First days on the bike. Riding from Lanzhou to Xiahe, Gansu.

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June 5th 2013
Published: June 5th 2013
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getting my work out!getting my work out!getting my work out!

almost 300km to Xiahe from lanzhou in 3 days
Dear Friends and Family,

After 2 lovely weeks in Beijing with Becky I finally started my bike trip that will eventually take me to Turkey in April or May 2014. I took a night train to Lanzhou city, the capital city of Gansu province (Western China). It was a 16-hour train ride. I must admit I was filled with excitement but also anxiety as the train approached Lanzhou. I had already shipped my bike there from Fuzhou more than 2 weeks prior arrival. I did wonder whether I would be able to find the shipping company’s depot in the outskirts of Lanzhou. As it turns out, I found the company pretty quickly and I was very pleased with their service. The staff didn’t lose my bike and they helped me open the sealed wooden container to find my LKLM bike (made in China!) shiny and ready to be ridden westwards… well, southwards at first.

While traveling from China to Turkey this year, my plan is not to ride my bicycle every day. The bike will be my means of transport from one place of interest to another, but I really intend on taking time to explore the sites slowly,
friendly people on the road to Linxiafriendly people on the road to Linxiafriendly people on the road to Linxia

Their Mandarin was very different. They spoke with a strong accent
and soak in the atmosphere, the local culture as much as possible. When I looked at the map of Gansu province, which stretches into a long narrow corridor towards Xinjiang province, it seemed obvious I would be following the northwest road from Lanzhou to Dunghuan. However, after reading a few things on Gansu, I quickly started dreaming about going south too, to visit Tibetan monasteries around Xiahe. While I promised myself to take time to appreciate each area and to try to explore as deeply as possible each place of interest, I am also aware that I am going to have to make choices in regards to my itinerary. It will not be possible for me to spend a week in every city and its neighborhoods.

On May 15, I was ready to start my trip except I still hadn’t received the bike panniers I had ordered in March… They would only be available at the end of the month. I had to wait 10 more days. I could have stayed in Beijing with Becky but she was working… and the road was calling me! I decided to go to Lanzhou anyway and to spend these 10 days in the south or the province to visit Xiahe. This journey to Xiahe (around 700km round trip) would be a first chance for me to get acquainted with my ride and to experience life on the road. There was no doubt I would learn a lot from this first riding test and I would also get to see southern Gansu before heading northwest.

The first couple of days were tough but extremely enlightening. As I was getting ready for this trip, I wondered for a long time whether I should buy a GPS. I finally decided against it. I will rely on maps and will ask people for direction whenever I have doubts. As I am (still) the proud owner of an old generation-Nokia cell-phone which doesn’t connect to the Internet, I don’t have a GPS function on my phone either. So as expected I did face difficulties getting out of the large city of Lanzho. I did make a 40km-detour on the very first morning but this didn’t influence my positive mood: the weather was sunny, I got to see the suburbs of Lanzhou I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and I had plenty of time on my hands. I have learned that I should follow the main roads (highways) because there are always smaller roads that run parallel to these. The first day I was looking for signs indicating the city of Linxia. When I got out of Lanzhou city , the first sign pointed at Linxia: 80 km. I rode for 90 more minutes and the second sign indicated 72km… Had I ridden 8km in an hour? The road was uphill, but still… 8km/hour? I could run faster than this! When an hour later a 3rd sign announced Linxia: 90km, I suddenly felt very tired!

The most annoying about riding in China (so far) has definitely been the dust I have been eating incessantly, because of all the road construction. Gansu is still developing and they are working on roads, tunnels, bridges pretty much everywhere around major towns. And naturally when there is construction going on, there are also heavy trucks. Chinese truck drivers are quite friendly: they wave, they give me enough space to ride safely but they constantly honk their loud horns to warn me and F#*%!i(MISSING)t’s irritating!! I have never been a big fan of the way the Chinese honk all the time
Tibetan prayer flags and Tibetan prayer flags and Tibetan prayer flags and

The wind horse (longa) is the main symbol found on prayer flags. On his back the horse carries the Three Jewels of Buddhism—the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The colors on prayer flags is highly symbolic. Red represents fire; green, wood; yellow, earth; blue, water; and white, iron.
in taxis in the city, in buses in any province, but when you’re on a bike and they honk up to 5 times to warn me they are about to take over… I just want to scream at them! And I did… and they look at me with a smile, happy to know I heard them and I am safe on the road! J

Day 1: I rode 7 hours (but I wasted 2 in the morning as I went the wrong way)

Day 2: I rode 6 hours (morning was brilliant; riding through little villages, afternoon was hell with rain + dust + trucks). In the morning I woke up early to hit the road before it gets too hot. I was all packed and ready to go. I asked the owner of the farm I stayed at to take a last picture of me in front of the house when I heard my tire whistle… a rose bush twig with large thorns was stuck in it, letting the air out! Sigh… I was very surprised to get a flat tire on my 2nd day (I did buy very resistant Schwalbe tires for this trip), but what
on a beautiful day over Lanzhou, I set out southon a beautiful day over Lanzhou, I set out southon a beautiful day over Lanzhou, I set out south

and took the wrong road so I ended up riding an extra 40km...
can you do, c’est la vie! Since I am not much of a mechanic, it was good practice for me to patch the inner-tube.

Day 3: I rode 5 hours uphill through amazing scenery (mountains and villages with mud houses) and arrived in beautiful Xiahe in the afternoon.

The last hours before getting to Xiahe were spectacular and fun. As I said the sky was immaculately blue and the sun shone on ancient villages nested in the mountains. I made many stops to take pictures along the way and I didn’t realize the road kept on going uphill. I think I only noticed how steep this road was a week later when I rode back the same way (towards Lanzhou) and it only took me 2 hours to cover the same distance mostly downhill.

Xiahe is a scenic town, although upon entering Xiahe, all I could see were the tall pink and green apartment buildings the local government built in the last few years for the Han (Chinese) people/workers and I thought to myself they had destroyed the village I was expecting to find. Fortunately this was only one part of Xiahe town, as I rode farther (the town can be crossed in 10minutes by bike), I got to see the older houses made of bricks and mud and eventually the main road ended up on the widespread Tibetan monastery and the monk’s mud houses that circle the impressive red and yellow temples. Pictures are worth a thousand words so I will let you check out the photos on my blog. The Labrang Tibetan Monastery was founded in 1709 and it is the largest monastery town outside Tibet. Every day local farmers, workers, monks and a few tourists circle the complex while spinning prayer wheels placed all around the city wall, the main temples and the large white stupas. Tibetan people have so much faith. They walk around the temples reciting prayers. Some of them prostrate themselves (they bring their hands together above their head, in front of their face, in front of their heart, then get on their knees, then lie flat on their stomach and put their foreheads on the floor) in front of every prayer wheel! It takes them hours to cover the 3 kilometer-walk around the monastery town. Tibetans smile a lot and they were pleased to see a foreigner walk with them
outside Lanzhououtside Lanzhououtside Lanzhou

dry, dry, dry!
around the complex. Many of them cannot speak mandarin very well, but they often pointed their thumbs up to show me they were pleased I was walking around. Many monks also asked for a picture with me, which was great as I really wanted a pic with them too. The monastery is located at the foot of a small mountain. Once up there the view over the town was simply incredible! Hundreds of square mud houses separated by alleys create a very surprising and picturesque maze around the temples. I went up the mountain many times over the 5 or 6 days I spent in Xiahe and every time I was in awe and at peace up there.

Most of you have an idea about the living conditions of Tibetans in China. I am not going to write too much about this here because this issue is taboo in China, and I do work in their country, and I don’t want the Chinese government to censor my blog or even worse. But I will say that life for the Tibetans is tough. From the conversations I had with Tibetan men of all ages (from 20 to 70), it’s hard for them to find a good job because they must compete with the Han (Chinese) whenever they take a test to apply for a job. Tests are written in mandarin but most Tibetans speak and write Tibetan only. Their mandarin is only a second language and their writing skills are not sufficient. Since the Dalai Lama is considered a terrorist (…) they cannot openly speak about their beliefs. They are all aware that Tibet will never be independent but they do wish to get an autonomous government, a little bit like Hong Kong has at the moment. Some Tibetan parents want to send their kids abroad where they think life is more free and fair. Some children refuse to go because they feel they need to stay with their family, to take care of everyone. Most Tibetans I have met told me they were not even allowed to travel to Lhasa anymore, and going to other cities was extremely regulated, and they had to jump through so many hoops to get the permit to travel, that most of them gave up very quickly. I also heard that Tibetans lost their land around Lhasa and other areas where apartment buildings and other infrastructures were built in place. 2 men cried as we were talking, and their tears did move me a lot. I believe Tibetans need to learn more about the Han Chinese culture while keeping theirs alive. I think it is through education that they will adapt to the system and attain a better lifestyle.

Riding a bike through southern Gansu has been a lot of fun. The weather was great (although I got snowed on while the sun was still shining!); the people were extremely friendly, hospitable and helpful. I met Mr Pu in Lanzhou (Chinese Han) and he helped me find a nice hotel in Lanzhou upon my arrival, but also invited me to dinner (and lots of beer!) on my very first night in the city. I hope to visit him and his parents in Wuwei (4 hour-drive north of Lanzhou) at the border with the desert. In TaiShi, a small village in between Lanzhou and Linxia, I met many students who were eager to practice their (limited) English with me. I also chatted with farmers who drove their 3-wheel trucks filled with sheep to the local markets, fruit dealers, and monks. Getting closer to Xiahe, I was invited to stay with a Tibetan family of 3. The son, Larry (I wish I could pronounce or write his Tibetan name!) took me in for 2 nights. Larry invited me to join a festival where every Tibetan man from his village met on top of a mountain around 6am. They gave many offerings to God around a bond fire and stacked long colorful arrows around a tree, while praying for their family’s health and prosperity, world peace, good weather and their Lama.

So far this journey on my bike is offering even more than I expected: relaxation, peace, freedom, independence, joy, exercise, sunshine, discoveries, great encounters with people of all sorts. Some times (especially the first 2 days) were harder than I expected but I will remember that after rain comes sunshine. I am lovin’ it! And I want more!



Additional photos below
Photos: 85, Displayed: 30


on the bikeon the bike
on the bike

not tired yet!
I stopped in TaiShi, a small village before LinxiaI stopped in TaiShi, a small village before Linxia
I stopped in TaiShi, a small village before Linxia

and they had never seen a foreigner in their restaurant before

5th June 2013

So you bike trip has finally started!
I am really looking forward to your travels along the Silk Road. My son and I did it the easy way in March and April 2013, taking the train from Beijing to Lanzhou, just as you did. But from there we took a bus to Xiahe in 3 1/2 hours (but yours was the more adventurous trip) and back, and then the train from Lanzhou to Dunhuang, back to Jiayuguan, then to Turpan and Urumqi...all in two weeks. From there we flew to Uzbekistan and visited Tashkent, Samarkand, and one week. We finished up with a week in the Baltics and Finland. So you can understand why following your in depth journey will really add to what we saw. I had a personal reason to visit parents were married there in 1949. All this is in my blogs...if you have time to read any. Take care!

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