BIKE touring makes you a wee bit Bipolar.
About once or twice a minute my brain explodes over the conflicting emotions that comes with pedal-powered travel. On one hand, I could murder a juicy burger, or a gooey pizza (or five). I’m constantly cold, tired, and hungry and the sight of noodles is beginning to ignite serious anger issues. I want a hot bath like I want oxygen and I find myself reminiscing over every all you can eat buffet I’ve ever demolished and all the buffets I’m going to demolish in the future.
But on the other hand I’m cycling down a valley nestled between steel grey jagged peaks bursting with snowy streams and multi-hued rocks. Ahead is a golden temple brimming with red-clad monks preparing for daily prayer and next to me a toothless farmer is steering what looks like the first tractor ever made while his wife clings to sacks of grain on the back. I’m on the trip of a lifetime – hell the adventure of a lifetime – and I’m so bloody grateful to be here … even if – ahem – a “tiny” part of me wishes that golden temple would turn into two golden arches and a smiling Ronald McDonald.
In fact I now have an unhealthy obsession with food, duvets and good wi-fi that in time will probably require counselling but somehow I keep going back for more “punishment” because the world’s simply bowling me over with all its beauty.
But enough of that for now. It was thoughts of rustic beauty and faraway hamburgers that clouded my mind as Scott, Kasia, Marcin and I farewelled Litang just after lunch in a bid to strike directly for our next big challenge – Rabbit Pass. This behemoth of a mountain sounds cute and fluffy but if names befit a place someone should have christened it Turd Peak. It rises brutally out of the plateau to a whopping 4690m with the road running unforgivingly up a windswept valley before sharp switchbacks.
To make matters worse a friend – who had already come this way – warned us just how turd-like this mountain was and worse still, said it may not be possible to conquer in a day thanks to those bloody headwinds.
I felt tired already and while my legs had firmed up, some Chengdu flubber had dropped off and my mind was bending back to the ways of bike touring it didn’t stop the fear of failure.
By 5pm we’d nevertheless made it the 50km to the base of Turd Peak and quickly pitched our tents behind some wiry bushes to escape the howling wind.
It was the first time we’d pitched our new free-standing Nemo tent outside and while it looked a little like a flying green saucer it stood up to the gail with ease.
By 10.15 the following morning we were finally on the road and by 10.30am we were puffing, panting and dreaming of lasagne and a warm spot by the fire.
The valley was cloaked in shadow but even still it was too hot to wear much more than a thermal and a fleece while desperately trying to pedal up the steep gradient.
Lunch time brought the wind with it and we hid next to the wall of a hut while chowing down peanut butter on dry, stale bread with an egg. From there the switchbacks stretched out across the face of the mountain like a cartoon picture of an angry mouth while the icy valley opened up in all its glory. It looked like a slice of Alaska on the cusp of winter with barren pines, icy ravines and jagged peaks dominating the landscape.
Like all good mountains, the top’s the worst part and as I puffed and panted my way up the final switchback it felt as though I was moments from breaking point. I felt close to tears as the telltale prayer flags that signal a summit fluttered madly ahead and moments after reaching the top I threw myself on the ground much to the alarm of a nearby truck driver.
Turd Peak had nearly beaten me but it was only 3.30pm and we’d smashed it out in a few hours!
A pitiful descent of only 300 metres was the reward for the climb and at the “bottom” a small windy valley offered the only respite before the road rose again.
Smack, bang in the middle sat a grubby string of grey workers huts with a high stone wall around them but judging by our enthusiasm they may as well have marked the Hilton. A slightly stunned and weather-worn man agreed to let us pitch inside the wall and after watching us turn around in circles like dogs looking for a place to lie down he told us we could have one of the workers huts.
It was a concrete slab that could house grain as easily as humans but we were stoked. In fact all was was well in the land of cycle tourers until we asked for the loo.
We’ve stumbled across some crap loos in our travels but these managed to make the top 10.
Four slits in the ground represented the communal outhouse but either the engineers hadn’t factored in how long the workers would live here, or they’d woefully underestimated how much crap a few dudes could produce because the holes were clearly too shallow and the poo was rising out of each in a vomit-inducing mound. I wasn’t entirely confident I could squat without touching a year’s worth of turd so instead I marched out of our little compound and faced the road – I’d rather moon a thousand trucks than deal with that cesspool.
The following morning ice glazed the gravel as we poured hot water over oats and faced the climb ahead. I’d just brewed two coffees and was settling my arse onto the tarp when I heard a thunk and looked down to see the freshly poured cuppa sprawled across the ground.
The ensuing tantrum would have put a teething toddler to shame as I threw out every obscenity I could muster. Our Polish friends looked nothing short of alarmed as Scott attempted to explain my outburst with a nervous “don’t get between Sarah and coffee in the morning” but it wasn’t until the dregs had turned to ice that I finally calmed down. Sometimes it’s just all too much but little did I know that was in fact the last of our coffee stash (we’d somehow lost two bags) which meant two or more weeks would lay between me and my next coffee.
Any residual steam was burned out during the morning’s climb and by lunch time we’d conquered a windy, rollercoaster stretch of road that peaked at 4658m. I’d already had a few “wow” moments that made the cold, mountains and coffee crisis worth it but the afternoon’s ride down a jaw-dropping canyon stumped them all.
Craggy, grey cliffs laced with snowy streams glistening in the forest as we raced down the mountain in complete awe of the landscape.
Huts belching smoke from yak-shit stoves leaked out from the pine groves while golden prayer wheels and multi-hued temples filled the clearings.
I was in a state of ecstasy (helped by the downhill run) until we hit the first of a series of villages. Cheap imitations of Tibetan houses smashed together in what was clearly a tourist gimmick made up what I can only describe as a fake, toy town. Fat cat Han Chinese in 4x4s strolled down the street blasting tractors out of the way while signs of eastern China lay in the gleaming hotels and gas stations.
You really had to hand it to the Communist Party – they hate Tibetan culture and religion with a fervour that’s seen images of the Dalai Llama outlawed yet they’d never let the chance to make a few bucks get in the way of their agenda.
Instead they’re cashing in on the Tibetan tourist trail with garish knock offs aimed at gullible travellers.
By mid-afternoon we’d hit Daocheng and soon after that we found one of the few hostels opened and snagged a room with electric blankets and hot showers. It’s the small things that make you happy and after a hot wash I was a new woman. It was a good thing too – the following day we’d again be forced to climb a veritable Everest before descending into a village named Shangri-La. The Chinese will do anything to snag the tourists and it seems they were so enamoured by James Hilton’s famous Lost Horizons novel and its description of the fabled paradise of Shangri-La (that or the hotel chain) that they named not one but two towns after it.
In a bid to make this tantalising town by sunset we set off at 9am with the temperature straddling a balmy -8 degrees celsius and began the slow climb to a 4500m pass.
By 1.30pm we’d done it.
The wind howled across the summit and we began the usual dance of throwing on down jackets, gloves, Goretex coats and hoods to make the freezing descent. It should have been 50km of blissful downhill but a raging headwind at times brought us to a standstill as we struggled to pedal down the slope.
Then a slice of heaven opened up.
We’d just escaped the wind and rolled onto a slight rise when an enormous temple burst out of the mountains just 12km from Shangri-La town. Red-robed monks walked among the golden prayer wheels and into the temple’s mural-covered courtyard.
I’m not an architect and I have little interest in religion outside of cultural appreciation but here was something truly special. We threw the bikes against a wall and followed the sounds of chants that led us to a temple. A heavy cloth closed it from view but some young monks assured us we could go inside and take a peek.
If you’re lucky in life, you’ll often find yourself in the right place at the right time – this was one of those times.
Over a hundred monks sat in rows beating huge rustic drums while chanting in unison under the direction of a llama. Golden paintings lined the walls giving the show a mystic glow while the monks stopped only briefly to sip tea. We tried desperately to merge with the shadows of the temple but of course a few windswept foreigners in a sea of red-clothed monks tends to raise some eyebrows and soon we were under their gaze as they attempted to keep in tune with the drumming while gawking at the wind-burnt cyclists.
Photos are forbidden inside temples and my finger itched at the chance to immortalise the moment but this was too precious and too beautiful to disrespect.
The monks were still chanting well after we bowed ourselves out and soon we were back on the road, racing down hill to China’s very own “hidden paradise”.
The writing should have been on the wall really. Anywhere that needs a fictional name to jazz it up is clearly compensating for something. Add that to the evidence of China’s tasteless greed for the tourism dollar and you’ve got Shangri-La town – quite possible the blocked up drop loo of the universe.
Perched in a valley, it’s a confusing mix of rural and city in the worst possible way. Giant cranes are hastily putting up new buildings while cheaply made “Tibetan style” hotels war for business next to loveless souvenir shops and noodle cafes that seem united in their goal – extortion.
It’s the kind of place that doesn’t exist for any other purpose than to leech off passersby and there seemed to be very real evidence of locals just getting on with life. Instead a handful of touts waited eagerly on the corner as we rolled up in a desperate bid for us to empty our coffers.
Shangri-La – why wait for death?
Yet this turd of a town was set to be our home for a couple of days as we took a much needed rest and the eternally energetic Polish set off to hike a famous national park.
We’d been tempted to join them but the fees to get into the park alone were huge and we just weren’t equipped for a two day hiking adventure (it was a combination of me having just clip-in cycling shoes for footwear, added to the fact that we were shagged from the past few days).
We instead took the opportunity to consolidate our plans and look ahead. Huge mountains lay on either side of the world’s worst town which meant a back-breaking climb to get out no matter which way we looked. In one direction lay the gorgeous Lugu Lake and while a pass requiring 2000m of vertical climbing separated us from its shores it seemed a good spot to reach for Christmas. From there we would again tackle a hilly road to Lijiang before heading east for Dali and eventually Kunming. We’d saved our last bit of curry paste and coconut milk powder for a Christmas dinner treat and as for new years – well it probably wouldn’t get wilder than devouring a pack of Oreos. Our fantasies of multi-stacked hamburgers and loaded pizzas would simply have to go unfulfilled …for now.