Our ride is north up a wide valley to Tagong, a small Tibetan town set in grasslands at around 3700m. Because of the altitude it still feels wintry as we follow the wide river snaking up through Tibetan villages. Each house stands fortress-like on its land, with most windows facing southwards, the northern sides usually just solid wall. It's supposed to be a short ride but with only 10 more kilometres to ride we hit road works. Except there's not much sign of work. Or road. What there is is just a huge stretch of black mud continuing up the valley. There's a smattering of traffic, or should I say a splattering? We're putting on a brave face, oozing our way onwards when it starts to rain. There's not a tree in sight. With no shelter we soldier on, but it soon becomes impossible to pedal. Our wheels and brakes and gears are soon caked in the thick mud and even pushing becomes hard work. Finally Tagong appears around a bend.
Most towns look crap in the rain, but Tagong looks particularly grim. It's really just a one-street collection of shops, restaurants and hotels but it is full of colourful Tibetans, some of whom have come into town on ponies. We find a cheap little place to stay and then spend some time washing down the bikes. The sun comes out and we start to feel better. We've survived the ordeal. And when we go out for a look around we meet Angela, a friendly young American who is living here with her Tibetan husband and 3 year-old daughter Sumtso. The restaurant we eat in is run by a smiley young woman who rustles up good fresh bread and a hearty noodle soup. We kill a bit of time watching the TV with her and notice her writing down a telephone number during the advert break. We're appalled at this. We've been watching a 10 minute hard sell of a corset so that You Too Can Look Like A Skinny White Chinese Woman! (The all-Asia Skin-Whitening Cream advert has already been up.) Above the TV is a large poster of the Dalai Lama - the first we've seen in China. Gayle spots his picture again, pinned up next to the prayer wheels at the monastery.
The next morning it's snowing and we decide to have a rest day. Our room is chilly but there's electric blankets so we stay in bed and read for a bit. Later on we meet Angela and she invites us back to hers for coffee. Their house is a simple two room affair with a drop toilet out back. Life seems tough from this perspective. They don't have running water, and it's late April and snowing. No wonder the Tibetans look like a hardy bunch. Angela tells us the road northwards is also being reconstructed which bodes ill for us, as it snows all day. Nonetheless, we set off next day with only about 30km to reach before we leave the 'road works'. It's not to be. The road is much worse, probably because of the bad weather, and when we're not wading through mud, we're bouncing over a freshly broken rock bed. Every 500 metres our wheels clog up and a stiff wind is drying out the mud and stone confection, turning it to concrete. We finally surrender at the start of a climb. This is truly awful. After a quick conflab we turn around, and begin to feel better. We don't particularly want to return to our guesthouse - at night the rodents in the roof perform noisy gymnastics - but the thought of being dry, clean and toasty warm in bed is tempting. And we're able to hose down the bikes and all our stuff. Ahh but the experience has weakened our will to continue any further on our bikes right now. We're a bit weary of the cold and the altitude and the thought that we could be in balmy Chengdu quite soon is too tempting.
Of course the morning we leave it's a bright sunny day and the ground is frozen. Unshakeable in our desire to head out of the mountains we haggle a minibus ride back to Xinduqiao and over another 4000m pass on a brand new road to Kangding. At the bus station we are greeted like long-lost friends by the staff who confirm we can catch a bus to Chengdu at 2pm. The driver lets us slide in our bikes and panniers and then takes us to lunch. The rest of the day is spent hurtling along the highway along some deep narrow valleys and through a series of dismal towns. Sometimes the scenery is beautiful and then we come across an ugly factory or some dam-building. This is China.
We arrive in Chengdu at about 9 at night. The city is alive - shops are still open, lots of people about. Such a huge contrast with Tagong. We load up our bikes and join the bike lane on one of the main roads. None of us have got lights, and the riding is chaotic, especially at big junctions. There's one lively moment when Gayle misses a red light and ends up in the middle of a six-lane highway frozen in the headlights of on-rushing cars like a startled rabbit. But for all the anarchy on these city roads, everyone seems pretty good at dodging obstacles. We survive the ride and pull into to Sim's Cozy Garden Guesthouse, returning to the place we stayed last November. It feels good to be back.