Chapter Three ('Just Passing Through')
"If you only cycle on sunny days, you never get to your destination!"
We took off in the rain, all loaded up for our trip around Qinghai Lake. It was the beginning of 'National Day' (October 1st) - Week,' when everyone in China goes on vacation. So, in spite of our new company, www.haaqi.com, we decided to take advantage of the situation. Ujwal, from Nepal, was unsure about renewing his visa and wanted to make sure he had done everything he could in China if he had to return to Nepal. But, it was his first big cycling adventure.
Xu Tan was off to Xi'an, but his sister Xu Ni and 'Rucha' would be accompanying us via a driver (Li Xiao Hong) in his automobile we'd hired. So, I'd had a meeting with them all to plan out this 700KM, seven-day trip around China's largest lake. We wanted to meet up every evening, and that required we were in some kind of 'sync.'
Chinese people rely on their mobiles (telephones) too much, their 'God,' this little device has become. But, they do come in handy when plans change, and they work anywhere in China no matter how remote the place.
The 42 kilometers / 30 miles to Huang Yuan was a messy (mud and pollutants), honking madness to me, trucks and buses speeding past us at headache-producing decibels! I shook my fist at the worst offenders, indicating thumbs down, hoping they see in their rearview mirrors my disgust!
The street traffic in China is pure chaos, maddening at the very least, dangerous at the worst! A few days before we departed, a man had dashed out crossing the street and right into me. Luckily, it was a glancing blow, and neither of us was harmed. But, I screamed at him as his risked our lives for 'nothing.'
People in Asia treat the streets and highways as if they were their very own living rooms. It's an interesting situation I'm come to study having lived in both Nepal and China (similar thinking).
In Asia it's the little guy, the poor pedestrian that rules, walking without looking, as if they look they will have to defer. New mothers dare the biggest truck, infant in arms! In retaliation, drivers have taken to honking at anything and everything regardless of the situation. I call it 'Chinacophony!' It's maddening to me, however, as the trucks and buses have air horns that jar the imagination! So, 'out there' when cycling I wear ear plugs, courtesy of 'Rucha' (Rotraut Boyens) my German friend.
The Chinese love noise! They scream into their 'mobiles,' yell to signal for people to come, light firecrackers, slam doors, and play music too loudly, anything that raises decibels! And this love of noise is a cultural thing, a legend involving a monster called 'Nian.'
Nian was a horrible 'dude' who came down from the 'mountains' to prey upon the people. But, a wise man taught the people to frighten Nian away with two weapons: noise and the color red! So, guess what? Thousands of years later what we have is, a very 'Red China,' and a veritable 'Chinacophony' of racket! At New Year's Eve (the beginning of Spring Festival) you would think you are in a war zone from the fireworks!
Still to this day drivers 'frighten Nian away' with incessant honking! In the process, they have driven me to wear ear plugs (and ultimately out of Asia).
But, this day, cycling up to Huang Yuan, I'd forgotten them--the earplugs. Thus, I did my share of screaming at the loud horns as the honked at us!
By the time (3 hours) we arrived in Huang Yuan, I was wet, cold, and unhappy. But, some 'suan nai' changed my demeanor, as Qinghai yoghurt is the best! Made daily in small batches, and served in pottery bowls it's one of my favorite treats. And for all of .10 cents (U.S.) the best bargain in the world! I often tell Chinese friends, 'If we could get this to the U.S., exactly as it is here, we would get rich!'
Afterwards we got lucky finding a restaurant that had 'mi fan.' Not all restaurants in China cook rice. Chinese people are more into noodles than rice. Then after eating, our familiar cry when cycling long distances, 'Onward!'
Up highway #315, following a river valley we went, the rain lessening, and with it my discomfort (Ms. Fiets working well). We rested beside the rushing river, and watched a freight train cross over a bridge in front of us. Fall, was 'in the air,' with smoke from fires and yellow leaves on the trees. Autumn is my favorite time of year!
Up further, we stopped at the reservoir and braved the wind (da feng) to capture some images. See all the images of our trip at www.cyclingpeace.org/gallery/
Luckily back on the highway the wind was at our backs, and it felt like an engine pushing us along--it's funny about the wind, when helping you (at your back) can't hear it. It wasn't long until we were in Hai Yan, a town where the Chinese atomic bomb was developed (fifty years ago). This, the town we'd had lunch in on our return to XiNing in May, our first cycling trip around Qinghai Lake.
Coming from the opposite direction I got confused. I didn't think this was the town where we were supposed to meet Rucha and Mr. Li--I thought it was still up ahead. Things look differently when you approach from the opposite direction. But, after conferring with people on the street I was soon corrected. And two young boys on bicycles guided us to a hotel. The first and best was full (as vacation time), but the lesser of the two had rooms. Best of all the heat was on in this hotel (normally not on until October 15th). Additionally, it had a restaurant (not all do).
After cleaning our bikes of debris we had dinner waiting for Rucha, Xu Ni, and Mr. Li. Mr. Li had brought his wife and daughter along as well.
The following morning Ujwal and I were up early as we had some 90KM to 'crank' and up hill (north side of Qinghai Lake). It was a dreary morning, a gentle, but persistent rain. But, we were prepared and headed up #315 again. It wasn't long, however, before Ujwal saw his first snow (on the ground). I don't know what the elevation is in this location but I'm guessing something like 3.100M / 10,000ft. ASL.
We stopped in what I thought was a 'restaurant tent,' but should have known it was 'Government' (too good the facilities to be privately owned). But, the two young policemen on duty allowed us to sit next to their coal -burning stove and provided us with 'kai shui' (hot water).
Around lunchtime it was warmer with the sun out, we spread out our 'camping blanket' near the highway and ate a lunch of cashews and raisons. We took a short nap, such a 'treat' lying on Mother Earth.
Just before Gangcha, our second town (for the night) we had to crank up quite a steep hill, but the ride down into the town fast. To every 'up,' there is a 'down!'
Once in town we discovered a huge fair in progress, thousands (mostly Monguls and Tibetans) colorfully dressed on the streets. We stopped to call Mr. Li, as they had gone ahead to reserve rooms in a hotel. It wasn't long before a crowd had gathered around us, some wanting images with Ujwal (they mistake him for Tibetan). I passed out many of my postcards.
When Mr. Li showed, Rucha walked with us showing the way to the Gangcha Hotel. This room was more luxurious than the previous night's.
We had dinner with the group, now: me, Ujwal, 'Rucha' (Chinese name for Rotraut Boyens), Mr. Li, wife and young daughter ('Fa fa').
The next morning we met 'Bill,' a Tibetan man who escorted Ujwal and I to some 'stores' (really just 'stalls'), this to buy some supplies. He spoke good English. (Note, it's ironic, but it's the minorities in China that speak good English, not the Han Chinese).
This was to be our easiest day cycling as short (67KM) and downhill. Additionally, we made a plan to meet the group at the Lake, as for the first time close enough to park and walk to the edge.
With the help of a mobile, we rendezvoused at 1320 hours (now on highway?, not #315). Ujwal and I locked our bicycles to a fence, Mr. Li driving the group as close to the Lake as possible (maybe 200M distance). While they investigated, I laid out the blanket on the sand, and enjoyed resting in the sun.
Then on to Niaodao, a village next to a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. This located at the northwest 'corner' of Qinghai Lake, some 300Km / 200 miles west of XiNing.
This is my favorite of all the communities around the Lake, and because of such have thought of living there. Here Mr. Li booked us into the 'Bird Island Hotel,' the best so far (hot-water bathing 24 hours). If was nearly empty at 4P.M. (1600 hours) when we checked in, then later the parking lot full, the hotel nosey with guests.
I had heard of 'Bird Island,' for some time, a place to watch the migrating flocks, but mistakenly had thought it was on the east side of the Lake. But, why would they call it the 'Bird Island Hotel,' if the actual island weren't nearby (turned out some 16KM).
Note, for fans of 'Chinglish,' this in the bathroom of our room: 'Slipped Attention!'
On the way to the hotel I'd noticed something going on up at the Monastery (flags, tents, many motorbikes parked). Thus, after checking in I took the group on a walk up the hill to investigate.
Here we discovered a modern building full of devotees listening to a 'sermon' (possible 'lesson') given by what I guessed the Rinpoche ('Head Lama'). It was a strange scene in this modern building, the Tibetans in their colorful clothing sitting on the concrete floor. We stayed only for a minute, the focus of much attention!
Outside in bright sunlight we did 'Kora' (circumscribed the stupa three times in a clockwise direction - said to bring good fortune).
Afterwards, 'Rucha' and I sat against the 'Mani Wall,' in the setting sun while Ujwal and Xu Ni climbed the hills behind. Mr. Li and family descended to the hotel. Here a wonderful vista silenced us, crimson robes passing occasionally (as many Buddhist monks in the area). I don't know the name of this Monastery, but is must be old and significant as there are a relatively large number of monks and many buildings .
The kids were gone at least an hour, as this turned out to be a long hike up to the cairn/prayer-flag monument at the top of the tallest. We could see one black figure (Ujwal) and one white figure (Xu Ni) moving up and later, on the way down, become larger until recognizable as they rejoined us.
We had dinner in a local restaurant, troubling as difficult to get the food we desired (Chinese waitresses unable to understand) and then not particularly good. Chinese restaurants 98% good, 02% not so good!
With the longest day of cycling facing us *(150KM), Ujwal and I went to bed early. We had planned to have breakfast at 07:45 (as included in the room charge) and then depart shortly afterwards.
Of course, those traveling in the automobile sleep later, and only drive maybe three hours per day (to cover the same distance).
The next morning ready at 0710 we decided to forego breakfast and get an early start. Unfortunately, I forgot to leave the card-key under Rucha's door (to collect the deposit) and had to return some 4KM. In the process, however, we partook of a stunning rising sun (massive orange 'ball'). So, the 'official' time of depart from the hotel turned out to be 0745.
Now, in rolling hills the highway turned south and into some wind (had been from the East all the way). We kept up the grind, however, as knowing we had many kilometers (150) to get to the tourist village ('Yao Wu Yao') on the south side of the Lake. This, the next planned-rendezvous point.
We had lunch in a Tibetan restaurant in Hai Ma He. Of course, no mi fan so I had tea and ate some peanuts I had with me. Ujwal had what was offered, the standard bowl of noodles. Here we charged the camera battery, as had forgotten to plug in at the hotel the previous evening.
A Tibetan woman stared at me, having brought her children for lunch. I handed her and her two children apples. A Tibetan man kept trying to find out something that I never understood (as don't speak Tibetan). Later, I thought he might have been asking me, because he knew I was from America, if I had a picture of the Dalai Lama. The scene was interesting as always, staring out the window at a dog chaffing at his chain. In the background, the music from a TV program sounding like Vivaldi.
Sometimes I have to 'pinch' myself, to see if I'm not living in a dream (or in China)!
Then on highway #109, we headed due east, now on the south side of this huge Lake (150 X 100KM). Although there was a wind out of the northeast, the clouds dissipated and the sun warmed us. Farmers were harvesting their crop of summer wheat (with a threshing machine).
We stopped at a large T.Buddhist stupa and captured our images in front of then structures found everywhere in Qinghai (had done the same last May when cycling in the opposite direction).
On and on we cranked, this the longest distance (150KM) to be covered in one day. Ujwal, wanting it to end, thus kept insisting that the distance to the tourist village was less than I had said. I kept replying, 'maybe.' Turned out I was right, having a talent for guessing time and distance. I also have a compass in my head, and can tell you this instance, standing here, composing this, that I'm facing east ('dong' in Chinese).
Never bet against me when it comes to time, distance, or direction. This is how I can cycle around the world without getting too lost.
When the village did appear, however, we were both happy, as had been on a bicycle seat some ten hours.
We stopped on the main road, trinket shops on both sides one after the other. I had Ujwal call Mr. Li, and as it turned out we stopped on the driveway to the 'Grassland Hotel,' where the group ('Rucha,' Xu Ni, and the Lis) had checked in.
We had told them earlier we wanted to stay in a 'Mongul house,' (yurt). But, although Mr. Li had looked, he hadn't booked one. 'There are many,' he informed us upon asking.
So, after a short rendezvous with the group, Ujwal and I went to investigate, riding up the hill and back out onto the highway. He had pointed 'east,' so that's the direction we headed. The first yurts were right on the highway, but knowing the noise associated with the location thought better of staying in one of them (although a Tibetan man waved us to stay there). I had noticed some white yurts up on the hill to the south, so I told Ujwal we should investigate. Who then asked, 'Will they rent them to us?' 'You bet they will!' I replied!
So, up we went on a dirt road that proved to be arduous (on a laden bicycle). But, suddenly the 'paparazzi' (eight Chinese men with cameras) were snapping our picture, so how could we stop? I made it all the way without, but happy to turn on to level and then going down to where Ujwal was talking with the Tibetan proprietor.
Turns out we were the only guests, as so late in the season and they were glad to have us. Inside this yurt a young Chinese woman was making the 'beds,' as if expecting us. I thought she was making them up for others.
We walked around and discussed the price, and which yurt to stay in for two nights. Turns out she was 'making up the beds' for us, and the charge: for two people for two nights only 60RMB ($7.50). Where else in the world can you stay in a yurt with a view for so little? In contrast 'Rucha's' room in the 'Grassland Hotel,' (with no view) was 150RMB per. Of course, she had an adjoining hot-water bath. We had to walk 100 meters to an outdoor (no roof) out house.
Unfortunately, crazed dogs barking kept me awake for most of the night (reminding me of Nepal). I tried shinning my 'flashlight' ('torch') on the yurt 'wall' to frighten them, but this hardly worked.
Asian people seem to have no idea about controlling dogs (although not a problem in Chinese cities).
In Nepal a dog (god spelled backwards) is considered a 'god,' so they are allowed, like the cows, to wander freely and bark all night long! It drove me mad living there (why I moved from).
Once having my tea (they provided 'kai shui' / 'hot water' in thermos), and unloaded (ready for the night) we glided back down to the tourist village (Yao Wu Yao - #151) to have dinner with our trip companions.
The following day we drove in Mr. Li's motor vehicle to the eastern side of Qinghai Lake, to where there are sand dunes. Riding in automobiles makes me sleepy, so I dozed both ways.
At the dunes some enterprising Chinese had set up a small 'tourist attraction,' including a camel ride, archery, and sledding down a steep dune. All this for only ten 'kwai' ($1.25U.S.). See the images at www.cyclingpeace.org/gallery/
It rained that night, but the yurt kept us dry (and warm too). But, on our penultimate day returning to XiNing we didn't get off until 0900. We knew we faced a tough cycling day ahead, up and down a 3,400M pass and should have departed earlier. Worse we faced a stiff wind. Wind is one thing, but wind and rain can be very unpleasant on a bicycle.
On the way, we stopped some twenty kilometers east of 'Yao Wu Yao,' where they have a huge 'golden' statue of Shakumani Gautama (ten-meters high). I thought, this would cost like all such 'attractions,' but didn't, as part of a T.Buddhist monastery complex. We did 'Kora,' captured some images, and then a little bird 'blessed' me!
People laugh nervously when I explain I 'talk' to animals. This little bird, a sprig of twig in its mouth, stopped on it's way to its nest and said 'hello!' What can I tell you?
The best things of this entire trip, besides riding Ms. Fiets, the morning sunrise outside of Niaodao, seeing the night sky outside our yurt, and this little bird! All my 'highs' having to do with Nature!
After Shakumani, the rain returned and by the time we got to our lunch village, Dao Tang He, we were drenched and cold. But, lucky again the first restaurant I chose had mi fan and a warm stove to warm up with. By the time, we departed we were recharged, as we had to crank up for quite some distance (pass up at 3,500M ASL). Beginning at Dao Tang He, however, we were on an 'Expressway.'
Now, most of the time bicycles are not allowed on such 'Expressways,' but here no problem. Why? It's capricious in China, sometimes you can, sometimes you can't and no one really knows why? But, here it made the fog (we encountered) much safer as we had a wide bicycle lane.
At one point, because of the dense fog (couldn't see more than 30 meters). At one point when we stopped Ujwal asked whether we were going up or down, he couldn't tell. I laughed as we were still going up.
Then down we went, down and down into first, past a village, then through three tunnels (rode through rather than walked), and finally into the town of Huang Yuan.
For a long time we followed close behind a tractor (as going so slow). I couldn't see very well with the fog and my glasses obscured with droplets. Thus, the tractor acted as a 'guide' in what were less than ideal cycling conditions. Additionally, there was some problem with my front wheel/headset as it began to wobble. I never quite understood about it until I got 'home,' and discovered a nut had come out of the front rack (holding to the fork) and the loaded rack was causing the 'wobble.'
So, when we finally cruised into the hotel parking lot I was much comforted. I don't mind being 'out there,' but sometimes 'in there' a much-deserved reward!
Once we'd paid 300 Kwai (RMB), 140 / $16 U.S. (vacation rates) for the room and 160RMB deposit were allowed to park our bicycles in their large meeting room.
Then in our own room we hung up our clothing to dry, the heat not yet on. Heat in China comes with the season… They turn it on October 15th and off April 15th (in Qinghai)--doesn't matter the temperature. Thus, in the middle of the night I had to get under the 'comforter' I was sleeping on--one wool blanket over me wasn't enough. It was colder in this room than in our yurt up at the Lake.
But a hot-water shower, the next morning, kept me in a happy state all during the day (even though overcast and messy).
We had discovered they served no breakfast in the hotel, so we decided to take off without. I'd decided the night before to continue down the Expressway, as we'd been on coming into Huang Yuan.
Highway #109 between Huang Yuan and XiNing (42KM), one we'd come up on, is an old overused two-lane mess. Thus, the idea of a large and smooth bicycle lane made me, with the downhill grade, look forward to an easy ride back into XiNing.
Thus, the first 30KM of the trip into XiNing, via the Expressway, turned out to be such a delightful ride--we zipped along at an incredible speed! It probably took but 80 minutes (including one toilet stop).
Then the strangeness of China, and 'rules.' At a tollgate in the valley we were stopped by the police and directed off the Expressway. Had I been able to speak Chinese I would have asked them, 'Why?' Now, only 12KM to go, why can't we continue into XiNing on the Expressway?
But, in some ways this turned out even better, as I discovered a highway (#100), the older one, to be interesting. On it we passed the 'Qinghai Olympic Training Center,' a large complex of buildings (a place I'd been looking for). Beyond, an interesting looking restaurant I made a mental note to investigate. Thus, something that appears unpleasant always has its compensations, and something appearing pleasant always has its distractions. How many times have I learned this lesson! Best of all, this old highway is in much better condition than the newer one (#109) that we'd taken so many times in the past (not knowing about the other route).
We were back at 28 Datong Jie (#242) by noon, this completing our 700KM / 500 mile bicycle trip around Qinghai Lake. We had spent seven days (including one day of rest) out of the big city. We had accomplished much, as 'Rucha,' and Ujwal had wanted to experience China's largest Lake--everyone having a good time!
Ujwal got to ride a loaded (heavy) bicycle long distances and has experience with 'tour cycling.' Now, he's much stronger physically and mentally. He said later that he learned much on this trip!
As for me, being 'out there,' compensates for city living, something I'm no longer interested in, particularly in China, with its particular 'brand' of 'distopeia,' the honking madness on the streets.
Long ago I became disenchanted with cities, China has only reinforced this.
'Two roads diverged in a wood one day. I took the road less traveled! It made all the difference!' (Robert Frost).
I took the 'road less traveled' years ago! It's made all the difference in my life! I couldn't even begin to explain… Just let's say, I'm different!
Labels: Cycling trip around Qinghai Lake with Rucha