The spring wheat ready for harvest, northern Yunnan


Fields of bright yellow and green, Sichuan/Yunnan border

The western provinces of China are a cyclists paradise. Little traffic, remote desolate roads winding through mountains, waterfalls and lush forests. My path, which once crossed endless deserts now never seems to deviate from mountains. Pass after pass, some days it is not uncommon to spend hours climbing only to descend quickly and start all over again. Drinking water becomes a bit difficult in the high altitudes as the boiling temperature drops to close to 80 C, increasing the risk stomach and intestinal problems. Towns and villages are sometimes several days cycling apart which leaves stream water as the only option.I usually seek out locals and ask them for their source of drinking water. In my years on the road I have learned that it is way better to limit your water intake (within reason) than to be stuck in a tent with a fever and diarrhea.


Rural village outside Shangri-La

There is a subtle to nature here. Something that almost creeps up, or soaks into your socks like a summer dew. The fresh buds on fur trees, soon to bring summer pine cones, rivers full of fish heading upstream, and a green moss that only grows in the shade. There are thousands of untouched acres, remote temples and secluded yurts. Everything seems to return to nature, wooden fence poles turn into trees, the road splinters with grass and bridges fall back into rivers.


Long mountainous route to Shangri-La, at times this was as good as the road got.

It all becomes distant. When you enter a Chinese city, even your memory of home falls back into the crevice of your mind as noise, traffic and chaos quickly engulf your senses. A man with a plastic yellow work helmet with red paint, paints the road barriers , two women clear and sort vegetables on the dirt side walk, children run to and fro buying sugar coated fried dough before the start of school, trucks honk and cars wiz past, and somewhere in the distance you can hear the electronic tune of “its a small world” getting closer as a large water truck passes spraying water throughout the littered streets. Just a few kilometers away there was a quiet stream with grass, cows and yurts, but here there is nothing that can even remind you, it is in someways so far away.


The tops of passes are always marked with prayer flags. Sometimes you can see the summit hours before reaching her.

Northern Yunnan is warm and humid. The Tibetan minority has given way to a more South East Asian type of people; men smoking bamboo water pipes and women carry baskets filled with wild mushrooms and green vegetables. Hats are red tunics, and clothes are decorated with bright colors. Food too, has become more diverse, the Tibetan staple of T’sampa is replaced with tropical fruits, compressed rice cakes, and spiced meats. There is a high demand for wild herbs, roots and other Chinese medicinal products, and in some parts of the city entire streets are sectioned off for the sale of these goods.


Looking down toward the valley of Shangri-La

The city of Deqen (Zongdian), renamed Shangri-La in 2001 to promote tourism, is from a distance quite like the mythical city. Tucked between two large mountain ranges, nestled beside a large river, the city is in a beautiful location and is home to a very large population of Buddhism monks. However once inside, the city becomes a typical Chinese city with new, poorly constructed buildings, extreme noise pollution and lots of liter. On an up note,  the city has recently given up plastic bags, replacing them with bright colored mesh totes lacking handles. It is a sight to see the locals walking on the streets precariously holding shopping bags between their arms.


Breakfast scenery

I have finally been able to withdraw money from the ATM!! My usual long delay before being denied money was replaced with the sound of counting bills!! I was so excited that I withdrew money several times just to hear it. I will be in Yunnan province for a few weeks before taking a train to visit my family in Guangzhou. I plan to spend several weeks there then return to Yunnan and head to Laos.

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.



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.


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


An offering. Rin Chen’s monastery in northern Sichuan


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.


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.


En-Route to Zong Mai Xiang village.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


Large Buddhist Stupa in rural Qinghai


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.


One of my favorite students



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.


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.

The Horizon is a Mirage


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.

17_Qinghai map

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).