At 4,300m the air is crisp and I’m breathless. I’m concentrating too much on keeping my wheels spinning to figure which gets the higher score for my ragged chest — the altitude or a road that refuses to remain at a steady plane. But for now it’s shut up and pedal — up to the figure silhouetted against the sky, where the road held promise of a few seconds of respite from the steep climb.
His weather-scoured face creased into a smile. Correctly guessing him to be Tibetan I greeted him with a “Tashi delay!” He was charmed. But I had to lapse back to my rudimentary Chinese now that I had exhausted my Tibetan. I answered all the usual questions: Where were we headed? Why on bicycles? Which country was I from?
“Women xihuan Indu ren (We like Indian people),” he exclaimed, spreading his arms as if in embrace. I hesitated, hindered by my bulky bicycle, but realised in time it was just to emphasise his declaration. It didn’t require much pondering to figure out this effusiveness, easily deduced from the animated jabber that followed. For India is home to the Tibetan’s beloved Gyalwa Rinpoche — the Dalai Lama. One whose name is not tolerated in open discussions. But gazing at the vast stretch of wild boulder-strewn grassland, I knew our conversation would remain between us.
We were deep in the heart of the Tibetan stronghold of Western Sichuan, on the high plains that stretch into the Qinghai Tibetan plateau. Squinting into the late afternoon sun far west, I could almost see the distant peaks visible only by the dazzle of snow on their summits — mountains part of the NingJin Shan range that marks the southeastern edge of Tibet. We might have been there if we’d been reckless enough to challenge the clampdown the Chinese government imposed on all independent travellers to Tibet following the pre-Olympic Lhasa riots. That’s how we found ourselves making the best of the challenging terrain that lay just a little east of Tibet.
Much of Sichuan province has been hacked from political Tibet following Chinese occupation. The southwestern part of the province comprises a large part of ‘ethnographic Tibet’, where prayer flags abound, festooning high mountain passes and roadside chortens. Life remains inherently Tibetan and, given the extreme landscape, little traffic plies on the winding roads — a thrilling challenge for road-trippers and the odd humble cyclist.
My partner and I crossed into Sichuan from neighbouring Yunnan province, tackling the many 3,500m-plus climbs on the way. It was an excruciating warm-up and we were relieved to finally pull into the provincial border town of Zhongdian. But it was what lay ahead that really tested our mettle as cyclists.
We left Zhongdian by the elusive Road S217. In sharp contrast to the gleaming national highway, S217 is obscured by a rutty lane that takes one past back-alley automobile workshops and dusty warehouses. Once on it, however, the road eventually leads up to the remote frontier town of Lithang while offering a lingering taste of highland life. From lofty barren heights, narrow gorges, alpine forests, yak-dotted grasslands and free-ranging nomads, there is much to be experienced along this 420km stretch between Zhongdian and Lithang.
After a dusty start, the road is suddenly coated with impeccably laid tar which belies the conditions ahead, for as soon as the climb begins the tar begins to wear, eroding to a rough dirt track for about 100km. Chinese transport infrastructure is impressive and roads have been built to the remotest parts. Older roads tend to sometimes languish in neglect but that is because there is often an alternative, a boon for us as minimal traffic made up for the bad road.
Our first pass gave a clue of what was to be routine for days — long switchback after switchback to reach a tiny heap of stones and prayer flags that marked a pass. But once on top, the reward: unbeatable views and a thrilling downhill that erases all memory of ragged chests and strained muscles. Not to forget the adrenaline rush and cocky pride from knowing you did it sans turbo power.
At 4,327m, Daxueshan was the first major pass we encountered. Our ascent took us through dense spruce and fir forests that brought us above the tree line from where we feasted our eyes on wind-blasted peaks and moraines. We left the descent for the next day choosing to camp in line with the peaks around.
Rivers aren’t in short supply here — every valley is marked by one. The next morning’s descent through fog and drizzle gave us picturesque top views of a green valley dotted with whitewashed mini fortress-like houses. This was Ranwa, one of the most lovely Tibetan villages we crossed and where a tarred road provided relief after a day and a half of bumpy riding. We lingered awhile before continuing to Xianchang, a town visited often for a huge Tibetan temple perched over the rather garish town. Apart from that, the valley has little to offer as heavy dam construction work mars most of the scenery. We restocked food and left.
From Xianchang, S217 takes a sharp turn right of the river to begin a punishing climb that clings to precipitous cliffs and follows sharp mountain ridges before once again breaking free of the tree line to join benevolent mountains with rolling unhurried slopes. This was the beginning of the grasslands — yak and nomad turf. While the road is less steep the switchbacks here seem never-ending and the sheer expanse of the terrain can be disheartening. Accumulated tiredness from three days of cycling caught up with us and we decided to call it a day after a 38km climb.
We finished the climb next morning and found ourselves a little above 4,600m. Here we met the first of our highland cowboys — the Khampa Tibetans. By the look of one rounding his yaks, ripping through the grassland on his motorbike, their horses may have met their biggest rivals.
Khampa Tibetans have had it tough from both fellow Tibetans and Han Chinese. Many adhere to the Bon or shamanistic sect of Buddhism and, resultantly, stigmatisation from other Tibetan sects. With their burnt red skin and sharp profiles, many possessing high nose bridges and dark eyes, they tend to look quite different from their Lhasa brothers. Adding to this is their Wild West sartorial taste — cowboy hats, denims, leather trappings and long flowing hair. It’s easy to see why the docile-looking Han are wary of them.
Out next stop, Sangdui village at 3,800m, is home to the Bangpu monastery built in the mountains that enclose the beautiful valley. We followed a sparkling river till the road gradually led upstream and once again trees thinned out. We were climbing to a plateau and the difference was palpable.
At above 4,300m, a vast empty wilderness greeted us. Rather than being hedged in by looming mountains there’s the sense of limitless, almost overwhelming space. There is nothing to break vision except the limitations of the eye. The road continued making little dips and swells into the distance. That was where I saw my Tibetan chap and set the next goal for a breath-catching break.
He wasn’t a yak herder as I expected but a road worker sent ahead of his crew. After our little chat I cranked up my pedals to catch up with Cedric, who’s French, and jest about the welcome my nationality assured me among Tibetans along our route.
For again, once we arrived in Lithang, I was welcomed similarly by Rinche, a Tibetan who had made the perilous overland journey to India for a coveted glimpse of the Dalai Lama. We were given a special discount at the guesthouse he managed. As Rinche explained to me, India is viewed by many Tibetans as a promised land and many dream of being able to visit at least once in their life.
Lithang is a scruffy town patrolled by gangs of young Khampa nomads descending to the town’s bustling markets for their chores and to goof around while the older lot stays busy twirling prayer wheels and sunning itself. Though far from a place to relax and kick back, Lithang is quite a party place for nomads and travellers alike.
Here S217 merges with the Sichuan-Tibet highway, a holy grail for Chinese cyclists, hundreds of whom attempt the Chengdu-Lhasa road every year. Not all finish but it is worthwhile to appreciate their effort and to witness the cycling cult club that’s growing in China.
Our road led eastwards towards Khanding from where we continued north. From Khanding the road dipped down to 1,600m to follow the Dadu river along the valley that is home to the Jiarong Tibetans, an agricultural tribe. Though famous for its ancient watchtowers, some more than 2,000 years old, the valley felt claustrophobic. But a few hundred kilometres of gradual height rejoined us with the wide expanse of the Hongyuan steppe.
Our route took us through the Tibetan settlements of Longriba and Waqie, towns marked by signboards proclaiming them to be the ‘Resettlement of the Pastoral People’. Elsewhere we could see hilly mounds where the grass had worn off to reveal the slow birth of sand dunes. But long stretches of picture postcard scenery — green pastures dotted with nomad tents — still lay aplenty and the leisurely roads through them gave us plenty of time to enjoy them.
A nagging question popped up: could life in these high plains really be threatened? The question was partly answered by the electric poles and motorable road that cut across the grasslands connecting hastily built towns and serving as necessary lifelines for changing lifestyles.
A few kilometres before Langmusi we stumbled across a camp of nomads who had assembled for their annual horse racing festival. Far from the colourful affair of tourist brochures, this was a simple assembly of folks taking a break from their summer pastures to meet and party. We happily accepted their offer to stay and feasted with them on butter tea and boiled chunks of freshly slaughtered sheep. Though I could have done with some seasoning, I gnawed away at a leg of mutton knowing that this was as raw an experience as I could have — in a few years’ time things would be different.
Leaving the band of Tibetans to carry on with the job of deciding on the festival’s winner, we pedalled the few kilometres to Langmusi, a tiny Tibetan town at the extreme north of Sichuan. From here a day’s cycling would take us to the next province of Gansu and further, where all traces of grassland melt into the scrubland of the Tenger Desert and chortens replaced by crescent-topped minarets of the Hui Muslims. We had crossed Sichuan and, though deprived of making tracks in the fabled land, we felt privileged to have sampled the best of the terrain that lay east of Tibet — with pedals, spokes and sprocket.
We cycled all the way from Thailand to Mongolia. The Zhongdian-Langmusi (in Sichuan) stretch was a part of it. However, if you want to just cover the latter, Zhongdian is an ideal point to enter. The northernmost county seat of Yunnan province, it’s easily reached by long distance bus journeys from Kunming. Daily flights are also available from Kunming to Zhongdian, but an eco-friendly option is to take the train or bus to Lijiang from where Zhongdian is a three-hour bus ride. You can also fly Thai Airways via Bangkok. On your way back, you may fly back from Lanzhou or Chengdu.
When to visit
March to May are the driest months. June and July though fairly wet is when the nomads gather for a summer of horse racing festivals. August to September is the heaviest tourist season.
With proper maps, adequate gear and a good phrasebook, an independent trip is more than possible. Else, contact Bike China Adventures, Inc. (www.bikechina.com) — they customise trips and can even organise a guide, if you need one. Their tours cost anywhere between $90-180 per person per day and may include the cost of a rented bike.
Where to get your gear
Kunming is a good place to purchase good Trek and Merida bikes and touring equipment. Xiong Brothers’ Bike Shop is probably the best shop in town. They don’t rent out bikes. As for hiring bikes in China, it’s best avoided, unless you get it from recommended bike tour operators such as Bike China Adventures.
Where to stay
Zhongdian has no dearth of good guesthouses while other towns along the way with pleasant backpacker coves include Lithang, Khanding, Danba and Langmusi; www.wikitravel.org has reliable accommodation entries for some of these towns.
Ranwa is a beautiful Tibetan village along the way with a clean but basic guesthouse by the hot springs. Sangdui has a very basic luguan (cheap hotel). The nearby Bangpu monastery is increasingly seeing more tourists. Longriba has little to offer for stay but watch out for nomad camps that also cater to tourists during the season.
Backpacker dormitories should not cost more than 25RMB, even in the bigger towns, except Beijing. A double room in the hotels in smaller towns costs around 60RMB. This figure could go up to 80-120RMB in bigger towns.
What to carry
Maps — the Nelles series maps of China, South and Central (1:1,500,000) contain the entire route covered. Topographic maps are unavailable and prohibited for sale in China so it is essential to come prepared.
Compass or GPS depending on tech quotient.
A good light tent is extremely important for the wilder parts. A tough climb may mean you may not reach the town marked on the map.
Water filter or purifying iodine tablets. Streams abound in these mountains but so do yaks and yak dung. Depending on the season, water may be muddy, making filters essential.
Camping stove — cycling burns calories and unleashes hunger terrible. Be prepared.
Warm layers, windproof and preferably waterproof layers as well.
A good phrasebook. The Lonely Planet Mandarin phrasebook has some useful inputs for camping and asking for directions.
Tools, tubes, spares and parts must be stocked up. None of the towns have good bike shops.
Carry enough cash — while Renminbi and Yuan are the official names of the Chinese currency, locals often use Kwai instead.
The stretch covered did not require any permits. However, certain areas further north of Lithang require permits. A good idea is to drop into PSB or Public Security Bureaus to enquire. It’s often better not to mention if you are travelling by bicycle. For more information, see www.gokunming.com, which has a rather active forum managed by locals and expats.