Altitude: The VeloTramp in Gansu

The ride out of Lanzhou was a silky smooth transition of leg over leg as I pushed my way up the gradual but insistent incline. I felt strong as I pushed my heavy laden bike up the narrow byway to National Highway G309 at which point I took a sharp turn to the west and headed toward Yongjing County. But a funny thing happened along the way. Suddenly, almost inexplicably, I felt short of breath in a way that was a little alarming. I am in better shape than this, I thought to myself. Am I sick or something? I had a touch of a cold but nothing that would account for the level of struggle that I was having. I didn’t know it at the time, but for the first time in my life I was experiencing the effects of altitude.

Gansu Terraces
The first terrace I saw seemed to have been forgotten and was rather moribund and dead looking. Then I saw this one and I was in love.

In my time riding in China I have deduced that there are certain characteristics of “National Highway” level roads. Typically, they are wide, well traveled and busy roads that have a good to excellent surface, occasionally have long hills but of a reasonable pitch, and they can generally sustain speeds of 70 to 90 kilometers per hour. This road was none of those things. It was a long narrow traverse up an endless series of slow and difficult climbs with a surface that became more broken the deeper into the region I got.


Gansu Terraces
A village among the terraces. Gansu, China

I should have known it right from the start when the opening stretch of the highway was a woe begotten thing that more resembled the well worn entry to a lumber yard or back country auto wrecker than that of a highway. A few hundred yards and the road improved into something that better mimicked other national routes that I have ridden. And almost immediately the incredibly steep climbs began, and with them came the panting and gasping, and heaving of chest. Am I having a heart attack or something? Onset of emphysema? Tuberculosis? What the hell is wrong with me?

Gansu Terraces
The sun setting over another beautifully patterned hillside. Gansu, China

I struggled to the top of that first climb and was given a slight reprieve. I was still going up but at a much more reasonable pitch. At just the moment I felt I was catching my breath and started to think that maybe the rest wouldn’t be so bad, I took a turn and had standing before me an even longer and steeper climb than the first one. I made it better than half way to the top and then I did something I usually only do to take pictures. I stepped off.

Gansu Terraces
It was getting late in the afternoon, the air was cooling, and I was feeling reinvigorated when I saw this beautiful scene.

I pushed myself as hard as I could. I was gulping like a fish out of water, my heart was pounding, and my chest expanded to levels it may have never reached before. But I couldn’t catch my breath. So I stopped. And I pushed the bike up the hill. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept this up throughout the day: riding as much as I could, and pushing the bike when I couldn’t. It was frustrating. At times I looked at the hills that defeated me and was disgusted by what I saw. I have climbed hundreds and hundreds of hills much more difficult than some of what I saw that day and had no issue. What is wrong? Is this cold actually a lung infection or something? No. It was the altitude.

Gansu Terraces
The often stark and unforgiving landscape seems to go on forever. Gansu, China

In my preparation for this trip I looked carefully at many things: possible routes, equipment, bike prep, clothing. Altitude was one thing I never gave much thought to. I have been able to deduce that prior to this trip the highest altitude I have ever cycled at is a measly 2500 feet. When I set out from Lanzhou I was already at nearly 5000 feet. After a few hours of riding nearly all up hill I was getting into altitudes that were in the neighborhood of 8000 feet, occasionally exceeding that number. This is the altitude, give or take a few hundred meters depending on the individual, that altitude sickness can begin. Some symptoms of altitude sickness include a breathlessness that can make you feel old and terribly out of shape, along with some dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, and rapid pulse. Fortunately, I didn’t get the nausea or dizziness but I sure had the others. I had learned many years ago, or thought I had learned, that those effects didn’t start until between 11 and 12 thousand feet. Add in the ill effects of a cold and 30+ degree temperatures and it made for some difficult times over the next two days. But they were worth it.

Gansu Terraces
Very little of the land is not utilized for farming as witnessed by the plots of this rocky crag. Gansu, China

As much as I struggled, as much as I wished I had chosen a different route, as much as I cursed the heat and the dust and the broken road and the fumes of passing trucks, there was no way I could turn back once I caught a glimpse of the beautiful mountain terraces that were hidden deep within those mountains. It was like discovering a hidden paradise. The hillsides were a tapestry of interwoven shapes and colors each more beautiful than the last. The effort, determination, and the time that it took to create these plots must be incredible. During the rare times when I was able to ride at my leisure and enjoy the experience it was a sense of awe that I carried with me. What a prize to find this.

The long sweeping descent into Yongjing County with it's otherworldly landscape. Gansu, China
The long sweeping descent into Yongjing County with it’s otherworldly landscape. Gansu, China

Late in the second day I finally escaped the clutch of the mountains that I thought would never let me go. I swept down effortlessly into a deep and narrow valley at the bottom of which I intersected with a much improved highway. I camped on the edge of a farmer’s field as I had the first night in the mountains. The one difference was that the night at altitude was quite chilly while down in the valley was so warm that I slept in t-shirt and shorts on top of my sleeping bag.

Street market in Yongjing City. Everybody seems to sell the same stuff. How do people deceide where to shop?  Gansu, China
Street market in Yongjing City. Everybody seems to sell the same stuff. How do people decide where to shop? Gansu, China

The third day was a relatively easy 45 kilometers than ended with an incredibly rewarding 20 kilometer downhill into Yongjing County and a small city on the banks of the Yellow River. It is a good place to rest up and recuperate from this cold I have. Shortly I will be back on the road. Now is when the work must begin in earnest. For I have a long way to go and only so much time to get there.

9 Responses to “Altitude: The VeloTramp in Gansu”

  1. Susan

    Beautiful pictures. Loved your write up.
    Glad you know the cause of your sickness. Get well soon. ?

  2. Dena

    Wow I am impressed by your determination Pierre! Most of us would have given up or never started the journey to begin with! Hope the rest of your travels are much easier. Beautiful pictures!

  3. Debbie

    Looks like challenging terrain. Careful that the altitude don’t make you light headed. The pictures are really beautiful. Safe journey.

    • Pierre

      Thanks Debbie. I will be careful not to over exert in altitude. Later on I will be in some areas where it will be near 12,000 feet. Should be interesting to see how that feels.

  4. Mom

    Sorry you’re not feeling well, take good care & make sure you are well enough to travel in the high altitude. Absolutely beautiful pics, stunn ing scenery, it must be exciting to be there. Great writing it’s very interesting, Iove to read your updates. Safe travels P, will be looking forward to another update soon. Love & prayers xoxo

    • Pierre

      Thanks mom. Always love to get your comments and as always, your support is immeasurable in value.

  5. Garrett Glowacky

    Qinghai has been influenced by the interactions “between Mongol and Tibetan culture, north to south, and Han Chinese and Inner Asia Muslim culture, east to west”.


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