The road between Xining and Chengdu goes through mountains, altitudes well over 3000 m, Tibetan villages and monasteries: it really seems to be in Tibet; with ‘real’ Tibet nowadays closed to independent travellers South Qinghai and West Sichuan are great alternatives, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to explore the area as much as I wanted.
Youning Si, North of Xining, is the first monastery I visit; thanks to its location in the mountains, getting there, riding through sleepy villages and quiet roads, is the funniest part. Inside the monastery I wander through different temples, each hosting a giant golden Buddha and some pictures showing the Dalai Lama. The few Chinese tourists that are there are all very happy to see a foreigner around; also the monks are kind and smiley, a striking difference with the Disneyland atmosphere which I’ve heard is present in bigger and more famous monasteries, such as Kumbum.
Other monasteries are in Tongren and in Labrang and along the road there are signs of Tibetan culture literally everywhere: yaks along the street, monks, smaller monasteries in villages, coloured flags at the top of every pass and Tibetan herders on their motorbikes. As the road goes up, the sky becomes more and more blue, but also temperatures at night drop well below zero, forcing me to wait for the sun to fully defrost the tent in the morning.
In Labrang I meet Marco, a German cyclist that will ride with me until Chengdu. We ride together and, surrounded by green valleys and a blue sky, we enter the province of Sichuan, my fourth province in China after Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu. Before arriving in Zoige we set up camp along a green valley dotted with Tibetan tents: as the sun sets, we pitch our own tents, herders bring yaks and sheep inside fences and big and noisy dogs, that will bark at our tents for most of the night, overlook the scene.
After Zoige, where some amused Chinese tourists help us to order lunch, we leave the main road to follow a narrow and secondary road that passes very close to the famous Jiuzhaigou National Park, before heading South to Chengdu. And, as it always happen with secondary roads, there will be no lack of surprises.