Chinese culture was born along and has been shaped by its rivers, at least according to the Internet. While that’s probably true for every major ancient culture in the world, some Chinese rivers do seem very impressive on paper, belonging to the longest in Asia and therefore the world. Five weeks and 3.300km after first setting foot on the country, we finally reached one of those rivers.
After talking about exactly that all morning we hit some major roadworks at a junction, took a turn-off and all of a sudden this huge river appeared behind a fence. Since the views were blocked by more fences and the pillars of a highway bridge, we decided to stop for lunch in the first town by the river and take a good look at it. It’s not every day one reaches the Yellow River.
That town happened to be Hekou, a beautiful little spot that epitomized how China does tourism. Signs all over town, mostly in Chinese except for a few terrible English translations, went on and on about the glorious history of Hekou. However, it was obvious that every single one of those gates, temples and alleys had been not renovated but entirely rebuilt. In Europe we place value on historical buildings no matter how ruinous their condition might be, but it seems in China historical significance is secondary to aesthetics, or rather photo opportunities. Preserving the historical style of little villages is still an upgrade on what’s going on in the new cities, but Hekou was basically a theme park and wandering on its streets felt like being in one. It definitely didn’t help that everyone there was either a tourist or trying to sell something to tourists. But it wasn’t all bad, as surprisingly there was no entrance fee and with winter being low-season in Gansu we had the “old” streets mostly to ourselves.
The Yellow River flowed quietly but it was very wide considering it still had 80% of its course to run. This meant that it still had to pass through the region where it acquires the colour it’s named after, but despite its water being a rather unexciting brown, it was a welcome novelty after weeks of dry riverbeds and man-made canals. Since we were ahead of schedule on our race to Chengdu, we decided to go on a little detour and follow it upstream for a couple of days, hoping to see more dramatic landscapes. The original plan had been to just hop across the river and then follow the main roads to Linxia and onto the Tibetan Plateau, but on our maps we had found a backdoor through river gorges, remote valleys and high mountain passes further west and it looked very promising.
Two highways and a main road ran along the river, all of them busy, but we took a little path instead, convinced it was a shortcut we had spotted on the map. We use maps.me, which has the advantage of working offline but relies on open data. The latter isn’t an issue in most countries, but China is not so fond of the concept of open data and so sometimes the maps are a few months old, which often means completely inaccurate due to the Chinese obsession with bulldozing and building.
The path became thinner and thinner and led us to a cute monastery. It reminded us of the ones in the movie 7 Years in Tibet, which at that point was our main reference when deciding if Buddhist art/architecture was Tibetan or plain Chinese. Youri had been to Tibet a few years earlier and helped clear our doubts. Something about the style being less ornate in Tibet. A few kilometers after the monastery the path ended, and 300m of rail tracks separated us from the proper road. Going back would have meant an extra 15km, so we pushed our bikes for a potentially dangerous couple of minutes.
We were cycling upstream and shortly before sunset we hit the first dam, and the road shot up with gradients of 12-15%. This is very uncommon in China, where roads are smooth in every sense. We shifted into our lowest gear for the first time in ages and were rewarded with amazing views over the reservoir at the top. It was fairly easy to find a quiet camping spot among the hills.
The next day we made it into the first cities on the shores of the river. Liujiaxia and adjacent Yongjing were villages that had grown too fast, and this looked as unflattering as it sounds. We crossed onto the northern shore of the river again and left the main road to check out the potato terraces of the Liujiaxia Reservoir.
Potato terraces? Pictures of green flooded rice terraces are in every guidebook on China, but at first the concept potato terraces sounded a bit dull. But no, we read that potato terraces are also a thing, and that they were worth a visit if one was around. And they didn’t disappoint at all.
After an initial climb we spent a morning snaking among the aforementioned terraces and following ridges with amazing views on both sides. To our left the lake was 1.000m below, and we got to see its waters just a couple of times before the road veered a bit further north. From there on it was just hills as far as the eye could see. Although the going was tough we had a lot of fun, it was one of those roads that keeps you busy all the time.
Whereas along the river the people had been mainly Han Chinese and the towns and cities had that awful artificial look, the people and the villages in the hills were Muslim again, only Hui instead of Uyghur this time. There were little differences, the coolest amongst them the huge sunglasses some old men were wearing, although they probably weren’t a Hui thing… We felt comfortable back among Muslims, and we enjoyed a nice meal of laghman very similar to the ones in Xinjiang.
By late afternoon a little road with uncountable switchbacks brought us back to water level. We cycled on until the next dam, buying a couple of beers on the way to celebrate our brilliant choice of road, and found an abandoned industrial site where we pitched our tents.
The valley narrowed again after that second dam, and instead of terraces and ridges the road gave us tunnels and bridges for the best part of a day. The villages were still Muslim, quiet and cool, with the largest town being the exception that confirms the rule. While Xunhua was Muslim, it wasn’t quiet at all, but rather chaotic in a way that reminded us of Central Asian cities at their worst. The rest of the valley, however, was very peaceful.
Our backdoor route onto the plateau included a daunting mountain pass that same afternoon followed by an even higher one the next day. The potato terraces had left us with sore legs, and we figured we could try to go around the mountains to avoid the first mountain pass. Why hadn’t we planned to do so in the first place? The only way around the mountains involved sneaking into the highway and crossing 8 tunnels over a 30km stretch. And this while hoping that police wouldn’t find us and escort us back to the start. It had looked a lot of hassle just to avoid a mountain pass, but the sore legs changed that perception. Youri led the run for the highway fence at the first empty stretch of road we saw.
Adrenaline was pumping through our bodies as we rushed in and out of the successive tunnels at a crazy pace, hoping that if police caught us we would be far enough up the road as to be escorted to the end of the tunnels rather than the start. The landscapes, of which we only caught glimpses, were fantastic, as the valley was completely untouched by civilization except for the road we were on. The road was slightly uphill but almost empty and we made it to the end of the tunnels in an hour. Tired as dogs, we jumped over the fence again and headed to the first shop in sight to get some food into us.
We left the Yellow River and turned south along one of its tributaries. We were following it upstream and our progress was slow, but by the end of the day we reached the little village of Langjia, as we had planned all along.
The nights had been getting colder, even outside the desert, and now we were at 2.000m. There was a beautiful small monastery in town, but after looking around we found no one whom we could ask about sleeping there. But we could tell that Langjia wasn’t Muslim anymore, as the people were already Tibetan, and that meant there was another place where we could try our luck: the bar.
It seemed that half the men in town (that’s a dozen at most) were in a heated room besides the only shop, alternating between shots of liquor and sips of tea and smoking cigarette after cigarette. We bought a beer and a cup of instant noodles, as bad planning on our side had left us with nothing to eat. We settled on the far end of the room, happy to be out of the cold and thinking about how to play our cards to be able to stay there overnight.
Being a foreigner in China attracts some attention no matter what, although that rarely translates into anything further than some looks. Being a foreigner with a beer in a room full of locals drinking hard liquor, however, usually ends up with the foreigner drinking a lot of liquor as well and making many new friends. First a friendly cheers across the room, followed by a couple of questions while searching for a common language, then a couple of shots for us.
After that we bought them some beers, and next thing we know one of the guys is chatting to the owner, and in a drunken mix of Chinese, Tibetan and hand signs he told us we could sleep there. This guy seemed to be in charge of the lot, sitting upright in the best chair, wearing a large golden ring, and smoking the fanciest cigarettes. Offering cigarettes around is a tradition in China, so Joan and Youri went to the shop next door to buy some and be able to share as well, and the fancy ones cost 7 times as much as the regular ones! We figured out that he must be the mayor or something, but he got as drunk as everyone else in the room.
They sent a young man to grab dinner to the town down in the valley and they shared it with us, our instant noodles forgotten in a corner. Communication was flowing fairly well, especially considering that they spoke either Tibetan or Chinese with such a very strong accent that we couldn’t even understand the easiest words, but they seemed to understand some of our Chinese. As if to emphasize the point that we had left the Muslim region behind, dinner was a huge serving of pork belly with a delicious spicy sauce. Bottles of baijiu kept coming and a case of beer too, and we did our best to remain sober, as the cycling would be tough the next day. The locals were not holding back, and a couple of wives came in at different times to see if their husbands were there. Probably they had turned their phones off or had missed the calls amid so much laughing and drinking. One by one they ended up disappearing into the cold night and a friend appeared with a car to give a ride to the last three, who could barely stand by that point. We finally packed out our sleeping bags and slept like logs near the stove.
A light hangover accompanied us all the way to the top of the pass, at 3650m. Youri was feeling well and he’s not one to keep stopping, so we agreed to meet at the top after he insisted that it wouldn’t be too cold for him. The pass turned out to be a big climb followed by a short descent into a huge monastery and another small climb. In Guashize, the monastery, we saw some yak milk at 12¥ (1,5€) a bottle. In need of a break, we wolfed it down with some bread while sitting in the sun and discussing Youri’s unbelievable fitness. The milk was fatty and very, very good. We made it to the top, where Youri and his cigarettes had been waiting for some time, and quickly descended to the Ganjia grasslands.
The grasslands were beautiful, boasting herds of yaks and distant peaks. The grass was a golden yellow already, and a week later the white of the snow would cover it all. The fresh air cleared our heads and the short and cold descent into Ganjia left us ready for some delicious Tibetan yak noodles. Yak meat was more familiar than expected, which wasn’t a disappointment as it was still very tasty.
A short afternoon climb resulted in more amazing views over the grasslands before a fast descent brought us down to the busy town of Xiahe. It marked the end of a short but intense detour, and we had the feeling we had encountered as much variety in landscapes and cultures during those 4 days as in the previous 4 weeks. It was time to get to know one of those cultures better, and to travel through a landscape closely associated with it. Xiahe is home to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang, one of the largest in the world, and behind it the Tibetan Plateau was the last obstacle between us and a well-deserved rest in Chengdu.