Pictures from Eastern China

November 21st, 2014 by David

Eastern China is one of the most population dense regions of the world (see our route and click on “see population density” above the map). When we planned our route, we didn’t expect to find any good biking riding to Beijing, or between Beijing and Shanghai. We were wrong. While the pollution was horrible in some places, we were pleasantly surprised by many of the country roads (thank you Google walking directions) and we enjoyed riding through the countryside during the harvest months of October and November. Most cities were also relatively easy to bike across due to dedicated lanes for bikes (or, more often, electric scooters).

We took a lot of pictures — here are links to the individual albums:
Hong Kong
Hitchbiking to Baotou
Baotou to Beijing
Bikes in Beijing
Beijing to Shanghai

And here are some of our favorite photos from these albums:


A Visit to International School of Beijing

November 7th, 2014 by David

We’re in Beijing!

Our first full day in the city, we biked to the International School of Beijing (ISB) and gave a series of presentations to students ranging from the 5th to 12th grades. The school’s videographers made this fantastic video of our visit:


Baotou to Beijing — Coal Trucks and the Great Wall

November 4th, 2014 by David

About half of the world’s coal burned this year will be burned in China, and most of that coal is mined in the area north and west of Beijing. One reason that we decided to bike from Baotou to Beijing was that we wanted to ride through this coal-producing and burning region of the world. We expected this ride to be educational; we didn’t expect it to be scenic or fun.

Well, we were wrong. Yes, the coal trucks made for some horrible riding, and the last two days into Beijing were relatively unpleasant, but we were also surprised by the many excellent secondary roads, where fall colors arched over the roads and farmers harvested corn husks and other remains of the harvest. That said, we sometimes found ourselves on roads like this, on our way into Baotou.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

We started in this city, which is on the Yellow River and which the Lonely Planet aptly describes as “booming but unlovely.” Goux Lee (CHECK), a warm showers host, treated us like royalty. Goux owns a Trek bike shop, and when we arrived at his store he immediately set to work inspecting our bikes. A few hours later, Lindsey had new brakes and new brake levers, and both of our bikes had new chains. Perhaps most shockingly, Goux and his friends cleaned our bikes. It’s been months since I’ve seen some parts of del Fuego or Mini-Momem through the dirt and grime. I think both bikes were excited.

After fixing our steeds, Goux and his friends, almost none of whom spoke any English, took us out to a restaurant across the street. Soon we were eating a feast of Peking Duck and drinking good wine. One of his friends insisted we stay another day so that he could feed us the next night. We said we’d have to leave in the morning, but he could join us for breakfast. We then invited the six of them to join us on their bikes and ride out of town with us the next day.

They must have told their friends. In the morning, about 10 cyclists joined us for a breakfast of mutton dumplings. Another 10 joined after breakfast, making it 20 in total – on a Tuesday morning – biking out of town with us. Together, we rode out of Baotou, winding around unofficial waste-dumps and high-rises under construction to reach a newly-paved bike path along a levy following the Yellow River. For the next 20 kilometers we biked together. When it was time to part, we stopped and every cyclist took about 30 pictures of us with their smartphones.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

All the cyclists except Goux and a friend of his returned to Baotou, and then the four of us continued along the levy. The paved road turned to well-packed dirt. We saw a few people with fishing lines in the water, even though a number of signs clearly indicated that you should not fish, drink, or even touch the water. I asked Goux if that was because it was too polluted. He said “yes,” and then said, in his limited English, “Food pollution, water pollution, air pollution, all big problems here.” I believed it — the air around Baotou had been think with dust from construction and smog. Also, I wondered how the water could be too polluted to touch, but not too polluted to irrigate the fields of corn in the river’s floodplain. We’ve heard that this is one way the food is contaminated, and that many farmers will not eat the food they grow for this reason.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

Goux and his friend eventually turned back, and we continued on. We turned off the levy-road, only to encounter our first line of coal trucks. We crossed the Yellow River with a string of these trucks, and then turned onto a secondary road, free of such vehicles. The next few days would be like this: long sections on country roads, broken up with shorter sections on throughways for the lumbering transporters of carbon.

Our first night we found a campsite in some trees along a tributary of the Yellow River, and set up our tent. I thought this part of China would have too many people to camp; again, we were wrong. The only challenge is that in late October, the sun sets well before we want to stop biking. In some ways this is nice, as it provides an excuse to spend an hour or two in the tent reading (Books we’ve been reading: When a Billion Chinese Jump, Country Driving, The Geography of Thought, and Out of Mao’s Shadow.) – or, on this stretch of the journey, preparing for our many presentations scheduled in Beijing.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

The second day we crossed the Yellow River again, and again we were joined by what seemed like an endless string of coal trucks. Lindsey put on a mask she had purchased in Baotou to protect her from the dust. I wore mine for about three seconds and found it uncomfortable. I assumed the pollution would get worse, and I’d wear a mask then. Anyway, tough guys don’t need pollution masks, right?

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

In the late afternoon, along a newly paved road, we soon found that traffic in our direction had stopped, and a line of parked coal trucks stretched to the horizon. We passed the trucks, and Lindsey started counting them. After passing 125, we arrived at the cause of the hold up. A small cart had been parked in the middle of the road, with rocks placed around its wheels, and a banner hung across the street. This was right next to a small village, and my immediate thought was that this was a protest by the people in the village. I was afraid to take out my camera, but I turned on my GoPro on the front of the bike, and was able to film the banner. On the far side, a small bus full of police officers came to a stop, and one of the police officers, perhaps only 20 years old, stuck his head out the window and stared at us. “Hello,” he said.

Protest Sign

Lindsey tried to ask if it was an accident. He shook his head, but when she innocently asked what had happened, he seemed flustered and said “I cannot explain.” We don’t know if it was language or protocol that prevented the conversation from continuing. Then another, older, police officer, standing outside the vehicle, shook his head at us and waved us on. As we left, we saw people clearing rocks from the vehicle blocking the road to move the cart out of the way.

On the other side, Lindsey counted about 275 more trucks, making 400 in total waiting for the road to be cleared. One person we talked to said the cars had waited for only an hour or so, meaning that quite a few trucks had backed up in a very short time. A week later, in Beijing, we had someone translate the banner for us. It apparently says something like “Huilin transportation county office, the road is blocked, and the bureau chief has a black heart” — and “black heart” is actually some type of swear word. Our only guess is that people in the village were upset so many coal trucks were passing by their home. If I lived there, I’d also be upset by the noise and dust.

We found another great campsite, and the following day we enjoyed a 600 meter climb along a mostly-empty country road, and then another 60 kilometers on peaceful, well-paved country roads that wound through small villages. People were loading corn husks onto carts pulled by small motored tricycles or donkeys. And we watched people threshing beans, buckwheat, and millet. At one point we stopped and talked to a group of men and women piling up carrots after harvest.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

As we’ve traveled in China, we’ve interviewed people about whether or not they think the climate has changed. We’ve been doing this by holding up a sheet with questions written out in Chinese, asking things like “Are winters warmer or colder than when you were a child? Does it rain more or less?” and so on. We interviewed the carrot farmers, and about one or two people a day for this entire stretch. Unfortunately, we have no idea what people said. We’re looking for help translating these conversations, and if you speak any Chinese, you can watch the videos here and help us out. We think that people are saying that it is getting warmer, but that it hasn’t really affected them very much… but we need better translation to be sure that is what people are saying.

That evening, as sunset approached, we tried to ask a few people in the towns we passed if we could camp. They all pointed us farther along the road. The small towns in this part of China have felt poorer than almost anywhere we’ve traveled. I think it’s because many of the houses are abandoned, and we’ve seen almost no young people. Most of the people harvesting corn or threshing grain appear to be well over the age of 40. It feels like the countryside is, for lack of a better word, dying. I think – and we’ve read – that all the young people have moved to the cities, where the jobs and the future of China seems to be.

The fourth day out from Baotou, we biked through many more of these small villages. In one of them, when we stopped at a small store, about 25 people, with nothing to do on a weekday morning, crowded around to stare at the cyclists. It was a different, less energetic interest than we saw in places like Uzbekistan, something that I attribute to Chinese being less extroverted, and the fact that the people in the countryside are, on average, much older than their counterparts in Central Asia. One of the old men came up to us and said “Hallelujah,” and then gave us a pen that appeared to have Bible verses written on it in Chinese. As we left town, we also saw a church — we’ve heard that Christianity has been growing quickly in China, and our friend was likely one of the converts.

We road to the north of Datong, by another huge power plant, and then, an hour before sunset, gained our first view of the Great Wall. From a distance, it appeared neither great nor wall-like, as all we saw were square, tapered mud towers rising up from harvested corn fields. As we approached, we saw a low mud wall connecting them. We stopped and tried to walk to the wall, and after 10 minutes of walking, we realized it was much bigger — and farther away — than we thought. It was, in fact, Great.

As dark approached, we tried to find a place to camp. We have a piece of paper with “can we camp here?” written in Chinese, and we showed this to some men along the road in a village where about half of the mud homes appeared to be disintegrating. They pointed to a spot right by the road, and we shook our heads. They eventually showed us a spot by what appeared to be an abandoned home. They stayed around and tried to communicate with us for a bit, I filmed them responding to our questions on climate change, and then they left.

This was the first time on this journey where we’ve asked for a place to camp and people have shown us a place to camp in their village instead of inviting us to camp next to their home or stay in it. We were fine with this, but it was surprising, in some ways. We guessed we had been spoiled by the extreme, guerrilla hospitality practiced in the Muslim countries of Central Asia.

It was also very surprising when, an hour later, as we read in our sleeping bags, footsteps approached our tent and suddenly our tent door was unzipped. An older man stuck his head into the tent and started talking loudly. Our terror quickly turned to amusement, as he seemed to be concerned that we were cold and hungry, and we think he might have been inviting us to his house. However, we had already eaten, and he smelled of alcohol. I filmed a bit of him sticking his head into our tent. After he left, I looked out of the tent and noticed that the town was entirely dark. Even though this part of the world is burning more coal than anywhere else, producing incredible amounts of electricity, this town was either not connected to the grid or too poor to turn the lights on.

We left camp well before dawn and spent the sunrise climbing on a stretch of the Great Wall. We read that bricks once covered the mud towers and connecting walls, but now it is just the mud interiors, with trees growing out of parts of it. A section had been cleared for the road, which made passage from Inner Mongolia to the rest of China far easier than it was hundreds of years ago. We stood atop a watchtower on the abandoned wall and watched the sun rise over the horizon.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

What proceeded turned out to be our longest day of the trip so far — 165 km, or 102 miles. With a gradual downhill, strong tailwind, and great pavement (except for one 10km stretch of dirt), we pedaled quickly toward Zhangjiakou, a town where we had a host. The Great Wall paralleled us far to our left, and then climbed over the mountains as we progressed during the day. We passed through many more small villages, some surrounded by mud walls that appeared to be a similar vintage to the Great Wall. The last 20 kilometers of the day were some of the least pleasant of the trip, as we entered the city by passing through its industrial corridor, and so much dust was in the air that our skin changed color. We eventually reached downtown Zhangjiakou in the dark, where we were met by modern highrise buildings (after passing many empty new buildings on the city’s outskirts) and bridges decorated by multicolored lights.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

In Zhangjiakou, we stayed with Yang Yijun, a warm showers host who goes by the name of “Yankee.” Yankee took us out to another delicious meal of dumplings, and shared with us what his life was like. He worked at the local coal power plant as an engineer. He told us that the town had become much cleaner and better in the past 10 years, and that he would also “never” enter town by the industrial route we had followed. Yankee had planned to take a vacation and go for a bike tour in the U.S., but ironically, the U.S. embassy rejected his application, so now he’s hoping to do a tour in Europe. We also talked about whether it would be possible to leave his job and take a long vacation like we were doing. He said that doing so in a small city was extremely difficult — he had a good job, and it is unusual for people to leave their jobs, for any reason (other than promotion within the same company). Doing so could appear strange to potential future employers, so he felt he needed to stay with his company. We feel extremely lucky to be able to take this journey, and that a varied career path is fairly accepted in the US, at least in our field. So many people, who have the necessary finances to travel the world (it is cheap), don’t feel like they can leave their jobs, can’t get the visas, or are otherwise unable to do so.

We talked with Yankee about climate change, and he said that he thinks that both summers and winters are warmer than they used to be. He also said that his wife wanted to get a car, but that he didn’t want to because of the pollution. Here is Yankee responding to our questions.

The next day, Yankee wanted us to stay, visit a stretch of the Great Wall near Zhangjiakou, and go for a bike ride with his friends, but unfortunately we didn’t have time. After lunch with him and his son (his only child), we biked out of town, passing by another coal fire power plant.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

During this week, we passed many, many power plants, all of which (I’m fairly sure) burned coal. Most looked new, though a few appeared to have been there for decades. One reason we saw so many plants is that we followed rivers, and power plants, because they need steam to drive their turbines, need a water source. I wanted to see where the rest of China’s power plants are, so I downloaded a freely available database of power plants from and added China’s power plants to our trip’s interactive map — just click on “see power plants” above the map on the right. This database is definitely missing some power plants — I saw new ones that were not on the map. Nonetheless, I think it gives a good view of where the power plants in China are. On the map, you can scale the power plants either by how much carbon they produce, or how much energy they produce (as of 2009).

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 8.34.25 AM

When we see these power plants, I feel a strange combination of awe, hope, and sadness. The scale and number of these energy factories is impressive, and it is exciting to think of how hundreds of millions of people in China now have electricity who did not have it a few decades ago. Yet there, on the coal trucks and in the smoke stacks, is the reason that we are on a trajectory to warm the planet by three or four degrees Celsius this century. In some ways, they are tombstones for our future climate — huge monuments to our failure to curb emissions.

From Zhangjiakou, we had only a day and a half until we reached Beijing, which we had heard “is its own universe, with rings the size of Jupiter.” We left Zhangjiakou in the afternoon, got a hotel that night, and then rode a long 120km day. The first 90 kilometers were along busy roads lined with factories. Very few private vehicles passed us — they were almost all trucks.

For the final miles of the day, we followed back roads, riding along the edge of a reservoir and climbing into the hills surrounding Beijing. Then, as the sun set, we gained a view of the Great Wall snaking over the mountaintops. We rode to the wall’s edge and then followed a dirt trail until we found a spot to set up our tent at the foot of the wall.

Before dawn the next day, we hiked up to the wall and were greeted by an exciting sight: a makeshift ladder that could take us to the top. This section of the Great Wall, near Beijing, had been restored in the ‘50s and ‘80s. It felt less authentic than what we had seen a few days earlier, but it was still beautiful. We were also the only people on the wall for as far as we could see, and we watched the sun rise over the hills to the east.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

We returned to the bikes, did an obligatory Great Wall photo-shoot, and then biked downhill to Beijing.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

Entering the city was far easier than we had expected, largely because many of the major roads have significant bike lanes, and because the city spreads out over a a massive area.

We biked to the home of Duncan, a warm showers host from the U.K. teaching at a boarding school, and enjoyed beers and stories of bike touring. After eight days of riding, we were ready for a few days off the bike.


We Interviewed People. We Have No Idea What They Said.

November 1st, 2014 by David

Help us translate!

As we bike across China, we’ve been interviewing people about whether they think the climate has changed. We do this by showing them a sheet that has questions written in Chinese (“Are winters warmer or colder than when you were a child?” “Are summers warmer or colder than they used to be?” “Is there more or less rain than when you were a child?” “Have these changes affected you? Have they affected people in your community?” and so on) and filming their responses.

Now we have a number of videos – but we have no idea what people said to us.

We’ve uploaded most of these videos below. If you speak Chinese, we could use your help translating them! We are very curious what people said.

Restaurant Before Great Wall
Before Great Wall
Town Long Day
Getting Dark Village
Elderly Men
Town Store
Carrot Farmers
Day 3 Bautou
Day After Baotou
Baotou 2
Baotou 1
China Post
With Yankee


Hitch-biking to Baotou

October 26th, 2014 by David

In Lanzhou, we left our bikes at the apartment of a Peace Corps volunteer, Jared, and were forced to do something we hadn’t done since we left San Francisco: board a plane. We had to leave the country because our visa, although valid for one year, gives us only 30 days in the country at a time. We had almost used up our 30 days, and to stay any longer in China, we’d have to leave the country and come back. (We had thought we’d be able to extend the visa without leaving, but we then learned this could take a week, be an enormous hassle, and cost well over $100 per person.)

We had an amazing few days in Hong Kong — I have a longer post about it coming soon. The short version is this: After crossing Central Asia and western China, where we subsisted off of Nescafe and yak products, it was fantastic to visit a modern, wealthy city where we could 1) buy high quality replacements for our some of our equipment, and 2) drink a latte every day. We also met with a number of experts about environmental issues in the city, and spoke with pro-democracy protestors, who said many interesting things, but which I won’t post while we’re still in China — it’s a bit controversial here on the mainland. I’ll post our blog about Hong Kong after we leave China (I know this self-censorship is a bit silly, as I doubt any Chinese government officials are reading this blog — if you are, hello! I hope you enjoy these stories about biking across your country. We’ve had a really great time here. We especially like your food. It is delicious. Feel free to send me your email, and I’ll add you to our list so that you can get updates, and not have to troll through this blog for anything negative that we might say about China.)

So, Hong Kong was great.

We returned to Lanzhou, where Jared again let us crash in his apartment, giving us his room while he slept in the common room. Like all Peace Corps volunteers in China (where the program is called the “China-America Friendship Project,” not Peace Corps), Jared teaches English. Like the teachers in Zhangye, he invited us to speak to his students about our journey. In Zhangye, though, the teachers had asked us not to talk about climate change. They worried that a student might report that the class was talking about issues that could make China look bad, which could in turn get them in trouble. The university in Lanzhou, though, seemed to be somewhat more free, and it was apparently fine for us to talk about climate change. “Freedom,” however you define it, seems to be something that varies considerably across this nation, with stricter laws and regulations in some regions than in others. In Lanzhou, we showed the students a slideshow of our journey, which included a short video about climate change in Chinese.

China 7 - Hitchbiking to Baotou

We planned to leave the next day, but I fell sick with a bad cold and couldn’t get out of bed. That is, I could not leave Jared’s bed, as he slept on the couch in the living room while I recovered. His room would be a hazmat zone for the next two days. I don’t really remember much of what happened during these two days, except that when you get sick on a bike tour, it is really, really, really great to have someone to stay with. Jared was an excellent host, and I don’t know what we would have done without his help.

The third day, feeling mostly recovered, we started biking east in the early afternoon. Unfortunately, Lindsey was starting to feel sick, but she felt well enough to ride. Our plan was to bike to the outskirts of Lanzhou and then hitchhike to Baotou, a city about one week of biking away from Beijing.

The air (or “fog,” as Jared said people called it) in Lanzhou was horrible. We biked along the north side of the Yellow River (more brown than yellow), and the buildings rising up on the far side were air brushed grey by the smog. As we cycled out of town, we saw the ubiquitous new construction typical of city outskirts. We also saw bulldozers cutting away a hill — we’ve heard that Lanzhou is flattening a few hundred ‘mountains’ to make way for more city.

China 7 - Hitchbiking to Baotou

If there isn’t a housing bubble in China, I’ll be surprised. We haven’t seen many people living in the countryside — it looks as if most people have already moved to cities. But in the cities there are many empty tall new buildings, and new ones are being built almost everywhere. More than once we saw what appeared to be an entire city under construction. Jared told us that buildings are sometimes demolished after only a few years because codes change and buildings are no longer “up to code” — and may not have been even at the time they were built — so maybe some of the building is in fact “necessary.” It’s also possible that some of the billion people in eastern China will move west, filling these buildings, but it still doesn’t seem economically sustainable. Seeing so many empty structures and new ones under construction definitely makes me worried. Someone out there must be losing a lot of money.

We ended up only needing three rides to cover the 900 kilometers between Lanzhou to Baotou. Hitchhiking is an adventure, and when you pull over and stick your thumb out (or wave your hand, as seems to be the signal here), you have no idea how long you’ll have to wait. It could be a few minutes or many hours. I love this uncertainty. Lindsey does not. (In the past, we’ve resolved this conflict by not talking about it until we are in a hurry, and then having Lindsey express how much she doesn’t like hitchhiking, and me pointing out we don’t have time to do much else — and then we hitchhike. I’m sure we have many years of happy marriage ahead of us.)

Our strategy this time was to bike to the entrance of the expressway — where bikes are not allowed, and find a ride using a note a Chinese cyclist had written for us. It worked the first time, when a man in a small truck stopped after about 30 minutes and drove us about an hour and a half along our route to a town called Bayin. Our driver told us (we think) that we had to bike to another entrance to the freeway if we wanted to continue north. We spent a while trying to communicate, but our Chinese is very limited, and Google Translate on my phone, which worked great in Tajikistan, rarely works very well even though I have a local sim card (this is China’s, fault, not Google’s — China prevents foreign iPhones from using the 3g network, so my phone is slow, and then it’s slowed down further because I have to use a VPN to get around China’s firewall because China blocks all Google websites and services (Google VPN if you don’t know what it is)(hope you’re not in China!)).

The driver wrote us a new note, which we think he told us to show it to the tollbooth operator, who would then help us get a ride. But we don’t know. It was written in Chinese, and we read even less than we speak. We tried to bike across town, which first involved riding by a number of high rises under construction, but we failed to reach the far side before the sunset. We don’t hitchhike in the dark because you can’t see someone’s face, making it difficult to assess whether we should trust the driver or not. So we got what might be the nicest hotel room I have ever seen for $20 (although we never figured out how to turn on the HD television).

China 7 - Hitchbiking to Baotou

Our next ride ended up being a bus — the tollbooth operator told us that very few trucks go north from town, so we decided to pay for a ride when a bus came through the tollbooth. Four hours and four hundred kilometers later, all following the Yellow River, we arrived in Yinchuan, in Ningxia province. After eating a late lunch, we cycled to the freeway toll gate and showed the sheet that our first driver had given us —altered to show our next destination — to one of the tollbooth operators. We were in luck: The operator, Mitchell, spoke some English(Chinese people who speak English usually have an “English name,” perhaps because English speakers like ourselves have no hope of pronouncing, let alone remembering, their Chinese names). Mitchell proceeded to wave down every truck, often sprinting out of his station to stop vehicles that might be driving to one of the other tollbooths. After about half an hour, an 18-wheel China Post truck pulled over, the driver spoke briefly with Mitchell, and then waved us in. The back of his truck was only one third full, leaving plenty of space for two bicycles. The cab had one extra seat and one bed behind the two seats; Lindsey took the bed, I the seat, and we began driving toward Baotou.

At first, we thought our China Post driver didn’t want us in the truck and that he had only accepted us because the tollbooth operator made him. With a shaved head and two missing front teeth, he seemed mostly intent on driving, not talking. We tried to chat in our (very) limited Chinese, and he broke a smile or two.We asked him how many people were in is family, if he had a son or a daughter, and his age — he is in his early fifties, and has one son in his twenties. His home was in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. He was driving all the way to this city, which was well past our Baotou, our destination. He said he could drop us off in Baotou, but that it would take a day and a half, and he’d be spending the night in Wuhai, a town on the way. We agreed that we would get a hotel in Wuhai that night, and then continue on with him the following day.

China 7 - Hitchbiking to Baotou

We arrived in Wuhai, a city of about half a million residents, where our driver tried to help us find a hotel. Most hotels in China, especially the cheaper ones, are not allowed to accept foreigners — only hotels that are three stars or higher (and generally more expensive) are licensed to do so. Our China Post driver parked the tractor trailer in front of a hotel, ran in, and then ran out, surprised to learn that we couldn’t stay there.

We drove to another end of town, and found that another hotel wouldn’t take us. A third hotel, which could accept foreigners, had no rooms. Having been irritated by these hotel rules in our earlier travels, it was somewhat enjoyable to watch a local get increasingly frustrated by China’s rules for foreingers. He finally told us that there was a room at the Post Office we could use. This sounded much more fun — and cheaper — than a hotel, and we readily agreed. Our friend, who had warmed up to us considerably, then took us to dinner, refused to let us pay, and drove us across town to a China Post building. On the second floor of the Wuhai post office, we found a room with bunk beds and thin mattresses beneath a florescent light. It was perfect.

In the morning, we got to watch as five China Post employees unloaded our friend’s truck and proceeded to sort the boxes. This was accomplished through a combination of throwing and kicking. It almost seemed as if they were performing a parody of how not to handle boxes. I made a mental note never to send any fragile items via China Post. On the other hand, Lindsey and I, along with our bikes, were effectively being shipped by China Post, and we found it to be both comfortable and economical.

Our last day was relatively uneventful. We stopped for lunch, where, like nearly every restaurant we’ve visited, everyone wanted to take a picture with the foreigners. At about 3pm, after exchanging WeChat information and snapping a few pictures, we said goodbye at the exit ramp to Baotou and started biking into town, where a host waited for us.

China 7 - Hitchbiking to Baotou

China 7 - Hitchbiking to Baotou


Xining to Lanzhou

October 24th, 2014 by Lindsey

Xining is described in the Lonely Planet as a “delightful provincial capital” and I envisioned old wooden buildings with graceful eaves lining tranquil streets. I was wrong. While not a huge city, Xining was the largest, busiest place we’d been since crossing the Caspian. The main street is at least four lanes wide, and crossing it was a challenge – the traffic lights turn green for all traffic on one axis all at once, including left and right turns. So when the light changes, all of the cars move at once – those turning left veer across the paths of cars, bikes, and pedestrians going straight, racing to complete their turn before the others get through the intersection. We got used to the system but it still baffles me that this sort of driving is not due to the lack of signals, but is in fact sanctioned by them.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

In Xining, we visited with a friend of David’s from college who has been living in the region for years. She is studying Tibetan medicine and is fluent in the Tibetan language of Amdo (this is the friend we called for translation help earlier in the week). We bombarded her with questions about life in this part of China and enjoyed a visit to a temple and the Buddhist market. Again, my vision of what this would be like was way off – the guidebook mentions rows of stalls selling fabric and clothing, but months before our visit the old Tibetan market was razed, and vendors were moved to what can only be called a mall. So we visited a 4-story shopping mall, motionless prayer flags hanging limply above the escalators, and browsed through shop after shop selling everything from monks’ robes to yak butter (for offering candles) to Buddha statues. An assortment of people were in the market – mostly monks and Tibetans buying clothing, art, and incense, and a few tourists like us. It was definitely different from what I’d imagined, and while there was a bit of soullessness to the location, the buyers and sellers lent an air of authenticity. We also enjoyed some western comforts in Xining – good coffee and baked goods – before gearing up for the next leg of our trip.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

We got a late start out of Xining because we decided to swing by the Great Mosque and see everybody assembling for the Eid al-Adha holiday, which honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. What stood out to me, as people streamed to the mosque and set up their prayer mats on the sidewalk and street outside the mosque, was (a) they were all men; and (b) the police had blocked off the street to traffic. At first this looked like a nice service, keeping cars out so Xining’s Muslim citizens could celebrate the holiday even when the mosque was overflowing. Then we realized that there were rows of armored vehicles parked up the street, and some of the police had automatic weapons; they were clearly prepared for more than just crowd control, and it felt a bit heavy-handed. The street was too crowded to bike through, so we took turns ditching our bikes and wandering through the crowd to the front of the mosque. I thought I was used to being the only woman – as I often was at meals and events in the many Muslim countries we’d biked across – but I felt really out of place here.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

We got back on our bikes and rode out of town, biking through entire brand new cities under construction. There were roads that didn’t exist on our map, lined with pictures of what was to come – large industrial parks, residential neighborhoods, everything, all being built at once. The pace and scale of construction was hard to wrap our heads around. Once we got out of Xining’s growing suburbs, we biked through several towns where, at house after house, the scene was the same: people standing over a freshly slaughtered sheep, butchering it on site for the holiday. Outside of these towns, we passed some pasture areas where people were butchering yaks. We stopped for awhile to talk, and just in the short time we were there we saw several yaks go from living, standing animals to their various components. After their throats were slit and bled (it took about 5 minutes for movement to completely stop – are they still conscious, or is it just involuntary convulsions?), their heads were cut off, along with the forelegs, and then the skin was removed, requiring up to four men and the blunt side of an axe. Organs were removed, the stomach was emptied (piles of steaming half-digested grass told us how many animals had already been killed), and sections of ribs were cut up.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

It was fascinating to watch, but also distressing. The actual killing seemed fairly quick and clean, but one yak was tied up to watch as two others were slaughtered, and she was clearly afraid. I read that allowing animals to watch others being killed is actually against Islam’s instructions, and I wish those instructions had been followed. I don’t think she knew exactly what was going on, but she was panting quickly and occasionally running in circles, trampling a recently killed yak in the process. I’m sure she was next but we didn’t stay to watch. The yaks were also distressed as they were separated from the herd and wrestled to the ground. I am no expert on the holiday or laws about slaughtering animals, but I found this article informative. Strangely, it didn’t really affect how I feel about eating meat (that is, conflicted – see previous post on Kashgar). I’ve been pondering the ethics of it, as well as the environmental and health angles, since I was a kid; this just added a more tangible experience of what it’s all about.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

That night, we asked a family if we could camp in their yard. I was told the Muslim communities in the area speak a different language, but fortunately the father of this family could read our note, and they kindly showed us where to camp and brought us a pitcher of hot water. In the morning, their kids and some of the neighbors gathered around, staring and giggling at us before we rode on. For most of the second day, we followed the Yellow River as well as a section of a new expressway that was still under construction. We were both in awe at how quickly this enormous new road was going up; there were few villages along this stretch of the river, just construction camps. It seems workers move to the sites full-time; even though it was Golden Week and the rest of the nation was on holiday, construction workers and engineers were hard at work building the road, roped to pylons high above the river.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

In the afternoon, mosques gave way to stupas, and in the evening we found ourselves riding through a Tibetan village near the Rebkong, or Tongren monastery. We asked to camp at a temple that was under construction – the workers had tents outside, so we thought it might be simple to pitch our tent alongside – but either we weren’t understood or they said no, so we carried on. Just as we were about to give up and make our way through the fields to the river, David met a boy outside of his house. The family’s Chinese was sufficient for us to communicate with our very limited language skills, and they invited us inside. While the outer walls of the house were made of mud bricks, the inside was made of pine and tiles, with rooms arranged around a large courtyard with a few trees and an incense burner in the middle. The whole family was having dinner around the wood stove, and they invited us to join. They piled a plate high with delicious, freshly steamed dumplings full of meat, onions, and carrots. Later, they showed us to a spare room, complete with a sleeping platform and mats.

We spent a very comfortable night there, although there was an awkward moment when we asked about a bathroom. They led us to another room off the courtyard, where a shallow pit between raised footrests was connected to a larger, equally shallow pit with what appeared to be a mix of ash and – I can only assume – composted waste. There was no smell whatsoever and it was comfortable and clean, but we’d heard you were only supposed to go #2 in composting toilets. David braved the embarrassing question about #1, and they all laughed and indicated that one should do everything in the toilet. I’m still not sure how it works, but hopefully we didn’t mess up its functioning during our stay.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

The next day we met a couple on a three-year trip from Catalonia to New Zealand. We shared tips on the road ahead and offloaded some of the pears that several Tibetan ladies had generously given us the day before. We went through several more Tibetan villages that day; in one, we met a monk who spoke a bit of English and invited us to visit his monastery. We walked with him to the sprawling monastery down the street, and he told us about his life as a monk – his favorite thing is studying logic. We weren’t allowed to go inside, but he took us to a hillside above where we could look in and see the buildings. The best part, though, was bumping into groups of his monk friends, all of whom were excited to take our picture.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

That night, we stayed with another family. There was plenty of language confusion – we thought they had already eaten and we made our instant noodles, only to then be served delicious bowls of homemade noodle soup. However, we really needed to step up the communication effort when one of the bikes fell over and broke a window pane. The entire front of the house was glass windows, and del Fuego fell over and cracked one. We felt terrible. They didn’t really react – there was no anger, but also no reassurance, and we tried everything from hand motions of remorse to taking out money to indicate that we wanted to pay to fix it. We couldn’t reach our friend to translate, but I was able to find the words for “sorry” and “how much does it cost” in the Lonely Planet. They seemed to understand the written Classical Tibetan, even though they speak a different dialect, and they motioned to a pane of glass lying outside, indicating that they could fix it themselves. Shortly after, a well-dressed man appeared out of nowhere and took control of the situation. He rubbed his fingers together under David’s nose, indicating money, and we said yes! How much? Instead of giving us a number, he asked how much we wanted to pay. We got out a 100 RMB note (about $20) and he said no, so we got out the phone for him to indicate the amount on the calculator. I honestly have no idea what the going rate for window repair in San Francisco is, let alone Gansu Province, China, so I was happy to pay the amount he typed in – 50 RMB. After that, everything was resolved, and he made picture-taking motions and got everybody to pose for a photo. This was especially amusing, as the family had declined to be photographed earlier. Apparently breaking a window, being super remorseful, and paying for the damage is a good way to break the ice!

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

The next morning, the family’s son and a friend rode my bike around the yard and we all had a nice laugh when David tried to fix the brakes on his bike, only to discover that a piece was missing. They also made us the most delicious tsampa we had on the plateau – a perfect combination of barley, yak butter, and sugar, and a great biking breakfast. We rode to Xiahe and spent the afternoon visiting the Labrang Monastery, one of the largest outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. We were lucky to arrive on the last day of the national holiday – there were a few small tour groups, but mostly it was just us and the monks. A young monk who barely speaks English gave us a tour of the major buildings, including one that houses a bunch of yak butter sculptures, which looked nothing like what I imagined, but did lend a somewhat rancid smell to the place. We also walked the kora around the monastery, joining the hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims who do this as part of their religious practice.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, so I’ll keep this brief (and open to correction) – Buddhists walk around sacred places such as monasteries and chortens (stupas), turning the prayer wheels that line the path. The prayer wheels are full of tightly rolled paper on which prayers are written, and when the prayer wheels are turned, it is as if the prayers are repeated. People are very serious about the kora. They make pilgrimages to places like Labrang, and once they are walking the kora they don’t dawdle. Most of the walkers were older women, and beneath their traditional robes they were wearing brightly colored running shoes. I found myself getting lapped because I was taking in my surroundings and trying to turn every wheel, while the Tibetan ladies were charging down the line, spinning the wheels with a practiced, well-placed swipe of a single gloved hand.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

In Xiahe, we also purchased a couple of thangkas, which are paintings depicting scenes of various buddhas and other images. Rebkong, a nearby monastery that we didn’t have time to visit, is the center of thangka painting, but there were artists here, too. We were in a rush because we wanted to continue riding, but finally we settled on one with the Buddha of Wisdom. He is holding a sword above his head to cut through ignorance and hate. We also were eyeing another painting, but the handmade thangkas are quite pricey and we didn’t want to go over our budget. Amazingly, on our third trip back to one shop, a painter there said that if we really loved the painting we’d been looking at, their teacher wanted to give it to us. “Oh, thanks!” we said. “How much?” “No,” she said, “for free – a gift. He loves American people.” We were incredibly touched – the artist had spent time in Santa Fe and had a soft spot for the U.S. This has happened a couple of times, where people have been outrageously kind to us because they love our country. We feel so undeserving and only hope that we are furthering the good reputation the U.S. has with those individuals, and perhaps countering negative reputations it may have with others.

We camped in a pasture above a river that night, and because we had a long way to go we got up and started biking before sunrise. It was actually fun biking in the dark – there was almost no traffic, it was downhill, and we got to watch day break in the villages we rode through. We could tell people were up and starting their day when the air became thick with the smell of burning juniper, one of the common offerings. There were a number of tunnels in our route, complete with ‘no bike’ signs, but fortunately there were side routes so we could go around all of them. The third detour went through a lovely Tibetan village, and we stopped at a temple that was beautifully framed against a hillside of turning leaves. There were a few people walking the kora around it, and when we went inside we found the usual shoes scattered about (shoes must be removed before entering the inner areas). In this temple, though, most of the shoes were tiny, and many had cartoon animals on them. We stood still, looking at the murals on the wall, and I heard a low chanting coming from inside. Suddenly the chanting stopped and was replaced with a sudden rush of footsteps. Running monks? Something didn’t quite fit. The door burst open and out streamed about ten little boys, all in dark red robes. They slipped into their shoes and ran outside, laughing and playing together. There was something charming about the combination of the chanting, the exuberant sound of footsteps, one kid holding his teacher’s hand; it was such a normal scene in such a – to us – exotic setting. One of the monks spoke some English and he invited us to tea. He made us tsampa and showed us a coin collection – later we traded some of our Tajik coins for some coins from – um, a dynasty that sounded like a really long time ago (I think we got the better deal).

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

We made a snap decision to take a shortcut that would involve a ferry across a reservoir on the Yellow River. The route led us through a peaceful corn-growing village where everybody waved and said hi as they went about the harvest. The village was situated on cliffs that fingered out above the reservoir, and we misread the map and ended up at road’s end on one of these fingers. Lucky for us, there was a small footpath that twisted down the cliffside, and we got a bit of single-track riding in before making it to the water. There, we discovered that despite what Google Maps had indicated, there was no ferry at that site – instead, we were told to ride partway around the reservoir where there were ferries. We didn’t think this would be possible, as our map indicated no road on that side of the reservoir. Well, in China, a map can only be good for a few months, the pace of road-building is so intense. The sun was about to set, though, and we didn’t know how far the road went so we negotiated a lift across the reservoir to our original destination. Our private ‘ferry’ was overpriced, but we were rewarded with a view of the lunar eclipse above the Yellow River, and then a full moon to ride under once we got across. There was actually less of a road on that side – it was under construction, and we accidentally rode through some freshly poured concrete before the workers started yelling at us. (Sorry, guys!) Eventually we found a spot to camp right on the shore of the reservoir and called it a day.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

Our shortcut meant that we only had about 90km to cover the following day, so we didn’t rush. However, we realized we were near Bingling Si, a collection of caves with Buddhist statues farther along the reservoir. At the last minute we hopped on a boat in Luijiaxiazhen and forfeited about four hours to visit the site. While the art was interesting and situated in a beautiful setting, we both were slightly underwhelmed and somewhat regretted taking such a detour. However, we sprinted the remaining 65km, starting at 3:30 PM, and managed to make it to Lanzhou that evening.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

The first part of the ride included 600m of elevation gain over about 20km, but then we were rewarded with an uninterrupted downhill all the way to Lanzhou. Entering the city was chaotic – as we’ve found all over China, the highway was under construction and clogged with traffic. We managed to slip past the idling cars and trucks, though, and found a more pleasant route on a walkway following the Yellow River. It was lined with factories spewing smoke, and the hills on the other side were criss-crossed with what looked like mini terraces to prevent erosion.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

Lanzhou is on the edge of the Loess Plateau, a huge area along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River. It gets its name from the windblown sediment (loess) that dominates this area. The loess is many meters thick and surprisingly good for agriculture, but is also highly susceptible to erosion. Years of deforestation and farming have resulted in extensive erosion, and the Yellow River gets its name from the silt it carries from the plateau. A number of reforestation projects are underway, with varying results. Once in Lanzhou, we navigated to the apartment of a Peace Corps volunteer we met through our friends in Zhangye and were treated to a luxurious shower, spaghetti dinner, and Yellow River Black Beer, the most acceptable beer we’ve yet encountered in China.


Zhangye to Xining — Northeast Corner of Tibet

October 20th, 2014 by Lindsey

After the bikes decided they’d had enough of independent travel and showed up in Zhangye (see our last entry on waiting for our bikes to arrive), we enjoyed a last evening with our friends and left town the next morning. Soon we were in a rural area where the street was lined with cornfields ready for harvest. For most of the day we followed the Liyuan River, and every half hour or so we passed a run of the river hydroelectric facility. I don’t think I’d ever seen such a hard working river. In between there were stretches that seemed free flowing, but then we’d encounter a small reservoir or pipe carrying water down from higher elevations. I’d like to learn more about this technology. It’s not new, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the U.S. I’m curious about the environmental impact and cost per unit of energy generated, because at first glance it seems much less disruptive than the large dams and reservoirs I’m used to seeing.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

In the afternoon, we started passing signs for the ‘Chinese Yugur Amorous Corridor’ (We assumed they meant ‘autonomous’ and not ‘amorous,’ although we were ready to be proved wrong). Paintings, statues, and banners along the road indicated that we were in a unique part of China. Shortly before sunset we found ourselves in the town of Sunan and decided to treat ourselves to a hotel, where we did some reading and learned that the Yugur people, rather than being particularly amorous, are in fact an ethnic group with their own autonomous county. According to Wikipedia, the Yugurs are descended from a group of Uyghurs (the most prevalent ethnic group in Xinjiang) that fled from Mongolia after the Uyghur Empire collapsed. The community around Sunan is Buddhist and speak a Turkic language. Sunan was a pleasant surprise – the Liyuan River runs through the town, and a riverside park is full of statues, people strolling in the evening, and neon lights illuminating the bridges after dark. We splurged on a hotel room for $20.

The next morning, just a few kilometers out of Sunan, the road turned to dirt and started climbing to the first pass of this leg of the journey. As we climbed, it got colder and we started encountering herds of yaks. Tibetan yaks are slightly different from the ones we saw in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – slightly shaggier and, in my opinion, a little bit cuter. We were grateful for the extra clothes we’d bought at the night market in Zhangye. A while before sunset we came upon a series of what we think were mining camps. A Chinese cyclist we’d met in Kyrgyzstan had written a note in Chinese asking for a place to camp, and we showed it to a woman at one of the camps. She knew exactly what we needed, but instead of having us pitch our tent, they let us sleep in one of the small pre-fab buildings that lined the roads. They also made us dinner; at that point we had just learned how to say ‘want’ (‘yao’) and ‘have’ (‘you’) and we got them mixed up. Luckily, our language difficulties meant that one of the women cheerfully whipped up some egg and onion and we ate that with rice – much better than the instant noodles on the menu. We hung out with them all evening and practiced our Putonghua, and they taught us to count to 10. These were the first Chinese people we had actually spent time with since arriving in the country, and as I’ve noticed each time I cross a border, that first experience helps me feel a bit more welcome and at home in a country.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

When we woke up, a light snow was falling and our new friends were worried about us, but we figured we could make it to the pass and get down to a lower elevation where it would be more comfortable. We were right, but the descent was extremely cold and our hands and feet kept freezing and we had to stop and do jumping jacks to warm ourselves up. On the other side, we found ourselves back in a Muslim town, and we stopped at a noodle shop for lunch. Everybody in the restaurant was curious about us and greeted us warmly before finishing their lunches and leaving. We ordered lunch, with the help of an app that screens characters and translates them, and we took pictures with the cheerful owners. However, before our food even arrived, two police officers came into the restaurant and sat down at our table. They didn’t speak much English, so one left and returned with the town’s English teacher. She delivered the bad news: we were in an area forbidden to foreigners and we must leave right away. They were quite nice about it, and we nodded our heads agreeably, scarfed our lunches, and left. We had asked them where exactly the ‘forbidden’ area was, but even with a map we couldn’t get a clear answer. So we decided to lay low as much as we could, meaning no attempts to stay in hotels or eat at restaurants, and a rushed trip into the next grocery store we encountered in order to stock up on food for the next few days. We also wore our buffs pulled up over our faces so nobody would guess we were foreigners. (We totally blended in.)

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

We rode out of town and into a canyon along the Heihe River, a tributary to the Yellow River. Leaves were starting to turn and yellow trees lined the river. Canyons are difficult to camp in, especially when you’re trying to hide, but eventually we found a spot, right before sunset, where we were hidden from the road. As we biked out of the river canyon the next day, we passed farms where people were cutting hay and stacking it in neat pyramids to dry. There must have been wild mint growing amid the hay, because the whole valley smelled fresh and delicious. It’s interesting to see how different places go about their farm work; in most of eastern Europe, hay was tossed onto a sharp stake sticking out of the ground, making Van Gogh-like haystacks. In the U.S., we bale it. In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan we saw it tossed onto roofs. In this part of China, it was gathered into bundles the width of a telephone pole, tied with another handful of hay, and propped up against another bundle in an upside down V. These V’s are arranged in rows supporting each other so the fields are dotted with what look like pup tents made out of hay.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

We passed through Qilian in the late morning, wearing our ‘disguises’ and racing through the town in case we were still forbidden. In the middle of town we turned right, heading towards the mountain range we’d been paralleling all day. The road went up and up in a series of glorious switchbacks. We’d been climbing steadily since the day before, but it was well-graded and we made good progress. We reached the pass in the late afternoon and that was when we knew we were in Tibet. Prayer flags fluttered in rows up to a Chorten (stupa), and bundles of arrows (piercing through ignorance, I think) were plunged into the ground, with more prayer flags stretched between them. Incense was burning and prayer paper littered the ground. Groups of tourists, having been driven to the top, were posing next to a sign made in astroturf with the pass’s elevation – 4120m. We took the obligatory pictures and enjoyed the view, then headed down the other side.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

Shortly before sunset we started looking for a place to camp but ran into a bit of a problem: In China, we’ve encountered a lot of barbed wire fencing, something we really haven’t seen anywhere else on this trip. We’ve been told and read that the government has been requiring the Tibetan nomads to settle, and in exchange for giving up their traditional lifestyle, the government provides a house and plot of land where they are expected to graze their animals. So it was difficult to find an accessible place to pitch our tent, and eventually we turned onto a side road and asked people we encountered if we could camp. This time, the note didn’t work at all – these people were Tibetan and spoke Amdo; like us, they couldn’t read Mandarin. So we resorted to hand signals, and a lovely couple in a tent that doubled as a store motioned to the land outside their tent where a flock of sheep were bedding down for the night. Before we even opened our panniers, though, they motioned for us to follow them across the road, where they unlocked one of the standard government houses and ushered us inside. From what we could tell, this was their house but they prefer the tent. It had three rooms and they let us stay in the main room where there was a wood stove and a kang, or raised platform where mats are rolled out in the evening for sleeping. They started a fire and gave us water to make dinner. In another room, there was what looked like a shrine, along with a sound system with big speakers (we’ve since seen this in all the Tibetan homes in the area) and a photo of Mao. Interesting.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

We stayed with another family the following night, although under slightly different circumstances. We had crossed another, lower pass, and as we descended we noticed that we weren’t crossing any streams – the ground was wet and boggy, with muddy pools and no running water. It seemed to all seep into the ground as it ran down from the mountains. It was getting late, so we stopped to ask for water at a house off the road where an old Tibetan lady was standing outside. She smiled and invited us inside, where she and her daughter served us tea and fried bread. We thanked them and asked for water to cook with, and they offered hot water from a kettle – as we’ve since discovered, cold water isn’t really a thing in China (people are surprised that we want to drink cold water). At this point it was getting late enough that we needed to find a place to sleep soon, so we tried asking if we could camp. The note written in Chinese didn’t work, so we showed them a picture of our tent. They seemed to understand but we couldn’t quite tell if they’d given the OK, and then things got confusing. We went outside for a moment, and suddenly the older woman followed us out with the few items we’d brought inside, dumped them on the ground next to our bikes, and motioned for us to leave.

We’re not sure what was going on – the phone had rung a couple times while we were there, and a neighbor had come over, and we think somebody told them not to associate with us. We don’t know if we were still ‘forbidden’ there, but it’s possible that if they had been found with us in their house, they could have gotten in trouble. We felt awful for possibly putting them in that position, but also confused because they’d been so welcoming at first and invited us in when all we wanted was water. We were now in quite a bind because the sun had just set and we had no water and nowhere to sleep and didn’t feel like we should ask other people in the area for help. Plus, a storm was coming up behind us. So we rode on, hoping to find water and a spare patch of ground before the rain started. We’d biked about 15 minutes when a car pulled over just ahead of us. We stopped and when the man opened his door we asked about water. Without hesitation he poured the contents of his thermos into David’s water bottle. Half a liter of tea was nice but it wouldn’t get us very far… He was clearly worried about us and told us the next town was 40km away and that we should tie our bikes to the roof and get a ride with him. We thanked him but it would have been impossible, and we explained in our best Putonghua that we had a tent and just needed water. He thought for a minute and then pointed to a house down the road and motioned for us to follow him. He sped off and we almost lost him, but were able to follow him down a side road. By the time we got there he had a thermos in hand and was talking to the family.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

Since we had a friendly translator, we showed him the note and he asked the family if we could camp there – we hoped that if it was risky for them they would say no. Instead, they readily agreed, and then we were able to have them talk to our friend on the phone, who told them that we had food and a tent and just needed cold water for cooking and a place to camp. After everything was fairly clear, our translator-friend left and the family invited us to sit down next to the fire. They served us a variation of tsampa (barley flour mixed with yak butter) and gave us hot water for our instant noodles. Then, they led us outside to their ‘guest yurt’ – a small canvas tent in the pasture, with a raised sleeping platform in the middle. As it was cold and gusty and still threatening rain, we were grateful to not have to set our tent up.

We woke up to snow and took our time getting ready, hoping it would let up. It showed no signs of stopping, thought, so eventually we forced ourselves to get up, say goodbye to our hosts, and ride into the snow. It kept up for a couple of hours, turning into rain as we descended to lower elevations, and all in all it was among the more miserable biking of the trip. Shortly before noon, though, the rain stopped and we were biking under blue skies. That afternoon, we passed by several coal mining or processing operations – trucks full of coal were coming and going and we could see some machinery, but most sites had tall blue fencing around them blocking a full view. In the afternoon, we were faced with a decision: continue on the same road, which was getting busier as we got closer to Xining, or take a slightly longer route on back roads past Qinghai Lake, the largest saltwater lake in China. You can probably guess which route we chose.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

The back road was quiet, with only the occasional passing car, and before long we could see the lake on our right. We decided to be proper tourists and visit the Sand Island Scenic Area. We were pleasantly surprised – they let us ride our bikes out through the dunes to the lake, on paths lined with large sculptures made as part of an art festival hosted there. The lake itself was gorgeous – deep blue with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains reminiscent of Zorkul in Tajikistan – but the real highlight was the dune diving. We walked to the top of a dune and did our best to defy gravity. I think we’ve finally gotten all the sand out of our hair, ears and pockets… Of course we lingered too long, and by the time we left the park it was approaching sunset and another storm was brewing. We biked just a short distance until we came upon a cluster of abandoned buildings between the road and railroad tracks. They were surprisingly clean, and we enjoyed another night where we could cook under a roof and not have to set up the tent.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

The next day was clear, and we focused on the remaining 130 km to Xining. It turned out to be a lovely ride, since a new expressway meant we could ride on the old highway with relatively little car traffic. First, we encountered dozens of Chinese tourists biking a circuit around Qinghai Lake. It was the first day of Golden Week, the national holiday, and everybody was on vacation. Then we continued on, following a river downstream nearly all the way. After a week at elevation, we were back in a milder climate and the beginning of fall. The hillsides on either side of the river were dotted with yellows, orange and red, and we could see pagodas on some of the hilltops. I felt like we were biking through a Chinese version of Vermont and it made me both homesick and content to be just where I was at that moment.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining

As we approached Xining, the road went through a series of industrial towns and the riding got less enjoyable. The air was full of dust and the roads were suddenly choked with large trucks, honking incessantly. We have a number of theories about honking behavior in China – are drivers taught to honk as a safety measure whenever other people or vehicles (or bikes) are around, just so we know they’re there? Did they not learn that they need to share the road, and they’re warning us to get out of their way? Trucks rarely slow down in populated areas – they just lean on the horn and barrel through. After awhile, the industrial towns gave way to what looked like entire brand new cities being built on the outskirts of Xining. Clusters of identical skyscrapers lined both sides of the roads, with cranes hovering above them, building away. According to one of the city’s residents, Xining’s population has quadrupled in the last decade, yet the new buildings don’t have tenants – they’re just standing empty. It was an odd feeling to so abruptly transition from grasslands and Tibetan nomads, to chaotic industrial towns, to empty tower blocks, and finally to Xining itself.

China 4 - Tibet 1 - To Xining


One Month in China: Photos

October 16th, 2014 by David

Below are our best pictures from our first month in China. You can also see more photos on our flicker page by clicking on these links:
Kashgar to Zhangye by Train
Zhangye to Xining
Xining to Lanzhou


Leg 1 in China: Kashgar to Zhangye by Train

October 3rd, 2014 by Lindsey

We arrived in Kashgar in the early evening after our mandatory taxi ride between border posts. ‘Early evening’ is a confusing concept in far western China; the whole country, which is as wide east-to-west as the US, operates on Beijing time. So in early September, the sun doesn’t set in Kashgar until after 9:00 pm, and it doesn’t rise until after 8:00 am. We struggled to adjust to the time difference, but since parts of Xinjiang Province operate on their own informal time zone (two hours behind Beijing, the same as Kyrgyzstan and eastern Tajikistan), it didn’t matter too much.


We spent our first day recuperating and bingeing on internet and good food. After weeks in the sparsely populated Pamir Plateau, we were overwhelmed by all the people, commerce, and food. We had heard a rumor that train tickets were sold out for several days due to a mysterious Chinese holiday (later we were told that it was mid-autumn festival), so we didn’t rush to the station. We also hadn’t decided yet where to go. After one day of studying the map, we decided to take the train to Zhangye, in Gansu Province, and then bike over the Qilian Mountains to Xining on the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Then we would bike another scenic (aka indirect) route to Lanzhou, staying on the Plateau as long as possible. However, when we made it to the station, we were told there were no tickets available for another five days. We quickly consulted our calendars and decided that we could make it work.


So we secured our tickets and set about visiting some Kashgar sites. First was the weekly animal market – I have never seen so many fat-tailed sheep in one place and frankly, it was a little disturbing. Some animals are slaughtered on site, and we watched a sheep being reduced to cuts of meat from a whole animal in minutes. Later, we saw the same procedure on our street – one animal would be hanging, in pieces, for people to buy, and a live sheep would be tied up nearby. When the last hunk of meat was sold, the waiting animal would be butchered on the spot. I had a lot of conflicting feelings about this – at home I rarely eat meat, for a lot of reasons. Here, I eat whatever people feed me, which often includes meat, for another tangle of reasons. On the one hand, I appreciate the apparent closeness between people and their animals. It isn’t sentimental, but somehow it seems slightly more humane to cut an animals’ throat by hand on the day it will get eaten – and probably within a few kilometers of the dinner table – than to round animals up and ship them off to anonymous slaughterhouses. I don’t know the environmental impacts of all the grazing we see, but I’m guessing it’s better for the animals, us, and possibly the land than factory farming. However, there is still suffering, and it still feels fundamentally wrong to kill another being just so I can eat it, when generally there are plenty of viable alternatives. In some of the places we’ve traveled, though, there really aren’t, and for herders, I imagine this is the most sensible and economical way to get their meals.


After the animal market, we visited the Sunday bazaar, and on the walk back we wandered through part of the old walled city. At first it appeared deserted, but after climbing some steps between the houses, we found a vibrant neighborhood, though it looks like it may be slated for destruction. There were weird big spotlights all around the walled area and it looked like a park was being developed nearby.


We went to the night market several times for dinner – you can just wander from stall to stall and have a little bit of everything: steamed dumplings, kebabs, goat’s head soup (we didn’t have it, but another person from the hostel tried it. He said it was delicious, but I can’t bring myself to eat a part of an animal that makes expressions; you’ve gotta draw the line somewhere…), noodles with chickpeas, hot pot, plov, and multiple servings of ice cream to put out the fire and feed our addiction, which had been neglected in the ‘stans. After our first night we observed that we’d just had more variety in one meal than we’d had in three weeks in the Pamirs. It’s not that the food there was bad, just simple, and sparse.


Partway through our time in Kashgar, I got sick and spent a couple of days lying in our hotel room. While it was a bummer not to feel well (especially with all the delicious food in the city), in some ways it was nice to have an excuse to do nothing. I Skyped with family and friends, caught up on the news (and Facebook), read books about China, and generally lazed around. The day before our scheduled departure, we took our bikes to the train station to be sent ahead as cargo, following the advice of other bike tourists and the hostel staff who said that this was standard protocol and that the bikes would arrive at the same time as we would, or even before.

Train to Zhangye

Finally, it was time to leave Kashgar, and we took a taxi to the station. Boarding the train was a smooth process, and we quickly settled into our ‘hard sleeper’ bunks. One of the interesting things about the train was the ethnic distribution across the different seating classes. The hard sleeper class consists of four or six bunks to a compartment – quite comfortable, if a bit cramped. Most of the other people in the sleeper cars were Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority), although the train was traveling through Xinjiang Province, which has a very large Uyghur population (one of China’s many ethnic minorities). While wandering around the train I eventually stumbled upon the ‘hard seat’ section, and it was a sudden explosion of color and sound – nearly all of the passengers in this class were Uyghur, and colorful headscarves, embroidered skullcaps, and friendly waves and smiles suddenly surrounded me. A group of men invited me to sit on the floor with them, and we had a stilted conversation in Turkik-ish.

Train to Zhangye

In the middle of the night, the train stopped at a station and didn’t move for eight hours, which meant that we would miss our connecting train in Urumqi. David befriended a Chinese woman who spoke some English, and she walked us through the process of changing our tickets once we arrived in Urumqi, sometime after midnight on the second day. She also tried to help us find a hotel near the train station, but the one she showed us to refused to let us stay (there are strange rules about which hotels can accept foreigners). Since it was nearing 2:00 AM and our train left at 9:00 AM the next morning, we decided to just go with brand recognition and we struck out to the Super 8 that we could see across the freeway from the train station. However, the road system was so convoluted that we had to take a taxi there. The driver tried to convince us to let him take us to another place that was allegedly cheaper (but would require a higher taxi fare), but we refused since we had no idea where he wanted to take us. We soon regretted our decision, though, when the Super 8 was full (the girl sleeping on a cot behind the desk woke up for long enough to wave her hands in front of her face – a clear “no!”). A lap around the nearby hotels yielded the same results. At this point it was nearly 3:00 AM. Getting back to the knot of taxi drivers who had fought over us earlier in order to have them take us to the mysterious ‘cheaper’ place didn’t really appeal, and at this point we wouldn’t get more than five hours of sleep wherever we went. So we did the logical thing, which was to take the elevator in the Super 8 up a few floors until we found a nice carpeted alcove. There, between the fire escape and a convenient door that hid us from the hallway, we bunked down for the remainder of the night. Despite a high-pitched beep emanating from above our heads every couple of minutes and a moment of panic when I heard voices and thought we’d be discovered, we slept quite well and were refreshed for the next leg of our train trip.

Train to Zhangye

We finally arrived at our destination, Zhangye, a ‘small’ town of about one million in the Hexi Corridor (a narrow strip of land between mountain ranges where the Silk Road routes converge) shortly before midnight on the third day of travel. Our bikes were nowhere to be found, but we figured the cargo office just wasn’t open at that time and that we could get them the next day. Fortunately, we had lined up a place to stay with a Peace Corps volunteer, and soon we were comfortably bunked down in his spare room. The next day we ventured back to the train station where, after some charades, google translate, and finally a call to our Beijing Hero, Alvin (a friend of a friend who has helped us out a ton), we learned that the bikes had been sent with a different company and we needed to call a number or visit an address on the receipt. Our host, Raines, enlisted a student to call the number, and we were both devastated and relieved to learn that they had been sent past Zhangye to Lanzhou, the provincial capital, for ‘security inspection’ and that they would arrive two days later. We were relieved because at least they hadn’t been lost, but we were frustrated since the combination of train ticket availability and bike delay meant that we probably wouldn’t be able to make it to Mongolia in the time left on our multiple-entry visa (we have a year-long visa but we can only stay for 30 days at a time). We’re still figuring out how to handle that.

We made the best of our time, though – we had lots of tasty meals with Raines and Kelly, another volunteer, as well as some other teachers and students. We also visited their classes and gave a presentation on our trip, and saw the giant Buddha for which Zhangye is famous. It was a beautiful site and we enjoyed wandering the temple and the surrounding part of the city. Zhangye is a nice, manageable size and there is plenty of delicious food near the university, and with our excellent hosts we felt like we’d had a soft landing into central China. When the bikes finally arrived (three days or two hours behind schedule, depending on how you look at it), it was too late to start biking, so we enjoyed a last night with our fellow Americans – we watched Frozen and I baked ‘cookies’ with the odds and ends I could find in the supermarket (buckwheat oatmeal chocolate bar chunk cookies, anyone?) and Kelly’s baking supplies, which fortunately included baking soda and cinnamon – all you need, really.




The next morning we started our first real biking in China – stay tuned for a post on biking up and around the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province!


Pictures from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

September 15th, 2014 by David

The past month of riding has been the most spectacular of the trip: numerous mountains rising more than 6,000 meters (20,000ft), lonely dirt roads, yurt camps, mountain rivers, deep canyons, and high passes. We took a lot of pictures.

Rather than post them all here, I’m only posting the very best pictures below, and then including links to albums with more pictures.

And click on any of the images below for albums with more images:

The Border to Dushanbe
Tajikistan - The Border to Dushanbe

To Khorog, Part I
To Khorog, Part I

To Khorog, Part II – Along the Afghan Border
To Khorog, Part II - Along Afghan Border

The Wakhan Valley
Wakhan Valley

The Pamirs, Part I – To Zorkul Nature Reserve
The Pamirs, Part 1: To Zorkul Nature Reserve

The Pamirs, Part II – Murghab to the Border
The Pamirs, Part II: Murghab to the Border

To Kyrgyzstan with the Kyzyl-Art Schmutzig Singers
To Kyrgyzstan with the Kyzyl-Art Schmutzig Singers