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ChinaChina - SE Asia 2011Cycle Touring

Sichuan – Tibet Highway I

By April 28, 20113 Comments

Chengdu – Kangding
Day 1: Chengdu (500m) – Unknown town (550m) 79km
Day 2: Unknown – Ya’an (625m) 57km
Day 3: Ya’an – Xingou (1400m) 91km
Day 4: Xingou – Luding (1300m) 56km, pass at 2200m
Day 5: Luding – Kangding (2500m) 54km
Day 6: Rest day in Kangding

Back in May 2010 I was rifling through a box of outdoor magazines that the Moab Public Library was discarding. On the road and always hungry for fresh reading material it was a right treasure trove. We’d been on the road for a year at this point and our trip on the American continent was coming to an end. In July we’d be flying to the UK to try to work for a while, and after that … The plan was to cycle tour somewhere, but choosing that ‘where’ was proving tricky with so many options. We wanted some mountains, some beaches, some tropical weather, interesting cultures, good food, and above all – some awesome riding.

Flicking through a recent cycling mag from the Moab library, I found an article by globetrotting UK cycle tourist Cass Gilbert. It described a trip through South West Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, taking in a stretch of the legendary Sichuan Tibet Highway and a chunk of the Tibetan Plateau. The article described amazing landscapes, multiple high passes, some rugged roads, a good dose of Tibetan culture and an all round unique experience; just what we were looking for.

While working the winter away in Sheffield, England we fine tuned our plan, researched the route more and came up with a plan to start the trip in Chengdu, a city of 5 million in the foggy Sichuan Basin. We’d ride 650km west along the highway to the Tibetan town of Litang (4014m), and then turn south, though more mountains and high passes and into Yunnan Province. The plan from there is simply to ride as far south as we can, taking in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Here’s part 1: Chengdu – Kangding

Day 1 sees us riding out of Chengdu on a four lane highway (S103 – joining the 108) in humid weather. The same oppressive gloom that has sat over Chengdu for our whole visit stays with us for the flat 79km we ride. The next day we’re aiming for a cruisier day, in order to relax the legs a little before the climbing starts on day 3.

Truckers hotels are very common on the highway and are perfect for cyclists on a budget, as long as you don’t mind squat toilets and a laissez fare attitude to cleaning. It’s always at the discretion of the owner though: it’s actually illegal for tourists to stay at hotels or hostels that aren’t official ‘tourist hotels’, which of course cost many times more. This place suited us for the night though at a casual $12. A more than filling dinner in a restaurant down the road set us back another $7.

Tea is grown widely in these parts and the local village was flat out with buyers and sellers trading their crop.

Mobile food of some sort!

The next day we stopped at a road side welder to have our 8 & 10mm allen keys cut in half and welded into a 1-peice hybrid. The 70 year old guy running the place kindly got to it, and didn’t charge us a cent…

Tea – all supported by a very extensive and, I believe ancient, irrigation system.

Day 2 was as grey as the past week had been and the highway villages dusty, bleak and generally uninteresting. We were nearing the edge of the Chengdu basin though and soon the road would narrow to 2 lanes and the landscape take on a bit more character.

We pass many carvers hewing awesome creations from sandstone blocks.

One of the slighty more colourful towns we pass through on day 2.

As we arrived in Ya’an, our stop for night two, a group of men took a keen interest in us, our bikes, our SPDs, the phrasebook – and well – just about everything! They were quite handy for pointing us in the right direction for a hotel though – the Merry Home Hotel, it turned out.

Ya’an sculpture.

From the towns we’ve seen so far, the Chinese have a thing for lighting things up – big time. As well as this traditionally themed bridge, both sides of the river right through the city were lit up spectacularly.

Noodles drying on the roadside.

From Ya’an Highway 318 twists into the hills – the very edge of a range that becomes the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya. The road was narrow and very busy with trucks and buses but scenic and spectacular as it winds its way up, following a gorge most of the way and passing occasional vilages. It wasn’t far out of Ya’an that we met ‘Physically Challenged Man Roam China With His Wheelchair’, This exceptionally keen fellow, a double amputee, is wheelchairing his way to Lhasa (following the same route as us as far as Litang). His chair is push pull operated, and when it’s too steep he gets off and walks, though we suspect he’s partial to the odd lift on a bus too! We ended up seeing him everyday for the next week.

Locally collected fern heads being sorted for sale.

Day 3 three took us from Ya’an to Xingou, a tiny strip of guesthouses on the side of the road (picture). We’d ridden 91 km and climbed 800 metres, but we’d also faced our first big challenge with Chinese beauracracy.

About halfway through the day we were stopped at a police (PSB) post and asked the usual questions: where are you from? Where are you going? Our passport details were dutifully noted by the polite plainclothed young lady operating the checkpoint. Expecting to be free to go, we were quite amazed when she said to us ‘I’m sorry but we are not letting cyclists through to Litang. It’s too early in the season and too dangerous. You will have to go another way to Yunnan’. We knew that people ride this route fairly regularly at this time of the year, and also that she’d obviously let a Chinese cyclist we’d seen earlier in the day ride on. We aren’t prepared to have a trip we’ve been dreaming of and planning for for months shut down by a clerk on the side of the road, so we carefully stated our case; our experience, our knowledge of other cyclists on the the route and so on. She talked to a superior, but returned shortly after to say ‘It’s not possible for you to go this way, it’s the Government’s rules. You will have to go back.’ Again we plead our case, and a second time she talks to a superior. Again we are met with ‘No.’ It was exasperating and rapidly tuning into a nightmare.

Finally we produced a letter we’d prepared in England (and had translated into Chinese) that explains who we are, what we’re doing and our experience. We’d drafted it to use meeting people in small villages and to help us get supplies and to camp. It proved to be a million dollars in this case though. The lady read the letter, explained it to the Police, the senior policemen there called who we assume is the local officer in charge (who had alreadly said no at least twice), and bingo – he finally oked us. The process took an hour, and a hell of a lot of patience and calmness on our part. There’s not much black and white in this part of the world. Finally we rode on.

Our reward after a long day on the road (an hour of it arguing at the check point) was the amazing hospitality at the roadside hostel we were were waved into as we rolled into a village for the night. For NZ$15 we had a bed for the night, as much green tea as we could drink, dinner and breakfast, and a very friendly and good humoured host. Later in the evening our wheelchair friend joined us, as well as another Chinese cyclist (who was allowed straight through the check point!).

Next morning it was drizzling when we set off, with the town of Luding our goal for the day. Between us and Luding was the Erlangshan Pass (2200m); about a 800m climb.

With the lush vegetation, a siuous road in the bottom of a gorge and mist and drizzle it felt just like cycling in NZ – Buller Gorge perhaps.

One that didn’t make it…

Major intersections generally have English names on them too – but we still have to deal with a lot of these.

Around the 2000m mark the road dives into a 4km long tunnel (just another of those interesting challenges), before emerging on the other side in spitting distance of the pass.

At the top of the pass there was a guy selling fungi and keeping himself warm with a small fire.

An exciting (if you’re Chinese) array of fungi for sale. Bottom right is the ubiquitous scale used by vendors of virtually everything here.

A smooth and high speed 900m descent on a really sweet road dropped us into Luding, where we found a hotel with a great view of the taxi station!

Luding (1300m), another Chinese town that seems to be thriving with development – an older quarter on one side of the river and rampant apartment construction on the other. This side of the mountain range was way drier that the Chengdu side – grassier, starker and less pretty.

I think these are cooking ingredients.

Just a few kilometres out of Luding the next day we had to contend with 25km of very rough dirt road as we passed various construction projects. They are taking the entire valley apart to build a dam and create a new highway.

Stark, barren and clearly not a thought for the environment.

Finally we turned away from the valley of death and started a 1000m climb up to Kangding – our stopping point for the day. Started seeing the first signs that we were entering the Tibetan region too.

Met this guy on the way up. I guess he collects all these bottles in Kangding and takes them to a depot for cash. He looked like the trailer would roll over the top of him any second…

The road climbed steadily – never too steep, and always with spectacular cliffs, talus fields and waterfalls.

Kangding (2400m): only a 54km day, but a 1100m height gain. We planned for 2 nights here to rest after 5 days on the road and to acclimatise.

Kangding is the capital of the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and the first glimpse of Tibetan culture you see as you come from the east. Han Chinese culture is strong here too, but the streets were full of clearly Tibetan peoples and dozens of shops selling Tibetan wares. We wandered up Paoma Shan to an amazing Buddhist temple. Thousands of prayer flags lined the steep path up the hillside to a Chorten.

Part II coming soon…

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Pored over this for ages Mark, awesome pics & stories, I remember experiencing something similar in Mexico with the police, frustrating but makes for interesting reading. Can’t wait for the next installment. Ree

  • Katie pi says:

    Fantastic! I especially loved the drying noodle shot. Glad your adventuring is going well so far. Love xx

  • Noeline and Russell says:

    Great photos again Mark – lovely seeing Hana but where are you??? amazing mountain passes and loved the Tibetan flags at the end ……….love M & D

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