Chasing Autumn Colours

posted by: Justin

Heading south from Litang with our sights set on Shangrila, the trials of cycling through the mud drenched road works between Kangding and Litang seem like a distant memory. The sun is shining, the asphalt is not only present but delightfully smooth and long gentle descents easily outweigh the short uphill stretches. Even the presence of a drawing pin in my front tyre noticed by a concerned monk during our first morning noodle stop couldn’t dampen our spirits.

Road south from Litang Locals helping us fix ripped tyre

A few hours later we’re forced to swap Emma’s rear tyre for our trusty folding one after noticing bulges on the outside and rips on the inside. This exercise is completed to an ear-numbing soundtrack of Tibetan pop blasted from motorcycle based stereos as various locals stop to watch the fun. Our spirits remain undaunted and it isn’t long before we find an evening camp-spot shielded from the road and with easy access to a ready water supply. As the sky darkens to let the stars begin to shine, we bundle up warm for the night and drift off to sleep content with our first decent day of cycling and camping in what felt like a long time.

When we decided to head towards the Tibetan plateau it was with hopes of stunning scenery, high mountain passes and a reduction in the choking traffic of the lowlands. The cycling from Litang along the G217 didn’t disappoint us on any of these fronts as we saw only a handful of cars each day while admiring mountain peaks both far and near, and rolling through alpine valleys dotted with starkly black yaks roaming near the many roped tents of their herders.

Cycling through the Haizi Mountain Reserve Experiment where the colours of autumn stand out in sharp contrast to the bare grey rock of the peaks, we stop at a 4700m pass. A passing group of Tibetan men eagerly encourage me to share the spreading of their prayer tickets to the winds before tugging my beard in admiration. After a thorough inspection of the bicycles they pose for photographs eagerly checking the results on the camera display.

Emma cycling past autumn leaves Tibetan girls all dressed up

We spend the best part of a day cycling across an area that is sign-posted as the “Lce sheet on Qinghai”. While I get worried about the presence of roaming herds of Lice Emma remains convinced the sign is a misspelling of “Ice” not “Lice”. House sized boulders line the side of the road competing with crystal clear lakes and distant snow-capped mountains for our attention. Being able to see 10s of kilometres into the distance we are constantly fooled by the mirage of a settlement ahead as rocks blur into building-like shapes.

While researching our route we had read of this stretch being compared to the surface of Mars and it does feel like we have been transported to another planet. With night approaching and the temperature plummeting we begin a welcome descent passing a pair of Chinese hitch-hikers headed onto the plateau in for a chilly night of camping I think.

We wake one morning to a tent covered in thick frost and ice cubes floating in our drink bottles. As the sun creeps slowly towards our tent and brings the rich oranges and browns of the forest to life, we snuggle in our sleeping bags and worry that autumn might be starting to catch-up to our endless summer.

Monastery decorated for celebration Descending from Tuer Mtn. pass

Following a river that sparkles in the early morning light we first hear and then see the Pangphug monastery where the Karmapa 900 year celebrations are just getting underway. The monastery and surrounding area is covered in strings of brightly-coloured prayer flags while the wind blows snatches of Tibetan music across the valley. Outside the monastery grounds a temporary encampment of worshipers is beginning to stir and dressed in their finest clothing is streaming towards the gates. We eagerly follow along on our bikes forgoing the search for breakfast. At the monastery itself we join the lines of pilgrims to complete circuits of the devotional prayer wheels and chat with a Chinese visitor who is also a cycle tourist and a guest of one of the senior monks.

Stunning mountain scenery usually comes at the price of long climbs and this part of China is no exception as roads seem to endlessly wind their way around valley’s and peaks. Descending from the top of Kuluke Mountain at 4708m we race through a valley filled with late afternoon sun and suddenly find ourselves traversing a steep-sided gorge with barely enough room for the road let alone camping. The gorge emerges high above a river valley that flows all the way to Xiangcheng our midway point to Shangrila and after some scrambling above the road we find a perch for the tent and watch as twilight washes the colour from the far side of the valley leaving the mountains as inky black silhouettes in the night sky.

We effortlessly coast through 65km of downhill over two days as we head into and through Xiangcheng dropping from 4700m down to 2800m only to climb back to over 4000m as our route continues onto Shangrila. The road surface becomes first sandy and dusty, then, after overnight rain, rocky and muddy for a 50km stretch. As we are cycling during a week long Chinese public holiday the road is also busy with traffic making for frustrating cycling. Some passing motorists cheer and make thumbs-up signs giving Emma pause to mutter “It’s not as fun as it looks” while bravely trying to flash a credible smile in return.

Emma cycling through boulder strewn plateau Justin adjusting brakes for descent

After being told there was only 20km – 30km to go of the unsealed road we pushed on through snow flurries to a pass and descended on mud slick roads with no end in sight, before finally pitching our tent on dusk as the rain returns. My recent memories of mud, bad roads and cycling fluttered around my mind as the rain continued to hammer down on the tent through the night.

A near perfect road surface starts only a few kilometres further on and with our stomachs full from breakfast at a roadside cafe we coasted along trying to encourage the sun and wind to dry shoes, gloves and jackets.

The remaining riding to Shangrila is a mix of climbing and descents with the final day including a seemingly gently climb for around 35km but on legs aching from 9 straight days of mountainous cycling we both comment on how tough the riding is. Not able to cover the full 65km to Shangrila we camp around 20km out and console ourselves with a camp fire and the thought that the next day’s riding should be all down-hill.

Tibetan houses + terraced fields Justin cycling on bad road + snow

On waking we are visited by two local women who share bread still warm from the oven with us, while with serious faces they inspect our tent and bicycles to finally issue us with a smile and thumbs-up. We nervously jiggle from foot to foot trying to keep our blood circulating in the freezing morning air. With the sun slowly forcing the chill air from our valley camp-spot we wave goodbye, wheel our bikes onto the road and race down-hill with the fire red autumn leaves becoming a passing blur alongside the road.

The outskirts of Shangrila are like any other noisy, industrial Chinese city. Heading towards a tourist-heavy ‘old-town’ district, we’re not sure if we’ll find the fabled utopia here, but the promise of a hotel room for a few days break is good enough for our mountain weary legs.

G217 near Xiangcheng

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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.