Our route from Yushu to the end of the Tibetan Plateau crossed another series of high passes over a distance of about 1000km before meeting up with the urban sprawl around Chongqing, where we planned to spend Chinese New Year. We were now heading due east, a huge relief as we lost the battering southerly winds which had been our biggest obstacle to get to Yushu. But Lobby’s fingers were continuing to give him considerable discomfort, and we still reckoned it was dangerous for him to be riding at such high altitude: the first half of the ride ahead rarely dipped below 4000m above sea level. So we searched for trucks, minivans, buses, anything heading in the right direction that could take Lobby and his luggage: I joined up the dots more slowly by bicycle behind him and we met up in the evenings. This section was quite a rough period for poor Lobby as he subsequently got food poisoning on the edge of the Plateau, which took him out for half a week. He was definitely very relieved to be fit and warm once more by the time we reached Chongqing, at a much more manageable altitude of 200m!
So I was mostly on my own to cycle the second half of the Tibetan Plateau. Luckily this section wasn’t as hard as our southerly route from Xining, and after a series of very steep climbs in the first few days out of Yushu I descended to a more reasonable 3500m altitude.
The sun came out: after the driving snow and wind of just days before, this was glorious. I skirted along lakes whose water was beginning to unfreeze as I descended below the treeline into a valley framed by much larger mountains to my left and right. Tibetans were getting out of their cars and taking selfies with the trees, as excited as if they’d spotted a snow leopard or rare bird instead of the regularly-spaced sentries on the side of the road. For people constantly living at altitude, trees must be an uncommon sight!
Gradually mudhouses were replaced by larger wooden constructions and villages became bigger and more frequent. Again people would invite me in for tea, yak yoghurt, bread and rice with an insistence which made it very hard to refuse. Hygiene standards were still kept very low though, and in guesthouses priority was given to setting up a WiFi connection over building any sort of a loo: even in the bigger villages many people still went to the loo in the gutters alongside the main road, hitching up skirts and squatting down next to festering flaming rubbish piles. Hard to know where to look!
It was in one of these villages that a little kid on a tricycle managed to nick one of my water bottles while I chatted to my host over lunch. I only discovered my loss 10km up another steep climb! Being hoodwinked by a small child stung, but I wasn’t about to head back down to chase the tike around the village. It was actually quite a good feeling that after a journey of 13,000km my water bottle would come to rest in the Tibetan village I’d just left. There then followed another more sinister encounter, when a car stopped outside the next small town and a Tibetan man got out, gesturing me to stop too. He was dressed in loose furs, wore a cowboy hat and had several gold teeth. He asked me if I had a full set of teeth. We’d got accustomed to some pretty odd questions on the Plateau so I didn’t think much of it and answered that yes I did, thank you for asking, how were his teeth doing. At this he opened his mouth, pointed to an obvious gap and asked me how much I wanted for one of my incisors. I initially tried to explain that perhaps tooth replacement wasn’t all that simple, but this bloke was having none of it, insisting that all would be well if I handed over one of my incisors in return for some cash. He actually got quite aggressive: I had to dive into a monastery nearby to get away from him! Happy to lose my water bottle to the Plateau but would rather not donate my teeth!
More worrying than the occasional tooth-hunting crazies I met along the way were the Tibetan dogs whose attacks became more and more frequent. I was riding into the grasslands, an area home to thousands of nomadic Tibetans who raised yak, and often became much wealthier than sedentary Tibetans by doing so. Chained-up guard dogs lined the roads, which was fine as all they did was bark and look fierce. What was less fine were the wild dogs, whose numbers had swollen since controlled dog breeding presumably wasn’t a priority. They gave chase, bit my panniers and snapped at my heels as I frantically kept the pedals spinning to try and outrun them. These dogs – Tibetan mastiffs as they are called properly – are not dogs as we know them. The Chinese have a different word for them, because they more closely resemble a cross between a bear and a lion than the stray dogs you may be imagining. They were huge. No, not as scary as the wolves of the Pamirs, but those were often talked about and rarely seen. The shaggy and rabid dogs of the Plateau were daily menaces; and frustratingly, they were regarded as totally okay by the locals. I had entered a strictly nonviolent region of the Plateau called Kham, where people didn’t kill yak for their meat nor did they slingshot any wild dogs as we’d seen previously. So the bear-lions had nothing to fear from humans: they ruled the grasslands.
I developed a system of dealing with the dogs to try to stay rabies-free. For a start, I wasn’t tied by Tibetan rules of non-violence. The system worked quite well, though I still got my shoe nipped once and my waterproof trousers raked on two occasions. As I cycled I could see these animals from miles away sprinting across the grasslands towards me, so they never took me by surprise. In fact they would often gather numbers as they ran so I ended up with two or three mastiffs closing in on me from different spots – the trick was to try and keep an eye on all three and not leave an ankle exposed to the fourth I’d missed. It was not possible to outrun them unless I was cycling at 40km/h downhill – this I very quickly found out. If there was a manageable number of chasing dogs I would unclip my left shoe and try to steer them into the oncoming lane, lashing out at them with a kick if they came too close. Usually an oncoming truck would shake their resolve and they would scatter. This tactic involved quite a lot of weaving across the road as the dogs would try to sink their teeth into my spare tyre or rucksack if I maintained a straight line.
If there were no trucks the riskier option was to lure them further in and land a knockout kick to the face, something I achieved once but in another attempt got a nip to the shoe, so we’ll call it 1-1. However the kick I landed was between the animal’s eyes and floored it onto the tarmac, quite a satisfying conclusion to a high speed bear-lion chase. If there were more than a couple of mastiffs chasing then I had to stop the bike – quite a nerve racking decision when they are right behind you! – and use the bike as a shield while pelting rocks at them. I tried to do this near a house if at all possible because the dogs’ barking would provoke a Tibetan to rush out and help me fight them off: it was pretty handy to have an ally in these situations. I made it through without major incident but unfortunately without ever seeing an oncoming truck plough into a rabid bear-lion. Personally, however disgusted you may be at the idea, I think this dramatic conclusion would have made up for the hours of nervous dog chases and rock hurling that became my day-to-day as a cyclist on the Plateau.
As I descended slowly the weather warmed to the point where there was no longer any ice on the roads, which meant I could finally break a new top speed (67km/h) with less risk of being chucked off the saddle on one of the many steep downhills. I met up with Lobby and we cycled the next two days together, passing a family of pilgrims on their way to Lhasa by foot from their hometown. Their journey would take them two months, they told us, though they were not prostrating themselves at every third step like the most devout do. They asked us where our pilgrimage would take us and seemed a bit taken aback when we gave the bright lights of Hong Kong as our answer!
Next we headed for a town called Daofu which had seen a monk burn himself to death in protest the previous month: although in public people laughed and smiled in the sun, behind closed doors both Han and Tibetan groups had some very nasty things to say about each other. The unease was less intense than the Han-Uighur divide in Xinjiang, perhaps because the Han felt it less likely that a Tibetan would be wearing a bomb vest. However police points had sprouted now the plains were less agonisingly high, and pedestrians were frequently stopped to be questioned by very Han-looking cops. Despite not being in the TAR, the powers-that-be kept a close eye on the grasslands which we were passing through: local Tibetans told us that telephone signal magically disappeared over important dates such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday, to make it impossible for anyone to make or receive calls. The government also denied many people of Tibetan ethnicity (ethnicity is written on every Chinese person’s ID card) the right to travel to border zones, or big cities: we wouldn’t be seeing any Tibetans in Hong Kong, and that is a major reason why not many are seen in Beijing or Shanghai. The things you can do as a one-party state.
We had planned to ride together from Daofu, but unfortunately this was the evening which saw Lobby throwing up into a flowerbed next to a yak eating cardboard out of a bin. Food poisoning compounded a week’s worth of altitude issues, and now Lobby’s priority was to get right off the Plateau and back to sea level, to be ready for our sprint across the urban sprawl. Again I followed slowly behind by bicycle, this time across a region which had been rocked by a series of earthquakes in November last year. Luckily there had been no fatalities, but a large number of the houses I passed had been badly damaged so people now lived at the bottom of their gardens in blue-disaster relief tents. The inside of these tents was small enough that prized possessions had to be crammed in on top of each other, the TV next to the stove next to the Christmas lights around the shrine to Buddha. People seemed very cheerful about their predicament considering they had just spent winter at 3500m in a tent, but that just goes to show how hard the Tibetans are. I got the full story over bread and soup with a couple who invited me in, much more worried about our journey through China’s Wild West than the fact that their house had just been reduced to rubble.
I was approaching the end of the Plateau but frustratingly still had two small mountains in the way, which was annoying as this meant any chasing dogs would be able to catch me, and by now my legs told me they were just about done with climbing anyway. The first climb emerged from around a hill in the grasslands, a towering beast of a thing with a tiny road snaking up until it disappeared around the side of the mountain and into the snowline. I reckoned the ascent was about 1500m. Seeing all the bends ahead of me was actually pretty rare for a long climb, as usually the road ducked and wove and dipped out of sight long before the summit: here I could calculate my spinning time accurately, which was very helpful. A sweaty four hours later I was at the top, back up at 4300m and looking down at the dots of cars where I had started from below. On the way up I had passed an airstrip which claimed to be the third highest commercial airport in the world – that should give a sense of scale! It felt like being on top of the world again. Next I had the longest continuous descent of the whole expedition, which must also be one of longest continuous descents in the world. I zoomed down 3000m in 90km, all in slightly over two hours, as the scenery around me changed from open grasslands to a rushing gorge. This was very definitely Han China once more, chickens and neat cabbage patches replacing yak and earth walls, people carrying woven baskets and wearing conical hats instead of the colourful furs of the Plateau.
The second climb was at the beginning of another long day, at the end of which I was supposed to be meeting up with Lobby for good, who was now feeling much better. But I never made it – because of awful road conditions I was forced to bail at sunset in a town which looked like it had been bombed. The climb itself was fine, though I was now crossing minibuses of Chinese tourists with sunhats and cameras (heading to where I’d come from, the most accessible point for a one-day ‘Plateau experience’) instead of the more fun but unpredictable motorbikes of the yelling Tibetans with their sound systems blaring Buddhist chants. After three hours of having buses stop for passengers to take my sweaty picture I reached the top, or not quite, as the Chinese had shaved the top off and instead built a tunnel through the mountain in a classic move for efficiency-over-environment. From then on things didn’t go my way: the 100km descent from the tunnel was all unpaved, on roads which made Uzbekistan’s look good. I pedalled some of it, pushed a lot of it, and swore throughout. The occasional tunnels here were all unfinished, unlit, rocky and wet from unknown water sources streaming down the walls on the inside. Quite a shock for the road-building monster that is China! I wondered dimly if this was to discourage the Tibetans from ever descending from the Plateau. The backup plan was to stay in the aforementioned arsehole of Asia, the gutted town I’d found complete with rivers of human waste running down the ruts of its main street. I aimed to leave as soon as possible the next morning, when it was light enough to cycle and not risk cholera by stacking it headlong into one of the waste pits. I would meet up with Lobby and we would continue on as planned.
However to compound difficulties, now that I had entered Han China guesthouse owners were more bound by law to register their guests with the police. Technically in China every hotel still has to do this, scanning Chinese people’s ID cards to make sure Big Brother knows where they are when they’re not at home. In practice many rundown places in smaller or more remote towns don’t bother registering their guests, or only do so by hand into an old and very tattered logbook which presumably gets lost in the mists of time. Technically foreigners are also still required to stay in ‘foreigner friendly’ hotels – essentially the expensive ones – which are deemed to be ‘safe’ enough for us to use. The frustrating thing is that these rules are upheld very irregularly: China at a provincial level hasn’t yet found a consistent strategy for dealing with ‘off the beaten track’ foreign tourism. Up until now we hadn’t had any issue with staying in dives, since Xinjiang worked on logbooks (so we were long gone before anyone noticed), and the guesthouse owners on the Tibetan Plateau frankly couldn’t have cared less about Han Chinese box-ticking. But on this occasion I was sat down at a computer with the sweet old man running the guesthouse and asked to fill my details into the system. Naturally the system didn’t allow foreign passports – so instead I assumed the character of a Mr. Zhang, holidaying from his coal mining job in Shanxi province.
At about midnight my door was thrown open and five police officers rushed in, one holding a blinking video camera up like a gun. I had been rumbled. Little did I know but the sweet old man had managed to work a scanner, sending the fuzz a copy of my passport which didn’t match my concocted written description very well. Upon discovery that the holidaymaker from Shanxi was actually a bearded foreigner who had travelled by bicycle through Afghanistan enroute to Xinjiang, the police had got pretty jumpy. They ordered a complete bag search, so I sleepily explained away each item of clothing, pill and noodle sachet in my panniers to the gathered audience. During the process my worldly possessions were chucked around the room with some force and left where they lay – but given that I still hadn’t yet morphed into Mr. Zhang there was little I could complain about. The fuss was over by 2am and I was miraculously allowed to stay put in the shabby guesthouse, so I sneaked downstairs to apologize to the owner for all the hassle. He waved it off in a flamboyant hand movement, blaming his country’s poor administrative system for the mix-up, likening the town’s police force to its disgusting streets and asking what I wanted for breakfast tomorrow, on the house. A true legend. But unfortunately, not the last run-in we would have with the Chinese authorities on this expedition.
So with this nighttime escapade behind me, I met up with Lobby at the edge of the urban sprawl, now badly in need of a good rest. However we still had 500km to pedal before our next planned stop, since we wanted to catch some friends enroute for Chinese New Year. This section was dramatically different to the open plains and blue skies of the Plateau we had just been riding through: white polluted fog hung over huge grey landscapes of skyscrapers which seemed to connect city after city, after city. What’s more we were now only days away from Chinese New Year, the most important holiday of the year which sees hundreds of millions of Chinese make the journey back to their hometowns to celebrate with family. It is the largest human migration in history, and each year it only gets bigger: during the 10 days either side of New Year, it is estimated that 3.65 billion journeys are made domestically across China. This meant that roads were quite busy – and we were right in the middle of it!
Suddenly streets were lined with stalls selling fireworks, bangers and catharine wheels, bought and handed to small kids who duelled each other with them, chucking firecrackers over their shoulders and at passing cars. This was China finally letting its hair down for the big event of the year: families whose breadwinners worked on the east coast were joyfully reunited, noisy round tables set up outside and banquets laid on at the side of the road. Traffic was sometimes interrupted when long chains of firecrackers were laid across the road and lit, the sound of gunfire accompanying the dragon dancers who skilfully wound their way around the smokey chaotic centre. Handheld fireworks were being shot off like mortars, their trajectory more horizontal than vertical. It seemed there was hardly a moment without a loud bang or the machine gun sound of small explosives going off! On top of the traffic these proved quite a hazard, as a firework launched at speed at the bikes would not have ended well. Luckily we were spared, though some came very close. After dark the display intensified, and we cycled straight through areas which sounded like they were under attack – crates of fireworks were launched up into the night sky, duds spinning energetically away at head height across the fields. Young couples released red love lanterns skyward which joined dozens of others, the flickering yellow flames at their base licking at the canvas as they floated lazily up to the stars.
We arrived in Suining, a small city outside of Chongqing, after a desperate sprint finish to make it in time for New Year. There we were put up in style and hosted for a big banquet by one of Lobby’s friends from his school days, Sammi, followed by many intense games of mahjong (we each got a helper for this as our level was far below what was acceptable for New Year). The hotel was the fanciest we’d seen all trip, and it was lucky that Sammi met us at the entrance or in our sweaty lycra we would probably have been turned away! The next day we visited a shrine which was teeming with people paying their respects over New Year. The custom was to light a big red candle (or several, the more the merrier) and burn fake paper money in the chimneys on the hill, both of which gave you merit for the coming year. The very wealthy apparently burned real money, which didn’t seem to us a very auspicious way of asking the New Year to provide more of it. We burned our share of fakes, bade farewell to our lovely minders and started on our last few hundred kilometres towards Chongqing, and a long-awaited rest day.
As usual Lobby had done a stellar path-finding job, navigating us through the sprawl by negotiating dozens of approach roads – sometimes seven lanes wide – which wound their way under overpasses in a seemingly endless spiral of grey concrete. I hadn’t had a day off in over 1000km so felt like I was running on fumes. However it was right on the outskirts of the prefecture capital that Lobby made an uncharacteristic yet crucial map-reading oversight, which had us detouring 50km along steep country lanes. Our final push into Chongqing was now looking like an epic 200km day, and it was right when dusk fell that I started feeling more and more unwell. We had to stop on the side of the road several times to see if I would throw up. After Lobby’s run of bad health it was definitely my turn! The bright lights loomed just as I started shivering and seeing stars. We were not there yet.