Cycling from Leshan to Lanzhou via the Tibetan Plateau (albeit the very edge of the plateau!)
Leshan to Pengshan
After waiting around for too many days, we wanted to get going and away from cities, but we had to start the day late so we could pick up our fresh visas.
The soundtrack of the day was beeping horns and insanely loud cicadas buzzing away in the trees. These buzzing cicadas are now synonymous with tropical heat to us, and like the heat, just get a tad annoying. However, we were heading back to the mountains to get away from heat, cities and cicadas.
The late start and the heat meant we didn’t get quite as far as we wanted. The heat has one advantage though – it’s a great excuse to buy a watermelon to finish the day.
Pengshan to Pidu
Today we were still in the Chengdu bowl and due to some saddle sores, the day ended in slightly more pain.
After asking at a couple of hotels which were far too posh and expensive for the likes of us, we reached a guesthouse that was a more suitable condition and price. The girl spoke very good English and was happy to help us and ask where we were going – with a big thumbs up when we declared we are cycling to England. She then told us her mother was out, and if she was in would probably have turned us away. This was a hotel that wasn’t supposed to allow foreigners to stay but she wanted to help us. We just shouldn’t let the police know.
As we left the hotel and went to find dinner, the first thing we noticed was the hotel’s neighbours. A big police station! We swiftly walked by.
Pidu to Yingxiu
Finally getting out of the city and into the mountains, in search for cooler temperatures. Into the mountains and instantly better scenery, going up and around the Min River and past some big hydro dams.
Carrying on up the mountain we got to a bridge across the river, but this wasn’t on the map. A tunnel was at the end, and we decided that this tunnel must cut out part of the climb ahead. In this heat there was no need to do an extra climb on these heavy cumbersome beasts, so we went for the tunnel where it would also be away from the sun.
Staring into the tunnel – it was pitch black and was not lit, and a sign stated it was 1.5km long. At the entrance, we stopped and fitted lights to our bikes, looked into the tunnel, back to each other and had a delicious sweet for good luck. We cycled into the tunnel and suddenly surprised that we could see. Some lights had turned on. The tunnel was lit up and we were surprised and a little confused – thoughts to the Chinese government watching everything you do…
As we got into the town of Yingxiu we crossed a bridge over the surging river below, and noticed there was another road, twisted and mangled in the river. This was the epicentre for the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Yingxiu was mostly destroyed, but now having been rebuilt it is a weird tourist attraction. The buildings all look very nice but the hoards of Chinese tourists, all being carted around the town on over-sized golf buggies was just surreal. I’m not sure there’s much that the Chinese wont see as a tourist attraction.
Yingxiu to Fengyi Town
We got the feeling the G213 highway has been slightly neglected. Possibly due to the new S09 highway that runs up next to it. But the S09 doesn’t allow bikes. The first part out of Yingxiu was a muddy, potholed mess. Made worse for the amazing storm that pounded down last night. After a few km’s of mud, potholes and general lack of road and a few small tunnels, we came upon a longer tunnel. No lights, it looked like a tunnel of death. Our map showed a road that went around by the river that avoided the tunnel, however, a few locals warned us that it didn’t and it just went to a mine nearby (there are countless mines in China, always something to dig up).
We instead opted for the S09 rather than the death tunnel and shit road. There were some symbols on a sign leading to the S09, one looking much like a bicycle with a cross through it. But, not being very good at reading and understanding these Chinese symbols, we carried onto the motorway.
Smooth fast tarmac, we were now making some progress. And none of the vehicles seemed to care that we were there, just carrying along with their normal blasting of the horn at every opportunity. We pedalled along with the tune of ‘Lipps Inc. – Funky Town’ being sung as a beautiful duet, as we cycled towards Fengyi “Funky” Town.
Today turned out to be a day of tunnels, and I reckon we must have spent a good 20km+ going through them, some around 5km long. Once inside, we were deafened by the hum of the tyres, the sound of exhausts and the echoing of loud horns being blasted in our ears.
We stopped at Miansi for a coffee and dumplings, and it seemed like a forgotten town. Old Chinese style buildings throughout the main street, but sadly not many visitors there. We think that, due to the S09 and a service station situated right before the town, the would-be customers now have no need to stop by. Maybe why the dumpling lady looked so miserable. Dumpling ladies are never usually miserable – they’re dumpling ladies!
Fengyi Town to Zhenjiangguan
Today the mountains closed in with their steep peaks towering above us. The road continued to follow the Min River and wound its way up towards Diexi Lake – a lake formed by an earthquake in 1933 (lots of earthquakes it seems around here…), which dammed the river and flooded the old town. Now a tourist hotspot on the route to Songpan, with yaks, or furry cows as described in one TripAdvisor review!
We stopped at a fruit stall, got some beautiful fresh plums, and the man on the stall seemed astounded that we were on bikes. He pointed in amazement, then got closer and just as I thought he was going to point and ask a question about the bike, he instead pointed at my legs and grabbed at the hair. He couldn’t care less about the bikes; he was just astonished at my hairy legs, resembling the yak opposite us. He then wanted to know if my chest was just as hairy. I think he was suitably impressed.
We had climbed to around 2500m but it was still far too hot to be camping, so we eventually found an old dusty town, which we didn’t know if it was being rebuilt or demolished. Full of quaint but fairly dilapidated old wooden buildings we weren’t too optimistic of our chances of a hotel. Thankfully, one of these building did turn out to be a rather basic guesthouse.
Zhenjiangguan to Chuanzhusi
Quieter and cooler, further up into the mountains and we cycled past some beautiful old little villages along the way. At one small village, a local had done a great job of picking up and collecting all the rubbish into a couple of big bags – then sadly he proceeded to dump it all off the bridge and into the river below. Out of his village and now someone else’s problem. What a fucking retard.
Into Songpan and instantly awed – not in an entirely positive way. This ancient city has been rebranded – it is now a shiny fake ancient city, full of building work, typical Chinese tourist tat and a whole lot of tourists. We had a quick cycle around before realising it wasn’t going to be the quaint experience we were anticipating – not worth a visit. We continued to Chuanzhusi, which although quieter and more peaceful, was still incredibly touristy and the prices reflected that.
Chuanzhusi to Dazhasi
The day started with a 50km climb to the top of the pass at 3850m. The mountains became less jagged and instead more rolling green hills, less trees and more wild flowers.
At the top we were happy we made it but slightly struck by the ‘Tibetan’ culture – hundreds of yurts and prayer flags just for the tourists. We carried on past the circus for our coffee break, slightly downhill and we were met with a fierce headwind which made the slight decline still feel like an incline. The further we went and the more lush, green rolling hills and wild flowers, with herds of yaks and nomadic tents everywhere.
It would be a great place to camp, but we wanted to keep pushing on and got to the town of Jiangdong, and were greeted with shouts of “Welcome to Tibet”! There we asked about a hotel and was shown a field with tents in. Paying to stay in a tent when we are carrying our own was not really what we wanted, so we carried on to find a wild camp spot. The wind was still fierce but pushing on we got to another small village. Stopping for a coffee we asked about a hotel room, and shown a room with no shower and no toilet. Not here either then. It was now getting mentally exhausting. Still, we pushed on, and decided we probably deserved a hotel in the next town for all this physical exertion. So, on our day of the highest pass, we fought the headwind to cycle our longest day. 143.5km later, we found a clean comfy hotel room to relax at last. Just what our numb derrieres needed.
We were enjoying our rest in the hotel and feeling sleepy, the lights then flickered, the room started shaking and almost immediately we were being yelled at to evacuate the hotel. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake had just struck. The streets were full of people, all evacuated from the buildings. Locals seemed to know the drill, and only after many calls and a long time waiting outside were we allowed back in. The epicentre was in a nearby National Park – which is where we had decided not to go today. Sadly hotels were destroyed and lives were lost. Still in shock from the days cycle, this had become surreal…
Dazhasi to Langmusi
We were indescribably happy that we woke up in our beds this morning, and were not buried in a pile of rubble. The day was already a good one. It was a very chilly start, but a couple of climbs got the blood to our fingers and toes, and a group of marmots greeted us on the way up, peeping out from the safety of their burrows to watch us. For the rest of the morning all we could do was watch the fields to spot the groups of marmots watching us ride by.
The Tibetan Plateau is a beautiful place, rolling green meadows, wild flowers, eagles hovering above (maybe trying to catch a small marmot?!) and we spotted some Hoopoe’s, beautiful birds with black and white wings and orange bodies. Cycling up on this plateau is bliss.
We were approaching the mountains that had been in the distance, and entered a tunnel that took us through – instant awe as we came back outside into the light, the road weaved downhill with towering peaks around us. In the distance we could see the shimmer of gold roofs of the monasteries.
Langmusi to Ma’nge
Another beautiful, crisp morning that took us up and down, past meadows and herds of yaks – and of course groups of marmots scurrying away as we got close.
One of the best things of being on the Tibetan Plateau is the Tibetan bread – my favourite breakfast in Nepal – so we were constantly on the lookout for a bakery with fresh bread.
There was a larger presence of Buddhist culture with prayer flags draped from almost everything, including across the roads.
It had been a great days cycling, and sadly over all too soon, even though we probably could have done with a short day, it was maybe too short.
We were however, greeted by the locals in our hotel and asked if we are liking Tibet, and they came and gave us a big bowl of Tibetan food, sticky sweet rice with dried fruit. Technically we are not in Tibet, but all the locals seem to call this area Tibet, and think themselves as Tibetan, certainly not Han Chinese.
Ma’nge to Yin Ji Zhen
Today will probably be even shorter. The next main town with hotels is only 80km away. We cruised along, enjoying the views and in no time we were at Huezo. Stopped for the normal dumpling break, and decided that we should go to the next town to find a hotel, in Wangge’ertang. It had a great name, so I was hopeful. There was a hotel! Hope changed to horror when seeing the room. There must be another. Nope, the locals were telling us Huezo was the next place. We had just come from there, so no. We managed to get a couple of locals who both said the next town 15km away had hotels. Ok, it’s down hill so lets try there. Nope, no hotels.
We asked around, and a local told us it was about 40km away to the next hotel. Fuck. Oh well, lets keep riding, it’s downhill and we, for once, have a slight tailwind. We finally roll into the town of Yin Ji Zhen, 162.5km after we started. The mountains started to disappear and the landscape became flatter, less prayer flags and more mosques scattered the landscape, their minarets pointing to the sky.
Our longest day so far – but it was cheating as it was mostly downhill.
Yin Ji Zhen to Yongjing
With the mountains and Tibetan Plateau behind us, we were straight into grey, dusty and dirty city. The skies grey and rain starting to fall made it seem grim, but we reminisced about how brilliant the route we had just done was.
The G213 road that had been so good, turned to a mess as it was being dug up. The rain filling the puddles. But, a cheery dustbin lorry playing some jingles cheered us up, as the jingles turned out to be Christmas songs! It’s always Christmas in Asia, decorations and Christmas tunes are never far away at any time of the year.
We cycled in loops to find a better way out the city and after some circles, an early coffee and bakery stop was in order. With renewed energy, we headed for Liujiaxia Reservoir, surrounded by dry, arid hills; it was a lot more spectacular than the city.
Yongjing to Anning, Lanzhou
Our route followed the Yellow River along an empty highway with a monastery built into the muddy, multi-coloured hills.
We stopped at a small village called Xincheng, which looked like a derelict old mining town. Houses abandoned, windows broken and walls falling down.
Surprisingly, around the corner we found a busy market, smiley people, delicious food and comfy shady area to sit.
After our stop, we got back onto the expressway, no bikes allowed. We went for it anyway. Gingerly, we cycled past the toll booths, waving at the people inside and onto the busy road towards Lanzhou.
Now we have a few days waiting for our train to Urumqi. Cheating and getting a train is ok, because we have some lovely, fun, fast mountain bikes and sleek fast carbon road bikes at home waiting that we need to get back to. And skipping a dull hot desert where all the camp spots sound like they are full of human shit doesn’t sound like fun or adventure. It sounds very much like a dull hot desert sleeping surrounded by shit.