The gates of Tibet
In this article, climbs, cold, fatigue and difficulties ... but also superb landscapes and beautiful encounters, through an area that once belonged to Tibet and where this culture has been preserved.
Shangrila, continuation and end
So we left you at the last message to Shangrila. Two beneficial days to rest our muscles after a first week in the mountains. This rest also allowed us to plan our future route – and to realize that the route we wanted to take initially… passes through Tibet, therefore prohibited for us (and not the spirit of evading police checks).
We are ready, except that on the day of departure, when we wake up… it is snowing! Crisis meeting ! In the morning, other information reached us on the poor condition of the chosen route (thanks to the contact with a French woman running a guesthouse in the corner: thank you Estelle Achard!). In short, we finally decide to continue north, the new road being less difficult and less high. We take advantage of this setback to have lunch in our favorite canteen with Marie and David, two other cyclists who arrived in Shangrila the day before; we follow each other on the blogs, it's the first time we've met in real life, we're so happy. The poor have some knee problems which forced them to trade their bikes for good pairs of shoes for a few weeks.
On the way !
In the early afternoon, we manage to get back in the saddle. It's cold in this great plain constantly watered by the wind, and it's gray! After a few kilometers on a fairly busy road, we climb into a forest of fir trees. The traffic calms down, as a brand new, more direct road – which we do not have on any map – passes through the valley. We find the pleasure of pedaling with this superb setting and this tranquility.
After 45 kms in the afternoon, we stop at the village of Nixi to find refuge for the night. Young people show us a small garden with a chortens at the end of the village. It will be fine ! We will drink tea to warm up, then eat at the restaurant next door. When the owners understand where we are going to sleep, they suggest that we put the mattresses in the back room instead. Top ! You can spend the evening by the stove and sleep inside.
When we wake up, this Sunday, April 5, it is 3°. We cover ourselves as much as we can and we enjoy a descent of 25kms. As often in China, the edges of the roads do not have much protection – even if there is a drop behind – it is a bit scary! And also regularly, we see the carcasses of cars or trucks below.
More than 100kms of gorges…
After this beautiful descent, we arrive at noon in Benzilan. We leave Yunnan and enter Sichuan. We follow the Singmai River, with its mountains all around, its dry and rather hostile landscapes, its road which regularly includes areas of stones. After several days of gray weather, the sun is back. Truck and bus always pass us in a concert of horns which annoy us… Fortunately there are not too many of them.
For the evening camp, the inhabitants of the village of Guxue (2900m altitude) are not the most helpful... And since we are in gorges, there is no flat area to camp around. We finally ask the police station, which accepts without problem! (In fact, they are more like staff accommodation, and there are not many people) It's like camping: small lawn sheltered from the wind, hot shower, clothesline to dry the laundry. And for dinner, we are invited by the workers who sleep in prefabs opposite the police station. What could be better ?!
Our route continues the next day in the gorges with arid slopes; at the bend of a bend, small oases appear in places: the villages are very green, beautiful Tibetan-style houses surrounded by wheat fields. The borders of Tibet once reached here, and it shows! The big cubic white houses, with beautiful paintings, the prayer flags... It looks like a movie... but no, it's the reality we have before our eyes! Everywhere yaks, pigs and donkeys roam the roads and hillsides.
After 65 kms, it is 4:30 p.m. when we stop for a break. We may have followed rivers, but it climbed well today! Legs get tired. Chance sends us a gentleman who offers us to sleep at his place, for ¥30 (€4.50) for 4, meal included. He lives in one of those big traditional houses. It's great to be able to visit one!
The ground floor is occupied by yaks and pigs.
First floor :
– a room where the family sleeps;
– a large living room painted from top to bottom with vibrant colors, where we will spend the evening by the stove, chatting as best we can with our guests and playing with the children, and where we will sleep;
– a mini kitchen and a mini bathroom (but phew! They have hot water!).
On the upper floor, a terrace, covered at home by tarpaulins because they house 16 workers from the Chinese electricity network who are doing work in the region. So when all the workers come home from work, we are the attraction of the day!
Our host is all evening too much care with us, repeats to us “Pengyǒu” (ami). In the morning, a champion breakfast: after our traditional “oat flakes and bananas” hotpot, they offer us tea with yak milk butter and tsampa.
We were very touched by the welcome we received; living for a while with this Tibetan family was a great experience.
The bike counter indicates -1° (this is where we remember where the workers sleep…). Fortunately, the temperature rises with the appearance of the sun.
On the road, we pass in front of a large Buddhist monastery that we stop to visit. We join the villagers who go around it (counterclockwise, be careful!) turning the prayer wheels; then we spend some time observing and exchanging with all these people who are gathered here as in the central square of a village.
We are just before a pass that we quickly reach: 3500m, the first and the smallest of the series of 3 passes that we must pass to reach Xiangcheng. The descent is splendid, all in laces on the mountain. We find below a river at the edge of which, a little further, we decide to stop early in the afternoon. Taking advantage of this free time, the boys go fishing with Jeremy's equipment. So happy Thomas! They caught 6 fish, but too small to be eaten (at the same time, given the pollution of nature and in particular of the rivers, not sure they would have been very good…)
And to top it off, we cook a good meal, and for dessert… pancakes! Yum !
Go higher… even higher!
Wednesday April 8: 2 passes await us today. The road is relatively paved except in places, where for about fifty meters, it turns into a mixture of pebbles and earth. The first pass is going pretty well, we discuss, we move forward without realizing it. At 12:30 p.m., we did 900m of elevation gain over 17km: we are at 3800m! We beat the record!
We go down to the village of Reda where we are pleasantly surprised to find a restaurant. Great, we expected to have to eat Chinese noodles in sachets!
For the 2nd pass, my motivation is very average. The landscapes become a little redundant, it's cold, it's windy, and we still have 800m of elevation gain over 19kms. Emilie and Jérémie go ahead, Thomas stays close. I move forward as much as I can. The landscapes become prettier as you go up, but it is the legs that tire. In the distance there is rain – will it come to us? Fatigue, tension... morale is in the socks and the voices are rising. 4 kms before the finish, 4020m altitude, Thomas hooks a tensioner between his bike and mine… phew, it’s better, we reach the end: 4150m altitude !! In the end, we broke our record twice during the day! And apart from the cold (3°) and the wind, no problem with the altitude. It must be said that we have been living in the vicinity of 3000m for several days!
At the top, it is very beautiful with hundreds of prayer flags, an impressive view of the mountain ranges in front. Our efforts are rewarded by a descent of 25km in snakes along this mountain and always with this beautiful view.
We arrive in Xiangcheng with the sunset, for a well-deserved day of rest! During this day, we go to the police station to inquire about the renewal of visas: not possible here, but come, we invite you to lunch! The cops are cool here!
An extended day…
The next day, 5:30 a.m., here we are in front of the bus that is to take us to Kangding, the county capital, where we can renew our visas; 12 hours of bus waiting for us. We manage to get the 4 bikes and 19 panniers into the holds, and at 6:15 a.m., on the way!
We pass a first pass at 4700m altitude, then the high plateaus and the small passes follow one another; we always stay in the vicinity of 4000m altitude. The landscapes are arid, large herds of yaks are struggling to find enough to graze: the rivers are partly frozen. These landscapes are very impressive; given the cold and the elevations, we're glad we didn't try to cycle here.
After the town of Litang, we meet dozens of Chinese cyclists going to Lhasa. Doing this route by bike seems like a pilgrimage for Chinese cyclists, like the Compostela routes are for hikers in Europe.
Little by little, the snow is coming its way. After a lunch break, we pass a pass at 4400m altitude on a completely rutted road, tar full of holes and mud; all of course on a small mountain road just wide enough for two buses to cross. Nice !
It is 4:45 p.m. when we arrive at the last pass, 45 km from our destination. The snow falling again intensifies and a traffic jam stops us; we are at 4000m altitude. The driver goes down to put on the chains; we do 100m, and we stop again. We see that in the distance the cars seem not to go up to the pass, or very slowly. Our bus takes a blow of nerve and makes 200m on the file of left by doubling everyone, the hand connected on the horn; regularly cars do the same thing… Hum, very clever…
Night is starting to fall, we haven't made much progress. And with the night, the cold also arrives: we fetch duvets and thick socks in our saddlebags; at least we are equipped for the cold, unlike other people. Fortunately, the driver is friendly and regularly turns on the engine to put on the heat. We don't really know why it blocks. Is it just the frozen road or is there another reason? And since the Chinese have a level in English close to zero, impossible to have more information. So we patiently wait (or almost!) all four.
In short, it is 8:50 p.m. when all of a sudden the line of cars and trucks starts to move slowly on this frozen road. Two hours later, we are in the bus station of Kangding… In the rain, we finally find a decent hotel to spend the night. Phew, that's it, sleep! But in the end, the bike trip – and the hassle that it sometimes entails – puts this kind of difficulty into perspective: we were dry and relatively warm, we had space to move, a good supply of cupcakes,… It was long, but not that uncomfortable!
For the rest of the program, it's still unclear, but probably our bikes will be put aside a bit. We are staying here in Kangding for a few days to extend our Chinese visa (yes, we've already been there for a month!). Then direction Chendgu, by public transport. Our goal is to reach Beijing by train, so we will try to combine it with a small part by bike, but it's not sure.
In any case, China is really a huge country, and it's frustrating not to be able to do more by bike!