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Shangri-la to nowhere: A week on the edge of Tibet

By in Travel on

Editor's note: GoKunming contributor Sander Van de Moortel first landed in Yunnan in 2011 after taking a wrong turn on a bike trip through Vietnam. Comfortably trapped in Kunming by his linguistic ambitions and his somewhat complicated relationship with the country, he takes every opportunity to explore southwest China's colorful patchwork by bicycle.

Van de Moortel is now responsible for communications at the World Agroforestry Centre in East and Central Asia. To check out more of his writing, view his blog, A World of Nonging, where you can also see exact GPS coordinates of the trip below.

"Sounds insane, let's do it." A plan, an e-mail, a week of frantic preparation and a bus ride. We're in Shangri-la now and we're about to embark on a week-long ride across the Tibetan plateau. Snow, hardship, yaks and elevations of well over 4,700 meters lie ahead.

Day one

We ride off, not quite aware of where we will end up. Left and right, grazing yak, peaceful pastures and blindingly white Tibetan houses gleam in the morning sun. Tibetans build their houses quite differently from China's other ethnicities, often preferring large, fortress-like houses with beautifully adorned window frames, wood features and roofs consisting of timber panels held down with stones. Larger ones also feature a courtyard.

The road to Gezan (格咱) is being widened and repaired, which turns our ride into an adventurous combination of downhilling and digger-dodging. As fairly experienced riders, we sometimes forget that there's more to cycling than pedaling and holding the handlebars. I almost learn it the hard way when I try to avoid a pedestrian and drift to the other side of the road where a pile of big rocks greedily await my uncontrolled arrival.

At Gezan, a bubbly woman from Lijiang is happy to fill our stomachs. It's past 3pm and we are face a big climb. Behind schedule, we slowly start up a much better road. Twenty kilograms of luggage on the back definitely makes a difference. In the evening sun, this section is particularly beautiful.

Farmers everywhere invite us into their tower-like houses to drink some tea and even to stay the night. But we can't afford to lose more time. The road winds through leafy forests with old man's beard — a moss used in traditional Chinese medicine — hanging off it. Cawing raven fly up from between the brushwood, leading the way a bit before rocketing off into the sky.

Before the pass, a quaint meadow at 3,900 meters. It has a quiet stream murmuring through it and looks particularly inviting to spend the night if it wasn't freezing cold already. The added threat of bandits on this stretch — we had been warned by several people — convinces us to descend into the Wengshui Gorge (翁水大峡谷) instead. Visibility quickly reduces to near zero as we go down, relying solely on head torches to light our path.

When we finally spot some lights by the side of the road, a lady welcomes us into a signless, and showerless, guesthouse across the road. A croak emerging from a dark corner of the room reveals a toothless granny, possibly two thousand years old, who asks us questions in an entirely incomprehensible and ancient language, building up to the climax of every query with a several minutes-long pensive "eeerggghhhhhh".

Day two

Breakfast is instant oatmeal, Dali Bars and instant coffee. A few unfortunate workers who had shambled in in the night on a broken motorbike strike up a short conversation before leaving on the bus to Shangri-la. The morning sun sees us off through the gorge — a pleasant false flat along a tranquil blue river through rustic scenery.

Tibetan architecture is now prevalent, houses interspersed with huge wooden racks on which highland barley, the main staple here, is drying. Prayer flags are ubiquitous. We learn that they're strung in windy places so the wind can read up the prayers written on the flags. This allows the Tibetans to concentrate on more important matters while not neglecting their religious duties. More such spiritual efficiency is found in a small cabin in which a water turbine drives a prayer wheel.

Despite all this religious activity, we get a tire puncture and a road deteriorating into a dustbowl, with pointy stones negating the advantages of cycling over walking. Traffic, fortunately, consists mainly of a few motorbikes and trucks kicking up all the dust. Suddenly we spot a group of people moving a truck and some logs across the road. Bandits?

We frantically search our memories for the location of all our valuables and think how we're going to deal with these people. Turning around to speed down the hill would probably be our only way of escape. Not feeling much like turning back, we decide to chance it anyway and are merely treated to a few cheery zhaxidele (扎西德勒) — a Tibetan greeting equivalent to 'godspeed'.

The pass is nearly 4,400 meters high and offers stunning views of the surrounding scenery and, unfortunately, the less pleasant prospect of a second, equally high pass ahead. Having climbed all day, we feel pretty faint of heart, but have no other choice but to start our first small descent to the inevitable next hill.

Out of water, we stop at a daoban (道班), a small compound on the side of the highway where road workers live and store their material. Daoban are often equipped with a small shop that sells basic stuff such as water and fangbianmian, and they provide services such as motorcycle repair and adding brake-cooling water. We are welcome to set up our tent on their terrain. We accept, as it's probably better to camp and cook before the sun goes down.

The daoban boys are assigned to their solitary mountain confinement for a year at a time. During all this time they work and live under fairly extreme conditions — at a giddy and often ice-cold 4,100 meters above sea level — without entertainment or indeed other humans, save themselves and the woman who does the housekeeping. The toilets are stinking piles of poo and the single shower is basic to say the least. During all this time, they do not go home at all, working through public holidays and weekends alike. Money must be good.

We set up our tent while the workers eat and fire up their stove. Chopping and collecting firewood also seems to be part of their duties. A spectacled worker comes out with a guitar, claiming that all Westerners can play and that we should perform for him. The others refer to him as fengzi — a nutter — and, when we buy a bottle of booze, stress that we should by no means share any with him. The cold and darkness send us into our tent before 8pm, where we have a most uncomfortable night of sleep due to a combination of low oxygen levels, lack of a sleeping pad, and full bladders.

Day three

The gate is still closed in the morning so we have to wait for the daoban boys before heading out. We wash our dishes and have a stare-off with the chicken that's been interested in the contents of our tent. The rocky peaks on the opposite side of the gorge are covered in virgin snow from last night, gleaming yellow in the early sunlight.

Heading out in the crisp mountain air, we watch the morning fog burn off as we creep towards the pass. Our excitement is quickly smothered by the discovery that we can barely roll down at faster than 15 kilometers per hour. The cold, exacerbated by two rear wheel punctures in 15 minutes, makes our descent a difficult one.

The end of our ordeal lies cradled in a bowl between towering mountains — the village of Ranwu (然乌). From there, we were promised, our road would improve considerably. At Ranwu, we wolf down numerous plates of Sichuanese food. Recharged, we barrel down the perfectly paved asphalt road through a beautiful gorge. From here on it's all undulating downhill to a river at 2,600 meters leading to Xiangcheng (乡城), our first big stop in Sichuan province.

On the road there are plenty of smaller Tibetan villages, all with their typical shiny white houses. Pears seem to be the cash crop around here, with signs all over the place advertising their quality and price. Pigs lazily lie in the middle of the road, not bothered to move when two cyclists ride past — which is very reflective of the general atmosphere in these villages. Xiangcheng sits atop a steep hill and we settle on a nice business hotel where we can wash our clothes and have a comfortable shower, followed by a meal at a Chongqing restaurant packed with Chinese tourists in bright anoraks.

Day four

It's amazingly difficult to find Tibetan food in this region — technically Tibet — so we feast on dumplings instead. A gentle incline allows us to cruise at around 20 kilometers per hour for the first time this trip. Following the river upstream, a small hamlet with oinking black pigs in all shapes and sizes marks the beginning of the long climb to our 4,700 meter pass.

Plenty of silly-looking yaks spice up our strenuous climb. The altitude meters tick away and we get a lovely view of Horse-Bear Ditch (马熊沟), a long gorge sliced by a bright blue river and a line of trees in all kinds of autumn colors feeding off its water. At a bridge over the river, we have a lunch of chocolate, more Dali Bars and some beef jerky.

Nearing 4,000 meters, the going is getting tough. When pausing every five kilometers becomes too difficult to maintain, we adjust to doing just two at a time. The pass, presumably near the daunting snowy peak ahead, seems ever-so-far away. We reach the pass two more hours and merely ten kilometers later, after a lackluster attempt at racing each other.

A flurry of snow, several breaks and the bitter demise of a pear at our teeth were partly responsible for the delay, but the altitude made all the difference. We have to force ourselves to pant as the physical effort won't cause our bodies to do so automatically. Without enough oxygen in our lungs, our legs feel like lead and every time we swallow, we feel the blood drain from our ears and our heads begin to spin.

At the top, we pose for some pictures and accept congratulations from Chinese tourists while dressing for the descent. Layer after layer, waterproof socks, two pairs of gloves, an extra coating of sunscreen and down we go. We're zipping down at 60 kilometers an hour against a gorgeous backdrop of snow-covered mountains menaced by skies containing funky weather. We pause only to shoot a few silly videos and gasp at the scenery.

Sangdui (桑堆) has architecture consisting mostly of large edifices held up with beige stone accented in darker brick. Very different from the shiny white Tibetan buildings everywhere else. We wonder why this is but find no answers, as night is falling and we keep riding until we find a good camping spot.

Choices galore, with a fast-flowing river and nice meadows on its banks. But in the distance we spot something much better — Benbo Monastery (奔波寺). We rock up on the courtyard in a cloud of dust, sweat and the bodily odors one amasses after a day of climbing. First guy in a robe gets it. We want to stay the night, please. We are led to the monks' living quarters, a collection of small buildings scattered around back behind the temple.

While preparing yak butter tea and cooking rice, our monk, Sandei, uses brushwood to kindle a nice fire in the massive iron stove in the middle of his room. Shortly after, all of us are sitting on the couch and mattresses, warming ourselves with tea, fire and conversation about tourism, history, Buddhism and life at altitude.

Sandei's Mandarin is slow and not perfect, which makes him very easy to understand. In his room I spot a children's book with poems from the Tang Dynasty, a glossy magazine starring the Dalai Lama called The Happiest People on Earth and a bunch of works on Buddhism. After an hour or so he fires up the stove once more and leaves with the promise to make us some instant noodles for breakfast. What hospitality!

We are kept awake by the noise of a million rats in the walls, ceiling, floor and, ultimately, inside the room. We're reminded of a horror story about an evil rat in a monastery that would maul everyone inside until a kid drew cats on the wall that came alive and killed the rat. We just put earplugs in instead.

Check back next week for the second and final installment of this article.

All images: Sander Van de Moortel and Sandy 'Zhu' Lennox

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I met an interesting traveler by bicycle, last week. He had the same size of luggage of this article's last picture.
Difference is that this traveller came from Spain, 8 months bicycling. I found amazing his very small luggage.

Don't freeze to death. You owe me money.

If you crossed Central Asia during summer, I think a luggage this size would be enough for the essentials.

Luggage does not increase with distance. Once you have a tent, sleeping and cooking gear, a change of clothes and some tools, that's it.

Many long-distance riders like to add extra panniers to the front wheel in order to balance their bikes, but with good material and careful planning, this isn't necessary.

A bigger problem is food and water, but you could lose this extra ballast once you're past the barren areas.

This is an incredibly interesting post — both informative and inspirational. The photos were equally high quality.

So the single wrong note in your otherwise eloquent report caught me cold:

We are "treated to a few cheery zhaxidele (扎西德勒)"? Hmm, is that a bit like being told "三颗药为你马吃"— An American greeting equivalent to "Thank you very much?"

I think instead what you heard was tashi delek "བཀྲཤིསབདེལེགས (bkra shis bde legs)"

Demonstrating such a level of adventurousness and expertise this criticism is on many levels misdirected, as I am sure you did this for the Chinese-speaking reading audience but perhaps a bit of sensitivity to the actual Tibetan speakers is equally justified?

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