After several days of climbing and a straight long descent ahead of me, I quickly rolled all the way down to the Tibetan plateau. The already low sun caused a shiny bright reflection from the incident light on the road. It looked like one very long thin white line through this super-wide landscape. Around an hour later and after a descent of 550 meters down to 3000m again, I arrived at the lowest and flattest point. This was also going to be my camp spot for that night.
The surface around the road looked more or less the same as some parts in the Taklamakan. It was like being in another desert, but this time on 3000m ASL. I left the road to the left to put my tent a few hundred meters from the road. I didn’t have to go that far from the road for camping. However, normally I did so cause of the noise so as the lights from the trucks driving all night long. So I pushed my bike for another 10 minutes through the soft and sandy surface to get enough distance from the road.
The first night on the Tibetan Plateau
When I put the tent for my first night on the Tibetan plateau and while cooking some dinner, the golden, glowing sun was already hanging just above the horizon. The mountain ranges in the far distance were all lightened up by beautiful orange light.
Once again I enjoyed the wonderful spectacle that nature offered me day after day. The sunset on that particular day, however, was a bit more special. It was quieter, the light stronger and the colors a bit more saturated. Here It was again, this incredible feeling of freedom and adventure. How lucky I felt at that moment to be able to live outdoors and being able to experience all that.
As soon as the sun went down on the horizon, I closed the door of my tent so as the vestibules and tried to get asleep. It was already quite cold by now, somewhere around -10 degrees. For the night I almost put every clothes on I had. On the upper body, I had my merino t-shirt, followed by a merino long sleeve, the fleece jacket, so as the down jacket.
For the feet, I used two pairs of dry socks. For the legs, I had merino leggings so as a pair of sweatpants I bought in Qarqan. As my body was still digesting the food and as I was super tired from the climb that day, I fell asleep really quickly.
a cold awakening
After 2-3 hours of sleep, I woke up again cause of the cold. The wind was pretty strong now and freezing cold. Almost always in flat and wide areas, there were also the strongest winds. This was no different here. However, the winds up here on the plateau and during that night, were way stronger than before in the Taklamakan desert. When I then looked at the thermometer again, it was around -24 degrees. The rest of the night ended to be the most uncomfortable I probably had on the whole journey.
For the next 6-7 hours, I couldn’t sleep anymore cause I felt too cold. Probably It was my own fault as I didn’t eat enough for dinner and especially not enough fats. Also, my usually very warm sleeping bag wasn’t made for such cold temperatures with a comfort range of -4 and a lower limit of -10 degrees.
The next few hours I tried everything and despite the fact that I was super tired, I couldn’t sleep anymore. I counted hours and it felt like a never-ending night. When it finally got brighter again outside the tent, I was super happy about the approaching dawn. As soon as the sun was back, it got warmer quite quickly by 10 to 15 degrees.
Normally, after eating breakfast, I dried my sleeping bag a bit in the sun. That morning, however, I packed my sleeping bag and tent still wet as I knew, that the upcoming night I was going to be in the next city of Huatugou, being able to sleep in a hotel and to hang and dry all my stuff in the room.
Goodbye Xinjiang, hello Qarqan Province
This was not only the coldest night I ever spent in a tent. It was also my last one in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. After a total of 29 days and 1481 km’s, I finally made it to the eastern end of the south-eastern end of the largest region in China. For days I was looking forward to that moment. To leave this police state and the extreme surveillance I experienced in Xinjiang.
During that early morning and although the lack of sleep, I was cycling with some dreamy morning light. I pedaled as hard as I could to get warm again and after 40km’s I arrived at the last police checkpoint. It was also the border to the Qarqan Province, the first official Chinese Province I was going to cycle through.
The control at the last police checkpoint in Xinjiang was pretty straightforward then. It was the same procedure as always and they even offered me some tea while waiting for my passport. Around half an hour later I was cycling my first few kilometers in the Qarqan Province. Another 60km later, just in time for sunset, I arrived in the city of Huatugou, the first city on the Tibetan plateau.
The oil drilling town
As I was on my way for 5 days now, I decided to have another day off here. Fortunately, the hotel was just next to a big supermarket, so It was an easy task to get everything I needed for the next days. To my delight, they also had some Belgian beers and even Pale Ales, the first time I found quality beers since back in Europe I think. As you can imagine, I couldn’t miss that! Next to some Ice cream, I bought a few bottles to celebrate my arrival on the Tibetan plateau.
After having some wellness in the hotel, or in other words, a hot shower and some ice cold beers, I went to find a nearby restaurant to finally get some food. When I went to the reception the next morning to book another night, the receptionist, a young woman, made a phone call.
It was the police she was calling. Shortly later she told me that unfortunately, I was not allowed to stay another night. I could really see how uncomfortable she was telling me that.
Immediately I remembered a message Karl wrote to me about that Hotel since he had the same problem here. I then decided to follow a strategy Karl used in a Hotel back in Hotan. I told the young woman that I was feeling sick, which is why I needed to stay another night. That I was unable to cycle at the moment. She nodded in agreement and once again called the police. I guess she told my story to the police with the same dramaturgy as I told it to her. In any case, it worked! I was allowed to stay one more night and I told her that she was the hero of the day.
A long-awaited junction
After a day that consisted exclusively of eating and sleeping, I felt ready to move on again. On my second full day on the Tibetan plateau, there was some more climbing waiting for me. It was more like a long and steady climb, nothing compared to the one up to the plateau. On the top, I quickly had to put on my down jacket as there was a freezing wind. In return, I got a descent of about 20km’s.
What followed next was the main highlight of that day. It was nothing more than a simple junction. A turnoff, something that normally doesn’t get a special meaning. Here, however, it was quite a special happening. After 1800km on the G315, the one main road I was cycling on since Kashgar, finally, the time has come to make a turn to the right towards the city of Golmud. From now on, I was following the S303 for another 360kms to Golmud.
I spent the night a few kilometers after the junction and 3 days and 2 more nights later, I arrived in Golmud.
On the 11th of December 2019, I made it to Golmud, the third-largest city on the Tibetan plateau, next to Xining and Lhasa. The city was also one of the bigger stopovers on the way through the Tibetan plateau. Here I planned to stay for a few days, to get done some more writing and planning the upcoming route for the upcoming weeks.
I already recognized the city from far away as I could see a large observation tower. When I arrived there, I wanted to up to the observation platform to take a photo of the city during the ongoing sunset. Sadly, the stairs were locked. Nevertheless, I made a picture of myself and my bike in the nearby park as a souvenir of my arrival.
The next 1.5 hours I spent cycling through the city to find a hostel which I found on “amaps”, the Chinese pendant to google maps which didn’t work in China. As I found the location in the eastern end of the city, I found an old apartment house, but without any signs of a hostel. When I then asked a local and entered the right door, I found an empty, neglected apartment. I was in the right place as I recognized the furniture from the pictures. Anyway, the hostel didn’t last long I guess.
So I went on to get to the next cheapest hotel I could found in the city center. To my delight, that one still existed and I was even allowed to stay. At first try I got a room, uncomplicated and without any police involved. Something that didn’t happen for a long time and since I’m in China.
Ready for some nightlife
Quickly after I had a shower and some food, I walked around the neighboring streets near the hotel. Coincidentally, just around the corner of the hotel, was a street full of different bars, which seemed to be the nightlife area of Golmud. I was not averse to a few drinks as I felt still enthusiastic I made it all the way to Golmud.
The other reason was that I was looking to get some company and to meet new people. For almost a month now, since leaving Kashgar, I was on my own all the time. Something I was missing by now was having some conversations with new people. Especially to get to know some locals, which was not possible so far in whole of Xinjiang.
I was walking to a bar I found on a-maps until a young man spoke to me in front of another bar. He asked me to have a drink in his bar. I told him that I may have a look on my way back. I first went to the place I planned to, which was a good looking and quite a hip bar. They even sold Hoegaarden Beer. Unfortunately, there was no real opportunity to come in contact with the locals there, so I left the place again.
A Mongolian bar
On my way back, I gave it a try and followed the invitation of the young bar owner. It was a small bar with an American style interior. 50s style furniture, and a few route 66 signs. The owner and his even younger brother were quite happy to see me back! Quickly they offered me to have a seat and gave me their drinks menu. Next to some local so as corona beer, they also offered some spirits like jack Danniels, absolut vodka, or Jegermeister.
Why not having a Jegermeister I thought, this was my opportunity without having to buy a whole bottle in one of the better supermarkets. The first floor where I sat was empty, but there was also a smaller group on the second floor which were some friends of the older of the two brothers who owned the bar. While the older one went up, back to his friends again, the younger one took my order.
When he returned to my table with my Jegermeister, I could hardly believe my eyes. He literally took my order by the word and gave me a 3dl glass full of Jegermeister so as the half-empty bottle. I expected getting the “usual” 4cl in a glass but maybe here, this was not the case. I wasn’t sure If he gave me a bit more out of hospitality or it was the amount they served all their guests. Anyway, I accepted with thanks and toasted with him and his less filled glass of jack daniels.
A cheerful evening
I guess it’s needless to say how the rest of the night was going to end. Until the middle of the night, we had a few more drinks and beers and a super fun time. The two brothers told me their story about coming from Mongolia and their dream of opening a bar. I, in reverse, told my stories from my bicycle adventure. All with the power of google translate, as we both couldn’t understand a single word of the other’s language. Sometime later, also some of his friends joined us downstairs.
Over the music speakers of the bar, they showed me some Mongolian music and I played some swiss music in reverse. They even ordered some food at a nearby restaurant for all of us. When I then left the bar at a late hour, they insisted that I’m not paying for any of this.
What a night! It was exactly what I was looking for. What I wasn’t looking for, was the awakening the next morning. But those who can drink can also suffer.
The next morning I went back to the bar to say thank you again. They then had the Idea to invited me to have dinner with them. I was asked If I wanted to join them at a restaurant for traditional Chinese Hot Pot. Of course, I wanted to do so, but at the same time, I also wanted to contribute financially. As expected, I didn’t have a chance with my Idea.
We agreed to meet again in the evening at the bar. During the day, I then went to several supermarkets to buy groceries again. I also visited the giant bicycle shop in town to once again put some new grease into the rear hub of my bike. Since the beginning of the climb to the Tibetan plateau, I heard a rattle from my rear hub.
I already took apart the hub on the way up and used some engine-grease a truck driver gave me at a resting place. There was nothing more I could do here in Golmud as he didn’t have a new and matching hub. I just hoped that this will do the job for the rest of the plateau and until Chengdu.
In the evening I then enjoyed a super delicious hot pot dinner with the two brothers and their family. It was such a wonderful cultural experience, something I’m still looking back with great joy. They showed me how to prepare the dipping sauce for the meat, tofu, and veggies from the hot pot and we once again had some fun talks thanks to google voice translation.
Once again so as in several countries before, I was able to experience unique hospitality.
The big challenge
The encounter with this family was exactly what I need at this point in the journey. Something, next to mental or physical challenges on the bike, that remembered me why I’m really doing this trip. It gave me trust in myself that I was still on the right way. Also, it gave me a lot of motivation for the upcoming challenge. The last stretch to Chengdu and the Sichuan Province.
On my third and last day of rest in Golmud, I started planning the final stretch through the Tibetan plateau and the route until Chengdu. I was looking for an interesting, rather longer route without having the steepest climbs involved. When I sat there in front of my laptop on the 14th of December 2019, it was the moment when I came up with an Idea. Somehow I was also looking for another big challenge.
For sure, all these long days through the desert and the Tibetan Plateau were pretty tough already. But I was up for even more. I was ready for a final big end-of-the-year challenge. It was on that day when I came up with the Idea to cycle this final stretch of 1’700km’s in the next 16 consecutive days.
That meant that I had to cycle an average of 100+ km’s and about 700 high meters each day for the next 16 days in a row. My route led back north a bit to the city of Chaka and then all the way straight towards Chengdu. The route was fixed, my panniers full of food and I was ready for an epic challenge to come.
The first sign of Tibetan culture
After leaving Golmud and heading further east on the Tibetan plateau, slowly the first signs of Tibetan culture started to appear. Here they were, different colored prayer flags fluttering in the wind. On the peaks of the surrounding mountains, there were dozens of them. The first of the though, so as some prayer wheels, I found just next to the road. A wonderful sight it was. All the colors and the sound they made from the strong winds made the whole scenery even more spectacular.
There was even a tiny temple with several stupas in the middle of nowhere and a deserty flat plateau. I stopped there for a while as this place created a special and calm atmosphere. Everything matched together, the blue sky, strong wind, the flags, the temple so as the surrounding mountains. All that paired with the wilderness of the surrounding scenery. Then there was my fully loaded bike, it all looked so surreal.
Here comes the snow
On the third day after leaving Golmud and after cycling in the southeast direction, the road now turned towards the northeast. To the northeast, there was the Chaka-basin, a big area of flat land near the Qinghai lake. To get there and the so-named city of Chaka, there were two mountain passes between I had to overcome.
When I slowly started to climb up the first few hundred meters, the sky was overcast already and it was quite dark. A short time later it started to snow, something I didn’t hope for as it was going to make the effort even harder. Luckily the climb wasn’t that steep but rather long and steady. Around an hour later, I found myself in the middle of a snowstorm. There were that much snow and wind that I couldn’t see 5 meters ahead of me.
Fortunately, there wasn’t that much traffic on that road as I couldn’t recognize the trucks approaching from behind.
An uncomfortable descent
Just around or after sunset, I arrived at the top of the pass. I still couldn’t see anything up there or any signs but thanks to my Garmin Device, I could see that it was the top. Regarding the weather, I didn’t want to camp up there or on the way down. My goal was to finish all the descent and to make it to the city of Dulan which was 105km away from the place where I started.
There were only around 30km’s left to Dulan. However, cause of the snowstorm and the pitch-black night, I couldn’t ride fast. This last part of the day and especially the descent was pretty miserable. The worst was the cold. Every few minutes I had to go off the bike and jump around and swing my arms as I couldn’t feel my feet and fingers anymore.
Around 12km’s before the city, from far I saw some lights from a small hut. It was around -15 degrees outside by now and when I arrived there, it was a small waiting house for the guards of a guarded parking lot or something like that. I knew I had to take this chance to warm up a bit. Three men let me in and offered me some hot tea. They couldn’t believe I was here with a bicycle and very happy about having me as a guest.
For sure they wanted to do some selfies and they also offered me to drink a glass of Báijiǔ (Chinese booze distilled from sorghum and rice, which was to be found and drunk everywhere in China) with them. Why not I thought, this was also going to warm me up a bit from the inside. 12 kilometers and a few jumping jacks later I arrived in Dulan.
Arriving in Dulan, I went to the next restaurant I found. I needed to warm up again and a lot of food, so I ordered two big plates of Noodles. The son of the owner was excited to see me in the restaurant. Cause he was quite young and didn’t speak English, he wanted to connect me to his cousin living in eastern China. So while eating dinner, I had him holding his phone with his cousin in the video call so as his family around me.
In China, it was super normal to have dinner with lots of other people or, if you were alone, have a video call with someone while eating. Almost no one was eating alone. For sure that was all a bit tiring after such a long day on the bike. But on the other hand, I was able to speak English with his cousin who helped me to find the right hotel in town which was great!
After dinner, the boy accompanied me to the nearby hotel and even helped me to get all my wet, snow-covered bags into the room. What a helpful young man he was.
persistence is everything
I remember exactly being under the shower that night. My strength was gone and I felt super exhausted. This was now the third day of my 16-day end of the year challenge. In these 3 days, I cycled 340km’s and I was aware that I had to repeat this 4 more times. “Were my ambitions a bit too high?” I asked myself.
Even though, I knew that this challenge, in the long term, is not going to be a physical one but much more a mental thing. All the experiences from the Pamirs or the Taklamakan desert helped me in this situation keeping me aware of what I was capable of.
No matter how hard the next 13 days may be, at the end of the day, I would get a place to sleep somewhere. If it was in a hotel or in the tent, but at the end of the day, I would get some rest. That was what I had to focus on, the little things and not the whole challenge. To look at every day as a single challenge and not looking ahead to the upcoming days.
Another mountain pass
The day after I got caught in a snowstorm, there was the next mountain pass waiting for me, an even higher one. However, and though it was still freezing cold, that day I got a clear blue sky and perfect sunny weather, which revealed a gorgeous snowy winter landscape!
That climb was much more enjoyable with all these great views. Nevertheless, when I made it to the top, it was already pretty dark too. Once again, I had to do the descent in pure darkness but this time, fortunately, without a snowstorm. It was even colder and windier than the day before, so I still had to stop every 2-3 minutes to swing my arms and get some warm blood back into my fingers.
Treasures of the Tibetan plateau
The weather stayed sunny the next days and two of the toughest days of the challenge were done now. There was still a lot of distance to do, but without a lot of climbing and with better weather, it was all a bit more relaxed. During the next 2-3 days after arriving in the city of Chaka, I cycled through the flat Chaka-basin.
A little out of town I left the main road and took smaller roads through the middle of the Basin. Suddenly almost all of the annoying red construction trucks were gone and I enjoyed cycling through a super wide and grassy area.
I passed some tiny villages and saw a lot of beautiful and colorful Buddhist Temples and Stupas. The local people looked at me as I was the first traveler they ever saw and asked me to take selfies to have proof/memory of my visit. I, on the other hand, just enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere in this area, the great nature and of this culture.
This area for me felt like arriving in the core of the Tibetan Plateau. After these two challenging climbs, all these tiny villages with their culture and their people felt like a cultural treasure of the Tibetan Plateau. Like a family who showed me how to prepare Tibetan mantis in a small restaurant or others giving me tea while marveling at my bike.
For once, instead of going up over mountain passes, I had to go deep down into a canyon to cross the yellow river.
Before I even started to roll down, I could already see the serpentines leading up on the other side. The gorge itself was marvelous! Not only all these harsh rock formations but also the massive 2418m long bridge that led across the river was impressive to see.
Last few days on the Tibetan plateau
My last few days on the Tibetan Plateau have been the most beautiful! For almost a week I cycled on 3500+ meter of altitude, the landscape reminded me a bit of the one in the Pamirs, only that there were far larger distances this time. The other difference was that this time there were a lot of animals, thousands of them!
Wherever I looked there were Yaks, sheep, and horses which were sometimes mixed together in the same fencing. It was great to see how much space these animals had, so many hectares to roam freely.
The more east I went, the warmer it got in the afternoon and as the days still started around -15 degrees, temperatures slightly rose up to 3-5 degrees in the afternoon, which was definitely a big difference.
The only thing that made life difficult up there was the crazy wind, which tried to push me off my bike from all sides.
During a five-minute break and before my fingers froze, I took a picture of my bicycle at 3950m, the highest point I was going to be in China and the highest place I’ll be for a long long time. As from now, it was going down to the lowlands!
Howdy! I'm Fabian, a Swiss adventurer, photographer / filmmaker who loves exploring and capturing our beautiful planet. From March 2019 - April 2020 I cycled 20'000km from Bern Switzerland to the pacific coast in Vietnam, trying to inspire others to do the same, to travel more, going outdoors, enjoying nature and get to know our amazing planet wi live on.