Litang to Ganzi: Great scenery, great camping and great company

We gave ourselves 4 days to cover the 260km from Litang to Ganzi. We would be cycling with Romain and Emelie who were not feeling 100% having caught a cold a few days before, and the four of us had unreliable info about the state of the road. 

It turns out we managed it in three days. Romain and Emelie are troupers and we liked camping next to them (in our identical tents!) and enjoyed their company very much. They have been travelling for over a year on their bicycles and were good at getting us up in the morning! 

The good thing about travelling with other tourers is that you pick up other ways of doing things. Emelie and Romain taught us many things, the best being boiling our eggs before leaving for a few days cycle… The easiest way to do this is in your hotel room kettle…


Here is an overview of our ride together.

Day 1: 101.3km

Road:
excellent for around 80km where we then hit major road works and had to follow a bumpy, dusty road for the final 20km… there is a long tunnel (3km) just outside Litang which helps a lot.

Because we’re on a tandem we have more momentum than a single bike so we tended to lose Emelie and Romain on the down and flat sections of the ride. We passed some beautiful scenery on the way including the most amazing valley, peppered with yurts and mountain top stupas.



At the top of the climb we are invited into one of the tents for tea. As we come back out to get back on the bike we see E&R coming up the hill. Perfect timing as its nearly lunch time!

We all enjoy the long down hill section and it’s incredible how warm it is at the bottom of the valley. 

There is some pretty crazy bits of the road which are just collapsing into the to river though.
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Mobbed by interested children when we stop to fill up our water bottles!
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Later in the day we find the perfect camping spot near the river but have to cross this rather precarious bridge to get there.

Day 2: 90.14km

Road: very nice. Take the tunnels where possible.

We wake up early to another clear, beautiful morning.

We follow the river and pass some big Tibetan temples and monasteries.


What a place to live huh?!

After lunch we have to navigate all three bikes through some serious inner-town road works…

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We agree we will stop and find a camping spot at 4.30pm. The weather threatens rain and sure enough by 5pm there is a big thunder storm. Luckily we find an abandoned shack which is big enough for both our tents so we shelter here for the night.

Day 3: 77.2km

Road: very up and down but road surface is generally good.

The weather luckily clears and we set off hoping to complete the final 75km to Ganzi by late afternoon.

Snow capped mountains come into view as we climb up.

We have a final lunch together before completing the final 30km to Ganzi.

We reach Ganzi and manage to find a reasonable hotel to stay in. There is a power cut half way through our hot showers though…

Romain and Emelie are still feeling pretty ill so we venture out of our dark cold hotel and find a great cafe where we gorge on Tibetan yak pie and rich butter milk tea before turning in.

Litang

One of the main reasons for us both looking forward to reaching Litang was the prospect of potentially meeting some other travellers.

However great it is to get off the tourist trail and spend the evening trying to communicate with the locals (armed with your smart phone and dictionary app), occasionally you crave a more ‘fluid conversation’.

Apart from our couple of nights with JK and a brief evening with some people during our trek in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Paddy and I had spent the last 28 days being each other’s sole connection to conversational English.We were in serious need of some fresh topics of conversation!

Litang didn’t disappoint, and we not only met other travellers but also managed to meet a number of other cycle tourers.

We met a French cyclist, Jerome as he cycled into town looking for a hostel. Jerome has been on the road for a long while having cycled all the way from France, through the Pamir, down into Pakistan and up into China.

We also met another French cycling couple, Emelie and Romain, (also been on the road a long time) while they were trying to extract cash from an ATM in town. They ended up staying in the same hostel as us.

To complete the group, JK, our South Korean friend who we had last seen on a snowy mountain 5 days before turned up at our hostel on the eve of the first day.

We didn’t do a huge amount of touristy stuff while we were in Litang. We were all recovering from our epic, week long, cycles over the mountains from Shangri-la. Instead, we spent most of our time either servicing our bikes, talking about bikes, writing blog posts about our bikes or shopping around town (usually on our bikes!)

We also enjoyed eating scrummy Tibetan dinners together and having our early morning oatmeal breakfast parties…

Paddy, JK and I got up early one morning to attend a sky burial which we had heard was taking place on the hill above town at 7.30am.

For those who haven’t heard of the sky burial (or Jhator) before, it is the final act in the Tibetan funeral ceremony. 

In an area of the world where soft ground and timber kindling is hard to come by, ordinary Tibetans are instead, honoured through Jhator.

The body arrives having already gone through a number of rituals and ceremonies. It is taken to the offering site which is home to a large pack of vultures.

I expect you have guessed what happens next.

Although this custom initially sounds very alien to us, it’s not as macabre as it sounds. When you stop to contemplate it, there is something quite philosophical, even poetical about the concept – you are (quite literally) returned to the sky.

We cycled up to the site and a couple of other travellers were also there with a local guide. 
The colony of birds were all sitting up on a nearby hill. At around 8.30am a number of cars arrived. A group of around 12 monks sat facing the hill reciting prayers while one car drove up onto the hill and a group around 45 men (there were no women present) gathered around the vehicle. Naturally we sat a respectful distance away and once the car arrived we didn’t take any more photos. 

We weren’t sure what to expect but, compared to funerals back home, it all felt quite informal and, well, matter of fact. Everyone was dressed in normal everyday clothes and apart from the monks, there didn’t seem to be any ritual to the proceedings. 

It’s a bit of a shock when suddenly the group of men stand aside and you see the group of vultures urgently flock towards a point on the ground but thankfully we were too far away to see anything ‘detailed’.

The only other point of interest in town was a quick visit to the house where the seventh Dalai Lama was born. 


Sadly JK wouldn’t be able to cycle the next stretch with us as he was heading straight to Chengdu and Jerome had headed off a day earlier than the rest of us, but Emelie and Romain would be heading north to Ganzi (where they hoped to renew their visa), so the good company would continue for the next few days at least. 

Up, Up and Away: 7 days, 440km, and 6500+m

No wifi access, a series of epic climbs, rural Tibetan villages, dirt track roads and lots of camping – here is an overview of our solid seven day cycle between Shangri-la in Yunnan to Lithang in Sichuan, China.


Day 1: Back on the road out of Shangri-la

Distance: 72km / Ride time: 4:08 / Average Speed: 17.5km/h

Today passed without too much drama. It was the first proper rainy day we had had cycling so we got rain geared up. Here is Paddy in his bright yellow shoe covers.


We passed through some nice valleys and a weird semi-abandoned village called Gezan which was mainly made up of buildings which were falling down – we wondered whether they were the remains after the earthquake which I know hit western Sichuan 4-5 years ago…

We eventually found a camping spot near a river just before the next big climb. We pitched the tent quickly and cooked up dinner in the vestibule. Twin Peaks is keeping us occupied before going to sleep!

Day 2: We meet JK and discover that there are still places in the world where the air is so clean lichen hangs like giant cobwebs from the trees

Distance: 39.4km / Ride Time: 2:58 / Average Speed: 13.2km/h

With the knowledge that tomorrow would be a very long and hard day in the saddle we planned a relatively short day today.

In fact, we didn’t get out of the tent until 10am as it was still raining… We cooked breakfast and enjoyed a lie in with coffee in our double down sleeping bag.

With the rain clearing we pack up and are about to set off when I spot another cycle tourer puffing his way towards us.

JK from South Korea had pitched his tent 10km back down the road and was heading in the same direction as us. It would be nice to have some company so we set off up the climb together.

We plough up the valley, pine forests as far as they eye can see. 

The rain clears and the three of us marvel at the amount of lichen hanging from the trees. It looks like spooky green cobwebs and we fill our lungs with the amazingly clean air.

We reach the top at around 4ish. Great views at 3900m!

Then enjoy the decent and drop back down to 3000m.

We stop for dinner and then cycle 5km up the valley until we find a basic guesthouse. We have our standard ‘shower’ round the back of the house with a bowl of hot water.

Day 3: Snow, crossing the border into Sichuan and discovering our love of tarmac 

Distance: 61.9 / Ride Time: 6:26 / Average Speed: 9.6km/h

A stunning and perfect day for cycling up the mountain!

We leave the Tarmac road behind but the dirt track really isn’t too bad and there is barely any traffic.


We pass a collection of prayer wheels all being continually spun by a small stream below each of the ‘temple huts’.


This lovely couple stop and give us fruit and sticky honey rice cake.

We say goodbye to JK after sharing lunch as he decides he will only go on a bit further and set up camp. We push on wanting to get over the second climb so we can drop down before finding a camping spot.


We had climbed for 4.5 hours – around 35 km – and reached the top which sits at 4400m. This marks the gateway into Sichuan. There is a lot of snow and it’s very cold!


The weather really starts to close in and we’re keen to get down as far as possible before setting up camp. The road on this side of the mountain is REALLY TERRIBLE! Please please give us back some tarmac!

It’s a bumpy ride and we still have another small climb before we can really lose some height and get down to under 4000m.

We’re glad to see a makeshift building in the valley and there is smoke rising from its chimney! 

The guy lets us in and we get warm by his big fire. We don’t have much in the way of food but he sells us 4 noodle pots which we add some boiled rice to. Not a great meal considering how far we’ve climbed but at least it’s something.

We pitch our tent on the gravel lay-by opposite the hut. The pigs attack our loose rice bag but otherwise we sleep pretty well. We hope JK is ok and that he’s not too cold in the snow.


Day 4: A bumpy descent

Distance: 80.5km / Ride Time: 5:05 / Average Speed: 15.8km/h

Another great day weather wise but the bumpy road continues for a long time and we have a small climb to complete before a very uncomfortable decent all the way down to below 3000m where we find ourselves in a green lush valley. 


Tarmac! Sweet sweet Tarmac! 

All the houses are built and painted in the same Tibetan style, this time with flat roof so. I think they are beautiful!


We stop in Qung Mai Xiang for lunch where we gorge on a big feed. It’s good not to be eating instant noodle soup again.

We keep climbing back up to 3000m where we stop at a small village directly above a large hydroelectric damn. This marks a good place to stop as it is directly before the start of the big climb tomorrow. We find an hotel of sorts (former digs of all the workers who obviously built the damn.) There’s a warm shower which is sublime!

We spend the evening with the family next door and the kids practise their English on us.


Day 5: The big one – 4718m!

Distance: 62.4km / Ride Time: 6:19 / Average Speed: 10.2km/h

Another stunning day – we have been so lucky with the weather!

A big big climb today so we start early.


We climb steeply for about 4.5 hours and then stop for lunch. The road remains blissfully paved.

We then continue up through a beautiful valley – Spring is really in the air.


We reach about 4400m and we both begin to feel a little light headed from the altitude. We just take it slow with plenty of stops

Considering the height it’s really quite warm. Paddy is still in his shorts and cycle top when we reach the summit.


To put this in perspective, you could easily fit Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in the UK) 3 times under us with plenty of room to spare.

So back down we go towards Sangdui where we will stop for the evening.

From far above Sangdui looks like the dullest, ugliest town we’ve ever seen but as we get closer we see that actually all the houses are incredible fortress like buildings, with beautiful turrets, gates and doorways.


They are like mini castles – I guess you need houses like this to keep out the bitter weather up here.


We find our own cosy haven and I sleep very soundly.



Day 6: New breakpads, groundhogs, glacier valleys and tooth ache

Distance: 71.1km / Ride Time: 4:08 / Average Speed: 17.1km/h

We have a late start as we needed to fit new breakpads – all those hills have been tough on the ol’ disc break!

We get going and follow the Haizishan Rock Glacier up 45km to another high point. To our right are all the spherical rocks deposited by the glacier.

The high plateau at the top boasts a huge colony of four legged, sandy coloured mammals (the size of a small badger) but we have no idea what they are? They ran too fast for me to snap them on the camera.

At the top it starts to snow!


We drop back down and cook lunch before the last climb of the day. Here is Paddy dutifully collecting water.


At the top of the last climb some Chinese ladies all in pink give us red bull and apples. We also have a celebratory swig of rice wine.


Then the long decent down – great incline through another spectacular glacial valley and at one point we reached 66km/ph (!) – through the protection of my down hood under my helmet I can hear Paddy’s intermittent, gleeful cries of ‘this is cool’ and ‘weeee’. 

Once we reached the bottom the road openes out to the most spectacular plain surrounded by mountains. 


We pitch our tent in one of these ruins and build a huge fire to stay warm.


Day 7: Final 50km to Litang

Distance: 50.1km / Ride Time: 2:50 / Average Speed: 17.6km/h

It ended up being a very cool night and we woke to find icicles on the inside of our tent.

Paddy had a bad night due to very sore cold tooth ache.

It is the most beautiful morning, and once the sun gets going we soon warm up.


The night before a teenage girl had turned up to give us some tinned food. One of the tins contained SPAM. This next picture is for you Katy Sheen.


After a champion breakfast of potatos, scrambled egg and fried spam (the first time either of us had tried this) we cycle through some spectacular countryside and complete the 50k to Lijang by 2pm.

Phew! Looking forward to a couple of rest days but it has been a great week of remote cycling!

Spinning a giant wheel and learning a Tibetan dance in Shangri-la

After our fiasco of a cycle the day before, we woke up in our cosy beds (complete with electric blankets) and took advantage of our empty dorm room to have a very long, well needed, lie in. 

We dragged ourselves out of bed to find brunch and then spent a lazy early afternoon cleaning the bike, doing our washing and generally having a sort out. 

It was a beautiful sunny and crisp day – a bit like those early spring days you get back at home – so after we were done we headed out to explore Shangri-La and do some shopping. This is what I have to wear on washing day… Paddy laughs at me a lot on these days.


Shangri-la (formally known as Zhongdian) is the gateway to the truly Tibetan part of northern Yunnan. At an altitude of 3200m it was a good place to get acclimatised for the week ahead which will eventually see us climb to nearly 5000m!

A devastating fire in 2014 burned a lot of the enchanting old town to cinders and there is still quite a bit of building work taking place but you get a sense it’s slowly recovering, although it’s nothing compared to Lijiang or Shaxi.

It’s been getting colder and colder as we’ve climbed and I was in need of an extra jumper – here I am in my new fleece. 


After a quick lunch we climb up to the main temple which boasts great views of the town and also has the worlds largest prayer wheel (it contains 100,000 smaller prayer wheels inside).

It’s a fun way to meet other visitors as it takes 8-10 people to get it turning… 


It’s a beautiful object, covered in Tibetan writing which is very different from mandarin, related much more to the sanskrit languages.


The temple overlooks a big square where people are milling about. 

Here is a yak who was on show for tourists outside the museum which we had a look round.


In the museum there is an interesting collection of medical documents and drawings, some of the treatments are very bizarre and, from what we could gather, tended to involve doing various things with different human fluids! 

Back in the hostel we pack up our stuff before heading back down to the square with the hostel owner, who tells us that the daily communal dance is about to take place.

Everyday, from 7-9pm, between 100-150 local people will come down to the square to take part in a group Tibetan circle dance. A music track blasts out from the corner of the square and women, men, young and old form (generally) two large circles. They all know the dances and newcomers are welcome to take a turn at learning too. 

The dances are quite slow and, I guess, ‘courtly’ although Paddy and I struggled with the unusual offbeats and by the time you think you’ve got hold of a move they are on to the next one.

The temple all lit up sets off the scene nicely and its a great communal atmosphere. Its amazing how many people have come down, presumably after work, to take part and keep this part of their culture alive rather than head straight to their homes to escape the biting cold.

Onwards then to experience even more Tibetan culture – it will be a solid week of cycling to get to Litang over the border in Sichuan province. 

The Very Hungry Cyclists 

Wanting to develop our legs of steel even further in preparation for the many high passes we will encounter in western Sichuan, we set ourselves the task of completing the 180km from Lijiang to Shangri-La in 2 days. 

The first day wouldn’t be too bad, but the second day promised to be a humdinger of a climb and it didn’t disappoint…

Day 1: 86km

Road: climb out of Lijiang, long decent, good road towards Quiatao

Soundtrack of the day: Blur – Parklife Album, Delorentos, James Brown – Best of

Beautiful morning of pure sunshine and blue skies. The clouds were mostly gone and we had a perfect view of Jade Peak mountain from our hostel. It’s sort of a shame we didn’t have this weather while we were walking the gorge, but at least we had a great day of cycling ahead of us instead.

We make our way to the PSB office and luckily get there right before a long queue forms. We have to wait a while but then armed with our visa extensions we hit the road, retracing our steps towards Quiatao but this time on the bike.

The gradual changes in the architecture (amazing ‘block’ tibetan houses) and cuisines are sure signs we are beginning to approach the Tibetan part of Yunnan and Sichuan.imageimage

We keep climbing through the valley after stopping in Quiatao to fill up our ‘washing water’ bottles and to buy oil and a couple of beers.
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We were very lucky to find this great camping spot down by the river out of site from most of the traffic. 

We cook up dinner, drink down the beers, snuggle down into bed and watch episode 1 of the cult to series Twin Peaks – don’t tell us who did it!

Day 2: 92km

For those of you who like that kind of thing here is our profile of the days climb:

Knowing that we had a big day ahead our alarm goes off at 6.30 and we pack up, have a good breakfast and by 8.15am we’re away.

Porridge, banana and honey (Paddy convinced me about the honey but still not overly keen…)
 

75 mins in and we had done just 13km. The road was fairly busy with trucks but we persevered climbing slowly.

After another hour and a half we passed by a cluster of buildings on the road and what looked like a place to eat. Not feeling particularly hungry yet we agreed to carry on for a bit. This was the first in a long line of errors we would make that day.

By the time we were hungry at around 12.15 there was nothing in sight… We struggled on up the valley for another 30mins hoping we’d pass something, our average speed had now dropped to 8km/h.

We were both really hungry by this point and we agreed we would have to stop and cook something up ourselves, it was annoying as we had only covered about 35 of the 90 we needed to do that day and we knew cooking ourselves would take at least an hour and a half. The other issue was that we only had a litre of water left… How did we let that happen??!

Our water purifying LifeStraw has sat in our back pannier taking up space for nearly 4 months. Well thank god we brought it. With it we could fill up a litre from a burst pipe on the road and know we had enough to cook with.

So we had filtered water and in the bag we knew there was half a broccoli, an onion and a bag of rice. That with the standard ginger, garlic and chilli we were going to be OK, we had a meal to cook.

We cycled up to a spot with a great view and, slightly desperately, got out everything we needed.

I filtered the water and chopped up everything while Paddy set up the stove.

But the stove decided it wasn’t going to work for us at this critical time. We cleaned and replaced the filter but all we got was a flickering flame before it going out completely. 

‘Dirty fuel’ Paddy says frowning, chomping hungrily on a raw bit of broccoli.

We decant the kerosene into a bottle and sure enough a dark line of sediment sinks to the bottom.

No one can underestimate how hard everything is when you are really hungry. It’s difficult to make good decisions. 

To cut a long story short, instead of simply decanting the fuel slowly back into the fuel bottle a few times, (leaving the sediment sitting in the bottom) we instead decided we should filter it completely in one go using a spare filter from the LifeStraw. The result was no kerosene in the bottle and all of it soaking into the hard dusty ground.
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OK, now we had no stove. 

2 oranges and 4 chocolate wafer bars each later we disbelieving  pack up the bike. We had wasted an hour and a half and we hadn’t even eaten. Groan!

Faced with a very long and tough climb (the first of a series of peaks we would need to complete), we got back on the bike.
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To top it off I was really struggling with my new saddle which was turning out to be worse than my old one.

I’m not going to lie, climbing that steep mountain was a real low point for me and after the epic climb I was beyond hungry – I admit, despite the breathtaking views, I had a little weep at the top!
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We finally find someone selling some pork skewers and buy his whole stock (total of 8 sticks) for 42Y.

We try to stay positive and muscle up the will power to cycle the 20km to the next major town where we gorge on a spectacular feast.


With the sun fading fast, the cold creeping in but with our bellies filled with glorious food, we manage to blast the final 34km in an hour and 40 mins. 

We reach Shangri-la at 8pm (narrowly avoiding cycling in the dark which we try to avoid) and thankfully find a great little hostel very easily.

I’ve never wanted a bed more!

Tiger Leaping Gorge

In an earlier post I detailed how our first week in China had been spent following two of the three great rivers of Yunnan. The past two days saw us complete the trio, walking the  16km hike along the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, following the Yangtze River.

The gorge is one of the deepest in the world measuring a whopping 3.9km from the raging river below to the snow peaked mountains above. There are literally shear cliffs which drop down 2.5km – basically, it’s pretty impressive as valleys go.

The highest point in the trail sits just over a giddy  1000m above the river bank which is where we started the trek. It took us just under 4 hours to climb to the highest point and some of it was quite tough.

Despite the rain, mist and roadworks (!) it was still an impressive and stunning hike and we met some lovely people along the way.

Here are some pictures (although they really don’t do justice to the sheer awesomeness of the landscape…)

The mist clears just enough for us to enjoy the view!
Misty snow peaked mountains

Our Tibetan friend outside a small prayer house on the trail
The rocks where a tiger is said to have lept across giving the gorge its name. Yes, they are people in the bottom R corner next to the river!
Making friends with the local wildlife – ‘here’s looking at you kid!’
This one’s for you mum! Remind you of another photo?

Turning Our Backs on a Lake to Walk the Great Gorge Instead

So the plan was to spend the time waiting for our visa extensions by cycling a 6 day loop around Lugu lake, north east of Lijiang. It’s meant to be a very beautiful place and is home to the last practising matriarchal society on the planet.

We had a late start because despite the relatively early night, we (and by we I mean mainly me) was feeling a little delicate after our antics the night before… That rice wine is strong stuff! 

Anyway, the head was a little groggy. After a late breakfast/lunch we get going and cycle the long steady ascent up to Lugu lake. 

It’s a steady climb for about 20km and I’m not feeling the best, but at least we have the beautiful Jade Peak Mountain in front and a very strong and helpful tail wind behind us.
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The road is fairly busy with coaches who we assume are making their way to the mountain cable car.

I decide I still need some music to get me through so blast out Urban Hymns, The Verve on the tandem’s stereo system… Thanks Richard Ashcroft, I needed that. 

At 1.30pm and having completed 20km we reach a toll gate. We have never had to pay at a toll gate before so we cycle up assuming we’ll be waved on through. 

We’re not. Instead we’re told we have to pay 320Y each!!!!! We laugh and explain that we’re not going to visit the mountain and we’re heading on through to Lugu lake (where we knew we would have to pay another 200Y admission fee).

‘You still need to pay the ticket to use this road’ says the woman. ‘if you don’t want to pay there is an alternative road to Lugu’.

After consulting the map we see that this alternative route would add another 80km onto the loop around the lake – a days cycle basically – and we were already running behind schedule due to our late start. 

We pleaded but she wouldn’t budge. 

Taking stock of our options and considering carefully our overall China schedule we decide to turn back and cut the Lake from our plans completely. 

Both feeling disappointed (mainly because we feel we have wasted one of our 60 precious days in China) we turn the bike round and head back down the road to Lijiang.

It’s down hill but the now gale force wind is right in our faces, blowing us across the road… Paddy is cursing at his phone because he’s managed to lock the language OSM map permanently into Chinese. As we battle with the elements I manage to check the Lonely Planet guide on my phone kindle app for the bus schedule from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge. The last bus would leave at 3.30.

‘We can try and make it’ yells Paddy over the howling wind from the front. 

‘OK’ I scream back. 

We had an hour and a half to cycle the 20km back to the hostel, pack for the two day hike, explain to our non-English speaking host that we needed to leave the bike and most of our bags there, and find a taxi to take us to the bus station. It would be tight.

At 3.25pm we’re sitting panting in our seats on a bus heading to Quiatou. After a mad dash, we had made it – just! We were on our way to hike the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. The day wouldn’t turn out to be completely wasted!

P.S – there was also another bus which left at 6pm…. 

P.P.S – we managed to miss our stop on the way up and found ourselves 30km further up the road than we needed to be… Luckily our nice bus driver flagged us down another bus and we got there in the end!

The Highs and Lows of Lijiang

The day before we left Shaxi I had had a well needed phone catch up with my friend Jo via Skype. She asked me what had been the hardest thing about the trip so far and I had struggled to think of anything… 

‘I’m sure there’s lots of things but I can’t really think of anything that has been that challenging’ I had replied.

This is probably quite telling, and sums up our trip very well I think. There has definitely been some challenging days but they have been far outstripped, and easily forgotten when I consider all the great moments. The human capacity to adorn rose tinted spectacles is quite amazing sometimes!

Due to the nature of travelling by bicycle things of course go wrong and there are days where things break, we have to change plans, or one of us is a little low or cranky with the other. It’s rare for a day to go by without at least one of us getting a little frustrated. 

These frustrations are short lived however and are, more often than not, swept from our minds by a local we meet, a tasty lunch we eat or an amazing landscape view. When I consider how stressed I was in my last job I feel very lucky that we made the decision to come away and that even my worst moods are easily erased by something as simple as a hearty lunch. 

Our time in Lijiang is a good example of all this and has certainly been a mixture of highs and frustrating lows. 

  
We cycled into the sprawling white city of Lijiang at 5pm, pretty good going considering we had had a 110km day with two medium climbs. Before calling it a day and finding our hostel we decided it was worth making a visit to the PSB office (closes at 5.30pm) to ask about extending our visas. 

With the good news that it would only take three days, we could keep our passports while we waited, and that the visa extension would be added from the final date of our current visa (rather than the date we apply), we agreed to go ahead and get the extension over and done with here. 

We knew that applying for our visa extension in China would be a pain and would likely take the best part of a day. Firstly we needed to get an ‘address registration’ slip from the local police station. 

We were staying in a very cheap youth hostel near the Old Town which our cycle friends Geart and Systke had told us about. The upside of this was that we were only paying 40Y a night, the downside was that the owners had no understanding of why we needed to find the nearest police station.

In the end they directed us to the nearest station (200m up the road) so after a quick home cooked porridge breakfast we cycled across to see if we could explain what we needed. After some painful English-Chinese communication the guys at this first station said they couldn’t help us and that we needed to cycle across town to the Xian Police station. 

We hopped on the bike and cycled through the rain to the other side of Lijiang. It took us a good while to locate this second police station but once we were there at least the guy behind the counter seemed to understand what we were after. We were taken upstairs and we handed over our passports and our hostel’s address. It soon became apparent that there was a problem and we were told that we were in the wrong place and that we needed to register at the police station in Changshui as that was the closest one to our hostel. 

We ask for directions, jump on the bike and cycle the full length of town again. 

When we arrive at police station number three we are told that yes, they can issue a registration certificate, but the woman who does it is in a meeting and won’t be back until 3pm. Both of us are slightly cranky by now…

Another annoying administrative hurdle we had to complete before we could apply for our visas is the need for ‘special passport photographs’ to be done (annoying we weren’t allowed to use some from our existing stash we had with us). Luckily, one of the two licensed photography places we needed to use was just around the corner so we could at least get this task completed without too much hassle. 

Being snapped – the photos were also photoshopped (Paddys shoulders got moved up and down and some blemishes on my chin and my rat tails hair got smoothed over!

We then spend a painful hour trying to get cash out with our Caxton card from every ATM in town. I wait with the bike while Paddy admits defeat and goes to use our debit card instead. I sit down on a nearby bench where a bird presides to poo on my head. 

This does NOT improve my mood. 

‘It’s supposed to be lucky you know’ Paddy says as he wipes it out of my hair with a tissue. I say nothing…

We spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the Merida bike shop where we tick off some of our shopping list – a new saddle and warm hat for me, fleece glove inserts, and a new helmet insert for Paddy. 

We like ticking things off our list and this combined with a good lunch means we’re back in a good mood again. 

We get back to the police station for 3pm and meet the lady who can issue the certificate. She frowns at the hostel address and then asks us if we have a telephone contact for them. 

After a quick phone conversation with the hostel she puts the receiver down and says ‘sorry we can’t issue you a certificate for this hostel, it is not in our area. You need to go to The Old Town police station. They should be able to help you’

We groan and check out watches. We have two hours until the PSB closes. We get directions and jump on the bike. We’re not allowed to cycle through the old town itself so we have to get off and walk most of the way to the police station. By this time it is raining heavily.

When you are at the right police station, getting your registration certificate is a quick and painless task. We finally had ours but it had taken us all day to get this single slip of paper.

We hurry over to the PSB office and hand in all our paper work. The man glimpses briefly at our certificate, nods, hands it back and proceeds with our application. All that for a simple 5 second check! Arghhh!!

Those of you who are reading this after a day of frantic emails, report deadlines and perhaps cross words with your boss might be thinking ‘big deal’ but for us this was very frustrating.

As I said at the beginning, our frustrations are often wiped away easily and we spent the evening blowing off some steam by enjoying a beer (and regular cap fills of 57% rice wine) while walking through the beautiful lanes which make up Lijiang old town. 


  We walk through the cobbled streets lit by traditional red Chinese lanterns and cross over streams which are decorated with little floating ‘candle boats’ shaped like lotus flowers.

  
The streets are busy with people and the stalls and live music make us feel like we are in some sort of festival. We gorge on a delicious street food meal of traditional spicy chicken stir fry, potato cakes, dumplings and Naxi ‘baba’ flat bread.

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We keep walking and reach a square and end the night by going to a very lively club which is filled with very cool, happy go lucky Chinese people. It’s a huge party, complete with a bouncing dance floor, balloons, a live DJ and (a rather terrible) MC. 

The drinks are 50y per beer!!!!!!! We buy one to share but are soon given another by the guy sitting next to us. We return the kind gesture and quickly make friends by sneakily passing shots of rice wine to him. 

It’s amazing how quickly we find our party personas again and we’re soon up on the dance floor pulling some shapes and providing a lot of entertainment to our fellow clubbers.

Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos because we were having such a great time. 

There’s nothing that a good dance can’t fix! 

Heading back to the tourist trail – Ying Pan to Shaxi

We have really enjoyed our route through the mountains over the past five days and couldn’t be more glad to get away from the main highway and miss out the tourist trap of Dali. 

We have had to really get to grips with the Chinese language as the people we’ve met have barely spoken any English. We both find the language fascinating – it is so different from any western language either of us have learnt – and  we have been using a combination of apps to learn words and phrases. 

We downloaded memrise which has been good as it allows you to download different courses and it’s good for helping you recognise the Chinese characters. Paddy also downloaded the dictionary Hanping which has been very useful as you can use it offline (we still haven’t been able to get a SIM card) and I have Chinese Skill too which is good for learning the structure of sentences. 

Learning the different characters is highly addictive especially when you start to be able to combine them to make new words. For example, ‘to eat’ is a combination of ‘mouth’ and ‘to beg’…

We have yet to see another foreigner since crossing the border with Ruili and our cycle through rural Yunnan has felt very special and personalised. It’s good to mix things up though and it will be nice to have a coupe of days in a more touristy place where we can maybe meet some other travellers and enjoy a well needed rest day! 

We will be heading towards Shaxi which will definitely see us back on the tourist trail. It is the first place since Ruili that has an entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The ride will take us 3 days to get there from our current position in Ying Pan.

Day 1: 51km

We woke up to a grey, miserable and very wet morning in Ying Pan. It has rained pretty much every night in China but this was the first morning the rain was still beating down. We contemplated having a rest day but agreed we should keep going so we packed up and donned our rain gear. 

Today will see us complete another climb – 1300m to 3090m (the highest we’ve been so far). Mist is clinging to the mountains so we linger a bit longer to see if the weather clears a bit and warm up with two helpings of steaming dumplings.
  
By the time we set off the rain has turned to just a gentle drizzle. The first section takes us along a little river through a small valley (well comparatively small for China). We both agree it feels like we could be cycling somewhere in Wales, maybe the Brecon Beacons?

There are some very steep climbs here so we play a round of 20 questions which takes our mind off things. 

The sensation of being somewhere in the UK quickly ends when we cycle up to this very Chinese looking bridge. 
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This marks the beginnings of a beautiful old town called Lajing which clings to the valley on either side. All the houses are still built from wood and compact earth with very quintessential grey tiled roofs. 

We keep climbing and reach the the more modern part of town. With the colder weather comes hearty food and we stop for a steaming beef stew. We, and the tandem, spark quite an interest in the town and a big group of locals waves us goodbye from the square.
 

Giggling girls
 
We keep climbing, it’s still very cold!!! Again, the views are pretty spectacular though. 

  
 

Ascending into the mist
 

Finally we reach the top and snake our way down the other side to a town we think is called Hualian… It’s the first big town you come to anyway!

We cook up a vegetable broth in our hotel room, have a nosey around town and then snuggle down into bed our breath creating clouds of mist above the bed!

Day 2: 76km

Not much to report on this day as it was cold, grey and a pretty boring cycle on the main road. A medium climb and then downhill for 15km.

Two lovely things did happen though:

We hadn’t passed a place to eat for a good couple of hours and when we stopped to ask a family where the next town was we were told we had a 35km cycle ahead of us before we could properly eat again. All we had was cake, peanuts and oranges in our panniers.

I, in particular, was very cold, tired and hungry at this point and the look on my face obviously showed it… The lovely family invited us into their house, gave us tea, fed us and let us warm up next to their fire. They refused to take anything from us in return.

  
I was still feeling very tired and pretty grumpy, I let myself get cold and then couldn’t get warm again. Never let yourself get cold!!! Paddy basically pulled us through. 

Later in the day a guy stopped us on the road and passed us two yoghurts through the window. Perhaps we were giving off a ‘we’re struggling today’ vibe… People are wonderful.

It gets gradually warmer as the day goes on and at 5.30pm we stop in Madeng for dinner. 

We cycle out of town and find a great camping spot in the hills above the town.
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We set up camp amongst the cover of a forest of pine trees and at dusk decide it’s safe to light a campfire which makes us both very happy.

Day 3: 67km

It rains all night and although all our stuff stays dry and our Hubba Hubba tent holds up well we both don’t sleep well… We also leave our shoes too near the edge of the vestibule and each wake up to a soggy left foot… 

We cook breakfast in the rain but thankfully it subsides and beautiful blue skies appear in time for us to take the tent down. 

We had decided to take this yellow road route to Shaxi which takes you south and then north rather than following the main road around and down.

We get going and enjoy a wonderful 20km cycle downstream through a beautiful valley, acres of farmland on either side. We make good progress with an average of 24km/ph.

Then we come to a turn in the road and are faced with a cobbled road… It’s very, very, very bumpy and there are a couple of minor landslides. We definitely wouldn’t advise this route in the wet season… It’s hard going on Paddy who can’t really look up from the road to enjoy the views. The cobbles continue for 22km (!) until we reach the next major village and turn north and upstream towards Shaxi.

If you do decide to take this route be sure to bring plenty of stuff for lunch as there isn’t really anywhere you can get a good meal between Madeng and Shaxi. We ended up eating a horrible quick noodle pot at a shop… 

Tired and very hungry we reach Shaxi which is very pretty and filled with lots of Chinese tourists. Do not try and push your loaded bike around the cobbled, twisty streets while you find a guesthouse! 

We’re staying in a lovely place just up from the main square. It’s probably the nicest place we’ve stayed in the whole entire trip but is only 60Y. 

We are looking forward to a lie in and a day moseying around this sleepy town.

Following two great rivers of Yunnan

Zehn’an to Biaocun via Lujiang, Liuku and Laowo

Day 1: 42.5km
We didn’t leave Huang’s house until ten to four so gave ourselves just 40km to cover. We planned to meet the Nu Jiang river and follow it to find Lujiang (Xiaopingtian) where we would find a hotel. The Nu Jiang is the first of two big rivers (the other being the Mekong) we’ll be following over the next 5 days.

It’s a warm afternoon and we cycle down some amazing valleys which are covered in tiered farms which almost act like contour lines, making the landscape seem even more impressive than it is already.

We make good progress but then are forced to wait for 45mins as there has been a landslide and they are only letting traffic through every hour. The road is pretty bad in places too. This meant we couldn’t reach Lujiang before dark but we luckily did find a hotel 14km before Lujiang on the road side near the bridge just after the road meets the river. 

Day 2: 97.5km
Today saw us have a late start as our gears had been jumping the day before on the hills. While I hunt for breakfast Paddy spends time tweaking the derailer to see if this would get rid of the problem. Once we get going we follow the river proper which carves its way through an amazing valley. 

On the other side of the river we spot a collection of around 150 sandy brick, one room cottages very neatly built in rows. It’s a weird looking place and looks pretty derelict. We wonder whether this was one of the agricultural communes which were built during the Cultural Revolution when the communist party forced thousands of people into the countryside to work the land…

The land is intensely farmed the whole way along the river and we wonder if we will be able to find a camping spot.

  
The road is good, but fairly up and down (AV 18.8km/ph), and we make up the time completing just over 5 hours actually on the bike.

At dusk we find a track which leads down to the bank of the river. We set up camp and try not to get too much sand in the tent. 

Day 3: 75.1km
Paddy is a little grumpy in the morning as he discovers he stepped in dog poop the night before… At least we’re near a river! The view manages to cheer him up pretty well though.

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Onwards from our beautiful camping spot to Laowo. 

The gears are still jumping which is driving us both crazy so we are forced to take an hour of the morning by the roadside. I had noticed that our smallest chainring had warped slightly and while tweaking Paddy notices that our chain link has bent out of shape. We replace the chain link, bend the chain link next to it back into shape and we are in business. No more jumping! 

We experience our first proper tunnel! What is to become the first of many in China.
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We are also stopped at another checkpoint and our details are carefully recorded in an online system.

We stop for a delicious meal which is a super rich beef stew cooked with lots of mint. There is so much meat and it is super delicious but we end up paying 60Y for it – this is a third of our daily budget! 

A slightly surreal thing happens in the afternoon during a snack stop. We’re sitting on a wall, the only people around, enjoying an orange when 5 cops turn up. They take positions on the road and start stopping the traffic, clearly checking for licenses. One motorbike fails to stop so one of the cops starts comically running after it his hat falling to the ground and as it speeds away, he grabs his pistol and fires three shots into the air! 

At Liuku we leave the Nu Jiang to start our climb which will eventually find us meeting up with the Mekong River. Liuku is a large town, a slightly surreal place. Lots of sky scrapers and flats crunched in together between the river and the towering mountains behind.
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Just after Liuku we pass another army checkpoint where thorough searches of luggage are being done and everyone has to hand in their ID cards to be scanned. Our bags aren’t searched, but we get lots of questions and our passport details are again put into the online system. Our profiles clearly appear on the screen as the guards asks us where was the last place we were stopped. The guards are friendly but a couple of them are holding automatic machine guns and the whole experience is very surreal and intimidating. I can’t help thinking of Orwells 1984. 

The cycle up to Laowo is a lovely end to the day and when we reach the small town it’s obvious we’re the first foreigners who have passed through in a while. 

There is only one hotel in Laowo which we find after asking for directions.

The nights are beginning to get much colder as we get higher and we’re glad of our warm blankets. Tomorrow will see us climb to just over 2800m and then drop down again to meet the Mekong.

Day 4: 79km
After a bowl of steaming Dou Fen this time with churos (sounds like a weird combination I know but it’s very nice) we start the climb through the valley.

We weren’t planning to do such a long day what with the climb as well but there isn’t a hotel until a place called Biaocun (20km up the Mekong) so we end up completing an 80km day.

The climb to the top is Spectacular, SPECTACULAR! Quiet road and the best views and countryside we have seen on the trip. The first section takes you up through a valley where you follow a bumbling stream up river to the village where the two roads meet (where, for reference, there is a great restaurant which is also a hotel). This section is a little steep in places but very manageable. 

We then turned left and started climbing up the mountain pass. Great road, easy incline with breathtaking views. This is why we came away! It really is amazing. Also there is no downward sections, just climbing, and we just hope the other side is a pure descent too.

We reach the top after 27.9km and 5:45 hours (3:39 actually on the bike). We average at 7.6km/ph! The top is marked with all these Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind. Its the highest we’ve been and we feel proud we’ve managed it.

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We wrap up for the long decent which will take us down to the Mekong. The last time we saw this river was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – we’ve done nearly 3000km since then.

We finally reach Biaocun which is a beautiful rural town on the river with farms running through the middle. The town has three sections, upper town, lower town and the section across the bridge. After cycling around a lot we discover that the hotels are all in the lower town. 

At the hotel the woman has no idea what to do with our passports and keeps brandishing her own ID card at us. We try to explain that our passports are our IDs. She calls her husband who also seems pretty baffled by all the stamps and visas. After a while they obviously agree to abandon the idea of registering us and hand over the key. 

Day 5: 57.7km

Our final day takes us along the Mekong towards the town of Ying Pang. 

The road is very up and down and we pass two hydro electric dams. There are a number of tunnels and all the heavy traffic leading to and from the dams means that the road isn’t in great shape for a lot of sections.

Here I am enjoying the view.
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There is a big steep climb up to Ying Pang town which has spectacular views across the valley. 

Ying Pang has lots of hotels so don’t go for the first one you come to. This is the view we enjoyed from our window and we paid 50Y. 
  
After a great streetfood dinner in the centre of town we hit the hay. Tomorrow will see us do another high climb as we leave the Mekong behind us.