Sichuān Province

Long LakeOne of Sichuān’s star attractions is the stunning World Heritage Site of Jiŭzhàigou National Park. Admittedly the countless bluer-than-blue lakes its rushing waterfalls paired with the blazing autumn colors contrasting with the turquoise waters backed by snowy mountains make the scenery of this valley outstanding.

But with more than 2 Million visitors per year swarming along the well-maintained boardwalk trails, hundreds of tour buses that line up all the way up to the peak and a village that has more resemblance with Las Vegas than the region’s original nine Tibetan villages it’s named after, it feels more like Disney Land than a nature preserve. Along with the horrendous entry fee and the exorbitant price for a bed in a smelly, overfilled dormitory that is so humid that socks don’t even dry over night, our stay at the Jiŭzhàigou National Park was overshadowed by the extreme commercialization of this precious nature site. Exploitation of this kind is unfortunately seen all over China… But by climbing over some barriers that block abandoned boardwalks you can find some peaceful remote trails even at the most crowded places 🙂

Chengdu

After the Jiŭzhàigou valley, the land is descending into a wide, far warmer, basin around Sichuān’s capital, Chengdu. Thanks to Lukas, a bike follower we had met at the Pamir Highway, we had the contact of some Europeans sharing a flat here, who were hosting us in their glass winter garden on the roof top at the 7th floor, awesome view and entertaining evenings included 🙂

Bamboo BattleChengdu is famous for its Giant Panda Breeding Station where you can catch a glimpse of nearly 50 laid-back giant pandas and their far more active relatives, red pandas, in their spacious, carefully designed enclosures. It’s a real miracle how these lazy and clumsy creatures survive in free nature while spending most of their days masticating bamboo, of what they can only digest 17% !!

Besides of the pandas, Chengdu has not so much to offer except of dozens of flashy shopping malls and one of China’s only Decathlon outdoor shops. No question that we spent half a day there to get a much longed-for replacement for Martina’s multi-patched pants that were slowly falling into pieces. In one of those numerous malls we run into Marianne and Tom, a Swiss couple we had last seen in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, thousands of kilometers from here! The world is so small 🙂

Lèshan

72m TallFor us, Chengdu was a base for forays into China’s southwest. Equipped with borrowed backpacks our first trip destination was Lèshan, home of the serene, 1200-year old Grand Buddha, carved into a red sandstone cliff, overlooking the river and one of the world’s largest Buddha statues. At 71m tall with 8.5m long toes, he’s definitely big enough to give you a Lilliputian feeling! And as big was the crowd queuing up for the steep, winding stairway that leads from its imposing head all the way down along his body’s giant magnitude.

(Traveller tip: Lèshan is the easiest place for extending your China visa. They issue it in two days, time enough for a visit of the Grand Buddha. Make sure to check-in at a hotel before heading to the Public Security Office)

Émei Shān

Green BridgeClose to Lèshan lies Émei Shān, one of China’s four most famous Buddhist mountains. There we found fabulous forested mountain scenery dotted with ramshackle wooden temples and hordes of greedy macaque monkeys demanding tribute for safe passage. As we were hiking along pathways lined with fir, pine and cedar trees and were climbing thousands of stone steps along lofty crags and mist-shrouded precipices, we were truly feeling like in one of those mystic black ink drawing that we all associate with ancient China.

StoicismUnfortunately also this once so holy place couldn’t escape the omnipresent commercialization and when we were stopping at dusk at one of the monasteries – freezing and completely soaked by the constant rain – they refused to let us sleep together with all the other Chinese hikers in one of the dormitories (“for security reason”). Instead the ripped us off by forcing us to pay the triple normal price for a moldy, drafty double room.

Sometimes we really have the feeling for most of the Chinese we are not much more than walking dollar bills. Together with the fact that the Chinese truly don’t share the same common sense with us, this turns our journey in China into a real test for our patience. To give you a little sample: We walked into a train ticket shop. This is a little booth that is solely selling train tickets. We showed the guy behind the desk a paper with our destination written in Chinese, the train number and the departure time and still it’s impossible to purchase two train tickets. He was simply putting us off by either pretending to don’t understand – what else could we possibly want than buying a train ticket?! – or by shouting “Meo, Meo!” (meaning something like “we don’t have” or more likely “F*** Off”), a phrase we’ve definitely heard too often so far. This game continued until we finally found a translator who does nothing else than showing him the same paper but out of a sudden he is willing to cooperate!

But at least our night in the Buddhist monastery found a happy end due to the electric heating blankets they have here everywhere instead of a proper heating or an isolation, that turned the clammy bed into an oasis of soothing warmth for our tired limbs.

Bonus Material

Greedy monkeys are suddenly no more cute when they hear the rustling of a plastic bag…


Xīnjiāng and Gansu Province

Wood CarverSituated at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Kashgar has been a major Silk Road hub bristling with activity for more than 2000 years and is still a center of regional trade and cultural exchange in China’s westernmost Xīnjiāng province. Central Asian culture is still very much alive in this Uighur homeland, from the irresistible smell of lamb kebab to the sound of the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque, in “China’s Turkestan” craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel in the small alleys, traders haggle over deals in the boisterous bazaars and donkey carts still trundle their way through the crowds.

Chinese Fondue

After the Pamir Highway with all its deprivations, Kashgar seemed for us like a food paradise 🙂 We spend several days strolling through its overflowing night market offering numerous types of kebab, fried dumplings, bubbling vats of goat’s head soup and all different kind of spicy noodles.

Lanzhou and Bingling Si

As we have only one month visa for China (with the hope for getting a one month extension) we chose to don’t cross the vast desert, but instead sending our bikes via cargo train to Lanzhou, Gansu’s province capital and around 3000 km away. (Shipping the bikes was an unexpected convenient procedure since they came with a big van to our hostel to pick up the bikes). Unfortunately we couldn’t ship ourselves with the train as well and therefore had to take a bus which took – thanks to China’s Golden Week holiday where whole China is on travel – believe it or not 72 hours!

Praying ZoneAfter spending some recreation days here to recover from the nightmare bus trip, enjoying a walk along the famous Yellow River and strolling in the park watching locals having dance classes, as well as visiting our first “real” Chinese temple, we were finally setting off with our bikes southwards direction Chengdu. And to give you an idea about China’s dimension, simply leaving Lanzhou, which is a rather small city with a population of only 2.17 Million, it took us more than half a day of fighting our way outwards through 35km of confusing suburbs and endless industrial areas before we eventually let “civilization” behind us and started slowly making our way up the spurs of the East Tibetan high plateau.

Potato terraces

Already at our first night in the wild we got a foretaste of how difficult communicating with locals gonna be as we, despite our Point it picture dictionary and smartphone translator, completely failed to make a family in a small village understand that we would like to pitch our tent in their garden. In the absence of any alternative we spent a lousy night right next to the street and the next morning welcomed us with the next pleasant surprise when ten Chinese were staring at us as we opened tour tent. They were just sitting around our tent without uttering a peep, simply watching us having breakfast, packing our tent and getting ready for the day. And this incident shouldn’t be the last on of this kind on our journey through China…

Bingling Si Big BuddhaBiking up and downhill through vast potato terraces, we reached the Bingling Si Buddha caves, our first stop on our Gansu highlight tour, a collection of more than 180 sculptures and niches carved by sculptors dangling from ropes into the porous rock of steep canyon walls, surrounded by the waters of the Yellow River reservoir and hemmed in by a ring of dramatic rock citadels.

Labrang

Gold-Roofed Temples

150km further south and deep inside the bleak landscapes of the high plateau, the next highlight was waiting for us: the Labrang monastery! The Tibetan monastery is a broad complex of golden-roofed temple halls housing dozens of extensively decorated golden Buddha statues illuminated in a yellow glow by strong-smelling yak-butter lamps, hundreds of living quarters for about 1800 monks and an endless line of squeaking prayer wheels (3km in total length) with an omnipresent deep throb of the Tibetan trumpets resonating from the surrounding hills. And as we were wandering in the endless maze of the the mud-packed walls, sharing the holy kora path with dozens of Tibetan pilgrims, listening to the throaty sound of sutras being chanted behind wooden doors, we were really soaking up the esoteric atmosphere of this mystique place.

Langmusi

Enjoying his VillageRight at the border between Gansu and Sichuan province, high on the East Tibetan plateau, we spend some days in the small village of Langmusi. Nestled among steep grassy meadows covered with praying slips, crumbling stupas, piles of mani stones and snow-clad peaks, the village is home to hundreds of young monk students who fill the alleys with robes in all different kind of dark red. Countless red and white monastery buildings, golden-roofed temples and multicolored praying flags flapping in the wind are spread al over the village. And the mesmerizing sound of chanting monks is ever-present, especially when they are all gathering at twilight in the big temple hall to pray together with the numerous Tibetan pilgrims.

High PlateauThe climate at this high plateau is hard and winter is coming early as we experienced firsthand. As soon as the sun sinks, temperatures are dropping significantly. Already in October nights are freezing cold, leaving the golden rolling hills (and our tent) with a sparkling cover of frosty rime in the next morning. Together with most of the local nomads who were folding up their yurts and herding their cattle to warmer regions, we were therefore heading further south, direction Sichuan and Jiŭzhàigōu, China’s most famous national park!

Kyrgyzstan at a Glance

Lenin & UsThe day after the grand final of the Roof of the World Regatta we were setting off from Kara-Kul to Saritash in Kyrgyzstan. Since the Chinese National Day with its ten day border closure was impending, we didn’t take much time to explore Kyrgyzstan with its vast rolling grass steppe, wandering nomad tribes and their countless horse herds. Given the dramatic drop in temperature we could already notice at the border pass, this might have been a good decision.

Last Village before China

On our arrival in Saritash the light rain had turned into big snowflakes and we took the first opportunity to get a lift to Hypa, a run-down village at 15km from the border, consisting of around 30 completely identical prefabricated houses from the Soviet era., wedged between a snow sprinkled mountain range and the dirty stream from the Irkeshtam pass, the border crossing point into China.

Accordeon DemoBy the time we arrived it was night and the weather had turned into a heavy snow storm and we were thankful that a friendly homestay was taking us in, even after we found out that the dinner was solely composed of 5 (!) eggs, a loaf of bread and a musical interlude by the father of the house playing the accordion. Along with the two eggs we got for breakfast the next morning and the one from the day before, this made eight eggs within 24 hours, best regards to our cholesterol level!

Queue to ChinaBad news right after breakfast, the border was again closed for today, which meant that we had just two days left, before China suspends border crossing for at least ten days. What could have turned into a race against time was luckily resolved the next morning when the soldier behind the Kyrgyz gate bar was friendly waving us through. A short climb up to the Irkeshtam pass along dozens of trucks that were waiting here since days and some more passport stamping later, we crossed the entry gates into China! Almost six month after we had left home, we had nearly crossed our whole continent and were setting foot on Chinese ground 🙂

Blocked with Oman BikersUnfortunately our happiness was quite short-lived as the border police took our passports and let us – and all the other tourists – wait for seven hours. They refused to let us setting off with our bicycles until we finally managed to grad one of the “official” taxis to bring us to the customs office which is 150km from the actual border. Even then the return of our passports was delayed due to a critical incident – in form of a two hour lunch break! We were making the best out of the waste of time and made friends with a group of Omanis on motorbikes that were accompanied by a remarkable well equipped escort jeep, supplying us with rare delicacies like fresh dates and spicy beef jerky 🙂

Pamir Highway Part III: Alichur – Kara-Kul

Alichur SunriseAlichur is a wide scattering of low, white washed hovels at the westernmost limit of Murgab Region’s predominantly Kyrgyz community whose occasional yurts and yak herds dot the mountain-edged plain at nearly 4000m that stretches over 300km northeast until Kara-Kul. For us it was like paradise when we entered the tiny Marco Polo homestay with its glowing tin oven that was emitting enough   heat to defrost our frozen bones.

More Blue is not possible

The next days we were biking through a remote, Tibetan-style high plateau scenery, occasionally populated by shepherds and stunted, low bushes, the main fire material aside from dried yak dung. The landscape is completely different from what we’ve seen in the Wakhan Valley.

Lunch Break

The vastness of the place and the lack of any vegetation or inhabitation together with the freezing temperatures create a lunar-like atmosphere that is now and then interrupted by indigo-blue, salt lakes. It’s not surprising why this area has become known as “Roof of the World”. Being here gives you an indescribable feeling for the majesty and sublimity of our unique world.

Murgab

150km without any settlement and a little pass at 4200m later, we reached Murgab, the utterly isolated regional center. The container houses and criss-crossing power lines don’t create an immediate charming atmosphere, but the hearty hospitality and delicious food at the colorful decorated Erali homestay, along with the well-deserved “bania” (a bucket of hot water in a fire heated little room) made us feel absolutely revived.

Freezing Cold

North of Murgab the high-altitude highway follows a fenced area of ‘neutral zone’ between Tajikistan and China and is slowly but constantly climbing higher. Along with the falling temperatures and oxygen saturation, our speed and energy were decreasing and simple things like pitching the tent at the end of day became quite a challenge. Temperatures at night were dropping dramatically and even fully dressed with our sleeping bags zipped together we were shivering with cold. In the morning it took a while before the solidly frozen little creek next to our camp was defrosted enough to give us water for our morning tea.

Before the highest PassBut two hard days after leaving Murgab we finally reached our long dreamed goal, we crossed the 4655m Ak-Baital (White Horse) pass, the biggest challenge on our journey on the “Roof of the World”!

On the Way to Kara-Kul

Tired but proud we were tackling the last stage on our road and were rolling on a dead straight road along the photogenic blue Kara-Kul lake with an dramatic mountain panorama on our back and an stunning view on the imposing peak Lenin ahead of us until we reached the scrappy but intriguing town Kara-Kul, where one last big surprise was waiting for us.

Regatta Preparations

It turned out that exactly the homestay that we had stopped at, was chosen as the central base for the “Roof of the World Regatta 2015”, the highest sailing event in the world! Most of the organization team and all participants, who were actually a lovely family from the UK with three talented Kite-Surfing daughters, were staying there and it didn’t take long until we became part of the team. Gui and his juggling show became the highlight of the opening ceremony at the local school and thanks to our comprehensive medical kit Martina was soon known as the official regatta medic after curing half of the team of the dreaded Pamiri sickness (also known as “having the runs”).

Roof of the World Regatta

On the big race day we were all together playing games with dozens of the local families before the event reached its climax with the final regatta race and an exuberant trophy ceremony. A big success for this year’s regatta team and a perfect ending for our marvelous Tajikistan adventure!

Pamir Highway Part II: Khorog – Alichur

Pakistan on the BackgroundSince the M41 was still blocked due to heavy landslide that washed away a big part of the road we continued our way along the Wakhan valley and the Afghanistan border. Here the river bed gets wider and the towering valley walls regularly open for glimpses of the breathtaking panorama on the dramatic, glacier caped Hindu Kush mountain range marking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Entering the Valley

Occasionally the wider valley here allows the river to form vast sandy beaches on the bank and on an especially hot day, we decided to stop cycling earlier to enjoy a cold bath in the freezing cold waters and the feeling of hot sand between our toes. Although it’s normally forbidden to camp on the Afghan side of the road, we pitched out tent hidden behind a dune and started preparing our daily pasta ration, when suddenly two familiar faces on bicycles passed by! It was a hearty reencounter with Florina and David, the Swiss couple we had met in Istanbul and in Uzbekistan, and they didn’t need much of an invitation to join us on our paradisial white beach. But it shouldn’t take long until our little paradise turned into a sandy hell! Out of a sudden a real squall was catching our tents and within 10 minutes we were in the middle of a sandstorm. The wind was so strong that it was literally blowing our tents away and we had to run for shelter, where we could reinforce our stakes with 10kg stones and start to clean out the sand of every pannier, every layer of clothing, and every fold of our tent and finally finish our sand interspersed dinner.

Natural hot Pool

But the Wakhan Valley was holding also some very pleasant surprises for us. Just in time for Gui’s Birthday we reached the junction to Garam-Chasma, hometown to one of Pamir’s most beautiful hot springs and Tajikistan’s only Las Vegas hotel with rainbow colored lighting all over the façade. And after fighting an incredibly bad road that had more resemblance with a dry river bed than with a street for 10km, we were soaking our tired thighs in a natural pool of boiling mineral saturated water for two days and celebrating his birthday with a huge campfire candle and the best choco-cookies we could find in the local “Magazine”, that offers – like all the other stores along the way – mainly canned sardines, candies, 5kg packages of pasta and shoes. Even the sky was sending Gui a special birthday present in form of a heavy hail storm – quite enjoyable to watch from a warm, cozy bed 🙂

Up to Langar

After Iskashim the occasional bits of rundown asphalt were irretrievably gone and reaching our daily kilometer stint on a road partly washboard, partly completely covered in sand was costing all our energy, physically as well as mentally. Even the constant strong . Since our bikes are clearly not made for those off-road conditions, we had to accept that after Langar, where the … reaches its climax, it was impossible to think of going further and we took a lift to bring us to Alichur and back to the paved (!!) M41.

Pamir Highway Part I: Dushanbe – Khorog

Stream & HindukushLong time no see, long time no say! It’s been quite a while since we’ve had internet access the last time and there is a whole country lying in our wake since our last update! We’ve discovered awesomely dramatic highland landscapes, the marvels of the Wakhan Valley, steaming hot springs, breathtaking lakes and pinnacles and the starkly beautiful “Roof of the World” mountain ranges. But let’s start from the beginning on…

Right after the border crossing we were directly heading to Dushanbe, formerly known as Stalinabad. And the city really lives up to its former name. Tajikistan’s capital has not much to offer except the world’s tallest flag pole (although North Korea is claiming this achievement for itself since some years), a precisely manicured central park and a long, three-lined central avenue that still possesses a collection of pastel-hued, neoclassical buildings from its original Soviet incarnation. But the city’s image has transitioned in the last decade into one of calm, and apparently prosperous, confidence with barely a bullet hole to remind visitors of the bad old days during the civil war in the 90s when armed gangs where controlling the roads and shoot-outs between rival clans were not uncommon. Probably this is not unrelated to the fact that nowadays the majority of the male population is away working in the Russian construction industry, sending back home half of Tajikistan’s official GDP. In general people here seem to be well educated and English is more widely spoken than in Uzbekistan, while the laid-back Ismali form of Islam means that Muslim strictures are generally less widely observed.

Communal Cyclist DinnerAnyway, we had some great days in Dushanbe thanks the famous and cozy Greenhouse hostel (already since hundreds of kilometers cyclists coming in the opposite direction were telling us about this biker meeting point). Together with more than a dozen fellow cyclists, coming or heading to the Pamir Highway, we spent our time enjoying the – coming from Uzbekistan’s dessert like southeast – nearly overwhelming range of groceries, getting our bikes prepared for the most challenging road and weather conditions (bottle cages made out of hand-knitted Pamiri socks included :)) and searching non-existent bike shops in whole Dushanbe. Our days were filled with common – and thanks to Paul and Leiset – delicious intercultural meals, squeezing as much information as possible about every little creek and every pothole out of “Kiwi” Graham (www.grumgoesglobal.com), as well as exchanging one or two horror stories about the road lying ahead of us.

Happy Pamir RidersBut all good things must come to an end and armed with tons of canned food, instant noodles and lot of chocolate we started our Pamir adventure in Qualai-Khumb. The road was leading through a narrow gorge, on your left hand side steep cliffs, the dusty, rocky road in front of you, and to your left the raging current of the Panj river, that represents the border to Afghanistan. The dreaded road conditions weren’t long in coming and after the first enthusiasm we were heavily doubting our choice of taking recumbent bikes for the very first time in our trip (and without spoiling to much: not for the last time in the following weeks).  Unswervingly we were battling our way through, receiving several blue marks from losing balance on sandy gravel 25% climbs (record of our first day: 4 falls for Gui, 2 for Martina).

Just another MountainTherefor the scenery along the way was more than rewarding. The surrounding mountains are like drawn by an aquarelle master, a mix of multiple colors ranging from red, to yellow, to green and blue, with occasional white and black bands, forming surreal patterns on the naked scarps.

OasisScattered icy streams coming from the glacier covered peaks counterpoint the rocky landscape with lush oasis of green and timelessly photogenic rural villages hosted by gold-toothed, white bearded patriarchs in iridescent “jorma” robes.

Sifting Chaff from the Wheat In these rare fertile areas the people use every square meter for farming and you see people harvesting hay on fields so steep that every Tyrolean mountain farmer would be open-mouthed with amazement. Unfortunately most of these crystal clear streams that are such a refreshing temptation in the heat of the midday are contaminated by outsized sheep herds so that we had to take a day off lying sick in our sleeping bags more than once (even Gui’s Indian approved digestive system was unable to breast that).  Fortunately masses of carbon tablets, a spoon of cumin seeds every morning and disgusting bioflorin shots made us fit again to fight the sandy and stony road at 13.6 km/h average speed…

Ready To RumbleAfter a couple of hard first days we reached Khorog, the GBAO’s administrative center and the Pamir’s one real town. Cowering beneath arid, bare-rock peaks, Khorog is not a charming city but it’s the actual starting point for the M41, better known as the Pamir Highway, the world’s second highest altitude international highway, originally built by the Soviet army in the 11930s to facilitate troop transport and provisioning. And for somebody who lived from instant noodles since days, Khorog’s bazar offers a bristling richness on half bad fruits and wizened vegetables – not too forget the live saving oatmeal!