It’s taken a while to write a blog about our trip to China and Tibet. It was a pretty crazy trip where so much seemed to happen it’s hard to keep track. It was also incredibly tough going and almost destroyed me at the end. The altitude and the scale of the mountain passes each day were relentless, topping out at over 5000m, mostly we were at an altitude over 4000m. Then there was the daily struggle to get food and shelter in a part of the world where we met just 5 people who spoke any English in the entire three weeks. Wild camping and eating noodles was an easy option but overnight temperatures being around -8 meant it was tempting to find a homestay or cheap hotel!
We’ve never before set off with such little idea about the roads, towns or even where we would end up visiting. The map we bought was essential but pretty awful and there’s so little info online about riding this far west in China’s Sichuan region. With so little planned out we had that nervous trepidation in our stomachs for what exactly lay ahead and at times rightly so as it turned out…..
After flying into the Chinese city of Chengdu we had to get to our hostel. The bike boxes were too big for the normal taxis so we pondered the options at the side of the road. Then a Tuk Tuk stopped, the guy offered to carry the boxes, we couldn’t see how but after he lifted them on the roof and we set off, no rope or straps needed it seemed just gravity and friction would be enough! My arm ached from holding them on around corners. It was a bit sketchy to say the least and he certainly got lost a few times mostly while driving the wrong way up streets but we all made it in one piece.
I don’t intend to get too political but I will refer to the area from here on as Tibet in my blogs because we had crossed the border into what was Tibet before the Chinese took over in the 1950’s. I spoke Tibetan to the locals and hung out in Tibetan monastery’s and villages so to me it’s Kham and Tibet not Western Sichuan. However its dangerous to get political here still, so we kept our heads down and just remembered to ride in order and focus on public morality….
After a long, long sleep at the hostel we received the great advice of getting the bus to Kangding. The section of road we missed out getting to Kangding is currently being rebuilt in a vast infrastructure project; countless tunnels, flyovers and spectacular bridges are rising from the narrow river valleys. In fact all across Western Sichuan billions are being spent on infrastructure by the Chinese government it’s jaw dropping in scale. The associated lorries, dust and diversions from construction meant it would have been dangerous and thoroughly unpleasant riding. Why are they spending so much on roads? It’s to integrate Tibet into China but also to speed up the time taken for the 150 military trucks that overtook us each day to reach Chamdo. This picture was just one section of the 200km long project:
It was good to leave Chengdu promptly because the place was about as inspiring as David Beckham talking about baking. If it wasn’t for the Panda breeding centre or as a stop off for the mountains I can’t see why tourists would bother coming to Chengdu. The old wooden house lined streets and infamous riverside food vendors have long gone, replaced by concrete blocks and wide generic streets. Ironically two streets near the remaining temples have been rebuilt in a ‘modern ancient’ style for the Chinese tourists who flock to take selfies by the fake wooden shop fronts with Starbucks logos. As westerners I think the attraction is minimal, maybe I sound a bit cynical?
We rolled out of town towards Kangding on our bus. It was due to take 7 hours but on the narrow mountain roads an inevitable accident delayed our journey to 10.5hrs. It’s fair to say 10.5hrs of strong smelling food, much hucking and spitting by passengers into the aisle and the driver’s love of blind overtaking on rather sketchy mountain roads is long enough. We arrived after dark and struggled to find a place to sleep. The obvious hostel was full, but finally the hostel host there guided us to another hotel reception hidden in a lobby of an ugly tower block, after some negotiation we were asked for about £10 in Yuan and shown the penthouse suite! Plenty of space for the bikes between the raised gamesroom mezzanine floor and the vast king sized bedroom. We even had a view over the Las Vegas style bright lights of central Kangding and to the holy mountain on the left with it’s carved Buddhas. Not a bad view from a £10 hotel room:
Kangding grew on us with a wide selection of good restaurants and a few old temples in the hills above. It’s fair to say it wasn’t the highlight of the trip though!
On the way out we stopped to get a bottle of petrol filled for our MSR stove but due to the risk of Self immolation (where monks set fire to themselves in protest at China) it was hard to get anything without the Police getting involved. No one would do it at the state petrol stations, until finally a mechanics garage took £5 and crawled under a car to drain a tank. It took a lot of hand gesturing and acting to get them to understand but we now had fuel to cook on!
The 318 is the road to Lhasa it roller coasters up and down countless high mountain passes on it’s rather romantic sounding journey through the Himalayas. As foreigners we can only do the first 500km before it’s totally closed to non-Chinese, after Chamdo is the Tibetan Autonomous Region where you require a guide at all times. We set off on this road for the Tibetan town of Litang about 300km away, an easy two days riding we thought…
Our map was useful but had its limitations with a scale of 1:1,600,000. On day one it indicated we had a pass but no idea of its height. We set off riding to find out. The road was new and very smooth. As we climbed higher it became clear this was no small pass. We passed prayer flags flapping at the roadside and brightly painted water powered prayer wheels constantly spinning above rivers. Finally we saw the top as the light was starting to dull but we were ruined and hugely exhausted, it later turned out we had climbed up to 3800m on this first day!
This pass left us knackered but the views were not bad, well when not being photo bombed by Chinese tourists:
After some photos and being subjected to too much interest from the Chinese tourists we set off downhill. Being late on in the day the air had cooled from the shorts and T-shirt warmth on the climb. Despite having all our layers on Marion got seriously cold very quickly and couldn’t even hold the brakes, we stopped and she had to put my extra down jacket over her many layers to warm up. Our ski gloves needed liners in them it was that cold in the evening air.
Not long later we set up camp by a small stream near some Tibetan houses, I think we confused the neighbours but we had a good sleep, well until all the Yaks stomped past in the morning, then splashed across the river! From leaving Kangding the Tibetan architecture and culture had appeared and would vary greatly but stay for us for the rest of the trip.
The tent was frosted like a christmas cake in the morning, so after some hot porridge on the stove we set off again to catch the rising sun’s warming rays. (Yes you can get oats in China!)
As soon as we left the valley shadows the violently strong sun shone we were toasty warm again. Factor 50 was needed to stop blistering of the skin under the high altitude UV. I forgot the next day and my hands were destroyed in red sores all over the backs.
Today we had another high pass of unknown altitude, it started to gain height after a morning riding through some charming little Tibetan villages.
We stumbled upon a few monasteries, this one was pretty spectacular and we even got a guided tour by the young monks.
We were both struggling a bit more than we expected and making slow progress, I said to Marion that the extra easy gears I had set up (24:36) were only for steep climbs not to cruise on all day! She said she was breathless so I let it go.
At the next layby yet more Chinese were obviously big fans of welovemountains.net and wanted to be photographed with me, I felt like Justin Beiber must at times. These guys took about 30 pictures:
However the novelty factor of us paid off later when these guys kindly bought us a super tasty lunch, about 6 dishes and all tasted great, my favourite was bacon with pigs ears (mushrooms). I think they underestimated how hungry I was. But one of them spoke English which was really useful and interesting to chat with:
The guy in the kitchen was working his magic:
After checking online once we reached Litang it turned out we had been well above 4000m all day with almost no acclimatization, I felt bad as it was no wonder Marion had been breathless and was using the easy gears so much! It also explained why I slept badly because we slept at 4300m. It actually could have been a bit dangerous getting this high so soon but luckily we had suffered no effects of altitude sickness.
The passes all have stunning amounts of prayer flags, all flying in the wind:
We covered a better distance on day two thanks in large part to a huge 40km down hill, which included 3 back to back loop the loops. It was like the Chinese were just showing off how much money they had to spend on roads here.
We were shattered and hoped to find a cheap hotel in Yajiang. A small town perched on steep slopes of a river gorge. After crossing a huge spanning bridge the town looked dirty and rough plus it was a lot of effort to get up to, so we kept riding. We bought some sour plums covered in a white mold as snacks and some random milky juice. Food was interesting here.
Another view of this random town on the river:
Out of Yajiang was a nature reserve, but only in the loosest sense. The steep valley meant no camping spots but We saw an old roadside hotel/ rest stop, so asked about a room. Not the cleanest place, cigarette butts on the room floor etc. The worst part was the only toilet being across the yard, despite having a room it cost extra to use it, a lady slept outside it all night to make sure no one used it for free. It was the same as the bus stop used. Public toilets so far had been interesting, just long water troughs with a 3 foot high wall separating each ‘cubicle’ no doors or privacy as you squat. The Chinese don’t care and most are on their phones still.
The room was OK with lots of beds and just £3 each. It was quiet until the morning when loud music started blaring out.
The next morning was another huge climb to an unknown altitude. The map showed A LOT of wiggles, after 35km of steady climbing we hit the hairpins.
A sign indicated 18 were left to climb. This was a high pass! Lucikly a stall apeared selling dried fruit and spicy dried yak meat. He refused to take payment for the dried Kiwi fruit, taking pity on the crazy foreigners. The spicy yak meat was good too, but I I ate a small bit it seemed too sketchy on the angry bacteria front.
Looking down we could see tall snow capped mountains it was an awesome spot. On the other side we hardly descended at all keeping high alongside altitude pastures full of so many black yak:
There were also traditional Tibetan nomad tents dotted around, unlike yurts these are more traditional house shaped tents, still the smell of burning yak dung was in the air like in central Asia. The huge Tibetan Mastiffs guarding them were the size of Donkeys…luckily chained up.
That night we camped up high again and I took some pictures of the stars, they were comfortably above average. The milky way stretched horizon to horizon.
I slept badly and we both felt tired adjusting to the altitude still.
Still can’t complain when wake up to this:
We finally rolled into Litang and initially it underwhelmed due to the Chinese constructing a huge army barracks, police station and some ugly concerete hotels, but soon we found the traditional streets hidden behind:
We went out to explore the town at sunset and we were overwhelmed by the place, it was so full of friendly people, good food and then the monastery complex up the hill was incredible. I’ll leave that for part two to keep you hanging on though…….