My Chinese visa extension, finally!

My Chinese visa extension, finally!

Well I’m finally back on the road after mine and Stephens visa ordeal in Lanzhou. A typhoon has been twirling its way across the sea to the east of China leading to pretty much non stop rain. Despite this, and a particularly bad run of electronics dying, I have made it up onto the Qinghai-Tibet plateau!

After getting the bus back to Wuwei, so we could continue our rides unbroken, Stephen and I spent our last evening treating ourselves to a KFC and a couple of beers before parting ways in the morning. Quite a sad moment, we’d ridden together for about 2 months and it was a shame our time together had ended on such a low note (the depressing visa ordeal). Our original plan had us parting ways in the car park of the Terracotta army near Xian but as we all know plans don’t always go to plan.

I’d originally intended to take a bus further back on the road I’d already cycled to Zhangye to save me time on my way up into the mountains. For some reason this didn’t sit right with me and I decided I would back track on my bicycle from Wuwei. I know this sounds silly, backtracking by bicycle 200km wasting two days, but I had decided that taking the bus would break my self-inflicted “Cycle every inch” rule. For me I feel I want an unbroken line that I’ve cycled and it just didn’t feel right to even take the easy route back tracking. It doesn’t make any sort of logical sense but you have to do what your gut tells you on these trips or you run the risk of having regrets when you make it to the end.

I won’t include the leg to Wuwei and back on my map of the trip (see here) as it will just make the route look weird and confusing but I will include the mileage I rode in the total I put in the names of these posts.

We had awoken to torrential rain and Stephen and I begrudgingly loaded up our bikes and rode a couple of blocks to where our routes parted ways. After improvising some shoe covers from plastic bags…

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We said goodbye with a hug and a handshake and I quickly cycled off before it all began to dawn on me that I was back on my own…

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All day the rain persisted but I had a shortish ride back to Yongchang and checked into the same cheap hotel me and Stephen had stayed in cycling the other way. It seems there is no single occupancy rate in Chinese hotels so I’m going to have to haggle much harder to get prices I am happy with. Either way I got my moneys worth when I began to wash about a kilogram of grit off of myself after a full day of being splashed by passing trucks and cars…

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It seems that 8,500 miles is the moment that all of my equipment has decided to give up all at the same time. The tension bolt on my, rather pricey, Brooks leather saddle has finally fully snapped in half making the saddle quite uncomfortable, my smartphone has packed it in meaning I am currently making do with hand drawn maps I’ve made, the charging cable for said smartphone and my kindle has broken and the icing on the cake is that one of the mounts on my, already broken, front rack has threaded making it even more precarious. Still equipment issues are all part of the challenge and I am taking some satisfaction from the fact I intend to make way through the mountains with a hand drawn map and no music to distract me from the scenery.

The next day was more back tracking over a 2,500m pass that Stephen and I had slogged quite hard to get over. Luckily coming from the west was easier as it was a gentle climb with a steep descent and I made it the 105km for the day in under 4 hours. Seeing the old mud forts of the great wall again was a nice bonus…

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I wondered out in the town, Shandan, on the hunt for my favourite dumplings and scored a bargain, a plate of dumplings, a bowl of soup and a beer for under £1. I headed back to my room to repair the front rack of my bike as best I could…

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And this is what £9 gets you in a hotel in China, unreal…

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After a good nights sleep I was excited to finally be riding on new roads, no more back tracking! I had a lovely tailwind for the first half of the day hitting a new speed record on a flat road of 40kmh. I pressed on down a bumpy shortcut…

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The Qilian mountains began to tower higher and higher over me as I inched on towards then. I started getting that lovely mix of excitement and trepidation that means I’m in for a challenge.

Back on the main road towards my destination for the day, Minle, I was caught up by a young group of cyclists who were keen to have a chat with me and even invited me to lunch in Minle before they turned back to ride to their homes in Zhangye…

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We had a huge spread of rice, spicy vegetables, marinated tofu (some of the best tofu I’ve ever had) as well as fried potatoes and the guys all got a kick out of a foreigner being competent with chopsticks. One of the guys was Tibetan, the first I’ve ever met, and he loved my tattoos and begun showing me pictures of the various Tibetan symbols he wants to get tattooed on himself. As usual the bill was settled without me noticing and it was made clear my money was no good despite my protests.

As I got my camera out of a bag on my bike, disaster struck and I dropped the damn thing and broke it. The worst timing in the world as I’m about to hit my first Tibetan decorated pass and a tonne of beautiful mountains. I can’t even use the camera in my phone as a backup as that’s bust as well! Rotten luck. It’s a ruggedised camera too, rated to survive a 1.5m drop onto concrete, hopefully I can get it warrentied when I get home.

If I was going to give a tip to anyone embarking on a year long bicycle tour is to have a contingency budget. Day-to-day living is cheap on the road but unexpected expenses can savage your budget.

I checked into a guesthouse and went straight out in search of a new camera. After walking into a dozen shops and getting vague directions I finally lucked out and met a young guy, Jambo, who was fluent in English working in a laptop shop. He went so far as to walk me to the Camera shop where I was presented with a small choice of heavily overpriced compact cameras. Fake consumer electronics are a big thing in China so the odds are I may be paying a small fortune for a sub par camera but I really had no choice. I finally settled on one after trying a bunch out and finding one that seemed alright.

“How much?” I nervously asked. £140! You’ve got to be bluddy kidding me. You can get really great compact cameras back home for £80, much better than these ones. Reluctant to spend money I haggled hard and got the Camera down to £80, still a lot of money, and got her to throw in the charging cable I need for my Kindle as well. The pictures from this point on are hopefully worth the price .

Jambo was acting as a translator during this and got noticeable awkward as the woman got angry at my aggressive haggling, he even explained to her that I’d cycled here from England which earned me another £5 off. I offered to get Jambo a meal for his troubles but he refused saying he was happy to help. On the way back to the guesthouse I noticed a legacy of Chinas much more communist past, the Red Star…

Bit daunting the next morning as I had 55km of climbing in front of me to the Biandukou pass. Almost immediately after riding out of Minle the mountains appeared…

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It was a nightmare riding on this road, a huge umber of cars and busses just stop in the middle of the lane so everyone can get out and take photos, to be fair you can see why…

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I’d hoped that I’d get to see a Yak on this section through Qinghai and I quickly realised that they are everywhere! On this climb I must’ve gone past several thousand just grazing away on the hillsides. In my head Yaks were always in the same category as camels, it is crazy to have cycled far enough to see them…

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The climb was gentle but relentless and the fantastic scenery made me not regret all the miles I had back tracked to come this way…

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The valley started to narrow and as I rounded a bend I spotted this little temple and decided to take a break…

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Whilst most people know about Tibet I don’t think too many people know much about Qinghai. Unlike Tibet you can visit Qinghai without a difficult to get permit and without being on an approved tour. Qinghai is considered by Tibetans not to be part of China and it is primarily made up of Amdo, one of the three regions that historically made up Tibet. As a result Qinghai feels like a totally differant country than the rest of China.

As I sat having lunch and reading outside the temple a Tibetan guy went past on a motorbike, took both his hands off the handlebars and put them together like a prayer and with a huge smile gave me a bow as he rode past. Little things like that can really brighten up a long day slogging up a climb, I smiled back and tried to imitate his gesture whilst fumbling with my packet of crisps.

As I carried on I kept spotting motion in the grass in my peripheral vision. I was at 3,400m at this point and genuinely thought I might be hallucinating but I eventually spotted the culprits…

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These little guys move fast and hide as soon as they make eye contact with you. It took me an age to get a decent photo of one as I was little cautious about getting close to them. I wasn’t sure but I thought they might be Marmots, a plague carrier responsible for the Bubonic plague case in Yumen last month. A bit of research later shows my concerns were unfounded and that these are Tibetan Dwarf Hamsters.

I saw the top of the pass and as I crawled on the road got steeper. The beeps of cars signalling they were passing stopped and were replaced by whole families leaning out the windows cheering me on!

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Every time I go to a higher altitude than I’ve been to before I am always curious and concerned about if the altitude will affect me. I was surprised that there was zero effect, I was’t even particularly short of breath.

I walked around the pass for a bit taking in the decorations, this pass also marks the proper border between Gansu and Qinghai provinces…

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Strewn around the grass everywhere are little prayer slips, between these and sound of the prayer flags flapping around in the wind there is quite an atmosphere up here, albeit spoiled by a car flying over the pass every few minutes…

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All day I’d been over-taking, and being over-taken by, a group of three Chinese cyclists heading up the pass. We’d been waving to each other each time we passed and stopped to share snacks at one point too. They got to the pass a few minutes after me and I gave them a big cheer as they crossed it…

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Turns out one of them was 67… SIXTY SEVEN! They’d done the climb in roughly the same time as me and I’ve been cycling almost daily for 8 months! Good on him! I take solace in the fact that I lugged a lot more luggage up the climb.

Descending off the pass into a high altitude valley (the base of which is above 3,000m) I saw a huge Stupa surrounded by prayer flags up on a mountain top. Stupa’s are a Buddhist monument and usually contain relics or even the ashes of monks…

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I had considered stopping in the town just after the pass but decided to press on and do the 130km to Qilian to give myself a full day off there to get used to the altitude before the 4,100m pass the next day. To fuel up I treated myself to a tin of beans I’d found in a supermarket in Lanzhou. A little taste of home…

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My elevation profile had shown the next 70km as all slightly downhill but it turned out to be undulating, the last thing I needed after climbing all morning. A rain storm rolled in just to make things better and I was soon riding into a headwind. The air is much colder up here, my hands haven’t been that cold since Turkey in Winter.

I was quite surprised to see this pass marker as from the direction I cycled from it was only a 50m climb above the valley floor…

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After this “pass” the scenery changed dramatically from the grass of the high-altitude valley to red mountains and pine forests everywhere…

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I finally reached Qilian shattered looking for somewhere cheap to spend my day off only to find this town strictly enforces the no-foreigners in cheap hotels rule. Everywhere place I went into directed me to the £40 a night tourist hotel. No way am I paying that. One of the hotels contacted a flat rental service and the manager arrives to show me to a place.

As the two of us walk through the town the strict police here pull up and tell the woman not to speak to foreigners! I’m sorry but are we in 1970’s China? I’m not a “foreign devil” anymore you know. They scan her ID card and make a note before letting us go. I ask her if the police here are good or bad and she enthusiastically says BAD!

The flat is lovely but the price was £30. Thankfully my haggling skills have improved and I got the place for £9 a night. Some cyclists I made friends with in Kyrgyzstan (Jared and Katie) actually got kicked out of the place they were staying in by the police here and forced to stay in the tourist hotel, hopefully I have better luck.

Whilst the altitude had little affect on me whilst cycling I found that carrying my bike and luggage up three flights of stairs to the apartment almost beat me. I think the day off to acclimatise before going up the 4,100m pass is a good idea!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!

I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.

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