6 graphs to represent our cycle in 2016

Back in February we took the decision that a bike computer would be a useful addition to our set up as we were having a hard time guessing how fast we were going and thus how long it would take to get somewhere. At one point we were pacing ourselves with passing mopeds and asking the drivers what speed they were going. The computer would also allow us to record our distances covered, average speeds etc and Annie took a very diligent record of that.

Here are some of the, we think, interesting results:

(Since we only got the bike computer in February Vietnam and half of Cambodia, about 4 weeks and 1000km, are missing)



Distance statistics v2 - distances - jpeg

First up is our an overall chart showing the distance we cycled every day for the entire year. It varies a lot, but the average is just below 65km. We got our top day in the flat deserts of Turkmenistan when we needed to get across the country in 5 days.

Northern Iran and Armenia were pretty mountainous and we were not in a particular hurry during that leg of the trip so we were taking our time there. The spread of days is interesting and the biggest factor it shows up the terrain and road surface quality of the countries.



Distance statistics v2- ride time - jpeg

Next is the actual time we spent in the saddle each day. This came out surprisingly low, but we had quite a few short days and also we tend to stop and look around a lot…I think other cyclists, particularly solo cyclists, will spend longer in the saddle. But we tend to stop regularly. Lunch can also drag on a bit, sitting in our comfy chairs drinking tea and staring at the ants processing our crumbs.

Towards the end of our trip we had time to kill in Armenia and Turkey so that shows up here.

What I did think was that it is unsustainable to do 5hr + days for more than 3/4 days without one of us running our of steam and needing a long break. It is a lot of energy to burn up and a lot of food and sleep is needed to keep sustaining that level of effort for a longer period. I am sure it is possible, but we were also out to enjoy the scenery! By the end of the trip we used time on the bike to measure the ‘toughness’ of a day.



Distance statistics v2 - AvgSpd - jpeg

Everyone always asks how fast we go. Well here is our answer: 16km/hr.

We can tip along at 22/23km/hr on the flat and that is what the tandem is made to do – a slight downhill or flat with a tail wind and we can really get the momentum going. However going up hills at 4km/hr is not unheard of.

The other question we get asked it whether it is easier or harder on the tandem. We don’t know for sure since we haven’t done anything similar on two bikes, but we suspect the tandem is easier.

Top speed of the trip was 69km/hr. Vrooom!



Distance statistics v2- distcovered - jpeg

Above is a graph of the distance covered in each country.

The information speaks for itself and is really a factor of how long we spent in each place and how long we could get on our visas. A rule of thumb often used is that to cycle tour 1000km will take approximately one month and that is pretty much true for us. We can do more for example in China we just couldn’t get enough of it and we covered 2600km in two months, but in Iran we spent a lot of time looking at stuff and meeting people so we did just 800km in a month.



Distance statistics v2- days cycled - jpeg

The days cycled in each country – this speaks for itself. The only country where we cycled every day on our visa was our mad dash across Turkmenistan. We planned our trip to cycle 4 out of 7 days each week and that roughly worked out to be what we did.



Distance statistics v2 - ride time by country - jpeg

Lastly the ride time in each country. Our wheels saw a lot of China, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan and that was where the big mountains, big scenery and remote cultures were – no coincidence there! We realised early on we loved climbing big mountains and now that is what we go looking for on the map. Roll on the Alps!

Meeting Paddy’s doppelgänger, a visit to the tallest natural arch in the world and a race across the desert – our final days in China!

Our visa extension for China ended on the 5th June so we planned to leave Kashgar on the 1st giving ourselves a very leisurely cycle to the border with a day or two to spare if we needed it for any reason.

Unfortunately, we had both failed to notice that the 5th was actually a Sunday, and the Irkeshtam border is closed on weekends. Luckily we realised on the eve of leaving following a conversation with Michaelangelo, our Spanish friend. Unlike some other countries, there are heavy fines for overstaying in China so this was not an option. 

We were also told that we probably wouldn’t be able to cycle the full distance to the border as China (for some random, unknown reason) built their checkpoint 180km from the actual border line, and they make all travellers take a taxi to the Kyrgyzstan checkpoint. 

All this meant that instead of having five days to reach the border we now only had two, leaving a day to get through customs, find a taxi who would carry the tandem, and cross the border before the weekend. All still doable but it wouldn’t be as leisurely as we’d hoped.

We were well stocked up for our cycle through the desert and we still hoped we’d have time to make an afternoon detour up to Shipton’s Arch – reportedly the highest natural arch in the world according to National Geographic who rediscovered its whereabouts in 2007.

So we set off through the hot barren landscape and on the afternoon of the first day we meet Stephen cycling the other way. Stephen is also from Dublin and I could tell that both him and Paddy we’re delighted at meeting a fellow countryman. 

Stephen is the first Irish cyclist we have met and him and Paddy looked pretty identical. Weirdly identical actually….

Having met Paddy’s doppelgänger we keep going and set up camp in a village off the road. A nice family lets us camp in their garden.

The strangest thing about this part of the world is the time zone. All of China officially sets its clocks to Beijing time, but as you might have gathered already, China is a big country and Kashgar is actually 2 hours behind Beijing in real time. 

Paddy and I were still on Beijing time when we disembarked the train in Kashgar and it was rather weird experiencing a sunset at 10:30pm.! 

Kashgar and the surrounding area works on two time zones – government buildings such as banks and the post office work on Beijing time, but local businesses tend to keep to local time. All this can be rather confusing and its important for travellers to clarify which time they mean when booking stuff! 

During our ride through the desert Paddy and I kept our body clocks working on Beijing time – this worked well for our final few days cycle as it meant we were packing up the tent and jumping on the bike at 9am but in terms of daylight it was really 7am. This was perfect for the desert conditions as it meant we could afford a siesta during the hottest part of the day and carry on cycling until late into the evening.

The desert has a kind of beauty to it, nothing like the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara we have both visited in Morocco, but there were still camels… We are on the famous old Silk Road after all! 

This landscape is much rockier with some impressive mountain ranges and the odd green oasis every 20 kilometres.

Despite the heat we make good progress and do have time to take a detour up towards Shipton’s Arch. It’s a pretty tough 3 hour cycle in the heat with no shade but we’ve filled up on lots of water from a tap in the last town which Paddy sterilises using his new toy – our new UV pen. This, along with our gravity water filter, should mean we shouldn’t need to buy bottled water ever again!

The arch is another 35 minute walk from the road and involves a pretty spectacular trek through this dry gorge and up some rickety metal steps. 

When you first catch sight of it you find yourself slightly disappointed because it doesn’t look as tall as you’d expect. 

Once up the final set of steps though you realise it arches over a very deep valley which drops directly down on the other side. We spend a fun 10 minutes dropping large stones into the gorge and listening to the echo as they tumble down to the bottom. It’s pretty cool and we contemplate how on earth it’s been formed…. Lindsay Sheen might be able to offer some insights here… 

Pictures really don’t do it justice…

Here is Paddy scoffing his face on a refreshing watermelon at the top. Kashgar is famous for its delicious harvest of melons at this time of year.

The ride back down to the road is very quick and great fun. 

We camp with the sun setting behind some impressive mountains with a view across this eerie barren landscape. 

The next day we completed the 30km to the border town of Ulugqat where we spend an age trying to find the market so we can stock up on food before crossing the border. (For future reference it’s located in an underground car park a few blocks down from the main Central Park.)

It’s 12:30 by the time we reach the border control building which is really poorly signposted. We try our luck with the guards regarding cycling the remainder of the way to the border but they insist that we have to take a taxi. We ask why we can’t cycle but all they can tell us is that it’s the rules. 

We’re shocked when the taxi driver tells us it’ll be 400Y to take us and the bike (drivers always try to charge more when they see the tandem!). We plead with the border guard, explaining that this is a real expense for us and he manages to negotiate a 100Y ‘discount’ for us.

Without any other option we load the bike on top of a big stack of suitcases. When I ask what’s in the suitcases the driver tells me they are Gucci hats!

As we sit in the truck on our way to the border the only pragmatic reasoning I can put to this strange border set up is the 2 hour time zone difference. Naturally the border authorities want you to enter and exit the country the same day and near the same time you receive your exit/entry stamp. There is a two hour time difference between the two borders and it’s about a two hour drive… So if you exit China at 2pm and then drive to the Kyrgyz side, by the time you get there you will be stamped in at 2pm. 

I suspect that this is just me trying to assign some logic to something that just isn’t logical however… There’s a lot of stuff about China that isn’t logical and we’ve learnt to accept (and to an extent love) the randomness of this crazy country. 

The Kyrgyzstan side couldn’t be more different to the Chinese side. We’re greeted by a VERY friendly guard sitting in a tiny wooden hut next to the roadside. 

‘Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!’ He cries.

‘Please cycle down the road and report to the border control to receive your stamps.’ 

At the border control the guards make a joke at our different nationalities and our two country’s history. 

‘A girl from United Kingdom and a boy from Ireland, together, on a bicycle?! How can this be!?’ He says, while winking at us. 

We receive our stamps with no trouble and we cycle on down to start a new journey in country number 6. We have a pretty good feeling about this one already! 

Time to explore the land of the great horsemen. Our Central Asian adventure awaits!

The 5050m Northern Loop – part 2 (off road)

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. 

Definitely doable. 

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… 


We had a good lie in the next morning but were awoken by a loud chanting coming from outside on the street. It sounded like protesters so we opened our curtains and peered down to see what was going on.

It wasn’t protestors it was instead a mini ‘pep rally’ for all the staff working in the hotel opposite us.

 It was very surreal watching what was essentially an indoctrination session… all these young cooks, waiters and receptionists shouting out different slogans and phrases which they were reading from lamenated sheets of paper held in their hands.

A young man in the middle of the circle was leading the proceedings, he would shout phrases out -sometimes right in people’s faces – and the group would answer. 

The session went on for at least 20 minutes and by the end they were all literally screaming at the top of their voices! It was if they were in some sort of weird competition to see who could demonstrate who was the most dedicated to their work… 

Anyway… Dege was the closest we were going to get to experiencing a Tibetan town so we spent the day exploring the sites.

The main attraction in Dege is the Bakong Scripture Printing Press which is housed in a stunning 18th Century monastery.

The printing press still uses the traditional woodblock method and the space houses a staggering 70% of Tibetan literary heritage, maintaining nearly 350,000 woodblock scripture plates of all the Tibetan Buddhist orders as well Bon, the religion which predates Buddhism.

It’s a real shame that we were not allowed to take photographs of any of the rooms as I know my grandad (who started working in the print business when he was in his teens) would have loved to have seen some pictures. There were literally hundreds of rows of wooden pallets all engraved with the beautiful Tibetan script. A simple cataloging system on the corner of each shelf is the only means of the workers knowing which is which.

In the attic of the building, surrounded by beautifully painted Buddhist murals, were the worker’s stations – shallow pans filled with black and red ink and stacks of wooden pallets which had been used that day littered the floor.

Downstairs we passed other workers cutting and soaking the long sheets of paper ready for the next days printing. 

Dege itself is situated in a deep gorge, the buildings are literally built into the rock face, stacked on top of each other on either side of the river. 

We had a very enjoyable walk through the higgledy piggledy backstreets which led us up through the lovely Tibetan wooden houses. 

We come across prayer wheels in the most unlikely places along our walk and we pass some very beautiful women who have their long hair braided into elaborate plaits adorned with Tibetan beads.

We also find a pile of discarded plaster temples, yak skulls and small Buddhist trinkets and offering sites.

We also visited the very old monastery.

It’s been a nice rest day and we spend the evening drinking butter milk tea, people watching and catching up on our books. 

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

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.

Mobbed by interested children when we stop to fill up our water bottles!

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…



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.


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.

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.

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.

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!

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!

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.


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!