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.

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