Pete's Trip Reports

Tibetan Plateau, September/October 2005

On-the-road trip reports and pictures from an eight week trip covering 4400km, mostly in the Amdo-Tibet and Kham-Tibet areas of China. Click on any thumbnail for full size pic.....

Golmud out and back.........

Subject: Hi from Golmud.....
Date: Sep 10, 2005 11:53 AM

Greetings from Golmud, in Qinghai province, North of Tibet. The town is variously described in guidebooks as 'oblivion end of china' or 'depressing and forlorn' - it doesn't seem that bad! Spent the last week riding the 780km from Lanzhou. Interesting riding, starting off with the climb of the Nyima la pass, on to the tibetan plateau, then passing through grassland with hundreds of nomads tents and sheep and cattle, then crossing over into the desert for the final few days. Finding the riding quite hard, having to carry food and water for a few days at times, occasional snowstorms or hailstorms on the passes, plus a fierce headwind for the last 2 days crossing the desert, struggling to get above walking pace at times. At least the road is in good condition though! Camping in the desert really cool, very quiet and dark, watching the stars, just the occasional lights and rumble from a long distance lorry appearing from the distance.

Anyway, thats the easy bit out of the way! Spending a couple of days here, mainly horizontal (!), watching american films badly dubbed into chinese, and eating a lot. Will hit the road again in a couple of days, once I've recovered a bit. Hope everything OK back in UK.

Heading south to Yushu

Subject: Yushu'd take up an easier hobby!!
Date: Oct 5, 2005 6:59 AM

Hi All, now in Yushu, 1447km from Golmud, in deepest Khampa Tibet. Unable to get through on the golmud-lhasa road, individual travellers not being allowed through at the moment, and cunning attempt to slip through at 4am got spotted! Had to backtrack for a few days back across the desert and the plains (the plains that were full of nomads the week before now empty apart from a few tyre tracks, an eerie sight) before heading south, crossing two big mountain ranges A'nyemaqen Shan and Bayan Har Shan to get here. Impressive town, busy bustling place, nestled deep in a steep sided valley overlooked by the huge Jyekundo monastery high up on the steep hillside.

Some incredible sights on the way, sitting in the sun brewing up green tea on deserted high passes with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, riding through tiny villages clustered around buddhist temples clinging to the hillside, plains full of cattle and brown tents festooned with prayer flags, gaggles of young buddhists in red robes clamouring round when I stop in some of the villages (for some reason the buddhists seem fascinated by the technical details of the bike, gears, toe clips, water bottles, bike computer - especially the computer!).

Some difficult days too, roadworks for the first 2 days heading south, road down to dirt, sand and rock, constant stream of lorries covering everything in dust, road builders camps every few kilometres making it hard to find good camping spots. And crossing the Bayan Har Shan particularly hard, road goes up to 4600m then seems to spend forever crossing desolate plateau, constantly going up and down in short stiff climbs and drops, took me 2 days to get over it, on the 2nd day it started snowing hard, whiteout, road starting to get covered in snow, down to 1 gear on the bike as the gears got clogged with ice, hands and feet soaked and frozen - quite a relief to make it down off the plateau to the next village to thaw out with green tea and noodles!

Quite cold at night, camping out on the passes, mostly above 4000m, most nights wearing most of my clothes inside the sleeping bag, and still chilly. Living mainly on instant noodles, chinese energy drink, and biscuits (which are about the 3 things that every shop no matter how tiny always stock) and occasional cafe stop for momos and rice - am constantly hungry! Interesting wildlife, on the higher areas see foxes stalking through the snow, huge birds of prey on almost every other telegraph pole, and the ever present marmots scurrying about.

Thats about all to report for now! Will hang around here for a couple of days to recover, eat a lot, and work out route from here. Great to get a hot shower too, after 6 days of wild camping. Hope everything OK back in the UK!!

West to Ganze

Subject: Latest report from tibet.....
Date: Oct 5, 2005 6:59 AM

Greetings, Now in Ganze (garze/gansi - every place here seems to have about 10 different spellings!), 480km from Yushu on small back roads of varying quality, mostly bumpy tarmac, but quite a lot of dirt road too, and mostly above 4000m. This is still in the Kham-Tibet area, or "Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture" to give it its catchy official chinese title! Superb route through from Yushu though, very noticeably more Tibetan, huge numbers of monasteries on hillsides, lots of nomad tents festooned with prayer flags, more high passes with fluttering prayer flags, and cries of 'Hollo' disappear almost completely, to be replaced by constant enthusiastic shouts of 'Tashi Dele' (tibetan hello/good luck) and smiles and waves. Very little traffic, mostly buddhists in red robes on motorbikes, and the occasional lorry or SUV. Some superb moments, particularly...................

Riding towards Sershul monastery in the early morning, hands still frozen from packing away the frost covered tent, when a tibetan buddhist monk runs down to the road and invites me into his tent for tea - inside there are 6 slumbering buddhists under thick blankets. I sat and warmed up as he piled more dried yak dung into the stove and made me black tea and tsampa for breakfast.

Arriving in a tiny village near Serxu, almost dark, smoke coming from the tiny mud huts on the hillside, some small dwellings burrowed into the side of the mud cliffs, and prayer flags and shrines sillouhetted on the hillside above. Everyone pointed me to the small guest house, which looked like a disused barn from outside, but sure enough inside was a small room with wooden beams and 5 beds, and tibetan family who sat with me for a while, then gave me momos and yak butter tea for breakfast.

Coming down from a high pass in furious hailstorm, very wet and cold, and getting invited in to a small nomad tent, the whole family in there, a couple of buddhist monks sitting by the stove, grunting of yaks from outside. I sat and warmed up as they gave me rice with yak butter and chilli sauce, and very buttery tea!

Or riding up the long pass after the sprawling Dzogchen monastery, up a steep sided valley, for a change very quiet, no tents or dwellings, then steep hairpins on dirt road before arriving at mass of prayer flags at the top, huge mass of rocky mountains suddenly appearing and completely deserted.

Or the ride down to Ganze, slight feeling of sadness that I was dropping down and leaving the higher plains behind, but superb landscape as it changed dramatically from bleak plains and hills to wide sun baked valley, parched yellow fields, tall brown square buildings with mud walls, and tree lined roads - it almost felt like I had ridden into a different country, although the constant monasteries, small shrines, and shouts of 'Tashi Dele' reminded me that it was still very Tibetan.

Some less good times too, lots of cold and wet weather, when it rains here it really chucks it down, and the riding can be hard going especially on the rockier dirt roads. The night in a cheap hotel in Maniganggo, kept awake all night by a whole family of rats scuttling around the floor and clambering over my bike must rate as one of the low points of the whole trip!

All in all though, an incredible area - maybe not as many spectacular sights as the package-tour areas of Lhasa and Shigatse, but a lot quieter, seems a lot less visited, and just normal Tibetans and Tibetan buddhist monks getting on with their daily lives, and their incredible friendliness and generosity towards complete strangers.

For now, I am spending a couple of days in Ganze, stocking up on food, and browsing the map for the onward route. Hope everything is well back in the UK!

Ganze to Lanzhou

Subject: Greetings from Xiahe
Date: Oct 18, 2005 3:47 AM

Hi from Xiahe, now 997km away from Ganze (via my meandering back route). Town is home to one of the largest buddhist monasteries in china, and lies about 300km south-west of Lanzhou. From Ganze I was originally thinking of continuing south to Chengdu, but this route back up north looked really interesting on the map, and much longer too, too hard to resist! It turned out to be a superb route, often following river valleys interspersed by high passes, and long rolling grasslands. Too many great sights to describe really, but some of the more interesting moments:

After leaving Luhuo, and riding over a high and rather bleak pass on bumpy dirt road, the road headed down into a steep sided mountain valley with roaring river below. The character of the villages changed dramatically, from the small mud walled houses near Luhuo, to tall stone built swiss-chalet-like houses clinging to the hillside, with elaborate colourful paintwork. And one and half days of downhill!! I came across quite a few buddhist monks walking this road, prostrating themselves on the ground every few steps.

Climbing up towards Maerkang, more colourfully painted stone houses, flowers growing in gardens, neat piles of bright yellow sweetcorn drying on balconies, and crops growing on terraces. With the warm sun on my back, I felt like I could have been in the mediterranean. Only the occasional cluster of prayer flags, small shrines, or my favourite, water-powered prayer wheels, reminded me where I was!

A rather grim day getting to Xoige, getting chased by quite a few vicious dogs, pitching the tent in heavy rain and rumbles of thunder, too wet to go outside and cook anything, then freezing cold morning kicking snow off everything, and constant roadworks, with road down to slippery wet mud and rocks. I was feeling a bit gloomy at this point, but then coming towards me, two other cycle tourists, the first I had seen since arriving in china 6 weeks ago. It turned out to be an english couple who were riding from Scandinavia to Australia, via Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Meeting them really cheered me up, and my tour, and its difficulties, suddenly seemed a bit Noddy in comparison. And after that the sun even came out for the rest of the day!

Last night before reaching Xiahe, arriving at a tiny tibetan village (not even on my map) just before dark, monastery on the hillside behind, groups of buddhist monks in the street, little pigs wandering about everywhere, and finding it had a small guest house, no loo or running water, just a bed in a bare stone floored room, but compared to tent, hugely luxurious! And then the next day taking a deserted dirt back road (also not even on my map) across to Xiahe, just the occasional nomads heading south with their tent and possessions strapped on the backs of their herd of yaks.............

All in all, a really interesting couple of weeks. I was expecting things to get less tibetan and more chinese as I got further north, but not at all - everytime I thought that I was finally back in more-mainstream china, yet another monastery, small village with temple and prayer wheel circuit, small shrine and pile of rocks, or cluster of prayer flags would appear!

Anyway, am planning to stay here in Xiahe for a few days to relax, and wander round the monastery. Town was a bit of a shock to the system at first, quite a big tourist attraction, cafes with english menus etc, lots of westerners, and after 6 weeks of hardly seeing another english speaking person, I had to resist the urge to rush up and talk to every westerner I saw!! After this I'll head up to Lanzhou for flight back, so next email from me will probably be from the UK - after the bitter cold here, I am looking forward to getting back to the nice warm climate of England!!

Useful info

If you are heading to this area, here are some route notes that you might find useful.