CHINA #1 - RIDING HIGH IN THE HIMALAYA
I am stamped promptly out of Laos and quickly pedal over the border into China. I am briefly interrogated by the border police as to my travel plans, where I faithfully attest that I will certainly not be cycling into any restricted areas, and that I certainly wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I am a little nervous for China does not like independent travellers, particularly those on bicycles, but I pass through without incident and am soon rolling happily down into the border town of Mohan.
Having spent my last 1000 Laos Kip on a handful of miniature plums at a market by the border, my first order of business is to find an ATM to take out some Chinese money, a currency variously known as Yuan, Kuai or RMB. Here things go less swimmingly however, for after an hour of searching it transpires that not a single bank or ATM in Mohan will accept either Visa or Mastercard. I eventually find someone who speaks a little English and I learn that I will need to find a Bank of China, and am cheerfully told that the nearest one is in the city of Jinghong, some 200km north.
I sit down on a pavement to ponder the situation. I have zero money, having spent my last US dollars a month ago on my Laos visa and having decided to hold off on buying more due to the abrupt plummet of the pound following Brexit. I have no food left, having cooked the last of my rice for breakfast. All I have in fact are a dozen tiny plums from the border market. I try some, they are delicious.
I reluctantly resign myself to pedalling 200km through the mountains on an empty stomach. I could hitchhike, but doing so would ruin the purity of my ‘circumnavigation by bike and boat’. I realise that no one else would care in the slightest if I ‘cheated’, but Iwould care. I finish the rest of my delicious plum things and start pedalling north.
I ride for three hours to the next town, where I decide to have another crack at the banks. I spend another hour on a wild goose chase being pointed from one end of town to another before finally striking gold on the edge of town and successfully drawing out a wad of crisp clean Chinese bank notes. Feeling extremely relieved, not to mention hungry from my rushing around and my brief brush with destitution, I find the nearest roadside restaurant and gorge myself silly on fried rice.
Until this point I have been somewhat single-minded in the pursuit of my stomach, so I now take the time to look up and take in my surroundings. Compared to Laos, China is something of a sensory overload. The population density has skyrocketed. Cars and motorbikes are beeping furiously and rushing around one another in a fierce hurry to get past. People talk loudly and with animation, gesturing, laughing and spitting with aplomb. I watch the old woman who cooked my meal play dominoes with a group of men out the front of her shop, their hands moving in a blur as money is bet and exchanged on the game.
I could have sat and watched the world go past for hours, but in China I am on something of a schedule due to visa restrictions so I tear myself away and pedal out of town. I am quickly forced off the main road by a large sign telling me that bicycles on the highway are very much PROHIBIDADO so I take a smaller road which runs more or less parallel.
The major highways in China which run through the mountains are altogether quite disdainful of terrain. Rather than the tedious business of going up, over and down the hills, the Chinese have simply constructed enormous bridges which span entire valleys. When there is a particularly obstinate chunk of mountain in the way, a tunnel is simply blasted straight through. Despite the mountainous nature of the landscape, the highways are therefore remarkably fast.
In my case however, the highways are prohibidado so I have to take the small road; the small road which winds up and over every hill in its path. I spend an hour or so climbing each ridge, looking up through the trees at the enormous highway running straight through the valley on giant stilts whilst I zigzag up and down.
In fairness I do appreciate the peace and quiet, for since the creation of the highway my road (which presumably was once the only route) has been largely abandoned and is only used by locals hopping from village to village. The downside is that large segments have fallen into disrepair and as the weather is still very wet I spend a lot of time squelching through mud pits and finding creative detours around flooded sections.
One morning I have an added challenge as three-quarters of the way up another pass I find the road covered by a large landslide. I dismount to have a look and find that I will be able to easily wheel my bike over the outside edge of the debris. There is a sign in Chinese which looks like it might be suggesting a retreat, but as I cannot read it I decide to take it as uplifting encouragement. ‘You’ll be fine Tristan, go for it, you’re awesome!’, or something of that nature. I thank the sign for its kind support, skirt around the landslide and continue up.
Halfway down the other side however I come across evidence that I might have slightly misinterpreted the ostensibly supportive signpost. A second, far bigger landslide has covered an enormous section of the road. In fact two landslides appear to have merged to create a double landslide. A superlandslide! Oh yes. On the outside edge of the road is a sheer drop down the cliff, whilst the inside cliff is looking dubiously fragile and it is clear that it will not take much for yet more debris to come crashing down.
The sensible option is clearly to turn back, but I have always hated retreating and do not feel like riding back uphill. I spend the next hour and a half painstakingly hauling my bicycle over the landslide. It takes two trips; once for my bags and once for my bike. The final five metres is nerve-wracking as I have to walk the catwalk along a thin stretch of wall with a sheer drop to my right and a nest of spikes to my left, all whilst manhandling my heavy steel frame bicycle. Fortunately I make it through and emerge roaring and triumphant, albeit also filthy and scratched bloody, on the other side.
The next few days continue in the same vein, with endless saddles and a lot more mud and rain. Camping is still difficult due to the population density and the shortage of flat ground, so I have no choice but to hide my tent behind muddy building sites, and I also spend another night in an abandoned ruin. The climbs get gradually bigger as I progress north. One afternoon I crest a high ridge amidst torrents of rain and glimpse an enormous valley through the drenched clouds below.
The descent is my best yet. I fly downhill, overtaking several trucks and passing through the clouds into the valley, where it stops raining. Just when I think I have hit the bottom, the road curves round and continues down. I am amazed by how deep it goes as I have almost an hour of coasting gradually down into the belly of the valley before I finally start climbing again, spending another few hours climbing back up and out of the valley before rolling down deep into the next one. That night I finally find a nice camp site, a lovely spot beside a river set into a deep ravine. It is great to enjoy a refreshing wash in the cool flowing water.
For the next few days the pattern continues of riding in and then out of progressively larger and higher valleys. One morning I round a corner to the unexpected sight of two western girls on laden bicycles taking photographs. Seeing any westerners at all is unusual, more so cycle tourers, more so women. So finding two ladies from England, one of whom is from 30 minutes away from my home town, is improbable to say the least.
Faith and Tori are both cycling independently and are both also long-haul bicycle travellers. They have been riding together for almost a fortnight since meeting near the Chinese border; we have been on roughly similar routes and I have finally caught them up. We are all heading for the city of Dali so I happily link up with the girls for the next two days. It is pleasant to have company; Faith and Tori are travelling at a more relaxed pace and it is nice to take it easy and to have someone with a shared language to banter with.
We spend the night at a mountaintop village primary school, having got permission from a kindly old man. My battered and makeshift kit is somewhat shown up by Faith and Tori, both of whom have far superior tents, matts and general equipment. I take some solace in the fact that at least my load is the lightest of the three, and my bike (the Duchess) is by far the prettiest of the lot. One final day sees us cross another long valley before another 17km pass and a long glorious descent into Dali at 2000 metres above sea level.
After some difficultly finding the place, we arrive at the Colour of Wind, a hostel where the owner very generously allows cycle tourers to stay for up to 3 nights for free through a hospitality share website for cyclists called warmshowers. I take a couple of days off to get cleaned up and plan for the route ahead. Dali itself is split into Old Dali and New Dali – the latter being a modern city and the former, where I am staying, being a major tourist town built in the old Chinese style.
Old Dali is swarming with Chinese tourists. I am amused to discover that at least part of its popularity stems from its fame as the ‘one night stand’ capital of China. The architecture in Dali is very beautiful but it is somewhat ruined by the crushing number of holidaymakers, and I have always preferred to avoid heavily touristic areas so I am happy when I finish laying my plans and the time comes to leave.
It has rained every single day since I arrived in China, and the morning I ride out of Dali is no exception. Tori has decided to stay a few extra days in the city, but Faith is riding with me for the two day journey to Lijiang. As we climb up high into the mountains the rain grows stronger and the temperature plummets. The rain is unrelenting and we are dripping wet and shivering when finally I get a puncture and we are forced to stop.
We take shelter at a small house while Faith sits around a small fire and warms herself and I set to work fixing my puncture. It is painful going as my fingers are numb from the cold and I soon discover that the tyre itself, which I had patched with tyre boots many times during my time riding the glass roads of Papua New Guinea, has finally had it. Having anticipated such an event, I have been carrying a spare tyre since Bangkok and I dig it out from the bottom of a pannier. I quickly patch my tube and fit on the new tyre. We thank an elderly couple for the use of their fire and reluctantly leave the warmth behind and venture back out into the miserable weather.
Night falls and it is still raining. Faith dismisses a number of the abandoned buildings I suggest as too creepy and degenerate, and I silently chastise myself – I am after all accompanying a lady and my usual standards of roadside accommodation are clearly inadequate. I eventually find us a ruined gas station which is relatively clean and non-threatening, and provides us with excellent shelter from the elements. We dine on a supper of instant noodles and biscuits before crawling into our tents. I pat myself on the back; I certainly know how to show a woman the good life.
By morning the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. We ride the rest of the way into Lijiang, overtaking six Chinese tour cyclists on their way towards Lhasa. In Lijiang we have a quick look around, but do not go into the old town as we aren’t inclined to pay the expensive price of admission. Lijiang is quite similar to Dali, and is similarly bustling with tourists.
I load my panniers up with food from a supermarket and wave goodbye to Faith. We are both riding north to Shangri-la, but have chosen different routes. She has less time remaining on her visa and is taking the quicker route on the highway and through Tiger Leaping Gorge. I on the other hand have opted for a longer and more mountainous route through one of the national parks.
I climb slowly out of the valley and talk my way through a checkpoint, managing to get out of paying the park entrance fee with my well practiced ‘dumb tourist’ routine. I camp high above the road overlooking the magnificent Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and can see snow towards the top of the 5596m peak. I am up at dawn to watch the first rays of the sun light up the mountain and for the first hour the summit is entirely clear of clouds. I ride with the mountain to my left for a while and then climb into the biggest valley I have ever seen.
I have long since passed the tourist area and have the road to myself. Pavement gives way to cobblestones as I spend another few hours climbing to around 3200m. The views are breathtaking. I reach the pass and begin an incredible 33km descent, whooping joyfully as I coast around the gentle switchbacks and down into the next valley where I roll into the town of Daju for lunch.
Due to its isolation and the difficulty in reaching it, Daju feels wonderfully quiet, like a wild west ghost town. I spend a lazy few hours in the shade and then make my way down a steep dirt road to the shores of the Yangtze River and push my bike onto the waiting ferry. I chat idly to the ferryman for an hour as we wait for more passengers, then make the 10 minute crossing to the northern bank.
I climb back up out of the valley, and take a ‘short cut’ up a very steep goat path which again necessitates making two trips; once to slowly push up my bike and once for my panniers. I pass an old shepherd standing on a rock overlooking the valley. She has a curved shepherd’s staff which makes her look like Moses and I watch her call down to a man in the valley below, her powerful voice easily carrying down to the ground hundreds of metres below. I camp overlooking the valley, with Tiger Leaping Gorge off to the west. The views are truly spectacular.
It takes me a few more days hard riding through the mountains to reach Shangri-la, including one pass of 3700m. I am seeing more and more Tibetans and the population is thinning out. It is still raining every single day, and it is grey and gloomy as I arrive in Shangri-la at 3200m. By chance, as I am riding through I catch a glimpse of a touring bicycle parked outside a cafe. I investigate and find Faith sitting inside.
We end up lazing away the afternoon using the wifi. By the evening the weather has cleared and I am able to look around; Shangri-la has lovely surroundings and the old town, while still touristy, feels nicer than Dali or Lijiang. We leave it too late to ride out of town to camp, but we are able to find a hostel where the staff kindly allow us to pitch our tents in their courtyard for free.
The next day Faith shoots off early as she is already behind schedule and has a lot of ground to cover. I spend an indolent morning wandering around the town before riding north in the late afternoon. I am excited as I will be taking a tiny dirt road through the mountains which I have been looking forward to for months. I am expecting passes of almost 5000m and some of the most breathtaking scenery that Tibet has to offer.
I am now in a region that is loosely referred to as Tibet. There is a fair bit of confusion as to what exactly constitutes ‘Tibet’ due to the difference between ‘Tibet’ and the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’. The Autonomous Region is off-limits for foreigners, but only constitutes approximately half of the enormous area of former Tibet, including much of the Tibetan Plateau. I will be riding through areas that are culturally Tibetan for most of the next month.
I roll down into another deep valley. I am back in a landslide danger area and ride past more than thirty landslides in the first day alone, though fortunately they have all been cleared so that at least half of the road is passable. I also ride through a few eerie ghost towns deep in the mountains; windows smashed, mortar crumbling and not a soul to be found, the buildings had been abandoned and left for the land to reclaim. I stop for a cup of tea in one particularly striking ruin; I have always liked forsaken places.
The landscape is becoming more magnificent by the day. The mountains have thus far been largely covered by a deep green canopy of pine forest, but at the top of one pass I look out to see a spectacular wall of rocky crags piercing the skyline. Across the enormous valley before me, the mountains rise like the gargantuan backbone of some long dead beast. Never before have I truly appreciated the absurd scale of the Himalayas.
I spend another day descending into the valley and then climbing back up the other side. Halfway up I stop to wash in a small stream. The water is astonishingly cold and my skin burns fiercely. Towards the top of the pass the altitude kicks in. I develop a headache, begin to feel nauseous and have to pace myself to avoid gasping for breath.
I reach the top at 4400m just before sunset, my first pass above 4000m. For months I have imagined this moment, and everything is exactly as I have pictured it. The cold, solitude and bleakness contrasted with the jaw dropping beauty of the Himalayas. The hundreds of colourful Tibetan prayer flags flapping wildly in the breeze. The thinness of the air and the sense of space. The silence broken only by the howling of the wind and the rattle of the prayer flags.
I quickly pitch my tent, cook some rice and snuggle into my sleeping bag to watch the sun go down from inside my tent. The temperature drops to a few degrees above freezing in the night and I wrap up warm for the descent in the morning. Another valley, another ascent, and I reach a small refugee camp at the top of the pass. It is a hard place to live and the people’s tents are ramshackle. There is a bloody yak’s head leaning casually against the wheel of a small truck.
Despite their hardship, the Tibetans are very friendly and I am given my first taste of Tibetan yak butter tea. I also chat to a couple of armed Chinese policemen wearing SWAT uniforms who will only agree to take a photo with me once they have removed their ID numbers. Apparently posing for pictures with foreigners is prohibidado too.
I grit my teeth through a bone-jarring descent into the valley on the worst dirt road I have seen since Papua New Guinea, camp and begin climbing again. For the best part of 70km I grind slowly uphill, ignoring the building headache and concentrating on keeping my legs turning. I am given a major boost after a few hours when a car pulls over ahead of me and a pretty Chinese girl gets out to give me a can of Red Bull. Spurred on by the fantastic twin motivators of caffeine and women, I finally reach the pass at my highest ever altitude of almost 4800 metres.
I continue on north for a few more days, riding over more passes and rarely dropping below 4000m. I cross a barren alpine plateau at 4500m and camp through a hailstorm. I stop occasionally for water at the cosy tents of the nomadic Tibetan shepherds who are usually the only inhabitants of the mountains I am riding through. They are always warm and welcoming, often inviting me in for cups of butter tea or bowls of food. They survive from their herds of yaks, goats or pigs and I am impressed with the simple lives they lead.
I finally emerge back onto a larger road and reluctantly turn east. I want to be riding northwest towards Kazakhstan, but my initial 30 day Chinese visa will expire long before I can cross the border so I have no choice but to detour 300km in the wrong direction in order to get my visa extended at a larger town. The Chinese bureaucracy is particularly irritating and it is only possible to do this in certain specific places, and only within the last 7 days of the visa.
I grind out an unpleasant two and a half days ride on the main road to the town of Kangding. The scenery remains pleasant, but whereas on the remote dirt roads to the south I encountered few vehicles, on the main road the traffic is horrible. This would be a mere annoyance but for the fact that the Chinese are some of the absolute worst drivers on the planet. There is no question that their constant abuse of the horn is certainly irritating, sometimes maddening. But it is their overtaking that makes the Chinese drivers truly awful. There is no hesitation, no matter the place. I watch, numerous times, as trucks attempt staggeringly dangerous overtakes around blind corners on narrow roads with sheer cliffs on both sides. I genuinely fear for my life on multiple occasions.
On my final day into Kangding I climb two passes and witness the aftermath of two devastating crashes. First a coach which has had all of its windows smashed in trying a blind overtake, and then a car which has been t-boned and almost shunted off a cliff. I myself am forced to bail off the road down a steep verge to avoid being hit when rounding a corner to find a car hurtling towards me on the wrong side.
I escape with scrapes and bruises, but had I been driving a car a collision would have been unavoidable. I cannot figure whether the Chinese are somehow oblivious as to the dangerousness of their driving, or whether they are aware, yet do it anyway. They seem to be either very stupid, or INSANE. I am unsure which would be worse. I am very relieved when I make it into Kangding safely.
I check into a hostel (a requirement of visa extension) and hand in my paperwork after a few rounds playing a bureaucrats pinball. I have to wait around for a few days to get my new visa, but it is pleasant to take a rest. Kangding is a lovely town, wedged tightly into a narrow valley with towering mountains rising steeply on both sides, and at an altitude of only 2600m it is nice to have oxygen rich air to breathe again.
I am able to do a little hiking in the surrounding area as well as fix up some of my gear and catch up on sleep.
I get everything ready, then reclaim my passport complete with a fresh 30 day Chinese visa. Some of the time has already been lost due to the wait period, leaving me with 27 days remaining to get out of the country.
I am ready for a tough month; I have four weeks to cycle 3700km out of China to Kazakhstan, and I will have to ride straight over the Tibetan Plateau and through the heart of the Taklamakan Desert. I will have to ride an average of at least 140km per day for the entire month, with no days off. Still, I am ready for the challenge. I pedal west back up the pass out of Kangding heavily loaded with more than a week’s worth of food. I have a lot of ground to cover.