Le Tour de Qinghai

October 2010

The Long Silk Road

I wake up in the morning with a grin on my face knowing that I finally get a break from Chinese school and the stress of the job hunt.  It’s the beginning of my vacation for China’s national holiday, when I plan to travel to Qinghai, a province adjacent to Tibet, for a bicycle tour of the largest and most beautiful lake in China.  Flipping through photos on the internet, I smile with the thought that I’m in for a real treat.  The final destination of over twenty different rivers and streams, Qinghai Hu, a saltwater lake, is a protected zone and sanctuary for numerous species of migrating birds, including some endangered ones. 

Within a few days I’ll be embarking on an adventure to test my physical limits and endurance at an altitude of over 3000 metres on a mountain bike riding about 400km around a lake that is a portion of the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a professional men’s cycling tour and one of Asia’s most elite races.  Going at full speed the round trip should only take 3-4 days for an amateur, but the game plan is to take my time, take some badass photos, have lots of fun and not kill myself… for 5 days.  All packed and ready to go, I set off in anticipation of a 24-hour train ride to Xining (pronounced shee-neeng), the province’s capital city.

I heard bad things about these trains.  They’re packed, they’re uncomfortable, they’re loud, and they’re dirty.  I walk into the train expecting the worst, embracing it as one of the Chinese cultural experiences that I so longed for.  Arriving at my assigned bunker on the train, I pass the time like I always do by tuning out the rest of the world with some good ol trance music and watch the scenery gradually change.  I spent the first few hours staring at a few rundown looking small towns, the next few hours at vast cornfields, and by the next day I found myself glancing outside at an earthy terrain I’ve never seen anything quite like before.  I was surrounded by mountains that resembled mines, terraced much like those rice farms I’ve seen pictures of from the south, only the steps were a lot bigger and it appeared a little too arid for anything to grow.  Watching an old man dump a cartful of trash into a creek, I chose to ignore also the mountains of trash that had built up on the side of the road, the result of reckless ignorance and terrible waste management.

At last I find myself in destination Xining, historically known as a commercial trading hub on one of the Silk Roads en route to Tibet.  It was surprisingly cold, I think to myself as I get off the train, opening my bag to put on a light jacket.  There isn’t much scenery to see here, but you can enjoy a lamb kebab or two with some yogurt made from yak’s milk and if you’re open-minded you may come to appreciate the myriad ethnic minorities that have settled here or are also visiting.  The people here include a mix of mostly Chinese Hui Muslims, who are descendants of Arab and Persian traders who married into Chinese families, and Tibetans as well as a few Kazakhs and Mongols.  Xining is where thousands of Islamic people rendezvous at the Great Mosque, one of the largest religious gatherings in China.  Built during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century, the Great Mosque is also iconic in Chinese design for the architectural enthusiast.

Unfortunately, me being me I was too stubborn to do my research ahead of time and missed out on this opportunity, besides I’m not sure how I would’ve felt being one of the few raging tourists amidst a sea of genuinely devoted worshippers. Instead, I ended up doing what I do in every new Chinese city I visit: wander around aimlessly.  After a brief first impression though, I soon came to a conclusion that I hated this city.  The air quality here was so abysmal my throat hurt; I couldn’t take a single breath of air without feeling like I was doing something dangerously hazardous to my health.  I couldn’t wait to get out of this city, but I had to stay a night because I had to make sure I bought return tickets early the next morning, which was not a pleasant experience.  Buying train tickets for October holiday in China is a bit chaotic like the coat check at the end of a long club night; swarms of people who don’t always wait their turn in line push and shove when they approach the front.  Understandably so, the people who work behind the counter treat you with utter disrespect and rudeness.  I woke up at 7am, rushed to the station, managed to buy my tickets among the madness and went back to the hostel to catch up on some extra shuteye before noon.

The Atomic Lab

Later that afternoon I was on board a bus to Xihai, the town north of Xining where I would rent my bike.  I found out when I got there that it used to be the testing ground during the construction of the Chinese atomic bomb.  I tried not to think of the possibility that there could still be radiation present today.  There was something rather odd about this town.  Unlike all other places I’ve been in China, Xihai was unusually clean and very quiet… too quiet.  On the surface it appears to be a peaceful town, but somehow it gives me the feeling that something is going on there.  Some of the locals seem to just stop what they’re doing and glare at you, saying nothing, and it gave me the creeps like I was living in the beginning of a horror film.  The bike rental / hostel I stayed at used to be a research facility, and there I was chatting with the owner asking for directions to the bomb museum.  Noticing my Hong Kong-ese accent, he told me not to speak.  Apparently the locals here have issues with non-Chinese visitors, and I was trampling on the borderline.

“Folks will be a little sensitive about you since Hong Kong is not strictly a part of the mainland.”

“Uhh, what if I’m actually Canadian?”

“Do not speak!”, he repeated again, and ended up telling me that I’m from Guangdong, China’s Cantonese speaking province.  Shrugging, I made my way to the museum. 

Le Tour de Qinghai

The Voyage Begins

Initially I had planned to camp out at the end of each day, but the owner of the bike rental highly recommended against it.  He said it was below zero after dark, also the locals may not appreciate random people setting up camp on their land.  I can honestly say I’m really glad I didn’t go all cocky-Canadian because indeed, it was freezing out at night.  I mean it’s one thing to be out playing ice hockey at minus 5, another to sleep outside in a tent.  I left a bunch of stuff at the hostel and found that my pack was still pretty darn heavy.  So again, the moral of the story is do your research people!  It rained a bit on the morning of my departure, so my trip was delayed for a couple of hours but when I finally set my foot down on that pedal and started riding, the feeling was exhilarating…

Alas, the voyage begins!

The first 5 kilometres was a gruelling task.  I was pedaling against the wind, and the road was deceptively progressing uphill in a subtle slope invisible to the naked eye, and the entire time I thought I was just not accustomed to the weight of the bag hence affecting my balance, not to mention I was at an altitude of 3200m above sea level for the first time in my life.  It wasn’t until I reached flat ground for real that I realized I had been going uphill, and I took my first water break as I looked back and breathed a massive sigh of relief since I knew I still had a good 80k to go before reaching the first checkpoint.

The first day was a pretty neat experience.  It was especially cool how the land seemed to be divided into four completely different zones.  On my left were mountains with snowy caps and grassland then on my right were huge sand dunes that resembled a desert, and of course Qinghai Hu.  When the lake came into sight, I was impressed by its blueness.  I was a bit worried it might not look as nice in real life as it did in photos on the internet, but Qinghai really lived up to the hype.  I stopped to take a few photos, had a snack and was on my way again.  A bit further down the road I came across my first major obstacle.  To my surprise it wasn’t a steep hill, rather it was a giant flock of maybe a few hundred sheep completely obstructing the highway, treading slowly in the same direction I was going.  I caught up to them and took out my camera, getting ready to charge through the herd like a rabid wolf who hasn’t eaten in weeks. 

Ru Xiang Sui Su

The next day was a lot less scenic but no less awesome.  The beginning part was a bit of a tough ride.  Like the day before the wind was relentless as I tried to pedal my way through another one of those slight uphill runs again, only this time much stronger and it felt like I was being pushed backwards.  I needed several breaks and was a little discouraged when I figured it took me two hours to travel the same number of kilometres.  When I finally reached the top of the hill, I was exhausted but thrilled when I looked ahead and saw that I was about to hit the first downhill run of the circuit… and it was huge!  Never before have I traveled at such speeds on a mountain bike, I was like a puppy sticking his head out the window of a car on the highway for the first time.

From a distance I could see people on the side of the road, one on their knees and one with their hands up in the air.  Later I discovered they were pilgrims walking towards Tibet.  The amount of devotion that people can exhibit towards their desires never ceases to amaze me.  Travelling on foot to Lhasa from Qinghai Lake, or perhaps from even further, would likely take years in itself.  Stopping to pray every few feet would no doubt take an entire lifetime and I imagine it is the greatest honour and ultimate satisfaction for their religion.  After flying down the hill I passed by some coloured flags and so I stopped again to take a few pictures.  If you look closely, you can see tiny scripts printed onto each flag.  They are written not in Chinese but in what appears to be Arabic to me, and are hung up where winds are most prevalent in hopes that their prayers will be blown towards the gods in the sky.  At the end of the day I felt tired yet satisfied and I had also learned a few things about Tibetan culture.  I hopped off the bike and started walking out the burn in my quads.  I’ve reached the next town by dusk and devoured an oversized supper before going to look for a crash pad.

I do not recommend Chinese hostels.  Sure, they’re dirt cheap.  At best I managed to find a place to stay for 15RMB a night, that’s roughly 2 bucks Canadian… but trust me, you get what you pay for.  I was living in a farm-like home most of the time and it was freezing, it was dark, and like the train, downright dirty.  Funny story though.  Once I had to unload in the middle of the night, so I went out looking for the outhouse with toilet paper in hand.  Ignoring that it seemed abnormally small, I found the usual hole-in-the-ground type deal and as I was doing the crouching tiger, I heard a slight rustling noise that broke the silence in the darkness.  Startled, I turn on my flashlight to find a plump family of chickens no more than 2 feet away, huddled hidden in the corner.  Chuckling to myself, I realized I had just dropped in an outhouse that doubles as a chicken coop.  If I have to name one and only one thing I hate about this country, it’s those damn squatting-type “toilets”, the absolute biggest culture shock for me.  They even have them in hotels in Beijing!  What’s more, they’ve all got this little knee high slot with an ashtray that always seems to be full.  I don’t understand why men here enjoy smoking in the john, but what the heck.  In Chinese school, I learnt a saying called ru xiang sui su, meaning when in Rome China… do as the RoChinamans do.

Bird Island

P.S. – No birds.  I wish I hadn’t gone in October.  Bird Island is a breeding bird haven populated by swarms of swans, cormorants, bar-headed geese, and rarer species such as black-necked cranes, and is a major stopover for many migratory birds who gather to rest, feed, and mate before heading south towards warmer climate.  I would also have loved to see the array of golden yellow rape, which are mustard flowers famous for their omnipresence during the summer.  Third day was pretty uneventful, mostly riding along a straight highway.  On the morning of the fourth day I got up nice and early to beat the crowd, and when I arrived at Bird Island there wasn’t a soul.  I was able to bring my bike up the stairs and do laps around the boardwalk, from which the view was breathtaking.   Soon after I took the last photo, though, I packed my things and got ready for the return trip.  Finally, fatigue was beginning to take its toll on my body.  I had gotten my fair share of thrills and experiences and just wanted to take a hot shower and crawl into a warm bed.

Homeward Bound

It’s the end of the week and I’m back in the same hostel in Xining trying to pass the time doing a little light reading.  I was indulging into a collection of short stories by Jack London I found on the bookshelf, one of the fewer options in English, when I overheard the neighbours conversing about a forest park nearby.  Since I had some extra time on my hands before my train back I asked them about it and next thing I knew I was in a black taxi on my way there for some hiking.  A black taxi is basically an unlicensed cab driver willing to take you places for a negotiable price.  Yeah, I know it sounds pretty shady but it was the only way of getting there, and it wasn’t the smoothest ride.  The route the driver took was actually another portion of the professional cycling tour and it reminded me of the hairpins you’d see in Initial D.  The forest park was a nice walk with a view of the mountains and a waterfall, a good way to kill the day.  It kind of reminded me of the Rocky Mountains, which made me feel rather homesick.  Before long I was back in another black cab, which got me into thinking maybe I could do the same as a backup job.  Drive all day and hustle tourist money, that doesn’t sound so bad does it?  And thus I ended the trip with this thought, back to Xining, back on the train, back to Beijing, back to the uncertainty of the job hunt, back to wondering where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing in a month, three months, half a year from now…


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