Far from any dreams of enlightenment, we find ourselves in Shangri-La primarily because the town is on our way south. Formally known as Zhongdian, in 2001 some clever marketers decided that the town was the location on which a 1930s fictional account of a lost utopia was based. Before we enter the old town, we cycle through typical Chinese modernity, the main street of town rich with tourist dollars. Against the blare of loudspeakers from shopping malls we spot several wedding convoys, made up of gaudily decorated Humvees trailed by pickup trucks carrying exploding firecrackers. I doubt we’ll find our personal utopia in town, but thinking of the things we need to fix and replace, we are sure we will find something.
Just off the main square in the old town, we’re lucky to stumble across the Meri Garden hotel, a three-storied U-shape of rooms facing an overgrown garden guarded by a menagerie of pets. With the rest of the old town crowded by an overwhelming barrage of English signs advertising food, drink, accommodation, souvenirs, bike rental and Tibetan tours, its a relief to have somewhere to escape to. Its so quiet and dark the first night that we’re unable to sleep.
The rough riding of late has taken its toll, and with a few days off we have much to fix and replace. We find a replacement tire, a small external speaker and a map for our onward journey without much trouble, though replacement spectacles and malaria tablets prove impossible to find. We walk both the new and old towns, finding a small restaurant to frequent for stir fried rice and pork each day. On one afternoon we walk up to the local temple and through its neighbouring museum where we accidently find ourselves in front of a Tibetan medicine man. He reads our palms and advises all of our apparent ailments could be cured by buying £60 of local herbs, an offer we decline on financial grounds (In China this is our budget for a week).
We’ve just entered the Yunnan province where tea and coffee both grow, but while we try the local brew at a number of coffee shops, we never quite get a perfect one. Our stab at a proper western breakfast is much more successful, with the perfect meal found at the incredibly busy Compass cafe and lodge. Waffles and French toast with maple syrup are both awesome.
A early evening search for book exchange facilities finds us instead chatting to two cyclists on a six month tour from Ireland to Bangkok. Jason and Kate (from America and Ireland respectively) quickly offer to trade books, agree to join us for dinner and make plans to cycle the back road towards Tiger Leaping Gorge with us the following day.
When we meet them the next morning they’ve collected another cyclist, a young Chinese guy called Nabi who is on his way from Lhasa to Shanghai, having cycled the same patch of road works between Kangding and Litang as us a few weeks earlier.
As we climb out of town, excitingly chatting in warm sunshine we all experience tight chests and shortness of breath. Justin and I are a little surprised as its the first time in three weeks of cycling at altitudes above 3500m that we’ve struggled to breathe.
Our route takes us on a minor road via Baishuitai and Haba to the east end of the gorge and with little traffic of any sort it is blissfully quiet. I’m surprised that it feels so different from the regions we’ve just left. Gone are the Tibetan influences in the form of blocky homes, free-roaming yaks and prayer flags celebrating the top of each pass. We still return shouts of hello as we pass working villagers but water buffalo are the dominant animal and homes are more modest affairs.
Small settlements break up the terraced corn-fields in each valley but as we climb up each pass, pine plantations take over. Having camped infrequently in China, Kate and Jason are keen to sleep out, but Nabi doesn’t have a tent so he agrees to meet us the following day and soon disappears into the distance. Its not long before we have a suitable spot for camping and we stay up late sharing travel experiences under bright moonlight.
The next day its mostly downhill to Baishuitai, where we stop and wander around the village’s prime attraction, a series of limestone terraces similar to Pammukale in Turkey. Kate does her best to explain the natural phenomenon while Jason leads us off trail down some steep slopes to the old path through the site, the wooden boards now rotten and broken. Reunited with Nabi again at the bottom, we cycle on looking for lunch, stopping frequently to gape at the snowy mountains rising around us. We finally reach Haba village at 3pm where Nabi races off again, but the rest of us manage to eat and restock on supplies.
Completing our last big climb before the gorge we descend into an empty valley and soon come across a dirt track leading from the road which opens up into a perfect camping spot, complete with fire pit and lots of dry fallen branches. We can’t resist a fire and spend another night talking until late.
We’re slow to break camp the next morning, with only a short downhill left to Tiger Leaping Gorge. As our road snakes down towards it, a gap pulls away from two mountain ranges. It looks like it has been cut with a sharp knife from the surrounding mountains. We look at each other in amazement – it is nothing short of spectacular.
Coming into the gorge proper we stop to look down at the Yangtze river, contemplating white water rafting or other extreme sports which could utilize its might. There are some steep climbs from the valley into the gorge proper, and I wonder if following the river upstream wasn’t our most clever route planning idea. Halted by officers with a handheld stop sign at a small building to pay the entrance fee, its not long before we’ve reached Tina’s Guesthouse, halfway along the 23km route through the gorge. We stop for lunch and quickly decide to stay the night so we can spend the afternoon walking.
Expert and experienced navigators on the road, it appears that off road we need a little more practice. Despite instructions from the guesthouse and a small map we manage to get waylaid and lost multiple times – the worst route choices see us following a small goat trail along a precarious ledge, climbing over several rock faces and down dubious tracks through part of the bamboo forest. We’re soon high about the road, can hear the waterfall and see a small bridge far below us, but are completely lost as to how we’ll get there. Its only as we return to the guesthouse where we come across a much wider and well used path which we should have been on.
With little time left on their Chinese visas, Jason and Kate cycle on the next morning. Justin and I decide its unlikely that we’ll find a place as peaceful as this for a break before Dali, and besides, we still want to find that elusive waterfall. After breakfast of local bread called baba smothered with chocolate sauce, we head outside to bid our new friends farewell. As they pack their bicycles, Nabi appears again and the three of them cycle on together leaving us to enjoy the almost utopian feel of the early morning gorge.