Pilgrims

Summer rains sweep through mountains. The wet earth, once vacant now sprout wild flowers. A bird sings, a group of yaks pass and the sound of footsteps fill the road. Pilgrims. The walk in numbers with large sacks of food and supplies on back, sometimes with a stick in hand. Some pull large carts filled with clothes, cooking utensils and grain, no matter what they carry they  all head for the holy city of Lhasa, more than 1000 km away. Cars too are filled with pilgrims of a different sort, men and women who bring the comforts of their homes and sleep in warm beds. In this way it is easy to forget the world outside and embracing the dreams we all forget at dawn. 

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This pilgrim was prostrating his way, 3 steps one bow, to Lhasa.

Traveling has been very difficult lately. My Chinese Yuan supply has slowly dwindled and it is impossible for me to exchange money. I have therefore been subsiding on the bare minimum (fresh vegetables and cold noodles) and quickly making my way to Yunnan where I hope to find a large enough bank to withdraw funds. Hostels, hotels, and even apples are too expensive right now. The rain makes maters worse as I often spend hours pedaling up steep mountains only to find myself descending into a hail storm.

However it is too beautiful to be inside. Even when I am in the tent at night I want to open the fly and look out into a sky with patches of stars. I am too often invited by locals to stay inside warm wooden houses and each time I look down into forested distance and decline. It will take me several days to get to Yunnan, in the meantime I am riding when I can and when I can’t hiding in my tent beside soft streams.

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Backroads of Sichuan

IMG_2884After graduating college I spent close to a whole year traveling China with my father. It was a time when anything was better than returning to the US and contemplating the next step in life, and traveling seems to occupy those moments in my life. My father too, had plenty to escape, his health was failing and his energy to conduct his antique business had long since left him. We traveled to so many Buddhist temples and holy places that I can hardly remember which ones were interesting and which ones were more like Buddhist amusement parks . Most if not all the monasteries had long since been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and had been replaced with flashy stucco replicas with large plastic golden Buddhas.

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Native grass at 14,000 feet.

During our many temple visits we met a very interesting Tibetan teacher who became a close friend. We spent several days with him at the monastery, then invited him to our home in Guang Zhou. He had a very familiar laugh and a smile never seemed to leave his face. After my father’s death, we continued to keep in touch. He would call at 2 am California time and laugh about the time difference, and repeatedly ask when I would return to China.

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Rin Chen Jer Po Rinpoche and Padma (my Tibetan name)

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An offering. Rin Chen’s monastery in northern Sichuan

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Rin Chen’s village, Zong Mai Xiang

After more than a year of silence, I hesitated, then called him while pedaling south through the deserts of Qinghai. He quickly remembered me and extended an invitation to visit him in Sichuan. It turned out that his home was not too far off my route so I braved a 100 km single track mountainous road to his home village.

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Rin Chen making a call at the only place with service, the nearest tallest mountain pass 4,700 meters.

My friend’s name is Rin Chin Jer Po, who at the age of 19 was told by a senior Buddhist teacher that he had a strong potential in the practice of selflessness and Enlightenment. Immediately after hearing the news he decided to make a pilgrimage to India, and walked to the Holy city of Lumbini in northern India. When he arrived he met his future teacher  and decided to devote his life to the study of Buddhism. After a year in India he returned to his home in Sichuan province and began to teach in China.

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En-Route to Zong Mai Xiang village.

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Rin Chin’s village was almost impossible to find as it is extremely remote and not located on any maps. He gave me the name of his temple and told me that he was about 100 kilometers from a certain landmark. En-route it took me close to a whole day of cycling to and fro on a large highway looking for a small dirt road that would take me his way. Once found I quickly noticed that I would be riding on a road full of muddy pot holes, loose rocks and steep climbs. At times I doubted my resolution to visit him but continued on as he was very good to my family after my father’s death.IMG_3387

When I arrived at his village I spent close to an hour asking villagers about where he lived, no one seemed to have heard the name Rin Chin Jer Po. Did I pedal to the wrong place, I thought? The name of the temple was familiar to most but no one seemed to have heard the name Rin Chin Jer Po. Finally I asked a few monks at the monastery for the residence of the abbot, thinking this was his home I quickly entered expecting to see him. Instead I met a relatively large bald man with a very happy face. I apologized for barging into his home, however he seemed too surprised at seeing a foreigner that he didn’t seem to noticed that I had just walked into his home. I quickly described Rin Chin to him and made a long hair gesture as well as large earrings. He quickly knew who I was talking about and led me to his residence.

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A large Tibetan meal of Blood sausage, boiled beef and beef buns. The yogurt (in bowls) was really good!

Seeing Rin Chin through his second story window brought tears to my eyes and his large smile met mine. My doubts about coming quickly vanished and I was invited into his home and treated like a royal guest. A Tibetan  feast of fresh beef, yogurt, milk tea, and lots of Sampa was soon prepared and a bed in the monastery waited me. It took me a day to get used to Tibetan customs as women do everything for the men; wash their clothes, cook, serve, and prepare all the meals, wash their feet, make and serve tea the daily tea.

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Preparing to eat a large bowl of butter and boiled roots, a Tibetan delicacy!!

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The boiled roots are added to a large bowl of butter, the liquid butter is sipped while the roots are chewed. I must have eaten close to 3 sticks of butter. The white cheese looking like stuff is milk curds.

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Spring has finally sprung at 14,000 feet.

 

I am headed south again, towards the province of Yunnan. It is warm, humid and rainy. Food rarely deviates from Tsampa, boiled beef and buns. My bags are full of gifts from Rin Chen and I must have at least a months worth of Tsampa and butter in a large bag.

What George Orwell can teach you about China

555 Again!!!! I am in the situation where no one can tell me anything. I have cycled over 800 km by route of some of the tallest mountains in China and blocked by a police checkpoint from entering the province of Sichuan by way of Se Da city. Minutes before I watched as a small bus of white tourists with guide passed unnoticed, but as soon as I pedaled closer I was stopped and told to use an alternate route. Another 150 km detour!!

I am now beginning to feel that Chinese tour guides no longer tell one where to go but rather where not to go. There is no information online or from the police department and every time I ask whether or not I can go to a certain place the answer is ” I don’t know”. In some ways I understand, if it were written somewhere that certain cities are forbidden to tourists China would be admitting that there is a problem. Ignorance is strength.

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Large Buddhist Stupa in rural Qinghai

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A long climb

I spent a few days teaching English in a rural orphanage at the Qinghai/Sichuan border. Wandering the streets looking for a place to stay I met the local English teacher who invited me to stay in his room and be a guest of the orphanage for a few days. I quickly learned that privacy and personal possessions are socialized in Tibetan culture as I returned one morning to find that my friend had opened my bag and was using my computer. He smiled and then asked me how to use my I-pod.

The bathroom consists of one deep hole in the ground, no stall, just a roof overhead. On several occasions while using I would look over to see someone standing a few feet away waiting for me to wipe. The mountainous rural villages in southern Qinghai are predominantly Buddhist, with a Tibetan majority. It is quite common for me to find that no one speaks Mandarin, and that I have to resort to asking adolescents to translate. Hospitality is unsurpassed though and I am often invited for tea and Sampa by complete strangers. On one occasion a friendly man gave me a few pounds of Sampa flour, sugar, yak butter and milk curds refusing any form of payment.

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One of my favorite students

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Small Tibetan village

It is quite shocking to observe the complete lack of hygiene. Each morning I watch as chamber pots are tossed on the sidewalk, men and women spitting everywhere (even inside supermarkets and banks), and children with slits in the back of their pants re-leaving themselves throughout.

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Sichuan countryside

I have finally descended to an elevation of about 12,000 feet, and have been in the province of Sichuan now for 2 days. For the first time in 2 weeks I am cycling passed trees, and waking in the morning to the sounds of birds. Nights are so warm that I find myself waking and taking off excessive clothes! On to central Sichuan.

Cycling at 15,000 feet

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Prayer flags line bridges protecting pilgrims in remote canyons

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A Tibetan local, behind is his summer yurt and tent. His summer camp site was well above 15,000 feet.

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An unexpected snow storm. The snow actually acts as a insulator and kept me warm throughout the night. 

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At over 15,000 feet I often find myself short of breath, and have developed a practice of breathing in twice for every out breath.  Skipping or holding my breath for a passing, dusty vehicle is out of the question and leaves me dizzy. I also seem to have developed a deep, dry cough that wakes me at night.

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The culture is primarily Tibetan, with many locals unable to converse in Mandarin. This family invited me out of the rain for a lunch of Tsampa, tea and yak butter pan fried bread. I probably ate close to 2 sticks of Yak butter in 30 minutes.

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Tsampa is a ground flour that is added to milk tea with yak butter. Once finished drinking the tea the flour is mashed into a ball then eaten with more yak butter.

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Many of the villages have seen very little foreigners, and Esperanza loaded for a journey draws quite a crowd.

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These are the coldest nights I have every experienced, every night around 2 am I wake up in a shiver and patiently wait for sleep and the sun to rise.

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Elevation after a steep climb, 4677 m.

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Old man with two grandchildren

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The remote mountains are home to many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

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The sun is fierce and warm throughout the day, but once it falls temperatures quickly fall.

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A cold barren landscape, too high to for trees to grow, and little but small puddles of standing water.

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A small roadside cafe, wild dogs are rampant, and I have been attached several times wild pedaling through villages. 

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A yurt with a yak dung burning stove will keep you warm throughout the season.

Chinese bureaucratic nightmare

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i pedaled past miles of trucks waiting to go through the border patrol.

There is little left for me to do but circle around to the western side Qinghai and hope to cross into Sichuan through the mountains. The entire southern half of Qinghai is close to foreigners. I pedaled a long 60 km into the wind to find a huge border patrol forcing me to return. I asked to speak with the superior officer and found myself in a room with several Tibetan monks sitting on the dirty floor. The superior told me the monks did not have proper identification and had been held in custody for 2 days.

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I was headed south from Golmud and planned to take side roads to Yushu. I am now headed east of Golmud and hope to cross near the yellow river.

I begged the officers to let me through as this was the only southern road to Sichuan. But was repeatedly told that the road also went to Tibet and in order for me to move forward I had to have a permit! Imagine being in California and being unable to visit San Diego because the same road that took you there continued on to Mexico!

After rejoicing the end of my hardships, I am back into the cold windy desert. I will try again to find a southern passage to Sichuan. If I fail I am not sure what to do.

Land of extremes

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Small road house dinner, my first day in Qinghai

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Home Dog Wind, from Guangxi province. He was headed north.

I am now in Qinghai province in the city of Golmud. This morning it was snowing and I looked around to see that I am surrounded snow packed mountains. It is going to be a cold ride south from here, but I hope to find shelter with locals in small villages along the way. The desert was difficult, almost everyday there was a sand storm and temperatures at night dropped below freezing. Local truck stops however carry their own special “Baijiu” (Sake) recipe, and a few sips helped warm me through the cold nights.

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I am so close to Tibet, that could easily make a brief trip over there. That is… if I wanted to book a tour with a guide, confirm with hotel dates and give up my bike. It is currently impossible for anyone without a Chinese passport to enter Tibet independently. Too many protests and riots before and following the China Olympic games. In some ways it would be a sad sight to see, considering that the Dali Lhama has lived in exile since his departure in the late 1950’s.Old potala palace

Tibet’s Potala Palace before Chinese invasion

Modern Potala palace

After

I feel strong yet confined here in China. People, pollution, traffic, noise is sometimes overwhelming and in many ways I feel that I am better of in my cold tent out in the desert. All night and day I can hear the horns from the cars outside my hotel window honking at pedestrians. Mega phones seem to be the new craze, and everywhere I go, supermarkets, side walk corners and city centers they are blasting pre-recorded loops advertising cellphones and sales. Accommodation continues to be difficult, but there is not much I can do.

It is almost June but there is still plenty of snow, cherries are in season and throughout the town there are carts selling kilos for a few cents. Flowers are blooming.  I continue on.

 

The Horizon is a Mirage

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The sky, once blue is now covered in dust. At night I faintly see the moon, a few nearby planets, and the lights of a nearby quarry. It is in these long stretches that I begin to break down. Days of pedaling into a dry mundane desert landscape, with strong gusty winds pushing me across the narrow road. My physical strength wavering brings anxiety, doubt and fear.

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My location is very near Youshashan, in the northwest of the province. I am headed south east to Golmud.

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Small roadside village, Qinghai

In the six days of Xinjiang desert I experienced a wind like no other country. Relentless, dry and full of sand. Sometimes I would stop and cover my face, for what seemed like several minutes while a blinding sand storm passed. Within a few kilometers my teeth, nose, ears and face are covered, and breast pocket begins to fill. A night my sleeping bag feels like a sand box.

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Some friendly Chinese employees working at a remote power station, they served me breakfast and gave me a few packets of tea.

My mood suddenly changed as I got within 100 km of the Xinjiang/Qinghai border. The forever flat desert gave way to steep dry mountains and I began to climb into a fresh cool atmosphere. The wind stayed strong but was no longer filled with dust. Trucks constantly passed and the roadsides were piled high with trash, and un-recycled junk. I stopped at a small roadhouse and watched the few Chinese travels toss their litter into the desert wind.
The air slowly got thin and cold as I climbed to 9,000 feet. I smelled the air for the cargo of the trucks passing; coal, oil, and sometimes hay. Other rather scentless ones carried wire, plastic pipes, and really smelly live stock. On one occasion I was passed by a truck carrying a load of large pigs, as it passed I was sprayed with water but as I looked over I noticed it was a large pig peeing off the side.

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High desert camping, temperatures dropped well below freezing and I awoke to a frosted landscape.

The few people I encounter are friendly and courteous. Being stereotypical one would expect to find weird, socially strange people operating small business in the extreme remote but in China they seem completely normal and treat me with respect and trust.

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Roadside military, my passport and visa would randomly to checked in the most remote locations.   

The remote landscape once a refuge has begun to frighten me. A few sections of my route took me through single-lane roads covered in sand. With no traffic I felt that if I stopped pedaling I may never be found. I push on, I am 450 km from the city of Golmud, if all goes well I should be there in 4 days. There are police check points everywhere and I constantly give false information as to my destination (which is extremely close to the Tibetan border and may potentially be forbidden to foreigners without a permit).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawling into the Abyss

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Bicycle street Urumqi, getting ready for the long desolate road south

I didn’t know it at the time. But I was lucky. I left Urumqi and confidently pedaled south into the mountains. In the distance I could see a storm gathering and the once snow capped mountains were no longer visible. My cadence was sporadic, my chain just didn’t seem to stay in gear. When I got to the lower foothills I took a closer look and decided to turn back, as there was no way I could ride 350 km at my current pace. That night a snow storm covered the foothills, road and mountains and somewhere a landslide closed the main road in both directions.

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A dry summit, after pedaling to the Turpan Depression, 500 ft below sea level, there little to do but go up! A long 50 km climb to the top of this pass.

After following a few Chinese cyclists dressed in Lycra, I returned  to Urumqi and found the bicycle shop area. It was A long alley filled with all sorts of bikes; fat, cruisers, mountain, fixies even unicycles. By that time I knew I needed more than just a chain, so I started asking around. First shop, “no” second shop “no” third “no”. One shop owner told me that most people just buy a new bike when they need to replace a part! And asked me if I wanted to buy a new bike! Finally I came across a small roadside shop and convinced the owner to take the parts off of a bike he was selling. It took a few hours but I got what I needed and installed everything curbside.

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Osh or Pilaf. The Rice a roni’s great ancestor, and large wok cooked in lamb fat, carrots, onion and garlic. 15 yen for a plate with meat, 5 yen without.

Finding a place to stay is so difficult that I contemplated pedaled back out of the city to camp. In some ways there is almost no point in asking how much a room costs as most hotels can not accept foreign guests! I ended up at another 3-4 star hotel and spent 5 days worth of food money on one night! (Couchsurfing is also a problem as most police in Xinjiang do not allow foreigners to stay with individuals). Anyhow, I spent a nice day in the Muslim district and as it was Friday, I pushed my way back into the hub of the Muslin quarter to see what prayer time was like.

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Naan. Central Asian bread. A good piece of Naan is cracker like in the inside, (crispy and crunchy), and bread like (doughy and soft) on the crust. I like the thin large pieces with seseame seeds best. However sometimes I will settle for the bagel looking like ones in the middle because they are sweet! Usually around 2-4 yen a piece. Made fresh daily in a large circular oven.

Traffic was backed up for miles but I weaved in and out, and suddenly I found myself at the largest mosque in the city. The side walks were filled with men sitting, knees down on top of small, colorful, hand woven-carpets, all sitting in silence, waiting for the call to prayer. The road emptied. I watched, listened and prayed, surrounded by devotees and Chinese riot police.

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Deep fried street eats. (Jie tou Xiao chi)

I don’t think anyone could say China or rather Xinjiang was dangerous There are literally police everywhere. All the bus stops, subway tunnels, intersections and gas stations have check points, and the banks, supermarkets, and hotels have guards operating x-ray machines and metal detectors. The presence is extremely noticeable in the Muslim districts and during prayer time there were fully armed riot police waiting for unrest. From what I have heard there were several Uighur riots during the Xinjiang Conflict of 2009 and 2014. Many Uighur openly feel and have expressed that Xinjiang is an independent country and that the Peoples Republic of China is occupying their land. The PRC has responded with a strong police presence and many discriminatory policies.

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Uighur man chops meat for Lagh Mian

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I no longer eat street meat, as I have been sick countless times. However I will still eat the meat pastries.

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Somsa pastries

After Friday prayer most people return to their places of business and rest, but many go to eat! This is the norm for Muslims on Friday, as it is considered the Sabbath. Leaving the Mosque I looked for the most local “hole in the wall” Muslim restaurant I could find and quickly found myself surrounded by Uighur’s sitting at small shared tables.
Considering the situation, and how much I must have stuck out wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses, I surprisingly did not draw much attention. Ordering the norm, a bowl of Lagh Mian I had a conversation with my table mates in Veyu and Mandarin. They told me all about the riots and that the Uighur historic city of Kashgar has almost completely been rebuilt with large Chinese hotels and businesses. I was happy to tell them that I was American and wished them well, I hope that it may lead to a better reputation in the Muslim world. I get a very mixed response from the locals, they are either super grumpy like “Ramadan a full day of fasting and no water” grumpy or they are exceptionally kind. I just wish I could get an idea which is which before I connect.

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Camping among the reeds. I was swarmed by mosquitoes minutes after propping up Esperanza.

Leaving the city once more I crossed paths with a few Chinese cyclists who had recently returned from Lhasa. (Another ethnic minority suppressed by the PRC). They wanted to join me on my route south but I repeatedly declined the invitation and proceeded alone. No matter how lonely the road gets I still enjoy the challenge of doing everything myself.
My new route south took me down to the lowest point in Central Asia The Turpan Depression, 505 ft below sea level. Within a 100 km from Urumqi few hours the weather became hot and dry. I camped in a small oasis areas but found the ticks and mosquitoes almost unbearable.

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Turpan Depression, in some areas there is literally a large hole in the ground

As many times as I have visited China I still find myself completely amazed by the size, traffic and population of the cities. On some days I come across cities tucked away behind step mountains in the far remote corners of the province, completely surrounded by desert. The cities are usually more like “towns” as it is not uncommon to hear someone say “You know… this is not really a city its more of a town…. the population is small maybe about about 700,000 to 1 million people”. These “towns” are being developed at an extremely rapid rate, with large apartment buildings, hotels and universities. From a far I can almost always spot a few cranes and soon to be future apartment buildings. I sometimes wonder, with still so much development how can the economy be doing so bad?

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King of the road. Just another day at a Chinese intersection. There is no country other than maybe the Philippines that is like this. The traffic lights are considered a “suggestion”.

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I am currently in the city of Korla (just below the Tian Shan mtns) headed south east to Chengdu, Sichuan. There is very little in terms of services between here and there.

I leave tomorrow for a long trip through the desert. The Qinghai city of Golmud is 1,100 km from here and I hope to be there in less than 2 weeks.

Cycling the Apocalypse

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Chinese Lah Mian, Hand pulled noodles with stir fried vegetables and lamb, this is where Marco Polo got the idea for spaghetti

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Kazakhstani version pronounced Lag Man in Russian (Not as good)

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Two Uighur brothers selling Naan at the border. The look nothing like the Han Chinese.

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Going down to the valley below sea level

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The climbing the mountain range near Sayram Lake, China. The most scenic point en-route to Urumqi

I am in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The roads have been extremely remote with long stretches between villages. The “Great Fire Wall of China” has made things extremely difficult for me in that all western websites are blocked! I am currently using a strange virtual private network to get around this system but so far this is the worst country for internet use!!! The government also controls all the guest houses and hotels making it hard for me to find a place to stay outside of a large city. It took me 3 hours yesterday to find a hotel, here in the capital that would accept foreigners.

The roads to the city were crazy, think trucks, tractors, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians all jammed onto a small road in the pouring rain. I am headed south from Urumqi to Bayingol and hope to find some smaller less frequented roads.  There are people everywhere here! No mater how remote my campsite is someone always shows up usually yelling into their cell phone. El Nino is in full swing over here and I have witnessed a few flash floods. China requires lots of patience, but at least my grasp of the language is pretty good! I will write again in the next few days but a lot of times even if there is internet there is no guarantee that I can access wordpress and or google. I am sure its a mater of Chinese national security.

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Truck stop in the middle of nowhere. These places make me feel like I am pedaling through the set of some Apocalyptic film.