It’s been a game of cycle-touring snakes and ladders this week. From Danba we decided to head southwest, uphill on the S303 and S215 to Tagong, which is purported to have beautiful pastureland on a high plateau. For 50km we slogged our way upward, gaining over 1000m vertically; but we didn’t complain as the road surface was good, the air was clear, and the scenery was relatively unspoilt and pretty, with lots of trees and bushes softening the rocky walls. We even found a nice spot to camp on the far side of the river, away from the road noise (although crossing the log bridge was a bit of a challenge).
And then we hit a snake: at a police checkpoint the barrier was in down and the policeman in charge, whilst friendly and polite, insisted we could go no further as the road was ‘dangerous’. His English was not good enough for further explanation, but after pointing at some rocks we think perhaps he was trying to say there had been a landslide. Keith begged and pleaded but to no avail. There was nothing for it but to roll back the way we’d come, and so, 24 hours almost to the minute after leaving Danba we found ourselves back there again. It was extremely frustrating and disappointing.
Leaving Danba for a second time we only had one route choice: the S211. To compound our disappointment this turned out to be the second most horrible road we’ve had the misfortune to find ourselves on since embarking on our travels. Pitted, pot-holed tarmac regularly gave way to long unsurfaced sections comprised of rocks and dirt. There were several lengthy tunnels, some of which contained numerous unsigned underground junctions, and at one point we spent over 10km underground in two back-to-back tunnels that had just 100m or so of daylight between them. Above ground the scenery was primarily a series of construction sites that filled the air with choking dust, making our eyes stream and throats and noses sore. Despite its appalling condition the road was a relatively popular route so there were frequent assaults on our eardrums by sadistic drivers deploying airhorns at point-blank range. In the end I resorted to using earplugs, which wasn’t comfortable and made conversation with Keith difficult, but at least it was less painful than being on the receiving end of yet another bloody horn blast. In fact, the China cycling experience is greatly improved by being muffled; the horns are downgraded to a mere annoyance, whereas at full volume it had got the point where I’d struggle to suppress a homicidal rage each time another unprovoked and painful attack was launched on my poor eardrums. So, all in all we were pretty annoyed that our route to Tagong had been thwarted. The only redeeming feature of the S211 road was that it proceeded in a generally downhill direction, but to be honest it was scant comfort as most of the time the road surface was so bad we were trundling at 10-15kph.
We toyed with the idea of taking the G318 through Kangdang and then continuing south on our original route choice of the S215, but by the time we reached the junction we were so demoralised and dust-covered that we couldn’t face a significant climb on what would be an unknown quality of road, so we continued south and predominantly downhill on the G318, picking up the S211 again after Luding. By then the road was in slightly better condition, although still somewhat of a building site and the air remained so thick with dust that we could barely see the other side of the river. It was on this second section of S211 that we landed on another snake.
A sudden explosion behind us announced the demise of our trailer tyre. The tread still looked reasonable but when viewed from inside it was clear that the carcass was beginning to deteriorate and there were an number of weak spots, the worst of which had just blown out on us. As we sat working out how to fix it a chap on a motorbike stopped and offered to take Keith back to the last small town where he might be able to buy a new tyre. Sadly that turned out to be a rather over optimistic hope and no tyre could be found, but Keith did end up getting a nice thick piece of truck inner tube which, along with some duct tape, made an excellent tyre boot and easily saw us into the next major town of Shimian, where for the princely sum of five quid we got ourselves a new tyre and inner tube.
The night of the tyre repair was probably our worst campsite yet. Delayed by the blown tyre we didn’t have long to look for somewhere before nightfall, and ended up literally on the verge at the side of the road, where there was just enough space to squeeze ourselves between the road and the steep drop down about 40m to the tumbling river below. The river was barely visible through the thick red dust, but the dust seemed to be settling as we erected the tent so we thought that perhaps it wouldn’t be too unpleasant an evening, with only the rumble of tyres about 3m from our heads to disturb us. That relative peace lasted about 10 minutes until the night shift clocked on and the cause of the particularly thick dust became apparent to us. High above us on the opposite side of the river they were building a new road and were using large diggers to shovel away the rocky walls, with the debris thundering down into the river below. Every now and then there’d be a particularly large rock-fall and we’d begin to wonder if our side of the river was safe enough – the last thing we wanted was for the river bank to fall away beneath us. In the end we stayed, and so did the workmen – until 3am! Not the best night’s sleep we’ve had, but at least we were still alive in the morning.
At Shimian we joined the G108 and started to climb again. After a couple of hours it was time to start the usual debate about whether or not a not-particularly-nice campsite would ‘do’ or whether it was worth carrying on to see what else might appear. We’d just talked ourselves out of one site when a clap of thunder put things into a different perspective and we rapidly agreed that it was an excellent site after all, and whilst it was rather too visible from the road to be ideal, on the upside it did have one of the best views we’ve had from the tent in a while.
Because of the mountainous terrain the roads generally follow river lines (although in the case of motorways they follow a series of tunnels and bridges to take the most direct route) so we’ve spent most of the last couple of weeks in deep valleys interspersed with climbs over passes. Some climbs have been just a couple of hundred metres high, others over 1500. It’s been interesting to see the change in the nature of the valleys as we’ve passed from one to another. Somehow, in our minds, we expect the valley we’re dropping into to be a mirror image of the one we’ve just climbed out of, but this has rarely proved to be the case. Barren rocks give way to orange groves, which then, over the next climb, are replaced with a wider plain and acres of wheat. The house style has changed too, with the distinctive and colourful Tibetan-style windows (which we mentioned in our last post) giving way to artwork of horses, bulls and babies, which changes again in the next valley to a red and yellow wave pattern, and finally, as we approached Xichang, we were dazzled by colourful floral murals.
China continues to frustrate and delight us in equal measure. We’ve been met with smiles and helpfulness on countless occasions, but sometimes with glowers and persistent demands to know how much the bike costs. We’ve ridden along some quiet roads in beautiful countryside, but sadly too often on busier roads surrounded by concrete and dust. We love the food and the way people in cafes try their best to understand what we’re ordering, and let us poke around the kitchen to work out the menu, but we remain deeply annoyed by the drivers who habitually overtake on blind bends and use their horns at the slightest provocation. Some days we really like it here, but on more than one occasion in the last week we’ve been ready to leave. But with 27 days left on our visa and over 1500km still to go to the Laos border, no doubt China will have some more treats, trials and tribulations in store before it’s done with us.