|China….We were extremely curious about this gigantic land of more than 1.3 billion inhabitants. At the border, we were greeted by friendly and helpful Chinese who wasted no time in assisting us to push the bikes up the steps of the customs building.It had been a long time since something like that had happened to us. The customs was well organised and managed to sort out the formalities quickly and efficiently.
The road to Kashgar wound through deep canyons with walls of dark red cliffs and similar coloured rivers. The mountains presented themselves in a myriad of varying formations, sometimes full of holes like an Emmentaler Swiss Cheese, or liquid-flowing brown like chocolate mousse, and even made up of coloured layers like a pastry cream tart. Just beyond the border, we saw camels grazing on the pastures,waiting which to be put to use like donkeys for transport.
The children here wear very practical pants: in the middle they are open from the front to the back, so whether the kids are at the market, on the road, or at home, they can do their toilet without any waiting around at all. Spitting and slurping is a part of the culture here and if you sit in the middle of a group of Chinese at a meal, the sound of slurping batters you from all sides as the hungry diners use their chopsticks to raise noodles to their mouths and then just slurp them in!! A real live five-star concert !!
Kashgar, the largest oasis in China appealed to us right from the start. The city boasts more than 2000 years of colourful history, posessing a special oriental flair in the crowded Old Town.Here one can buy just about anything, from needles and camels to potence enhancing medicine made out of exotic reptiles. At the Bank of China, we met Lili, the Swiss motorbiker…a coincidence? Naturally we had to celebrate our reunion with a delicious Pakistani meal. The packet containing spare parts that we ordered from Switzerland arrived no problem at all. After an extensive shopping tour in an enormous supermarket, (since Turkey , that was the first one we’d seen!), we realised we had serious packing-problems. Each of us had to empty out a side-bag to make room for the comestibles we’d bought, which meant completely repacking everything again.
At last we could start on our way to Tibet, riding the first 260km along the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The car-horn-blowing on this main road is unbelievable! Sometimes the drivers blow their horns from one end of a village to the other even though they have complete right-of-way throughout, but after the turn-off on to the Tibet Jinjiang Highway , it all quietened down considerably. From here, the road climbed continuously towards the Karakoram mountain range and we found ourselves pedalling straight into a sandstorm which appeared on the horizon. Right afterwards, it rained down in buckets and our soaking wet feet went all soft like like Swiss cheese in our shoes. We weren’t used to such downpours, and didn’t have time to change in to rain gear We were pretty much frozen stiff by this time so we stopped at the next house we saw and were able to spread out our sleeping mats under the roof of the courtyard. Many curious children watched us intently as we finally got into our sleeping bags and pretended to fall asleep.
In the morning, we packed our feet in plastic bags, then pulled on our wet shoes again but in the afternoon, the sun came out so we spread out our wet clothes to dry while a passing shepherd kept us company After the first „little“ mountain pass, (3250m), we met up with Mandy and Beny who’ve been on the road for over a year riding a tandem bicycle. Unfortunately, they had a stroke of really bad luck during the trip as first the rear hub showed a defect, and in the evening, just as we’d reached 3800m, the front forks broke. That meant only one thing for them; back to Kashgar to get hold of spare parts..We bought almost all of their supplies off them to lighten their load: thermosflask, chocolate, tofu, maccaroni, torch, petrol for the cooker….and.then we prepared a banquet for ourselves this time without any rationing. In the morning it was quite cold because it had snowed in the night and ahead of us was the first pass of 5000m altitude. It began to snow heavily, so we decided to stop about 15 km later at a height of 4350m to acclimatise. The next morning, our bikes and the tent were completely snowed in. As luck would have it, the sun came out and transformed the snowy landscape into a scene like out of a fairytale.. The road, which is normally in good condition on the 4980m high Chiragsaldi pass was soft and slushy due to the melting snow, forcing us to stop quite often to scrape the sludge out from under the mudguards so that the wheels could turn. At the top of the pass, a stormy wind began to blow. With clear weather, it would have been possible to admire the magnificent Mount K2 over in Pakistan , however we dressed quickly in warm, dry clothes and zoomed off down the mountain pass.
After over an hour of downhilling, we arrived at the „village“ Mazar, where there were a few restaurants and shops. All the huts are built right on the roadside and the people live here only to make business. In this village, and in the following ones, we never saw a single child anywhere, and somehow the whoe place seemed to be so surreal, as if it had been made in Hollywood . The landscape around this area is like a desert and very barren, but at the same time totally fascinating with the canyons, pristine creeks, and white mountain tops.
On the way, we passed many camel and yak herds and then we met up with a huge military convoy of trucks, tanks and field howitzers that ended up blocking our way for hours.As they came towards us their vehicles threw up so much dust that we couldn’t see to continue, so we had to wait impatiently.The soldiers however were very nice, waving, grinning at us through their slitted eyes, and one of them even generously shoved a bottle of mineral water in our hands. All day long we rode through continually changing scenery. Especially fascinating was the border crossing to Tibet ,where at a height of 5100 meters above sea level, a large, turquoise coloured lake appeared. As we continued, we often came across herds of tibeten antelopes sporting long antlers,and bounding gracefully about which we found unbelievable because there are no juicy bushels of grass for the animals to eat, and the climate here is relatively harsh for both man and beast. The clear.blue sky, occaisionally adorned with pretty,cotton-wool clouds, seems almost near enough to touch when one is up here on these high plateaus.
The poor condition of the „highways“ left a lot to be desired so for days, even weeks, we bumped along over the stoney, and sometimes deep, sandy ruts of these native roads, cursing silently under our breath, but at times swearing out loud with frustration!! Yes, of course we were here by our own free will,….but despite the hardships, it’s absolutely worth all of it. At night, the temperature dropped to well under freezing point and with the wind-chill factor, everything seemed to be just that much colder, so we usually put the tent up before 6 o’clock in the evening allowing us time to cook a hot meal. Even at such low temperatures,at least our sleeping bags are still cuddly and warm.
At a beautiful camping spot down by a creek, we met up with a fellow cyclist from Japan , called Hayato. He was a 22 year old student on the way back home and we spent a couple of fun weks travelling together with him. In the evenings, we all gathered together in our big tent, feasting on chocolate, biscuits and coffee while singing Swiss and Japanese folksongs by candlelight.
After 24 days and 1250 kilometers of, wind, sun and dust, we were just dying for a warm shower. Now and then we were able to wash ourselves in the ice-cold rivers, but it was really only very basic and had to be quick!! Dusty and stinking, with sunburnt lips and noses, we finally reached the west Tibetan city of Ali / Shiquanhe. An unbelievably smooth, asphalt road begins about 100km before this „paradise“ in the center of nowhere at a height of 4300 meters. We rode the last 50km in each other’s windshadow, one word reverberating in our heads: „Ali! Ali! Ali!“ Straight off, we stopped at a restaurant to enjoy some delicious Chinese food, and then we went off to find a hotel witha toilet and a shower!! We could hardly believe it: running water, and above all, hot water!! What an indescribably pleasant feeling when you finally have hot water streaming over you from head to foot, warming you right down to your bones!!
A few kilometers further on towards Ali, we found ourselves again stuck in „sand“, but by this time we were used to this from the valleys. Many Tibetan farming families have settled here, tending flocks of sheep, goats and yaks.
Occaisionally, some Tibetans asked us for pictures of their religious leader , the D.L. , whereby most of the locals proudly showed us necklaces that they wear with his picture on. In the meantime, it had become icy cold again, and even some of the creeks were partly frozen Although the scenery was magnificent, the bitter, cold wind forced us to pedal even harder to keep up our maximum speed of around 6 to 7 km/hr over the flat „Pampa“, after all, our bikes with all the gear on board are not all that aerodynamic. In most of the villages we passed through, we were able to stay overnight at a locals house for a few Franks a night. One time was especially comfortable: it was a very small village pub, in the middle an oven, fuelled with dried yak or sheep dung, outside of course a billiard table, and us on two long seats where we were allowed to sleepl We were getting nearer and nearer to a range of beautiful, white snowy mountains a perfect invitation for snowboarding, and in the distance, our next destination; the holy Mount Kailesh .
Suddenly we saw it, proud and prominent, rising to a height of 6750 meters above us. From Darchen, the village at the base, countless pilgrims begin their 53km long journey to the holy mountain. Before we got to the village, we had to cross several deep rivers, and in one of them, Nathalie ended up with soaked shoes in ice-cold water. Unfortunately, the hotel that was recomended in our travel guide, had deteriorated completely, the „western toilets“ turned out to be a complete catastrophe, and there was just no trace of a shower. We’d been really looking forward to a good hotel, and of course we were downright disappointed in the end.. Mount Kailash is the holiest mountain in Asia and is the source of four important rivers. Buddhists and Hindus walk clockwise around the mountain, but only the Bön, followers of a pre-Buddhistic religion, walk around anticlockwise. A pilgrim who walks 108 times around the mountain, earns a gauranteed place in Nirvana, and is forgiven of all sins for life.
We soon met up with murmurijng and praying pilgrims who were making their way towards the mountain and soon the first flank of the mountain became visible in the distance decorated with thousands of coloured prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The Pilgrims always leave something behind as a symbolic cleansing of the soul, casting off old troubles, so everywhere around lay pieces of clothing, shoes and even hair, strewn on the ground. We didn’t just leave any material thing behind, instead we gave a scanitly clad monk a pair of thick socks to wear. On the first night, we slept in a cloister from where we had a sensational view of the north face of the mountain. Then on the second day,before reached the top of the pass, we observed pilgrims throwing themselves face-down onto the snow-covered road in religious fervour.
After this three-day march, we were looking forward to the comfortable Tibetan restaurants in Darchar. Actually, the Tibetans live together quite peacefully with the Chinese but at times we noticed some antagonism between the two peoples. For example, a Tibetan from the telecommunications office, scolded us for saying greetings in Chinese, then on the other hand, two Tibetans who helped us to repair the click fastener on our bike shoes, accepted our invitation to drink tea in a Chinese restaurant without hesitation but ended up being served rather hesitantly by the normally friendly Chinese……
We pedalled onwards over bumpy, sandy and stoney roads, our noses pointing in the direction of Lhasa , however it soon became clear to us that with road conditions like this, we would never make it to the capital of Tibet before the 25th of October to obtain our visa extensions. We decided to keep pedalling along, then as soon as we saw a dust cloud behind us in the rearview mirror, signalling the approach of a truck, we would attempt to hitch a ride. On the second day, our enthusiasm with this plan rapidly evaporated as the few trucks that came, just roared past without slowing down, the drivers smiling benignly down at us. In Raga, a small village where the north-south routes of Tibet meet, it began to snow heavily and there at the checkpoint, we related our visa problem to the border police. We encouraged the officer in charge to ask the truck drivers he was checking, if they would give us a ride, and so we sat and waited the whole afternoon in the warm police station while outside it snowed. Unfortunately, the policeman had no luck with prospective rides for us, and so we were forced to pedal onwards, leaving us with no choice but pay an expensive fee for the few days we would be overstaying. We’d already given up all hope of hitching a ride until we met a couple of truck drivers on their way to Lhaze with a load of mineral stones, and they agreed at once to take us with them, loaded us up on the trucks and we were off.
The trip to Lhaze, over a few mountain passes, was 190km and took 12 hours, including a stop to repair a puncture. At two o’clock in the morning, we arrived in the city after having passed a police checkpoint where we and the truck drivers had been reprimanded because it was prohibited for bicycle tourists to utilise any other means of transport in Tibet except for bicycles. After explaining our visa problem, the policeman told us just get out of his sight, and he didn’t have to tell us that twice! We were off!. Luckily we had already obtained a travel permit in Darchen near Mount Kailesh for destinations in Tibet , and we’d paid for the bus too, otherwise we would have been in big trouble. It wasn’t so easy to find a hotel room at two o’clock in the morning, and we didn’t fancy the thought of riding out of the city in this cold to put the tent up, so we brazenly woke up two women who were dozing at the reception desk, and they reluctantly showed us a small room to sleep in. Naturally, we were more than glad to take it.
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