Mr. Sun, Vice Chairman of Beijing tourism rode on the back of Nick’s bike this morning. It was a favor to our guide, Paul, because Mr. Sun is an important facilitator of Paul’s business. It had seemed like a small favor when we agreed to it, as Mr. Sun had been an amiable dinner guest last night and had impressed us with his fluent English and French and his gregarious nature (although his conversation would have been even more riveting had it occasionally featured a subject other than himself). However, we hadn’t expected his vehicle to join our little convoy, manned by his driver and his photographer ‘Mr Joe’, who was there take as many photos of Mr. Sun as possible – ideally in dashing, heroic poses.
Note in the photo below (1) Mr Sun making an very important phone call and (2) Mr Joe’s camera which caused SImon a nasty case of lens envy.
So the day started with a photo shoot on the bikes outside the hotel, surrounded by staff, guests and curious passers-by. The uniformed ladies from reception draped themselves all over us like supermodels while Mr. Sun, clad in biking gear, struck heroic poses, grinned broadly and waved for the camera. Mr. Joe snapped hundreds of shots before we tired of it, fired up the bikes and headed for the road. Mr. Joe snapped a few final shots then hurried to his car to catch the ‘Easy Rider’ action shots of Mr. Sun.
Soon we were out in beautiful countryside –tree-lined roads through meticulously-tended fields with snow-capped mountains ahead. It was the China I had day-dreamed of for the last few years – so transporting that I barely noticed Mr. Joe’s car racing dangerously close to Nick’s bike to snap shots of Mr. Sun’s heroic pillion ride.
After a few hours we climbed into the mountains, above the treeline and the scenery became harsher, yet even more beautiful. Picture Glencoe, then magnify every dimension two or threefold. Snow-capped mountains on each side. Rushing streams. Even the yaks (is that the right plural?) reminded me of Highland cattle with their long horns and shaggy coats. The only dwellings in these cold valleys were the yurts and tents of the yak and sheep herders and of the hardy men and women who come up here in search of cordyceps – medicinal fungi.
We stopped for lunch by the road and were hit by a sudden squall – a perfect opportunity for Mr. Joe to capture Mr. Sun in man of action mode as he encouraged us to tighten the guys and catch things blown away by the wind, while still managing to eat his lunch. Imagine how we felt when he told us he couldn’t ride with us in the afternoon as he had to hurry on ahead to view some other important tourist attraction. But maybe we’d see him at the hotel in Xining? We waved goodbye as he sped off through the mountains reviewing Mr. Joe’s photos.
The rain eased and we rode on through the mountains, which became more and more spectacular. Soon we overtook Mr. Sun and his team at the site of an accident – a coal truck was being lifted back onto the road by a crane after having gone over the edge. A large crowd was having fun watching the team struggle to figure out how to get the truck upright with the crane.
But when they saw us arrive they decided we were much more interesting and so it was “Where are you from?” “Your bike – how much does it cost?” “Where are you going?” “Your bike – how much does it cost?” “Why are you doing this?” “Your bike – how much does it cost?”…
After twenty minutes or so of being questioned about the price of our bikes, we eased through the chaos and pushed on.
In one mountain pass the riding was particularly hairy/exhilarating as the road was unmade, barely wide enough for two vehicles and consisted of a series of tight hairpin bends with a vertiginous, unprotected drop to one side. It was more challenging than the Torugart Pass and we were now at an altitude of 4,000 meters, the highest we’ve been so far on the trip – and we could feel it.
Here’s a pic Simon took of the hairpins below while he was inches from the edge…
Finally we reached the summit – marked in Tibetan style with colorful prayer flags – and headed down another series of hairpins onto the Steppes – an infinite grassy pain dotted with yak and occasional yurts. This must have been how the Great Plains of America had once looked?
It was a fantastic ride –technically challenging through stunning scenery.
We worked our way through the crowded modern city of Xining to our hotel – only to find that Mr. Sun had somehow managed to arrived at exactly the same time. How lucky was that – another photo opportunity! So into reception we marched with Mr. Sun, to be greeted by three young Tibetans singing a folk song while draping scarves around our necks. Mr. Joe was beside himself with excitement, scampering everywhere to snap pictures of Mr. Sun being so warmly welcomed by people who clearly adore him.
Another great day.
Best to all, and love to my family.