In Lijiang I heard already the first rumours, that the road to Litang is not open for foreigners. In the first village after Zhongdian I come to a checkpoint... and get waved through! Later I find out, that only some days ago the road was opened.
In the chinese sense this is not part of Tibet. Historically seen, this is Tibets eastern province Kham. The big advantage of that is, that travelling in that part is far easier.
I pass the first Mani wall and Chorten and on the first pass prayer flag wave in the wind. Motorcyclists greet me loud 'Tashi delek!' and Yaks graze on the meadows. I can hardly believe my luck. Actually I always only wanted to get here. It was the driving force over the past month that kept me going. Now almost exactly after one year, I have reached it. Arrived. I am jumping for joy. For me Tibet is and was never only a spot on the map. With this place I feel linked in a way that is difficult to put into words.
For a warm welcome I get the best-of program right away: a bumpy road, endless climbs to the first real high pass and the first night on top of that pass I get snowed in - yeeha!
On the 400km to Litang I get a little bit of everything: wide forest, great mountains, empty high plateaus and endles grasland. But best of all I can already cycle five 4000er passes. After a 4728m high pass I get snowed in over night. Although this is not very pleasant in the morning I am happy, because I know what's ahead after some fresh fallen snow: a ride through a fairy tale landscape that can impossibly be described in words. It is those pictures that are burnt into my mind, that always want to make me come back here.
Litang is a funny town. The Khampas (people of Kham) have always been known as wild guys and used to be feared bandits. Wild they still look with their long black hair and the dagger most carry. They are the cowboys of Tibet and the town just looks like a dusty wild west town.
I quickly find (it looks like) the only english speaking person in town: the owner of a little restaurant. Not only does he cook me the best Yak steak I have ever eaten, but he also knows a lot to tell about the region.
The ride continues pass up and pass down. Grassland and alpine valleys alternate. Whenever possible I camp right on top of the passes. It is usually more windy and colder here, but the evening atmosphere here is just indescribable. Furthermore I have the best short wave reception here, whereby my after-sunset-program is assured.
The weather has taken a strange rhythm: during the day it is always beautiful without clouds and as soon as I get in my tent it starts raining or snowing depending on how high I am. I don't really mind, as long as it's not the other way round.
I am slowly getting to the edge of the Tibetian plateau. Here Tibetian and Han Chinese styles are getting mixed up more and more. There are temples with Tibetian walls and a curved gable roof made of tiles.
About two years ago I have seen some photos of the '4 Girls Mountains' for the first time. Unbelievable pictures, I was instantly fascinated. I had to go there some day.
Now I am in the region and of course I want to see it in reality. The bicycle I leave right at the entrance gate. After a short re-packing I am ready to start on foot.
On the first day I walk through a beautiful, green valley to a lake. The whole area is totally deserted except from the big Yak herds. Over night I get heavily snowed in. Very beautiful in the morning but the mountains are in clouds and cannot be seen. I am not giving up that easy and camp another night on the foot of the mountain hoping it will clear up the next morning. Plenty more snow over night but in the morning I have a cloudless sky. Wow, waiting was definitely worth it: in front of me Mt. Siguniang (fourth girl) towers 6250m majestically into the sky.
Over a last high pass I leave the Tibetian plateau (for now). On the way to the pass I feel like being on a construction site constantly. On and next to the road plenty of construction is going on. Later I find out, that these are still the aftermath of the heavy earthquake that happened here one year ago.
Atop the 4487m high pass I am looking forward for a long downhill. But I had rejoiced too soon. The 3500m descent is one single construction site in the upper part and later countless landslides made the road hardly recognisable. My goodness, I have never seen anything like that before. The whole valley seems to have collapsed, there are so many giant landslides. I never expected the aftermath of the earthquake to be still that present. When I reach the main valley the road gets better. But now there are more villages. An unforgettable view: whole villages lie in rubbles. But next to it construction is going on heavily. People have been hit very hard here but they seem not to have given up their hope and friendliness. With amazing enthusiasm they are at work and wherever I pass they wave and greet loud.
Like a hydrophobian putting his foot into the cold water and quickly pulling it back, I turn on my heels as soon as I see that I am below 1000m on my altimeter. I don't want to go into town yet but head up the next valley straightaway. But this time I am not so lucky: the whole road is still covered with landslides and impassable. In the next hours I only cycle with rolling planning. At every break I decide where to go next.
The worst seems over but in the narrow valley I have to cycle under some scary looking slopes for some time. I feel queasy when I look up there. Every hundred meter there is a soldier observing the slope and waving with a green or red flag when I can pass. Finally the situation on and next to the road normalises and the russian roulette is over.
Tibetians and Qiang live in the valleys where I am now. Not long and I am back in what I love so much about China: these little rural villages with simple, beautiful houses, where people sit together in groups starring with big eyes at the strange cyclist until someone says a somewhat odd sounding 'hello', whereon everyone starts roaring - me included, where most of the traffic consists of those little tractors with often 10 people on the trailer that burst out jeering when I pass by. Priceless moments.
After yet another high passI finally go down to the plains. On the map I look for a route to Chengdu without passing through all the big towns but also avoiding the areas possibly still affected by the earthquake. To come to the point: I terribly fail. Even worse, I get right into hot water. It is almost impossible to get informations about the road conditions, although I often ask. With every kilometer that I cycle the road gets worse. At this lower elevation it is now foggy and damp. The road more and more looks like a huge mad-bath. Every couple of kilometer I have to clean my gears. It's a miracle I can cycle at all. In the middle of the worst mud I have a flat tire. Then, I almost expected it already, I get stopped by the army: no further here! Everything one more time in reverse. When I finally reach solid ground everything is silted, myself worst.
To cycle through big chinese towns is not always that easy. There are a lot of signs but they usually only mention road names. Signs for the next places only start to appear at the edge of a town. There are different strategies to pass these towns.
My favourite (apart from avoiding big towns altogether) is that I search the route in Google earth in advance and make a GPS track of it. That way I can almost pass in 'blind flight' through the most complicated town. Even better in Mianyang. Here I meet some cyclists that escort me all across town and show me the gateway to go on.
I did not come without reason out of the mountains into town. It was not because of the Pandas that can be seen here in Chengdu (even though they are cute). I need a new visa. For that I go with the train down to Hongkong for a couple of days and back. Unfortunately I don't get a 6 month visa as expected (and possible only a few days ago) but at least I get a 3 month.
If there is something I certainly have no clue about, it is the public transport in China, I never need that. In my mind I still see the pictures of a documentary that I saw recently about a railway station during chinese news year, when everybody travels: pure chaos. Well first I have to find the correct counter hall. There I have no doubt anymore that China is that most populated country. At which of the 30 counters should I queue? People can help me with that. While I wait I can recognize the sign for Chengdu on the huge screen and find out what train I need. On the other side is some sort of a live-ticker where the current amount of available tickets for every train is displayed. When I reach the counter 'my' number is under 10. With some words that I wrote up, I can explain what I need. Hurray, I get a ticket for the same day!
Travelling by train was an interesting experience as I met different people then usually. But actually I have hardly noticed the route that I travelled. I mostly tried to kill time with reading, hoping to arrive soon. Quite the opposite as when I travel by bicycle, where I mainly don't want to arrive but want to be on the road. I am looking forward getting on the bike again whenever I want and to the meetings and experiences along the way.
Back in Chengdu I start back into the mountains. After a 4000m vertical climb I am back on the high plateau. I want to cycle to Derge next. Weather that is possible at all at the moment I heard all possible answers in Chengdu. In the next days I get often stopped by the police but can always continue.
I choose again more or less the most indirect route that I can find on the map. At first I head for Aba. Here there is plenty of wide and green grassland. Many nomads have set up their black tents made of yak hair and let their huge yak herds graze here.
Tonight I camp on a wide high plateau. As it gets dark the wind becomes stronger. I am used that I often get some rain at night. But this time it is going to be more than a couple of drops: a serious storm is building up. The wind blows with unbelievable strength. Soon rain and snow are mixed with the wind hitting my tent very hard. Sleeping is impossible, it is far too loud. I don't feel like sleeping anyway. The storm rips with such a brutal force on my tent that I seriously worry about it. I have often been in a storm with my tent but nothing ever like that. All night long I sit with my back to the wind hit side trying to support the tent. When the storm is finally over in the early morning hours I am mentally and physically exhausted and try to catch up some of the lost sleep.
Unfortunately the storm was the start of a bad weather period. For some days it is wet and cold. If you are daily between 3500 and 4500m that means it is very wet and very cold. That is soon not really fun anymore... if it wasn't for the people here. They are simple incredible. In every village I meet laughing, curious people and soon the weather is of less importance. As the old men amused inspects my cycling pants, or curiously touches my white hairy skin, half the village laughs. And when I ask how high the next pass is, they all make scary hand signs but wish good luck to me.
Wet and cold I reach Garze. I am happy I can take a room with a hot shower for a change. Next day the weather clears up just in time, for now I cycle along the Chola mountains. After all the bad weather everything is beautifully snowed in. But the best is still to come. To get to Derge the road climbs over that very mountain range, over the Tro La 4900m high. Constantly I can seen great glaciers and massive peaks. My legs are burning and my breath must be sounding like Darth Wader, but this all is secondary. I am totally fascinated by this mountain scenery I cycle up almost in a frenzy of happiness.
Derge hosts the most important printing house of Tibet. Countless prints are being hand-produced here. Over 270'000 engraved blocks of Tibetian scripts are being stored here, making it the most important in all of Tibet.
I am slowly leaving Kham and reaching Amdo, the northern province of Tibet. In terms of landscape it is quite a dramatic change. From the deep forested valleys I get to the high wide plains of Amdo. For the next 500km I stay above 4200m. This here is typical nomads country. There are only few villages but many nomads with their big sheep and yak herds. Simply fantastic these widths. The plains seem to be endless and go over into rolling hills at the horizon. I get the whole thing presented in all different variations: with sunshine, freshly snowed in, with stormy clouds and morning mist. The atmosphere, when I cycle over these endless plains in the early morning, when everything is freshly snowed in and the last tatters of mist move around the hills and I spot some lonely yaks on the pastures are just magic.
In the surrounding of Yushu there are some beautiful monasteries and among other on of the biggest mani walls in Tibet with an estimated 2 billion mantras carved in stone!
Today's campsite seems to be the perfect place at first sight: a beautiful meadow next to a little stream. But as soon as it is dark the dog of the nomads nearby has found me. He is barking like crazy in front of my tent. I try to imagine its size by its voice and then definitely decide not to go outside. After 15 minutes I get annoyed, I would like to sleep. Suddenly it starts lightning and thundering and soon its is pouring with rain outside. That seems to be to much for the dog too and he finally leaves. With the steady drumming of the rain on my tent I soon fall asleep.
Next morning I immediately realize that something is very wrong. One view out of my tent is enough: I am in the middle of that stream! Over night the stream has overflown its banks and now my tent is 10cm under water! Still half asleep I evacuate the tent on higher ground and try to rescue what is not yet soaking wet before going to sleep again. What was that now?. If I hadn't taken a picture during the hectic early morning activity, I guess I would still believe it was all just a dream.
Motorcycles are very popular in Tibet. Those machines are always colorfully decorated with flags, fur, long leather strings on the handlebar and much more. The drivers themselves are no less colorful dressed. But the icing on the cake are always the sunglasses. For some mysterious reason, all freaky, odd sunglasses that are produced on this planet seem to get to Tibet! But they are often so freaky, they are already good again.
I love those moments, when the slowly pass by with the radio on full blast or even better sinning out loud themselves and greeting.
Somehow I always seem to get into the worst storms when I cross the biggest passes. When I came back over the Tro La I already did that in a fierce snow storm with 15cm of snow on the road. Now I have just reached the 4830m high Bayan Kar La in good weather. But when I turn around, I see a black storm front approaching fast. In the following kilometers I can always just stay ahead of it. But on the last high point it caught me up. A heavy snow storm at 4800m where the only shelter far and wide is my own tent is definitely a serious thing. I think on whether to put up the tent and sit it out but it is already snowing so hard that everything would be wet anyway. So I continue. Within minutes the road is snow covered.
Storms are usually a local thing and often I can simply cycle away. Not this time. For about 3 hours I cycle in the heavy snowfall then hail and finally rain until I finally see better weather ahead. At some houses I stop and go shivering to a little shop. The locals look at me with wide eyes as usual. "With those pants you must be freezing, you need something like that" I man tells me and points to his sheepskin coat. No question they really keep you warm. "But I cannot cycle with that on!" I reply and laugh. But who knows, if I have to cycle in many more storms like that I might just get one of those.
Amnye Machen is the most important pilgrimage mountain in eastern Tibet. What Kailash is for western Tibet, Amnye Machen is for eastern Tibet. For me it has always been a fix point in my planning, a place I wanted to reach.
The approach of the mountain is already spectacular. I cycle along a great mountain range and through wide plains with lots of nomads. As common for a pilgrimage place. it takes some effort to actually get to see it. The mountain hides itself well behind other mountain ranges and I have to cycle some high passes to see it at all. But then it stands there in front of me in all its glory. I put up the tent on the spot and enjoy the fantastic evening and early morning atmosphere.
As I told you before there is plenty of construction going on all the time and everywhere in China. That is in particular true for the roads too. The Chinese have a very own way of constructing a road. Most noticeable is the fact that they don't work in say stages but rather work on the entire road at once. There is certainly no shortage of road workers here. This means that road works are not something of a few kilometers here but rather of say 100km. On the way to Xining I hit the jackpot: 500 endless kilometers long is the construction site and I bump around caterpillars and half finished bridges. At least a have a great audience here. No one is so enthusiastic when I cycle past as road workers!
Xining lies on the north eastern edge of the Tibetian plateau but it is also one of the end points of the silk road. That gives the town an exotic touch: Tibetians from the south, Uyghur from the west and Mongol from the north meet here.
Continuing west, I cycle along the northern edge of the Tibetian plateau. On the third day I write in my diary: "There is mainly nothing here, but plenty of that!" It is sort of a semi desert that I cycle through. Mostly sandy with few bushes flanked by red barren mountain ranges. Every now and then I pass a big salt lake. All of that at heights between 3000 and 3800m. There are only few towns anymore and if, they are strange places built in the middle of nowhere to settle people here. There are soon no more nomads as the land is to barren. Instead of Yaks I the occasional camel can be seen.
Over a last pass I cross the Altun mountains. In front of me, or better below me, is the Taklamakan desert on of the largest sandy deserts. With about the same speed that I loose height, temperature rises. Oh my goodness, who has turned on the hot air blower down here? Temperatures of around 40°C are always unpleasant, but if you have just been riding over a windy pass wearing gloves and a cap only a couple of hours ago, it feels like riding straight into an over!
Deserts are often less exiting landscapes but here it is desert at its best: I cycle through a valley flanked by several hundred meter high sand dunes. Now that is spectacular. Then I reach Dunhuang. Once an important stop on the silk road where wealthy traders hoping for a save journey sponsored the building of the countless grottos that are nowadays one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art.
I leave the green Oasis of Dunhuang and am soon back in the sandy desert. As always when it is hot it turns out to be a long day as I don't want to put up the tent too early in the heat. When I start looking for a place, out of a sudden I can see water on the horizon. At first I am not sure whether my mind is playing games with me after 8 hours riding at 40°C. But it is actually a reservoir, a real lake. Of course I go straight to it but try to keep my expectations not too high. There are probably tons of mosquitoes or the water is dirty and stinks. But nothing of all that, just a beautiful lake. What a joy, a 500m long bathtub in the middle of the desert all for myself!
On the radio I hear about the riots in Ürümqi. The Chinese government has quickly found the source in "militant muslim groups with connections to al Kaida". That this is a minority feeling more and more pushed aside and discriminated in its own land by the many Han-Chinese that migrate here, no one wants to hear. It is the same as with Tibet or Inner Mongolia: China invests a lot of money in those areas for infrastructure, schools and hospitals, never gets tired mentioning it and can not understand that these people are not deeply thankful. But no one ever asked whether they wanted any of this in the first place. It certainly always leads to the same effect: the countless migration of Han-Chinese to these regions, making the locals a minority in their own land.
What next? That was the big question that kept my busy the last weeks. I had planned to spend the next month in central and western Tibet. But since the riots in Lhasa in april 08 it has become virtually impossible to travel individually in Tibet. The few police checkpoints that used to be easy to pass by have been replaced by heavy army presence.
In the 2 days that I cycled on road 109 (the road that continus to Lhasa after Golmud) I meet about 12 cyclists, more than in the last 4 month. They are all chinese and I soon don't ask anymore where they are heading: they are all on their way to Lhasa. Yes, it's an unfair world, they are allowed to do so. But I am happy I could cycle eastern Tibet and my plans are not put off but rather on hold. I'll be back you bet!