WHEN it comes to China and roads you never know what you’re going to get. Cities pop up over night, super highways are being carved across the landscape at an alarming rate and if your map’s older than six months chances are it’s as useful as boobs on a bull.
We’d been faffing about China’s worst town for just a couple of days when it occurred to us that the only way out towards our next destination – Lugu Lake – was on a road we weren’t entirely sure existed with one Chinese map hinting it was under construction and Google Maps denying it was there at all. Without some serious back tracking over brutal mountain passes there seemed little other option to make it to Lugu for Christmas and so we decided to throw our luck in with the Polish and throw certainty to the wind figuring 250km of bad road couldn’t be, well that bad right?
Within minutes of leaving icy Shangri-La the asphalt died to leave the ghost of a rocky, narrow, dirt track that carried on around a cliff face.
Memories of the Pamir Mountains came flooding back as we bounced over rocks and gravel, racing feral pigs through rustic villages. Below us a roaring brown river snaked along the valley floor while craggy mountains rose around us.
By mid-afternoon the sandy track spat us out near a tiny hamlet and moments after that it came to a dramatic stop. A bridge to nowhere sat on our left (ending in a cliff) and in front of us sat a construction pit.
Some nearby road workers pointed us across the bridge but I was baffled. Where the hell did the road go? I squinted hard and suddenly there it was – a tiny line carved along a cliff above a raging river.
It wasn’t a road – in fact it wasn’t even a path – it was a tiny, narrow, goat track no wider than a metre in parts that looked scarcely fit enough for donkeys let alone bicycles.
We’d ridden some horrific, washboard surfaces in Central Asia but this giant piece of rubble masquerading as a path took the cake.
For two hours we bounced wildly along the track, over sharp, enormous rocks, next to a sheer cliff that dropped a few hundred feet and up ascents so rocky and steep even pushing our big bottomed beasts was a struggle.
By 5pm the track widened slightly and just half an hour later a cluster of rundown shacks marked a cross in the roads.
We found a slab of concrete to pitched our tents for the night and after a big pot of hot noodles the reality of our situation struck – we’d conquered just 30km that day and if the road stayed true to its current form we’d likely reach Lugu sometime in 2018.
The road rose rapidly up the next day and we became conscious of the fact that our poor Polish friends were frequently waiting for us (they had their morning ritual down to a fine art which meant we were often tripping over ourselves like two Mr Beans in a bid to get the tent down, stove packed away and bags on the bike while they sat waiting).
I pushed hard, giving the road everything I had but for Scott it was almost too much. His bike was roughly the weight of a young killer whale and his relaxing year off it was taking its toll. He felt defeated before he’d even begun and slowly slipped further and further behind. Every rock was a mountain, every sharp gradient an Everest and knowing that we faced over 40km of uphill on these roads was bringing all of us close to breaking point.
By 5.30pm we’d again managed just 30km and a whopping 1400m of vertical climbing over six long hours in the saddle.
An empty hiker’s hut sat on a corner offering a rare spot to pitch the tents and by bed time we were seriously contemplating the road ahead. In about 50km it looked as though the road would meet a bigger one and with it the chance to hitchhike to Lugu – afterall Christmas was just three days away and 200km and two giant mountain passes stood in between.
The tent was coated in ice the following morning and our limbs felt weak and sluggish. The Polish were again waiting for us to pack up and set off but this time they were irritable. They’d decided to give the 200km left to Lugu a good hard crack (and still be there in time for Christmas) and every minute was counting.
We set off at our respective paces and their obvious annoyance made just one thing clear – we had to part ways. Scott wasn’t coping with the pressure and all four us needed to be free to go the pace we wanted to go – the road and conditions were tough enough without extra stresses. We hadn’t realised they wanted to attempt the 200km before Christmas and felt bad that we’d held them up.
By mid-morning we found them sitting on a rock, sipping tea and waiting to tell us they’d had the exact same thought. It was time to split up and while we’d all enjoyed our time together they were annoyed at having to wait 40 minutes for us to pack up that morning and felt we could have been faster. They were right – we were still getting used to packing up our kit and taking down the tent and tended to faff about. Neither party was in the wrong we just had different agendas and the truth of the matter was we were all tired and close to cracking.
I felt a little sad as we pedalled off up the mountain – we’d learned a lot from them and were genuinely grateful for the time we had together. They were strong, motivated, caring and determined people and I was in awe of what they’d managed to accomplish.
By early afternoon just a few kilometres lay between us and the top but the conditions were worsening with huge chunks of the dirt road completely coated in a thick layer of slippery ice. Being Australian, my experience with frozen water is limited so when I came across a ten metre stretch of the stuff I figured I could simply pedal across.
I made it just a metre or two before my bike flew out from underneath me and I crashed down hard on my elbow and back.
It was all too much and I burst into tears – partly out of frustration, partly out of pain and partly because this road had just been such a bloody hard slog and I was tired.
In the end I’d done little more damage than bruising and Scott tip toed carefully across the ice to help me get Hercules to the other side. Even walking on the slippery and thick ice was a nightmare (especially in cycling shoes with cleats) and when Scott walked back across to get his own bike his legs flew out from underneath him at the speed of lightening and he landed hard on his arse.
Feeling much worse for wear we got back on our bikes (Scott rather gingerly) and headed for the top. After two and a half brutal days and over 2200m of climbing a 40km downhill was to be our reward but we’d clearly pissed off the gods of cycling because somehow our dirt track had gotten worse. The conditions were so bloody awful it was tough to hurtle down faster than 10km per hour at times as my bruised and battered body was shaken to breaking point over the sharp rocks. We were holding out desperately for what looked like a bigger road that joined with our own and by late afternoon it appeared. I’d been hoping for asphalt but what we got was – if possible – worse. The rocks remained but the loose gravel had been swapped for sand and our pace was reduced to a crawl. By 6.15pm we were just 10km from the bottom but a trucker’s stop had appeared out of the gloom and we threw in the towel and crawled into a filthy room wondering how far the Polish made it.
The next morning our questions were answered in a series of text messages that made us swear loudly. They were in Lugu Lake.
It turned out they’d been scarcely half an hour ahead of us but had pushed on to the bottom, reaching it just after 7.30pm where they’d stopped at a cafe/ truckers stop. It was there that some Chinese guys approached them, asked where they were headed and after deducing that they were all going to Lugu Lake, offered them a free lift. They warned us just how brutal the road was and suggested we try as hard as we could to get a lift too.
We were jealous but ultimately happy for them. We pedalled down the rest of the world’s worst road until we reached a sad and shabby village and immediately stuck out or thumbs.
After watching our pathetic hitchhiking attempts a dodgy tout offered us his 4×4 services for a whopping 1000 yuan. We told him to bugger off but after the morning turned into the afternoon it started to look less unreasonable. We decided to haggle and in the end we agreed on 500 yuan. It was about $100 AUD for 140km which was essentially five days of our precious cycling budget but we paid it and bundled our bikes into the car trying to console ourselves with the fact that it was a pricey Christmas present to each other.
The road rose terrifyingly up into the mountains along a narrow road that would have broken us and it took our glossy four wheel drive seven hours to make the 140km ride. By 7pm that night we finally reached the tiny lake town of Lige and the cosy hostel that the Polish had found. It was the perfect spot for a lazy, quiet Christmas.
Boxing Day swung round and with more effort than usual we pulled ourselves out of bed to tackle the road to Lijiang. Our friends were keen to pedal the opposite way around the lake, tacking 30km onto the journey and just after midday we farewelled them with the promise of meeting up somewhere on the 220km route.
By 6pm we’d managed 80km to reach the slightly grubby town of Ningling. Already the landscape had changed dramatically. The barren, windswept plains of the icy plateau had given way to richer, warmer farmlands while the beaming red-faced Tibetans had been replaced by colourful Nashi tribes with simply enormous hats. I was craving warmer weather almost as much as I was craving a burger and a couch but a big part of me already missed the raw beauty of the autonomous Tibetan region we’d abruptly farewelled.
It wasn’t until 10.30am the following morning that we pedalled up and out of Ninglang, climbing slowly to yet another pass. At the top the grey clouds opened to snow and we bundled up for the freezing descent. Halfway down the snow turned to rain and by 3.30pm we were at the bottom. Just 50km and one more pass lay between us and Lijiang and we decided to keep going.
I’d like to say it was the challenge alone that sparked us to keep turning the pedals but truth be told I’d been fantasy eating pizzas for days and I had it on good authority Lijiang could deliver. We’d made it just 10km up the climb when we hit a long traffic jam up the mountain and moments later we found a young and sweet electrician sitting idly in his van. He spoke a little English and after a brief chat he offered us a lift to Lijiang. The weather was still foul and another 10km of climbing lay between us and the top (not to mention, you know, pizza) so without so much as a hesitation we said yes. By 8pm we were in the ancient town Lijiang and by 9pm we were tucking into a hot, gooey pizza.
With the clock ticking rapidly towards our Chinese exit we beelined to the train station the following day in a bid to strike for the spring city of Kunming before hitting our final week of cycling in the Middle Kingdom. It was hard to believe we’d reach Vietnam – our 20th country – in a matter of days and while China had driven me close to the point of insanity I knew I’d miss it.
The following morning we bundled onto the ratty sleeper train and seven hours later we were spat out in sunny Kunming. We rapidly peeled off our down jackets and Goretex and basked in the warmth while grinning at the fact that we’d survived the harsh mountainous winter. We settled into a lively hostel and met up with world unicyclist Ed Pratt (a completely awesome yet mad 20-year-old Brit pedalling aorund the globe on a loaded uni-cycle) and enjoyed a quiet new years with Ed, a backpacking Irishman, some cheap wine, cheese and crackers.
It was incredible to think of where our bikes had taken us over the past few weeks and while it had tested us beyond measure the pain had faded enough to appreciate the route we’d taken. It had been stunning, wild, rugged and challenging and the memories would stay with us long after. Wednesday would be the day we’d pick up our new Vietnamese visas and from there we planned to head to southern Yunnan’s famous Yiangyang rice terraces before pedalling to the border. We had just four days of cycling left in China before glorious warm South East Asia began and it felt like the perfect way to welcome 2017. Bring it on!