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Well I’ve reached the end of my scenic detour and will now be heading straight down to Xian to do my visa run to Hong Kong. The last few days have been incredible visiting the various monasteries in Qinghai and Southern Gansu which have led to this being a rather photo heavy, and cycling light, post!

I left off, in my last post, having just arrived in Tongren with a seized up knee. I took a day off to checkout the towns Long Wu monastery (see photo above). I was really surprised, having not been to a monastery like this before, that within the walls was a small town accommodating the monks. I’d assumed the complex would be more like several large buildings but a labyrinth of alleys sprawled out with little houses tucked away in every corner.

Tongren also produces some of the finest Thangkas in the world. Thangkas are Buddhist silk paintings variously used for ornamental and educational purposes depicting scenes from the life of Buddah and various other deities and important Buddhist figures. The designs adhere to string geometric rules and contain a wealth of hidden imagery but what is truly astounding is the detail. This piece below is about a metre square in size…

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To give a sense of the detail cast your eye to the middle petal of the lotus Buddha is sitting on in the above shot.  Look two petals to the right (the blue one) and see the guy with the green halo sitting below it. Here is a closeup on the man, the detail is both incredible and also immaculately executed…

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I plodded on through the maze of the monastery, the Tibetan architectural style is really simple but very charming and bold. The fat bottomed trapezoid shape around the windows is used on nearly every building and is rather distinctive…

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Monks were wondering about their business within the monastery and I have to say there is something novel about seeing a monk doing normal modern day things, it seems like a clash of a old a new. For example seeing a monk sat playing on his iPhone or washing a nice car…

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The monastery consisted of dozens of halls containing various shrines. Thangka paintings were everywhere and the atmosphere felt a world away from the rest of China…

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The outer wall of the monastery is lined entirely with prayer wheels with people coming to do a lap spinning them all. The traditional Tibetan clothing really is interesting. The men wear jackets with sleeves that come down to the knees which seem to serve as gloves for the cold night time temperatures. Cowboy style hats are popular and the woman almost all have a pair of huge long braids…

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Walking back to my guesthouse I stuck my head into a Thangka painting workshop and the guys quickly invited me and asked for a photo with them. As has become habit I asked for one back and got to see them working away at their paintings for a bit…

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I’d decided I’d love to buy one of these paintings but had heard they cost a fortune and ended up not even asking. Buying something so pricey would put a huge hole in my budget and it’s quite tough to mentally bring yourself round to spending a large amount of money when you’ve been living cheap for so long.

Even the main streets in town felt very differant to the rest of China. Half the shops were selling various tents and supplies for the nomadic yak herders and took me a while to realise something else that felt weird, it was the first town I’d been in that wasn’t based on a grid system for a long time. Look… a curved high street!…

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As I’ve mentioned before my saddle has been slowly falling apart and has been squeaking like crazy, which, since I have no music player anymore, has been driving me insane. Before heading out the next morning I attacked the saddle with some duct tape, duct tape solves everything, and hoped for the best…

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Once I cleared the town I found myself heading down a country lane busy with people pulling in the harvest. I’m still navigating from a map in my head at this point so was constantly keeping an eye open for landmarks I had memorised…

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A huge set of Stupa’s told me I was on the right track but as I stopped to take a photo I fell over after hitting a pothole. My, slightly less squeaky saddle, rocketed into my groin in a explosion of pain that did a wonderful job of distracting me from the huge chunk of skin I’d stripped off of my ankle. Nonetheless the photos were worth it…

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The plan for the day was only a short 45km as this involved a decent amount of climbing (nearly 3,000m). I turned off up the climb in the direction of the Ganjia grasslands with a backdrop of rather dramatic mountains…

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After a quick stop to clean up the mess I’d made of my ankle I pressed on was confused seeing what looked like a bush running down the road towards me. Turned out to be an overladen donkey…

18 I wasn’t enjoying this climb, the gradient was pretty steep and lots of Chinese tourists were slowing down to take photos of me as I puffed and panted my way up. I snapped at one car and demanded payment for my modelling services only for the car to fly off. Cheeky buggers.

My little outburst hinted that I should probably take a break but no sooner than stepping off the bike I was running up the side of valley, camera in hand, in pursuit of this little guy…

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A Marmot! I know, I know. Chasing a plague carrying animal in the wake of a recent outbreak is not wise but I was determined to get a decent shot. They move surprisingly fast considering their size (see daisy in photo for scale).

I knocked the top off the climb (3,358m) and rolled down the other-side into a town I was hoping to find somewhere to stay in. No luck on the guesthouse front so I headed into a cafe to fuel up as this had now become a huge day to Xiahe. With no menus in the place I resorted to my backup tactic of having a look at what everyone else is eating and pointing to what I want, a method that seems to provide a lot of entertainment to other diners. It worked and soon I was tucking into a huge bowl of noodles and yak meat…

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I reluctantly got back on the bike with two more big passes to cross that day (3,650m and 3,400m) bringing the days total ascent to nearly 4,000m, a BIG day. I thought back to my three day approach to Istanbul all those months ago where I was proud to have covered 3,000m of ascent in 3 days! That’d be easy peasy now!

The second pass was miserable and cold and I didn’t think to take any photos just focusing on slogging over it. Down the other side I raced through several old towns made of compacted mud…

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I stopped in the final small town to get some sugary drinks to push myself over the third pass with which turned out to be a rather astute decision as I discovered this final pass was dirt road…

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Riding uphill on a heavy bike is tough, throwing in lumpy road surface means you can’t really build up any momentum and every pedal stroke is hardwork, the views were a treat though and kept me going…

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When climbing you tend to look forward to the descent but crossing the pass revealed a lumpy bumpy road all the way down with me having to ride on the brakes so I didn’t damage my wheels smashing into potholes at speed…

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My breaks began to scream the sound of metal on metal. I knew the pads were on their way out but this mountain section has polished them off. I was only 10km or so from the end of the day so resolved to swap the pads the next day.

Half way down the descent I had to navigate through an unattended heard of Yaks being careful not to spook any of the male ones with the huge horns…

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Shattered after all that climbing I checked into a £2.50 a night hostel in Xiahe, wolfed down my dinner and collapsed into bed.

In the morning I befriended an Israeli guy from the hostel called Noam and went out on a wander through the towns Muslim quarter spotting a uniquely Chinese styled mosque…

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Afterwards we went around the focus of Xiahe, the Labrang monastery, home to some 500 monks. The outer wall of the monastery, called the inner kora, has a line of prayer wheels 3km’s long. The pilgrims coming to spin them wear gloves on their right hand to prevent getting blisters from spinning them all. At various important points on the walk pilgrims press their foreheads against sections of wall which have worn them smooth over the years…

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The monastery contained plenty more of the charming Tibetan architecture that I’ve grown fond of…

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One of the halls in Labrang contains a collection of yak butter sculptures. As you step into the room the powerful small hits you before your eyes adjust to the dim light and the sculptures appear against the back wall…

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You can always tell where the monks are having a meeting by the dozens of pairs of felt boots they leave outside on the steps…

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This sect of Buddhism is called Gelug. The newest sect and is the one headed up by the world famous Dalai Lama who now resides in exile in India due to China not looking fondly on his goal of a free Tibet. This sect has earned the nickname “Yellow hat” due to the mohican looking hats the monks sometimes wear, one can be seen hanging over the shoulder of the monk on the left in this shot…

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As with the monastery in Tongren, Labrang contains a sprawling maze of alleys separating the houses where the monks live, totally separate to the town of Xiahe…

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We’d seen the bulk of the monastery and went in search of some Tibetan food. The first item on my list was Tsampa which is a Tibetan staple of barley flour, yak butter and salt rolled into little balls. The history of this dish took an interesting turn when it’s popularitry across the Tibetan plateau was used as the symbol of a single Tibetan identity. The people of the plateau are of several ethnic groups speaking a variety of dialects but what they all had in common was a love for Tsampa and hence the term “Tasmpa eaters” was coined as their collective name. The dish itself was nice, not too far in flavour from porridge back in the UK, and was rounded out with a cup of butter tea on the side (you can spot the layer of butter floating on top of the tea…)

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Next up was some MoMo. Yak meat dumplings, the next item on my pan Eurasian tour of the dumpling world. Strangely similar in design to the Georgian Khinkali dumplings but with a simple filling of meat with no seasoning. I think the Chinese have retained their crown for the most delicious dumplings of the trip…

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Heading back into the hostel we spotted this rather cool looking goat sat outside. I seemed to remember spotting him when I checked in the day before. He didn’t seem to belong to anyone but wasn’t nervous and was quite happy relaxing away on the pavement…

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Remembering to change my brake pads I found that I really had been grinding metal on metal…

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I’d been thinking about the Thangka paintings all day. I don’t really have a significant souvenir from this trip so resolved to hunt around find out what these things cost. Most designs were about 60cm x 60cm and cost a small fortune (£400 or so), but in one little gallery I spotted the smallest one I’d seen i the whole town. “£80 is still a lot of money” I thought so I took this photo and went away to think about it…

38A Thangka doesn’t just consist of the painting, the cloth mount is important too, which would make carrying the thing a pain on the bike, but after reading up on the history of this deity and sitting down and working out that my budget could handle it I went with my gut and bought it.

I now introduce you to the Yellow Jambhala, one of the five Jambhala’s, who has the power to bring prosperity. He carries a mongoose under his left arm that vomits jewels which he distributes to the needy…

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Noam was now quite keen to get a souvenir and found a shop selling the traditional long sleeved Tibetan jackets that I mentioned above. He caved in and bought one and I had to try it on. Excuse the horrific lighting but you get the idea, a wool lined huge overcoat with the knee length sleeves…

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Later that evening, after returning from a cheap dinner and trying out the local Labrang grain alcohol (60% proof and as smooth as it gets) we spotted the goat again. The streets were empty and he just sat in his same old spot. The flash didn’t annoy him too much, he just turned, looked me dead in the eyes and sneezed at me…

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We thought we’d give him a name and settled on Tenzing after the famed Nepalese climber who was the first to summit Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary.

In the morning we headed out early to head out for a short hike on the Outer Kora path through the hills that surrounded the mountain, of course we had to say hello to Tenzing on the way…

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Finding the path wasn’t easy but our winding route through the monastery was not fruitless considering the fantastic woodwork that adorns nearly every door way…

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Eventually we found the Outer Kora path which was much steeper than we imagined. My legs aren’t good for much other than cycling these days leading to a few old Tibetan ladies overtaking us on the way up…

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A huge Chorten marks the location of an old destroyed Hermitage on the mountain…

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Further along the path you are rewarded with grand views over Labrang Monastery. Nearly all the buildings in this shot are part of the monastery complex…

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At the end of the path we took a detour and found another small monastery with a few prayer wheels inside and an image of the Dalai Lama! This was particularly interesting as open worship of the Dalai Lama is forbidden in China due to his aforementioned goal of greater autonomy for the Tibetans…

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A short walk back to the Tibetan restaurant and we grabbed a table on the corner overlooking our old friend Tenzing and had a good laugh as he chased away people trying to take closeup photos of him…

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With our meals entertainment sorted I tucked into a bowl of Dresil, a Tibetan rice dish mixed with yak butter, sugar small herb roots. Really nice, not far off of rice pudding…

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I’m aware the last few pasts have been a bit more touristy than cycling but Qinghai and South Gansu have really been a highlight so I thought I’d go into a bit of detail. Tomorrow starts the sart of an 800km 6 day stint to Xian so more serious cycling will resume!

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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