Mountains and migraines – riding the winter road to Tibet

The golden entrance to famous Tibetan town Litang

The golden entrance to famous Tibetan town Litang

 

I’M hunched over my bike in Kangding, China, feeling a pedal stroke away from cardiac arrest, when it hits me – I’ve made a bloody horrible mistake.

I’m unfit, I’m unprepared and I’ve picked one of the worst places on the planet to discover it.

Just 10 minutes earlier we’d pedalled out of our flea bitten hostel in the Garze Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture in a bid to strike west for the Tibetan Plateau and, like complete idiots, we’d chosen winter a route that went spectacularly uphill from the minute our feet hit the pedals. Kangding marks the wild west of Sichuan, China while sitting awkwardly between two worlds – that of the Han Chinese and that of Tibet. It’s also where the infamous G318 road kicks off with gusto, taking those who dare to travel it on a roller coaster ride of mountains and plateaus with just Tibetan villages and yak herds for company.

It was the kind of bike tour that would be tough on a good day but we were one year of faffing and scoffing down too many hamburgers from that day.

Like two idiots abroad we’d farewelled a lazy expat life and bee-lined for the west with Polish bike tourers Kasia and Marcin who were apparently as mad as us with a few distinct differences – they’d been on the road since August and were considerably fitter, thinner and tougher.

D-Day came and with it a flurry of snow falling thick and fast on the streets of Kangding. In the end we set off just after midday, turning our backs on Han China to say a big hello to the Middle Kingdom region dominated by minority groups. Within seconds I was down to “granny gear” and within minutes it felt as though my lungs were performing gymnastics to jump out of my chest. I could hardly breathe and every gasping breath was a painful, icy struggle.

We’d known the going would be tough but in our fantasy land (the one where we planned adventures from the couch while eating pizza) the muscle memory from Long Rode Home Part I would kick in and we’d pedal off into the sunset like two hardened pros. Instead it was two flabby couch potatoes breathing harder than an elephant in labour struggling to get beyond Kangding’s city limits.

By mid afternoon every corner had become a milestone and every kilometre a major triumph. I’d been too scared to look at my odometer but eventually I snuck a glance – 14 kilometres. Fourteen bloody kilometres.

I’m pretty sure I could have walked further in the time it had taken me to slog my way up less than half of that bloody pass.

A snowy interlude a third of the way up the pass from Kangding

A snowy interlude a third of the way up the pass from Kangding

A hiker’s hut appeared out of the gloom and we’d all stopped to suck down some thinning oxygen when the first few flakes fell. Soon the air was dancing with snow and we raced for the hut to wait it out before forcing our legs to a Tibetan house a few hundred metres up the road. For a few dollars each we scored a bed and settled in for a long, cold night.

Granny gear was in order the moment we set off the next day and soon the much fitter Polish couple disappeared on the mountainous horizon. By early afternoon Scott was shattered – having fallen further behind while struggling to push his behemoth of a bike up the mountain and by 3pm I stopped next to a hut to wait. He was still three big switch backs behind and was off and pushing. A pitiful three kilometres lay between us and the top but it might as well have been a world away.

It took half an hour for Scott to reach me and already sunset and its sub zero conditions were a stone’s throw away. There was no way we’d make the top before then and it left us with two choices – camp at this freezing altitude or hitchhike to the top. We chose the latter.

Minutes later a cheerful local pulled up in his mini truck and happily let us throw our bikes on the back and be hauled to the top. Near the final switchbacks we passed the determined Polish and just before 4pm we joined a herd of feral pigs to celebrate the snowy summit of 4300m. Admitting defeat and taking a ride is never easy but on the other hand it had been a downright sadistic way to start a bike ride with no fitness.

The snowy summit of the first 4300m pass!

The snowy summit of the first 4300m pass!

The following day we left the G318 to take a detour to the tiny Tibetan town of Tagong and as the kilometres clicked by the landscape and people changed so dramatically it felt as though China was a forgotten dream.

Han Chinese make up about 1 billion of the world’s population but here in the Garze Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture, they’re a minority.

Instead a variety of ethnic groups including Tibetan, Yi and Qiang are the familiar faces among a landscape of soaring barren mountains, square rustic houses and colourful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

The square yet striking Tibetan houses that lined the road

The square yet striking Tibetan houses that lined the road

We’d spent a year saying “nihao” (hello) but all of a sudden it was “tashi dele” being shouted from the red-cheeked tots peering out from their stone huts.

The road to Tagong gently climbed up a colourful valley but altitude sickness was taking its toll which meant simply breathing was a battle. I was in a world of pain by time the first flickers of the golden temple caught my eye and when we’d finally reached the town’s square I was a useless lump of misery while Scott and the Polish ran around trying to secure a warm, clean hostel without having their pants pulled down over the price.

The stunning backdrop to Tibetan town Tagong

The stunning backdrop to Tibetan town Tagong

Most of the homes had shut for the winter baring that of a Czech expat who ran the well known Khampa Cafe and it was a fact he knew well. With an arrogant swagger he refused to budge on the price of his basic and crap dorms and then walked off to finish drinking and basking in his own glory (I assume). We began a frantic run around town to find any alternative (none of us wanted to be left with this douche and his crappy cafe) and in the end Kasia stumbled across a Tibetan home run by a gorgeous family who charged the same price for a considerably more upscale room. The hot shower that followed easily made my top 10 of all time and by morning my altitude sickness had subsided and my hunger was back with gusto.

A day off in Tagong did us wonders and although we managed to cram an embarrassing amount of potato momos (potato steamed buns) in our bellies before leaving after three tough days on the road our bellies were already shrinking. The high altitude wind had burned our lips to a crisp and we were beginning to look wild.

Ahead of us lay another five passes and the barren Tibetan Plateau before the famous Tibetan town of Litang and the challenge frightened us.

The year on the couch had taken its toll more than we’d ever realised and our biggest fear was that we’d again have to give in before the end.

The slowly winding road up to the Tibetan Plateau

The slowly winding road up to the Tibetan Plateau

After a quick cycle back to the G318 we began the slow climb up the second pass. It was gentle with a nice tunnel at the top to chip off the summit and by mid afternoon we were flying down the other side. We ducked into a cheap trucker’s hostel which had basic dorms for 30 yuan each and suffered another restless night at altitude.

The next morning was show time. Ahead of us (just 30km down the road) lay a pass equally as brutal as the one that broke us on day two but there was nothing we could do but jump in granny gear and give it a crack. We planned to conquer the first 18km of it after lunch and by 4.30pm we’d done just that. It had been slow, painful and monotonous with just endless pine forests for eye candy but suddenly our lungs were no longer set to burst and the routine of cycling had stuck. We were back!

The G318 is a mecca for Chinese cyclists making the long, slow pilgrimage to Lhasa each year and as a result an impressive hospitality infrastructure has erupted along the highway. That night we landed a bed in an enormous and striking Tibetan home that tapped into the cyclist accommodation market and it was all the richer for it. Our smiling host rushed to carry our panniers inside, told us where we could drink tea by a warm fire and made us feel instantly a part of the family. Considering how many tourists hammer the home each year it was frankly a miracle she still had a smile on her face but then again it was winter, and we were among a few of the nutters who would tackle this route until May.

Looking back on the gentle switchbacks leading up to the third pass

Looking back on the gentle switchbacks leading up to the third pass

By lunch time the next day it was clear we’d suffered the worst of the pass. Gentle switchbacks (18 to be precise) took us to the tunnel but unlike the previous passes we’d descend just a little before being spat out on the Tibetan Plateau.

A friend had warned us of the winds and suggested we find an abandoned hut to sleep in that night and so 17km from the tunnel we pounced on a cluster of old Tibetan shepherd huts and immediately made one our own.

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Our abandoned shepherd’s hut for the night

That night we watched a handful of colourfully dressed Tibetan women shepherding herds of yaks down the mountain while sounding like Austrian yodellers. They stopped briefly to offer a hearty “tashi dele” and a place to sleep and drink tea in their own homes before moving on.

A Tibetan shepherd takes her herd down the road from the mountains

A Tibetan shepherd takes her herd down the road from the mountains

Just 75km lay between us and Litang but with sleep hard to come by at almost 4200m and three passes left on the windy plateau we reluctantly realised it was a two day job. We were all dirty, tired, smelly and in desperate need of a warm bed and a hot shower but it would have to wait.

A late start meant the wind all but blew us over and by time we’d summited the biggest pass of our entire trip (4400m – although the sign said 4700) we were struggling to stay upright.

The top of the "4700"m pass that was actually 4400m.

The top of the “4700”m pass that was actually 4400m.

Even stopping for a snack was painful as the wind howled across the mountains and by 3.30pm we’d managed a disappointing 30km. We were saddled between two mountains and there was no point in going further. A rundown trucker’s stop offered to extort 50 yuan from us for a “bed” and dinner but we instead opted to try the nearby monastery to see if we could pitch our tents inside.

The stunning but barren plateau

The stunning but barren plateau

In the end some kind buddhist nuns offered up a basic, open room and from there we watched them get on with what is one bloody tough life in one bloody tough corner of the world.

With just a pair of rubber gloves a nun was washing orange robes in the icy river (the following morning it was frozen solid) while others prepared for the evening prayers in near sub zero conditions.

A hardy Buddhist nun washes her robes in the icy river

A hardy Buddhist nun washes her robes in the icy river

Altitude sickness is a funny thing and it strikes indiscriminately. I’d hardly slept properly since Kangding and while we’d been cycling and sleeping at about 4000m for the past few of nights my acclimatisation hadn’t improved.

By early evening it felt as though giant hands were squeezing my head and just a couple of hours after that my nose again began to bleed. I slept fitfully and woke up to a thumping headache and nausea and while food was exactly what I needed to get me the remaining 48km to Litang, the idea of eating made me want to hurl.

Camped inside the monastery with our fabulous new free-standing Nemo tent!

Camped inside the monastery with our fabulous new free-standing Nemo tent!

We’d woken up early to beat the wind but I was moving at snail pace. To make matters worse it was -7 inside the room and everything was frozen.

By 9am we were on the road and climbing. I felt exhausted, shattered and beaten but somehow we got up and over and after some cheap Chinese lollies we were gearing up for the second pass. By midday just 19km lay between us and a warm shower and all of a sudden the light was at the end of the tunnel.

It was by far the easiest pass but we were all knackered and so at the pace of arthritic sloths we hauled ourselves up and over until Litang was spread out in all its dusty glory.

Wonderful, rustic and barren Litang!

Wonderful, rustic and barren Litang!

It might as well have been New York City for all the comfort and food it promised and we hurtled down to the main street in search of a cheap hostel.

Litang’s one of the highest towns in this part of the world but it’s also one of the most barren. The thriving Tibetan culture alone gives it colour and life and it remains one of the most important developments outside of Tibet proper for Buddhists. It’s birthed more than a few Dalai Llamas and remains one of the few places in the world where sky burials take place (a burial tradition where the bodies are hacked up and offered to the birds and other scavengers as a way of completing the circle of life).

The striking former home of the seventh Dalai Llama

The striking former home of the seventh Dalai Llama

Tibetans take immense pride in their culture and as we wheeled our way to a hostel everyone from babies to octogenarians were dressed to the nines in colourful dresses and hats while dangling elaborate prayer beads.

Aside from being excellent company, travelling with the Polish was proving to have distinct advantages. The pair could sniff out bargains and haggle like pros better than anyone I’d ever seen and soon we had a nice, clean double room with an ensuite each for about $14 AUD. It was more than we’d normally spend but a bit of luxury after a tough haul on the wild plateau was exactly what we needed. I was also set to turn 31 (my third birthday away from home) and figured it was as good of an excuse as any to treat myself.

On our final day in Litang we visited the house of a former Dalai Llama, walked to the site of the Sky Burials where packs of vultures picked clean the bones of the dead and watched families flock to the temple for lunch time prayers. We were the only tourists in site and for the first time in a long time it felt as though we were in the rare, privileged position to glimpse life as it is for remote Tibetans.

It was the kind of day that makes you grateful for every mountain you climbed to get there and I felt a lust for life that even limited oxygen couldn’t dampen. Bring on the next leg – Litang to Shangri-La!

3 Responses to “Mountains and migraines – riding the winter road to Tibet”

  1. Thanks so much!!

  2. Hi Sarah & Scott Thanks for the blog .Cheers Bruce

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  1. Long Rode Home – Women Cycle The World - December 13, 2016

    […] latest blog posts delve into the trials and tribulations of riding the cold road to Tibet during the heart of winter. You can get a good feel for their touring style by checking out their 10 Lessons from the Road […]

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