Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.
Mínlè to Qīnghǎi Lake, via Xīníng
民乐 青海湖 西宁
380km // 4 days
I woke up again in Minle, in exactly the same hotel I had been in before yesterday’s 7-hour mountain trek, feeling like it was Groundhog Day and not having much of a plan.
The day before, when trying to decide where to drive me to, the police kept asking me where my next destination was. The honest answer would have been I had no idea, since they had just significantly disrupted my route plan and I was pretty pissed off about the fact. The safest answer – the one that I gave – was that I would go to Xining, the province capital 200km away, where I knew foreigners were allowed to stay.
“It’s all restricted areas from here to there,” they said. “You’ll have to get a train.”
“En.” I gave China’s grunting monosyllable of a word that indicates agreement. Except I don’t have a bag to put the bike in, and they won’t let me on a train without one,I thought, annoyed at the decision I had made in Dunhuang to post my soft bike bag home.
I couldn’t face the cycle over the mountain again. The first journey had been gruelling enough, and presumably I wouldn’t get so civil an escort home if I was caught a second time.
Taking the train was also riddled with logistical gymnastics. Unlike the bike-friendly Europe, cyclists are rare in China, and station staff meet bicycles with flat refusal unless they are neatly packed in a suitcase, which I did not have. I would have to either somehow find a huge, sufficiently strong oversize soft bag in this tiny town, or order a bag online and pay several days of hotel fees while waiting for it arrive.
Even then, I would have to deconstruct and reconstruct the bike, and drag it through the station at both ends, risking breaking something – on the bike or on my body – in the process.
Thinking through all of this in the morning, I sighed, realising that the only remaining option was to get a car. So much for budget travel.
A phone call and price that was a little too high (600 yuan/$88) later, my driver was helping me bundle Lan Lan and her detached wheels into the back seat of his cab. He was a quick moving man with not much hair, and a voice that was very soft, but in a weirdly forced way, as if he had read somewhere that an unthreatening tone made people less inclined to argue with you.
Regardless, he was all smiles and very careful with the bike, which recently has become a good predictor of how much I like someone.
He wrapped her breakable and heavily oiled parts in protective spare rags, asking in his forced whisper about how much she cost and how far I’d come, and why on earth I was doing this on my own.
I gave my usual reply.
“I’m just doing this leg alone. I have a friend joining me once I get to [closest city]”.
Ten minutes into the journey, we stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, to my semi-indignant amusement. Cheeky bastard. Hadn’t I just paid premium for a chauffeur ride? And where’s he going to sit? Our passenger was a stocky, stooped man with a withered face, wrapped warmly in the patterned poncho of a herdsman and carrying some sort of bundle under his arm.
“Where to?” My driver yelled out the window. They haggled, each gesticulating wildly; 30, 25, 28 yuan. Once the herdsman had threatened to walk away twice, they settled on a price and the driver proudly started showing off to our passenger about me and my bike trip. The showering accolades would have been nice if I hadn’t been smarting from the realisation that I hadn’t haggled nearly enough on my own fare.
“Where’s he going to sit? My bike’s taking up the whole back seat.”
“Oh yeah… He’ll just lean forward a bit. It’ll be alright.” F*cking better be, I thought, glancing back as the farmer got in and wincing as he slammed the door shut. If my bike frame gets bent out of shape for the sake of a hustling driver picking up an extra 30 yuan, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.
We drove over yesterday’s mountains, through Ebao where our passenger alighted, on through a stunningly beautiful alpine road that cruised through snowy peaks and peppermint green steppe plains.
Mongolian ger tents built for tourists dotted the landscape, and I sighed, wishing I could conjure a shenfenzheng (Chinese ID card) out of thin air, all I needed to be able to stay in them. It would have been an amazing ride. And it was all downhill, I wailed internally, resolving never to shy away from camping in the cold again.
Being locked out so completely felt painfully unfair, especially when I imagined the reverse. There would be an uproar in China if the UK barred its 120,000 Chinese students, for example, from staying in the Lake District just because there was an army base nearby.
There are a lot more Chinese citizens in the UK than there are foreigners around here, though, I reasoned. Ebao has poverty, corruption and environmental degradation to worry about. Me and the one American visitor from last year are hardly a priority problem.
“Do people live in those tents?” I asked, motioning to the small white structures that accompanied herds of yaks.
“Oh yeah. They’re herders, they’re the only ones allowed on the hills.”
“Because it’s a protected area?”
“Exactly. They were going to build a ski slope here, but then about three years ago they made it a protected zone instead.”
“Is it for the animals? I saw loads of those little mouse-like things on the hills when I was cycling yesterday. What are those?”
“Mice? I don’t know about those.” He looked sideways at me with narrowed eyes, making a show of being mysterious.”There are snow leopards though.”
“Really?” We were pretty close to the Himalayas. I did some Googling on my phone, which told me Qinghai is home to around 2,000 snow leopards, known as “ghost cats” because they are so rarely seen.
“Absolutely. In the winter, restaurants in town serve snow leopard meat.” He grinned. A functional protected zone, then. I hoped either he or the restaurant owners were lying.
“It’s good that they have protected zones,” I gestured to the hills around. “It’s really beautiful here. I can imagine people could easily ruin it with cars and plastic litter.”
“Yeah, they need the protection. Humanity is destroying everything around here.” I hummed my agreement. Wow. How heartening to find someone who cared about conservation.
“I think we’re headed for the extinction of humanity, you know.” He grumbled. “It’s inevitable. Like it says in the Bible.”
I hummed again, knitting my eyebrows. Had I heard him right?
“The Christian Bible?” I asked after a pause. I would soon wish I hadn’t.
“Exactly. Humans are ruining everything, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it now. You know like in Buddhism, there are the seven hells? We’re all headed for it. Humanity’s exinction is coming before long. All you have to do is look around. We’ve gone too far in ruining our environment, and….”
For the next 15 minutes, he became more and more animated, speaking quickly and slipping back into his local dialect and what I assumed must be his more natural tone of voice, an aggressive, angry-sounding bark. No wonder he forces it down to a whisper, I thought, staring intently out of the window and offering the odd “mmm,” when he paused for breath, having little idea what he was saying and catching only the odd word in Mandarin.
“…extinction… Bible… Christians follow Jesus because… thousands of years…just like in the book…angels…f*cking non-believers… other gods…end of days… criminals…no way to stop it…”
Eventually he wore himself out, and we lapsed into silence. The intensity of emotion that clearly lay a hair’s breadth from the surface of this strange man’s exterior made me slightly nervous.
“Do you want anything?” He said, pulling up next to a roadside convenience store. I shook my head, but he returned with a mahua, a type of sweetbread that I actually did love. We munched on our respective snacks quietly as we drove.
“Want some of this?” He asked. I read the label: “sliced pork skin”. It was in a vacuum-packed plastic packet, yellow and oozing oil.
“I’m alright, thanks.” He shrugged, finishing them quickly, licking his fingers, and then throwing the empty packet without a second glance out of the window, into the protected area.
The Big City
We arrived into a rainy Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. It’s a city that sits high above sea level, fully developed with skyscrapers, Teslas, Apple stores and coffee shops.
A high proportion of the population are Muslim, and the curved turrets of mosques poked through the gaps of apartment blocks. Many women wore headscarves, and men small white caps.
My hotel room was small and airless but I didn’t really care. Looking at Google maps, I realised that I could have just asked the driver to take me to the north side of Qinghai lake. That way I could have continued my journey in a relatively straight line from Ebao, rather than now having to double back on myself to cycle by the lake, a dream destination I had wanted to go to for years.
Whatever, I thought, exhausted. The idea of camping somewhere I might come into contact with unfriendly police again wasn’t an attractive option, and staying in the big city had its benefits. There was a boxing gym less than 2km down the road. Finally, I was in a big city.
“Big city?” Laughed another foreigner that I struck up a conversation with in a convenience store. It was the first time I had spoken face to face English with someone in weeks. “This ain’t no big city. It’s big, but it isn’t at the same time. There aren’t any foreigner bars around or anything.”
He had been in Xining for about a month, working in the KTV bar next to my hotel and wrestling with a tense visa situation due to current pandemic border controls. His permit to stay ran out soon, but all the offices for renewal were closed, leaving him in an all too familiar nightmare of bureaucratic borrowed time.
If he left, there was no guarantee he could return until the pandemic was “over”, which could be years. If he stayed, he could be prosecuted. His American nationality didn’t help things.
Aside from run-of-the-mill anti-Americanism regularly stoked by national media, icy current relations between China and the US meant that many companies were unwilling to start lengthy visa processes with a candidate who might end up being deported.
We swapped WeChats and agreed to go for a beer at the weekend, but my later messages went unanswered. With 9 days left on his visa, I guessed he had more important things to worry about.
The Light Blue Sea
I stayed in the hotel for 5 days, boxing, sleeping, writing, and taking a day trip out to Qinghai lake. I felt I owed it to myself to see the high-altitude lake of my dreams, which had been the whole reason for scaling the mountains by Minle in the first place.
On Sunday, having written everything I needed to and getting my fill of pads sessions at the gym down the road, I hired a van to take me and Lan Lan out to the south shore of the lake.
The sky was cloudy, but it was bliss to ride without the bags for once, zooming along flat roads that skated along the edge of the icy blue lake.
Qīnghǎi literally means “light blue sea”, and the water did look just like an ocean, stretching further than the eye could see and complete with small waves lapping at the pebble strewn shores.
Tents with colourful patterns dotted the fields that sat on either side of the G109, a single road that ran along the lake’s south shore.
Thickset horses were everywhere, some tethered and saddled for the dwindling summer tourists to ride, some roaming around grazing, and some ridden by herdsmen, whistling at their yaks.
The herdsmen were what I found most interesting. I wondered what life must be like here; swamped by mainland tourists in the summer and desolate in the winter.
“It’ll start to get really cold in a few weeks’ time,” my driver had told me. “Nobody comes here in the winter, even though it’s beautiful in the snow.”
Cycling along the road, I was at the same eye level as the odd few roadside herders mounted on their horses. A few made momentary eye contact as I cruised past, staring at me with deep black eyes, practically the only part of their scarved faces you could see.
They didn’t shout “hallo!” like the gleeful boys on motorbikes, just turned their horses with their knees to keep looking at me as I moved further away. I wished I could speak their language to ask them about their lives here, three and a half thousand metres above sea level, so far away from the urban China I knew.
I was surprised and delighted by the presence of so many animals.
The lack of wildlife in China’s cities and surrounding areas can be unnerving, and even though the hundreds of horses, cows, sheep and yaks were clearly kept by humans, they roamed around unchecked, looking extremely healthy and providing a reassuring example that not all animals in China are subject to the thoughtless conditions seen in zoos and pet stores across the country.
It felt good to be on the bike again, even if it was just for an easy day of leisure riding. I cycled 110km along a single road threading the south shore of the lake, finally sending a location for my driver to meet me at as it started to get dark.
As I got in the van again, cold and pleasantly tired, there was an air of pointlessness to what I’d done, coming here just to tire myself out with a five hour ride before driving back to the city again.
Not like I had a choice anyway. I would have stayed the night if I could. Bloody restricted zones.
The road back was quiet, aside from one police vehicle check for undisclosed reasons.
“Scan your ID card on the reader.” A policeman barked as I clambered out of the van.
“I don’t have an ID card. I have a passport.” Thank God I brought it with me.
“Oh. Uh…. walk over there then.” The guard waved in the direction of the road ahead. What? Don’t tell me I have to fill in a form in the cold. I wrapped my arms around myself and walked in the direction he had pointed, giving up on trying to understand why. I was still damp from the sweat of the day’s ride and starting to shiver.
“That’s far enough! You can go back now.” He yelled. “Um.. back!” He shouted in English. “Can back!” Still having no idea what the stop was for, I was glad to get back into the warmth of the car, and dozed for the rest of the journey.
It wasn’t the way I’d expected to see Qinghai, but it certainly was memorable. It grated to have to spend money on car rides, but not going would have been much worse.
As usual, that night I slept like a log.