13 days and 1,000 km across the Tibetan Plateau
In spring 2018, Tim Walton and Linda Beilig set off from the UK to explore the world by bicycle. To date, they have cycled 33,000 km through 31 countries, camping and couchsurfing along the way and writing an account of their travels here (complete with a fascinating series of stats and equipment list).
What follows is the story of their 1,000km journey across the Tibetan Plateau in Western China.
The sweet, musky smell of incense drifted up our nostrils as we explored the endless maze of mud-packed walls. In a square, a crowd of pilgrims were gathered, seemingly waiting for something to happen. We grew closer until we were part of the crowd ourselves. A slightly hunched old woman with a wooden staff and a long, black, yak-wool robe stood to our right. To our left, monks in maroon robes were huddled together to protect against the icy November air. A sense of anticipation lingered.
Suddenly, the low, rumbling sound of horns filled the air and all of the organs within our bodies seemed to resonate. The dissonant clash of cymbals entered the mix, as did the pounding of animal skin drums. Performers with grotesque, demonic masks, dressed in flowing, golden cloaks appeared, bounding around the fringes of the crowd. Dancing monks entered the picture, mirroring the spinning moves of the demons.The old woman to our side began cycles of prostration: kneeling to touch her forehead on the cold earth.
As we stood there in the crowd, completely absorbed by the sights and sounds of another world, goosebumps prickled up on our arms and necks. It was moments like this that we were here to seek.
We were in Tibet. Well, kind of. We weren’t in “Political Tibet”, also known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), for which foreigners require an expensive permit and a pre-arranged, full-time guide-accompanied tour. We were at Labrang Monastery in the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo, part of a larger “Cultural Tibet”. Even though the TAR’s restrictions ruled out a visit for us as shoestring-budget cycle tourists, we could still attempt to experience Tibetan culture in the neighbouring provinces of Gansu and Sichuan.
Our journey here had begun with leaving the metropolis of Xining, the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau with a population of over 2 million people and an elevation of nearly 2,300 metres. Like other Chinese cities that we had travelled through, Xining was a whirlwind of electric scooters, high-rise buildings and back street restaurants offering countless opportunities to try questionable delicacies such as chicken feet. We were eager to move on to the more remote towns and villages of the region however, and as we were already acclimatised to the elevation from our overland route, we did not linger.
“One moment you’re in Han China, the next you’re virtually in Tibet”, our guidebook promised. To see for ourselves, we had planned a 1,000 kilometre route from Xining to Chengdu that would take us high onto the plateau, passing through these traditional Tibetan regions.
Leaving the urban sprawl behind us, we joined the highway that would take us gently up to 3,200 metres, before dropping us back down again to the town of Yashigazhen on the banks of the Yellow River. Here, instead of finding Tibetan culture, we were greeted with the sight of an enormous mosque and, even though our wild camping spot was out of town, woken by the early morning call to prayer. “Feels like we’re back in Turkey!”, Linda reflected. Not quite the Tibetan culture we were expecting.
Upon leaving town, a motorcyclist gestured at us in passing. “I think he wants us to pull over,” Tim said, not quite knowing what to expect. He reached into his bag and presented us with cans of Red Bull and water! “Xie xie!” we thanked him, one of the few phrases of Chinese we had already learnt.
We followed the Yellow River, China’s second longest river, for a brief but striking section of dramatic cliffs and winding roads. The distances between towns grew bigger as we climbed out of the river valley. We started seeing Tibetan prayer flags and religious murals painted onto the rocks. At the top of the climb, a mountain pass at over 3,600 metres, we took a break to catch our breath and enjoy the view, when a car drove past and hurled a bundle of hundreds of pieces of paper out of the window and into the wind. The ritual is meant to carry prayers to heaven, and the wind seemed to be doing its job; the prayers were dancing and fluttering high above our heads.
Ascending to higher and more sparsely populated regions of the plateau, the landscape became more desolate, with barren grasslands undulating into the distance. We started passing through Tibetan villages with inhabitants whose facial features were noticeably different from Han Chinese. We were now in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where more than half of the population is ethnically Tibetan. We also started seeing Tibetan Buddhist monks clad in dark red robes; we were especially delighted by the sight of one on the back of a scooter, and another who took an interest in us fixing a puncture at a petrol station.
We reached the town of Labrang, famous for its monastery which is home to the largest number of Tibetan monks outside the Tibet Autonomous Region and an important pilgrimage destination for Tibetans living across the region. After cycling past more monks than we could count on the way into town, we checked into a guesthouse and spent the evening with three other cyclists that we had been in contact with through a WhatsApp group.
We tried some staples of Tibetan cuisine such as tsampa (roasted barley flour), momo (Tibetan dumplings), sho (yak yoghurt) and po cha (yak butter tea), and had a few drinks back at the guesthouse to celebrate Linda’s birthday. Our round was temporarily joined – in company, not in drinking – by the owner of the guesthouse, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, who was video-chatting with a monk friend of his and taking selfies with us. When Tim took off his hat to reveal his recently shaved head, it earned him a monk high-five.
The following day we walked the pilgrim path which surrounds the monastery, lined with over 1,700 prayer wheels. Its 3.5 kilometre length makes it the world’s longest stretch of prayer wheels and we saw worshippers of all ages and appearances walking along, spinning the squeaky, hexagonal wooden cylinders as they passed. After stumbling across a religious dance to subdue evil spirits, we thought back to the comment in our guidebook; “…the next you’re virtually in Tibet”, feeling like we had at last made our way into the forbidden kingdom.
Upon leaving Labrang, the roads were blanketed in white, it having started snowing the previous evening and continuing to do so throughout the night and morning. Going at a steady, slow pace mostly made riding in the compacted snow manageable, though there was still occasional slipping, sliding and falling off over the next few days.
Whenever we took a break, the mud and slush on our bikes would freeze within minutes, on many occasions rendering the wheels stuck until we cleared up the ice with our knife, sticks or hot water (something that you can fortunately find pretty much everywhere in China).
We too would freeze within minutes of stopping, and shivered our way down hills, constantly squeezing and relaxing our fingers to keep the blood flowing under our camel-wool mittens. We weren’t the only victims of the icy cold though: lorry drivers tending to fires they had lit underneath their fuel tanks were a regular sight.
Planning for an enjoyable ride in this part of the world is obviously all about timing. From Labrang, our route stayed at over 3,000 metres for around 400 kilometres, so extreme weather could be expected. In January, the average temperature on the plateau is a finger-numbing -10°C. In summer however, much more bearable temperatures of +10°C are the norm and the landscape transitions into a lush ocean of green grasslands.
With heavy snow forecast, we took an unplanned rest day at a hotel in a small town, and looking out of the window over the course of that day, we were glad we did. At about 15°C, our room wasn’t particularly warm, but it was still 25 degrees warmer than outside, and, as with many hotels and guesthouses in the area, the bed was fitted with an electric blanket. The next day, the weather had cleared and the snow had ceased, but it was still freezing cold and the roads were still ice rinks.
To warm up after a brutal downhill stretch, we stopped at a shop in the middle of nowhere. A small group of Tibetans were eating around a hot stove: two young women, a young man, an old woman spinning a prayer wheel, and two inquisitive children. One of the young women welcomed us with a friendly smile and beckoned us into the gloriously warm room. Before we could ask for a menu, which we likely wouldn’t have been able to make much sense of anyway, she handed us the ubiquitous meal of tea and noodle soup. We slowly felt the feeling return to our fingers, toes and faces.
“How much?” we tried to gesture upon leaving. “Family” the woman replied in English. We stood there a little confused before realising what she meant. This was not a restaurant, but a family lunch to which we had been invited!
A little further south but still high up on the plateau, we visited another monastery town called Langmusi, located on the border of Gansu and Sichuan provinces. The town lies in a valley surrounded by alpine forests and beautiful mountains, and we spent another delightful afternoon there exploring the Tibetan Buddhist temples.
The temperature dropped down to -14°C during the night, but fortunately we were staying in a hostel. Luxury, apart from the fact that the dorms were unheated. “Still, better than our tent” we thought. By the time we set off again in the morning, after a bike defrosting session, the temperature had risen to a toasty -9°C.
The ascent to a nearby tunnel was so icy that we had to push our bikes for most of it, our feet struggling for grip as we pushed our heavily laden bikes. However, seeing lorries take off their snow chains at the other end of the tunnel promised better conditions ahead and as it turned out, this icy section would be the last we would encounter.
The next few days along the eastern edges of the steppe took us through vast areas of grassland which provide grazing areas for huge herds of yak, one of the few animals that thrive in the extreme environment of the Tibetan Plateau. For the first time in a while, we also suffered occasional scares through sudden loud barks coming from huge dogs, arrested as they bolted towards us only by a chain or fence. The hostility of these Tibetan mastiffs, one of which was once passed off as a lion in a Chinese zoo, fortunately stood in stark contrast to most of the stray dogs we had encountered in China, generally so cute that their feeble attempts at chase elicited “aawww”s rather than “aahhh”s.
About 300 kilometres before Chengdu we started our three-day descent off the plateau, a total drop of over 3,000 metres along river valleys surrounded by steep mountains. Our enjoyment of a section of hairpin bends turned into annoyance when we discovered that the road at the bottom was closed as a bridge across the river gorge had been washed away and we had to crawl back up the same switchbacks we had just raced down.
The drop in altitude was accompanied by a rise in temperature, and soon we’d shed our down jackets and mittens and could even have dinner outside the tent once again. The landscape changed once more to the abundant and diverse greenery of the Sichuan Basin.
With gravity on our side, we rolled into Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu, a city with a history of over 3,000 years and an urban population of over 10 million people. This marked the end of our journey across the wild and desolate Tibetan Plateau – 13 days and 1,000 kilometres after leaving Xining.
Yes, it was a shame that politics and bureaucracy stood in the way of us and the “real” Tibet. However, we found that many of the reasons for which one would want to visit the TAR are equally present in the adjacent Chinese provinces for which no special permits are needed. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, monks and nuns, Tibetan art, cuisine and rituals. For a hassle-free taste of Tibet, a route between Xining and Chengdu would be hard to beat.