I have serious problems putting all the food into my panniers. I get rid of some other things I don't need anymore to get more space. A little selection of my supplies:
- 1,5 Kg peanuts
- 0,7 Kg cheese
- 1,5 Kg chocolate
- 1,2 Kg müesli
- 1 Kg dried figgs
- 1 Kg dried raisins
- 1 Kg pasta
- 1 Kg cracker & biscuits
Well, now you know what I will be eating the next weeks. Of course this will be completed with what is available en route: noodle soup, bread, biscuits.
Before I am going into the mountains I have to cycle 260km along the southern edge of the Taklamakan desert. Kind of a big oasis with lots of little villages. Soon after Kashgar the villages become purely Uighur. As in most parts of western China, the Han-Chinese live mostly in the big cities. The people are rather reserved and hardly shout after me. But as soon as I stop for example to buy something, there is instantly a huge crowd around me.
One more time I suffer from the heat. But this time I am rather worried about the food in my panniers... 20km before the turn off into the mountains I am already extremely dirty after only two days on this dusty road with lots of traffic. Now a hotel room for a last time would be nice, wouldn't it? I really find one. but there seem to be problems when I try to check in. Soon the police stands next to me. I already fear the worst. I should follow them on the bike. But they only bring me to the hotel 'open' for foreigners, which happens to be twice as expensive of course. Unfortunately a well known problem in China, where foreigners are often not allowed to stay in cheap hotels. Especially in places not used to tourists. But today I don't argue and enjoy the luxury.
Traveling by bicycle in Tibet is a bit special. To be legally there, you need a so called 'Alien travel permit'. This permit is checked at various checkpoints. As a solo traveller you usually don't get a permit. That's the theory.
But we cyclists are not really known to care too much about such regulations. Todays cyclists are well connected and informations about the current situation are quickly exchanged. At the moment, it should be fairly easy to get to Ali (the first bigger town), where you get fined to be there without a permit and get a permit to go on! Despite this good informations, I am nervous when I get to Yencheng, where road 219 branches off. Such things can change very quickly here in China.
Just ahead the road turns off. I try to ignore the policemen along the road and get out of town as fast as possible. In the last couple of years I must have travelled this road a hundred times on the map. I know the names of the places and the heights of the passes almost by heart. Now I am really cycling on road 219 towards West-Tibet!
It is a fascinating ride from the desert into the high mountains. After the first day I have left the sand desert behind me und the valleys become slowly greener. I see many camels. At the little villages I don't stop for long in the beginning. I just buy some bread and something to drink and go on. Whenever on of the frequent police cars passes me, I am getting nervous. But when I realize that they are no problem, I start to take it more relaxed
The first pass has a good hight for getting into shape with 3300m. The views down into the dry, eroded valleys are great. In Kudie I pass the first Checkpoint. I expect no problems. Only the visa is checked and I can go on.
The second pass is already of a different kind. It is already 4980m high. The slowly ascending valley gets more and more stony. There are hardly any green spots anymore. But in the side valleys many great snow mountains appear. The water in the river is finally gets cleaner too. In the last couple of days all the rivers and streams were in the color range from dark brown to deep black. Even when I asked in the villages, there was no other water available. Probably because of the storm that was in the mountains some days ago. My water filter has a hard job.
After this pass I take a day resting, to acclimatize better to the altitude, for this was only the intro yet...
The road now leads up to the Aksai Chin. A disputed high plateau claimed also by India. For over 250km the road doesn't drop below 4800m anymore and there are daily 5000er passes. It truly is a ride between heaven and earth. In the first part I cycle through a red sand desert until I find myself in front of a big, deep blue lake. The colors are incredibly intensive.
In the second part the color green is being added to the scenery. But vegetation doesn't have it easy up here and the slopes only partly shine in light green looking at them from far away.
For me it is every time a miracle, when I come to a huge lake after having cycled for half a day across the barren landscape. The experience is intensified by the fact, that the whole region is largely uninhabited (except for some truck stops) and I travel many days all on my own. Often when I am staring at the beauty of the surrounding landscape, a big cloud of dust from a passing truck takes me back into reality.
On September 4th, Exactly 8 month after I started in Switzerland, I cross the border to Tibet! Here I get welcomed Tibetan style, being sent over the 5400m Qieshan La, the highest pass on this route.
Tibet, a high plateau the size of western Europe, surrounded on all sides by big mountain ranges. For centuries the country was isolated (geographically and self imposed) and only few westeners reached the plateau. The myth of a buddhist utopia, far away from all the problems and brutality of the rest of the world strongly remains even today. But Tibet is and never was the timeless Shargrila, as it was often romanticized in the west. But thanks to the isolated location a unique and fascinating culture has developed here.
For the Chinese, Tibet was a uneducated, barbaric land of feudal serfdom, which finally led to its occupation more than 50 years ago. Then the Tibetan culture was mainly suppressed by force. Today this happens by the more and more Chinese immigrants. The tibetans today are a minority in their own country.
An overland trip to Tibet is still a long and strenuous journey, because you always have to cross one of the big mountain ranges to reach the plateau. Over the western Kulung range I get here.
After 16 days I reach Ali, the only town in western Tibet. Ali is the prototype of an ugly, modern, Chinese town in the middle of nowhere. But Ali is also a hot shower, good restaurants & shops and so Ali is a little paradise after the long days on the dusty, bumpy road.
At the PSB I pay the fine to be here and get the permit to continue my trip.
Just before Ali I met Korbinan & Paul, two cyclists from Germany. Together we mainly checked out all the shops in town for the best food to buy and ate heaps of Momos (Tibetan dumplings).
With packed panniers and again clean cloth I leave Ali alone again. Since 2 years the first 80km out of Ali are paved. Quite a welcoming change after the very bumpy road recently. But as suddenly as it was here, as suddenly it disappears, leaving me again with the usual dirt road.
Actually it would be only a couple of days to get to Kailash and of course I would just like to get there as quick as possible. But I have been on the way for so long now, that it doesn't matter about another week anymore. So I make a detour to Tielong in the south, close to the border with Ladakh, India. This is the region that was first settled in Tibet. Later the Guge kingdom was established here (950AC - 1670). But to get there, I first have to cycle two big passes. Two real great passes with a narrow road and endless switchbacks that bring me twice over 5300m. On top I rest, the many prayer flags provide a good shelter from the strong wind. Around me there are a couple of clouds at about the same height. Out of one it rains. What a sight! Who has ever seen it rain from above?
A long downhill brings me to the Sutley river.
On the way down to Tielong I pass through deep valleys flanked by deeply eroded walls, looking like the pillars of giant gothic cathedrals. In the sandstone cliffs you can very well see many of the caves where people lived.
For two days I explore the ruins of the Guge kingdom. In Tsaparang there is are the ruins of a town built on a steep rock. This once used to be an important trading town, linking Ladakh, Kashmir, central Tibet and the Silkroad. The town is an fascinating maze of stairs, houses and temples. But seeing the temples is also a sad sight, where many stupas and statues lie in rumble, as if the cultural revolution had been only yesterday.
In the last couple of days it has repeatedly rained a little. On the way back to road '219' I am suddenly faced by a black wall of clouds. Soon it rains. I push the bike some meters off the road and hurry to put up the tent. But everything is wet already. It takes some time until it is dry and clean inside the tent. The extremes are often close together here. Only half an hour ago I was sweating while cycling up the steep road and now I am crouched in the sleeping bag and try to gain back the body heat. For 20 hours it rains nonstop! In those moments in my little tent I often feel very little and unimportant in this giant nature. The description of how the road looked after the rain I spare you...
But the rain has also its good sides. When I cycle the last km towards Kailash the landscape looks like freshly smartened, all peaks are snowed in. As if they wanted to make me a special welcome.
Straight ahead Gurla Mandata appears. A giant block of ice, 7728 meters high. To my right the peaks line up. Which one is it? This one has a hanging glacier on the top, this could be it, this has to be it, this is it... Kailash!
It is no easy to describe the feelings if you have just reached something for which you have invested all you time and energy for more then 8 month. I am totally overwhelmed, sit next to the road and cry simply. My dream really has become true. I cycled all the way from home to Kailash, every single meter. (Except the crossing of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, where I was not allowed to cycle. something I will not forget the Turks for a while... :-) ).
I am just overjoyed. In my mind I recall the last 8 1/2 month. What an incredible journey it has been. There were difficult moments, for example when I almost got stuck in the snow in Bosnia and got frostbite on my finger, when I several times almost got a heat stoke cycling across the Iranian desert getting weaker and weaker or in Turkmenistan where I was desperate because of the strong headwind and the visa running out. But the good moments outnumber by far. Most of all the many friendly people I met everywhere who always helped me. Without those this trip would not have been possible.
But what do you do, when you have reached your big goal? Fortunately I have thought about that before already. As Kailash is the center of the universe for the Buddhists and Hindus, it is not the end of the trip for me, but rather the center. I am heading on towards eastern Tibet of course.
But first of all there is the highlight of a pilgrimage to Kailash: the Kora!
For once I leave the bicycle in Darchen an start walking for the 3 day circumambulation of the mountain. Dramaturgically perfect, the mountain never shows itself fully, but every now and then offers great views from changing sides. Most impressive is the north face. Here I make a little side trip and camp right below the wall. Unbelievable, only a few hundred meters behind my tent the vertical face rises 1500m in perfect symmetry to the peak. It is definitely the most spectacular place I have ever camped!
This night I hardly sleep. For hours I gaze up into the starry sky and the north face light up by the moonlight - what a spectacle! And if it had been only or this one night, all the effort of this journey would have been worth it!
Yes, I had feared to be falling into hole, after I once had reached Kailash. But fortunately there are plenty of other highlights and challenges here in Tibet...
Following the Bramaputra (the most important river in Tibet) I am cycling eastward. In the wide valleys there are a lot of nomads letting graze their big herdes of yaks, sheep and goats. On the southern edge of the valley I often get fantastic views of the giant peaks of the highest of all mountain ranges: the Himalaya. For one week I am cycling towards the east. The road doesn't allow a quick traveling here as it often reminds more of a dry river bed.
Hunting high Passes
Pass Shortly before Saga I want to make a detour to the north. Around here there are some of the highest passes overall and I wouldn't want to cycle past those, would I. But first I have to find the road heading north. At the place where I expect the turn off, I can't find anything and the locals seem not to know what I am looking for. At night in my tent I study my maps again and come to the conclusion that I must have cycled 40km to far already. 40km, that may not sound like a lot, but on this roads it means more than half a day of hard work!
Of course I go back again. That simply I am not giving up. Finally I find a little bridge and a road heading north. Aah, perfect, this is just what I had been looking for. There are no more reckless Tourist Land Cruisers racing by at 80km/h leaving me in a cloud of dust and stones. I can also get rid of the washboard driving me nuts, that has dominated on the road for the last days.
To call this here a road is actually exaggerated. It is more a trail as it would look like, when about 30 truck have taken the same route. It goes over rough and smooth. For the next three days I don't see any traffic anymore at all.
The road leads directly to the 7079m high Loinbo Kangri, which I finally pass very close by. From the pass at 5500m there are great views of the glacier covered mountains all around. Actually I only like to go down a little bit and camp then but the road is already climbing up again. Because I am to tired to go on and the views are so spectacular I set up the tent right on top of the second pass, almost at 5500m again. Meanwhile I am so well acclimatized that even on this altitude I sleep as well as my neighbors all around: the marmots.
The whole route is very remote and so I can spot exceptionally many wild animals: gazelles, his guys are so fast, once they see me, they race with incredible speed across the grassland. Big herds of wild ass, an eagle sits only 30m from the road, black storks, rabbits and of course marmots.
On one of my maps, there is a high pass shown in this region. With 5738m it would be the highest driveable pass. But if the road really exists, is driveable and the hight is correct is another question. But I certainly want to give it a try. Twice I follow trails into a valley, but they both end abruptly. Well, it was worth the try at least.
After a long descent it should only go along the river to the Tarok Tso lake. But those seemingly easy days are dangerous from experience. Usually it turns out quite the opposite - just like today. Suddenly I am in front of a steep climb. What's that now? I only want to go down to the lake. I don't have much choice but to climb up to yet another 5000er pass. At least I have a nice descent now. But no sight of the lake so far just another hill ahead. But what is this now? The trucks, making the trail have simply driven directly up the hill, far to steep to cycle. I cannot even push the bike up. Instead I am hauling it in a zick zack up the grass next to the trail. What a drudgery! When I finally reach the top I collapse exhausted - not one meter further! After I have recovered and see on the other side I almost forget the endeavor. Below me lies the big, deep blue Tarok Tso lake surrounded by beautiful mountains. What a sight! Of course I put my tent up right here on that terrace and enjoy the view while sun is going down.
Now I turn east. For two days I cycle across hardly inhabited land, slightly up and down, passing lakes and wide grassland. I should soon meet a major road. I am nervous if I had taken the right direction, for navigation is not all that easy with the big scale maps I have. I am relieved when I hit the road just before Mendong. After 6 days without the opportunity to buy anything my bags are one more time very empty.
On the way back to the south there are some bigger hurdles ahead one more time. It is Semo La, with 5580m it is the highest pass on this trip. But more then the climb it is a constantly strong, cold wind that makes me tired.
Just before Saga there is a checkpoint. I am not expecting any troubles and am then taken by surprise that there are. The police is called and I have to follow them to their quarter. There I am shown the law texts which I have broken. They keep my passport overnight and want to decide the next day. I anyway wanted to make a break here, which I badly need after 30days(!) of constantly cycling. Next day I get my passport back with the order... but the rest I have not heard anymore. I soon as I have my passport I hop off.