We hated it at first. Arriving exhausted and cold into what looked like an unfriendly frontier town in the late afternoon, I wondered what the hell we were doing in Litang. Every hotel we entered looked battered and beaten up, beds were unmade, hot water was unavailable and prices were extortionate. A group huddled around me as Justin enquired at yet another. An elderly man touched my bare knee – ‘Wasn’t I cold?’ I could tell he was asking. Cold? We were at 3900m. I was freezing. Hail stormed down on the bikes while I waited in an empty lobby for Justin to check yet another dire ‘Registered Hotel for Foreigners.” He returned shaking his head. A splitting headache fought any patience I had left and I burst into unreasonable tears.
‘Night of the Grasslands’ saved us. A backstreet garden hotel run by a family, still expensive by Chinese standards, but worlds away from the dire options on the main road. For 200 yuan (about £20) our room overlooked a huge overgrown courtyard, there was 24 hour hot water and even an electric blanket to fight off the evening chill. After a five day stretch of sleeping in close proximity to the road it was just what we needed.
After a quiet, warm night indoors, we saw Litang in a better light. The streets were choked with robed monks, slow moving elderly people spinning prayer wheels and gangs of children from the local school. Woman carried babies tied to their backs, pigs rooted everywhere and water-pipes were hives of activity. We joined the slow promenade, the altitude playing with our lung capacity to the extent that the 2 minute walk to the main road would leave us both gasping for breath.
We found a cafe with a handwritten English menu transcribed into an exercise book (maybe translated by some long forgotten tourist), and enjoyed the novelty of ordering exactly what we felt like eating. We still got food envy looking at the surrounding tables but were lucky enough to be offered huge pieces of baked sweet potatoes from soldiers lunching next to us.
Three nights in a row we ate momo (Tibet’s answer to the dumpling) at a busy restaurant, but its only the last night where we succeed in communicating exactly what we want which is a serving of momo in soup rather than a plate of momo and a separate soup. The same night a couple of German girls were eating in the same restaurant. “You’ve been here before?” they asked as we sat down. “Yes…” We wondered what we’d done. “You’re famous. The staff asked if we knew you…” We were pleased to have made an impression, more so that one of the girls spoke enough Mandarin to tell the chef a little more about us.
At our hotel we gave our bicycles some much needed attention. Justin washed the dirt-coloured paint job off them both, covering the hotel car park with an inch thick layer of mud. Our ongoing presence is noted by a toddler belonging to the family running the hotel and despite only knowing “hello” and “good morning” she soon wins our hearts and pokes her always smiling head into all the curious things we’re doing.
A quick afternoon ride out to some hot springs (disappointingly part of a resort, and closed) brought attention to my well-worn brake pads and on further inspection, a piece of plastic has snapped off pushing one side of the brake pad against the rim. Back at the hotel, Justin bodges a fix and I cross my fingers that it’ll hold till we get to a bigger town.
We spent some time planning the route ahead, unsure if we should cycle west to Batang and take a minor road south or just head directly south from Litang. After a morning spent hunting English speaking tourists to check road conditions for each option, the consensus is we had already done the worst road in this region. We sat over lunch looking at pros and cons of both routes, eventually deciding we’ll head due South for no reason other than it felt like the right way to go.
Packing up after just three nights, it feels a little like we’re leaving home again or at least a place of extended familiarity. Our young friend runs over as she sees us clipping panniers on our bicycles wearing a bright red hooded sweatshirt with a picture of a monkey on it. “Bye bye” she says. “Bye bye.”