5/5/10 Zhongdian (Shangri-la) to camp – 71km
It’s Wednesday and we have spend a few days in Zhongdian to rest, get our visa extensions and sort out our gear for the biggest challenge of our Asia trip so far. Today we head off North, further up the Tibetan plateau and we will encounter passes well over 4500 meter. As we have never done anything like it before, we have spent our time mostly by researching what conditions we can expect, how to stay warm during the nights and how to deal with the altitude. Michael provided us with some very useful advice, as he has cycled in Latin America before, so we feel well prepared and excited when we roll out of town around 12pm. Michael left a day earlier, as his pace in the mountains was considerably quicker than ours.
The road out of town was easy to find (have a look at googlemaps before heading out helps) and we basically joined onto the road that we had left going into Zhongdian. The road (219) is in perfect condition and the first 24km are a slow decent through small valleys. After 35km there is a village with a place to eat, as well as a police station, a hospital and a guesthouse. About 6km after this village we reach the lowest point of today at 2850m. We buy some eggs at another village (probably 65km from Zhongdian) for our dinner and we believe there is a place to stay here as well. We cycle on and do about 4 km of a long climb until we find a good place to set up camp next to a little stream. We sleep at 3240m.
Nic trying to fit in with the locals
6/5/10 Following the 219 Northbound – 45km.
We wake up in the morning and neither of us has slept very well. We get better every day we camp in staying warm and getting the most out of our equipment, but it’s a learning curve. For instance, it’s better to put a buff on your head than a beanie as you will loose it after turning once or twice. And you turn a lot as you are probably not as comfy as you would like to be. It makes a massive difference in how warm you are. Anyway, after a cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge we break up camp and dry our tent in the morning sunshine before we step on our bikes to continue the climb we started the day before.
The ride up lasts for 13 kilometres (to road marker 80) and brings us up to 3900m and is followed by a great downhill of 21km. While freewheeling down we see our next pass in the distance, the Daxueshan pass of 4310m. At the river at the bottom of the decent we have lunch at a restaurant slash hotel slash shop where the local men gather around us and one guy thinks it necessary to slurp hot water so loudly it create wrinkles in my bowl of soup!
Pedaling for dear life!
Well, if I had soup that is, we had a nice tomato egg stir fry and some bacon with green peppers. Riding up the hill Nic spots a dog at the other side of a wooden fence and as the dog wags his tail Nic starts a conversation with the K9. The dogs finds his way out and follows us through the village where he gets accompanied by the local kids! And so we ride in a pack of two adults, a handful of kids and a big black friendly dog out of the village. It’s all getting rather family like. After 44km, marker 112, the perfect tarmac road stops just after a village (with hotel we think) and turns into a bumpy dusty dirt road . We continue on for a few kilometres before we spot a possible campsite just off the road. The ground is on a slight slope and Kate decides to built a wooden platform from a half collapsed shed that is near.
It is marvel of engineering and with added benefit that we are off the ground and have a slightly warmer night as a result! Sleeping at 3450m.
7/5/10 – Daxueshan pass – 50km
Today is the day of the mighty Daxueshan pass (4310m), our first attempt to climb into the 4000’s. As expected we start climbing and we continue to do so for 18,5 km. The road is as bad as how it we left it and the other traffic leaves us at times in big clouds of fine dust. Luckily the road is not too busy and we can enjoy the amazing views and the flowering Rhododendrons as we cycle up. Half way up or so the ascent we stop to make some more porridge to give our now jelly like legs some rest and energy. The altitude does slow us down but we both feel ok when we reach the top.
Blowing in the wind!
It is really windy and cold up here, with absolutely amazing view on top of the mountain but as the Tibetan flags are blown horizontal we don’t linger on too long. A few pictures (one in the snow!) and some video footage and we are off. We quickly realize that the road is even in poorer condition than the uphill! The decent is slow with an average speed around 10km per hour. Another realisation comes to us as we stare into the distance, another top. For the next 18km we yoyo between 4300 and 4000 metres in the dirt. Around 6.30pm we are on top of the second top (4200m) of the pass and we are both rather tired. The height slowly becoming an issue as we run out of energy. We had hoped to go downhill and sleep on a lower altitude and possibly have dinner in the first village, but there is no way we make it there before dark on this surface. We descend 9km to 3850m where we find a spot regularly used by people to spend the night and set up our camp. More porridge for dinner. Our first nights in the true mountains, nearest village 50km back or ahead.
8/5/10 – To Xiangcheng – 60km
We wake up feeling pretty knackered. We have more porridge for breakfast and finish it. Break up camp and continue our descent for 5 km to find a third top after a 4km climb of 3800m. Then we decent another 15km at low speeds to find the most amazing thing in the whole world! Oh yes, asphalt. We raid the small shop in Ranwu for anything eatable, pot noodles – cookies – the lot and have a proper munch outside the shop on a small bench. The road continues to go downhill for another 14km which we thoroughly enjoy, going through amazing green lush valleys with Tibetan houses and it is really warm. We decide to stop and take out our tooth brushes to clean our bike chains (no not the one we use for our teeth!) and cassettes. The poor mechanisms squeal because of the torturing fine dust. On the road again we meet two Dutch cyclist, our first! We hear from other cyclist they meet Dutch people all the time, we seem to meet Swiss people. The Swiss have been nice, but we were intrigued by the behaviour aspects of the Dutch on a bike abroad. The descent is sadly over at 2600m elevation and we start climbing along a river up to Xiangcheng (2700m) where we will have a rest day. The road goes through some amazing looking valleys with bare mountains and green fields of crops. All Tibetan and they are a friendly bunch as we cycle through their villages.
Kate, Bas & Annemiek
We meet the Dutch, Bas & Annemiek, for a drink that evening.
10/5/10 Xiangcheng towards Litang – camped – 48 km
On our rest day we did some small maintenance work on our bikes and for unknown reasons this left us with our first flat tire of the trip – Kate’s front. We left the tiled town of Xiangcheng a bit later as planned. There is a downhill out of town, cherish it because after that it will be mostly uphill up to a pass of 4708m and a 10km downhill to a place to crash in Sangdui (but that‘s still a far away dream). The road is in ok conditions, but Nic doesn’t feel up to his normal strength so progress is rather slow. For the first 35km we follow the river, going up and down hill but not gaining much altitude. The scenery is nice, but interrupted by the building of another two dams in the river. Just before the last village with a shop (35km) the road gets steep and stays that way, climbing out of the valley and into a beautiful gorge. We take our time here to enjoy it all and at the end of the gorge we are invited by some Tibetan people to join them in their chill in the sun. Communication is as usual with hands and feet, and both of us find it a real shame we cannot have a proper conversation. As we are sitting on a nice piece of grass, in a fairytale gorge, which is something rather extraordinary we decide to camp 30 metres up, just out of sight of the road. The sun is shining and the clouds gather in the distance when we set up camp. We made a fire, cooked some water for our oh so delicious pot-noodles. When the water just boils the first drops of rain start to fall and we find shelter in our cozy tent, eating our dinner and watching the rain turn into impressively big hail stones. We play some cards and fall asleep with rain on our tent. (Camped at around 3800m).
11/5/10 Camp to Sangdui – 46km
BRR at 4708m!
A lucky break in the weather gives us long enough to cook brekka and break down camp so that we are on the road, continuing the steep climb up the valley, when the rain starts and we have our first opportunity to don full weatherproof gear. The plastic bags over our feet and pink rubber gloves finish off the look, giving us the air of biohazard chemical spill workers. This earns us a few suspicious side long glances from the yaks and shaggy ponies munching at the roadside. The road surface is good but we find it tough going and it is very cold; our feet never quite make it into the realm of the living all day. As we climb, rain turns to sleet and sleet to snow. We turn in an impressive new go-slow record – 9km in the first 3 hours!
At the head of the valley, before the road turns up the mountainside, there is a very small, new-build (being built) village. There is a cubby shop with pepsi and the usual stuff – when we went through there wasn’t a guesthouse or anything but later we found out that the Dutch couple stayed the night with a family there. Here we met some Chinese motorbike tourers on their way to Tibet and did envy their engines, welly boots and huge puffa jackets.
We wind our way up the mountainside and on the final bend (19km from campsite) before the first pass, the road turns to mud! Luckily it is smooth and shallow so not tricky to negotiate. At the pass (4708m) we jump up and down for a minute before hastily moving on as the weather is becoming more and more hostile. The dirt section is around 5km long and takes us around 50m downhill across an extremely desolate stretch of moorland. The 2nd pass is only a few km from the first and not demanding (except for the hail stones in our faces).
The descent is 10km and very very chilly! We have to stop to try and regain some feeling in our fingers to be able to brake. Sangdui looks like a medieval settlement with squat stone houses and colourful flags (at altitude 3940m). There seems to be only 1 hotel here, The First Manor. It has smart ensuite cabin rooms for 100yuan and small basic no shower doubles for 50yuan. We took the latter and set the electric blanket to max. The food is good and cheap in the hotel and they have a stove you can warm your toes next to. We meet Bas and Annemiek there and swap stories over dinner.
12/5/10 Sangdui to police station – 112km.
This is an epic day of epic days. Of course beginning with a delicious noodle soup but declining brushing our teeth with a large clove of garlic like our motorcycle touring friend. The first 11km are easy enough, running alongside a river in a pretty pine-clad valley and taking us up 80m. Then the ascent really starts. We meet a lone Chinese cyclist, looking very sporty and light on his mountain bike but with chattering teeth and a wild and desperate look in his eye. He reports a double pass, 2 cold Dutch cyclists, snow and a blistering wind on the top before heading off to the warmth of Sangdui. The motorbike tourers have also stopped to give us news of deep snow and advise us to wrap up warm or even turn back, so it is with some trepidation we continue up the valley.
The landscape is wild and beautiful, recalling the ice age as huge boulders litter the area and the occasional yak peaks around the rocks at us. The road is asphalt and gradient not too steep. There are a few small settlements of tents by the road. At around 4200m it starts snowing but there are only patches of old snow here and there on the ground. The snow is light and the wind behind us so we begin feeling positive of the road ahead when we stop for lunch of porridge behind a rock.
The weather deteriorates from our break and our hands and feet seem to alternate numbness. Visibility is ok through the snow and we only have problems when the road turns into the wind and we get snowflakes in our eyes. The road stays high and we are unsure which top is the official pass, the maximum altitude we record is 4610m but the descent into the next valley comes after around 45km. We descend 5km to 4300m and across a wide valley, free from snow. The sun emerges from behind the clouds and follows us until sunset. The next pass is a steep 7km climb out of this valley up to the Tuer pass of 4696m. We linger to jump up and down and take a victorious panorama!
The ride down is amazing and really long, we even spot a couple of vultures half-way down. Emerging from this mountain valley is absolutely incredible as suddenly the land opens out in a huge grasslands of almost dune like hills and small villages. The sky is huge here and we race along, expecting a storm we see in the distance to catch up with us, but the clouds seem to dissolve as they reach the grasslands.
Our plan was to stay in the village of Jiawa but everyone tells us there’s no place to stay here, “Litang, Litang, you must go on to Litang”. Litang is 120km from our starting point and a further 30km from Jiawa. It is 7pm.
Downing a bottle of coke and snacking on peanuts in the evening sunshine we convince ourselves that it is all downhill from here and we can make it. A couple of kilometres from Jiawa the road starts going up, up, up. This goes on for around 12km and despite pedalling hard we reach the pass after dark. We are exhausted and the temperature is dropping rapidly. Spying a village at the bottom of the hill we resolve to head for that.
No caption needed
Eventually we reach it and Kate lucks on a police compound. They take pity on us and let us stay in a room there, we were expecting the floor but there is a bed! One of the guys gives us tea and water for some instant noodles and we watch a Chinese thriller/detective murder drama with him for a while.
The night is very very cold.
13/5/10 Police station to Litang – 12km
There is no-one around to make us pancakes for breakfast so we pack quickly at the crack of dawn and jump back on our bikes, noting the ice on the puddles by the road. It is almost completely flat across the valley to Litang but we are spent from the previous day and struggle through the morning chill. There are so many big stray dogs scavenging in the rubbish by the road and we are very happy not to have attempted to make it the previous night. We arrive and find a huge noodle soup, the Peace guesthouse and beds with electric blankets. Sleep.