We set out from Shangri-la (where we left off in Part I of China) which was at nearly the same elevation as we had hiked in Langtang, Nepal in the Himalayas. We would end up smashing the elevation we hiked in the Himalayas… only this time we would be in the saddle. Immediately when we left the city the road was a disaster, a rolling road of patches of wet and dry mud with huge gullies and potholes. Strangely, there are a surprising number of cars and even tractor-trailers (lorries) on the road considering its condition. Amazingly, the road quickly changed to tarmac and we were among some picturesque scenery. A green grassy valley surrounded by mountains and filled with shaggy black yaks. We continued on up into the mountains and across the first of numerous 4000+ meter passes. Tarmac was occasionally swapped out for muddy stretches of highway, with small cars struggling to soldier on looking like turtles trying to swim in mud. Lucky for us on one of the worst stretches there was a raised concrete drainage gutter about 4 inches wide that we could walk along with our bikes, we passed some chinese cyclists at this point trudging through the slop struggling to push their mountain bikes forward with their wheels so clogged up with clayey mud. We camped in small patches of flat land in fields or abandoned buildings we passed as we continued on up and down some epic climbs. The toughest day of cycling for me in China, and perhaps the trip was on a day when tarmac ended and a gravel road took it’s place on a mountain pass which ended up being around 85km and which took us to around 4500m and two days to bridge. The reduced level of oxygen, the rain, cold and generally shitty weather, the additional strain of riding on a rocky gravel road added to the hours of climbing made it all rough to say the least. However, the views were amazing and on this pass we crossed from Yunnan province to Sichuan.
Where the two provinces meet the road reaches 4,400m an is quite far from any villages or towns. However there was a small shanty town right on the border, at first it appeared to be like all the other passes with a stone pile and lots of prayer flags. But when we got a little closer we saw people milling around and small shelters made mostly of plastic sheeting and pine branches. Amazingly there was a little shop where we could buy a coke, the shop doubled as a local pub, which was filled with locals playing cards and pool. Yes they had a pool table at 4,400m in a pub which was half trench and half covered with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting.
As we descend into Sichuan we bumped and bounced our way down the mountain on the rocky road. Which, believe it or not is harder work than going uphill. Constantly on the brakes, concentrating on every stone in front of you and having to absorb each bounce and thump of your rear wheel. It’s tough work and you have some sore hands and butts to show for it all.
Tibetan farm houses
We descended into a valley with numerous Tibetan villages, some seemingly created by the government, presumably to relocate people for one reason or another. We had been passing these houses on and off throughout our time in the mountains, however their size and scale never ceased to amaze. These traditional farm houses are nothing short than personal fortresses. They are huge! All trapezoidal in shape with gargantuan external walls that slope inwards forming the shape of a tall pyramid with it’s top lobbed off. Nearly all had beautifully decorated, colourful windows and doors, a roof ‘patio’ and the same moon frieze along its roofline. Near Shangri-la we passed other homes which dwarfed these fortresses. Those were made of timber with huge tree trunk columns arranged almost like a greek temple. Their scale however was unbelievable. Several of these homes we passed were under construction and I can not imagine why in such a cold climate you would want a building so large, and with so much space. I guess when you are in the timber industry you build with what you have, and burn what you have to keep your castle warm.
Our time in the valley was spent following a river and slowly climbing up a new valley. We stopped where we could and finally had a chance to try out some Tibetan style Yak Butter tea. Which is exactly what it sounds like. Tea, with Yak Butter. It’s a traditional drink which gives you lots of energy and fat you need to survive in the mountains, delivered via a warm cream cuppa. We found the most local place in a local town, but I think we still received a slightly tame version of the drink. It was a creamy, milky, and earthy. You could really taste the yak. Yum.
The weather was not very nice to us as we continued on, with lots of rain and grey skies. We were constantly wearing our fleece lined rubber dish gloves (great for cycling in the wet, really). Camping, cooking and climbing in the damp was tough and cycling at elevation made it even harder. I don’t think either of us had really appreciated what we were taking on. Having cycled for several weeks regularly above 4,000m we had really been pushing ourselves. This finally became clear on our last big pass, which was also the highest pass of our entire trip. We were cycling much higher than the elevation we had been trekking in Nepal, where both of us experienced some altitude sickness. However, this time we were not experiencing any altitude sickness we were feeling the consequences of cycling just below 5,000m. With less oxygen in the air, and us trying with each pedal stroke to pull ourselves and all our gear up the mountain our muscles were screaming at us to stop. Light headed near the summit and completely spent Claire and I both were feeling the thin air’s effects. As with all things it was difficult but gratifying and only looking back does it become clear why the day was so tough and why things were harder than they should have been.
As we approached the end of our time in the mountains, we chanced upon a village with a restaurant and a police station next to it. It seemed to be a bit of a ghost town and it soon became clear it was some sort of army town. We had a hot meal with some soldiers and locals and after a chat with a police man we were invited to sleep in the police station (which had wifi!). Warm, dry and connected to the world for the first time in over a week we were happy.
Once we reached the city of Litang, we planned to take a bus from there to Chengdu, as morale was getting a bit low, mainly because of the weather and the time it was taking to cover relatively short distances. Litang is one of the highest towns in the world located at over 4,000 metres it is higher than Lhasa. It is also the birth place of several of the Dalai Lamas. The town was basically a mud pit when we were there due to the heavy rains and bad roads and we wanted to move on quickly, however we were soon disappointed to learn that the bus was not running for another day and a half! We had a choice, find a cheap hotel or try to keep moving. Neither of us was in the mood for sitting around, it felt like it was time to go. So we headed out to the highway to hitch a lift.
After a couple of hours in the cold we finally caught a break as a truck let us toss our stuff into his flat bed and we were off. It turns out all main national highways are not made equal. The landscape was amazing and unlike anything we had ever seen before. The scale of the mountains was beyond words. Smooth grass covered mountains swooping up and down with small black dots covering them in patches here and there, which were yaks. It would have been really challenging cycling. And when we passed cyclists on this day we felt respect but not envy, we were quite comfortable in the heated cabin with our friendly Chinese trucker. After a few hours our ride ended earlier than expected, our trucker friend had reached his rest spot for the night. So, we headed out to the highway again and got picked up by the local gas canister delivery man who reluctantly took us to the end of his rounds. A couple dozen kilometres further we were back without a ride as the sun began to set. We were also on a worksite next to the highway which was no longer paved but rather a rocky, muddy mess. Unfazed we looked for another ride. And amazingly got picked up again! It turns out hitch hiking in China with two fully loaded touring bikes…. not so hard. We set off in a convoy of a few trucks up a steep, bumpy section of the ‘highway’ into the darkness. It took hours to climb some of these mountain roads in a truck, so we can only imagine and shudder at what it would have been like on a bicycle. In the dark on a terrible section of the highway and in the mountains you could see transport trucks like small ants with headlights marching up and down the mountains. Eventually we were taken to a town where we could get a bus the next day. By now it was around 11pm and we had hitchhiked our way 330 km in 4 different vehicles. Not bad. In the dark we looked for a hotel and ended up finding a gaming cafe, where it turns out they had few hotel rooms as well. It was one of the strangest hotels we had stayed in on the journey. We filed up the stairs with our bags past the rows of gamers entrenched in their game. You could hear nothing but the clicking of mice and keyboards, the next morning when we left there were still a few seats occupied by some very tired looking teenagers.
Chengdu was somewhere which had seemed miles and miles away and that we would not reach so quickly. Time had really flown, which is an indication of what a great time we were having in China. We enjoyed the comforts that come with a big city and it was nice to be sleeping indoors again. The difference in temperature coming down from the plateau was hard to believe. We had only a few weeks ago been among the tropical hot humid air of Vietnam, but after such a long period of being up in the cold and wet of the mountains I think we had really forgotten what it felt like to be hot. The hot humid air of low plains was a welcome change… it made me think how strange it is how quickly we adjust to our surroundings.
Our host in Chengdu, Li arranged for us to share the story of our journey at a local book shop. It was a new experience for us but a really enjoyable one. We had an audience of somewhere around 75 and showed some photographs of our journey and talked about our experiences along the way. It was one of the first times it dawned on me the scale of what we had accomplished. I think we both felt proud and also a little surprised that a group of strangers came to hear us speak. Our time in Chengdu was too short. We had trains booked to get to Beijing as Claire was flying back to London, and my sister was coming to China for a visit. But we did get a chance to see a few of the sites in town, taste some delicious food unique to Chengdu (we skipped trying the rabbit head) and were treated to an amazing home made meal by our hosts the Rui family.
You can’t travel with your bicycle on the train in China, but can you send it as cargo. So we shipped our bikes and baggage ahead of us to Beijing so they would be at the station when we arrived. Because the journey was so long, we decided to split it up into two overnight train rides with a break in Xian to see the Terracotta warriors. Which were an amazing sight, one of the treasures of the ancient world without a doubt. However, a few hours in Xian is all you need as it’s over run with tourists and junk being sold everywhere.
One sleep later, we were in Beijing. After spending most of our time in the country side being in Beijing was a real change. We were expecting hazy if not a dense fog of pollution when we arrived in Beijing. To our surprise it was blue skies, we later found out this was due to the upcoming military parade which was so important that the government had shut down many of the factories around the city and limited traffic by half. It was great for us. We spent a couple of days cycling the city, treating ourselves to peking duck at a fancy restaurant and exploring the Hutong’s (narrow streets and alleyways in the old parts of the city). We also did another bookshop talk organized by friends of our host in Chengdu. The time in Beijing flew by and it was soon time for Claire to leave and my sister to arrive. Before Claire’s flight we were lucky enough to be able to stay with Duncan a British expat living near the airport on the outskirts of the city and he made us feel very much at home.
Travelling around Beijing was a pain in the ass. The city is constantly on lockdown and movement, general movement is restricted with barriers, constant frisking and security checks…. it was a pain in the ass.
While Claire was away for a few weeks my sister came over from Canada to visit. During the time she was over we did the sights of Beijing, of which there are many and left the city to climb and camp on some sections of the ‘Wild’ Great Wall of China. In addition, because of my short visa for China we modified the visit to incorporate a elaborate visa run down to Hong Kong and to Macau. We got a small glimpse into the microcosm which are each of these territories which deserve an article all of their own. My sister’s trip was great as it was a chance to hang out for a few weeks, having not seen one another for around a year, and also a chance to be out of the saddle for a little while.
Like a revolving door, when my sister departed Claire returned and we continued on our journey to South Korea where our cycling continues.
For more photos from our time in China click HERE