Breath Of Fresh Air

posted by: Emma

It takes us 150km to clear Chengdu and the surrounding towns, all merged together in one endless noisy highway. We’re hoping that our salvation will lie in Western Sichuan, rumours of proper mountain passes, pockets of Tibetan culture, Buddhist monasteries and the quiet that we’ve been missing leading us west as fast as we can pedal.

We make 120km on our first day despite getting hopelessly disorientated through diversions on the outskirts of Chengdu. Our only regret about leaving as dawn is breaking is when we pass Chengdu’s IKEA home-ware branch, its three hours too early to indulge in a low priced Swedish breakfast.

Kilometre marker on G108 River valley along G318

I swear that weather forecasts are most accurate by village workers in these parts, and we spend much of that first day back on the bikes admiring the numerous ways people are scooping dried corn and rice off the tarmac. The rain comes overnight while we’re tucked in an odd hotel (Window into the bathroom? Tasteful naked lady tiled into the wall?), and roads are damp and misty as we leave. At a bustling marketplace in surprisingly big Ya’an, I wistfully examine bamboo shoots, tofu and deep fried duck before buying less exotic vegetables for the days ahead. We turn off our old friend the G108 and onto the G317 hoping the the stream of traffic will lessen.

Towns continue to be bigger than expected, but the climbing we’re anticipating doesn’t start immediately. We break in the heat of the afternoon for ice-cream, impressed that the wrappers say they are used in the Chinese Space Programme and that its colour is the exact same shade of yellow as the town apartment blocks facing us are painted. No coincidence for sure.

That evening we find a sliver of seclusion beneath a bridge and in the remains of what looks like a nature park long overgrown. Both of us manage washes in a chilly mountain stream and we sleep through most of the night-time truck noise.

Descending to Luding Roadworks out of Luding

The road we’re cycling eventually becomes more forest than suburb and we climb slowly up among trucks and tourist buses through the wet green foliage. We’re already impressed by the number of camera-wielding Chinese men we see and can only wave and grin as their lenses turn inexorably from the misty mountain scenes to focus on us.

After a struggle of a morning where we only manage 30km or so, we stop for a late lunch at a cyclist-friendly cafe where passing Chinese cyclists have scrawled pictures and dates on the white walls with black markers. The staff suggest we should stay the night, but we shrug off their concerns about sleeping options ahead. Not long after we hit a 20k stretch of road works where traffic is reduced to one lane. Its the most orderly driving we’ve seen in all of China and an unexpected bonus for us is that no-one is actually working on most of the road so we get an empty lane all to ourselves.

We’re heading to the Erliang Shan tunnel which we’re expecting great things of, considering a brown tourist sign translated into English has been erected for the attraction. Our wild imaginings of mistranslated gorges or valleys are unfounded and instead we find ourselves slowly pushing up in the rain towards a pass and a fairly bog-standard time-saving tunnel.

By the time we reach the top, rain is steadily falling and temperatures are plummeting. We haven’t found a decent place to camp, but spy some good looking grass opposite a military base and directly before the tunnel entrance. We catch a group of guards at changeover, and cans of red bull in hand they consider our request. One speaks very good English and says its too cold to camp. We insist we’ve got warm clothes, but he’s persuasive “Its always raining here,” he says. “Go through the tunnel, the weather will be better. Another guard adds that there is definitely accommodation in 5km or so.

Prayer flags leaving Kangding Celebrating first 4000m+ pass

The tunnel is almost 5km long and there is no miraculous hotel on the other side, though the rain has stopped. Again there is a nice grassy patch, this time behind a police station. We rouse two young policemen from their dorm room and they again consider our request. Much umming and ahhhing later we’re turned down and they suggest a hotel 40km down the road. Darkness is sharply falling so we swiftly say our goodbyes and pedal off into the darkness fuming at the time we’ve wasted.

Still within sight of the tunnel entrance we find a patch of grass just 5m from the road where there’s just enough room for the tent. The night is broken by what sounds like 747s taking off on a regular basis. In reality, its truck traffic so loud it shakes the tent. In a moment of calm we hear other noises too, and find a cow perched precariously on the edge of what we are pretty sure is a sheer cliff.

A long downhill to Luding precedes what we suspect will be our first tough uphill to the trading town of Kangding at 2560m. I’m convinced we’re taking a steep winding trail out of town, but instead we gently follow a river through road works for the first 15km, then stay flat for another 30 before the road finally heads skyward. We reach Kangding at 6pm and take the first hotel we come across where unfortunately our room is directly opposite an open all-night bus depot so rest is not as peaceful as we had hoped.

Despite the consistent honking outside our room we feel the presence of Tibetan culture immediately. Monks in saffron robes walk hurriedly along streets thronging with traffic. Inner-city art portrayed a happy history of trading between highlanders with blocks of tea and strangely lowlanders with monkeys on their shoulders. Prayer flags are strung over two deep and fast flowing rivers and a monastery climbs up a nearby hill. While cleaning the bicycles Justin is approached by a young monk who inspects the bicycles knowingly and wishes us well on the rest of our journey.

G318 approaching first pass

Leaving town, we have a 37km climb to a pass at 4300m, but are already out of breath after the first 2km through central Kangding. The road is really steep and we stop every 5km to let our lungs catch up. After 10km it turns to switchbacks and winds around the hills. Our stops are more frequent though Justin struggles more than me, a lifetime of asthma for me is seemingly a help with less oxygen. We’ve been climbing into cloud and its soon so foggy that we can’t see more than 25 metres ahead of us.

As we put on more clothes so we don’t freeze while cooking our first high altitude lunch we hear two trucks pass each other in the dense cloud both making a familiar honking. We can’t help but laugh, reminded of the Family Guy sketch ‘I’m a dog.’ ‘Are you a dog?’ Thankfully the cooker works after a little warming of the fuel bottle between layers of clothes and we manage a delicious lunch of noodles and vegetables.

We’ve passed signs for scenic spots showcasing white snowy mountains but all has been left unrevealed until just before the pass the clouds clear to tease us with high mountain vistas. The pass itself is covered in clouds and looks like the aftermath of a birthday party with flags and prayer tickets strewn haphazardly around. We take quick victory photos and aware of the wind picking up around us start on the descent.

Cold soon turns to rain and we’re quickly soaked to the bone. We pass half-built settlements and big stocky houses which look like small castles with windowless basements where we figure animals must be kept for winter. Noticeably there’ is more space between houses but nowhere obvious to put a tent in all the empty grasslands. With no hotels in sight we pull into a wooded glen and set up camp in the pouring rain.

View after descent from pass Tibetan style house

Its a strange feeling – we haven’t crossed any borders but it feels like we have turned up unexpectedly into a new country. Despite camping close to a road again its discernibly quieter. As the rain lulls me to sleep, I can’t help but wonder if any of the things that we’ve taken for granted in China will be accessible in the coming days.

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route map for this post

The map below shows the waypoints for this blog post. To view the details of our trip to date take a look at our complete route map.