I ground to a halt at the side of the steep road, completely breathless. The view was beautiful but the gradient was steep and the air was thin. The mountains that encompassed the narrow valley my road wound up were still dark, the early morning light only illuminating the higher up hills that were to be climbed later but I could see still the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze. Here in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Region in the mountainous west of Sichuan, all you had to do was look up to be rewarded by the view; all I had to do was look behind myself and I could see the hotel, just 50 meters down the road, where I had started.
It was about here where a year’s worth of wishful thinking about the workings of muscle memory finally fell apart. I was seriously unfit, the act of cycling from London to China too distant to be of any use now after a year of eating as a hobby. My bike, which had enjoyed as sedentary life in Chengdu as I had, was the heaviest it had ever been with the extra gear that a disposable income and an internet connection leads you to possess. A palatial, two man tent, a winter sleeping bag and warm weather clothes meant all my bags were bursting at the seams and making the first day of climbing a 4200m pass in 30km brutally exhausting. It would have been a baptism of fire if it wasn’t so cold out of the sunlight. Only my thigh muscles burned.
I managed to get two thirds up before collapsing at the side of the road. The original plan was to get over the pass and sleep at a lower altitude but, just like my very first day leaving London, I had gone too far and not eaten or drank enough. It was uncanny how many parallels there actually were between this first day back on the bike after a year living in Chengdu and my very first day on the road. Not being used to cycling up mountains in the winter, I felt like I was starting all over again and I felt just as out of my depth. Giving up, I wheeled my bike off the road and asked the residents of a nearby hut if I could set up my tent in a patch of land nearby.
“No,” the Tibetan lady said, but gestured towards the building. She led me to a small room with a wood burning stove and pointed to the floor next to it and made the sleeping gesture. Like the pub landlord who took pity on me back in 2015, here was a random act of unconditional generosity that reversed to fortunes of that difficult first day on the road, the same sort of acts that, after witnessing so often on my journey to China, had turned me into a bike touring evangelist. I ended my first day learning the same lesson: things usually have a way of sorting themselves out, whether you’re in Kent or halfway up a mountain.
Over the next week I followed the famous G318, the main road between Chengdu and Lhasa. By the third day I was familiar with the law of this road: what goes down, must come up. Every descent led to the foot of another pass to climb; I was either shuffling up one side of a mountain in granny gear or freewheeling down the other side dressed in every item of clothing in my possession. There’s no level terrain. In the summer this road is packed with Chinese cyclists but in mid-November, with night time temperatures falling as low as -10, it was just myself, Michael, and Ting, two other cyclists from Taiwan and Germany I met on the way up the second pass.
By the fifth day we were over halfway up a two day climb on a pass that resembled spaghetti on the map, thanks to the 18 switchbacks the engineers have ploughed into the hillside. By now things had started to get a little easier all around. Breathlessness had abated as thanks to more red blood cells and some form of fitness that had returned to my legs. Old habits and routines had started falling back into place and I stopped losing everything in the bottom of my panniers or on the side of the road (RIP, glove, sunglasses, allen key, gas canister, etc.).
After this pass now we were riding along the so-called ‘plateau’ (flat it is not), and the road now stayed above the 4000 meter mark. Below the road, down the side of the hill clung the last remaining trees that dared to grow this high. Most of the rolling hills around us were covered in golden, dry grass yak herds would graze on all summer and the occasional ramshackle hut we often used to sleep in to escape the tent-flattening, bike-stopping afternoon winds.
This was Tibet in all but name, and the experience was completely undiluted by modernity. Everyone proudly wore their outlandish, traditional clothing and people walked the streets of Litang or herded cattle in the plateau spinning prayer wheels or shuffling beads in their hand, almost subconsciously, as they go about their daily lives. It was another world to the Han Chinese down to the West. Yak meat was the staple whenever I found a restaurant and spicy yak jerky whenever I dived into my panniers for a snack.
I enjoyed a brief rest day in Litang – a colourful, lively town that claims many Dali Lamas as their native sons – eating, hiking up to the Buddhist temple, walking amongst the yak heads in the market, and eating. This is the first place on the road into Tibet-proper where you can see a sky burial, where bodies are chopped up and returned to the land via the means of being eaten by birds. From here, i left the G318 and the other cyclists and headed south to what is now called Shangri-La in Yunnan.
Here things got much more interesting, scenery wise. At the bottom of the first pass it was like i took the wrong turn and wound up in the Rockies. The traffic-free road took me through coniferous forests, following babbling mountain streams that were fed from waterfalls emerging from bare cliff faces. Mountains in the distance got bigger and each morning more snow appeared on all hills around me as the road led me to some seriously high altitudes, including a killer pass at 4807 meters.
Everything changed on the other side of that pass. The houses were even more elaborately painted and, although still high up, this whole area felt more fertile and vibrant with human activities. There were whole bustling villages of huge Tibetan monolithic houses rather than just the small collection of unpainted, wind-whether hovels. Water ran everywhere, through these villages irrigating fields, powering stone mills and giving the passing cyclists easy access to crystal clear water. There were many happy greetings of “Tashi Dalek” from passers by instead of the gormless stare that was the usual reception in other parts of rural Sichuan.
Off the bike, the sixth sense of finding a good camp spot that could boast good views, water, flat terrain and firewood was slowly returning. My cooking habits, sadly, have also returned as standards in what I eat plummeted at the necessity of ravenous hunger at the end of a day’s climbing and the rush to get everything done and to be in my sleeping bag before the last of the sun’s heat hit behind the hills to the West.
By the time I reached the border of Yunnan province and as a snowstorm hit me, it really felt that winter was closing off the road behind me and I had been lucky enough to spent the majority of my time up here in the final days of autumn, before the really harsh weather kicked in. The last few nights were bitterly cold but I was happy that things only started getting really uncomfortable on the day I descend down from 4000 meters to Shangri La.
Cycling across Western Sichuan in November had not been as bad as I had expected. The daytime temperatures had been comfortable in the sun and, thanks to heavy sleeping bag I hauled up those hills, I was never that cold at night. Mornings had their challenges as everything that wasn’t inside my sleeping bag froze, but I was lucky to have had the conditions no way near my own bleak expectations.
To be sure, it was an difficult way to begin cycling again, compared to the easy Eurovelo routes along flat river valleys of Europe. Yet for all the discomfort and difficulties, it was totally worth it to see the natural beauty of the land and to witness the culture of the hardy people who live there without all the hassle and expense of trying to get into Tibet-proper.
Unfortunately cycling is currently on hiatus as I have had to fly back to Chengdu for boring visa reasons. Last week it had the worst quality air in the world, topping Brijing and New Deli collectively and daily levels seem much worse than this time last year, when I had just started living here. Just like the changing of the seasons up on the plateau, the smog that has engulfed this city at the time of writing is just another indication that moving on has been a good decision and, as it happens, just in time.