Header image: Rapeseed blossoms are the surest sign that spring has come to China.
1273 km this section (Total Mileage: 6385 km/40,075 km)
Two great rivers flow from the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau to the sea east of China. They travel down between foothills and across great plains, bringing power, food and consumer goods to millions. These are arteries of a civilization with a 5,000-year history, and their geography could hardly be more different.
Last month, I cycled through the mountains that divide the two rivers, just after they leave the Tibetan plateau. I began near Fuling, the River Town made famous by Peter Hessler’s 2001 memoir, and finished in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province and the city furthest upriver on the Yellow’s winding route. Passing from the cloud-filled limestone gorges of southern China into the arid hills of the North, I was taken again by the power of geography. A single mountain range divides the heavily cultivated hills from the south from a harsh climate and sandy soil. Here in the north, the countryside doesn’t support many small villages or towns. The culture is different, too, a broader mix of religion and ethnicity that defines the borderlands of empire.
There’s one more range ahead before I reach the plain that holds the Gobi desert and extends west to the Tarim Basin and through much of Xinjiang.