Following a dream with cycle trip to Tibet

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China State Highway 318 is the nation's longest. Its 5,476 kilometers are a challenge for cross-country motorists, but just imagine how grueling the trip would be for a cyclist!

Qin Qun, 25, is one of the few who can describe just how grueling.

Qin, an Anhui Province native who has worked in Shanghai the past two years, pedaled the route in 56 days, starting at People's Square in Shanghai on April 23 and ending at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge in Tibet on June 17.

"I learned online two years ago that this highway is regarded as China's premier road trip because it runs through so many provinces and areas of spectacular beauty," Qin told Shanghai Daily. "I read online diaries of those who had done the trip, and it became my dream to follow suit."

Earlier this year, he quit his job as a hotel receptionist, giving him a window of time to pursue that dream. He bought a bicycle, tire pump, flashlight, helmet, tent and a few other basics, packed some clothes and set off on a bicycle trek 1,800 kilometers longer than the 2014 Tour de France, which ended yesterday.

Feat on a shoestring

Confined by a tight budget, Qin slept in cheap hotels and ate in downscale restaurants along the way. The trip cost him about 3,500 yuan (US$565).

"It wasn't just an entertaining getaway," he said, "but rather a challenge to see if I could accomplish such a feat on a shoestring budget."

On the long stretch between Shanghai and the southwestern province of Sichuan, Qin found hostels and eateries along the highway, where he could enjoy a shower and meal after an exhausting day. But as he pedaled through remote areas of western Sichuan and the Tibetan plateau, the road became more deserted and the amenities scarcer. Qin subsisted on biscuits and steamed buns. Sometimes he went almost a week without a bath.

His Shanghai bicycle, which he bought on the cheap, broke down along the way. So Qin bought a secondhand bike in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan for 700 yuan, his biggest single outlay.

Qin's route presented daily challenges. It threaded up steep inclines, skirted deep ravines, crossed rushing rivers and plunged through dark tunnels. The winds howled, and the sun beat down. Nights in the highlands were bone-chilling.

"I'd learned from riders' online diaries that there were sometimes robbers in tunnels, which really scared me," he said. "Each time I had to go through a long tunnel, I tried to wait for some other traffic to accompany me through."

Security became a prime concern.

"I chose to sleep in places where other humans were nearby," he said." If I couldn't reach the next village by nightfall, I stopped early in the current one and resumed my journey the next day."

The Sichuan-Tibet section was especially punishing. Some of the uphill inclines were up to 40 kilometers long. Qin learned to pace himself, ride slowly and fight off frustration.

He suffered one relatively serious mishap, crashing one day as he sped down a steep slope. His arms and legs were severely bruised, and he had six tunnels to go before reaching the next village.

"I was uncomfortable and fearful," he said. "I did consider giving up. But, fortunately, I managed to go on and found a pharmacy in the next town."

Loneliness was a constant companion. After he entered the Tibet Autonomous Region, signs of life became scarce. His mobile phone provided welcome musical distraction, and on occasion he was overjoyed to come across other cyclists, who pedaled with him for a while before heading off in different directions.

People he encountered along the road were invariably kind, Qin said. One day when he failed to reach his destination before nightfall, he asked a middle-aged man where it was safe for him to pitch his tent. The man invited Qin to stay overnight at his home — an invitation that made him humbly grateful.

By the end of the trip, Qin admitted he looked pretty weather-beaten. But he finished with a profound feeling of achievement.

"I've breathed the cleanest air, seen the bluest sky and gazed upon the most breathtaking landscapes," he said.

"That made it all worthwhile. And, most importantly, I accomplished what I set out to do."

Back in Shanghai, Qin said he is looking for a new job, preferably in tourism.

But his passion for long-distance cycling has been whetted.

For his next trip, he said, he plans to cycle along State Highway 312 from Shanghai to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region town of Horgos on the border with Kazakhstan.

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