Friday, April 30, 2010

Mud And Thunder

We make a beeline for the first hotel we see in Xinduqiao. The woman at reception tries to explain that there's another foreigner staying, and shows us the register. A woman called Gillian. Mmmm. Very interesting. We're knackered and filthy and just want to shower, eat and rest. The receptionist is happy for us to put our bikes in our room for safe-keeping as if she has had other cyclists staying here. And then we think about this Gillian woman and ask her, is Gillian with a man? Yes. Do they have bicycles? Yes. Could they be our friends Gill and Bert? Yes. We knock on their door, and sure enough it's them. They too were heading to Yushu and have chosen to divert to Chengdu as well. They've been cycling the whole way from Zhongdian and had some snowy cold weather along the way, so they're looking forward to getting to a warmer place. Our plan is to detour via Danba so after an evening meal together and a good kip, we part in the morning.

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.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thin Line Between Love And Hate

" I love my bike" Gayle exclaims happily when we stop for a breather. All around are big mountains. There's snow on the tops, pine forest falling into the valleys. The road is in good nick and we're feeling good. Nothing like the open road, big country, high altitudes. Our route east is taking us across some high passes to Xinduqiao, a town where the road from Chengdu splits into the northern and southern Sichuan-Tibetan Highways. Our plan is to branch northwards to the Tagong grasslands and then east again along another route to Chengdu. The first stage is over three days at altitudes mainly between 4000 and 4500 metres, with an annoying drop down to 2700m to stay in Yajiang on the second night. The first night we are camping, and after a longish search we eventually climb away from a village and turn up at a little pass with a knoll above the road. We have to carry the bikes and the luggage up to the top, but it's worth it for the sense of security and privacy. Oh, and the views. It feels chilly when we fall asleep but we awake in the morning feeling very snug. No wonder - the tent is covered in snow.
Our ride to Yajiang is interrupted by a convoy of Chinese Army tankers and trucks. There's about one hundred and twenty vehicles. This highway must be the main supply route to Lhasa. The pass above Yajiang is signposted 4712 metres, but we're not sure of the accuracy of this. Still, it's a bloody long way down to the town. Along the way it hails and then rains heavily. We seek shelter in a carpenter's work room, and sit with the old dears who are perched on tree trunks watching the man at work. We carry on down and pass 4 Chinese cyclists on the way up. This is becoming a popular ride - Chengdu to Tibet - and we see quite a few cyclists heading in the opposite direction.
Down in Yajiang we start looking for a cheap hotel that will take foreigners. Whilst Gayle watches the bikes, a policeman who speaks English comes up to her to chat. By the time I get back she's having to show her passport and there's another man, in a suit, with a Communist Party lapel badge prominent. He seems to be asking the questions, and Bob The Plod is doing the translations. Where are we staying tonight? Well, here, if we can find a hotel. Admittedly, the charmless town is hardly a tourist hot-spot. A little crowd has gathered, but the police are friendly and it's quite low-key. Bob, The Plod, offers to take us to a hotel. It's an offer we're not refusing. Along the way he wants to know England's chances in the World Cup. He laughs at my reply.

Our following day's ride to Xinduqiao begins with a nice ride up a valley full of grand Tibetan houses. And then we reach the switchbacks. Up we go, into a colder climate. The road is narrow and deteriorates quickly - the onslaught of landslides, heavy frosts and overloaded trucks taking it's toll. The climbing is endless. We stop to chat with some Chinese cyclists looking rather jolly - they're going downhill. The climb to the top is about 48km according to my information. Somewhere about the 40km mark I crack. It's drizzling and misty, there are too many trucks and buses and cars and I'm feeling very miserable. There's so much broken road and mud and up above I can see the road heading off into the cloud. I get off and start pushing. Gayle perseveres. The altitude is a killer and cycling is hard. I push about 5km in all to reach the top - a big snowy expanse. Now we have to layer up our clothing and set off on the descent in freezing mist. Our hands freeze as we grip our brakes - there's no easy riding on the broken road until finally we drop out of the cloud and into a wintry valley leading to Xinduqiao. The day has been too long and too tough for me. I hate my bike.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Windy and cloudy. Is it trying to rain? We're leaving Zhongdian and have a short climb followed by a descent that seems to go on for the rest of the day. We're cold, so cold. But then after lunch we drop down into a gorge and the warmth hits us. There are Tibetan houses dotted around, green fields and trees with blossom. Small communities of people are building new houses in the traditional style - compacted earth walls and brightly painted woodwork. Spring is down here. We finally reach the Yangtze river and have a nice ride along an empty road up the valley to end the day in Waka village. And here we stay a couple of nights because of rain. Whilst we're laid off, we catch the news in Chinese of an earthquake in Qinghai province. And then our ears prick up. Yushu? Did they say Yushu? That's where we are heading. Were heading. Not now. We have no idea of the scale of the earthquake, nor how many are injured or have died, but we know enough of China to think about an alternative route. Over the next couple of weeks the rescue operation and reconstruction efforts get plenty of news coverage, although we can't get the state news channel in English. What we see is the Permier and then the President visiting the zone and speaking to the people. Yushu is another Tibetan area. We see monks and soldiers digging through rubble by hand. Ironically, the large army presence in the area means that soldiers are on hand to help with rescue work. There follows a benefit concert on all the TV channels to highlight the plight of the victims and raise money across China to help. This is an interesting sight. News programmes show communities across the country queuing to put money into a collection box (remember to fan the notes so that you can be seen to be giving generously). The Chinese government doesn't need the cash for reconstruction - it's cash rich, and can invest in infrastructure and housing quite easily. What seems to be important is that the country is seen to be united in helping its citizens. Especially Tibetan citizens.

The following three days we regain the altitude we have lost and some more, as we head northwards up a series of valleys and over three high passes one each day. We stop in Derong the first evening and witness the communal dancing scene again, as a large circle of people dances to Tibetan songs. It's a hypnotic sight. The dancing is a kind of gentle aerobics. I'm invited to join in by a very well-dressed older man. Always a wallflower, I decline. Gayle sits and 'chats' with a group of women munching lychees. The following day we have our first big climb up to about 3900 metres, beginning with some switchbacks that allow me an opportunity for a breather whilst Gayle catches up. We are the Tortoise and the Hare today. There is a small altercation with some Chinese tourists in a four-wheel drive who stop, ostensibly to take photos of the views, but turn their big fat Nikons onto Gayle as she huffs and puffs up the incline. I watch with pity as she asks them not to photograph her. They ignore her and one woman crosses the road to get a better shot. Gayle rides straight at her, forcing her into the ditch. When she finally gets past them I stride down manfully, shouting and waving my fists and asking them to delete the photos. This is the problem with travelling in a country where human rights are non-existent - these Chinese tourists can't comprehend that people might not want to be photographed. And even if they did - what right have you to deny them? After a long climb we end the day dropping down into the next valley which once again is full of farms and Tibetan houses. We're tired when we pass by one with some flat land and stop to ask the women there if we can camp behind their wall. They say yes and sit down to watch as we pitch the tent and start cooking. Then they leave us be.
Next day seems to follow the same pattern - another climb over a pass and a descent to a village spread out along a wider valley floor. We ask an old lady if we can camp in the rock field behind her house and she says yes. There's a dirt track running up a side valley by a stream and the yak herders coming off the hills stop to say hello and have a look on their way home. We fall asleep early only to be awoken by two drunks who are talking to us. They have a motorbike and are mpointing its headlight right at the tent. We decide to stay in the tent as we can't understand them and they sound plastered. Eventually the younger one drags away the more cantankerous old one who picks up a rock and throws it at the tent in parting. It's midnight. We've never had a visiting drunk before - what should we do? If we stay where we are he may come back. But where can we move to? It's pitch black outside. Soon afterwards, the drunks pass by but don't come over. Now we're on edge. Maybe we should move. And then the old drunk returns with someone else. He sounds angry. And he sounds like he needs someone else to hold him up. Finally they stagger off. Okay, we have to move now. We pack up as quietly as we can, load up the bikes and walk off back to the road. We haven't gone far when we find a fallow field behind a low wall. We pitch the tent and go back to sleep. Thankfully there are no more disturbances, but the experience is very unsettling. We'll have to be much more careful to camp out of sight in future.

Inevitably we have another climb the next day but although it's our highest to date, over 4000 metres, the gradient is good and the reward at the end is wonderful views west over big mountains. We're in Sichuan province now, and everywhere we look there are snowy ridges. The pass is littered with prayer flags. We realise we've been blessed with good weather these past three days and we've loved the scenery - maybe all that cycling uphill is worth it. We descend merrily into Xiangcheng with a long downhill ride that ends with Gayle getting chased by a junkyard dog. But she's not as frightened as me of dogs and her bark is greater than her pursuer's. On the outskirts of town are scattered whitewashed houses that remind us both of Morocco and Andalucia. Did we take a wrong turn back there?

After a little deliberation over our route north to Litang we unanimously decide to take a bus. The 4-hour ride over high passes and freezing plateau would take us four days and we're feeling rather slothful. And we're unsure of the weather too. The landscape is wonderful on the ride, but all of a sudden it's passed by - the bus is much too fast. Litang is a poor dusty Tibetan town on the road between Chengdu and Lhasa with nothing to commend it except for the people. As a market town for the surrounding area it's always busy with Tibetans in some of the fanciest outfits we've ever seen. Men, women and monks shuffle around the shops and market stalls in a variety of groovy sunglasses, outlandish brocade hats, embroidered jackets, long woollen or yakskin coats and elaborate bejewelled hair extensions. It's been a while since we've seen such incredible clothing. Many of the men have long hair, every face is burnished by the sun, children have permanently rosy cheeks. The town is at about 4100 metres and the thin air leaves us gasping just tying our shoe laces. The weather's looking a bit 'off and on' but it's time to head east and find some warmer weather.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lost Horizon

We have three good days cycling to reach Zhongdian in the north of Yunnan, starting with a climb up from the Yangtze on a brand new and virtually empty road. We're slow climbers, but it gives us time to appreciate the views. Ha! Looking southwards we get another aspect of Snow Mountain in glorious sunshine, around the bend there's a view over the Yangtze valley to mountains off to the east. We climb through pine forest, and come across small villages and farmland now and again. Towards the top of our first climb we meet a tour group of cyclists flying down in the opposite direction. None have any luggage, of course. An Aussie woman yells "Nearly there!" But she's wrong. After this climb we have a descent and then another climb and a half before we reach Baishuitai, our destination. Still, she means well. At the top we're rewarded with better views north. A couple of men are leading a mule train through the woods and around a bend on a track. It's our turn to fly past a couple of straggling cyclists on their way up as we hurtle down to the village of Ha'ba. After a good late lunch we motor on, and are happy to find that after regaining some height, the road continues along the vallley at the same altitude. Off to our right the Yangtze is taking another dramatic bend to the east and we leave it behind, finally arriving in Baishuitai as the sun is dropping behind the mountains. The guesthouses are rudimentary, and just as we settle on one along come two other cyclists from the opposite direction. Stephane and Leen, from Belgium, stop at the same guesthouse and we chat over our meal in the evening. It seems the only foreigners in these parts are all on bicycles. Next day seems to take a similar pattern, with a big climb, a descent, and then another climb. Lunch is pot noodles from a shack shop in a large village. It's just enough. At the top of the second climb, where we're about 3700 metres, I get off and push - to stretch the muscles of course. And on the way down we have to find a spot to camp. Thankfully Gayle has got a kilometre marker to look out for, from some other cyclists' blog. We find the spot and make our first camp near to a babbling brook in a clearing amongst pine trees. Our third day starts with yet another climb. The good news is that it's our last big one. The bad news is that it's our highest, about 3900m, and a long one. But by now we're better acclimatised and feeling good. The pass eventually comes but here we encounter freezing winds and a barren landscape. We drop down into a bleak brown valley devoid of life except for a few yaks. Having left the Tropics we seem to have passed through the seasons in the wrong order, with summer, then spring and now this wintry scene. We hurtle past a phoney Tibetan village that's been adapted for Chinese tourists, and stop at the next place for yet another pot noodle. We're in Tibetan country now - that huge area of China where Tibetans are living outside of Tibet proper - and the women are wearing traditional clothes, jewellery, various headgear, and the familiar stiped apron. Ruddy cheeks are prominent.
Zhongdian has an old town now swamped by its new counterpart. A while ago the provincial authorities renamed the town Xiangelila (that's Shangrila to you and me), claiming that the town provided the inspiration for Hilton's novel. Essentially a cynical attempt to lure tourists here, it seems to be working, although there is nothing like the development we found in Lijiang or Dali. This means that the town feels quite normal, and if the weather wasn't so wintry, we might stay longer. As it is, we want to keep going and stop only to renew our footwear, visit the local monastery (sneaking past the ticket office), and fill up on the traditional local dish of pizza. In the evenings music is played in the old square and locals, women, men, girls and boys form a circle and dance to the songs. The first time we see this it's dark, and the event thrills us. There are old ladies in traditional clothes, old men in their big hats, young boogaloos in jeans and Rod Stewart haircuts, young women in the latest fashions, all performing an elaborate line dance. This communal act seems like an assertion of their ancient culture and traditions, despite the modernisation of their town and the Han influence that comes with it. Here is a shared act, a public display that asserts their ethnic identity. The next day we arrive a little earlier to see the dancing in the twilight. There are groups of Chinese and foreign tourists gathered with their large cameras pointing at anything or anyone who moves. Suddenly the whole scene just looks like another tacky Chinese tourist show. Lost Horizon indeed.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tourist Central

Walking the cobbled streets of old town Lijiang you soon realise that the town is no longer real. Every single grey stone building is either a hotel, shop, restaurant or guesthouse. It's a big town and it's in great condition, as you'd expect for a a town on the UNESCO's World Heritage List. There's an eight quid 'protection fee' for entering but what's to protect? Our guesthouse is a lovely courtyard building with small but perfect rooms (a four-poster bed, stylish bathroom), balconies, decorative wood-carved finish etc. It's all new. Restoration and reconstruction might be the same word in Mandarin. No-one asks us to pay the fee, so we don't. The town is lovely, with streams running through, hardly a satellite dish to be seen, the streets are spotlessly clean. But the streets are busy, busy. Our guidebook reckons on 4 million visitors a year, with 700 hotels to accomodate them. The owner of our guesthouse is a Singaporean businessman. He was here during national holidays in October 2008 when over 15,000 tourists were without a bed for the night. He decided then to invest in a hotel.

We've a few chores to do and the place is very comfortable, so we stop a couple of days. The weather's mixed and cloud sits on Snow Mountain (great name) to the north. We have different options to head northwards. Not far away is the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge where the Yangtze passes through a very narrow and deep gorge. We could cycle through it except, surprise, surprise, the road is being reconstructed. Then we get an e-mail from a Spanish cyclist, Salva, who has ridden a back road to the far end of the gorge, crossed the river, and continued up to Zhongdian on a back road that sounds beautiful. There is also a tourist road directly to the gorge, but it costs 16 quid each to use and we're too tight. We can't decide what to do, so we delay our departure a day. Ahhh, the freedom to be able to do nothing. It turns out well - we learn that the gorge road is passable, though we may have to carry our bikes over landslides, and the day we leave it's sunny and clear. We take the main highway, an easy ride on new tarmac, with a very long descent to the Yangtze. We finally get to see Snow Mountain. It is a mountain with snow. At the gorge entrance the fee is waived due to the road works. Hooray.Next morning we set off down the dusty road through the gorge. It's said that walking the gorge is the best way to experience it and we can't argue otherwise after a dirty and slow ride for the 22 kilometres to the guesthouses at the other end. But we still enjoy the dramatic scenery with the river crashing through the narrow gap below, and on the far side the sheer cliffs shooting up into the sky above. Of course, there's all the drama of Chinese roadworks as well for the whole length. Various teams of workers are chopping bits of the hillside away with explosives, diggers and drills, whilst others are building up the side that drops vertiginously down to the river. The workers are living on site, which means plastic tarpaulin tents strung up on narrow stretches. Labourers break and sift rocks - men and women together. The old road has disappeared under the endless landslides and constant rumble of overladen trucks full of rocks, gravel or sand. We amble carefully along, waiting whilst a landslide is cleared, or sprint over broken ground whilst men drill a rockface overhead. There are a few locals using the road and some tourists in minibuses.

We're pretty grubby when we reach our guesthouse, and it's been a very slow ride, but we're happy that now we've got through the gorge we can continue along the back road to Zhongdian. We sit and chat away with the other tourists. Amazingly it seems that only one person out of about twenty has actually walked here - the rest rode along this horrible road in minibuses.......