months to cycle through this amazing country. Then a fellow tourist directed us to the government website where it says you can extend only once. Yet we had heard of others obtaining a second extension recently but only in capital cities. But you must officially apply 7 days before your current visa runs out or else they wont grant you the full month. How to make head or tail of the information and continue to cycle towards Kazakhstan, squeezing in a visa extension somewhere and hoping not to have to leave the country in a weeks time?

The map of this leg of the journey.

The map of this leg of the journey.

Relatively simple is usually the best. (I’ve attached a map so you can see where I mean.) We were in Xiahe and Dunhuang, one of the major crossroads on the Silk Road, was our next major destination. We had six days to cycle there, leaving us two days spare to travel back to Lanzhou to do the visa extension if required. This meant 1,350km to cover in a short amount of time. After much deliberation, to save time, we caught a bus to Lanzhou and then a train to Wuwei, which put us at the entry to the Hexi corridor and on to the Silk Road proper. The trip was relatively uneventful, though we were hassled by the bus drivers because of the bikes (despite organising everything the day before), and the scenery changed dramatically from green highlands to red desert.

Jumping with joy at the South Gate Wuwei.

Jumping with joy at the South Gate Wuwei.

Buddhist Temple Wuwei.

Buddhist Temple Wuwei.

Pagoda at Wuwei.

Pagoda at Wuwei.

Arriving in Wuwei that night was exciting, as it was our first city on the ancient Silk Road. Jude and I have been dreaming of cycling along the Silk Road since the idea of this journey was first born. Like most cities along this road, the ancient temples, gates and alleyways are now hidden amongst the shiny generic buildings of ‘New China’. Our hotel room for the night overlooked the South Gate of the city and as we drifted off to sleep, images of following the path that people, goods and ideas journeyed along between China, Europe and India over a millennia ago floated through our minds.

Jude was gifted an umbrella, a sign of the rain to come.

Jude was gifted an umbrella, a sign of the rain to come.

A dedicated bike lane, well sort of.

A dedicated bike lane, well sort of.

The disintegrating S312.

The disintegrating S312.

Despite having a large distance to cover in a relatively short amount of time, we agreed that we didn’t want to miss out on the major sights of the Silk Road. A balance would have to be reached between cycling hard and sightseeing. Waking early the following morning, we explored a few temples before hitting the road heading west. Cycling out of town a slow drizzle began and by lunchtime our dreams of the ancient road had melted with the rain as we passed through industrial areas and flat uninspiring scenery. By nightfall we doubted that we were in the desert during summer, as the rain had not abated all day. Abandoned housing provided the perfect shelter for the night, and we bunked down for an evening of indoor camping.

Camping in an abandoned building.

Camping in an abandoned building.

Re-inspired to be on the Silk Road.

Re-inspired to be on the Silk Road.

We came across an occasional green oasis.

We came across an occasional green oasis.

We squealed with Joy when we saw our first snow capped peaks.

We squealed with joy when we saw our first snow capped peaks.

Fresh and dry we woke the next morning re-inspired by the idea of the Silk Road. With smiles on our faces we set off early and squealed with joy when we saw our first snow capped peaks in the distance. After about 20km a couple on a tractor drove passed, and they waited for us 2kms further on to offer us a ride with them. We accepted their offer, as the idea of riding on the back of a tractor was novel and we thought they were only going 10kms up the road. So we bumped our way along, retying the green fairy to the trailer five times as she kept falling over. The kilometres slowly passed by – 10, then 20, then 30, then 100. We stopped for lunch and our hosts enjoyed the notoriety that bringing two foreigners into the restaurant afforded them. As we couldn’t speak Chinese all questions were directed to them and I’m sure some fantastical stories were shared.

Putting the bikes on the back of the tractor.

Putting the bikes on the back of the tractor.

Retying the green fairy as it kept falling over.

Retying the green fairy as it kept falling over.

 

 

The mandatory goodbye photo shoot.

The mandatory goodbye photo shoot.

The lovely couple waved us goodbye in Zhangye, after the mandatory photo shoot was completed. All in all we had bumped along for 120kms, mostly on dirt roads, going a little faster than we would have gone if riding the bikes. While I was not admiring the amazing scenery I was again wondering about the logic of ‘New China’. The G30 motorway runs beside the decaying S312 on which we had travelled, but tractors, motorbikes and bicycles are not allowed on it. When the S312 finally gives up the ghost, I wondered how the locals are meant to travel between towns using the only transport they can afford.

Dafo Si.

Dafo Si.

Peaceful gardens.

Peaceful gardens.

This building is over 1000 years old.

This building is over 1000 years old.

 Dafo Si in Zhangye houses a spectacular wooden reclining Buddha in a temple that dates back to the Western Xia dynasty (1098 A.D.). It was phenomenal to see an original structure and Buddha dating back to ancient times, as almost all of these were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Many of the ‘old’ structures you see in China today are either renovated, or completely rebuilt replicas. While wandering around the complex the rain started again and we overheard a tour guide telling their group that it is a sign of good fortune if it rains while you are there. It probably is for the locals, but we were beginning to wonder if the daily rain would be a feature of our mid-summer desert crossing. Not so fortunate as a cycle tourist.

Excited to meet some French cycle tourists.

Excited to meet some French cycle tourists.

On the road out of Zhangye.

On the road out of Zhangye.

Cycling into the headwind.

Cycling into the headwind.

The desert landscape.

The desert landscape.

Following the S312 next to the G30.

Following the S312 next to the G30.

Fortune was also not smiling on us when we attempted to find some accommodation. As we were to experience many times during our stay in Gansu and Xinjiang provinces, being a foreigner is a hindrance when looking for accommodation. In large towns we would spend 2-3 hours looking for a hotel that would accept foreigners, if they did the price was usually way over our budget, and despite being the 2014 edition of the Lonely Planet, most of the recommended hotels were either being renovated or no longer accepted foreigners. After our seventh rejection we were getting frustrated and soaked, and were about to cycle out of town to camp when I happened upon a rather plush hotel that would accept us. We did blow the budget and but we made the most of it.

Hot days into a headwind.

Hot days into a headwind.

Excited to find water after making the rookie mistake of not carrying enough in the desert.

Excited to find water after making the rookie mistake of not carrying enough in the desert.

A whole lot of nothing.

A whole lot of nothing.

Ruins alongside the road.

Ruins alongside the road.

Service stations provide the opportunity for water and snacks in the desert landscape.

Service stations provide the opportunity for water and snacks in the desert landscape.

Gansu district is China’s renewable energy homeland, having loads of sun and constant strong winds. Strong winds can either be a blessing or a pain in the arse, and for the next three days it was the later. While cycling through the open desolate landscape we battled a constant headwind, receiving reprieve only at the small poplar tree lined oasis towns that we occasionally cycled through. The going was tough, but our campsite for the night more than made up for it. Ruins from days of old were scattered along the side of the road and they provided the perfect shelter for our tent. Cup of tea in hand we watched the sunset colour the sky and the snow capped mountains that dominated the skyline to our south.

Our camp sheltered by the ruins.

Our camp sheltered by the ruins.

Sunset tent.

Sunset tent.

Desert sunset.

Desert sunset.

The view out of tent in the morning.

The view out of tent in the morning.

The weather remained volatile the next day with morning heat, afternoon windstorms followed by cold rainy weather. Along the freeway between Jiuquan and Jiangyuan we were battling a ripping crosswind with side wards rain, when a 4WD pulled out of a service station that we were passing and ran straight into me. As usual in China the driver had pulled out on to the road without looking for traffic. As I hurled a barrage of abuse at her, she stood there smiling and nodding like the idiot she was. Being hit by a car ratio – Astrid 2: Jude 1. Battered and bruised we continued on and were accosted by a group of Chinese cyclists. They led us to their bicycle shop where we posed for the mandatory photo shoot and then we played the ‘find a hotel that will accept foreigners’ game. It took 3 hours and we vowed to camp for the rest of the trip unless we knew of a backpackers in the town we were passing through.

Riding out in the morning.

Riding out in the morning.

Another oasis town with a stunning view.

Another oasis town with a stunning view.

Mandatory photo shoot with the Chinese cyclists.

Mandatory photo shoot with the Chinese cyclists.

During the Han dynasty when the Silk Road was at its peak, Jiangyuan was the gateway between China and the badlands to the west. A fort was built and the great wall was extended to keep the barbarians at bay. Sections of these structures remain, but as with all things ancient in China they were getting a thorough facelift. The fort was nice to see, but not worth the extortionate entry fee (in my opinion). With the continuing headwind we only managed 40km that afternoon. Setting up camp that night we discussed how amazing a tailwind the following day would be and we put a request out into the universe. Would it work?

The dirty salmon would have fit right in during the Han dynasty.

The dirty salmon would have fit right in during the Han dynasty.

East gate to the fort.

East gate to the fort.

Walking the fort walls.

Walking the fort walls.

Bok bok loves the fort.

Bok bok loves the fort.

You can see where the reconstruction has occurred.

You can see where the reconstruction has occurred.

Tunnel to the centre.

Tunnel to the centre.

Outside view.

Outside view.

Rising in the morning we put our heads out of the tent and checked the wind. During the night it had changed direction and we were ecstatic. We packed up quickly and hit the road, covering kilometres in half the time. By mid morning it had swung again, but we held on to hope as the road was changing direction soon, providing us with a tail wind again. In the distance we could see hundreds of giant wind turbines, and I was reminded of the current Australian governments idiocy when it comes to renewable energy. That afternoon we flew. Passed wind farms, passed Silk Road ruins, passed bizarre land formations, finally stopping on the side of a giant lake. A beautiful campsite should always be taken.

Small villages dot the road.

Small villages dot the road.

This night we requested a change in the wind direction - would it happen?

This night we requested a change in the wind direction – would it happen?

Houses provide good shelter from the wind.

Houses provide good shelter from the wind.

We sure are in the desert.

Wind farms in the desertt.

Hundreds of wind turbines on the horizon.

Hundreds of wind turbines on the horizon.

Still excited about ruins.

Still excited about ruins.

We had covered 165km that day and we had 160km to go until Dunhuang. The challenge was set.   In the morning we could see a multitude of storms on the horizon. Our day was spent trying to outride them for as long as possible and when they hit we bunkered down in tunnels, drinking cups of tea and reading books.   Despite storm induced delays we arrived in Dunhuang by the early afternoon. We celebrated with food and beer before attempting the frustrating search for accommodation – the place we had planned to stay no longer existed. During our search we located the large group of cyclists that we had heard about a few days earlier from cyclists going in the opposite direction. It was great to chat with them about their adventures and before we knew it the sun was setting and we still had nowhere to stay.

Taking full advantage of the tailwind.

Taking full advantage of the tailwind.

Camping on the lake was beautiful.

Camping on the lake was beautiful.

Storm on the horizon 1.

Storm on the horizon 1.

Storm on the horizon 2.

Storm on the horizon 2.

Storm on the horizon 3.

Storm on the horizon 3.

Storm on the horizon 4.

Storm on the horizon 4.

At 10pm we checked into Sha Zhouyi International Youth hostel, the place that became our home for the next six days. It was time to relax, well sort of. There was still that little visa issue that we needed to take care of. So which rules apply? Seems like you can get a second visa extension in our experience at this time. We arrived seven days before our visa expired as required by the government, to be told that in Dunhuang they only accept extension requests the day before the visa expires. After being provided every excuse under the sun as to why they could not help us we made a last-ditch effort and typed into Google translate “is there any way that you can help us please?”. Well it worked. We were sent off to the photography studio, had the forms issued and were asked to return in 3 days time to lodge the paperwork. Score!!!!

They skies cleared and we were happy.

They skies cleared and we were happy.

Looking hot in blue.

Looking hot in blue.

Covering the last 160kms to Dunhuang.

Covering the last 160kms to Dunhuang.

The main reason for our detour to Dunhuang was to visit the Magao Grottoes. 25kms southeast of Dunhuang, there are 735 caves carved into a 1.6km stretch of cliff face. The frescoes on the walls cover a thousand years of Buddhist paintings, the change in styles and content was fascinating. There were over a thousand Buddha images in each cave, and the colours and details are still vivid. The caves must be visited with a tour guide, and luckily we were the only English speakers there at the time, so we had our guide Michael all to ourselves. He told endless stories and filled our head with the history of this magical place. We did get to see the famed ‘library cave’ where 50,000 Buddhist manuscripts had been discovered and due to the instability of the time “sold off” for a pittance to opportunistic explorers from Europe. The whole experience was incredible.

Jude and our guide Michael.

Jude and our guide Michael.

In front of the Mogao Grottoes.

In front of the Mogao Grottoes.

The view from the outside.

The view from the outside.

A replica of the caves.

A replica of the caves.

A replica of the caves.

A replica of the caves.

What the caves looked like a hundred years ago.

What the caves looked like a hundred years ago.

What the caves looked like a hundred years ago.

What the caves looked like a hundred years ago.

The remainder of our time in Dunhuang was spent drinking cups of tea, organising our visa extension, tinkering with the bikes, preparing for the next leg of the journey, catching up with family and friends via Skype, and exploring the culinary delights of the city with fellow Aussies Jill and Richard. The local burger with as side of tempura mushrooms and a cold beer was an afternoon favourite.

Sunset dinner on the roof of a fancy hotel.

Sunset dinner on the roof of a fancy hotel.

Dinner overlooking the sand dunes.

Dinner overlooking the sand dunes.

Our daily steam bun shop.

Our daily steam bun shop.

Steam bun goodness.

Steam bun goodness.

Sharing a beer (or 5) with Jill and Richard.

Sharing a beer (or 5) with Jill and Richard.

Talking of cold beer, it’s time to go an enjoy one.

So all my love as always,

Astrid.

Into the Tibetan World

 Chengdu to Xiahe

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Tibet. It seems to endlessly fascinate westerners and draw us in with its remoteness, isolation and mystery. There is something particularly captivating about Tibetan Buddhism and culture and I have met few travelers who do not dream of going there one day. Sadly, it is now almost impossible to go to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) unless you have a mega amount of funds. Gone are the days of being able to cycle to Lhasa as a westerner, sneaking passed checkpoints in the dead of night. The crack down has been all encompassing and I don’t know of any non Chinese going to Tibet on bikes these days (unless with a very expensive tour). Luckily for us, the Tibetan world extends far beyond the borders of the TAR (60% of Tibetan’s live outside of it), mainly because the Chinese moved the border and these parts now encompass the high regions of Sichuan and Gansu (also Yunnan). It was towards these high plains above 3000m that we looked with eager anticipation.

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Looking out on the Grasslands

But first we had to get out of Chengdu. The longer you stay in one place, the harder it seems to leave. It took us till midday to roll out of Mix Hostel but the 60km to Dujiangyan did not take us long. The only challenge being the truly awful Chinese drivers. It seems we had been sheltered in Yunnan from this phenomenon, perhaps because we avoided big cities, perhaps because there are less people. Now it became apparent how horrendous it really was. China differs from a lot of the rest of Asia that we have cycled through because on the surface it appears to be more organised. I mean it has the infrastructure to suggest some kind of orderliness, like bike lanes, footpaths, traffic lights, wide, well built roads. These however appear to be only a vague suggestion to drivers, and being in a bike lane doesn’t mean you wont have a car drive at you in the wrong direction, or having right of way when going straight doesn’t mean someone won’t turn into you. There is no awareness of other road users, no giving way, only the horn. Ah the horn. Putting your hand on the horn, basically gives you the right to drive at people, and puts them at fault for not moving. The amount the horn is used appears to directly correlate to the shitness of the driver. More horn equals worse driving. Anyway, besides dodging these zombie drivers and ninja bikes (silent, electric bikes that sneak up behind you) the cycle was quite uneventful. We found a cheap hotel and had dinner using our normal giant baby charades to order food.

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Towards the grasslands we go, climbing gradually from 500m to 3800m.

The next day the bad driving took another turn. For as we climbed out of Dujiangyan we witnessed how the terrible driving caused a traffic jam of several kilometres. Instead of utilising a bit of patience on the narrow, winding road, drivers would start overtaking the line of traffic and inevitably come face to face with oncoming vehicles. Both would slam on the breaks and then get stuck. Yep, stuck. Neither vehicle could easily get out of each others way (no one can really reverse here), they would block traffic trying to turn around and subsequently a huge jam ensued. Traffic was at a stand still. We couldn’t believe it and had quite a laugh. That morning we also cycled passed what had been the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake. It was eerie to see how violently the landscape had been altered, the scars still easily visible 6 years on.

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A traffic jam caused by BAD driving

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Roads in China don’t always make sense..

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Monument at the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake

As it was the weekend, we were not alone on the road. Scores of Chinese cyclists on mountain bikes were with us and after lunch two insisted on chaperoning us the remainder of the way to Wenchuan. Our new companions were a university student who spoke some English and his older friend. They were lovely, although it did feel like we were on an organised tour, our time no longer ours. It was hard to have a pee break! After a long day we reached Wenchuan and because there was a cherry festival going on (we ate so many cherries!) it was difficult to find accommodation. Luckily for our ‘guides’. They were able to secure us an overpriced hotel room just before the skies opened.

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You can see how the earthquake has changed the land..

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Tunnel after tunnel. These are not much fun..

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Our friendly chaperon’s

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All the Cherries

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And even more..

The ‘tour’ continued the next morning. Astrid and I were roused early, our bikes carried down for us. Any hope operating on our own time evaporated. Breakfast was shared and then after a few kilometres we bid our chaperon’s farewell. They were continuing on to a tourist village and then an epic ride back to Chengdu. We were continuing up the valley. The day was beautiful and sunny, we followed a river gradually upwards, stopping for snacks in the small villages. Our camp was made beside the river and we enjoyed a wash and the freedom of being back in nature.

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Breakfast steam bun and rice soup.

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Dancing! Just cycled by this

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Camping by the river

We reached Songpan the following evening as the rain was once again beginning to fall. It had been a long day, I was on the verge of coming down with something and painfully slow, despite the tailwind and gradual nature of the ascent. A hot shower and delicious meal certainly helped. The next day we had a break in Songpan, a morning marked by cups of tea, followed by a stroll through the old town, tea by the river with the locals and a climb to the old fort above the town. It was one of those really perfectly balanced rest days, which can be hard to achieve on the road, because often you are trying to do so many things (washing, maintenance, emailing, skype).

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What a surprise, a truck on it’s side..

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Blow dried Yak with crimped hair!

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Beautiful cycling

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Cute villages

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On top of the ancient wall above Songpan

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High above Songpan

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Looking out on Songpan and where we had cycled from

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The partly rebuilt west gate,  Songpan

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Mahjong and tea, the Chinese way to spend an afternoon..

After shopping for some food and a coffee for me, we hit the pedals. Surprisingly we had learnt from the café owner that we were already at 2800m! The climb from Chengdu had been subtle indeed. From here on in the Tibetan world began to show her face. We climbed more noticeably, it grew colder and barer and we visited our first Tibetan Buddhist Temple. It was so beautiful. I thought I had seen enough temples in SE Asia, but this was different. It captured my heart and my imagination immediately. A few hours after stopping at the temple we reached a pass of 3800m and felt that we had indeed entered the Tibetan world.

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First Tibetan temple made us both extremely happy

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Prayer Wheels

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Higher and higher we go. It’s exciting to see snow on the road.

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3840m!!

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Yak’s equal a happy Jude!!

 From here we descended to the grasslands and herds of yaks and the tents of nomads began to appear. It was beautiful looking across these vast, stark grasslands, hills and mountains to our right and left. It was cold up there and we were grateful for our tent and warm sleeping bag that night. Our cycle across the grasslands continued the next day, the weather was moody and cold. We stopped to take photos of yaks and watch nomads herd these animals on horses. For lunch we crawled under a bridge to get out of the weather.

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First night on the grasslands

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Yak mama

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Endless green..

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Nomads and horses

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Sheltering under the road for lunch

The Tibetan town of Zoige was reached in the afternoon and here we stopped for second lunch much to the amusement of the locals. We also stocked up on more food and then continued on. The weather had improved and we pitched our tent high on a grassy hill with a sweeping view across the plain.

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Epic view from our campsite

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This Yak baby got separated from the herd and started following Astrid and the dirty samon. We had to lead it back to the other yak’s.

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Awesome Chinglish

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Herding Yak’s

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Indeed!

 Langmusi, the town straddling the Sichuan/Gansu border was within our reach the next day and we were steadily cycling towards our goal until a ‘hello, where are you from?” interrupted my train of thought. We get a lot of ‘hello’s out here but generally not one followed by more English. I pulled over and ended up having a 15 minute chat with Yonten, a Tibetan guy who speaks incredible English and runs a guest house. Astrid was up ahead filtering water and when I told her about my encounter we both decided to go back and chat with Yonten. It is rare to be able to communicate out here and we felt it would be amazing to be able to talk more to a Tibetan about what life was like for him. So we turned around and settled into Yonten’s restaurant for a good talk. We learned about the nomads that are soon to be spread all over the grasslands with their animals and tent’s made from yak hide (so far we had only seen a few of this type). He told us of his journey to India, where he learnt English, met foreigners for the first time and started a business on his return. We were given insights into Tibetan Buddhism and life in China as a Tibetan. For him he says it’s okay, even getting better, but up on the plateau, in the TAR it is very difficult. There are many checkpoints with continued harassment of Tibetan’s and restrictions on their religious freedom. Also Yonten spoke of the censorship and propaganda that paints the peace loving, gentle Dalai Lhama as some kind of evil force threatening China. We could have chatted for hours, but eventually we needed to get back on the bikes and continue on our way. Bidding farewell to a truly remarkable individual we felt incredible lucky to have had the experience of talking with Yonten and gaining some small insights into his life and that of his fellow Tibetans.

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Yonten’s Guest House

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Yonten and his dad.

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Relaxing in the sun on the way into Langmusi

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The cycle into Langmusi afforded some incredible views, the town itself was under going some heavy renovations, common for China. The hostel we wanted to stay at was closed, also common for China. We have a very recent guidebook, but things change here so fast, it’s often out of date. Instead we found a room at a small hotel for an okay price. Langmusi is an Amdo Tibetan town and boasts 2 monasteries, from the 15th and 18th Century. It is surrounded by grassy meadows, pine forests and the ever present mountains. We explored Kerti Gompa, the monastery on the Sichuan side the next day. The crumbling buildings of the monk’s residences surround the immense temples, which are protected from the weather by huge drapes, behind which colourful art work can be seen. The insides are dimly lit by yak butter candles, adding to the atmosphere of mystery. The whole experience was other worldly.

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Exploring the 15th Century Kerti Gompa

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Kerti Gompa, Langmusi

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Monastic goat, Kerti Gompa

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Monk’s in the temple

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The Tibetan temples are solid and well protected against the cold weather

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The inside is lit by Yak butter candles, it’s beautiful and other worldly

 Unfortunately, not all our time in Langmusi could be spent exploring monasteries. Making use of the finally decent wifi of the Black Tent Café, we settled in by a window seat to deal with some serious logistical issues. It seems the Chinese government changed the rules on visa extensions last year, effectively meaning we may not be able to extend our visa for a second time. A definite problem. Internet research revealed that we may be able to extend in Lanzhou and after many hours of further research and staring at our China map, we came up with a plan. It would mean compromising the cycling by taking one bus and one train, as well as hoping for a bit of luck, but it was achievable.

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Tea in the tent to start the day

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Selfie with yak

Leaving Langmusi it was back out onto the grasslands, albeit not quite as picturesque at what we had already come through. We camped beside a small stream and then made it to Xiahe the next day. Another monastic town, Xiahe embodies the Tibetan culture. Labrang Monastery in Xiahe is one of the most important in the Tibetan world, a kind of Tibetan equivalent of the top Western Universities. It houses nearly 2000 monks, with chapels, temples and monastic colleges studying theology, medicine, law, astrology and esoteric Buddhism. Around the monastery is 3km of prayer wheels, where pilgrims and travellers alike walk the kora (walking around the outside of the monastery) together. Walking the kora and peering into the dimply lit temples with the heavy aroma of the yak butter candles certainly feels like you are gazing into another world. It is intoxicating and magical, and exactly what I hoped to experience by coming to the Tibetan world.

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Labrang Monastery complex

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Yak butter candle

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Prayer wheel

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Monk’s, Labrang

When we weren’t experiencing the wonders of Labrang monastery Astrid and I were sitting in the Tara Guesthouse Café, chatting with fellow Australian’s, Jinta, Gerhard and Margret. We had met them on our first afternoon cycling into Xiahe and continued to spend many hours together. They were inspiring travelers who had traipsed the globe many years before and their tales were endlessly fascinating. More amazing people to visit when we get home!

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Tibetan ‘buffet breakfast’ at the Tara Guest House

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View over the monastery – it is epic

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Pilgrims walking the kora

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Sadly, our time in the Tibetan world was drawing to a close. We needed to keep heading west, towards the great deserts of Western China and mountains of Central Asia.

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Desert here we come

A rush to Leshan.

Lugu Lake, Xinchang, Leshan and Chengdu.

Half a rest day is never enough.  After such an epic ride, all we wanted to do was lie by the bank of the lake, dip our feet in the cool water and enjoy some time in the sun.  But Lugu had been a planned detour from the direct route to Leshan and as such we were already a few of days behind our planned schedule.  In Leshan a visa extension had to be obtained, and more importantly dad was coming to visit us again.  Yet stunning scenery and perfect weather has a way of capturing the heart and legs, so the continuation of our ride became a slow meander along the lake with a dip in the water to cool off.

Looking up the valley we cycled down.

Looking up the valley we cycled down.

Jude cycling the S307.

Jude cycling the S307.

Our favourite type of camping.

Our favourite type of camping.

By late afternoon we had reached our road (the S307) and we were very happy to discover that we had somehow passed the tollgate without paying the exorbitant fee.  Lugu Lake is at 2500m, so the next 42km was a gradual descent alongside a river, through a narrow valley with steep red rock walls.  Small matriarchal villages dotted the road, where the women held themselves with pride and grace wearing elaborate traditional dress and headwear the likes of which I have never seen.  Camp was pitched between these villages and we spent the evening relaxing in the warmth of the desert climate, a nice change from the frigid weather we had experienced for the last couple of weeks.

The locals checking out 'Martha'.

The local ladies checking out ‘Martha’.

Locals relax in the heat of the day.

Locals relax in the heat of the day.

These women initially thought Jude was a man (wearing a hat and sunglasses), they were very excited to find out she was a woman.

These women initially thought Jude was a man (wearing a hat and sunglasses), they were very excited to find out she was a woman.

The narrow valley we were cycling eventually opened into a basin where nectarine trees were fruiting and corn crops swayed in the wind.  We feasted on stone fruit and exchanged pleasantries with families enjoying the warm morning sunshine.  The downhill could not last forever and before long we were climbing again wondering how we were going to cover the remaining 500 kilometres in two days.  Part of the answer came late in the afternoon, two and a half hours into a long steady climb.  At some road works I had held up a truck and despite constantly honking at me they did stop around the next bend and offer us a ride to Xinchang.  How could we say no?  So the Green Fairy and the Dirty Salmon were lifted into the back of the truck and we spent the next five hours being taught random Chinese words and experiencing what it was like to navigate the narrow, steep, winding, poorly maintained roads in a large lorry.

The valley opened into an open basin.

The valley opened into an open basin.

After cycling downhill it was inevitable that we would climb again.

After cycling downhill it was inevitable that we would climb again.

Choosing which honey to buy on the way up a climb.

Choosing which honey to buy on the way up a climb.

Jude is excited about getting a lift in a lorry.

Jude is excited about getting a lift in a lorry.

Coming down the mountain towards Xinchang we were greeted by shining lights distilled by the orange glow of smog.  The industrial landscape and endless suburbs flashed by and just before midnight we stopped in the outskirts of Xinchang East.  The local English teacher was called upon to help us find a hotel, while our drivers ordered us a feast of food and beer to share together.  At 1am we fell into our beds thinking of nothing but sleep, the planning would have to wait until the morning.

Sharing a meal with our truck driving friends.

Sharing a meal with our truck driving friends.

The special 'giant baby' waiting area.

The special ‘giant baby’ waiting area.

Arriving in Leshan to find out we had 30km to cycle.

Arriving in Leshan to find out we had 30km to cycle.

The distance to Leshan was still too far to cover in a day, so we decided that we should try train travel in China.  The only train heading in our direction was a night train departing at 11:30pm, and there were only hard seats available.  It was going to be an experience.  We spent the rest of the day providing amusement to waiting passengers by doing bike maintenance and trying to figure out how we were to get our bikes on the train.  Being the giant babies that we are, the station master led us through to a special waiting area and then we were assisted by four guards to the platform early so that we could get on the train before the throngs of Chinese piled themselves into the carriages.  The journey was like being on a long haul flight, without seat dividers, the ability to recline or the inflight entertainment.  There was a man selling fried chicken at 4am and when we left the train before 7am we realised that Leshan station is actually 30kms from Leshan town.

Yes, I'm eating Nutella with a spoon in bed.

Yes, I’m eating Nutella with a spoon in bed.

Dad and I at the base of a pagoda.

Dad and I at the base of a pagoda.

The Big Buddha at 71m tall.

The Big Buddha at 71m tall.

The steps to the base of the Big Buddha, with Leshan town in the background.

The steps to the base of the Big Buddha, with Leshan town in the background.

Fisherman on the Minjiang River.

Fisherman on the Minjiang River.

Hot dumpling soup made everything better and after that the pedal into Leshan was enjoyably quick and easy.  We located our hotel (Home Inn) and almost fell off the bikes when we were quoted the price.  It had to be paid as we needed to be properly registered to receive our visa extension and we had organised to meet dad at this hotel.  Fortunately we were able to check in on the spot and enjoyed a nana nap before our trip to the PBS office to put in our visa extension paperwork.  Despite knowing that getting an extension is possible, going through the process was nerve wracking as Chinese rules change at a drop of a hat.  Getting the extension proved easier than anticipated, and it would be available for pick up in two days time.  We celebrated with cups of tea and biscuits, and spent the afternoon relaxing in our hotel room in our underwear.

One of the best signs we have seen in China.

One of the best signs we have seen in China.

Don't joke the monkey, okay?

Don’t joke the monkey, okay?

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Dad and I hiking up Emmei Shan.

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Jude at the base of the next uphill climb.

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On the first day of hiking there was fog all day.

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One of the monasteries along the hike.

After an epic 24 hours of travelling dad finally arrived.  As usual it was brilliant to see him again and I couldn’t stop hugging him.  We indulged in some late night snacks and beer before heading to bed for some much needed recovery sleep.  In the morning it was present time and as you guessed it – CHEESE!!!!  You will all remember the epic cycling adventure that we took dad on last time he visited us in Thailand.  Not knowing the Chinese terrain he opted out of the cycling this time and instead we organised a week of fun filled adventures.  We visited the Big Buddha sitting at 71 metres tall, carved into the cliff face in Leshan; we hiked 21km up Mt. Emmei Shan, spent the night in a monastery and then hiked back down again (I think dad may think we are trying to kill him every time he visits us); we explored Chengdu; visited the pandas; spent afternoons drinking tea at different tea houses; saw the Sichuan Opera and experienced every culinary delight that was available to us.  It was a wonderful week and it passed way too quickly.  Thanks dad for another amazing time together and we can’t wait until you meet us in Uzbekistan.

Jude in front of the Panda Conservation Reserve.

Jude in front of the Panda Conservation Reserve.

Two cuties.

Two cuties.

A bamboo feast.

A bamboo feast.

Patting a red panda.

Patting a red panda.

And that my friends is all from me for now.  Needless to say there was a day of moping in our underwear after dad left.  But the Tibetan Grasslands were calling and Jude will cover that leg of the journey in our next blog.

 

All my love as always,

Astrid.

Dad enjoying the wonders of Sichuan hot pot.

Dad enjoying the wonders of Sichuan hot pot.

Tea drinkers heaven.

Tea drinkers heaven.

Best beers in months! Yes it's an IPA.

Best beers in months! Yes it’s an IPA.

Sharing a cuppa.

Sharing a cuppa.

Breathing the thin air

 

Lijiang to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

 This part of the journey took us from ancient Lijiang through forest and mountains up to the high altitude lake of Lugu on the remote Yunnan/Sichuan border. It remains imprinted on my memory as a time of solitude, surrounded by high peaks, firs and Spanish moss. Of icy thin air, breathlessness, and seemingly endless sweeping views of mountains and blue sky.

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It started like most of our days start, with delicious steam buns and noodle soup. This was followed up by shopping at the market for supplies, before heading off towards Lugu Lake, about 200km away according to the signs. We are however in China, a country that is constructing roads at an alarming rate, and where change is a way of life. It was not surprising then, that our road simply ended with a boom gate and we were directed onto a secondary road. Later we would learn that this route added at least 100km to our journey, and was in use while the main road was being resurfaced. At first we weren’t even sure we were on the correct road, but after asking a man herding cows, we were assured that yes, this was the road to Lugu. We climbed steadily through pine forest and then descended forever to a tributary of the Yangtze. This was followed by an epic winding climb, past villages, rice paddies but alas, no shops. We really wanted a snack! Finally around 5pm we found a small store selling biscuits and drinks, and gorged ourselves and collected some more water to filter. The lady who ran the shop was incredibly fascinated by my hair. This would become a theme in China (people are often more interested in my hair than in Astrid or myself) and it was not long before we decided to give the dreads their own identity. They are now called ‘Martha’. Anyway, after she had admired and photographed Martha, we bid her farewell and continued to ascend. Soon the villages and traffic petered out, and just before dark we made our camp in amongst the pines. It felt so good to be camping again.

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Leaving Lijiang

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Best and cheapest place to shop, the local market.

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The long and winding road

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Biscuit with hole in it is a winner

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Ever upward

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First night’s camp

Continuous climbing through forest greeted us the following morning. And it was cold! Soon we were afforded views of snow capped peaks, and lucky for us, also a small restaurant selling soup. The uphill was making us hungry! It was also where the Chinese tourist buses stopped, transporting the New China. Urban middle class Chinese, toting Cannon’s and wearing Northface, on a whirl wind tour of a chosen province. Something unimaginable a generation ago. Some spoke a few words of English and soon their curiosity overcame their shyness and we were asked what we were doing, and for the obligatory photo shoot. Everyone was so positive and friendly, we really can’t say enough about how wonderful the Chinese are.

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Through the forests

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Loving every minute

Uphill 'rage'

With occasional uphill ‘rage’

In the late morning we passed through a town, where we bought supplies and then, yes, continued climbing. It really was unrelenting, but so beautiful. We began to see firs, some Spanish moss and even rhododendrons. As the afternoon wore on, what was already a lightly trafficked road, became even quieter. We would hear the tingle of cow bells, or spot a herder with his goats. This was the other China, the one forgotten by the 21st Century. As the day wore on we began to feel like we couldn’t get any higher, as we appeared to be level with almost all the peaks around us. The view was incredible. Finally we reached a sign that told us we were indeed high, at 3660m! Both of us were really excited. Until we saw Yaks. Then the Yaks were more exciting. Yaks. Wow. So adorable. I will let the picture’s tell of their cuteness.

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Rhododendron’s with goat.

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Getting colder and colder as we climb higher

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Officially at altitude!

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It feels like we are on top of the world.

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Mountains make me happy

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Yak of awesome

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More yak’s. They are surprisingly agile and were high above the road.

After losing our cool over the yaks it was time to find somewhere to camp. We were so high now, that it was freezing. All the spots we could see were way too exposed. Then Astrid had a brilliant idea. I am the one who has often been accused of being a cave troll, but it was Astrid who came up with the idea of camping in a tunnel under the road. Not only did it have a great view, offered protection, but it also had a place to build a small fire. Not since our days in the Australian outback have we enjoyed a cup of tea in front of an open fire. Perfect.

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The ‘troll cave’

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Enjoying our first fire since Australia

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End of the day ‘cup o’ soup’ from the front of our ‘troll cave’.

Watching the sun come over the mountains from our ‘troll cave’ we both felt that Lugu was within our grasp that day (at this stage we did not know how much longer the road we were on was). A few kilometres further on and a ripping descent began. After almost two full days of climbing it felt amazing (except for my brakes, which are on their last legs and complained bitterly). The views of the Yangtze were incredible and I ignored the fact that we were descending into a basin, surrounded by nothing but mountains. At the bottom, it was hot! We pealed off our layers of clothes and set about finding some food. After soup, ice cream and chocolate we felt like we could almost face the climb out.

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A fine view to start the day

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Is that downhill I spy?

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Yep! Down to the Yangtze.

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Looking like an utter tool, dressed for the chilly descent

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Happiness!

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Mountains all around..

It looked very steep. The road ascended as far as the eye could see. We climbed at first through dry and cultivated land, passed small villages, crops and herds of goats. As the afternoon wore on, the road deteriorated, slowing our progress. Soon, the air became thin and cold again and we were climbing through the most beautiful forest of Spanish moss and firs. It was perfect camping terrain but we both felt we could still make Lugu that day. The light began fading (which meant it was close to 7pm) and our progress was down to 5km per hour due to the incline. Still, we were nearly at the top. The summit was reached as the last rays of the sun were fading from the sky. It was freezing. We piled on clothes and switched on our lights, anticipating around 25km of downhill to go. Unfortunately (or fortunately in this case) Astrid’s dynamo was broken, meaning that her lights were not amazing. Descending down a winding, steep mountain road in the pitch dark, you really want amazing lights for that. So after inching our way down painfully slowly for about 8km Astrid called it quits. It was simply too dangerous without two working dynamo’s, and too cold to continue on so slowly. Although we usually like to hide ourselves well, at this stage we were way too tired and cold to care, and instead pulled over at the first half sheltered place we found, right next to the road. The wind was incredibly cold and the tent was put up in record speed, more layers were added and we scrambled into our sleeping bags. Too exhausted (and cold) to cook, we ate a left over apple with peanut butter for dinner and then promptly fell asleep.

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Down on the valley floor. It’s time to face the climb out..

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And climb we did. All afternoon and well into the evening

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A break from the climbing to filter water and eat a second lunch.

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It just kept going!

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But it was beautiful

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The light fades as we try and make it to Lugu

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Our camp beside the road

The decision not to push on was a smart one. Although we thought Lugu was only another 17km down the road, we were mistaken. Signs on Chinese roads should never be trusted! In the morning we set off on what we believed would be a short 17km descent. This was not to be. Instead we found ourselves in a muddy town, where pigs and rubbish covered the streets in almost equal measure. To this day it’s the only really dirty Chinese town we have come across. We cycled around, looking for the lake and feeling perplexed and relieved that we had not arrived here at 10pm the previous night. Eventually we decided to have some breakfast and ask some locals where we were. Up until then no one had been able to tell us, but after a bit of pointing at the i phone (which wasn’t working properly) and hand directions we figured out we were 10km from Lugu. To two exhausted cyclists, this seemed insurmountable for about 5 mins. After some rage and quiet swearing, I gathered myself together and we both cycled the remaining kilometres to Lugu. Luckily, this was primarily through a flat valley. It was with relief and joy that we finally reached Lugu Lake. We took some time, just sitting in the sun and enjoying the view, which was spectacular.

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Town of giant pig

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Our first glimpse of Lugu Lake. It was worth it.

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Tired but happy to have made it

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Yep, it really is beautiful!

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Lige. Pretty typical Chinese tourist town.

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View of the island across the lake. You can get there via a bridge.

From the initial view of Lugu, in was a short descent to the tourist town of Lige. Here we secured some accommodation and set about dealing with the necessities of living on the road. Which included an immense amount of washing, drying the tent, cleaning our cooking pots, contacting our families and showering. This was interspersed with cups of tea and snacks. Finally in the late afternoon we wandered around the town and sipped some well earned beers while watching the colours changed over the lake.

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Well deserved beer on the lake front

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Some more view of the lake

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And more

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And even more

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Tibetan prayer flags above the lake

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Till next time!

 

 

Time to be a tourist in China.

 Dali, Lijiang, Shuhe and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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We explored the historical cities of Dali, Lijiang and Shuhe.

After cycling through the relaxed back waters of Yunnan, the tourist meccas of Dali, Lijiang and Shuhe were like stepping into a shopping mall on Boxing Day in Melbourne.  It was great to jump in with the crowds and explore the beauty of these (renovated) ancient cities, and then hide away with a cup of tea (or beer) in our guesthouse.  We were to learn that Chinese tourisms is definitely in a league of its own with large tour groups, astronomical price hikes and loads of bling.

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Having a leisurely stroll through the streets of Dali.

Relaxing morning Dali.

Relaxing morning with tea, porridge and a book.

Dali.

Main tourist street of Dali.

Dali.

Full of life and colour

Good coffee is a must on rest days.

Good coffee is a must for Jude, especially on rest days.

South Gate Dali.

South Gate Dali.

Luckily our rest day in Dali meant: no alarm waking us up, a relaxed morning with tea in one hand and book in the other, a leisurely stroll around town looking at the colourful old buildings, good coffee, tasty treats and a reprieve for my bum.  We enjoyed ourselves so much that we didn’t want to leave the next day and a smattering of rain provided a good excuse for a sleep in before hitting the road.  As we cycled out of town the clouds hung heavy over the mountains to our left, while the waters of Lake Erhai sparkled on our right.  Despite cycling along a major road, we enjoyed looking at the fields filled with farmers tilling the land and large groups of women gossiping and planting rice.  Passing through numerous Bai villages we admired the women in their traditional dress and enjoyed spicy hand made noodles and baked bread.  Near the northern tip of Erhai Lake we were passed by a group of cyclists who invited us to join them for lunch where we shared a veritable feast of food we would never have known how to order in our non-existent Chinese.

Our funky hotel in Dali.

Our funky hotel in Dali.

The three pagodas Dali.

The three pagodas – Dali.

Women gossip and plant rice.

Women gossip and plant rice.

Bai women at the market.

Bai women at the market.

Hand made noodles.

Hand made noodles.

Xizhouzhen.

Xizhouzhen.

I’m still getting used to the decisions and concessions we have to make now that we are cycling through China.  With limited time (due to visas) and large distances, our ability to be spontaneous has been dramatically curbed.  Our new cycling friends had inviteded us to join them for drinks at their next stop, but after cycling 15km in the opposite direction from the one we were meant to be travelling, we had to stop and have a serious heart to heart about how we were going to tackle cycling in China.  We decided that changes to our route can be made, but it needs to be in the direction we are going so that we can make it across China in time.

Lake Erhai.

Lake Erhai.

An amazing feast to be shared.

An amazing feast to be shared.

Group photo shoot with our new cycling friends.

Group photo shoot with our new cycling friends.

Threatening clouds followed us that day.

Threatening clouds followed us that day.

Feeling back at home - our first camp in China.

Feeling back at home – our first camp in China.

Back on track along the S221 we cycled for the remaining daylight hours, squeezing in a climb and just before dusk we made our first camp in China.  Hidden amongst pine trees we snuggled in our tent and enjoyed the beauty of being back in our mobile home.  A handful of towns were dispersed along the road to Lijiang where we were able to collect some water and fill our bellies with steamed buns and plates of rice and vegetables.  The valleys we cycled through were abundant with wheat heads swaying in the wind, the smell of roses mixing with smoke as fields were burnt after the cops were harvested.  Roadworks are a constant in China and after sharing 30kms of potholed dirt road with impatient drivers we were excited to find ourselves alone on a new road which became a expresswayway.  Despite big signs saying no bicycles, we thought ‘stuff it’ and cycled passed the toll gates to enjoy 40kms of smooth cycling in to town.

Waiting for our water to filter.

Jude reads the classics while waiting for our water to filter.

Steam bun heaven, especially when we added Nutella.

Steam bun heaven, especially when we added Nutella.

Typical Asia, women working while the men look on.

Typical Asia, women working while the men look on.

Wheat and transport.

Wheat and transport.

Women harvesting roses.

Women harvesting roses.

Jude enjoying the smooth surface of the motorway and the smell of roses.

Jude enjoying the smooth surface of the motorway and the smell of roses.

Old Lijiang town is what my tourist nightmares are made of.  Flashy rebuilds, hundreds of shops selling the same three items, touts trying to pull you into restaurants, food and accommodation triple the normal price, and thousands of people packed into narrow streets and alleys while we try to push our laden bikes to find a place to lay our heads.  Once inside our little courtyard we could relax and breathe again.  Around dinner time we did venture out, but if I had found our earlier foray excessive, Lijiang at night is like a show pony on speed.  It was too much for a couple of road weary cyclists so we ate, we bought chocolate and we hibernated until morning when we could explore the town as it slowly woke up.  In the cool morning air we ate street snacks, laughed at the comically translated signage and became lost in the little alleyways that ran amongst the waterways that meander through the town.

Main square Lijiang.

Main square Lijiang.

Washing day Lijiang style.

Washing day Lijiang style.

The streets run alongside the waterways.

The streets run alongside the waterways.

Enjoying street snacks in Lijiang.

Enjoying street snacks in Lijiang.

Remember that people, shopping should be rational.

Remember that people, shopping should be rational.

Really?

Really?

Ladies preparing tasty treats.

Ladies preparing tasty treats.

As Lijiang was swinging into its daily ritual, we waved it goodbye and cycled north towards the town of Shuhe.  We had read that it was less full on than Lijiang and that there was a cafe/hotel there run by a dutch cycle tourist.  Having no internet access due to the incompetence of Chinese mobile phone providers, we rocked into town not knowing exactly where it was but thought finding the place would not be hard.  Oh how wrong we were.  We spent hours trying to find a place that no longer exists, so much for our rest day.  The chaos continued when our bank card no longer worked and I spent the next couple of hours cycling around trying to find a place that would accept our card so that we could buy dinner and pay for our adventure to Tiger Leaping Gorge the following day.  Turns out we were the victims of credit card fraud and luckily our bank had picked it early.  Luckily we had a back-up and as the full moon rose we treated ourselves to homemade pizza and banana cake.  Tomorrow would be a better day.

Quiet streets in the morning.

Quiet streets in the morning.

Wishes.

Wishes.

Cycling out of Lijiang.

Cycling out of Lijiang.

Towards Shuhe and some snow capped peaks.

Towards Shuhe and some snow capped peaks.

Where is the place we are looking for????

Where is the place we are looking for????

Our excitement was palpable when we woke.  The ladies would have a rest while we headed off for some spectacular hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The bus dropped us off at the trail head and we began our climb along the track that we would be following for the next two days.  Words cannot do justice to how stunning the gorge is.  Every hundred metres we would stop and ogle at the surrounding mountains, the snow capped peaks, the Yangtze River pounding far below.  It was intoxicating.  Banter was exchanged with other hikers on the track and we spurred each other on through the numerous switchbacks and on rest breaks we revelled in the beauty of the surrounds.  Our room for the night had 270 degree views of the gorge and after a few celebratory beers and some dinner we lay in bed and watched the surrounding peaks disappear into darkness.

Trail head to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Trail head to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Harvesting by hand.

Harvesting by hand.

We stopped and ogled every hundred metres.

We stopped and ogled every hundred metres.

I don't know how we got anywhere with views like these...

I don’t know how we got anywhere with views like these…

Walking along.

Walking along.

Yep, it's pretty spectacular.

Yep, it’s pretty spectacular.

Beauty and beauty, ha ha ha.

Beauty and beauty, ha ha ha.

Looking down the gorge towards Shangri La.

Looking down the gorge towards Shangri La.

Snow capped majesty.

Snow capped majesty.

As first light coloured the sky we snuggled into our thick blankets and were grateful for our wonderful life.  The clouds changed from pink to red and the 2000m cliff face opposite us loomed large in the morning light.  We hit the path early catching the first rays of the sun as they peaked over the mountain tops.  Passing shepherds with their goats and a handful of waterfalls, we soaked up the last few hours of high road hiking before heading down the 1600m pass to the Yangtze River.  It churned and roared through the narrow gorge where legend has it a tiger leap to its safety over the river.  The power of the area affected all our senses and we lost ourselves for a while.  On the return hike we took a short cut up a ladder and I clung on for dear life refusing to look down until I reached the top.  By late afternoon it was time to pile back on the bus to Shuhe and our hiking adventure was complete.  As the sun set we walked through town with smiles on our faces and a glow in our hearts.  Tomorrow we would be back on the bikes cycling towards Lugu Lake, but tonight we would sleep and dream of snow capped mountains and tigers leaping.

Jude looks over the mountains and the Yangtze.

Jude looks over the mountains and the Yangtze.

We would have just kept hiking.

We would have just kept hiking.

Jude is an animal whisperer.

Jude is an animal whisperer.

Inspired by thoughts of beer and dinner.

Inspired by thoughts of beer and dinner.

Looking out of our bedroom window.

Looking out of our bedroom window.

Celebratory beer with a view.

Celebratory beer with a view.

Our room overlooking the valley.

Our room overlooking the valley.

The sun's first rays come over the mountains.

The sun’s first rays come over the mountains.

Until next time,

All my love,

Astrid.

(Just a little disclaimer, we are sorry for the long delay between blogs.  Poor wifi, 12 hour riding days and amazing things to see and explore have put us behind by over a month.  After some blog tutorage from some friendly travellers we may be more on top of things this month.)

Skipping passed waterfalls.

Skipping passed waterfalls.

Bok bok at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Bok bok at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Down by the raging waters of the Yangtze.

Down by the raging waters of the Yangtze.

Climbing the 'white knuckle inducing' ladder.

Climbing the ‘white knuckle inducing’ ladder.

Feeling small next to such power.

Feeling small next to such power.

Locals keep donkeys to help tired tourists - if required.

Locals keep donkeys to help tired tourists – if required.

Back in Shuhe - tired but happy.

Back in Shuhe – tired but happy.

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A stroll through Shuhe as the sun sets on another wonderful day.