Tag Archives: Danba

Danba to Xichang 08 – 14 March 2013

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).

The prettier face of Western Sichuan (the scenery, not Keith!)

The prettier face of Western Sichuan (the scenery, not Keith!)

Spring hits the hillsides west of Danba.

Spring hits the hillsides west of Danba.

Watch your step!

Watch your step!

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.

Arriving back into Danba

Arriving back into Danba

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.

The less-than-lovely S211 road.

The less-than-lovely S211 road.

A not-so-dusty section of the S211.

A not-so-dusty section of the S211.

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.

Oops!

Oops!

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.

Heading off to look for a new tyre.

Heading off to look for a new tyre.

 

The nice lady we eventually bought a tyre from enjoying the Pino experience.

The nice lady we eventually bought a tyre from enjoying the Pino experience.

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.

A few minutes after taking this picture we managed to find a space to squeeze the tent between the road and the river (currently hidden below the dustcloud)...not our nicest campsite.

A few minutes after taking this picture we managed to find a space to squeeze the tent between the road and the river (currently hidden below the dustcloud)…not our nicest campsite.

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.

Room with a view.

Room with a view.  The three parallel lines on the left of the picture are: top – the G5 motorway; middle – the G108 (our road); bottom – the river.

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.

The changing artwork on Sichuan houses.

The changing artwork on Sichuan houses.

09-2409-2509-2609-2709-28China 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.

The eastern end of Danba; our hostel was on the left bank, and the school was opposite on the right bank.

The eastern end of Danba; our hostel was on the left bank, and the school was opposite on the right bank.

Looking over at Danba school.

Looking over at Danba school.

Little old ladies in Danba.

Little old ladies in Danba.

Colourful Tibetan headscarves, Danba.

Colourful Tibetan headscarves, Danba.

Spinning wool, Danba.

Spinning wool, Danba.

Ox-drawn plough, between Danba & Tagong.

Ox-drawn plough, between Danba & Tagong.

Old stone towers at Suopo, 4km SE of Danba.

Old stone towers at Suopo, 4km SE of Danba.

An oasis of colour amongst the drab rock and concrete along the S211.

An oasis of colour among the drab rock and concrete along the S211.

Yet another worksite along the S211.

Yet another worksite.

Some of the building projects are pretty impressive.

Some of the building projects are pretty impressive.

The Chinese really love aerial roadways.

The Chinese really love aerial roadways.

Some Chinese cyclists who stopped for a chat on the way to Shimian.

Some Chinese cyclists who stopped for a chat on the way to Shimian.

Approaching Xichang we noted a change in both the landscape (now flatter and wheat being grown) and people's headwear.

Approaching Xichang we noted a change in both the landscape (now flatter and wheat being grown) and people’s headwear.

Interesting hats near Xichang.

Interesting hats near Xichang.

Traffic approaching Xichang.

Traffic and perpetual building works approaching Xichang.

Traffic got heavier as we approached Xichang.

Traffic got heavier as we approached Xichang.

 

Chengdu to Danba 22 February – 03 March 2013

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.

A disappointingly misty day at Dujiangyan

A disappointingly misty day at Dujiangyan

One of the many temples at Dujiangyan

One of the many temples at Dujiangyan

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.

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Traditional Tibetan-style house

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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.

Yay, another tunnel!

Yay, another tunnel!

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).

It took a good 20 minutes of sitting with my head in my hands before I could summon up the energy to feign enthusiasm for having reached the top

It took a good 20 minutes of sitting with my head in my hands before I could summon up the energy to feign enthusiasm for having reached the top

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:

The all-new "Shuimo Ancient Town"

The all-new “Shuimo Ancient Town”

An interesting choice of decoration....

An interesting choice of decoration….

A Confucian Temple (built post-earthquake)

A Confucian Temple (built post-earthquake)

A colourful....well, actually, we're not sure what it is, but it was a cheery relief from the grey walls looming over us

A colourful….well, actually, we’re not sure what it is, but it was a cheery relief from the grey walls looming over us

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Buddhist rather than Nazi one presumes

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Ever-turning prayer wheels powered by water

Ever-turning prayer wheels powered by water

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Eager helpers filtering water. (Does anyone know what the armbands signify?  They pointed them out to us but we couldn't understand)

Eager helpers filtering water. (Does anyone know what the armbands signify? They pointed them out to us but we couldn’t understand)

We saw these a few times piled under outcrops of rock

We saw these a few times piled under outcrops of rock

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Graves

Graves

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Some sort of bird of prey....any ornithologists out there want to hazard a guess as to which kind?

Some sort of bird of prey….any ornithologists out there want to hazard a guess as to which kind?

We thought yaks would be bigger...but they're really quite diminutive

We thought yaks would be bigger…but they’re really quite diminutive

A hungry cyclist's lunch, shortly before being pulled by the traffic cops.

A hungry cyclist’s lunch, shortly before being pulled by the traffic cops.

The 'trying-to-hide-behind-a-wall" campsite.

The “trying-to-hide-behind-a-wall” campsite.

The 'hoping-for-some-zen-peace-and-quiet' campsite.

The “hoping-for-some-zen-peace-and-quiet” campsite.

The 'I-don't-care-if-it's-rocky-it's-level-ground' campsite.

The “I-don’t-care-if-it’s-rocky-it’s-level-ground” campsite.

Obstacles part I

Obstacles part I

Obstacles part II

Obstacles part II

This one had us puzzling for days, until we got wifi and wiki informed us that nilas is a sea ice crust up to 10 centimetres in thickness.

This one had us puzzling for days until we got wifi and wiki informed us that nilas is a sea ice crust up to 10 centimetres in thickness.