A warm unwelcome

Qinghai is historically part of Tibet, and many travellers and scholars now claim that if you want to see real Tibetan life, you go to Qinghai rather than to Lhasa, which has become a bit of a theme park in recent years and is, anyway, more and more difficult to get into if you’re not Chinese. An Australian in Kashgar told me that foreigners are now obliged to visit Tibet in groups of no less than five, all of whom must be of the same nationality and arrive in Lhasa from the same starting point. The other night a Canadian woman, working with a local travel c0mpany, confided in me that Tibet is now, in effect, completely closed to outsiders. The government are still issuing permits, but even with all their paperwork in order, foreigners will be turned back at the border.

I had wanted to try my luck riding across Western Tibet from Kashgar, via Mount Kailash and some of the highest and most remote roads in the world. Having seen how badly my (rapidly deteriorating) tyres coped with the rubble and scree of the Karakorum Highway, I’m glad I didn’t, but I was pleased to have stumbled across Qinghai, which seemed to offer me more manageable levels of altitude and isolation, and the chance to get as close to Tibet proper as any foreigner is allowed these days.

As it turns out, I got closer than I was meant to. A few days after I left Dunhuang, the end of the day coincided nicely with my reaching the town of Da Qaidam. On the map it looked like it might be a fairly major settlement, but it was in fact a tiny cluster of buildings, adrift in the enormous wilderness. Nonetheless, once I got into town it was exactly like anywhere else. There was a long straight (almost empty), multi-lane high street, fringed with brightly lit modern buildings and shaded by incongruous and identical willow trees. People whirred up and down on scooters and played pool at outdoor tables, as if unaware that all around them was the vast emptiness of the Qinghai plateau. Perhaps that was the point. But behind the facade, most of the roads petered out into nothing within a few hundred metres. There was nowhere for them to go.

I decided to treat myself to a hotel for the night. Most Chinese towns only seem to have one or two hotels that will accept foreigners, so I wasn’t unduly worried when the first two I tried pointed me up the road. The receptionist at the third hotel seemed slightly alarmed to see me. She didn’t send me away, but motioned me to sit down while she made a series of anxious phonecalls. Shortly the husband-and-wife proprietors of the hotel turned up, closely followed by some friendly but rather nonplussed policemen. My Chinese hasn’t progressed beyond ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ (I still order food by walking into restaurants and pointing at my mouth), so our mutual vocabulary was quickly exhausted and no one seemed to be able to explain why they couldn’t just show me to a room and let me get on with the usual business of showering, eating, doing my laundry and falling asleep.

Eventually an English-speaker was dragged in off the street, and the phrase ‘closed to foreigners’ came up, though it wasn’t clear whether this applied to the hotel, the town, or Qinghai itself. But it was obvious to all concerned that they weren’t going to get rid of me that evening. Like most of Da Qaidam’s side streets, there was nowhere for me to go.

So, with some reluctance, but also a certain sense of relief, the policemen took down my particulars, helped me carry my bags upstairs, and instructed the translator to inform me that I wasn’t allowed to leave the premises unescorted. Now that they’d decided what to do with me, everyone became extremely friendly, finally able to give their hospitality free rein. Well, almost. A beaming young policeman was stationed in the lobby to apprehend me in case I tried to go out on my own (Balochistan all over again), but by the time I’d settled in and had my shower he’d disappeared, so I cautiously sneaked out to a little cafe a few doors down, pointed plaintively at my mouth and was given a huge bowl of noodles. The angelic young waiter and most of the patrons watched approvingly as I stuffed myself, and were even more delighted when the hotel receptionist appeared in a panic, and anxiously summoned me back before the police found out I’d escaped.

The next morning everyone turned out to wave me off. I suspect they were rather relieved to see the back of me.

There followed another glorious day of ups and downs and wide open spaces and not many people – until, at about 5 o’clock, I reached a toll gate, surrounded by the usual cluster of petrol stations, police dormitory and shabby prefabricated buildings. Just before the gate, a handful of policemen were lounging in and around a couple of cars, pulling over the occasional lorry and otherwise clearly just socializing and sunning themselves. They gave me a cheerful wave as I whizzed past, and then caught up with me on the other side of the barriers, having belatedly remembered that Qinghai is meant to be closed to foreigners.

The slightly older, slightly plumper senior officer motioned to me to stop, simultaneously giving me a fatherly wink, to assure me that everything was OK, and I wasn’t really in trouble. One of his men hurried back to the car and produced a couple of cans of Red Bull. They asked the usual questions – where are you from? where are you going? are you alone? – and went through the same old charade of squeezing my tyres, examining my maps and exclaiming incredulously over the weight of my bike. I showed them the letter of introduction a friend had translated for me (it explains that I’m cycling round the world and apologizes for my lack of Chinese) and they were so delighted they all but slapped me on the back. The boss asked if I was hungry and sent a junior officer off to look for food while he made a phonecall.

After a few minutes of conversation he handed the phone to me, and I was surprised to hear a clear, almost accentless female voice, explaining (in English) that Qinghai was indeed out of bounds to foreigners, and that the police were waiting for a van, which would take me the final 50km to Delingha, where I’d be put on a bus, which would drop me off in Xining the following morning. Xining was my final pitstop before I reached Lanzhou, where I was planning to park the bike for a couple of weeks and take a train to Hong Kong for a new visa, so this wasn’t entirely the end of the world. It would mean I’d get to spend a few more days sitting around in Xining’s famously comfortable backpacker hostel, and might even muster the energy to do a bit of sightseeing. And I wouldn’t be contravening my personal rule of ‘cycle everywhere unless stopped by the police’.

I put up some token resistance, explaining that I was travelling by bicycle, that it would be difficult to put said bicycle on a bus, that I’d really much rather ride my bike through this beautiful province than stare at it through a greasy bus window. But, as expected, none of this got me anywhere. I leant against the crash barrier, looking back into the blazing sunshine at the road sweeping away into the mountains, and noticing for the first time that my upper arms were almost maroon with sunburn, and throbbing rhythmically. As in Balochistan, being stopped by the police was a convenient excuse to indulge my innate laziness. Except… I realized that I wasn’t feeling lazy in the slightest. I’d already ridden further than I usually do in a day, but there was still plenty of energy in my legs, and a tailwind, and the sunshine was shimmering on the tarmac in front of me, and I’d just had some of my best days on the bike this year, and I didn’t want it to end here.

The senior officer handed me a plastic bag containing several bread rolls and a block of pale pink processed meat, and watched approvingly as I unfurled my Leatherman and dug into them. I decided to make one last-ditch break for freedom.

It was fairly easy to explain in sign language that I was proposing to cycle to the bus station in Delingha instead of waiting for the van. The policeman got it right away, nodded eagerly, and waved me on. Just like that. For a couple of seconds I dithered, not quite believing it could be that easy. Then I stuffed my half-eaten sandwich into my pocket, waved goodbye to my new friends, and legged it before they could change their minds.

Of course, I had no intention of taking the bus once I got to Delingha. But I also knew I’d have to keep my head down from now on. I definitely couldn’t draw attention to myself by trying to get into a hotel room. I was slightly worried that the policemen might change their minds, catch up with me and load me into a van – or warn their colleagues in Delingha to keep an eye out for me, and stop me if I tried to ride out the other side of town. But no one seemed to care. I was ignored by the few police cars I passed over the next couple of hours.

And as I approached Delingha, worrying about where I was going to hide my tent, the barren hills and canyons suddenly gave way to green trees and miles and miles of well-tended fields. I was back in civilization – and what beautiful civilization it was! Alongside the highway were countless tiny farms and homestead, tucked in amongest lush greenery, small tracks leading off into the fields behind them. I followed one of these tracks over a humpback bridge, down an avenue of the biggest silver birch trees I’ve ever seen, and off into a maze of fields, irrigated by cool blue streams rippling and rushing around their perimeters, green ears of barley glistening in the last blaze of evening sunshine. People in straw hats and dusty clothes were ambling home from their day’s work, and a few sharply dressed young men cruised around on the ubiquitous scooters. Swallows swooped and darted through the evening air, and a cuckoo called out from a nearby tree. Stumbling across this pastoral idyll felt just as magical as when I’d slipped over the top of the first mountain past, and left the desert for the plateau.

Curiously, the few small villages I passed through were deserted, with beehives and neat rows of vegetables planted in between the ruined houses. I ducked into one of them, found a sheltered spot behind one of the larger buildings and was enthusiastically welcomed by a cloud of mosquitoes, who settled on me in droves, swarming over every inch of bare skin, flying into my eyes, nose and mouth, and even clogging up my ears. I put up my tent as quickly as I possibly could, twitching, dancing, and desperately slapping at myself to try and get rid of them, then crawled inside, killed off the few who’d followed me, and vowed not to go outside until morning.

But by midnight I was desperate for the toilet, so I cautiously emerged, to discover that the mosquitoes had (mostly) gone) and a huge silver moon hung above me, glowing down on the swaying fields and rustling trees, surrounded by a thousand shining stars.

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