The Steppes of language learning

Entering Qinghai Province

Someone once said

Man’s greatest step is between the warm bed and the cold floor

We’ve bastardised this to

The hardest thing we do each day is unzip our sleeping bags

I wasn’t too uncomfortable in my sleeping bag on the 27th March, but I could feel the cold on my exposed face and I really didn’t want to unzip it and let the unwelcome guest in.

We’d spent the night in yet another shit-filled culvert, one that had offered some protection against the freezing wind that blew from Tibet. A wind so cold that I was certain I’d gotten frostbite on my left hand. 5 minutes of cupping the scrotum hadn’t stopped it hurting, Matt’s testicles were just too cold.

The last few weeks had been more challenging than we’d expected. More so than Kyrgyzstan. The difficulties we faced were more mental than merely physical. The monotony of riding through a vast empty desert with little contact with people, the unrelenting headwinds that froze us and ground down our will to continue. Though the desert had now been beaten we were struggling over the Tibetan plateau which extends at over 3000m into Qinghai province.

It was even more remote than the damned desert. Filled with grasslands and barren mountainsides. It was still bloody cold!

After 4 solid months of being cold we were done with winter. We were bored by it, bored of writing about freezing testicles* Even the highlight of our day – Matt’s morning application of chamois cream** – failed to rouse our spirits.

Not only that, we’d been in China one month already and only seen one ‘tourist’ city, Kashgar. The remainder had been spent wondering if we’d taken the right route.

Scant conciliation came from the money we’d saved by camping. Food here is also ridiculously cheap and we’d been living on $4 per day. Including slap-up lunches and dinners of dan chow fan and chow mien (egg fried rice and fried noodles)

To alleviate our boredom and exhaustion we arrived into Ge’ermu before I went insane and the blister on Matt’s keister burst.

We stayed in a plush hotel – the only one that would take us in and it was here that I joined the ranks of the unillustrious projectile poohing club (Matt being the founding member). I was a bit surprised, having inherited my Dad’s iron constitution^, I’d hoped to avoid any intestinal complications.

An additional days rest ensured I was able to hold down some food and water to fuel the ride ahead. We looked bleakly upon the Google map which told us we still had 1000 kilometers to ride before reaching the Lanbrang Monastary at Xiehe in Gansu. Our second touristy destination.

Respite came from the huge blue dot near the centre of China. This was Qinghai Hu. China’s largest lake. We’d be cycling along the southern side (the northern side is sometimes off-limits because that’s where China’s nukes are made) and looked forward to seeing something different besides endless, brown grassland.

It didn’t disappoint.

The ride to the lake was some of the best riding we’d done, not just in China but during the whole 8 months we’d been away.

Our ride out of Chaka, a small town upon the banks of a salt-lake to the south of Qinghai Lake, didn’t start so well, it was cold and we had to ascend to 3800m which beat our previous highest altitude by 200m. The way up the tree-less mountainside was very steep. Eventually, as legs and minds tired, we started to cling onto the rear of slow moving HGVs and let them carry us to the top.

At 3800m the wind was ferocious, it managed to blow Colin over into a deep ditch. Thousands of Tibetan prayer flags flapped a wild greeting at us on the summit.

The descent was interesting, it carried us zig-zagging down the mountain. Sometimes the wind pushing us to breakneck speeds or cutting across us, sometimes ahead of us so we had to pedal downhill.

Eventually we sighted the ethereal, crisp blue of the lake in the distance, the wind, nearer the shore now pushing us along. It was strong enough that we didn’t need to pedal uphill. it stayed like this for most of the southern bank.

Along the shore I became aware for the first time of an increase of wildlife made apparent by birdsong. The lake is teeming with fish, and many bird species come to the lake to feed.

The shores also provide land for cattle. There were many sheep, goats, yaks and horses grazing upon the barely visable green shoots of spring.

Buddhist laymen, laywomen and monks waved as we zoomed past then continued their protestations.

They wore padded aprons and headbands, kneepads and wooden plates over their hands. They’d raise both hands to the sky then lower their entire bodies to stretch out, completely flat on the road. Then stand-up, take one step forward and repeat….they do this for the entire circumference of the lake.

It was time to sleep but camping opportunities were all a little too exposed for our liking.

After asking one of the Tibetan farmers, in mime, if we could camp in his yard we were ushered into Zendoshi’s home.

His house had two rooms. The family room had a dung-burning stove with a huge aluminium pot of sweet, milky tea constantly on the boil. The kids were excited to see us (mostly because they got to eat the sweet treats brought out for us). Along the back wall, opposite the daybed, were Buddhist pictures including the banned picture of the current Dali Lama.

Dried dung burns surprisingly well and the next day we were toasty next to the stove while it was freezing outside. A delicious breakfast of Tsampa. A grain, ground into fine powder, mixed with a little yak butter sugar and tea to make a warming porridge saw us properly set-up for the day.

Giving our thanks to the family, we made our way to Xining, our first city of note in a while!

We enjoyed a glorious 35mile descent past towns and villages that grew in size along the yaoshui river valley. It felt great to see natures spring palette, finally!

We joined the not so picturesque G6 motorway and, with tunnels lining our route, it was also scary. Akin to riding through a dark night but with the noise of approaching traffic amplified tenfold.

As each vehicle zoomed past us my stomach churned and my pulse raced with fear.

From afar Xining looked grim. An industrial coal producing centre (coal being China’s primary energy source). Making our way past the factories and into the commercial centre disappointment turned to bemusement when we saw all the skyscrapers. The yellow, red and grey buildings were all clumped together in colour coordinated blocks.

We were glad to be there, so close to the Tibetan town of Xiahe and it’s famous Labrang Monastery.


A note on Language. During the course of this trip I’ve noted that I can pick-up languages quickly, in fact I pride myself on it. Though, after a month in China, I’m really struggling with Mandarin.

The issue seems to be the lack of context. In other cultures, Turkey for example, we would make our attempt to ask for something in Turkish and be rewarded with a smile or a laugh at our mispronunciation – but we’d have made our meaning clear enough. If in a hotel, we’d be after a room, in a restaurant, some kind of food. Obvious, right!

In China you can be in a supermarket asking for cha (or tea) and be met with puzzled expressions. This is due to my tone being off.

There are 4 tones that are employed by mandarin and the meaning of the word changes depending upon the tone used. So I could have asked the following:

  1. do you have tea?
  2. do you have to fork?
  3. do you have cloudy sky?
  4. do you have disappointment?

After some Marcel Marseau-esque miming I’m able to make my intention clear. Surely, given that list, I’m most likely to find tea in a supermarket? But unless you get that tone then you can expect to get item 4. Something with which we are now accustomed.

*I’m sure your probably a little over reading about it as well…what you really want ti know is have Matt and I fought/slept together and if so, who came out on top…I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book for those juicy details

**applied BY Matt TO Matt.

^I assume you’re aware of the ‘3 second rule’ for dropped food. My Dad has a 3 week rule

2 Responses to “The Steppes of language learning”

  1. Jackelin says:

    方舟之結局應該是源自bible 吧 同day after tomorrow 有點像 都是說bible/Christianity 是western ciioivzatiln 之祖 只不過這只方舟is made in china,可以說是人定勝天 應該是這個意思 沒有其他吧 但我也喜歡made in china 這個idea, 應該是在說中國才是世界生產之首吧.

  2. http://www./ says:

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