434km Cycling Up & Down Sichuan Mountains

On leaving Shangri-La mid-June we spent 10 days touring the mountainous region of Sichuan, in West China. We had initially planned & paid for a cycling trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, yet only one month before our flight to Tibet we discovered that the Chinese created a new rule - stating that all foreign visitors to TAR have to be in groups of 5 or more & all must be from the same nation. This destroyed our plans making us deeply upset, so we therefore decided to spend the next month cycling around the Sichuan province in China; planning to visit the North & South Tibetan Highways, which we were hoping would give us some insight to what Tibet is like.

Majestic Mountains
We spent the last couple of weeks in June cycling up & down the foothills of the Himalaya mountains in the Sichuan province in China, along the border of Tibet. Our highest mountain pass was at 4652m. Some of these rides through the bare mountains at 4000m+ altitude have been our best rides yet, although none of them were easy. Breathing became trickier as the air got thinner (I troubled Sertx by taking breaks every couple of kilometres just to have a semi-asthma attack and get enough air into my lungs,) and the days became shorter as it started to rain every afternoon, with dense fog covering our views. 
The temperature also decreased dramatically; I was pulling my windproof jacket, arm-warmers, gloves and ear-covers on & off about 5 times per hour whilst cycling (annoying Sertx who would just deal with sweating profoundly in his jacket); riding uphill became uncomfortable. Luckily the Chinese make good fakes; I bought a North Face winter jacket in Shangri-La, which works better than my non-waterproof Gore-Tex jacket. Some days we cycled just 20 or 30km up a mountain to get over another mountain pass at over 4000m altitude, then descend 20km and 1000m into a warmer valley, where we would rest the night before starting another 1000m mountain climb the following day.

The landscape was stunning. There were whitewashed stupas dotted everywhere and the locals had hung strings of colourful Tibetan flags between shallow mountain peaks in villages and also across rivers. Every beautiful Tibetan-style house we saw also had a big red Chinese flag on display, which made us question whether these were really Tibetan or just recently built for Chinese tourists. We finally used our tent and camped a couple of times, taking care to wait until it was dark so no one could see us; although we were always found in the morning by the farmers who walked their cattle across the fields. 

We also spent nights in rooms with no running water; no sink, no toilet, no shower; having to use the ‘street-tap’ and wash in front of the whole village, often in the rainy weather. There was one occasion when Sertx asked where the toilet was, and the man of the place we were staying in replied ‘go off the balcony’. We saw many pigs, dogs, goats and yaks in the mountains; and we awkwardly also met the dogs & pigs in the village toilets. 

We tried ‘butter tea’ which tasted like oily tea straight from a yak’s udder, and we ate momos, small Tibetan semi-fried dumplings filled with either vegetable or buffalo meat. We did not try some of the stranger foods on display, such as pig snout or ears, chicken crests or feet or duck tongue. We also saw the locals selling golden root-worms for 10 dollars a worm, which are apparently good for you, after you’ve scrapped all the earth off them with a steel brush.

Tibetan Monasteries 
We visited a couple of monasteries, one in Xiangcheng & another in Litang, and the monks have been the nicest people we’ve met in China so far! In Xiangcheng we watched 4 monks creating a Mandela – using special hand-crafted metal tools which they would bang with the end of a knife to let out a certain amount of different coloured salt. On entering the monastery in Litang we had a group of young monks cycle away with our bikes for 30 minutes. They were so excited until one of them got their red dress caught in the chain. 

Both monasteries were spectacular, with large detailed, colourful paintings of Buddhas & demons covering all walls inside & out. The monks even congratulated Sertx on his big beard and several of them asked to be photographed together with him, little did they know it was his birthday, so he was happy to get the compliments. In Litang we were also invited to watch the monks pray, with their big yellow Mohican-like hats on.

Otherwise, the local men continue to play board games at their local restaurants, whilst the women continue to work in markets or restaurants or even on construction sites. At least they have a daily exercise get-together after a day’s work, in the main square or park, where you can see groups of 30 or more woman dancing in sync together to music blaring from a stereo speaker. The locals also spend lots of time turning prayer wheels at their town stupa.

Under Construction
There is construction going on in every city and town we’ve gone through & stayed in. A new highway is also being built right across the province – which results in many heavyweight trucks passing by us on the roads. These trucks, and also motor bikers, would beep their horns so loud it felt as though our ear drums had burst. They weren’t honking at us – they were just doing what felt absolutely normal to them- honking for about 1 minute before & continuing after turning a bend in the mountain. We cycled by several earth & rocky landslides, thinking ourselves lucky not to have experienced one, yet we’re both hard-headed Cancerians so it would have been fine anyhow!

We didn’t expect Litang to be a town under construction, yet on arriving the town was loud, dusty and all the roads were being rebuilt. It wasn’t exactly the Tibetan experience we were hoping for. There was also no bank for foreign credit cards in Litang so we had to head to a city, rather than continue our planned route to Garze on the North Tibetan Highway. 

The South Tibetan Highway was not all we assumed it would be. We were fortunate that we decided to take a 15 hour minivan ride to the next city instead of cycle the whole way; which involved another three 3000m+ mountain passes. It had rained the last week and as the road was under construction it became a massive thick mud-bath that even the buses & 4WD’s had trouble crossing. This was the bumpiest and slipperiest ride we’ve ever had, let alone being the longest in a minivan. The ride also destroyed the soft parts of our bicycles, which were strapped upside-down on the roof for the journey. The day after this we chose to endure another 8 hour bus ride into Chengdu, from where we would take a plane out of China.

Chengdu chaos
Strangely, we found the city cleaner and quieter than the towns in the mountains, yet the mosquitos were back & biting again. The mountains were disappointingly littered with green, glass beer bottles and red ‘Panda’ cigarette packets in every corner, yet we found the people there more welcoming to tourists than in the busy city. We also got a bit tired of hearing the locals’ constant throat-clearing-spitting and seeing them with their fingers all the way up their nostrils before inviting us to their restaurants, so we felt it was our time to leave. On our last day we decided to take a cab to visit the Panda Breeding Centre, yet the driver drove us in the opposite direction; after we complained because we knew what he was up to, he only said sorry before speedily driving - like in a computer game - through traffic making us sick as parrots and wanting to get out so he got his money & we didn’t get to where we want to go. However, we got to see the famous pandas in the end, by taking a minivan tour and otherwise we quite enjoyed cycling through Sichuan!

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog but what happened to it. Found it searching for bike touring sandals.. Great pics!