We had just ridden into Litang in part one which turned out to be a remarkably interesting place. It had a real sense of genuine Tibetan life and culture as soon as you stepped into the old part of the town. Litang is fabled for its fertile(ish) pastures and it looks out across a huge area of grassland – a landscape currently being eaten faster by construction rather than yak. The first rather negative Chinese-under-construction part of the town was deceiving because the more you explore, chat and discover the place the longer you want to stay and explore.
As we approached the monastery in Litang we passed so many Tibetans walking around the perimeter praying as they went, it was a really inspiring sight. Despite being busy with Chinese tourists in town we would see few Chinese tourists inside any of the Tibetan monasteries not only as they were remote places but because they’re not made particularly welcome, I guess that happens when you invade their country, exile their leader and occupy their homeland….
As westerners and being on bikes we were happily accepted (or maybe more tolerated in some places). Here in Litang we sat down with some monks and all tried hard to communicate in sign language, it was frustrating not to have full conversations but interesting still, we agreed we all liked the Dalai Lama.
The monks tried out the bikes and has a blast wobbling all over the places with only a few crashes. In return we were allowed to wander freely around the inside of all the buildings.
In the centre of the main monastery building was a plainly decorated huge open space for praying, surrounded by basic little rooms where some monks lived, similar to a motel in design! Whereas the vast gold gilted temples lower down the hill had lavishly decorated walls and ceilings all boldly coloured and with beautiful painted scenes. Most temples are not open for photography, much like the monks they don’t like to become photo attractions I always asked first.
At the market in Litang the meat was fresh and there was a fascinating array of various animal body parts you hope you hadn’t been eating but probably had!
We ate fried bread and dumplings from a lady at the market. Both were steaming hot and tasty, the ideal breakfast on a cold frosty morning.
We even met our first westerner tourists, a French couple who had ridden here on recumbent bikes, not a bad effort! We were staying in the Peace Cafe Hotel a very comfortable place but still in the old town area. Later we saw two other westerners in the distance waiting near the bus station, this made up 80% of all westerners we would see in the entire three weeks making Litang a bit of a hotspot!
That evening we sat on the hill above town and watched the sun go down, it was almost like we were on a romantic holiday to Greece. Well until a lone horse rider charged up the hills headed straight towards us, I was a bit freaked out. Luckily he wasn’t intending on mugging us but happily waved as he cantered to the top past the lines of prayer flags.
Later on we ate fried Momos AKA Yak dumplings with butter tea AKA Bo Cha. These guys next to us enjoyed staring and smiling for the entire meal at how we used chopsticks, a theme mirrored throughout the trip. I liked their bad ass dress sense so I didn’t mind the staring.
The next morning we were all set to leave town and ride out again. We had decided that the road to Lhasa (the 318) was too busy for us, about 150 military trucks alone passed us each day, these were in huge convoys carrying troops and kit to the Tibetan Autonomous region to maintain ‘Peace’.
The huge descents meant the brakes overheated on trucks, to combat this they used a water tank feeding jets of water constantly sprayed onto the brakes, I’m sure this isn’t healthy for the brakes, the result was big clouds of steam as each one passed:
We decided to head north on a back road (217). We didn’t know what it would be like other than quieter. Leaving Litang we rode up to the long tunnel again and the dry, dusty, thin air caused me to get a huge nose bleed. Something that these same conditions seem to inflict on me on each trip at some point.
After my nose stopped its protest we negotiated the long, dark, airless tunnel as fast as possible. A few kilometers later at the S217 turn off we were relieved to see this backroad was smooth new tarmac. We passed the first expanse of pasture with nomadic herders tents, something we would enjoy for most of the day. The landscape was wide and open but totally covered in black dots of Yak. Like ants they were everywhere.
As the road carried on it inevitably went uphill again getting more and more scenis and isolated (we expected nothing else now) twisting and turning up to 4600m. Huge arcing hairpins made it steady but long:
Finally we slogged breathless up to the top and the peaceful prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, we took pictures while trying to avoid the occasional car/motor bike. Here is Marion celebrating:
We then spotted the descent – it was epic. We knew we would lose around 2000m height today and were buzzing about the long downhill but the road was even more spectacular than imagined. This is the first long hairpin of the descent that never ends:
Lower down and the trees started to emerge but still no pedaling!
The valley we now entered was not something we expected, as we lost height we rolled through dense pine forests, with the smell of warm pine needles in the air. We stopped to admire isolated Buddhist stupas and a few kids on mopeds seemed intent on doing laps past us, there’s not much to do here it seemed. Tibetan tent’s were hidden up in the mountains with Yak grazing the forest, it must be a hard life with wolves and other predators still lurking here beyond the first villages.
We stopped to eat a snack we bought, like everything we bought we didn’t really know what it was. In restaurants we looked at what others were eating, pointed at pictures or I wandered into the kitchen and pointed at ingredients. We always got something pretty tasty in return. Snacks were more dangerous, these crispty things were truly vile and I spat mine out, I had hoped they tasted like Wheatos but no they were like cat food. (How I imagine cat food tastes, I don’t normally eat that either). Marion then saw the packet had a cat on it, maybe it actually is cat food we wondered….either way we were hungry and ate most of them.
We passed the first remote villages and we flew past fast as we continued downhill. The first village had matching blue roofs I assume from their Chinese or smurf donors. In the sky above we saw about 8 huge vultures, two different types circling around, we lay back and watched them fascinated, bearing in mind they can strip a carcass in minutes we didn’t lie too long.
After a long day riding we hit the main river and started to head upstream again. We felt tired and look around for somewhere to stop in the villages.
There’s no hotels or marked homestays in this area, it’s not on any tourist routes. We spotted a temple and monastery over the river and up the hill opposite. We crossed the rickety bridge and started on the zig zags dug out the cliff face. The track was narrow and sandy and we soon had to walk.
When we reached the buildings we wandered in and were met by the stares of 20 young monks getting a lesson on using a chainsaw – practical Buddhism at work. The buildings were run down looking and being renovated slowly. The monks were still staring, there was no response and little chance of a place to stay. It was clear we were a complete unknown maybe the first ever westerners up here, the leader wasn’t rude but neither was he inviting so we waved goodbye.
Outside a lady from the nearby house kindly showed us a grassy spot to camp for the night. We set up the tent and all the friendly locals came to inspect the bikes, tent and our stove we were cooking on. The only water was a long walk back down to the river so it took a while to get going. Just as the water boiled, all the young monks came running over to see us. At first they kept a distance but then they gave us two packs of dried noodles to cook! Donations to the poor foreigners it was a really touching and kind gesture! Finally the last locals rode their mopeds off and left us to it. The inability to communicate meant their interest had waned.
We settled down to sleep. An hour later I heard a truck negotiating the narrow track. I knew it was coming to park here, exactly where we were lying inside the tent. I didn’t have time to get out of the tent as the lights quickly illuminated the canvas. I just crossed my fingers he would see us. As he swerved into the parking space I was absolutely terrified….He only just missed the tent and the driver jumped out the cab shouting at us, I crawled to my feet and he continued to be annoyed but also freaked out by a 6ft4in striped thermal clad Foreigner. Eventually the nice lady heard and shouted to him that she had agreed and he wandered off.
All was good and we went back to sleep under the clear starry night sky.
An hour later I awoke, to a spine tingling noise. A crunch of what sounded like bones in among low angry snarls, it was clear something was fighting not far from the tent. It could only be wild dogs, Marion was awake too and we whispered what to do. It sounded so close by I couldn’t continue to lie here in silence straining to hear what exactly was going on. I grabbed the torch and jumped out of the tent again. I illuminated the animals. Four pairs of eyes stared back unflinchingly, keeping the light on them I collected stones and a thick branch. After the first stone was launched they casually wandered off. The village dogs were going mental at them. We could sleep in the truck in an emergency but hopefully they had gone. But no a bit later I heard them creeping back, I shone a torch out and the four shapes were following each other past the tent, this view confirmed my suspicions – these weren’t dogs but four wild wolves all equally large…I didn’t tell Marion.
It wasn’t a great nights sleep but we survived. This was the peaceful looking camp spot but behind was wild scrubland heading up the mountains, you can spot the chunk of wood I had picked up in defence next to the tent:
The next day we headed north to Garze or Ganze. On the way we passed more peaceful ancient villages unchanged for centuries. An overheating mini-van stopped to fill up with water at the same stream we were using, it’s fair to say his engine was overheating a bit. With the filter bottles we drank from any stream we saw without issue.
Across the road was a sketchy bridge leading to a really cool monastery.
A real calm and spiritual air existed at this particularly ancient place, it was like time stood still. Like good tourists we just posed for pictures in front of it and ticked it off our list:
We rode along the river and passed Xinlong and fairly forgettable place but with good shops and an ATM. The next stop was Garze.
Garze was set against some of the biggest most dramatic mountains you’ll see anywhere in the world. It was also back on the Chinese tourist map but we still liked the place. We stayed in a fancy hotel costing £21. It was pretty extravagant! We toured the night market for Pomelos and other fruit. I also picked up some antibiotics. I had used the last lot we had in the first week on an old but deep skin wound The next morning it was steamed dumpling time! These are Yak meat and so good on a cold morning!
The old street leading to the monastery in Garze was lined with highly skilled wood carving workshops. Each producing amazing pine chests, doors and other furniture intricately carved. The wood shavings were burning in stoves to keep out the cold and smoke swirled in the narrow street making it pretty atmospheric.
The temple complex was a steep walk uphill, we found the young monks enthusiastically playing some ball game:
Then the loud gongs were hit signalling the next prayer session and they all disappeared in every direction.
The views over to the mountains were absolutely amazing in Garze, we just chilled out and admired them for a while:
Not a bad place to ride bikes through:
After leaving Garze behind we set off for the biggest challenge of the trip…..in part 3 and the final installment…..