China – towards Tibet by train

Author: Alex

KM 7870 – Lao Cai, Vietnam


We could report about many things: about the food (partly very spicy and with a lot of glutamate, on the otherhand very versatile and always with chop sticks), about the pollution of the environment, smog, over exploitation and huge concrete blocks (skyscrapers, bridges, highways). About especially older people who populate the cultivated parks to dance, sing or play cards. About the often shy but usually helpful people here. But one after another. The weather: we had all kinds of weather from sunny, fresh autumn days in the North, snow in the Tibetian high plateau to pleasant spring temperatures in lower lands.

train Chengdu - Hohot


  • I am at ease as the train leaves Ulaanbaatar and I can see our bikes in the luggage waggon. Taking a train is so wonderful – so wonderfully calm. The landscapes pass bei, the sun sets and we are on our way to the Chinese-Mongolian border. The next morning we have to wait a long time for our bikes, but then finally we start cycling towards the border post.
  • The exit stamp is received without any problem, but then an officer stops us. We are not allowed to continue by bike. Putting our bikes on a truck is forbidden as well. Because of these intransparent rules we end up on an all-terrain vehicle. After handing our last cash to the driver we can continue. After about 3 kilometers, another stop, waiting again. More and more cars, almost all of them Russian overland vehicles, wait in front of the Chinese border. The vehicles don’t park in a row, but mainly side by side. As the border opens again after lunch break, we cannot believe what our eyes are seeing: totally wild, as if threatened by death the cars push and squeeze into the needle eye. While doing this everyone drives against and pushes the other vehicles and you can hear how the metals deform. There is honking, speeding up, abrupt breaking and pile-driving. To us it feels like bumper car. A hectic – no a panic – starts, as if everyone wanted to save himself of an earth quake. The driver’s wife screams aggressively as her husband misses a gap (he was discussing the caused damage with the guy behind him). We can just shake our heads. It has never taken us so long to cross a border…
  • Did we still see far related routes or vague connections to European language in many countries we had travelled so far, now we really don’t understand a single word anymore. Yet: in the border town named Erlian we manage our first tasks. Wide cycling lanes and quiet electric motorbikes accompany us to the train station. With the help of sign language and a little vocabulary booklet, we actually manage to buy a train ticket and to hand in our bikes the night before.
  • So how do we cope with everyday life in China without speaking the language? With improvisation 😉 Here our strategies to order a meal in China:
      • choose a restaurant that has pictures of their meals on the wall
      • show towards the food that other guests are currently eating
      • give 20 yuan (=2,50€) and try to pantomimically explain the cook that he shall prepare us something nice for this amount…
      • point to a meal in the menu and get a surprise dish
      • show the words „noodles“ and „vegetables“ in the vocabulary booklet (and get a surprise dish)
  • We would like to limit our China visit to only two provinces (Sichuan and Yunnan) and that’s why we take the train to Chengdu in the far South. 42 (fourty-two!) hours in the train! The two nights and the day and a half pass by fast. We just watch inside and outside the train, read, listen, write. All beds are occupied and we enjoy our intensive lesson in Chinese culture. People eat, sip, smoke. Chicken feet, fast food noodle soup, beer and card games belong to the luggage of our fellow travellers as well as smart phones and cigarettes.



  • A highlight: in the West of Sichuan begins the Tibetan high plateau which we can enter totally legal here (in contrast to the part of the same high plateau in the province „Tibet“ which you can only enter with a special permission and a tour guide). Right from the start we were fascinated. We leave the bikes in Luding and hitchhike to a village named Tagong at 4000 meters altitude. The Tibetan didn’t bow to China’s annexation, but their religion forbids violent resistance. We can feel this peaceful charisma during the days we visit as well.
  • We visit temples, hike through mountains to a monastery for women (nunnery) and watch the deeply believing Buddhists how they walk around the temples (clockwise!) and turn the prayer wheels. A young Tibetan invites us for fresh yoghurt and hot tea. The outward appearance of the people here differs a lot from the „Han“-Chinese (majority of the Chinese). The Tibetans have a darker skin and wear colourful headdresses and clothes.
  • Back in the Hostel in Luding where we had left our bikes: a mouse nibbles on one of our food bags. As I tell the staff about it (hoping to get a new room to not have more bags nibbled) one young lady says calm and smiling: „Yes, there are mice, but they are only under the first and the fourth bed.“ Problem solved!

Here you find recent PICTURES and the ROUTE we took (just click on the words)!

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