Monday 11th June High Steppe to Juizhaigou – Simon

I awoke with a headache, but nothing more. I had managed a full night’s sleep at 13,500 ft of altitude which must mean that I am acclimatising slowly. It had been down to nearly freezing outside and it was raining. I was slightly regretting that it was my turn to ride today. It was cold and furthermore there was a slight drizzle. Dave kindly asked me if I was sure I wanted to ride. But I was committed.

I dragged myself through this most amazing complex of refurbished Swiss type chalets and found a rough dinning area where Paul Chi our guide was brewing up coffee. Although all the hotels are B and B there was a very limited choice on the menu. A few dank bean sprouts from the night before and some warm rice water . I eventually found some boiled eggs and downed three paracetamol with my French coffee. The others shambled in wearing all their winter woollies for the day’s ride ahead. We remembered our attempts at Tibetan/Scottish dancing from the night before and how brave our young waitresses had been to dress up in formal attire and sing for us at the end of dinner ( Spicy Yak Stew- the meal -not the song). Our rendering of Jerusalem and the Grand Old Duke of York at least had amused them.

I got onto thinking that the local women appeared to be a proud and powerful lot, physically strong and robust with the men. The day before I had been waiting to pay at the toll booth and an altercation started in a half bed truck opposite me. The driver having passed through the barrier was trying to get two road builder women with their picks and shovels to get out of the back of his truck. The women were both dressed in the traditional long sleeved over coats with wide brimmed bonnets. One of the women was laughing as the truck owner tried to pull her friend out. The two had obviously wanted a lift right down the valley but the truck owner wasn’t having it. When he became more physical the woman observing had had enough, stood up and was preparing to belt him with her shovel unless his calmed down. Eventually they agreed to get off the truck. Myself and the local policeman at the booth looked on riveted while the argument played out.

I asked Paul what he thought about Tibetan women and his view was that they had a reputation of being fiercely independent and tough, and that he personally and probably most Han Chinese were bit frightened of them!

As I rode through the drizzle on this fabulous high steppe I thought of some the women we had seen in the past few days in this part of China in which 80% of the population is Tibetan. And later I was interested to find that early communities in Northern India and Tibet practiced Fraternal Polyandria. If I might expand for a moment- The resources of the high Steppe being limited and requiring extensive nomadic life a custom developed where women were able to marry more than one husband. Specifically they would marry a string of brothers from another kinship group. The women were respected, had authority and managed much of the family resource and when they had a baby no one knew which one was the dad!!! a) because she slept with all the brothers and b) they all looked a bit similar anyway. More importantly the brothers would all support the woman because they recognized that she was continuing their blood line . Polyandria stopped feuding and peacefully cross linked different kinship groups. Division of labour was also not decided directly on physical strength, women took tough physical jobs but which allowed them to give birth and suckle their young- the men were available for work away from home – droving , trading etc.

Where are my damned husbands?- they were here a minute ago


" Always wanting something - just like your fathers!"

Now I appreciate that this not yer modern Tibetan womens’ answer to the main stream Feminism  but you have admit these women have don’t appear to have much inclination for nancying around in a item off the peg from Zara’s. I have to use this great shot from Dave’s piece yesterday.

Somebody's got to do it and you are never around!

Back to the ride- We hammer off into the drizzle and past a number of housing settlements many with Buddhist prayer flags-

The countryside is very like Welsh Borders, saturated with low driving cloud and rain, The hills appear small and peep into the cloud. We are however between 13000 and 14000 feet.

Simon gives the Ubiquitous Chinese Salute as he flashes by the van.

I am sporting my colourful orange Buddhist scarf given to me by the Mr Sun, Minister of Tourism . We pass a more typical homestead which seems to consist of a green house with a roof plus a wicker shed for all the kit.

Tibetan homestead at 3,800 meters altitude

We were noting that the matriarch of the house had insisted that if the boys wanted to play billiards they could do it outside

Steppe Billiards

I suddenly remembered where I had seen the woman down the hole before – She had been walking proudly down the road later that morning with a very fierce look in her eye. The lads looking appropriately cowed.

Steppe aside lads!

We stop for a rest in a new town built for the tourists visiting the Steppe


While we wait for Paul to buys some prayer flags for John two guys sit with me by the fence

We seem to be still slowly climbing and eventually come to a ridge hidden in the rain. After darting through a tunnel a brief pause to pass some guys with a rather leisurely group of saddled horses

We descend 6000 ft through a fabulous switch back ride to the famous resort town of Juizhaigou. A UNESCO site protecting a beautiful unspoilt alpine gorge. Its about 3 pm so we peel off our helmets and relax in the bar of our first decent hotel in about 6 weeks and sip cold South African Chardonnay.

All the best



Saturday 9th June Xinging to Roe’rghai- Simon

Thanks to Susan for filling in on the blog while we negotiated some wi-fi free zones. Her little map is very helpful and gives you a good idea of where we are. I am going to keep the narrative down in order to give you a chance to see some of the images of what was a fantastic day.

We set off from Xinging ( Think Colorado, colourful , busy, 8000 ft up) and immediately had a prang – A driver on a mobile T-boned Paul Chi in the lead car.



Everybody has a say!



Nothing too serious and so off towards the Chinese part of the northern Tibetan platform. We climb from 2500 m to 3500 metres and begin to see our Buddhist prayer flags.

At the top of the pass they are stretched across the road

As per usual our woolly friends like a patch of dry warmth in the middle of the road.

For the past day or two we have noticed that the facial characteristics of the local people have changed . High angular cheekbones in both men and women and both with jet back long hair. Their racial origin is Tibetan and they are very different in many ways from the Han Chinese. We come to a small village with a monastery and meet our first friendly monks who love the bikes.

One is clearly not interested and has higher thoughts.

Stairway to Heaven

AS we get higher and the steppe gets wetter that yaks increase in number and they love to graze on the grass between the fence and the road but are easily spooked.

good yak stampede!

We go ever higher and each pass is higher than the next. Over the top some stunning views

Down into countless valleys with villages and Buddhist temples

On the one of the ridges we are joined by some vultures

Many families seem happy to pitch a tent anywhere and as the high Steppe becomes more established I feel there is certainly a more Bohemian feel to the way people live, their brightly coloured clothes and tents.

Towards the end of the ride before we reach Roe’rghai a walled city with one of the biggest Buddhists temples we stop to watch a basket ball match – Of course it is Saturday.

By the way how do you boil a kettle at 12000 feet

sun kettle

Our hotel is situated at one end of what feels like a large cowboy town in the wild west. Wide pavements with Verandas and small shops. Quick shower and out for a spicy chines meal and a beer.



Thursday 7th June Zhangye and Hexi Corridor-Simon

In the most complicated fashion the Chinese Immigration Authorities have unspliced our group visa so that we can now leave the country on different days. Had we not done this then we would have all had to fly back from Xian with John in 10 days time. Susan and Karen no doubt being somewhat surprised and possible a bit hosed off to be left alone in China. Three of us, Nick , John and I had to have official Government photos taken , new visas issued and our names formally struck off the group visa, the word “Cancelled” scrawled in red through our names plus more “chops” than a karate expert sees in a year. For those of you that are well traveled in these parts you will know that a “chop” is a very important thing , whether delivered by a person in a white bath robe and a black belt or an immigration official , it consists of a violent down swing of the arm followed instantaneously by either mortal damage to its subject or the delivery of the all important stamp in your passport and Visa document.

So with a wide assortment of grubby documents stuck in our back pockets we set off for our next town, Zhangye, where we are to meet this evening by Beijing’s Deputy Director of Tourism. Our guide Paul Chi gives a briefing on the day’s trip and has asked us to be on our best behaviour this evening, in the lobby with clean boots and T shirts at 6 O’clock sharp.

Fully briefed we set off towards the motorway and it is a fine day after yesterday’s rain – all the dust has cleared. We have to take the only road going east that links Western Gansu and Xingiang with the rest of China and once at the motorway tollbooth a bossy police woman says that motorbikes are not allowed on the motorway. Paul Chi shouts at her that there is no other way now the Government has built the motorway on top of the only other road! Not my Problem she says -you ain’t allowed on my motor way, Eventually she goes off for tea and her replacement waves us through. Great biking through the pristine air of the rain scrubbed Hexi Corridor- a bit monotonous on the empty motorway but a very clear view of the mountains with their recent snow to the south ( The Tibetan Plateau) and slight less austere undulating gobi to the North. The corridor is so called because it is the principal flat platform of land that links Western China with the East

North side of the Hexi

( By the way Richard our resident pedant tells us we shouldn’t say “Gobi Desert” because the specific area of desert has been “de-named” and that gobi is now simply a term to describe a type of sparse wilderness with a few gobis of hardy plant.

A Hexi midnight runner


The Hexi Corridor is significant both geographically and historically. In the latter case it was the only corridor of high plateau with regular oases which could facilitate the development of the North Silk Route. It has been populated since 3000 BC. Geographically it is has a close and dynamic relationship with the Yellow River , a massive silt ridden flow three tributaries of which drain a significant portion of the Tibetan Plateau.

Concrete Levees to contain the river -note marks of trucks emptying the river bed of gravel

However the river’s silt is unique ; it is fertile but dries into a fine dust and when airborne in the wind tunnel effect of the Hexi Corridor gets itself blasted directly through to the eastern plains around Beijing where it has resulted in disastrous desertification. The silt that stays in the river is just as problematic because it has resulted in an ever increasing population, building ever taller levees on its banks which then in turn results in the river slowly rising above the surrounding countryside and of course with bad weather resulting in massive and deadly breaches and floods. The population of China has risen from 800 million to 1.4 billion in 40 years and the resultant pressure to increase grazing , plant crops that are poor in stabilizing soil has resulted silt or “Loess “ as it is called in this area becoming airborne and moving eastwards. Currently the Government have a 10 year planting and low grazing project in place which is reducing desert by about 1% per year so they claim. So “ Keep your goats in a pen” is the instruction.

After a very pleasant blast eastwards for 4 hours with only a brief stop for instant noodles and a marsbar top-up we get to the Zhangye motorway exit and something unusual happens, the police having let Paul through, close the motorway barriers and pin the bikes and the van in . Maybe a computer problem or something , some lean forward and rest on their handlebars- others raid the bowels of the van for marsbars and I shut my eyes for a little kip we are used to these sort of delays now and are not unduely perturbed. 20 minutes later and there is a queue of 20 cars behind us all pooping their horns. The police tell Paul that the bikes should not be on the motorway. Paul say well they are ; OK say the police where have they come from; Dunyuang says Paul; No- where from -originally? say the policeman; Kyrgyzstan says Paul ; well that is where you have to pay from say the policemen. You have to be kidding me we all say. That’s a 2000 km toll charge for 4 bikes!

Meanwhile Mr Stroppy Chopsticks behind us goes ballistic and head buts his car horn to the point of frontal lobe damage. Then there is a general free-for-all. Everyone in the queue has got out of their cars to add their piece. Paul stands his ground in a mounting crowd but so do the police. Eventually the police have to pull us out of it before a serious bust up occurs. We are dragged through and told to wait at the side with our hands out of our pockets but Paul is also pulled aside and asked to come into the Super’s office. Not before Richard however has had the time to saunter over and in his best Mandarin suggests that since the Lady police officer and her chum earlier in the day had made the mistake of letting us on the motorway that the police might like to pay the toll charge in view of the mistake being theirs. Very Big grin from the two policemen who now take a firmer grip of Paul’s arm and move him more urgently to the Super’s office. However before disappearing Paul just has the opportunity of telling Richard something in the line of his last remarks perhaps not being the most helpful. Another 20 minutes go by and Paul returns having blagged the entire bike toll fee from Kashghar to Zhangye down to 60 quid for the lot.

Below is a shot from the motorway of the high speed rail network going up in sections which are brought in by a massive low loader with multiples of wheels and a clever gantry for hopping from pylon to pylon.

rapid deployment of high speed railway line

Into the hotel by 3pm , quick kip and then just time for a  shower before meeting the  Deputy Director of Tourism who  speaks good English Paul reassures us.

best wishes


Tuesday 5th June, Dunyuang to Jaiyuguan- Simon.

They forecasted rain and it started in the night. A gentle patter at our hotel, just enough to clear the dust and keep the temperature at a comfortable 18 deg C for our planned 275 k ms to Jaiyuguan. We set off from The hotel on the new road directly eastwards towards Jaiyuguan and had one last glimpse of the majestic dunes through the poplars

last view of the dunes in the clear morning air

We slowed for a road block, a few cars were let through but we were told to turn back. Paul comes back to us to tell that the whole dual carriage has been washed away by flash floods and that we have to retrace out steps for 100 miles and go via the northern route. The guys feel the rain is going to ease and decide to avoid overheating by taking off their waterproof gear ( except for Nick). We return through the town and past remnants of the old Wall as we go north. The guys enjoy the repeat of the off piste section where the road is being rebuilt

Oops! little bit of mud and rain- wont last long

But it does not stop raining – it begins to rain quite hard and very soon we are coming to a series of flash floods that have begun to spill over the road. It does not take long for the water to undermine the tarmac and soon the whole lot can go. It reminds me of the infamous Midelt floods in Morocco where I broke my ankle three years ago and having done so then tried to forge a swollen stream with Susan to rejoin the others but to no avail. Desert flash floods are to be reckoned with.

Richard and John charge through overspill standing up

Mr Ralley car blasts by

First torrent to threaten the road

After a couple of hours we rejoin the motorway and turn east towards Jaiyuguan. This is a much more substantial road with enormous culverts protecting the gravel banks on which the roadway is perched. The torrents are now much more impressive but so is the construction so we appear safe. Although we alarmed to see a heavy truck trapped on the slip road where its wheels had suddenly sunk through the thin tarmac and into the sand beneath because under -layers had become fixatropic with the water and the heavy vibrations of the axle. Other slip roads had completely collapsed. (An example of fixatropic change is when you agitate your toes in a small pool on a sandy beach and suddenly the sand turns from a solid to a liquid as it mixes with the water and you can move your foot much more freely- happens in earthquakes too so they tell me)

Of course the guys have really enjoyed riding in torrential rain with most of their waterproofs in the van.

We decide to press on and get in the shower at the hotel . We opt for a quick stop at the service station  but miss the exit. In true “Utterly Bonkers Chinese Driving”(UBCD) fashion we swing out in the offside lane and do a “Uey” down the exit slip and get into a desperate, dirty disgusting lorry park to be greeted by on a single shivering dog.

Dave pervays the sodden scene

some of flash floods are bigger

Richard now has wet knickers

Before the van has even come to a halt the side door in wrenched open and a number of large manic soaked piglets are troughing wildly in the Snickers and Marsbar locker. After blood glucose levels have been restored some put on waterproof trousers after the horse has bolted and others decided to squelch it to the end and are actually enjoying themselves.

I am entertained to several episodes of torpedo training as the guys come up on lorries discharging huge quantities of solid water into the offside lane. The best technique I observe from my rather nice dry position is for the bike riders to take a big breath then aim for the hole between the truck and the central reservation, accelerate hard and then count to 3 in the wet black out and readjust your course as you shoot the rapids, followed by loud exhalation.

point of zero viz and top acceleration to clear the spray

At last Jaiyuguan and a friendly and dry main drag with nice red monument.

Jiayuguan at last and the rain lets up

Friendly hotel welcome us and invite us into unmade up rooms – a common theme here – but all is sorted pretty quick.

Drinkies at 7pm where we hitch up with Paul who tells us that Dunyuang is now cut off with no major roads in or out.

Reflection- This part of China , Gansu, is not like England  with gently rolling hills covered with a stable topsoil into which we can embed our homes with an expectation they might last a couple of hundred years. This is a vast violent eroded plane where nothing is fixed- a single shower of rain can destroy million of dollars worth of infra structure in ten minutes. Controlled and usable water comes from 400 k ms away and is very precious. Yet the people seem happy and adaptable.