Freitag, 23. Juni 2017


Chengdu, Sichuan 19.-23.6.2017, 4760 km
Spent 4 days in Chengdu, initiating the extension of my visa and watching Pandas and temples.

Dienstag, 13. Juni 2017

In eastern Tibet

Golog/Maqin, Qinghai province, China, 2017-06-13, 3966 km

In the meantime I progressed from Golmud into the highland of eastern Tibet (former Amdo province of Tibet) which nowadays belongs to Qinghai province. 
On a map I found in one of the containers I slept in I found a road in construction which considerably would reduce my riding distance to Chengdu. As the Chinese are very quick in building new infrastructure I found out that this new road is a full blown motorway which in most parts is already finished or very close to finished. It leads from Golmud eastbound and then southeast till the border to Sichuan province. 
From Golmud I still used the old State highway which has 2 lanes (1 per direction)  and is heavily used by big 40 tons trucks whereas the parallel new motorway with 2 lanes per direction is almost empty, maybe 20 vehicles per hour. 
In Xianride where the new motorway branches off into the mountains I could not convince the guards at the toll station to let me through but in contrast their proposal of a 3-500 km detour via Xining was not was I intended to do. 
At least I got the 'hint' to quietly enter the new motorway a bit apart by climbing the fence. Usually Chinese motorways are rigorously fenced off about 1.80 m high with ten rows of barbed wire to keep animals and local people away and it is not possible to surpass it with a loaded bicycle. But I knew that at places where the fence cuts long lasting walking trails of men and animals it is often partly torn down. I found such a spot and with the help of two locals, a father and his ca 12 year old son, I could get the bicycle and the luggage through the fence without puncture and up the steep dam.
The first 80 km the motorway went parallel to a province road into the mountains, now with even less traffic of maybe 10 cars per hour. Later it was the only way of travel without a parallel road and crossed a 4450 m high pass. I felt the altitude and was quite slow. A bit before the pass I was stopped by the traffic police but not to send me off the motorway but instead to make some selfies with this crazy long-nosed foreigner.
The next day the motorway was partly under construction, 95 % finished, with lane labels and some parts of the guard rails missing. Only in one case the summit tunnel of a pass was not yet completed and i had to use the old gravel road to climb additional 200 m to a very impressive mountain pass (4600 m) next to a glacier. 
At the second pass the summit tunnel was in similar state but a engineer gave me a sign and waved me to the left pipe. Ceiling, walls and floor was finished but sidewalks, cables and cross connections to the other pipe where heavily under construction and in some places big machines or a scaffold had to be circumnavigated. Most of the 5 km was dimly or not at all lit hence I was glad to have a light at the bicycle.
After 3 days in the mountains I am now in the county capital Golog or Maqin on 3700 m. The milage the last days was low, only around 120 km, but I felt the average altitude of 4000 m considerably.

Probably 7 more days on in the mountains to come, before I will be down in Chengdu.

Mittwoch, 7. Juni 2017

To Golmud

Golmud, Qinghai, 7.6.2017, 3346km

Considering the strong headwinds for the coming two days and sitting at the breakfast in the hotel in Ruoqian, fully prepared for leaving, I made a spontaneous decision and extended my stay for two more days. I used this time for filling up my energy storage, reading emails, writing diary and this blog, relaxing and watching CGTN, the English-speaking Chinese news channel in TV. Furthermore I needed to sort out some technical issues like installing a VPN on my iPad to reach Google powered services like the search engine, maps, translator and this blog, which are all blocked by the great Chinese fire-wall.
When seeing the poplar trees in the hotel yard heavily bending in the wind I was sure that it was the right decision to hide away from the wind in the hotel.
On June 1st I met the two Norwegian cyclist Truls and Jostein and Swiss cyclist Hans at the breakfast table. All three I already knew from the hostel in Kashgar. They had left 2 days later and arrived the afternoon before at the same hotel in Ruoqian. We decided to travel together for the next few days
as we were all heading in the same direction.
The two young Norwegians started in Oslo and are aiming for Beijing, Hans started on the Crimea peninsula and is heading for Bangkok.

Right when we wanted to depart Truls realised that one of the spokes of his rear wheel was broken and the sprocket needed to be removed for replacing it. Broken spokes are a known problem if heavy load, bumpy roads and a normal rear wheel come together. The countermeasures on travel bike are thicker spokes, special sturdy rims, 36 instead of 32 spokes per wheel and 26' instead of 28' wheel size. When trying to remove the sprocket with a special tool in addition the rear gear hanger broke and we looked for a bicycle shop to assist. But the only one we found was so poorly equipped that it couldn't help. Finally Truls managed to squeeze the new spoke through the spaces between the sprocket, something I never thought would be possible, and fixed it. But I am not sure if this emergency repair method would work with my thicker spokes. Let's hope that they don't break, as it is the case currently and also on my previous two tours with this bike.

One of the disadvantages of travelling in a group is that technical problems slow down the whole group, but of course there are several advantages:
Riding against the wind becomes easier if the leading person changes frequently.
Most important thing was that I could talk to someone in German and English. People here speak only Chinese or their local language (e.g. Uighur) but it is almost impossible to find someone who can speak a little English. Even at the reception of international hotels intended for foreigners nobody speaks English. Normally they use a translation app on their smartphones. 
With my 5 words in Chinese I don't get far. Usually all communications is with fingers, gestures or pointing. When ordering something to eat I either point to a meal that someone is just eating and that looks appealing or I go to the kitchen and point to some ingredients.
But these 3 guys had another big advantage, because Jostein has been studying Chinese for 4-5 years and is quite fluent in understanding and speaking Chinese. He could talk to the people here and get valuable information. Also his ability to read the menu in a restaurant opened up new worlds of tastes.

The first day after Ruoqian we had some rain and finally slept in our tents under one of the many bridges that cross dry river beds. Unfortunately the wind was concentrated under the bridge like in a funnel. The big 2-3 person tent of the Norwegians stood firmly whereas Hans' and my little one person tents were shaking like hell and had to be fixed with big stones. We stayed dry but it was very unquiet due to the wind. The next day we left the Tarim basin and the road was climbing from 1200 m up to a pass with 3600 m in order to reach the Tibetan plateau. For the next 10 days I was at an altitude between 2800 m and 3400 m.
From the 3600m pass we descended in a stony plateau, just empty desert without shelter. Fortunately after rolling down for about 20 km to 3100 m we saw the pillars of a big bridge and a nearby camp of the construction workers consisting of a couple of containers and tents. Jostein went asking if we could stay there for the night and came quickly back with the good news, that we get spots in the container and tent and also a dinner.
Containers and tents contain little (coal driven) ovens which was a really cosy place after several hours of cycling in the cold wind above 3000 m.

During the next morning we crossed the province border into Qinghai province. There most of the security measures mentioned in the previous article are abandoned.

Dienstag, 30. Mai 2017

Maximum security societies

Already in Pakistan there was a high level of police presence and other security measures. There were police checkpoints every 30-40 km along the road and e.g. at the city border of Islamabad automatic cameras were recording every vehicle entering the city. I was also told that at the city border devices for detecting explosives in cars are installed. I assume this is usually done by gas chromatography but I am not sure if this produces reliable results in dense traffic.
When coming to the Xinjiang province in China these security measures were exceeded by far. In this province there has been killing that authorities blame on Islamist extremists and separatists but experts say is also fuelled by ethnic friction between Han Chinese migrants and members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority to whom Xinjiang is home.
  • At the entrance to each town or even village there is a police checkpoint where each person is registered with its ID card. Usually these are automated systems which read the ID card, some even take an image and take a fingerprint. Car or bus passengers have to disembark, walk through the gates and after that have to embark again.
  • In addition within larger towns there are additional fixed checkpoints at main streets.
  • police cars with flashing red and blue lights are patrolling the streets
  • In towns every 500 m there is a police station in its typical uniform design (white tiled walls with blue strips at the top). This short distance is not an exaggeration.
  • Police patrols of 2-4 men are continuously walking the streets, usually armed with helmets, shields, wooden baseball bats, steel sticks which are a mixture of club and lance with a long sharp end. Very often one of them has an automatic rifle.
  • Each house that has any public function is surrounded by a massive steel fence topped with military barbed wire having sharp blades. In addition the entrance is barred with massive steel bars to avoid break through by car.
  • This is especially true for filling stations. There in addition the barrier only opens when the driver enters his ID card. Only the driver gets access, passengers have to wait outside. When I had to enter one in order to buy something to drink I had to leave the bicycle outside on the road and had to enter the premises on foot.
  • Each public building, hotel or each shop that is larger than 30 square meters has a metal detector (as we only know it from airports) and and x-ray machines for checking bags. In addition a uniformed security guard is sitting at the entrance.
  • Each shop, restaurant, cookshop, even if only a few square meters has a police helmet, shield and club inside, often also a massive police vest (looks like a bulletproof vest). There owners or employees act as auxiliary policemen. I have the impression that 10-20 % of the population is engaged as full time or auxiliary police. Again this is no exaggeration. At certain times of the day this auxiliary policemen and -women gather on the streets and exercise using their clubs.
  • Surveillance cameras (CCTV, which here does not mean the Chinese governmental TV corporation but closed circuit TV) are everywhere, at the police checkpoints recording faces and number plates of cars, on police cars, several in each shop or restaurant, no shop is too tiny to have several of them. Usually the cameras are at the front door, the back door and in the interior. Also at the entrance of each bigger residential building and in the aisles.
  • I found an article that the government even enforces GPS tracking devices in each car, although as far as I understand this is only in a certain region of Xinjiang:

As many of these systems are automated it is quite easy to generate a movement profile of a person. Xinjiang is definitely a police state. This extend of surveillance is actually frightening. If we as society have to pay this price for security against terroristic attacks then for me this price is too high. 

Montag, 29. Mai 2017

Into the desert

Rouqiang (Charklik), 29.5.2017, 2523 km

After 9 almost perfect riding days it will become tough now.
On Saturday May 27th I had so strong tailwind that it blew me 150 km with an average of 30 km/h into the town of Qiemo (Cherchen, Qarqan), which I already reached at 13:00. As I still felt good and had a long quiet afternoon I didn't make rest day but continued on Sunday for another very long stage. 45 km after Qiemo there was still oasis and some dwellings, then the desert started, mostly sandy and with little hills. I had beneficial wind and reached after 198 km the intended only town after Qiemo and was looking forward to having a nice shower and dinner. When asking the inevitable police about a hotel (binguan) they told me that there is one at the other side of the street but that it has no license to host foreigners which is a general problem here in China. But I think with some good will it is possible to circumvent this missing permission, at least 3 days ago I slept in a similar little town in a hotel which I am quite sure had also no permission to host foreigners but there the police helped me and then it was no problem.
They told me I had to proceed to the next bigger town Ruoqiang, 80 km away. As I said that I am tired and would stay they even offered a free lift by car. With a heavy heart I decided I would have a dinner and then would go on for some more km and pitch my tent. Unfortunately immediately after the town a completely flat and empty stretch of desert without any protection began. Finally after 20 more km I spotted a little bush and pitched my tent. The sand was so soft that I couldn't fix the tent pegs properly. Later some wind come up and the whole little tent was shaking. One reason why I don't like camping in the desert. Another is that I had to lay down for sleeping without being able to wash away the mixture of sweat, salt, dust and sun cream on my skin.
The next morning started without wind but soon a strong wind from east came up and without any protection in the still empty and flat desert my speed was reduced to 11km/h. Till noon I finished the missing 60 km to Rouqiang and checked into a nice hotel. Considering the today heavy wind the additional 20 km in the evening before were not bad.
But at least for the next 2 days the weather forecast predicts wind from east, i.e. headwinds for me. In combination with very far or unknown distances between the points for supplies this is not a nice perspective.

Eastbound on the south rim of Taklamakan

Three long days in the desert on my way from Kashgar to Hotan. What is there to see apart from sand and stones?
The nicest are certainly the forestation strips 20-50 metres on both sides of the road over many kilometers. The poplar and willow trees are still small (1-2 m) but hopefully in a few years from now will provide shade and shelter from wind.
Sometimes animals like black beetles, brown lizards, and a flock of camels with two humps.
Furthermore mainly human artefacts: a lot of rubbish, mainly PET bottles of various water or soda brands, half of them I already tasted, golden coloured Red Bull cans, remains of car breakdowns like oil patches,  torn truck tires, sometimes parallel grooves in the asphalt caused by rims after a tires has exploded. The torn tires are the enemy of the cyclists because a truck tire not only consists of rubber but also has a mesh of fine steel wires for stability. If set free these very thin wires find their way even through especially puncture-proof bicycle tires. In my last trip in 2010 in China I had a puncture by these wires every third day and this time I already got hit once the day after I left Kashgar.
Sometimes v-shaped irrigation channels made of big concrete plates directing water from a distant river into some villages can be seen when they cross the road.  
Every 30 to 40 km on road crossing little food stalls offer a variety of water and soft drinks and some cookies. I quite often stop at one of these to have a cool lemonade to drink.
The speed of traveling depends mainly on the wind (I am almost feeling like a sailor). In the morning the prevailing direction is from west which is beneficial for me as I am travelling eastbound. Sometime between noon and late afternoon the wind turns to east which makes it very hard to cycle. Going with the wind allows an average of 25 km/h whereas this drops to below 15 km/h when going against the wind. I usually start early before 7 am to make use of the beneficial winds and get a large portion of my daily work done before noon.
After these 3 long days in the desert covering 168, 169, and 185 km and sleeping at very improvised place I enjoy the comfort of a rest day in a hotel in the oasis town Hotan.
 Hotan is a large oasis as here a river from the Tibetan Kunlun mountains flows down into Tarim basin and gives live to a 50 km stretch of land before it trickles away in the sands of Taklamakan desert.
The next bigger town after Hotan is Cherchen (Qiemo) 580 km or 4 day away by bicycle.  The progress is still good, 975 km in the last 7 days and today I exceeded the 2000 km mark since the start of my trip in Islamabad. The course today was very flat through a relatively green part with a lot of reed and some sand dunes, but quite empty, no dwellings on 130 km after Niya. Even twice today a car stopped and drivers gave me water, cola and snickers. Due to no or little headwind I already at 15:30 reached my todays goal and immediately found a decent hotel by asking the police.
Currently I stay in a small town but even here Wifi in the hotel works fine and in the TV I could find among 100 Chinese or Uighur channels the one english-language news channel of Chinese TV which is quite objective and critical. 
Tomorrow I will reach Cherchen (Qiemo) and probably pause there for one day. From Qiemo there are still 1080 km to go through mainly desert area till Golmud in province Qinghai. I hope some oasis towns are interspersed. After Golmud it will go into the mountains again.

Freitag, 26. Mai 2017

KKH from Gilgit to Kashgar

The next day I cycled from Gilgit (1500 m) to Hunza valley (above 2100 m) which is always mentioned when people talk of travelling and KKH. About 30 km before I passed Rakaposhi viewpoint where one has a nice view on the ice walls of this 7800 m summit. Hunza valley is a wide valley with many villages. I stayed in the last village, Karimabad, before the valley gets narrow again. The villages are on a plane of sediment stones above the Hunza river. Short after the turn-off from KKH I took the first hotel as I didn't want to climb further up the hills on the side of the valley. The view from the terrasse and garden there over the valley and to the peaks between 5000 m and almost 8000 m (Rakaposhi) was impressive, but impaired by old furniture and rubbish laying around. Unfortunately the lack of cleanliness was very often in sharp contrast to the nice nature. Also in this hotel I preferred to use my own inner sleeping bag as the sheets didn't look very clean.
The next day I had booked a jeep and a driver plus guide for doing some sightseeing in Hunza and the neighbouring valleys. First we drove about 25 km to Hopar glacier. The viewpoint on ca. 2900m was above the stream of ice, which was mostly covered by stones and rubble. From there several trekking routes started into the mountains. As there are no huts or lodges in this part of the Himalaya these treks are usually done with some local guides and animals carrying food, water and supplies for the whole group.
In the afternoon we went to two kind of castles of local kings, each 900 resp. 800 years old and built from stone and mud (adobe) above the valley. Later in the afternoon we drove to eagles nest (2800 m), a viewpoint where 5 peaks above 6000 m are visible, but unfortunately during the afternoon clouds came up and most of the peaks were hidden.

The day after I continued along KKH to Sost, the last town in Pakistan before the border. Right after Karimabad there were several rocks with graffiti from ancient times, some more than 500 years old, which shows that this route was travelled since then and even longer by merchants, pilgrims and monks.
In 2010 between Hunza and Passu there was a landslide in the narrow valley blocking the river which then rose, created the so called Attabad lake and covered 22 km of KKH under water. The traffic was partly maintained by boats till in 2016 a series of 5 tunnels, built by the Chinese, was opened which bypasses the lake. The longest tunnel is 3.5 km and in between are short open stretches of ca 200m. Tunnel conditions are perfect but no light: smooth surface, no potholes, no water on surface or dripping from ceiling, high ceiling, low traffic and good air.
After Hunza the valley got more lonely, not that many dwellings and rather seldom a shop or restaurant whereas before these were abundant. 
In Sost (2800 m) I checked with the emmigration office and confirmed that there's no possibility to cross this border by bicycle but one has to take a bus. This is obviously part of a bilateral agreement between China and Pakistan. Due to the constraints of opening times of emmigration and border there is no option to combine cycling and border crossing in one day. You have to cycle up in a separate day, then come back to Sost and the next day do emmigration and catch the bus. It is not possible to catch the bus at the border.
This I knew already before but I learned that the border is closed on weekends (Saturday and Sunday). Today was Thursday. As I was planning to ride this pass already that long it was no option for me to skip this part. Hence on Friday morning I cycled up the lonely valley, only very occasionally a car passed me. The road from Sost climbs 2000 m on a distance of 84 km to Khunjerab pass (4700 m) and this very gradually with 2-3 % per km, which is perfect for heavy trucks. For a cyclist a steeper roads are far easier to climb than this steady increase. In combination with a light headwinds and the high altitude it took me 9 hours (7 hours riding time) to reach the pass on the good but poorly maintained road. In the upper, wider parts of the valley some yaks could be seen and some snow fields were still present. The big gate marking the pass was already closed for that day, but Pakistani border guards let me pass till the band and I took some photos.
Then I cycled quickly down for 35 km and reached one of the check posts at 3600 m where national park rangers and border police are stationed. The national park ranger let me camp next to there house and convinced the border police that I could stay for the night, as they wanted me to descend further. The final agreement was that I had to leave at 6 am. Doing so I reached Sost already at 8 am in the morning on Saturday, leaving me 2 long days in this nicely situated but very ugly border town without running water and electricity. All electricity is made by diesel generators. I stayed at PTDC hotel, for 36 $ per night. There they had electricity the whole day, but bathroom and floor was not clean. Over the weekend I had time to sleep, write postcards and diary and watch the English programme of Deutsche Welle.
Monday morning emigration in Sost opened 9:00 am and it took 2 hours to pass narcotics police, emigration and health check: A confirmation of a recent (less than a year) Polio vaccination in the yellow vaccination booklet is needed if you were in Pakistan for 30 days or longer. If missing you get an oral vaccination. The Pakistani government wants to avoid negative media reports on spreading Polio, a disease which was almost extinct but the war in Afghanistan and the uncertain situation in the Pakistani border regions prevented its complete extinction.
Finally the bicycle was bound on top of the luggage on the minibus which was completely occupied with ca 15 persons, one Chinese woman, me as German and the others all Pakistani, mainly from Gilgit-Baltistan province.
The Chinese government attributes one assaults in Xinjiang to Pakistani extremists and does extremely tedious controls at this border. For the Pakistani each electronic device (phone, computer, camera, iPad) is checked for hazardous material. For me it went relatively quick and they didn't want to see my devices, but I anyway had to wait for the bus to complete. Controls at border post took 3h, convoi of buses down to Tashkurgan 1:30h, controls in Tashkurgan 2h. It was already dark when I left the building in Tashkurgan.
 I made it to a hotel, ca. 2.5 km from the control post in the center of Tashkurgan but only had a 50 € bill but no Chinese money. The woman at the reception did not speak any English and had never seen such a bill before and I had to tell here that it is Euro. But then with the help of here smartphone she figured out what it was, came up with a decent exchange rate and I had the room key within 5 min of entering the hotel. I could push my bike directly into the room. The price was about 20$ but with working 
Wifi and clean sheets. Getting a room can be so easy. Unfortunately there are also other negative examples later in this blog.
The next day from Tashkurgan (3100 m) it is 70 km uphill to a pass (4100 m) but I was blown uphill by a strong tailwind. Due to the wind there was so much dust in the air that from the pass the heavily glaciered Mustagh Ata mountain was only faintly visible.
Then down or flat till Karakul lake against a headwind. (3300m high, ca 130km from Tashkurgan). I slept in one of the white yurts which is normally a restaurant at the Karakul lake viewpoint. I asked at the houses for a place to sleep and a old woman was quite business-minded and offered me food and a place in her yurt, one was even equipped with a solar panel, battery pack and TV set. I saw this at several yurts and guess this equipment is provided by the government.
The next day from the lake ca 160 km downhill till Kashgar (1300m), easily done one a partly new road over several bridges and a tunnel which construction was finished but not yet released for traffic. 

In Kashgar I slept in the Old town Youth Hostel where I already stayed in 2010 for 2 days, hence a connecting point to this previous trip. Again this pleasant hostel in the old town is a meeting point for travellers, many on bicycle, coming from south (Pakistan), from west (Kirgistan and Tajikistan), from the north rim and the south rim of Taklamakan.