A Zhuanqiao Town club of young cycling enthusiasts recently had the adventure of a lifetime. Club members ventured far from their usual Shanghai cycling circuits to go to the far western province of Qinghai and cycle 360 kilometers around Qinghai Lake, the biggest interior lake in China, located at 3,200 meters above sea level.
The club calls itself A.W.L, short for Awuluan, which is Shanghai slang for something akin to “wuss.” It’s a jokey term among friends, and the club members prize their friendship. They all use online nicknames.
“I looked around and found so many young people like me are interested in traveling by bike,” said the founder of the club, a postgraduate student and native of Zhuanqiao, who goes by the online moniker Grass. “When I realized how many people loved cycling, I thought, ‘Why not start a club?’”
The idea struck gold. Twenty people immediately joined.
Grass said the Qinghai Lake trip was the most challenging tour the club has undertaken so far.
Members took a train to Xining, capital city of Qinghai, where they were greeted with the breathtaking scenery of the high plateau country.
“The lake and sky were both so very blue,” Grass said. “The setting was so tranquil. It was such a stark contrast to the frenetic life of Shanghai.”
The adventure was not without its difficulties. The first challenge was the changeable weather at such a high altitude. One second, it was clear and sunny; the next, it was cold and pouring rain. Grass said club members usually got soaked before managing to extricate their rain gear from backpacks.
“Because of a lack of experience, we didn’t take enough raincoats with us,” she said. “Some of the members ended up covering their heads with garbage bags. They looked pretty comical.”
Weather, however, was no laughing matter. On the second day of the trip, the group found itself pedaling against a strong wind and facing uphill terrain. As their physical strength ebbed, attitude stress struck some of them.
One of the club members, who goes by the name Potato, was particularly affected by altitude sickness. He had difficulty breathing and even getting off his bike to walk it uphill. He started to have nosebleeds.
“We were scared,” Grass said. “We took turns that night looking after him. We knew altitude sickness could even be fatal. We knew he needed to go to hospital.”
Potato’s illness cracked the confidence of every club member. They were confused. Should they try to finish the trip as planned or just give up and go home?
The group hailed a passing truck, and the driver agreed to transport Potato and the club members to a local hospital about 25 kilometers away. He declined their offers of money. Potato later said he was deeply grateful for the concern of his friends and the care given to him by Qinghai locals.
Sitting with Potato in a hospital ward, the group looked out the window and saw the rain stop and a bright rainbow form. Their spirits lifted. Potato recovered from altitude sickness. The planned trip resumed.
After the cycling tour was completed, team members gathered for a celebratory drink. Everybody had tears of joy in their eyes.
Team members said the trip bonded them. Cyclist newlyweds Nancy and Tomato found new strength in their marriage. Others said they had discovered will power they never knew they had.
“Now we are planning our next trip,” said Grass. “Traveling by bike has become an obsession and we will keep doing it.”
Quick facts on Qinghai Lake, from Chinahighlights.com:
This large saltwater lake, 4,635 square kilometers in area, is about 130 kilometers from Xining. Major attractions are Bird Island, a migratory stop for many species of birds, the Sankuaishi (Three Stones) and Sand Island.
The lake freezes over in the winter but thaws into a popular tourist destination in summer. Part of its attraction is the magnificent scenery, the sparse population and the mix of Tibetan, Mongolian and Muslim cultures. The average depth of the lake is 19 meters. The area has been inhabited by herdsmen for centuries, but the government is encouraging their resettlement because grazing has helped shrink the size of the lake in the last century.
Qinghai Lake is becoming a favorite biking destination. Bikes are available for rental or purchase, and campgrounds and inns around the lake provide overnight accommodation. The lake hosts the Qinghai Tour professional bicycle race every July.
Tips from A.W.L on high plateau cycling
Q: What necessities should cyclists take with them?
A: Simple bike maintenance tools, spare tires and a helmet are needed. As for daily necessities, people should bring navigational aids, sun block, a rash guard and a vacuum cup. Cold medicine is advisable because it’s easy to catch colds on a plateau and they can turn very serious.
Also, it’s good to take hair dryers because small, local inns don’t provide them. If you get soaked, which can easily happen, a hair dryer comes in handy for drying clothes.
Q: What about the accommodations like in Qinghai?
A: There are some small inns and hotels along the highway. The owners are very nice, but the facilities are often somewhat primitive. One of the perks of staying in local inns is getting to sample very authentic local cuisine.
Q: What are the road conditions around Qinghai Lake?
A: There is a highway that is quite smooth circling the lake, with sometimes steep hills. Safety issues needed to be considered.