Day 4: Dege to Horpo
Stats: 86km / 4 hours / 20.9km/h
After our nice rest day in Dege we continue on our northern loop journey (part 1 here) – from here on, the adventure would really start.
The first day from Dege, heading towards Hepo, would be easy, we knew it was paved and we would be following the famous Yangtze River (again!) downstream so no big surprise hills to climb. Most excitingly we would spend most of the day being a stones throw away from Tibet who’s borders start on the other side of the river.
All major roads and bridges to Tibet are still heavily guarded with checkpoints. Chinese tourists are able to travel freely in the region – after all, it is technically part of China 😦 – but foreign travellers require a permit and to be accompanied by a registered guide 24/7.
We very much hoped we’d find a way to sneak across along the way though, it would be nice to symbolically set foot in the region, even if it was just for 5 minutes.
So we head off and it’s a nice cycle with a lovely paved road. We pass a monastery on a hill and down below next to the river are these big tents.
A very strong tailwind helps us along and we make good headway and finally we see a footbridge adorned with prayer flags stretching over the river towards a thin track leading away from the shoreline. No checkpoint and no Chinese security in sight!
These angelic twins peaked theirs heads out of a window to watch us cross.
After the excitement of reaching Tibet we stop for our standard noodle and veg lunch and a yak fight breaks out in front of us. It’s not as ferocious as we hope, ending after only a few minor head bumps.
75km on, the paved road finishes and the last 8km to Hepo is on dirt road – it’s a very neat, compact dirt road though, obviously very nearly ready to be paved. We expect it to be complete this summer…
As we approach Hepo it really starts to rain heavily but we manage to find a small restaurant and shop where we stop for a nice bowl of noodles.
During a restbite in the showers we set up camp on a public grassy park like section just outside the town. We get an early night due to the rain.
Day 5: The end of the road…
Stats: 60km / 5:12 hours / 11.4km/h
We wake to a glorious morning and set off up the same dirt road through a gorgeous valley. Today we hope to get to a village called Dalang Duo which is where the road ends on our OSM map.
Wild flowers of every colour line the banks and up the valley we can see trees covered in blossom, their branches almost sagging under the weight of white, pink and yellow flowers.
Shaggy horses and long haired yaks keep us company as we wind our way up. We’re getting more and more remote as we climb and the white plastered chortens we have got accustomed to seeing turn into simpler stone and compact earth structures.
We fill up our water bottles from mountain streams and stop for lunch in a great gorge.
The road narrows and gets bumpier… We climb up the final valley but some of the road is too uneven and steep to cycle so we have to get off and push the tandem instead.
On one such climb the bike slips and Paddy ends up face down in the road. He’s covered in red dust but otherwise unhurt and we push the bike up the hill.
We reach the village called Dalang Duo which is the final marked point on our OSM map. Here the road stops completely and there is only a small path onwards to the next village.
We would be making some educated guesses on how to reach the valley on the other side of the 4700m high mountain from here on…
A bunch of men were laying a cement road just outside the village and so we ask them how we get over the mountain pass to Ganzi from here.
Many of them look disbelievingly at our bike then back at us and shake their heads. They point back down the dirt road we’ve just come up.
We try to explain that we are aware that there is a way through, and that we wanted to get up over the mountain and down towards where we knew there was a connecting road down to Rongpasta and back to Ganzi.
In the end a friendly monk pointed to a valley which we could see cut its way up above the village and, through limited sign language and marking points on our map, he explained that it was a steep, narrow track up to the top which then descended into a valley and connected to the road we needed.
It was clear from his facial expressions that it would be a difficult ride and Paddy and I came to terms with the fact that we would likely be pushing the bike a fair amount of the way.
We find a great riverbank spot to pitch the tent and as its early and we have plenty of fresh water to hand, we boil enough up for us to wash the majority of the dust away.
As we’re getting the tent up, a cheerful group pass by on 3 motorbikes. They have just headed down the pass we’re hoping to climb the next day. This cheers us up a lot – if they can get through so can we.
They borrow our bike pump as one of them has a flat tyre and the women casually examine all our camping gear. They also show us the caterpillar cocoons they’ve collected – an absolute delicacy in this part of China!
We fall asleep feeling apprehensive about the next day and wondering if we’ll make it over… Im not feeling the best either and I just hope I haven’t caught anything really terrible.
Day 6: The new winter sport of ‘cycle pushing’
Stats: 23.4km / 5 hours / 4.7km/h
It’s a drizzly morning and I wake up feeling very coldy but we manage to get going early… we both knew it was wise to give ourselves as long as possible to find our way up and over the pass.
We climb on the bike and start to peddle up the slippery stony track. It is very steep and it soon becomes clear that we will have to push… We manage to cycle about 100m and then have to get off to push the next 100…
This basically sums up our morning… We creep up the valley zigzagging our way around a roaring stream, half pushing and half desperately pedalling.
We’re 5km in when we meet a yak herder who signals that there is snow at the top of the pass. We can’t turn back though, we just can’t, not after coming all this way…
We keep going and some helpful switchbacks able us to cycle about a kilometre before we have to get off and push again.
The valley opens out to a boggy plain, it starts to hail quite heavily.
We stop to cook up a quick lunch and as we’re reviving slightly over a steaming mug of coffee we see the motorcyclist who had passed us earlier coming back from the top.
He stops and signals that there is knee deep snow, that he can’t get through and he’s turning back to try the way round via Dege instead.
Paddy and I look at each other.
‘It doesn’t sound too good, does it?’ I say to P.
‘No, but he can’t push his motorbike through snow, we can push our bike.’
I agreed, I also couldn’t face turning back, not without trying, not after pushing the tandem all this way…
We both felt better having eaten a lot and as we pack up, the hail stops and the sun breaks through. We take this as an encouraging sign that we should keep going.
After another two hours of ‘cycle pushing’ we reach the summit and yes, there was snow. It must have fallen the previous night.
By this point, an added challenge in the form of our footwear had developed. My shoes and socks were soaked because I had slipped while pushing the bike through a river. Paddy was in a sorrier state… One of his shoes had decided that now would be a good time to disintegrate and he was having to reinforce his foot with duck-tape every half an hour….
It was hard to see how much snow there was on the actual path so we pushed our way up and reached our first drift.
We had got through this first hurdle without too much hassle.
We turned the corner and saw the path disappeared under two foot of fresh snow. About 400m away across this smooth white carpet we could see the path snaking its way up and over the pass.
It was 4pm. We had to do this, we just had to! If we got through this we’d be over and then we would have gravity on our side.
Our only option was to leave the bags, take the bike across and then come back for the gear. To add insult to injury, as we unloaded the bike, our beloved stand broke.
With Paddy at the front and me at the back, we half dragged, half carried the tandem through the snow which, at the deepest points, came to half way up my thigh. It held up well and we rested it on the bank while we went back for the bags.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of Paddy on top of that mountain -trudging through the knee deep snow in his his red goretex jacket, cycling shorts, bare legs and duck taped shoes, our huge yellow ortlieb rack bag slung over his back…
If the situation hadn’t been so crazy I might have found the whole thing funny!
Anyway, we got the bike, the bags and ourselves across safely. Here is a quick snap I took of the top (photos weren’t high on the list of priorities at the time). You can just make out the faint black trail going across the right of the snow drift… That was where we pushed our way through.
So we were at the top but there was another similar snow drift on the other side of the mountain. We were no longer pushing up however, and as a new snow blizzard started (no exaggeration!) we managed to drag the loaded bike through two more drifts.
It was 6pm and we had done the hard part. The ‘road’ on this side of the mountain was little more than a narrow path through a boggy, muddy field. We needed to lose height fast though. Thankfully the blizzard had passed but we were betting that it would snow heavily again that night.
As we squelched our way down the valley we spotted a collection of buildings in the distance. Smoke was curling its way up from a small chimney!
The hut was owned by a lovely man who lived there with his young grandson (we think) and their herd of yaks. They were incredibly kind to us and we spent the evening sitting by their fire as they fed us steaming noodles cooked in chilli and rich yak ghee – the closest thing to cheese we have eaten in the last 4 months.
Over bowls of steaming yak milk tea, we showed them photos of our travels across China and made paper aeroplanes and boats in the light of their single electric lamp.
Day 7: Completing the loop
Stats: 66.2km / 3:40 hours / 17.6km/h
I woke up full of head cold and feeling pretty rotten but we knew it was pretty much downhill from here…
It had snowed a lot the night before and outside we found our very own 6.30am Tibetan winter wonderland.
Here is the mountain we passed over the evening before – now completely covered in snow! In the foreground you can just make out our host collecting the yak dung which is dried and used as fuel for the fire.
And here was the path we would need to follow…
After a breakfast of traditional tsamba (a kind of flour mixed with sugar, ghee and yak milk which is mixed with the fingers in a bowl until you get a brown dough)
I swallowed down two paracetamol and we donned our plastic bags, wet shoes and Shimano shoe covers. At the gate we said our appreciative farewells to our lovely hosts.
The grandfather insisted on wearing his hat and made his grandson run back to the house to fetch it before the photo was taken.
The snow had melted fast and there was barely a path across the wet land. We pushed our way through two rivers until we opened out into the next valley – here there was a good road which we turned right onto. It was downhill from here, we should get back to Ganzi that evening!
We were back on glorious dirt road with another impressive scenic backdrop.
Yaks – our constant companions throughout this 6 day ride!
Woman we met by a small temple built around a big holy rock…
She wouldn’t let me take a photo of her face which was amazingly wrinkled. In the bag is a large black dead bird.
I spent the day feeling very feverish. Paddy cooked lunch while I fell asleep in my helinox!
We eventually got back to the paved road, and, dog tired we finished the 35km (most of it downhill) back to Ganzi.
Shower, yak pie, and bed with a promise of a long lie in the next day I think…