Hot, sunny days; frosty nights; creative camping solutions; soaring peaks; dark, scary tunnels; colourful Tibetan villages; annoying stomach bugs; soul-destroying climbs; heavenly descents; broken freewheels; zealous traffic cops; little old ladies beaming gummily; yaks; water-powered prayer-wheels; and of course, the ever-present honking horns: life on the road again in its many and varied guises.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the comforts of Chengdu, and headed northwest to Dujiangyan – an unusual route choice given that we’re supposed to be heading south to Laos or Vietnam – but the 2000 year old irrigation system UNESCO World Heritage Site at Dujiangyan sounded like it might be worth a look and the Tibetan villages of Western Sichuan were also recommended to us.
After nearly 3 months of lounging around we set off slowly, and deliberately rode short days to preserve our middle-aged joints. Chengdu sits on a flat plain so it was easy to potter along for the first couple of days with only the busy city traffic to contend with. The irrigation system at Dujiangyan proved as worthwhile a visit as we’d hoped, with not only the impressive water-works but also a series of temples and gardens, and an attractive ‘old town’. As is typical in China, the original old town has been demolished and replaced with a nice shiny new faux old one – a bit touristy but fun to stroll around nonetheless.
From Dujiangyan we left the pancake-flat plain behind and quickly entered the snaggle-toothed maw of the Tibetan foothills. Western Sichuan is seriously hilly! Slab-sided mountains tower oppressively over narrow gorges and unless you make a conscious decision to look upwards, the only sky to be seen is a small triangle in the vee of the mountains in front of you. At first it’s awe-inspiring, but after a few days we were starting to feel a bit claustrophobic and began to long for wide open spaces.
We were cycling close to the epicentre of the massive 2008 earthquake – which claimed over 65,000 lives – and whilst the roads and villages have almost all been rebuilt now (naturally in a faux-old style), there are memorials and information signs about the quake all around, and our friends in Chengdu marked out for us the few roads which remain difficult to travel. It was sobering to look up at the towering cliffs, trying to imagine what it might have been like. There would have been nowhere to run to. The noise must have been overwhelming. We simply couldn’t imagine it.
My brother’s going to be cross with me for this because he always insists he did very little, but I remain immensely proud of him (even more so now having seen the terrain) for joining his friend Matt in the rescue efforts immediately after the quake. Whilst significant aftershocks and landslides continued to ravage the area they travelled on foot into the heart of the devastation. If you want to read more about what they did then scroll to the Sunday Times story at the bottom of this link. Or if The Sun’s reportage is more your cup of tea click here.
(Sorry Dunks and Matt, but I couldn’t not mention it. What you did continues to astound and impress me.)
Anyhow, back to the present. Thankfully nature remained serene for us and due to the Chinese adeptness at tunnelling, our journey through the mountains progressed upwards at a fairly gentle gradient. At first through unattractive concrete and gravel scenes of quarrying and hydroelectric schemes on the G213/G317, and then onto quieter roads (S210/S303) where pine trees clung to the vertiginous cliffs, and traditional Tibetan villages with gaily painted windows and gaudy, flapping prayer flags added a welcome dash of life and joy to the harsh landscape.
Tunnels are something of a mixed blessing for a cyclist. They’re most welcome as an aid to easy pedalling, but when unlit and unventilated you begin to wonder if a climb over the mountain might have been preferable after all. Thankfully the longest one (4400m long and at 3450m above sea level) was well-illuminated, and we even got a police escort through it (although that didn’t prevent the crazy Chinese drivers from cutting in between the two police cars and trying to run us into the tunnel wall as a lorry approached) but in the dark tunnels the noise and proximity of the traffic is frankly quite unnerving. We’re lit up like a Christmas tree but still can’t help but have our hearts in our mouths as trucks and cars approach in a disorienting jumble of lights, horns, fumes and roaring engines. The light at the end of the tunnel has never been so welcome.
Because of the tunnels we only had one notably steep pass to climb, but at 4114m it was the highest road we’ve ever pedalled, and the effects of an inconvenient stomach bug combined with the unaccustomed altitude left me sapped of energy and put the burden of pedalling well and truly on Keith’s mighty thews. The climb itself was only 30km long, and we’d covered the first four of those the previous evening, but the remaining 26km took us six hours to complete: of which four hours were spent in the saddle (averaging a pitiful 6kph) and two hours were spent sitting at the side of the road (me with my head in my hands, Keith munching biscuits and taking photos).
The reward that kept our legs turning was the promise of 130km of descent, and whilst not a high-speed adrenaline rush, it certainly made for a pleasant couple of days riding into our destination of Danba, where we are currently staying at the very nice (and cheap) Zha Xi Zhuo Kang Backpackers Hostel.
Whilst the car horns continue to irritate us from time to time, the quieter roads in the mountains and the friendly, smiling villagers have raised our spirits and made us glad to have resumed our journey. Occasionally we’ve felt frustrated, particularly when we’re mobbed outside shops and a 30-strong pack push and jostle for a closer view of the bike, staring unembarrassedly at us and demanding to know how much the bike costs (by shouting the word ‘Money’ whilst rubbing thumb and forefinger together). But when it matters, people never fail to show their better natures. The stoker’s freewheel on our bike, which unlike on a traditional tandem allows the Pino stoker to freewheel independently of the pilot, started to fail a few days out of Chengdu. We were carrying a spare but to remove the old one we need a vice, a bolt and a long piece of sturdy tubing. Keith feared our chances of finding somewhere that would have all three items would be slim, but the first likely-looking place we stopped at in Wenchuan came up trumps and the owner immediately grasped what we needed and was delighted to help, charging us nothing for his time and the use of his workshop.
On the flip side, our journey was interrupted four times in three days (in fact three times on one day and twice in the space of fifteen kilometres) by zealous traffic cops. The first time we were stopped we were pedalling merrily through the small town of Lixian after a tasty lunch when a cop car drove up behind us, flashed his lights and pulled us over. The cops quizzed us on our route, asked for our passports and then demanded that we follow them to the police station. Keith refused to go until we’d been told why we needed to or what we might have done wrong, but no explanation was forthcoming other than “We need to copy your passports”. I feared a standoff in front of a gathering crowd of interested bystanders, but in the end Keith reluctantly accepted that the only explanation he was going to get was that they needed to copy our passports and testily followed the cops down the road.
Whilst Keith went into the station to keep an eye on our passports I remained outside to guard the bike and surreptitiously phoned Matt to find out if we should be worried or if this was normal behaviour (having never been pulled over like that in 25,000km of pedalling through over 20 countries). Matt reassured me that it was probably due to the fact that in the past few days some Tibetan monks had immolated themselves and nothing for us to worry about. Sure enough, a few minutes later Keith emerged, having had our passports copied and been advised to take care as there was some snow on the roads we were planning on using (barely any as it turned out, but there you go).
Two days later, just before entering the 4400m long tunnel, we were pulled over again, but this time at a permanent roadside police-hut where they were stopping lots of other vehicles. Once again we had to wait whilst our passports were copied and then off we went into the tunnel. Five minutes in, finding the tunnel well-lit, we stopped in a lay-by to switch from our main front light to our smaller one (preserving the better beam for unlit tunnels) and a military man coming the other way pulled over too. We groaned and tried to explain that we’d already been stopped by the cops at the tunnel entrance. He drove off, but five minutes later was back again with re-inforcements and flashing lights. Our hearts sank, but then we had to laugh as they weren’t there to stop us but to escort us through the tunnel. Nice! After exiting the tunnel we had fifteen minutes of exhilarating descent before we were stopped for the second time that day at another road block and had to go through the whole rigmarole of watching a traffic cop laboriously copy out the same passport and visa details that his colleagues at the top of the hill had copied out less than 30 minutes earlier. We were stopped for a third time a couple of hours later, but that cop was much more amenable, smiling and ushering us into a couple of chairs whilst he scrutinised our passports and then waved us on without bothering to write anything down. I guess it’s part of the fun of travelling: every time you think you’ve worked out what the rules are they get rewritten – you just have to go with the flow.
This sense of improvisation has been a feature of our sleeping arrangements since leaving Chengdu, as first of all the urban sprawl and then the steep-sided mountains have forced us to make the best of camping spots we’d previously have vetoed. The funniest one so far was just outside Chengdu where we turned off the busy main road enticed by what looked like a wide and unfinished side-road with piles of earthworks to hide behind. Upon closer inspection nothing was suitable, and then Keith spotted what looked like three unoccupied office blocks standing around a small courtyard. We rode in boldly and toyed with the idea of camping in the courtyard until we noticed that one of the buildings had no doors on it, so in we went. Four bricks stood in for tent pegs and up went the tent. Dinner was cooked and then Keith decided to nip out for a pee. Oh dear. In the building opposite us there was now a light on and the silhouette of a watchman clearly visible at his desk. Keith hugged the shadow of our building and crept to the right away from the watchman’s view….and straight into the territory of a vocal, but thankfully chained-up, guard dog. Slinking quickly back into our building Keith waited for the dog to quieten down whilst we anxiously peered out to see if the watchman was going to investigate the noise. We wracked our brains for a plan B. There was only one door. Heading right disturbed the dog and heading left would bring us into full view of the watchman, which as bladders filled was becoming an increasingly appealing risk. Then Keith had a brainwave…the building was a bare shell, but the ‘first fix’ plumbing and electrics had been completed, and a quick inspection of some of the other rooms brought welcome relief to our situation: a sheet of plastic stuck over top of a waste pipe was easily peeled back to give direct access to the drainage system. Trusting that the guard would find his chair too comfy to leave that evening we had a pretty good night’s sleep and left the next morning after a leisurely breakfast with no-one being any the wiser about our sneaky abuse of their building….although the next person in may wonder why there are four bricks neatly stacked up in a corner and the plastic doesn’t stick down too well over the waste pipe.
To finish, here are a few piccies of Western Sichuan: