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China in the blink of an eye

Cycling over; it was time to become regular tourists and visit some regular tourist attractions; here are are photo highlights:

Chengdu is famous for its Pandas so it was a compulsory visit to the breeding centre!

Chengdu is famous for its Pandas so it was a compulsory visit to the breeding centre! So cute!

The Panda centre was also home to Red Panads (think fox-car mongrel with a giant bushy tail) and some Black Swans.

The Panda centre was also home to Red Pandas (think fox-cat mongrel with a giant bushy tail… so cute) and some Black Swans.

Wonky roofs in the Wushu Temple, Chengdu

Wonky roofs in the Wushu Temple, Chengdu

Leshans Giant Buddah is carved into the cliff. At 71m tall, it is massive. Tim stands by one of it's feet.

Leshans Giant Buddah is carved into the cliff. At 71m tall, it is massive. Tim stands by one of it’s feet.

Some of the old stuff in China is original! This bridge is gorgeous!

Sometimes, some of the old stuff in China is original! This bridge in an old fishing town is gorgeous!

Very few bicycles to be seen, the cycle lanes are full of electric scooters!

Very few bicycles to be seen, the cycle lanes are full of electric scooters!

A street barber gives Tim a much needed trim. Not bad for £1!

A street barber gives Tim a much needed trim. Not bad for one pound! The scooter also transported the waiting chair!

The Terracotta Army still stand waiting in Xi'an.

The Terracotta Army still stand waiting in their thousands.

In Beijing, friend of a friend Laifang hosted us and friend Gareth flew out to join the holiday.

In Beijing, friend of a friend Laifang (right) hosted us and friend Gareth (left) flew out to join the holiday.

The Great Wall without the crowds! Hiking gear required!

The Great Wall without the crowds! Hiking gear required!

Soldiers keep a watchful eye in Tienanmen Square.

Soldiers keep a watchful eye in Tienanmen Square.

This nighttime food market is not for the faint hearted! Seahorse dead. Scorpions still wriggling. :(

This night-time food market is not for the faint hearted! Seahorse dead. Scorpions still wriggling. 😦

Nightime skyscraper view to the from the funky Vu Bar in Shanghai

Nightime skyscraper view the from the funky Vu Bar in Shanghai

And a close up of the 'Oriental Pearl' tower.

And a close up of the ‘Oriental Pearl’ tower.

A Shanghai street scene with plenty of vendors and tuk-tuks, note the McDonalds top right - a saviour after months of noodles!

A Shanghai street scene with plenty of vendors and tuk-tuks, note the McDonalds top right – our saviour after months of spicy food and rehydrated noodles!

And back at the airport ready to blast back to blighty!

At the airport with bikes and bags packed ready to blast back to Blighty!

PS sorry this penultimate post a bit late – time flys when you’re relaxing!


Sichuan in the Snow

On with the adventure; a night in a hotel in Xiewu (room: £8) and we were back on the road. In sunshine we crossed a mountain pass and rode downhill straight into Sichuan province. Unfortunately, on the county border, the road quality went steeply downhill too! After much bumping rattling and swerving of pot holes, we made it to Serchu Dzong, with its imposing monastery complex. Another night, another cheap hotel (no heating, no running water and a drop toilet…again). We cooked breakfast on the windowsill and spent the morning wandering around the massive monastery, poking our heads into the brightly coloured prayer halls and watching the monks scurry around on their daily business. For once there was an equal amount of starring going on, as the crimson cloaked monks seemed just as fascinated by us as we were by them.

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Inside the prayer hall – Crimson robed Monks

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Qinghai – onto the Tibetan Plateau

After resting for a couple of nights at a hotel in Qilian we were ready to start our ascent on to the Tibetan plateau. Unbeknown to us at the time, it was actually the last proper town that we were going to see for quite some time, so it was just as well we had a rest day (to recover from our previous bike pushing/trekking marathon) and get fully restocked – especially with porridge for breakfast as bread was no longer readily available. Unfortunately, the whole town was being dug up and rebuilt, and power cuts were frequent – in 2 days there was only 3 hours worth of electricity! It must have been a regular occurrence as the hotel instantly provided candles and the town hummed to the sound of power generators that ran outside every shop. This lack of electricity and thus lighting, might have been the reason why Tim found a plaster in his evening meal at a restaurant. It must be hard to tell the differences between finger and pork when chopping in the dark!

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The bikes outside a cafe – after a ‘lucky-dip’ on the mandarin menu, we ended up with scrambled egg soup! Continue reading


Gansu Provence – off the beaten track!

China is a massive country. Too massive. Far too massive for us to cross by bike anyway, although we have met plenty of others giving it a go! (but not all successfully!)  Our solution was a long distance coach followed by a two night train journey to take us around the enormous Taklmakan Desert and 2500km into the centre-north of the country. We had to use the services of our hostel in Kashgar to buy our train tickets as the booking system is ridiculously complicated, and in Mandarin. Our bikes were packed up and sent ahead using the China Railway Postal Service so we had to wave them goodbye with the hope of seeing them again a few days later in Zhangye. There is no room on the passenger trains for all the passengers, let alone excess luggage.  Should you wish, you can buy “standing only” tickets – even for an overnight train – it seemed as though you just sleep in the aisle!!

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Tim inspects the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ in Zhangye – One of the many solar collectors we saw…. get a brew on!

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After 150km of perfect and quiet roads, the tarmac just stopped! Completely finished!

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But the climbing still continued……, the only traffic was quarry lorries.

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…. and super scenic camping spots – no facilities though!

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As we were on a gravel road, we didn’t spot that the official road had turned off, and we spent a day pedalling towards a dead end and our highest point yet – how annoying! After resting for the night, we decided to ignore the local’s advice to turn around and we carried on to follow the track through a ‘valley’, taking the most direct route back to the road we should have been on.

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The route got pretty knarley and we did quite a bit of bike trekking – not easy with fully loaded and very heavy tourers!

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As we crossed over 4000m the “track” disappeared and turned into a bumpy rutted field. Progress was extremely slow and painful! The storm that had been following us all day eventually caught us up, and we were having to walk the bikes downhill, as it was definitely not rideable. The situation was getting pretty dire so there was no time to take photos… but imagine walking down a very steep and rocky riverbed stewn with boulders and a blizzard blowing in your face and you’ll be getting close.

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At the main road we found an abandoned building so we set up the tent on it’s lee side, zipped up the canvas and put on our remaining clothes! (This photo was taking in the morning when the sun had come out!) China was living up to our expectations with it’s testing terrain and testing weather – although we were sure this was only a taster!


Karakoram Highway

After relaxing for a few days in Kashgar (and adjusting ourself to the madness of China), we set off on a mini-trip to ride part of the Karakoram Highway – turning around well before we got to the Pakistan border! The scenery was stunning, hopefully some of these photos do it justice!

And so the climbing begins!

And so the climbing begins!

It felt odd to be cycling the wrong way (away from Beijing), fortunatley we bumped into Nunu and Jo who we'd met at the hostel; riding as a 4 kept our spirits up!

It felt odd to be cycling the wrong way (away from Beijing), fortunately we bumped into Nuno and Jo who we’d previously met at the hostel; riding as a 4 kept our spirits up and stoped us from turning for home!

Unfortunatly the are is heavily mined quarried meaning lots of heavy trucks. Thankfully travelling uphill slowly and downhill even slower, although there was evidence of many accidents enroute.

Unfortunately the area is heavily mined and quarried, meaning lots of heavy trucks. Thankfully travelling uphill slowly and downhill even slower, although there was evidence of many accidents enroute.

Not all of the road is sealed!

Not all of the road is sealed! Prepare to be swamped by dust from other traffic!

At one of the many roadside markets. The children in this part of the world don't wear nappies - the crotch/bum seam is left 'open'. yuk!

At one of the many roadside markets. The children in this part of the world don’t wear nappies – the crotch/bum seam is left ‘open’…… yuk!

We rode up to 3700m - the daliy thermal tailwind pushing us most of the way (and hindering us on the way back!)

We rode up to 3600m – the daily thermal tailwind pushing us most of the way (and hindering us on the way back!)

The surreal scene of sand dunes edging up to a reservoir.

The surreal scene of sand dunes edging up to the Kangxiwa Reservoir.

What else did they bury underwater?

What else did they bury underwater?

At one of the many epic camping spots, Jo and Rebecca do the washing.

At one of the many epic camping spots, Jo and Rebecca do the washing.

And still more climbing to reach the Lake, 7546m Mustagata in the background.

And still more climbing to reach the Lake, 7546m Mustagata in the background.

Lake Kara Kol

Lake Kala Kule

Camels!

Camels! Camels! Camels!

Nunu and Jo's bikes poke at our camp spot.

Nuno and Jo’s bikes pose at our camp spot.

Time for a swim and a wash.. Tim was first in (again)

Time for a swim and a wash.. Tim was first in (again)

A lap of the lake and time to retrace our steps and head downhill.

A lap of the lake and it was time to retrace our steps and head downhill.

It didn't seem that steep coming up!

Long sweeping downhill ahead!

The urge to get home kicked in... instead of stoping at 100km we mounted the lights and did 200km to get back to Kashgar! Epic distance never to be repeated!

The urge to get home kicked in… instead of stopping at 100km we mounted the lights and did 200km to get back to Kashgar! Epic distance never to be repeated! 4 days uphill, 1 day back!


No Mans Land

Today was the day. It was the day to try our luck and see if we would actually get into China. We were 15km from the border but unsure of what lay ahead, both in terms of physical terrain and the bureaucratic obstacles. Knowing that the Chinese side would shut at 11:00hrs and not be open over the weekend, it was a super early start as we packed the tent and started pedalling just after sunrise. After a couple of climbs we arrived at a one man hut next to a simple barrier, we presented our passports, they where inspected, handed back and we continued…. no questioning, no asking what we were doing. Maybe it would be easier than we thought? After another mini mountain pass on which the passports were checked again we eventually arrived at the Kyrgyststan border post, which was choc-a-block with Chinese shipping lorries. Here our passports were checked another five times before a smiley army guy (with machine gun) stamped them and said as he returned them – “Thank you for visiting Kyrgyststan”. We were on our way!

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Stunning scenery!

Into no-mans and with excitement building we pedalled along the valley floor through check point after check point, wondering about the actual location of the border crossing. Eventually we came to a large building with a Chinese flag flying and another great big line of lorries, we had arrived! Bicycles are a queue-jumper’s ticket so we pedalled past all the trucks right up to the office! Much to our surprise we saw three other cycle tourists – the first people we’d caught up on our trip!  There was just enough time, before they were sent onwards, to have a quick chat and discoverer that we were all heading to the same hostel in Kashgar.

The Chinese have a new, and an old border post on the Irkeshtram Pass which are 142km apart. The road between the two was being replaced but it is not like English roadworks where they work on one section at a time and let you drive on the other side at a reduced speed. In China they close the road completely, along it’s entire length, and cut a dirt-road at the side of it. For 142km! Unsurprisingly, with so many heavy trucks travelling the route, it was pretty cut up with pot-holes, the occasional sand section and cliff-top hairpin thrown in for good measure! Standard speed limits applied: flat out. Standard road rules applied: Honk if you want the guy in front to go faster. Honk if there is a queue. Honk if there is a blind corner and you’re not slowing down. Honk if there is someone or something in the road. Honk to make sure your horn is still working. Do not under any circumstances reduce your speed.

With our passports surrendered we were told to sit and wait. We would not be allowed to cycle on the unsafe and unfinished road (see above) so the border police would find an empty lorry to transport us and the bikes to the second border. After a short wait, both the bikes were loaded into an empty shipping lorry, Rebecca climbed into the passenger seat and they set off! Tim was left to follow behind in a flat-bed lorry. So with our bikes loaded and us in different trucks with drivers that spoke no English and not really knowing where we were going, we headed off onto the dirt road, hoping that we would all arrive at the same place at the same time and all in one piece!

When the army official said that the road was not safe for cyclists he was not joking! We passed through amazing mountain scenery on the roughest dirt road in the world whilst being bumped off our seat at regular intervals! Our poor bikes were just lying on their sides unrestrained in the trailer… hopefully not getting too damaged! The truck drivers were maniacs and attacked the road as though they were in rally cars, not a tank-like lorry with leaf springs and literally the worst ride quality ever. Oh how we badly needed something with air suspension, leather seats, a V8 and a badge saying “Made in Solihull”

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A line of trucks at the border – Tim’s driver (just about to spit out of the window)

On the completion of any ‘tricky’ section, Tim’s driver would spit into the palm of each hand and then re-grab the steering wheel as though the phlegm would give grip! Combined with the constant hacking, coughing and spitting out of the window every 60 seconds it was definitely an adventure! Four hours later we arrived at the second Chinese border post, found each other, retrieved passports and bicycles (seemingly undamaged) and headed inside to complete some more paperwork. Amazingly we also re-joined the other 3 cyclists, so after several more passports checks, and the x-raying of our bags, we were all free to cycle into our Chinese adventure… we’d done it, we were in, we couldn’t quite believe it!

Now as a group of five, we cycled into the nearby town, changed the last of our Krgyz money  and sat down to our first meal of noodles! Chops sticks down, we bought overnight provisions and pedalled out of town to find a camping spot. With fading light and a puncture on one of the other bikes our camp spot chose itself. Our ground was an abandoned field just off from a unfinished section of new road, it was discrete, but not hidden and our four tents were soon spotted by the locals who suggested it was OK to camp.

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‘Friendly Police’ with Rebecca, Marica and Zoltan – Moustached Simon, caught in the act with a tub of Nutella substitute!

Later, two policeman came over to investigate, we indicated that we would sleep there and then continue to Kashgar in the morning. They seemed happy enough, took their photo with us, and out of curiosity had a look inside our tents before they went on their way. However, just as darkness fell, they returned, but with backup, to tell us that we had to retrace our steps the 10km back to town and find a ‘Tourist’ hotel. Our hearts sank. Using one of their mobile phones to speak to someone who could understand English, Tim explained the situation and said that we wanted to stay put. After much to-and-froing with the phone it became obvious that we weren’t really getting anywhere and they said a car would be sent to take us to the hotel! What, all 5 of us and bikes and bags.. in the dark? Marica, one of the other cyclists, then took over the negotiations and to our bewilderment started shouting and arguing with the Police! To our amazement it worked! They said bye-bye and left us alone to camp in peace! (It turned out that Marica had experience as a tour-guided in some pretty far out places.  –  Just don’t try it in Europe!) The next day we carried along the unfinished dual carriageway, enjoying the empty tarmac downhill all the way to Kashgar There we checked into the Pamir Hostel and set up a mini bicycle-gang with another 4 cyclists who where already there.  We settled in, saw the sights and adjust ourselves to the madness that is China!

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Amusing Chinese Road Signage.