Rough guide: Total 3-4 months cycling time. Entered China in late spring via the Kazakhstan/China border, Exited via Laos/China border summer time. Cycled the following provinces: Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan. BTW: Make sure to have a VPN, Virtual Private Network installed and working on your computer before entering the the country, otherwise you will not be able to access your email, google, or facebook! Also make sure to carry plenty of Chinese Yuan in remote areas as many banks do not exchange foreign currency and ATMS do not accept foreign cards!
Xinjiang: Taklamakan desert was difficult!! Lots of wind, sand and long distances without water. Finding a secluded place to camp also took excessive preparation. Main highways which at many times were the only options had shoulder barriers which made exiting the road to camp very difficult. Difficult to find lodging in large cities! Small hotels and hostels were forbidden to lodge foreign guests making expensive 4 star hotels the only option.
Qinghai: The high desert begins. Expect long climbs, cold nights and dry winds. Lodging gets a little easier to find. Keep away from any roads that go near the Tibetan border as you will most likely get stopped by the Border police and will be told to turn around. The culture however is very Tibetan in many parts and the people are extremely hospitable.
Sichuan My favorite province cycled! Beautiful green treeless pastures, strong Tibetan culture, Buddhist monasteries, beef, milk, yogurt and Tsampa become the main staple. Lots of climbing, some passes over 4,000 meters, great camping and good spicy peppers.
Yunnan Very touristy in major cities. Entry fees for everything! Accommodation very easy to find, no restrictions on small hotels and hostels. Lots of local tobacco, tropical fruits, and pineapple. Water pipes become very common in local areas, and cigarettes will be offered to you all day long! The cultural transition between China and south east Asia becomes noticeable with lots of jungle foods, sticky rice, traditional clothes, and rice paddies.
Blog entries here
Posted in April 2016
The last few days have been tough. The elements here are extreme. Hot, arid days followed by freezing nights. The wind howls all day and dries my skin, lips and eyes. It is so remote that I could easily wander off into oblivion.
The Kazak people have been very helpful and friendly. I have cycled through a few through villages, and have quickly found strangers with smiling faces. It is difficult starting in such a location as this, and today I was ready to give up. My body hurts! I reflect though that with the right attitude everything seems to fall into place, but without…
I was always taught as a boy to “beware” of border towns, so I will spend one last night in Kazakhstan and cross into China early tomorrow morning.
Cycling the Apocalypse
Posted April 2016
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.
Crawling into the Abyss
Posted in May 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The Horizon is a Mirage
Posted in May 2016
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.
My location is very near Youshashan, in the northwest of the province. I am headed south east to Golmud. 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.
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.
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.
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).
Land of Extremes
Posted May 2016
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.
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.
Tibet’s Potala Palace before Chinese invasion
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.
Chinese Bureaucratic Nightmare
Posted May 2016
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.
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.