The Cycle Diarhhea’s

Walking the Kora

Waking in the fancy hotel we decided we deserved after so much desert we were extremely disappointed to find they wanted $3 from each of us for breakfast. Part of the reason for choosing this hotel was the chance to pillage the buffet breakfast. I returned to my room glum and decided to console myself with a hot shower. So when Andy started banging on the door 20 minutes later I was rather pleased to see two complimentary breakfast tickets in his hand! I wont lie, it was a feast. Scrambled eggs, toast with jam and butter, cherry tomatoes, special fried rice, pancakes, pineapple, cake, yogurt, cereal, coffee, juice. It was SO good we decided it was worth paying for the following morning.

We spent the day wandering around Xining. I was trying to adjust to being in a city. The endless people, the noisy traffic, the aroma of the sewers combining with kebabs cooking, the huge towering buildings. It was a lot for me to take in having being in the wild for so long.

After further, if less violent bouts of diarrhea our friend and fellow cyclist Eleanor Moseman came out with the jibe that we should re-name the site The Cycle Diarrhea’s. Don’t tell her but we actually though it was quite funny – definitely better than her jokes about mushrooms!

We took a toll road out of Xining. As we passed the no bicycle sign and came up to the barriers a rather obtuse guard rushed towards me signaling that we could not take this road. I calmly and confidently told him ” It’s OK, don’t worry, we’re cycle tourists” as I trundled past.

After 40km we came off the toll road and began to climb. We were back in rural China amongst small Salar (Muslim ethnic minority) farming communities. After a late lunch we cycled past peasants working in the fields and dilapidated houses. As we rose the mountains closed in. We were cast in shadow as the serrated peaks blocked out the sunlight and still the road wound upwards.

Not wanting to be stranded at the top of the mountain at nightfall with no where to camp we began to ask the locals if we could camp in their gardens. Our requests fell on dear ears as they smiled but told us no. Eventually we found a farmer herding Marco Polo sheep who showed us to his shed. As we set the stove up inside we heard the first rumbles of thunder and were grateful for the roof over our heads. As darkness came lightning cracked through the sky illuminating the mountain in an esoteric glow. Then the first of the rain began to fall.

We woke to blue skies and sunshine. All that remained of the storm was some drops of water on the roof of the shed. We climbed again and as our road drew level with a newly built highway I saw a sign that showed we were at 3037 meters. The highway then went through the mountain in a direct route as our road began a series of switchbacks to take us to the summit. I enjoyed the climb and at the top, around 3,500 meters Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the wind.

Then came our prize. We began a fantastic 20 mile downhill run that began with sharp switchbacks at the top of the mountain but soon we were winding down through small villages. After 10 miles we stopped for some lunch before resuming where we left off. We continued to descend into a fertile spring valley. We passed rice paddies such a vivid green I could not take my eyes off them. Pink cherry blossoms were off set against twisted red limestone mountains. The yellow river was actually green and framing all of this were tall icy white peaks.

The following day we left the road and turned onto a gravel track. Our pace slowed significantly. I was grumpy – at this speed we would not make our intended target of Xiahe and my body and mind were tired. All around me though the world conspired to cheer me up. Everyone we came across waved or said hello. One man even began to push me up one of the hills! The surroundings were beautiful and the sun was shinning. It was hard not to smile.

We began the first of three big climbs that day. For 20km the road continued upwards and when we finally did begin the descent the road soon became a gravel track again taking our speed and my morale with it. We came to a small town with an elaborate monastery perched beside it. This was where we began our second climb. I was too tired to cycle and pushed my bike all the way up. It was hard work just to push on the steeply inclined gravel. It took over an hour to reach the top once, again marked by prayer flags and Tibetan confetti. I mounted the bike again and began a slow descent. For an hour we rolled downwards past isolated farms with noisy dogs. Then the paved road appeared as quickly as it had gone and suddenly we were flying along once more.

We flew past the pristine Ganjia grassland villages where children waved warmly. We stopped for a quick meal but at 5pm we set off to cover the last 20 miles to Xiahe before nightfall. Along the road a man who spoke English told us we still had a mountain pass ahead of us but not to worry because at just 4,000m it was a small one. With the end in sight we pushed on hard. I actually enjoyed climbing the Naren Ka pass despite feeling tired all day. The descent on the other side was well worth the effort.

We reached Xiahe after 7pm and quickly holed up at the Tara Guest House where despite a power cut the place was busy. We ate well and shared a few beers before falling into a deep sleep.

Xiahe is home to the Labrang Monastery. Labrang is one of the six sacred monasteries of the Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect of Buddhism. I spent Friday 13th April happily exploring it. The 2 mile radius of the huge complex is lined with prayer wheels which Tibetan pilgrims walk and spin the wheels – this is called the Kora. The temples are incredibly decorated. Gold leaf is wrapped onto the roofs while bright reds, yellows, greens, oranges and blues adorn elaborate archways. Dragons and elephants are carved into the wooden door frames. Thangka (Tibetan sacred art) and bright, intricate rugs are hung on the walls and ceilings. Candles burn yak butter. Monks stand outside the temples burning juniper incense in offering as the guttural Tibetan trumpets resonate through the valley.

The vibrancy, colours, smells and sounds of this place are overwhelming. It is intoxicating, alluring and exotic all at once and yet I understand almost nothing about it. As I wander around taking photos of things I don’t comprehend a monk comes up to me smiling and asks me to take a photo of him which I gladly do. He then asks to take a photo of me, using his brand new HTC mobile phone he fires off a dozen shots. I realise I am as interesting to him as he is to me. We smile wave and part ways.

In the afternoon I climb the steep mountain beside the Monastery and am rewarded with great views. Birds circle on wind currents but I am looking down on them too.

I stroll back down to the monastery and just before sundown I return to the Guest House where I  sneak onto the roof top and drink a couple of beers as the sun sets over the valley.

2 Responses to “The Cycle Diarhhea’s”

  1. Eleanor says:

    Keep going guys! You all are getting to the good stuff! Wishing you all the best of luck. Camping next to Tibetan tents will be very easy for you…get to the nomads. They will insist you sleep in their tent but be warned you’ll be woken up before sunrise.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks Eleanor! We are getting up at 4am now to get the coolest hours of the day before the sun melts everything. In Thailand heading south…

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