After nearly a month in China, I had to extend my visa for another month. One of the best place to do so was Leshan where I absolutely needed to reach before my current visa ran out. Struggling to find recent reliable information about this process, I was eager to get this done and enjoy the riding. The process was relatively easy and straight forward as I described on this page. I enjoyed a few days off in Leshan but refused to pay the relatively high entrance fee to the giant Buddha site. I was told it was very nice, but I’ve had my share of Buddha statues and decided to spend time reading, relaxing, do computer work and plan the route ahead.
The following days towards Chengdu were easy riding on beautifully paved roads and no hills to climb. I spent 2 complete days in Chengdu. I met with hundreds of Chinese cyclists going towards Lhasa, a pilgrim of high importance for Chinese cyclists, young and old. The courtyard was full of bicycles every night. Great atmosphere with the place packed with travellers alike. The Wuhou Tibetan temple is a large complex where strolling can easily take half a day. The food stalls on the narrow street beside to temple is an amazing place to have a feed and taste local spicy cuisine. The next day I visited Wenshu temple, the best preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu. Relaxed atmosphere, large gardens and beautiful buildings dating from the 7th century provided the perfect environment to relax. The afternoon was spent in Bronze Goat temple, a Taoist temple dating from the 7th century and one of the most famous Taoist temples in China. The wall paintings and carvings inside the temples were impressive.
Since I had time up my sleeve, I’ve decided to ride towards one of oldest cities in China: Xi’an. With more than 3100 years of history, it was hard to let this one go. The ride there took me to the fabulous Qingling mountain ranges, a chain of mountains defining south and north China. The 4 days I’ve spent in this range were phenomenal riding despite some rain and foggy conditions. The last 2 days of clear blue sky and shear mountain peaks covered in a velvet green canopy was a sight to remember. It’s also in that mountain range I encountered my first serious issues with my bike. A spoke on the back wheel snapped and since I didn’t have a cassette removal kit I had to ride on a missing spoke for more than 250kms. The last 100kms, the back tire started to show a bump; the inner face was split open and I needed to replace that tire ASAP. Luckily, as soon as I rolled in the outskirts if Xi’an I could find a small bike shop where the very friendly staff (bike shop staff are always super friendly and generous!!) who did the whole job for free, including truing my wheels. I spent a week in Xi’an where I could explore the impressive army of Terracotta Warriors, the magnificent bell tower, the large mosque and stroll the Muslim quarter, meet a few backpackers and have my first alcohol fuelled night out at a Karaoke. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave Xi’an but I had to keep going. Xi’an also marked the eastern most point of the silk road which meant my journey on this legendary road was about to start.
The first few days west-bound were pretty easy riding on mostly flat terrain and tailwinds. I could do 100+ kms days without pushing hard. Reaching a lovely small town called Qinan, I ventured in the local supermarket where I was mobbed by the workers and customers! For 10-15 minutes, I explained what I was doing here, where I was coming from and where I was going to before an intense photo session started; everyone wanted their photo taken with me! I got this many times in China, but this was exceptional. The supermarket completely stopped its operations during my presence.
Being the second most polluted city in China, Lanzhou was covered in fog and pollution. The ride there wasn’t really enjoyable too with the thick air, lifeless and arid mountain surroundings. The only thing that worried me since leaving Xi’an was getting to Lanzhou in order to apply for a second visa extension which was apparently impossible to have. I managed to talk to friendly officers who accepted to give me a new 30 day visa! See here for more details. Whilst waiting to pick up my visa, I took the opportunity to do some repairs on my bike; new rear gear cable wire, 2 new tubes, new spare spokes, 2 pairs of brake pads and changed my cassette and chain. All pretty good quality gear, for a total of about $100. So with 30 more days in China and a “new” bike, I was ready to do part of the silk road towards western China and the last city before entering Central Asia; Kashgar.
From Lanzhou, it took 2 days to reach Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. The region used to be part of Tibet hence the presence of many Tibetan villages in the area. I enjoyed a day visiting one the yellow hat sect (Dalai Lama sect) monastery, the superb Ta’Er monastery. I had the chance to witness elderly women (in their 50s) pilgrims coming from Lhasa by foot, prostrating in front of every Buddha statues in the temple; respect. The next day I encountered my first Caucasian cyclist since Luang Prapang in Laos, almost 3 months ago. Jacques has been on the road for about 4 years, cycling and sailing around the planet. We stayed together for the next 10 days or so and had a great time together.
The following week, we crossed 2 spectacular mountain ranges before reaching the most important route in northern China history, the Hexi corridor. Part of the northern branch of the Silk Road, the corridor is defined by the Tibetan plateau in the south and the Gobi desert as well as the Mongolian steppe in the north. We stopped at Jiayuguan to visit the western most point of the Great Wall of China and the highly renovated Jiayuguan fort before heading towards Dunhuang and the magnificent Magao Grottoes. The ride there was very arid as the Taklamakan desert started to come to live. We rode to the grottoes and spent the night at the top of a sandy – rocky hilltop hidden from view. We visited the grottoes the next day; we were both very impressed by the superb details of the paintings and carvings in the caves.
Since Jacko’s visa was running out and I needed to gain some distance to reach Kashgar before my last visa expires, we both decided to jump on an overnight bus to Turpan. We had to pay for our bike to be put on the bus and I kinda lost my temper a little… We could deal 150 yuan ($25) for both our bikes. We got good berth so we could sleep a bit. And since the bus drivers in China are not allowed to travel between 2 and 5AM, we could enjoy a bit of quiet sleep.
Arriving in Turpan we both got to the train station to purchase our next bus ticket; me to Kuqa, Jacko to Kashgar. There, we were told to pay the fee of our bus ticket for our bikes. We both we stunt by those high prices. Jacko had to pay 320 yuan for his ticket plus another 320 yuan for his bike! After a day in Turpan, we were back in the bus towards Kashgar; so we thought. In the middle of the night, I was told to swap bus to Kuqa. I said goodbye to Jack and promised to meet each other in Kyrgyzstan. Entering my new bus, there was no seat available. The bus stopped about 20 minutes later and a seat freed up so I could finally lie down. I reached Kuqa at 5h30AM and after 2 consecutive nights in buses and a sweaty day in Turpan, I badly needed a shower. Since every hotel charged me 100 yuan, I decided to fill up my water bladders and find a quiet place to wash up. I was really tired that day, but ended up doing 200kms with terrific tailwinds. I later learned that Jacko ended up in Hotan, on the southern branch of the Silk Road! He ended up in Kashgar after almost 48 hours on buses!
I rode in Kashgar in 5 days due to long days (the sun set at 10h30PM), generally good winds (except for 1 day) and flat terrain. I enjoyed wild camping similar to Australia for the first time since I am in Asia except for a night where I was invited to spent the night in a toll gate building where the officers are staying. These Uyghur officers fed me very well and took good care of me. After showing them my photo album in the morning, I took off with a magnificent view of the Tian Shan mountain range.
I arrived in Kasghar pretty tired after knocking off more than 700kms in 5 days so it was great to take some days off and work on how I’m going to cross the border in to Kyrgyzstan. Whilst in Kashgar, I was fortunate enough to join other travellers for a day drive on the breathtaking Karakorum highway to Karakol lake. I rode to Uluqqat where the Chinese immigration office is, 140kms away from the Kyrgyz border. I spent 3 hours mostly waiting in the immigration office before getting on a taxi to the border, another hour and a half away. We arrived there around 13h (Kyrgyz time, so 15h China time) where the guards were having their lunch break until 14h. The border finally re-opened at 14h30 creating a commotion as lots of people wanted to get a ride into Kyrgyzstan. I was told to ride to the Kyrgyz immigration where it took 2 minutes to get the visa by a very welcoming officer saying “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!”.