By Mick McDonald
We woke to a virtual blizzard that only seemed to intensify as the day wore on, it was our last day in Tibet and we were descending nearly 2000mt from the, now snow covered, Tibetan Plateau to what is known as the Mongolian Prefecture, and the town of Golmud, however Tibet had one last surprise waiting for us.
The majority of the day was spent crawling along struggling to see past the bonnet of the car, keeping traction on the ice-covered road and dodging the endless lines of semis heading to Lhasa. We came across an immense line of trucks, engines stopped, looking very much like they were here for the long haul, all the while the snow blew almost horizontal against our windscreen, the road was blocked, and no one was going anywhere. Incredibly the geniuses, otherwise known as the Chinese road builders, decided today was a good day to dig a huge trench across the highway forcing the 1000s of semis onto a dirt bypass, of course the moment the first of the rigs hit the dirt, down it went to the axles, but that didn’t deter others from trying, soon at least 50 trucks were hopelessly bogged as the snow storm raged. We chose a path, stuck the Hilux into low range 4 x 4 and hung on for dear life with our Tibetan guide yelling “go Australia” as we charged across a kilometre long muddy path churned up by overloaded trucks, all the while bemused road workers continued on, seemingly oblivious to the utter chaos unfolding due to an idiotic decision to cut the only road to Lhasa during a snowstorm, those trucks will be there for days, we were lucky we made it back to the pavement and continued descending
To be honest the altitude was never an issue for us as we had carefully crafted the itinerary to ascend no more than the recommended 500mts per day. Yes, that means we take a couple more days to get to Everest, but it also means we greatly minimise the risk of Altitude Mountain Sickness. Our guide waxed lyrical how other companies charge to Everest climbing 1200mt in one day but admitted they are the ones on oxygen bottles and struggling to walk whereby we suffered no affects; he eventually concurred a slower pace is much more preferable and far safer option.
We left the relative lowland town of Golmud, at 2800mt, and skirted Chinas biggest lake, Qinghai Lake, around 350ks to drive around it. A mighty storm brewed across the lake allowing for some awesome cloud formations. We drove into the near deserted town of Gonghe and enjoyed a wonderful Japanese BBQ all the while listening to Rick Astley’s “Never Going to Give You Up” followed by Guns & Roses, “Sweet Child of Mine”, it was a surreal moment in the heart of remote China.
The stunning scenery continued as we visited the virtually empty Kandula Forest Park with its incredible red sandstone landscapes of towering rocky outcrops that rise abruptly from the lush green landscape below. The mighty Yellow River flowed through the sandstone valleys before being bought to a halt by an even mightier dam, as only the Chinese can do. We ascended and descended an all but empty, unknown, landscape driving a spectacular road that threads its way between two sheer canyon walls before reaching the Muslim city of Xunhua for the night, we didn’t really expect to see mosques dotting the skyline in China!!
Leaving Xunhau we entered a landscape very reminiscent of the American Wild West with its towering sheer rock faces, mesas and buttes with the Yellow River rushing by. We found an amazing single lane concrete road that wound its way across the top of a mountain range with a lonely monastery perched high atop a peak before reaching the city of Yongjing located on the banks of the Yellow River.
China kept surprising us, no more so than the truly amazing Maijishan Grottoes, an incredible series of carvings of Buddha carved into a sheer rock face of a pinnacle of rock that towered from the surrounding landscape. Started in 536AD and renovated by the Tang & Ming dynasties, amongst others, these carvings defy belief on how they managed to do what they did.
The afternoons ride was an incredible insight into the remote peoples way of life, we avoided the nearby expressway and took a narrow road though tiny villages that encroached the roadside, we travelled through emerald green forests where we bought some pure honey from nomadic families that “followed the flowers” & wound our way in and out of mighty valleys and forest covered mountains. I The Asian Overland Research Trip – Week 9 – Almost Donet was an incredible day of driving through a VERY remote part of China. We saw 3 other vehicles in 100ks, where they fit the 1.4 billion Chinese is anyone’s guess, we have yet to see anything that resembles a big crowd.
We finally saw some of those 1.4 billion people today as we left the city of Baoji, with a population of 4 million, and drove to Xian with a population of 8 million, still it was a wonder how the traffic functioned at all considering the immense size of these cities and knowing that anything more than a roadworker mowing the lawn 50mt off the side of the road in Australian would bring our cities to a gridlock, we marvelled at just how freely things kept flowing right into the very heart of these cities.
A pang of realisation has hit us as we now have under two weeks remaining on this epic journey of impossible diversity, but we “aren’t” done yet, the new week starts off with a visit to one of the world’s greatest antiquities, the terracotta army!!
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