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.

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