Mati Si, China
On the train. The Taklamakan desert stretches for over 2,000km from Kashgar in the west to Jiayuguan in the east. It is thereby the second biggest sand desert in the world. With a lot of good memories from a one-week stay in Kashgar, I entered the train that should be my home for the next 27 hours.
When I started this bicycle journey in Germany I saw it also as a physical challenge: Is it possible to travel all the way from Germany to Southeast Asia only by bicycle? I was motivated – I even crossed the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, cycling. In Georgia I suddenly got food poisoning and felt too weak to move on. Staying in the mountains to wait for the food poisoning to pass wasn’t an option and so I had to hitchhike for 100Km to the capital, Tbilisi. It felt like losing the challenge. For a moment I even thought about hitchhiking back to the place where I stopped cycling, but I didn’t.
In Turkmenistan, my five-day visa got shortened one day when they closed the border upon my arrival. Because I didn’t have enough time to cross the Karakum desert by bicyle, I had to take a Taxi for 400Km instead. But slowly my mind was changing: This travel shouldn’t be considered a challenge. Of course, I want to use as little public transport as possible and try to cycle everywhere I can. But what is this challenge worth if I am feeling weak or have to pedal for weeks through no-mans-land? I wouldn’t be happy. Maybe it would be a great feeling to arrive at the eastern end of the Taklamakan after one month on the velo, saying ‘I crossed this only with my own strength – physical and mental’. But during this one month cycling I would feel miserable.
To sum it up, one might say I skipped the hardest parts of this journey. To my mind, I don’t enjoy cycling through hot and dry places so I skipped the most boring parts of this travel. Furthermore, I reached a point where I don’t have to prove something to myself anymore. My Chinese visa is valid for three months and there are so much more things to see in this huge country.
We enter the train in Kashgar. We, that’s Antoine, a French cyclist, and me. We met in a hostel and decided to join forces for the next days. Or weeks, let’s see. Anyway, entering the train is not that easy because the security standards are more than high. We have to pass three body-controls, two X-Rays and one manual luggage control. Xinjang province is inhabited mostly by Uigur people, a Chinese minority group. The Chinese government’s way of dealing with minority groups is well-known internationally (see Tibet). In Xinjang, this led to violent riots in Urumqi and Kashgar in the past. The latest part of the conflict started in 2007 and still lingers on today. This means the Chinese military is all over the place. Every street in the city has video surveillance and the main square (People’s Square) is guarded by the military. Nobody is allowed to enter this place because officials are scared of people gathering. So the huge Mao-Statue on the other side of the road is basically greeting an empty square.
Inside the train we are in a small cabin with two three-story beds facing each other. The cabins don’t have doors – the space management is very efficient. Our beds are located on the second level. Underneath us lays a child with its two grandparents. Above us are two Chinese men. Our cabin smells like Noodles. As I watch the desert scenery pass by the window I think back at the last week I spent resting in the lovely city of Kashgar.
I remember the many visits to the night-food-market with other people from the hostel. All the different sorts of delicious street food filling the air with their smell. Whereas in many Chinese cities it is the smog that makes the sky foggy, here in Kashgar it is the steam of the street kitchens. Although I hardly ever knew what I am eating at the moment, most of the food was very tasty – even the sheep foot. I remember the poor Uigur families living in destroyed houses at the edge of town but looking happy. I remember giving an apple to the youngest kid. The apple was almost as big as his head.
And then there was this one time when I went to the big Chinese supermarket. Never before in my life have I been in a place with so many indefinable items. The variety of goods was so plenty that I didn’t know what to buy and thus I left the store without anything in my hands. From Kyrgyzstan I was used to small mini-shops with three or four different items.
I was returning to the hostel just to be greeted by the Chinese man from my dorm room whose only task of the day seemed to be walking up and down the floor – every day. He told me that Chinese people think that Islam will take over Europe because we let all the refugees in and by marrying them, we also have to become Muslim. That’s a wild theory but it is not the first time that I can sense an Anti-Muslim attitude from a Chinese person.
The days went by quick as did the train ride. In the evening of the next day we reached Yumen, a small town in Gansu province. After waiting one day for our bicycles (that we put as cargo on another train) to arrive, we could finally move on. There are still a few kilometers of Taklamakan left, so we can get the desert experience at least for a few days. Also, we have to cross construction sites for kilometers on end. China is expanding rapidly. For us this means cycling on dirt roads while the asphalt road is getting repaired. While fighting against the headwind, Antoine and me are listening to some Chinese lessons on our phones. Mandarin is a pretty tough language to learn and if you don’t pronounce every tone correctly, the Chinese won’t understand you. As I repeat ‘Wo bu hui shuo putonghua’ (‘I don’t speak Mandarin’) I hear a ‘Ni hui shuo yingwen ma?’ (‘Do you speak English?’) from behind.
Winter is coming. In Jiayuquan Antoine and I passed by the Great Chinese Wall and thereby entered the ancient Chinese territory. During the next ten days we should pedal through three different seasons as well as encounter people from three different cultural backgrounds: Han-Chinese, Muslim and Tibetan.
Summer. We leave the dusty plains of the Taklamakan desert behind us. Even though it is late september, temperatures here still rise up to 30 degrees and more. In front of us, a rather unimpressive mud wall marks the end of the desert. A very old part of the Great Wall, connected to the big fort of Jiayuquan, was built in 1372 as the last major stronghold of imperial China. It was there to protect the 'civilized world' from the barbarian armies of Central Asia.
After an interesting visit to the fort (where we could use our national ID-cards at the entry to get a student discount), we were greeted by our Warmshowers host Han, the Han-Chinese (Han meaning The Best in Chinese). Warmshowers is an internet page where local people offer hospitality to foreign cyclists. Normally this means you can sleep at their place, cook together, and just generally spend a nice time together. For Han this meant paying a fancy hotel room for Antoine and me, and inviting us to the best restaurant in town. That is not really the spirit of Warmshowers, we thought. But all our arguments didn't discourage Han from spending a lot of money on us and so I had to sleep in the nicest hotel I've ever been to. It is almost unbelievable to me, that a Chinese electrician spends nearly half of his monthly wage in one night on two complete strangers. Some people's hospitality knows no boundaries.
We continued through the hot plains, mostly camping in corn fields, wondering why there are so many cannabis plants around, until we reached the city of Zhangye. At this last town before turning towards the mountains we had our first encounter with Buddhism. Again obtaining a student discounts through our foreign ID-cards, we entered a buddhist temple containing a 35 meter long, sleeping Buddha statue: China's largest sleeping Buddha made out of clay with a wooden core - and maybe the only one. But for sure it was worth a visit.
Autumn. After Zhangye, we made our way towards the Qilian Mountains, seperating Gansu province from Qinghai province. With every meter we climbed the temperatures got tangibly colder and more and more Buddhist prayer flags paved our way. Suddenly it was autumn. The red and yellow coloured trees above 2,000m matched the colourful Tibetan flags on the surrounding mountain ridges and gave way for a fantastic scenery. We entered the natural park of Mati Si where some amazing Buddhist caves are located (Of course we used our ID-cards again to pay half the price, what where you thinking?), and used the last hours of sunlight to discover these grottoes built in sheer sandstone cliffs and filled with carvings, temples and meditation rooms. The night in our tent got freezing cold. Looks like I have to get used to all-day-long frozen hands and feet again.
Deeper and deeper we cycled into the mountains. Higher and higher we climbed until the yellow autumn leaves disappeared and some first snow came in sight. 3,000 meter above sea level winter was coming.
Winter. Around five days we spent almost entirely above 3,000m. Luckily, we could manage to avoid the tent for four nights in a row by asking villagers where we can pitch up our tent which always resulted in an invitation to a warmer place. The first night we could spent in a kind of karaoke-room, where we could use the comfortable couches as beds after taking what seemed to be a thousand pictures with the people from the village.
For the next three days, we had to pass three different mountain passes, slightly increasing in hight. 3,685m. 3,767m. 3,793m. I was wearing all my winter gear again that I last time had to use in Croatia, about six months ago. But we were lucky: On top of the first mountain pass, where one day before there was heavy snowfall, we were greeted by the sun. This way, we could form our first snowballs of the winter and enjoy the astonishing views over the mountains.
Thus, we continued through valleys and mountain passes, saw some majestic yaks as well as some cute hamster-like creatures, slept in a storehouse and in the guest room of a family, always avoiding the freezing winter nights. On every mountain top, colourful Tibetan flags and curious Chinese tourists awaited us. Uphill we were seating and downhill we were freezing. And the scenery was always incredible.
Before rolling into the two-million city Xining, we passed a few Muslim villages and the noticeable difference in the behaviour between Muslim and Han-Chinese was more than surprising. Whereas Han-Chinese mostly stare at you as if you would come from a totally different planet, people from the Muslim minority greet you with a friendly smile. That doesn't mean that Han-Chinese are unfriendly, in contrary I like them very much. It makes me just feel a bit uncomfortable to be stared at by hundreds of people.
Xining is a melting pot of cultures. One third Han-Chinese, one third Muslim and one third Tibetan inhabitants makes this city an interesting place to discover. Antoine and me have almost a whole hostel to ourselves. Here, we are recovering from the hard cycling days as well as planning our next kilometers on the bike. Every evening, two other guests from the hostel arrive - two 50-year-old Chinese men - and carry half a liter of liquor with them. Then it is again time to drink alcohol with the hostel owners and some other Chinese people, that I don't know if they are guests or whatever. It doesn't matter - Chinese know how to enjoy themselves and so every evening ends in a lot of laughter and noise.
Tibet - Colourful, Wonderful, Merciless. Tibet, also called the Land of Snow, is a truly wonderful place. Its people, its landscapes and its culture made it to one of the most amazing sights on my journey. But cycling Tibet in mid-october is not easy: Temperatures at night drop way below zero and, surprise, there can be a lot of snowfall in the Land of Snow. Actually I just crossed Eastern Tibet. Tibet, but not really Tibet. Chinese authorities don't count it as Tibet and thus it is possible for me, as a Tourist, to explore it on my own. Tibetan people on the other hand don't really care about borders and express their culture the same way than their relatives in 'real' Tibet.
It is cold outside and my hands are freezing as I enter the small village restaurant. In the middle of a room stands an old stove heating up the interior. The place is packed with people. Tibetans with long wild hair and moustaches, Buddhist monks in their red robes. Now they are all staring at me, the white faced Westerner. As always, my answer is to stare back at them. Some of them are smiling, some abruptly avert their face. A monk is waving me over and I can sit at his table.
I can't read the menu, so I just ask for a beef noodle soup (a very tasty noodle soup with some small pieces of meat). The waitress tells me that they don't serve this dish here but she can bring me something similar. Okay. After a few minutes she puts a boiling pot of soup in front of me. The content: A lot of meat with a few noodles. The soup is tasty and after a few careful sips I feel my face getting red and sweat running down my forehead. I forgot to tell her 'bu là', meaning not spicy.
My first stop after Xining was in Xiahe where Labrang Monastery is located. As one of the six major Tibetan monasteries, Labrang attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over Tibet who, once they arrive in Xiahe, will walk the 3km long kora, the pilgrim path encircling the monastery. When completing the path, the pilgrims will turn endless prayer wheels in meditating fashion while muttering some Buddhist chants. Witnessing this spectacular event was fantastic.
Fantastic was also the contact with the Tibetan population. It really feels like time is standing still in the stunning valleys, dotted with small Tibetan villages. Old folk in traditional clothes and wrinkled skin as an evidence of a hard working life in the mountains. Mothers carrying their babies like a backpack and wearing their hear in two braids. Men riding on their mopeds with their long hair floating in the wind. I will always remember scenes like an old woman with shaky hands passing me a pear, a Buddhist monk taking a picture of a cow with his DSLR-camera, or a girl taking a picture of her own yak with her smartphone while collecting the dung that is necessary to heat the stove. Is she sending the picture of the yak to her friends? I will never forget these ecounters. At least until I get hit by a car again...
Yes. Because just one day after leaving Xining I once again fell from my bicycle. This time a car hit me. As I was rolling down a mountain pass a driver overtook me and then suddenly turned right without looking for the cyclist it just passed one second ago. I was too fast to react in time and so I crashed into the car with full speed and fell down on my left knee and elbow. Again I was lucky. Neither the bicycle nor I suffered some serious damage. But I was outraged. Chinese car drivers are the worst - it was just a matter of time until a vehicle knocked me over. What do they think are the outside mirrors for? As the driver stepped out of his car with an innocent smile on his lips it got too much for me. I just hopped on my biycle and cycled on.
Soon the accident was forgotten and I continued enjoying the perfect mountain scenery. Most afternoons featured a clear sky and lots of sunlight warming up my weary bones. But once the sun sets, temperatures drop way below zero. One night, my bicycle computer showed -9°C and the coldest part of the night was still to come. The limit of my winter sleeping bag was therefore already exceeded and I put on two pairs of socks, trousers and a thermo shirt too keep myself warm. It didn't change the fact that the cold was waking me up several times. The next morning I was opening up a frozen tent, walking towards my frozen bicycle just to see that all my water and food was frozen. I had to melt the ice over my cooking stove in order to drink something.
The next night didn't get that cold. But the soft sound of precipitation on my tent woke me up in the morning. First, I thought it was raining. Then I opened my tent just to see that the whole grassland was painted white. Snow. As I was climbing up the mountain pass I was reminded on my first month of cycling in Europe. After one hour in the cold I couldn't feel my hands and feet anymore. Rolling downhill with the wind in my face just made matters worse. Big wet snowflakes blew horizontally across the land, making it hard to follow the street. A herd of yaks passed me. With their wet fur they looked just as miserable as me.
I am in Langmusi now, an alpine resort located at the border between Gansu and Sichuan province. While waiting for Antoine (who finally decided to take the same route as me and now is three days behind me) I will go for a day-hike or two. Afterwards we will head towards Chengdu, leaving the high altitude as soon as possible. I had a truly amazing week in the Land of Snow. But for my own safety I guess it is better to leave the mountains behind. I already tested the limits of my sleeping bag - I don't feel like testing the limits of my body.
The price of modernisation. This week brought me from the lonely high plateaus of Tibet down the Min River through steep valleys to the Sichuan basin with its 14-million-metropolis Chengdu. China is growing - economically and in population - and thus, more and more infrastructure needs to be constructed. The more land humans are grabbing, the less space there will be for nature and its animals. Cycling along the national road G213, I got to experience first hand what happens when we become too dependent on modern comforts and what desasters can happen if we try to tame nature.
Straight roads for kilometers on end. Clear blue skies and unlimited open land in parts dotted with yak herds. Three days I cycled across a Tibetan high plateau. 250 kilometer with just one small town along the way and therefore hardly any traffic. Two more cold nights above 3,500m until I reached the 'roof' of my travel at 3,840m above sea level. No tourism, no people, no noise, no nothing.
Then I reached the source of the Min Jiang, the biggest tributary stream of the mighty Yangzi River. I followed it for more than 300km through steep valleys and breathtaking landscapes towards Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. But soon I realized that the stream that once must have been a raging torrent situated in a primeval surrounding, today seems rather tame: China constructed 27 (!) dams to generate enough energy for the ever-growing Sichuan basin. Furthermore, the small valley, that is just broad enough for the river to flow through while allowing a few small villages at its bank, is now pierced with a well-paved national road plus a brand new highway. A high-speed railway is currently under construction. Almost the entire train ride will be either on bridges or in tunnels.
Now one can argue that all this growth in infrastructure will have a positive affect on the local economy. And it's true that from the moment I entered the valley I was surrounded by hordes of tourists. The Min Jiang valley is host to a stunning mountains scenery as well as cute villages with excellent architecture - it's a tourist magnet. At least ten tour-buses are passing me per minute, honking their way around the dangerous serpentines. Most of the settlements expanded into resort towns with five-star hotels, big restaurants and international supermarket chains. Everything is shiny and restored. Bigger, better and 'older' than ever before.
So who is actually profiting from this new wealth in the region? The locals (in this part of China a muslim minority group) are still selling their agricultural crops at the side of the road. In tourist hotspots you can see people begging on the street (after probably losing their family house and land to the Chinese government who needed the space to build a new railway line). Also, on my bicycle I have the opportunity to see what lays inbetween the refurbished toursit attractions: Dusty villages with hard-working farmers. Their life is the still the same than a hundred years ago - but instead of flowing water and singing birds all they hear nowadays is the honking of a thousand buses and trucks.
Then there is another group of people that modernisation left behind. These are the women and men who invested in a hotel or restaurant along the national road G213 to attract passing tourists. They got dependent on tourism and as the new highway was built and the big flock of visitors found a more direct way to move up the valley, restaurants and hotels got closed down one after another leaving behind half empty villages. The same will happen to the restaurant owners along the highway once the railway is working.
Meanwhile I almost reached the end of the long Min Jiang Valley. The river grew continously and the surrounding mountains got greener and greener. Around 150 kilometer in front of Chengdu it almost feels like a Jungle. The national road G213 is still well paved, connecting otherwise remote villages with the big cities of the basin. The highway is always nearby, often disappearing in the mountains for many kilometers and the construction of the railway is making good progress. The Chinese found a way to tame the valley. Except, you can't tame nature...
12.05.2008, 06:28. An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 hits Sichuan and whole mountains in the Min Jian Valley start to move. Huge rocks destroy streets, bridges, tunnel and villages. More than 70,000 people die that day and hundreds of thousands get cut off from the outside world. The falling rocks are blocking the river and once these 'dams' break, whole villages get flooded. It's a national desaster.
Now, more than 8 years after the tragedy, still a small part of the national road is under construction. Cycling the otherwise perfectly paved road suddenly becomes a real adventure. I have to go around broken bridges, always following the course of the river on a muddy slope. Sometimes big stones block the path and I have to climb them to keep moving - for 8 years already this part of the street is closed for traffic. I cross abandoned pitch-black tunnels where I have to feel my way through the dark since my bicycle lights are not working at the moment. A man living in a cut-off village invites me for lunch but apologizes for not being able to serve better food. These are hard times.
In Yingxiu I reach the epicenter of the earthquake and the street goes back to normal. One more day and I cycle into Sichuan's capital, Chengdu. International designer brands replaced the traditional clothes of the villages before. The small wooden houses of the valley turned into uncountable skyscrapers and the noise of the traffic is the complete opposite of the silence of the Tibetan high plateau one week ago. This could be any other big city on this planet.
As the human population keeps on growing and cities expand by day, other species get pushed back and extinct. One of the most popular examples is the Giant Panda that is native to Sichuan. Existing for many million years, these lovely animals are considered living fossiles. Anyway, the human penetration into their habitat caused them so much stress that they hardly reproduce anymore. Nowadays there are around 1,800 wild living Giant Pandas while humans are trying to guarantee the survival of their species in a so-called Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu. Of course I went there to watch some Pandas doing Panda things!
The End? Saturday, 19.Nov.2016, 15:37. We leave the well-paved road because of the heavy traffic and take a shortcut towards Lijiang. The tertiary road is dusty, steep and has a lot of big rocks in it but the silence of the valley is fascinating. I cycle in front of the others as I suddenly hear a loud crack coming from my bike. Having a closer look I realize that both gear cables of my Rohloff snapped and, even worse, the whloe counterholder of my gearbox broke. Fuck. This is most probably the end of my bicycle trip...
Two weeks before. I leave Chengdu behind and cycle southwards through a jungle-like landscape. Eight days of cold and wet weather, steep mountains and no sun make this one of the hardest parts of my journey. My observations about the jungle are the following:
One week before. I arrive in Xichang where Antoine, the French guy I cycled with before, is already waiting for me. The city is very warm and, having sun for the first time since entering the Sichuan basin around Chengdu, it feels like spring to me. Just before we want to move on, two more cyclists arrive at our hostel - Jens and Conny, a couple from Germany. They will also join us on our next stage.
Two days before. Today is the 'royal stage' of my bicycle trip, as they would call it at the Tour de France. 2,004 meter uphill in 40 kilometer makes an average incline of 5%. It takes us the whole day to climb up this mountain and we reach the top exactly at sunset. A look in our faces tells us that this was a very hard and tiring day. But happiness and pride prevails.
16 hours before. We sit around the warming campfire preparing pancakes and two huge bowls of apple compot. As we cycled down the mountain this morning, Jens had the great idea to buy four apples - one for each of us. What he couldn't know was that a few minutes later a van stopped and some women gave us about 15 more apples. And Jens also couldn't know that in the restaurant where we had our lunch the lady donated us four more apples. So we decided to have apple pancakes with apple compot for the night. As we were cooking next to the fire, a huge truck stopped and two men parked a steamroller right next to our tents. Luckily the roadworks didn't start before the next morning. Oh, and of course the men gave us four more apples making it a total of 27.
47 minutes before. After I demolished half of my bicycle on the dirt roads in Kyrgyzstan I actually wanted to avoid unpaved streets for the rest of my trip. But hearing the birds sing their songs and the mountain river gently flow I am happy about having left the busy road. In a remote village we all are having a pot of instant noodles for lunch. 47 minutes later the misfortune took place.
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5 minutes after. I am lucky. I am lucky to be in such great company. Without hesitation the group decides to end the cycling day, set up camp next to the beautiful river and have a closer look at my problem. At a nearby village, that seems to be only inhabited by all kinds of animals, we get eight cold beers and vegetables. We take a quick bath in the icecold stream and put up our tents. Conny is cooking dinner while Antoine is collecting firewood and Jens is checking on my bicycle.
25 minutes after. I soon realize that I am probably the least-prepared touring cyclist of all time. As I was already thinking about selling the bicycle and buying a good backpack instead in order to finish this journey on foot, Jens comes up with an idea. Repairing the torn gear cables is a rather easy task for him. To fix the broken counterholder he cuts a plastic screw with his pocket knife into the right shape and then fastens it with a screw nut on the other side. Somehow Jens MacGyvered the whole thing back together. It's unbelievable.
21 hours after. It was a really cold morning so we had to wait almost until midday to start the day. After eating our daily portion of porridge we start the climb towards the next mountain pass. To not put too much pressure onto the plastic screw I push my bicycle for eight kilometers up the mountain. Then I can roll down on the other side. When there is a short uphill, Antoine and Jens cycle next to me both pushing me up with one arm while I try to help them without putting too much pressure on the pedals again. Great guys. This way we reach the next town where we check into a hotel for the night.
29 hours after. Staying in this hotel as foreigners, we have to register at the police station. After the common confusion (no policemen really knows what to do) and difficulties with finding our visas (they always mix up the Chinese with the Iranian visa), the job is finally done. One policeman gives us a ride back to our hotel - in his police car. With blue light flashing of course. Being in a Chinese police car is a crazy experience, I can tell you.
2 days after. Now it's time to really repair the bicycle. Antoine and I are searching the whole morning for a good welder in this small town. Without success. Even though we eventually found one, this guy didn't really care about my problem and just ignored me. As I already gave up Jens convinced me to try it one last time and, as a matter of fact, we found a welder who was willing to help. With hands and feet we explained my problem and after about one hour he welded my gear box perfectly. He really earned the 5€ I gave him.
4 days after. We cross the mighty Yangzi, China's biggest river, and climb up one last mountain pass before reaching Lijiang, China's most touristy city. After an exhausting week we are all very tired. My Rohloff gearbox is working again and I am confident to be able to cycle the last 3,000km to The Raintree Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Thank you Jens! Thank you Antoine! Thank you Conny!