If someone could get to it, prayer flags hung from it. Whether they were on houses, along roads, or half way up a cliff face, these chains draped across the landscape as if it was the morning after a particularly rowdy Halloween. Water-powered prayer wheels turned in their little huts that straddled the streams of ice-cold snow runoff as winter loosened its tenacious grip on the mountainous, Western reaches of Sichuan: a place to witness Tibetan culture without the fuss and bureaucracy of actually going to Tibet-proper.
On our first morning the village downstream from our homestay disappeared in a shroud of wood-smoke as its women – and it only ever seems to be the women – donned their traditional attire and walked to the seldom opened temple. The Lama only gets to this part of China once a year and we were luckily enough to be there at the time of his visit. It also happened to be the lunar New Year and all day the valley echoed the bangs and rattles of exploding fire-crackers. You couldn’t escape the waft of cordite.
Our days were spent exploring the valleys, walking amongst the remaining snow that, even this late in the season, remained untrodden before our group trudged through. The evenings were spent stuffing ourselves with deliciously spicy cuts of meat that went against the grain of western butcher conventions (Yak heart, anyone?). The house we stayed in was a mix of rustic mountain life paired with the occasional reminder of how much the Chinese economy has grown over the years: while the kitchen relied on a wood-burning stove and had a whole pig’s worth of meat hanging from the ceiling, the next room was dominated by a 40 inch flatscreen TV and upstairs was the an elaborate, fully automatic and self-shuffling Majong table that would be more at home in some casino than in a Tibetan hovel.
Over the last few months, winter has receded and I could venture out from under a blanket in my unheated flat. As such I have taken up more opportunities to get out of the city to escape the familiarity of modern, urban life. In the months after the trip to Tibetan Sichuan, we have cycled down to the historic ancient city of Huanglongxi through rural China that is a stark contrast to the modern, gleaming bustle of Chengdu; we went rock climbing over a bamboo forest (well, I watched as others did it); and spent a day as amateur (and horrendously inefficient) tea pickers. These short trips out of Chengdu and in the mountains provided a much-needed relapse of the travel bug for myself and the group of people that put up with me as a friend: mainly other bicycle tourists who have parked themselves in Chengdu to earn money before continuing their respective trips.
Although we shared the same road to China, on an average day in Chengdu our conversation topics ultimately return to complaining about work (we all are teachers working for the same company, not by coincidence). But every time we uproot ourselves from the smog of one of China most polluted cities, the change in scenery brings with it a shift in conversation. The typical complaints about work that could happen anywhere – be it London or Chengdu – are left behind with the smog and when we are back amongst natural beauty we return to sharing stories from the road; the kind that are shared between travellers taking a rest day in some hostel that’s infamous on the cycle tourist map. It’s a reassuring reminder of what we did, how great life on the road was, and – most importantly – a reminder of why we stopped to earn a bit of money in the first place…so that the so that the road we take out of this city goes on for as long as possible.