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It has been a mammoth two days of cycling over the mountains. Snow storms, a 4,120 metre pass, accidentally riding through a city closed to foreigners and the icing on the cake… a 230km day (144 miles).

I spent my day off in Qilian relaxing in the flat I’d rented ever so slightly nervous about going outside in case the police dragged me off to the £40 a night tourist hotel. The view from the living room was a constant reminder of the huge mountain pass I would have to cycle over the next day (see above photo).

I finally dragged myself out as I wanted to see the huge red cliff that overlooks the city with its little Tibetan monument on top…

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As I made my way back towards my flat I noticed I was being stared at a lot more in this town than normal, I guess very few foreigners come here. I walked through a street food market and bought a huge tub of what I thought were potatoes fried in garlic and chilli…

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They turned out to be strange cubes of jelly, still quite nice but that moment where you bite into something and it has a differant texture than what you imagined is always unpleasant.

I ventured out once again that night to get some food and was served up the largest dumplings I have ever seen. They were closer to Central Asian dumplings in terms of a beef and onion filling but still had the fluffy Chinese outer shell, delicious! Tibetan Momo dumplings are popular in Qinghai province and I’ll be hunting those out soon. I walked past a group of police on my way back to the flat but thankfully my “disguise” of a woolly hat and sunglasses had been working and almost no one was noticing me.

I awoke the next morning to torrential rain, lovely stuff for a massive climb. Not to worry. I begun my press on up the climb stopping after 10km in a pine forrest to make some pasta with chicken stock for breakfast by the river…

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Since I’d started the days climb at 3,000m it didn’t take long to break through the tree line, despite the rain the views were still good…

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The rain kept hammering down and I fell afoul of a common cycle tourist problem. My cheap waterproof jacket is not breathable and in the process of keeping the rain out you end up keeping sweat in ending up with clothes just as wet as if you never bothered with the waterproof. The waterproof still serves a function as a windbreak which stops the wind chilling you to ice through your wet clothes but it is not pleasant.

I ducked into a pipe under the road and did my best trying to dry out some of my clothes over the flame of the petrol stove I’ve borrowed from Stephen which he kindly offered up as the rest of his trip is all very developed (Thanks man!). I succeeded in improving my clothes from the status of soaked through to merely damp but opted to put on my spare base layers and work harder to keep myself ventilated.

A few more hundred metres up and I was now in the clouds. The air was thick with moisture making it even harder to stay dry…

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Riding up in a whiteout like this was quite surreal, trucks lumbering slowly down the mountain would appear suddenly as a big black blob in the cloud. The air became extremely cold and the rain turned to hail and snow, just what I needed. I had no way of telling how far I had left to climb as I had no view of the pass or the mountain tops. I found myself taking deep breaths to get the most out of the thin air but finally I got there…

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4,120.6 metres. I’d checked off another challenge from my checklist, reaching 4,000m. I think the photo captures the physical state I was in. I had a quick look around the Tibetan pass marker with it’s huge incense pit burning away and giant prayer flags flapping away in the wind blessing the safety of the pass…

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Next to the marker I spotted a little tent with a chimney poking out and a plume of smoke rising above. I ducked in quickly. Inside was a little Tibetan cafe where two Chinese police officers immediately offered me their seats next to the stove once they saw the state I was in. I began peeling away layers and putting them on the stove to dry out whilst the lady running the place served me plates of bread and cup after cup of steaming hot butter tea. Unfortunately the heat in the cafe steamed up my camera lens…

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Butter tea is exactly what its name suggests. A cup of tea with a lump of salted butter dropped in it. I’ve had butter tea before in Mongolia and was not a fan at all but now it was beautiful. I think my body recognised it contained everything I needed at that moment, warmth, caffeine, salt and calories.

Once I began to feel like myself some of the Tibetan herders in the cafe wanted to take some photos with me, one insisted he wear my cycling helmet and I wear his cowboy hat…

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When I enquired about the cost of the tea my money was shrugged away and after saying my goodbyes I headed out into the storm. Keen to get below the weather I came down off the pass quick and there was 50km to a town that I hoped to find somewhere indoors to stay. It was still raining quite heavily and sleeping in my bivvy bag without some sort of shelter would have led to quite a cold and miserable night up at 3,500 metres. The undulating road cut into the side of the valley did not make the going easy…

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I finally reached the very small town and saw nothing that looked like a guesthouse. I decided to go into the local government building to see if they could point me in the right direction. The huge building seemed vacant but I could here voices echoing around and finally found some guys on the second floor who gave me a vague wave in the direction of the guesthouse.

As I followed their loose directions I ran into two Chinese bicycle tourists, one of whom spoke English and we decided to share a room. They only had twin rooms so I offered to sleep on the floor in my camping gear. The guys insisted on paying as they had the beds and we headed out for a feast of a dinner, again with the guys refusing to take any of my money! As I lay in my bivvy that evening I realised I hadn’t spent a single penny that day.

In the morning we posed for some photos…

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And then swapped tips on the road ahead (we were going in opposite directions) and off I went up a short 400 metre climb to another pass…

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I was looking forward to an easy day descending from this pass but rain and a headwind saw to the end of that. To my left were some dramatic mountains serving as backdrop to the grasslands which were punctuated by small Tibetan farm houses and tents…

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After stopping for a lunch of more pasta and chicken stock cooked on the stove I ran into a recurring problem on the back roads of China that made me laugh as I remembered a quote from Alistair Humphries writings on cycling across China.

“If you’ve gotten bored of driving like a maniac simply fetch a flock of sheep and take them for a stroll down the highway”…

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Finally the wind gave in and I got the benefit of the descent down to the city of Haibei. On the way I passed a military facility with a huge sign, written in Chinese and English, declaring this a bomb testing range. Very thoughtful to help out anyone who might be a spy with a translation!

I reached Haibei and began to look for somewhere cheap to stay. After venturing into 10 hotels the cheapest price I found was £40, no bluddy way! (I later found out that this is due to the city having a nuclear power plant and thus being closed to foreigners). I bought some water and decided to press on and camp as the weather was good. The next day I was planning to reach the city of Xining along what I though was a flat road. The road I was following quickly started going downhill a lot and, as I am now sans GPS, I was convinced this was the wrong road.

I’d ridden 122km at this point but decided to see how far I could go on the descent to make the next day nice and easy. The downhill went on forever and before I knew it I had ridden 50km to a big city. Xining was 50km away and it was only 6pm, I knew the location of a hostel costing £3.50 a night and decided to go for it. The downhill lasted until I’d ridden 190km and then suddenly the road flattened out and the wind had turned into my face.

It was too dark to wear my sunglasses and the dust from the trucks was doing a number on eyes which felt sore by this point. I powered on and relished the moment my cycle computer registered 200km. The final challenge on my checklist, barring making it to Shanghai, I’m now free to enjoy my trip at leisure.

As I took the turn off from the highway I was navigating to the hostel from a series of landmarks I had memorised. This plan fell apart as I struggled to find a bridge across the river and begun contemplating bailing into the first hotel I found. I resolved to be tougher and not waste money by making it to the hostel.

Finally, after a grand total fo 230km, I reached the tower block and squeezed my bike into the lift up to the 15th floor only to find out the place was full. I quickly struck a deal to sleep on the sofa in the bar for the night and then have a dorm bed for the next night to recover from the mountains.

I had somewhere to sleep but the downside was having to stay awake until 1am when everyone was done drinking. Despite my exhausted state I realised the only way to solve this problem was to get stuck in and have a few cheap beers. At 1am I collapsed into my camping gear once again with what must’ve been the most bloodshot eyes on earth.

I’ve got a couple days off here in Xining before I press on up to the Tibetan towns of Tongren and Xiahe. I’ll then zoom down off of the Tibetan plateau towards Xian before hopping off to Hong Kong to get a new Chinese visa for the final stint to Shanghai!

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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