Day 47 - Thursday 18th May - Xining to Zhangye

Started the day with a surprise at the morning check over the car. It needed an additional 1 ltr of oil. Up to this point it had not needed any since our service in Shanghai. A double check confirmed. This added to our worries about the mechanical issues.

At our briefing the night before Green advised to expect that the temperature would climb to 30c later in the day. However we did glean that before then we would be climbing further from our current altitude of 2200m to over 3000m. She was not quite sure how high.

Some of the team climbed into their cars dressed for 30c in shorts and T shirts, others were a bit more rugged up. It was a cool start in the morning, so both Loris and I had a few layers on.

The drive for the day was on the S227. S roads are the second tier Provincial roads that vary from 2 lane paved to goat tracks. The G roads are the 4 -6-8 lane divided National highways.

Not far out of Xining we were skirting around Datong another large industrial city, full of the now recurring power stations and petro-chemical plants  billowing steam and smoke into the crisp blue sky. However,  the industrial China was soon left behind and we started to climb through mountain villages. The landscape was decidedly rural. Kids absent, old farmers and labourers riding their bikes, trikes, and other farm vehicles. We were enveloped in the mountains we had been skirting along for the past day and the snow capped peaks were in our direct view as the road twisted, turned and climbed up the Daban Shan.

The tilled fields gave way to grazing country. Yaks and sheep wandering around the steep mountain sides. It was starting to get cool as the road continued in a series of seemingly never-ending switch backs climbing the mountains. The few on bikes who shared the road were rugged up in multiple layers of clothing and thick gloves.

We eventually reached the saddle at just under 3900m. The cars managed to climb well, but like their crews, were a bit short of breath. We were surrounded by snow at the summit.

The descent was much like the climb, a series of switchbacks. Unlike our Lao experience, the grades here were manageable and the teams were loving the driving.

We pulled into a lookout for an expansive view of the valley ahead and the next range of mountains to be enveloped by the other sightseers and the hoard of local vendors selling Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads and necklaces. The men were dressed like cowboys with wide brimmed straw hats. The women wore Hui Moslem headscarves. It’s a strange mix here. They draped themselves over the cars, they climbed in and even all lined up next to their chosen car and took a multitude of selfies. That finished they decided that they had better try to sell us something.      

The 900m descent down into a ragged town with a decidedly frontier feel. No high rise buildings insight. The single story flat roofed houses had both living quarters for the family and place for the animals. Some had herds of Yaks penned up inside, while others had long haired sheep and a few cattle grazed across the wide valley floor.

On leaving town it was a long steadyclimb up the Leng Long Shan all part of the Qilian ranges. Cars, and bikes were parked in groups all along the roadside and soon clusters of tents and other makeshift shelters occupied the protected spots. Groups of people were wandering the hillsides looking for a particular medicinal plant (some reports said it was a grub) that grew in the region and when dried could be sold for good profit in the traditional medicine markets.

The next pass, at 3857m, was adorned with Tibetan prayer flags. A long dragon like structure seethed with a million multi-coloured streamers flying in the wind.

We lunched in a small local restaurant in Obo with a group of construction workers and some other travellers. Not sure that the owners had seen so many white people before, nor were they geared up for the crowd of 10 people, so the women in our group helped out in the kitchen as the cook hand made and stretched our noodles and chopped up the Yak.

Obo was a quaint town with more of the Xi’an style monuments to Silk Route and with remnants of the old city walls and caravanseri still in tact. While an effort was being made to try to stimulate some tourism business, they had a long way to go judging by the number of passing vehicles. As we pulled out of town we were stopped by armed police driving a serious armoured vehicle. We were told that security along the Tibetan border was high for some reason which was not made clear to us.

We descended nearly 2400m into Zhangye back onto a flat plain backed by the snow capped mountains. Cropping, dry air, irrigation, some rice, vegetables and wheat, and the promised 30c.

We were back in Gansu province, to the north Inner Mongolia and to the south, the Tibetan plateau.