No details on our route this time, as we have a new (and fairly up to date) map under the “route” section of the blog with the locations of where we stayed so far.
We had a wonderful time up the Tibetan plateau, not proper Tibet (as we wouldn’t have been able to go on our own, without a tour company), but the regions bordering the province which are mostly inhabited by Tibetans. We cycled slowly up and up above the tree-line to moon-like landscapes covered with huge granite boulders (served as great shelter from a snowstorm), to huge expanses of grasslands. We got up our highest pass of the trip (more than 4700m)….at the top, things were a bit anticlimactic, and the wind super strong, that we quickly put on a few more layers and before going downhill. Up on the plateau, we also shared breakfast with Tibetan nomads; learned how to make “Tsampa” – roasted barley flour with yak butter; helped setting up a traditional style black yak wool tent; cycled through Tibetan villages with the houses going from large trapezoidal fortresses (South of Sichuan) to small one-storey mud houses (North-East Sichuan); met a hundred (seriously not an exaggeration) Chinese cyclist on their ‘pilgrimage’ to Lhasa. But we were also chased by massive dogs (one could have gone for my calves, but luckily chose to bury his teeth in my panniers instead – from that moment onwards we are always carrying rocks in our pockets); had many cold nights, waking up to a frost-covered tent and frozen water.
We also had our first more serious gastro (thankfully not the both of us at the same time!) and small injuries (mostly knees…due to wrong saddle position as we discovered later), so we took a couple of buses, and regretting our decision on both times. Especially, as each time we had to fix something on our bikes (they like being stored in the alley between the seats with people having to step and/or climb over them to get out of the bus) and we also had a limited tolerance for the non-stop smoking and spitting during the journey…made us appreciate the cycling even more!
In the low lands in northern Sichuan, we also started running into difficulties to find accommodation in cities. We heard that many places in China didn’t accept foreigners, but we thought it was a myth…It was really bad when we got to Maerkam, and with Seba having almost 40°C fever (I am still surprised he made it without falling of the bike – even sick, too stubborn to hitch a ride!), we really needed to find something quick, and cheap enough to stay for a few days. We asked around for almost 2 hours, all we got were blank stares and “meo” (no or nothing)…we were SO frustrated! Finally we settled for something 4 times the price we usually paid, one of the few places accepting foreigners.
Back on the remote plateau grassland, we went to the beautiful and quiet Amdo Tbetan village of Langmusi, straddling the border between Sichuan and Gansu. This was the last of the Tibetan culture we would get, so we bought a bucket of yak yoghurt, before making our way to Lanzhou. The landscapes also hanged drastically and we went from the green plateau to more arid landscapes, with the hills being terraced to cultivate veggies; from Buddhist prayer flags and prayer wheels to ubiquitous minarets.
After getting our visa extensions sorted in Lanzhou, we took the next night train to Urumqi. Urumqi is a fast growing city (capital of Xinjiang autonomous region), not particularly interesting, but we needed to wait for Seba’s Kazakh visa and stayed there more than 1 week. We loved the huge gathering of people in Liyushan Park on Friday night, where hundreds of people from every age and ethnicity practiced different types of dance, martial arts, singing…
We also entered in Uyghur country, and enjoyed lots of flatbreads, freshly baked in tandoori ovens, and hand-pulled pasta. While waiting, we visited Turpan, a little oasis sitting at 150m below sea level in the desert, surrounded by some really well preserved ancient cities.