Week 6: Lanzhou to Danxia National Geographic Park (home to China's Rainbow Mountains), 626km
Making up for last week’s shorter post with a longer one!
I headed out from my hotel in Lanzhou to check out a famous bridge—the first bridge to ever span the reaches of the Yellow River. The bridge was built in 1949 so there was a large display set up to celebrate the 70th anniversary. The bridge and surrounding area was absolutely buzzing with Chinese tourists and as I was taking it all in, I heard, “nice bike.” It was an American accent, the first I had heard since leaving Shanghai. Brad is an American who has been living in China for a while and was traveling to Xining for one of their bird sanctuaries to do a spot of twitching (or bird watching for all you Americans). We had a nice a chat about our journeys before wishing each other well for the road ahead.
I rode alongside the Yellow River for much of the morning, and managed to bump into a guy who was riding from North East China to Tibet. He had a massive trailer attached to his bike which was absolutely stacked with stuff! He let me try and ride it and it was so heavy. Here I thought I had packed too much for my trip, but this guy was another level! He was constantly live streaming everything that was going on, one of the millions of Chinese who are cashing in on this phenomenon.
I had been taken quite a few of stops and as it started to get dark, I was still about 20km away from the city that I had planned to stay in. As I was riding along, a guy pulled up beside me on a motorbike and asked if I wanted to join him for dinner. Like last time, it sounds a bit strange, but these offers are actually surprisingly common here. This time however, I had to decline as I really wanted to make it to the next city before dark. I explained this to him and set off again. He waved and turned back only to catch up again five minutes later with a crate of red bull, which he gave me saying I needed to be alert on long days in the saddle. I thanked him and headed off to Minhe.
As I arrived, I was immediately struck by how religious this city seemed. I was passing mosques and temples left and right. It is the capital of the Hui and Tu Autonomous County, and home to a high percentage of ethnic minorities, as such there are less restrictions on where they can build their places of worship compared to other parts of China. The first hotel I tried turned me away with the usual policy of no foreigners. They pointed me in the direction of one where I could stay. When I arrived, the hotel was already full and pointed me to the only other one in the city that I could stay at. Thankfully, this third hotel had space. I checked in, got my evening chores done, and passed out.
The next day was a 115km climb to Xining, which was a place I had been looking forward to since leaving Shanghai. The altitude meant a much milder climate. Just outside the city, I took a short detour to check out the white horse temple (白马寺), which is a really cool one built into the side of a mountain. I pushed my bike all the way up the steep slope to the gates of the temple and went in to explore. I would’ve been able to get amazing shots with the drone, but when I asked the guard, I was told I wasn’t allowed to fly in the area. From the temple, it was about another 40km into Xining city centre. When I arrived, I was met by some light rain and a comfortable temperature of 26 degrees. I was enjoying that!
I took a day off in Xining and decided to check out the Tibetan Culture and Medicine museum. I spent ages wondering around checking out all the old Tibetan Thangka, which is a type of traditional buddhist painting or scroll. This museum had interesting examples that basically served as early medical manuals or textbooks. They hung it up in monasteries for students to learn the practices of Tibetan medicine. Each of these scrolls were incredibly detailed, with colour drawings indicating all sorts of ailments and cures. The museum also had one of the earliest textbooks written between 773-783 AD that detailed everything an aspiring young monk would need to know about Tibetan medicine. The completed book was absolutely massive and weighed 1.5 tons! Imagine having to carry that to uni!
Upstairs was the Great Thangka, which was 618m long and depicted Tibetan life from the creators and earliest gods right up to the present day. The artwork was meticulous, and contains over one million individual characters! You could spend a lifetime pondering their individual stories and adventures. I love things that you can look at thousands of times and still see something new each time. I did notice though that this thangka might have not be entirely representative of how Tibetan people actually perceive their culture and history. For instance, the painting only includes the Chinese Princess Wencheng who was sent to King Songsten Gampo; it doesn’t mention his Nepali princess or indeed his native Tibetan wife. That’s just one example, though there are more obvious glaring omissions that I won’t go into here. Anyway, an impressive work of art nonetheless.
After heading out from Xining, I followed the G227 as the road continued to rise. I was surrounded by more open space and really enjoyed the climb with the weather being much more comfortable—about 17°C during the day dropping to 9°C at night. I managed to hit 91km before settling on a spot to camp for the night. It was not the 110km I had planned when I set out that morning. However, I had done a lot of climbing, it was close to getting dark, and had I passed a lovely little sport by a river that I thought would make for a great place to camp. I bumped down off road over some gravel, then into an open field and set up camp.
The atmosphere was perfect. I cooked up some noodles on the stove and then enjoyed a night in the tent where I wasn’t absolutely sweating. I even woke up in the middle of the night feeling a bit chilly and had to get inside my sleeping bag—a problem I’d much rather face then being too hot. The landscape and weather reminded me a lot of home and I settled nicely back off to sleep.
So far on this trip, I have never bothered to set an alarm, and instead just getting up whenever, having a relaxed breakfast, and getting on the road. This usually meant that I’m wake about 7ish and on the road about 10ish, and its served me well so far. Looking at my elevation profile to the next city though, I knew I had three peaks to pass and then a looong descent into Zhangye. I thought I would try to get all the climbing done today and then leave myself with a nice easy ride the next day.
Turns out, I grossly underestimated how difficult it was to cross these mountain passes. I was down at about 8km/h on some of the steepest parts, nothing more than a brisk walk and my average for the day was only 14km/h. That said, I did eventually manage to cross my first mountain pass of the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau at 3792.75 metres above sea level. It was wet and cold at this altitude. I’m not sure if it was actually rain or if I was just inside the clouds, but I had to get some extra layers before heading back down the other side. I was just getting into the descent, enjoying free rolling at speeds over 50km/h when I turned a corner to be met by a bunch of tents and stalls in a large kind of specially built lay-by with little viewing platforms. This was actually perfectly timed as the climb had left me starving! I pulled in and ordered a bunch of kebabs and little fried potatoes, eventually eating 14 lamb kebabs and two orders of potatoes After I finished, I had a look at the little stalls selling stuff to the bus loads of tourists that seemed to have stopped here.
It wasn’t long before I was pedalling through vast open grassland and gradually rising again. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to make another two of those passes today so I pulled over at a little cluster of traditional Tibetan tents and asked if I could pitch my tent. The family were super welcoming and told me to stay in their spare tent, saying it would be too cold and windy at night to stay in my own. I agreed but they didn’t want to accept any money from me. As I was cooking dinner on my stove outside they invited me into their own tent where we hung out, ate, drank and chatted about life on the grassland. After a few shots of homemade brandy (which I wish I could say tasted great), I retired to my tent for the night.
I realised that I hadn’t taken a picture with the family and thought I would just get one when I give them their hongbao in the morning, but when I got up, only the woman was there.The men were already out tending the flocks in the field. I passed on the hongbao and got their address so that I could send them a nice bottle of Scotch to say thanks.
So after only making one pass on day 38, I was still left with two more to navigate through before my long descent into Zhangye. I was much more cautious after my experience the day before and thought it may take me two days before I got there. As I continued through the grassland, it started to become more and more developed, with a lot of tourist camps where people can stay in tents, ride horses, do archery, try on the traditional clothes etc. There was also construction along side the road for large sections of the day, which I think is the belt and road initiative being put into action. Makes me wonder what’s going to happen to the locals who have maintained their traditional herder lifestyles for so long.
Along the road, I met a guy on a motorbike who was traveling from Shanghai to Pakistan. I think he’s meant to ride the Karakoram Highway. We chatted for a bit and he gave me something to chew on, which apparently in traditional Chinese medicine, is very good for keeping you awake and alert. He told me this herb, called Bing Lang, was even more effective than coffee. It doesn’t taste very good, but I graciously accepted anyway. Since we were heading in the same direction we swapped contact info and perhaps will meet up later as he plans on taking long breaks along the way so I might be able to catch up with him. I’m sure it’ll turn out to be a useful contact since he could act as my advance scouting party and let me know which were the best roads to take and if there was any problems along the route.
I managed to reach the top of the third and final pass at about 4PM and with about 100km to go. I thought I would be able to blast down the descent and make it to the next city before dark. This I did manage to do, however I had to fight into a super strong head wind, which made the descent much tougher than it could’ve been!
After staying at the international hotel in Zhangye, I left myself only 40km out to a campsite called Koashan Tent, right at the west gate of the Danxia National Geological Park home, which is home to China’s famous Rainbow Mountains. The campsite was recommended by a friend and it was a really great place to stay. They let me pitch my tent for free among all the luxury yurts that they had for other tourists, and I was able to use the showers and toilets which was a really nice standard. There was a massive yurt in the middle that served as the restaurant and they put on a BBQ in the evening outside with all the mountains lit up in the background. There were lots of families there and everyone was super nice. Felt pretty lucky to be staying there.
After a nice evening at the campsite I set out on the short walk to the west gate of the Danxia National Geological Park. The park itself is very Chinese touristy, with buses that shuttle you to all the best viewing points you can however choose to walk around after the initial bus drops you at the first point. They had a bunch of activities to do as well to get a better a view, such as hot air balloons, paragliding, helicopter ride etc. Still, they are all extremely expensive, and you were expected to pay about £70 for 5 minutes. So I skipped it and was quite happy just wondering around all the beautiful hills with my drone.
I spent another nice evening at the camp site. There were some Chinese students who spoke really good English, so I hung out with them for a while before retiring to my humble little tent pitched among these luxury glamping set ups.