Cycling Tibetan Heartland – A day from my diary

CYCLING TIBETAN Heartland - A DAY FROM MY DIARY

“So, what did you think of China” is a question I got frequently asked. 

It’s a complex question. 

But a day from my life on the bike can give you some flavor.

The highlight of my trip to China is without any doubt the Qinghai Province.

Qinghai is located in the North-Western part of China bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region from the North and the Silk Road from the South.

It is home to one out of four Tibetans. 

The province has also the largest lake in China – Qinghai Lake.

The tour around the lake is the highest cycling race in the World.

Once a year, the ride takes place at an average altitude of 3,200m (10,500 feet) above sea level. 

Tibet was the most rewarding part of all my cycling adventures, not only because of physical challenges.

Spiritual Tibet played a big role. 

But I quickly realized other aspects that make it a unique place.

This region is the heartland of Nuclear China and a place with extensive minorities including Hui Muslims and Tu Mongols whose ancestors served in Genghis Khan’s army.

But China was also the most challenging country on a bike.

Thunderstorms at high altitudes combined with logistical challenges are not exactly the ideal mix.

The below observations relate mainly to the Tibetan Plateau while contrasting it a bit with other parts I have explored – the Gansu, Inner Mongolia, or Beijing. 

 

If I tell you my dream, you might forget it. If I act on my dream, perhaps you will remember it, but if I involve you, it becomes your dream too.

Tibetan Proverb

DISCOVERING TIBET ON MY BIKE

Cycling above the clouds

Qinghai Lake (average altitude of 3,200m) and the Tibetan Plateau on a Topographic Map

The Tibetan Plateau, also known as the Tibet-Qinghai plateau is the world’s highest and largest plateau above sea level.

It is roughly 5x the size of France.

While I have cycled thousands of kilometers in China, the Tibetan parts around Qinghai Lake (circled in a dark color on the map above) were my main objective.

Tibet always fascinated me, but exploring it on a bike was the absolute highlight of my cycling adventures.

 

The City of Xining - Qinghai's North-Eastern Gate

But before exploring Tibet one has to enter the province through its gate – Xining City.

During my cycling adventures, I kept on hearing negative opinions about traveling in China and its people.

This had the opposite effect on me of incentivizing me to explore the country and understand possible misconceptions. 

After all, most westerners generalize about 1.4 billion people based on a sample of Chinese tourists.

Han Chinese indeed represent the majority of the population.

What I didn’t realize about China before exploring its remote provinces is its diversity. 

For instance, China has over 55 different ethnicities

Xining is a perfect example of this diversity.

I was surprised to discover that Xining had a very large Muslim minority – the Huis. But also the Tus that are descendants of Mongols’ troops.

80% of religious people in Qinghai are Buddhists.

Xining’s architecture blends hundreds of communist-style 20-floor tightly bundled together  apartment blocks, skyscrapers, industrial facilities given its prominent location in the mountains and Islamic and Buddhist religious sites.

While the information on this is scarce, I had the feeling that the number of military schools was significant.

The city has a bit of a surreal feel to it but represents the heart of China and is far from how I would have pictured the country.

Its people are welcoming, if not curious what a foreigner on a bike does in this part of the world.

Diverse faces of Xining

A day from my diary

8 AM - Leaving Xining

Xining is located at an altitude of 2,300m.

It takes a day to leave the city and its conurbation behind.

Roughly 120 km and another 1,000m of climb.

Now I entered the Haibei prefecture which leads to the Tibetan heartland leaving all noises and dirt behind.

Some parts of China are indeed polluted. Especially the East coast. But larger cities are cleaner than in other Emerging Countries including India, I find. 

Electric scooters are being rolled out at a much faster rate than in the West.

That’s why not relying on sounds was a new skill I had to learn.

But in rural areas pollution is not an issue. 

2 PM - Caravan of Black SUVs

I didn’t see many people during that day.

I stop a couple of times to make some green tea with my mini stove.

Green tea helps in high altitudes.

On the horizon of a somewhat desertic landscape, I see a caravan of Black (Government) SUVs.

I think I have a déjà vu. No, that was a movie.

I realize that I probably crossed into protected military zones. 

I had seen my fair share of those in Asia including Okinawa, Honshu, and Korea.

But this time it was different.

I see signs of ‘Atomic City of China’ on the horizon. 

I guess I should have done more research before coming here (even though I highly doubt I would’ve found much).

What I didn’t realize is that the main road is highly monitored.

There were a couple of Chinese cyclists that took this road the same day – the AI may not be clever enough (yet) to recognize a Western face.

Or my face mask did its job.

Fellow Western Cyclists have been arrested in the very same area.

5 PM - Reaching cruising altitude of 3,200m

I reach Haibei province and its main town of Xihaizhen.

I’m at 3,200m – the average altitude that I will adapt to over the next weeks. Later, I would have to climb some passes above that level, just shy of 4,000 m (approx. 13,000 feet).

I resupply and then start looking for accommodation. I want to take it easy today after lots of climbing and look for a hotel.

Do you have authorization to stay with us? I get asked.

I quickly realize it’s a no-go. 

Only a few weeks later do I learn the full story.

Xihaizhen was built around the “211 Factory” which was eventually closed down in 1987. 

It’s here that the Chinese researched the atomic and hydrogen bombs. 

Many military zones remain.

7 PM - Finding shelter with the Tibetans

As an adventure cyclist, you usually have alternative options on where to sleep.

Plan A – Wild camping

Plan B – Knock on the door and stay with the locals

Plan C – Paid Accommodation

I usually follow the above order. But today is the reverse order.

I try Plan B.

I cycle another dozen of kilometers and look for a possible place.

Tibetans are very welcoming and show me a couch where I can crash for the night.

11 PM - We are so sorry but you can't stay here

The head of the family wakes me up at 11 pm. 

He realized there is a strong likelihood that they will get an unplanned visit from military or local police. 

I have to leave. 

I revert to Plan A.

Rain starts shortly after I left. After the additional miles and being in complete foreign terrain with no visibility and private land around, I abandon this option for tonight.

I cycle back to the Xihazihen.

The hotel staff is surprised to see me again. 

While cycling there I prepared for the only way out of this situation. 

They are thinking along the same lines. Let’s call the police.

 

1 AM - A couple of cigarettes and a few calls

The Policemen are confused by my presence. I prepared a story to explain my presence. But the story doesn’t have legs. 

The police are as nervous about this situation as I am. 

Stressed, they smoke a few cigarettes and make a few calls. 

They find a single hotel around the lake that has a license to host foreigners and book a cab to get me there. I explain that I will remain near that hotel.

To this day, I don’t know why they let me go, while others were not so lucky.

The truth is I was here to bikepack the region, and I think despite all the stress they were sympathetic to my endeavor. 

Thank you for giving me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

 

Qinghai landscapes - Yaks, Grasslands, Deserts, and Mountains

The above wasn’t the average day. 

It was rather on the tail end of the spectrum (a.k.a. a crazy day). 

But that’s also what makes adventure cycling unpredictable and exciting.

The rest of my ride in Tibet was challenging but much more enjoyable than that night. 

8 AM (D+1) - Into the Tibetan heartland at last

I wake up in a room with a view of the lake on one side and mountains at the back.

I’m about to embark on new adventures, leaving the cities and the military sites behind me.

The real Tibet was wide open in front of my wheels.

Exploring Tibet

Pristine Environment of Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake is one of the world’s most pristine environments I cycled in with incredible landscapes, surrounded by Tibetan villages, religious sites, Yaks, mountains, deserts, and vast grasslands.

While the neighboring Tibetan Autonomous Region is quite a popular destination, Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau remains widely unknown. 

In fact, none of the people I spoke to in Beijing traveled there and I have seen no other western face during the few weeks that I cycled through part of this province. 

I met a few chinese cyclists with all the freedom to roam in this land.

But I mainly observed and interacted with the locals.

Qinghai's Tibetans (and a Yak)

To my surprise, a couple of Tibetans I met were fluent in English.

But when a woman selling dried yak beef tells me that I may find a room in the nearby village she also gives a warning.

Your Chinese translating app won’t get you far in this land.

You are now in Tibet and hardly anyone speaks  Mandarin.

I will never forget the dozens of locals that helped me during my travels.

But also the thousands of prayer flags on a mountain near a Tibetan village and that peaceful sound of silence.

I will leave you here with the below video. While not of great quality, it speaks more than thousand of words.

Below are also a couple of words about logistics.

The sound of silence

Traveling with the freedom of your own means of transport is not easy in China, but with a bicycle, and a bit of preparation you can go almost everywhere you want

HOW I PREPARED

Visa restrictions

The Chinese Visa process is challenging on multiple fronts. 

Most importantly, you most likely won’t be able to get a Chinese Visa outside of your home country. 

If you are on a cycling adventure, long-term planning is not something you prioritize. 

Cycling is about Freedom.

Not having constraints and being able to choose where to go, who to meet, where to sleep, and how many miles to do in any single day sets you free. 

This certainly becomes more challenging in countries like China where tourists are supposed to be traveling in groups organized by local agencies. 

Unfortunately, in regions with significant minorities, solo bikepacking is not exactly what the Government has in mind when thinking about promoting the country. 

This is particularly relevant in Qinghai/Tibet, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang. 

The rest of China is a different story. Staying in Beijing doesn’t feel much different from other large Asian cities.

Preparing for Food Poisoning

Food in China is diverse and overall quite tasty.

That said, managing different bacteria can be tricky. 

It’s not about if you get a stomach bug but when.

Despite my defensive diet (mainly dry foods including Tibetan Yak dried beef) I still got sick after a couple of weeks.

A friend from a hostel in Beijing wouldn’t qualify this as sickness, though. 

After having spent one year in China being sick apparently means landing in a hospital for 2 weeks and remembering those 2 weeks as the worst of your life. An extreme scenario.

With a bit of preparation, I managed to kill the bug within a day (Plan A aka probiotics did the trick although a Tibetan friend also provided me with a solid Plan B – a big black magic pill used in his tribe). 

Tap water is not drinkable which can be tricky while traveling on a bike (purification tablets can be handy).

Knowing Where to Sleep

Tibetan Wildcamping

Wildcamping is the cheapest, most flexible and adventurous way of sleeping in adventure cycling.

In China, there are hardly any campgrounds and wild camping is tricky because in China land is private.

What it means in practical terms is that e.g. in Tibet the owner needs a special permit to host you and this can be strictly enforced.

Tibetans are frequently controlled by the Chinese police or military and are afraid of being caught hosting a foreigner. 

In practical terms, most Chinese cyclists pitch their tent at night.

Hotels

Hotels in remote areas are restricted to foreigners unless they hold a special permit. 

For example, in another large Tibetan town that I cycled to later that month none of the hotels that I visited accepted foreigners. 

The last two hotels that I tried wanted to call the police because a foreigner on a bike traveling solo in this region was considered very suspect.

On another occasion, a hotel wanted to host me illegally for 30 USD. The helpful staff wanted to hide me from the hotel management. The idea was for me to not leave the room so that I’m not seen by other staff and guests. 

But they also realized that I have already enquired in other hotels in town hence probably attracted attention and alerted locals. 

The deal was called off and I was back into the wild.

Setting up the gear

Strava remains the last Western Social Network not being banned in China

Ban on our (Medieval) Western Apps

Unless you set up a VPN before entering China you won’t have access to the most commonly used apps and websites including Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Wikipedia, Western news websites, etc. 

The information barrier is called “the Great Firewall of China”.

Even if you do, from my experience the VPNs don’t solve the issue on  local data plans i.e. 4G. Only some WiFi networks get around the issue but internet speed is very slow. 

What we don’t quite realize in the West is that Big Tech from the Silicon Valley is not controlling the World. 

China has its own ecosystem. Other Asian countries also have their own apps.

Chinese consumer apps are much more advanced  than our Western apps.

For example, Wechat is probably the World’s best Superapp and with no Western equivalent – it combines WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Amazon, Paypal, and more.

Yes, going back to Whatsapp seems like moving back a century. 

Navigation

Of all my navigation apps, OSM AND+ is probably the most useful in China.

But there were instances when the satellites and software weren’t quick enough to plot the roads on the map.

At one point I got lost on a 4×4 highway. I was surprised to see no traffic when I realized it’s a brand new road, probably constructed in a few weeks  since it wasn’t available on the map.  

6k miles of new roads per year

Payments

China has a closed ecosystem for payments. While this is evolving with China’s Central Bank Digital Currency the situation is not ideal for foreigners.

China is also a cashless society. The country leapfrogged technologies including credit cards that were never used.

Homeless people accept payments with QR codes. The average grandma pays for groceries with her mobile phone. 

To date, payments can be done through two mobile apps –  Wechat and Alipay. 

As of 2020, there were rumors that both Wechat and Alipay may provide temporary access to foreigners. 

Currently China is rolling out face recognition for payments in supermarkets instead of QR codes. 

Your face is also how you unlock the locker in a swimming pool. 

Buying Food with your Face

The China you will visit will probably be different to the one I experienced.

Thank you for reading.

Good Luck and keep’em* rolling !

(* Wheels & Dividends)

Audiobooks I listened to during my rides in China

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About Raph Antoine 75 Articles
Raph Antoine is a Portfolio Manager and Institutional Advisor that witnessed first-hand the 2008 Great Financial Crisis and the 2011 European Debt Crisis working for some of the most prestigious names in the financial industry. Raph has experience across multiple asset classes including Fixed Income and Equity products as well as bespoke Investment vehicles in multiple jurisdictions. Raph holds an MSc in Financial Engineering and is a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Charterholder. He usually rides one of his two bikes. Rarely, a Canyon Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 (that is currently in family's attic) and most of the time a Gravel Pinnacle Arkose (his favorite) that he used to Cycle the World.
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Pedro
Pedro
3 days ago

Amazing article Raph. My childhood included 7 years in Macau with frequent trips to mainland China with parents, at a time of last remnants of the historical communist ruling (“ closed for business with west”). I returned to China/ Beijing on work right after their last summer olympics… Back then I already had seen a China that was leapfrogging the west that had no resemblance with my childhood memories in just a couple decades. Your description of your trip is unique and definitely not what most westerners can see when visiting most parts of China ( usually the “ agency”… Read more »