I arrived in Lanzhou, Gansu province, having crossed the entire breadth of Qinghai province to Xining, then rolled on downhill along a highway to the Gansu’s capital.
From Ruoqiang the way climbed steadily to above 3000 metres (Stan and I cruising the last 700m clinging to the back of a 22-wheeler), through a winding valley of interesting geological formations – banded geology of varying tones. From there we continued across the north end of the arid Tibetan Plateau, with varying and inspiring scenery, though with a common sand-based theme, crossing the hyper arid (excepting two large salt lakes) Qaidam Basin, then climbing again through icy mountains, over two passes of 3800+ metres, to Qinghai Lake (the second largest salt lake in the world), and on to Xining.
My birthday transpired early on during the leg, amongst the stunning yardangs to the west of the Qaidam Basin. The day before we had a few beers and the crew bought me a new yoga mat and rubix cube, one for the cold and one for the brain.
The day after my birthday also saw us drinking, huddled away from the cold and a ferocious wind in a shed alongside a workers mess, with a terrible bottle of Red Star rice wine courtesy of some of the construction workers therein. It helped some with the cold. The morning of that self-same day saw us scoring well with the passing Chinese tourists driving a circuit of the Basin, as they stopped to photograph us and provision us with iced coffees, fruit, water, and varients there-of (thanks China).
The climb out from the Basin a couple of days later aptly demonstrated why, on occasion, grabbing onto the back of a truck might not be a good idea – I hitched a truck, then shifted over to make room for Stan, in doing so my front wheel tangled in a dangling cable from the back of the vehicle, and swiftly liberated my bicycle of its human load. Luckily the bike untangled after only being dragged a few metres. Stan, the driver, and the rest of the world remained oblivious to my blunder. Shaken I pootled on.
With the climb from the Basin, the already sub-0 temperatures got their plunge on. I’m very glad I was bequeathed the yoga mat (thanks Kim, Karin, and Stan). My earlier padding purchase, a typical plaid-patterned picnic rug with a plastic foil backing, became the frontier of my nightly cold defences. My sleeping ‘system’ is as follows: picnic rug wrapped around my sleeping bag, which I lined with a cheap blanket and sleeping bag liner, then myself, wrapped in a down jacket, shell, fleece, t-shirt, shorts, thermal leggings, cycling shorts, wool socks, and ankle socks – The simple lightweight and cost effective way to turn your light summer sleeping bag in to a hardy three season system.
I only got cold every night.
On the twelth day we reached Delingha, where we hoped for a hotel (and a shower!). Turns out foreigners aren’t allowed to stay. With Kim’s rear wheel verging on collapse, and our body odours becoming very apparent, Stan managed to convince the police to let us stay a night. The hotel staff seemed particularly worried about us – going so far as to buy us dinner, and bottled water before we left in the morning. Foreigners aren’t allowed to stay as the city is purportedly a military zone, with several missile launch sites nearby, and historic nuclear test sites away to the northeast. Oh well. I had been ready to continue on alone then; the others planning for a rest day. However the police gave their idea a decided no, and so we continued on together.
Over the last few days of riding, on the approach to Xining, Tibetan culture became increasingly more in evidence, with brightly coloured prayer flags adorning the roadside, and temples and ornate gateways on abundance. That, mixed in with a continuation of the Islamic nomadic culture seen through Xinjiang, made for a fascinating, and culinarily divine, cultural melting pot.
The beautiful shores of sea-like Qinghai Lake are characterised by Buddhist temples, colourful bouquets of flags, golden fields of wheat, herds of shaggy shuffling stumpy-legged yaks, and bus-loads of tourists. Though the bus loads were much reduced by the late, and cold, season.
From there it was a short up-and-over manoeuvre to hit a drawn out 1500m descent to Xining, passing countless mosques clustered within the modern high-rise urban spread which so typifies Chinese settlement to the east, with temples and monasteries in-between, or clinging to the mountainsides above. The change from the quiet and simplicity of desert cycling and small towns to the chaos of a thriving Chinese city of some 2.2 million people was quite a shock to the senses. Xining is small by Chinese standards.
As common with many cycle-tourists, especially those who have subsisted on a very sand and noodle-sided diet for weeks, we did not do much in the way of sight-seeing while in Xining, but rather sought out sources of western food, and bike and outdoor gear shops. I’m holding out for Decathlon in Xi’an.
Leaving Xining, and parting from the wonderful Kim (thanks for the socks) and Karin, Stan and I put our blinkers on, ignoring the no bike signs, and snuck back onto the highway (which was all well and kosher when it was the only road available, but is not quite so now). The road continued to trend downwards. Camping had become a little harder now, owing to the never ending urban sprawl. Stan found a charming spot above the Huangshui River (proto-Yellow River), just into Gansu Province, neatly tucked behind an abandoned substation and adjacent to a scrap yard. Stray dogs only woke us twice.
And there I was. Lanzhou is bigger than Xining, with some 4 million people. That afternoon Stan and I explored a fantastic sprawling open air market, stuffing ourselves with some form of greasy and gently spiced bing (flat bread). From there I pootled on by myself, continuing east towards Xi’an -the end of the silk road… but that’s another story.