We seem to be the first traffic on the early morning road and enjoy the swishing of the smooth slightly damp asphalt under our tyres. The green fields filled with quietly grazing shaggy yaks rise towards craggy exposed rock and a sky just brightening as the sun climbs skywards. There doesn’t seem to be much that could improve our cycling day other than a big bowl of fresh steaming noodles and that lies just a few kilometres further down the road. Over the coming days asphalt will become but a distant memory while the swishing of tyres will be replaced by muddy squelching. For now though everything is right with our cycling world.
Just 8km down the road from where we camped after our first 4000m+ pass of the previous day is Xinduqiaozhen, where the locals are a mixture of Han Chinese and Tibetan including a disproportionate number of people sporting army uniforms. Cycling towards the town we are inundated with waves and shouted hello’s from almost every passerby. Hand-held prayer wheels are kept spinning in one hand while beaming smiles are aimed our way. While Emma shops for vegetables, I chat with a Tibetan man and his shoe repairer friend enjoying an immediate sense of warmth and openness.
This sense of hospitality combined with the drastic change in scenery over the last few days leaves us with such a feeling of positivity that even the rapidly deteriorating road we follow out of town can’t dampen our spirits. At a road junction we pass under a signposted arch that in retrospect marked the start of the next 200+ kilometres of road works that we would struggle through. Paying it no heed we smile at the traffic police who idly watch us cycle on.
The following days will become some of the hardest, muddiest and most frustrating cycling we have endured to date. I regularly contemplate giving up and catching a taxi to the next major town of Litang while Emma relishes the challenge of it all, or at least puts on a brave face. Although we continue to enjoy a near constant barrage of waves and shouts of “Hello” it is often with gritted teeth that I reply or raise one weary muddied hand in response. The road conditions vary from patchy asphalt coated with slick gravel and mud to thick sticky mud that sees us using our combined strength to push bikes just a few metres at a time.
The climb to our first pass is however not to bad with the sun shining and our fading sense of positivity propelling us easily to the top. Between the dust clouds from roaring trucks we make lunch and try to chat with a balaclava clad local (reminiscent of Fonejacker) who says not a word for 30mins before weaving away down the road on his sputtering motorbike.
The road works come into full swing as we descend from the pass with huge trucks careering along the muddy track that was once a road. Camping spots are non-existent and we nervously cycle into almost complete darkness until suddenly a hotel sign springs into full night-lit glory almost before our eyes. We thankfully pull our bikes fully loaded into a bare bones concrete room for the night.
In an effort to avoid a section of road that resembles a moving river of mud, Emma pleads to no avail with construction workers to let us through a partially completed tunnel. I emerge from the muddy section with me and bike both coated with thick gloopy mud thanks to head height splashes from passing 4wd vehicles. My spirits are at an all time low as my chain and gears grind mud while the intermittent sun dries the mud in my beard to yet more dust.
As we continue through the road works I remember a half mentioned comment from a traveller during our stay in Pingyao that the road between Litang and Kangding was pretty bad, but try to hope that maybe they will end at the town of Yajiang roughly half way between the two. While Emma ducks into town for breakfast I race ahead eager to check the state of the road. With a sinking stomach I see mud caked vehicles driving the opposite direction and the town car washers doing a brisk trade. With the road climbing again after Yajiang conditions deteriorate further with rain, fog, hail, a spill off my bike (into yep more mud) and a constant pervading chill adding to my cycling misery.
Picking our spirits up a little we meet a group of Chinese touring cyclists who like us are struggling through the bad road conditions. Together we sit out a hail storm in a road worker encampment and share a night in a Tibetan family-run hostel. The warm kitchen is a welcome break as we enjoy a brief glimpse of traditional Tibetan family life. Over dinner the cyclists warn us of the dangerous “environmental conditions” ahead and offer to continue on with us.
The next day dawning wet, cold and dank sees a change of heart with two of the group taking a taxi onto Litang while the remaining cyclists wait a day at the hostel for the weather to improve. We however (some may say stupidly, including ourselves) are back on the road climbing into clouds.
Gifts of Red Bull and wrapped luncheon sticks are handed to us on the way towards yet another pass where we pause to try and clean our chains and rims a little before descending. The ground surrounding the shrine is littered with hundreds of brightly coloured prayer tickets that seem out of place against the low cloud and muddy surrounds.
Finding no likely spots for lunch and with drizzly rain continuing we push onwards through some of the worst mud yet, that sees cars, buses and trucks getting stuck as we heave our bikes through. Finding a spot to camp amongst the road works is difficult and as dusk nears a group of locals offer Emma a hostel room while a small child trying to help ends up pushing Justin off his bike. We decline the hostel offer and as the rain returns we make camp with no dinner in a steep gully a short distance down the road.
As we pack up camp the next day the helpful child from the day before turns up and gives all our kit a thorough inspection with his muttered “Er” serving to indicate he wants explanation of an item. We enjoy showing him how things work and letting him snap photos of us. As we leave (much to his disappointment) his out-stretched hand is only filled with nuts and raisins from our meagre supplies.
We see our first accident – an overturned truck is surrounded by road workers who remind me of ship-wreckers enjoying the booty from their latest conquest. The cargo is pallets of soft drink and the workers clamber down from their sunny perches to eagerly hand us multiple bottles of Coke. A short distance later we see a second more serious accident luckily with nobody injured but wonder how emergency services would struggle to reach an accident site along this stretch.
A welcome cafe stop lets us know that Litang is now only 37km, which given our current cycling speed is still a days ride away. An afternoon climb sees us emerge at a pass at 4700m much to our surprise and before dark we seek some limited shelter from the worsening weather behind a Buddhist shrine to pitch our tent.
After a restful night we leave one of our pillaged bottles of coke as an offering and head onto the final muddy stretch into Litang. We know we have one final pass and although the sun is shining as we start our ascent the weather at the top is bitterly cold and wet. With rims coated in mud and no clear idea of how far it is to Litang I decide to walk my bike down from the pass while Emma rides on ahead. After 2km we pass out of the cloud and see a wide open plain below us with the welcome sight of Litang only 5km downhill.
The sun lifts my spirits and I hoist my muddy legs back onto slippery pedals and grind my grit coated chain through a couple of revolutions to begin the free-wheel downhill. As I coast slowly along I’m not sure that my bike, panniers or knees will ever recover from the punishing cycling over the last days. Even more than that I wonder how the road workers and locals who have lived for years with the constant traffic, noise and muddy conditions manage to raise their spirits enough to smile and shout “Hello” at a passing cyclist.
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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.