Bike-Touring the Tibetan Plateau for Absolute Beginners

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“Only complete idiots do this sort of thing,” I thought to myself. “With me being a prime example.”

I had never been bike-touring in my life; despite my love of endurance sports, I had never even biked a reasonably long distance. Maybe it was because of my focus on running; my longest runs have been longer than my longest bike rides. Whatever it was, I was inexperienced in the art of long-distance bicycling – and more specifically in the art of the bike tour. Which is why it had made perfect sense for me to decide to spend my recent, unexpected holiday on an ambitious bike tour near my home on the Tibetan plateau. And why now, less than 30 kilometers from home, I was stuck in a remote, forested gorge with a flat tire, a broken pump – and no spare.

I should have known better when I pulled my newly-bought mountain bike out of the sun porch to find a tire flat and the gears a bit rusty. Instead, I decided to ignore these prescient warning signs; buying a new bike pump (20 kuai), I strapped my climbing pack to the back of my bike and, early one morning, headed south out of town. I climbed through fields silvertinseled with frost, below looming coldgrey mountainsides, their upper reaches dappled by brilliantly freshfallen snow, which, as I made my way up the valley, seemed to swoop lower and lower until the roadside was coated in shimmering crystalline white. Which was about the time of my first flat tire.

No problem – I had a pump. I got off the bike, pumped up the tire and continued on my way. It was strange that my tire had flattened so quickly, I thought, after having been pumped up last night. But as there was a motorcycle repair shop some thirty or forty kilometers up the road, I decided to stop worrying and simply focus on the bicycling through the iridescently frigid landscape.

Five kilometers later, my tire was flat again. Strange,  I thought, but not yet a cause for concern. I started pumping up the tire when the pump suddenly gave off a sound similar to that of a charging rhinoceros and violently fractured into multitudinous pieces.

“This can’t be good,” I thought. “Should I go home?”

“Of course not”, the other part of I thought. “This trip will be WICKED if I can fix this problem. And look, there’s a village right there!”

And, in truth, there was. I walked my bike into the village and, borrowing a pump from a store restored my tire to working condition before setting out again. This time, the road took me through a tunnel through a dam construction site; said “tunnel” is actually a future water spillway and, as such, is narrow, curvaceous, dust and mud-filled, and overall downright sketchy. I thankfully made it through the tunnel without any problems; however, I discovered my tire was flat soon after exiting the spillway. I managed to get help from a truck at roadside and, hoping to get to the town where I could fix my tire as soon as possible, continued up the road into a deep, forested gorge.

As the part of the road through the gorge is soon to be bypassed by a new tunnel, the government has let the road quality deteriorate from ‘drivable surface’ to ‘surface of the moon’ and then, over the past year, to somewhere past ‘topographic in-road model of the Himalaya’. I’m using this analogy quite literally; the ‘peaks’ of frozen mud and gravel within the road were tufted with ice and snow, while the ‘valleys’ held semifrozen rivers which carved deeper and deeper canyons as they approached the roadside, as if imitating the Himalayan rivers on their precipitous journeys from the high mountains of Nepal to the Gangetic plains. Riding along this road, needless to say, was glacial in pace. And soon, my tire was flat once again.

Luckily, I was near a compound of several herders’ houses – the only settlement in the gorge. I asked the inhabitants if they had a tire pump; they did, and we pumped away at the tire, but to no avail. The tire was broken – and I had no spare. What an idiot.

But today (or at least for the moment), luck was on my side. A pickup-style van soon came along, and I was able to hitch a ride up to the grasslands town of Dobden, nearly thirty kilometers away. There, I was able to find a new bicycle tire at a motorcycle repair shop. Repairs finished, I was on my way by one in the afternoon.

From Dobden, it was only 38 kilometers to the town of Zeku (Zekog); though there was a nearly 4000-meter pass, I figured I could cover the distance in about two hours. What I didn’t count on was the Antarctic headwind that accompanied me the entire way and made every inch of the trip a struggle. It was a beautifully clear day; snowcapped peaks marched majestically along each horizon as I struggled my way uphill (and, given the wind, downhill) through huge grassy bowls where yaks and sheep grazed on the last remaining good grass of autumn, and where pitched black tents seemed to huddle against the oncoming winter winds. The world was a silent, museumlike display case; aside from the wind, little seemed to move or change in this vast expanse of existence. Cast into stark contrast by the day’s brilliantly clear, crisp earlywinter light, the landscape took on an organically sculptural aspect, flowing and rippling and heaving up into gigantically towering snowy peaks, flattening and smoothing and relaxing quietly into broad plains, dipping and falling into shallow valleyed depressions where lazily wandering creeks meander.

As if I had much time to look. The temperature had fallen and I was now biking in four layers, including my down jacket. Due to the wind, I rarely looked up or around. Instead, I kept my head facing downwards towards the road surface to avoid the biting chill. Somehow, after several hours of this simultaneous paradise and hell, I made it to Zeku town.

My stay in Zeku was delightful; I visited a former Xining student who is teaching at a school (where I visited a class of enthusiastic but shy students), met up with current students for dinner and conversation and then visited a student’s home in the morning. I was conflicted about what I should do with my cycle tour. The next leg of the road was a 70-kilometer stretch with no services whatsoever; given my inexperience and lack of preparation, should I abandon this journey or should I continue in my persistent idiocy? Around midday, I decided on the latter course and, again under a brilliantly opalescent sky, I biked north out of town along a quiet blackmacadam road.

The road, arrowstraight through the vast grasslands, climbed two passes in quick succession, both around 4000 meters high. But today’s climbing, without the headwinds I had experienced the day before, was – if not fast – at least easier. And what views I was greeted with at the top of each pass! Sweepingly snowy mountain ranges rising, as if in a movie set, from the kind of grasslands that seem made for heroic scenes of horseback pursuit in Tolkeinesque epic films. Indeed, I myself felt rather heroic as I made my way across the plains, craning my head in either direction to take in the majestic views. I had been on this road before, in summer, but snow and rain had obscured the surrounding scenery; now, with perfectly clear skies and crisply snowdappled ground underfoot, I felt like I was the main character in the best epic film ever made, one that no one had ever heard of, but was simply a chronicle of the eventfully fulfilling awesomeness of my life.

Needless to say, I was happy that I decided to continue the bike trip, and – despite neglecting to bring water from Zeku – stayed in a rather elated condition for the remainder of the ride to Hor township, where I was greeted by a 10-year-old boy yelling “FUCK YOU!” His delightful personality, which must have existed, nonetheless remained buried for the duration of my brief stay. Needless to say, I soon left Hor for nearby Ningxiu, where I was to meet Andrew (my co-teacher) for the night. The last 15 kilometers into Ningxiu were blissful cycling; an undulating road through vast grasslands, friendly herders, and (surprisingly) no fierce dogs whatsoever. I met Andrew, checked into the only hotel in the region, and, after meeting some students and eating some noodles, quickly fell asleep.

The third morning of the trip was yet another crystalclear morning; like the frost underfoot, the sharp chill crackled in the air. I biked my way eight kilometers down to a major intersection, where Andrew and I soon found a ride in a pickup driven by a Red-Bull-drinking monk. I attempted to chat in T!betan with the student sitting by my side; we made little progress and eventually switched to Chinese. As we talked, the monk ferried us over two high, snowy passes and down a grassy valley; entering a lightly forested gorge, we soon arrived in the truckstop town of Hebei. Strangely, one roadside restaurant advertised coffee – in English. Intended, of course, for the long-distance truckers making their way to Golog and on to Chengdu.

We stopped for noodles, and I realized that we were already quite close to Ragya. Though some clouds had appeared, the weather remained glorious and I decided that there was no reason not to bike the remaining 40 kilometers to our destination – most of which, I remembered, were downhill. I hopped on my bike and pedaled west out of town.

However, I quickly found that the road was not nearly as downhill as I had remembered. Sure, there was a significant downhill into Ragya at the end of the ride – but that hill had to be ascended first. After a rollercoaster ride, I found myself facing the redrock peaks of Chung-Ngon ཁྲུང་སྔོན། – the Blue Garuda mountain – rising above the whitewashed goldroofed jumble of buildings that make up Ragya monastery.

I met up with Andrew by the roadside and we spent some time exploring the monastery, walking the kora, and marveling at the resident seven-foot-tall Mongolian monk (who dwarfs everyone he is near; by virtue simply of his height, he is well enough known that all of my students have heard of him, despite few students having visited Ragya at all). We walked into town, which had changed much since my last visit in 2010. A new embankment lined the riverbank, along which a passably attractive and eminently strollable park had been laid out. The buildings opposite the park had been repainted in bright “TibModern” colors. However, the main downtown intersection remained the same frenzied jumble of vehicles, people, animals, trash, human and animal waste, and anything else that could be collected from the surroundings. For some reason, everyone around seemed to think I wanted to sell the bike; I kept a firm grasp on my trusty steed and managed to come away from Ragya with it remaining in my possession.

We spent some time wandering around town before deciding to head back to Xining via sleeper bus before returning home the following day. We caught an especially uncomfortable sleeper bus (thankfully we could stow the bike underneath!) and found ourselves in Xining the next morning.

And so it ended. A qualified success – the most I could ask for as a beginning bike tourer. While running remains my preferred activity, I enjoy the pace of bicycling. Unlike running, it is fast enough to cover significant distances within reasonable amounts of time; like running, it is slow enough that you can truly appreciate and be within your surroundings, rather than simply passing through them. For isn’t being in a place the reason we travel in the first place?

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7 Responses to Bike-Touring the Tibetan Plateau for Absolute Beginners

  1. charlotte says:

    It is.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This makes me really want to go to Ragya! And to possibly go there on a bike…but perhaps in the summer and with a spare wheel : )

  3. Anne G says:

    Awesome epic journey, Jonas.
    Anne G from GFS

  4. Walt says:

    explain what a especially uncomfortable sleeper bus is like…..in my limited experience, they are uncomfortable – the cushions are flattened, the smell distinct, the heat or cold epic, the ride provides as much vertical as horizontal movement/km…….so what made it ‘especially uncomfortable’.

  5. Mick says:

    I met that monk on my visit earlier this year – is this the guy?
    Ragya - Lajia monastery (拉加寺), Qinghai

  6. Filicophyta says:

    I’ve been an appreciative reader since before I came to China but this is my first post. I’m glad you had some good time on the tour despite the problems. As someone who has done several two-week cycle tours (in Japan) I recommend doing at least a day trip and a local overnight trip fully loaded before you get into the sport or after any major equipment change. Cycle touring is a great way to see a country, hope you can enjoy it more. (It’s also fun the first time you ride without tent, stove and all the stuff after two weeks of pulling it around – you’ll feel like you’re flying.)

  7. loebx001 says:

    thinking of you and hope you are doing OK….love from Minnesota

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