Tuesday, November 17, 2009


One of the best things about travel is all the new and interesting people you get to meet. Spending a week in Xining allowed me to met loads of new people. To the very left is Haji. 69 years of age and a former Hollywood producer. His future seems deciated to travel and to helping the people in the regions he travels. In front of Haji is his secretary, Amily. who brought us to great restaurants and a Tibetan show. To Amily's left is Maria. This amazing woman with the red hat, seems to have endless energy. She runs a restaurant, is involved in schooling, has created board games and is hoping Haji's friend, Mel Gibson, will direct her second movie. Behind her is her Tibetan husband, Ben. Markus is to his right and a Norweigen hotel owner is his left. In front with the red jacket is Amily's boyfriend Xuton, who cycled 7500 KMs around China with Haji. To his left are two more Norweigen guys. Jan Terry with the sunglasses is well known in the cycle touring world. He has completed 70,000 KMs across 55 countries and has recently had a book published. Like me, he swears by his Koga bicycle.

More than anything, it was a great relief. A full 30 day visa extension means Plan A immediately goes into operation. Plan A is to head directly south and high up into the mountains. We'll never drop below 2000M and it looks like some of the passes we will face are close to 4000M. We know its going to be real tough. Its a little late in the year to be going into these regions and the snow could make things difficult. We have been warned by people who have travelled in the region that temperatures can drop down to -20C and road closures are common due to the snow. The real big danger is to be camped out for the night and to wake up surrounded by deep snow. We have so many passes to pedal that most are not even mentioned on our many maps of the region. At 5,450M oxyigen levels drop 50% to the oxygen levels available at sea level. We don't expect to exceed 5000M, but when I consider how hard the 2900M pass in Turkey was, then the 3100M pass in Kyrgyzstan where the bikes were on our shoulders. Then between Kyrgyzstan and China, the Taldyk pass hit 3600M just before Sary-Tash. Well, the next few weeks we will regularly hit 3600M and you can throw another 1000M on top of that.

After a full Irish breakfast (and toasted ham and yak cheese sandwiches and cinnamon cakes) at Maria's restaurant, Fusion, it was time to leave Xining and begin the long road to Shangri-La. Haji and Xuton joined us for the first 20 KMs out of town. We pedalled up to Kumbum monastery. One of the monks here was a good friend of Xuton and he brought us for a tour around. This 450 year old monastery is one of the great places of pilgrimage for the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. For the first time we were really beginning to see the Tibetan people in full tradition dress. After lunch here, we said our farewells and Markus and I begun the long climb uphill. Haji was flying down to his other home in Lijiang next week and we hope to meet him here in about 3 weeks. Massive, dark snow peaked mountains loomed in the distance. And the scary thing was our maps revealed even greater mountains were hidden behind these. An hour before sunset, we stopped a man on the road to ask how far it was to the next hotel. It turned out a bed for the night wasn't far. The man pointed to his nearby home and invited us in for dinner and bed and breakfast. Neighbours came to visit and our maps were studied. The next morning a small fee was requested and then it was time to start pedalling up to the snow line. The most important thing about high altitude biking is to make it over the peaks in the mid afternoon when the temperatures are highest and to get back down to a low altitude before sunset. We reached 3280M (thats the highest altitude of GCR to date) by 2pm. Although we are not going into Tibet, we are heading into regions of Qinghai that are 97% Tibetan. Giant Tibetan prayer flags were positoned either side of the road and crossing this pass was like our introduction to the Tibetan world.Long before this journey began 11 months ago, I have always wanted to visit Tibet. Everything about it is fascinating. Just to pedal across "The rooftop of the world" and to look up at Everest. Its an area twice the size of France, yet with a population less than Ireland. Its turbulent recent history. How it protests against 'liberation' from the Chinese as it is forced into 'Motherland China'. My understanding is many Chinese see the Tibetans as an ungrateful bunch. China has given Tibet a better standard of living, schools, hospitals, roads and even a railway line to Beijing that cost US$3 billion. But their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has called it "Cultural Genocide" as a people become second class citizens in their own land. To venture into Tibet and to travel where I wished and to see it with my own eyes and form my own opinions was always the master plan, but the Chinese have strictly prohibited independent travel in Tibet. If you want to go in here, you must join a government approved tour. For me, the next best option was to travel independently through the Tibetan regions of Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. And so crossing this pass was the start of a possible 3 week ride through an area not Tibet, but very Tibetan. Let the adventure begin.

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