Leaving Litang behind, the warnings about the road were ringing in my ears. Graham, who I had met in Laos, had passed through this way a couple of months ago and warned me about the bad road surface, lots of trucks and ongoing construction between Litang and Kangding. I had thought that Graham had made a mistake about where the roadworks were as the last day of the route into Litang had been really bad. Surely it couldn’t be worse than that I thought. As it turns out the road is being upgraded and widened in places. Many of the Chinese cyclists (CCs) I had talked to in Litang voiced the same opinion saying that I would have two very bad days riding. So it was that I passed under the city gateway and into the first set of roadworks
It seemed as though I was losing as much height on the descents as I was gaining on the climbs. It came as a bit of a shock soon after lunch to find myself cresting a rise with a sign reading 4718 metres, another new high for me. I hadn’t thought that I had gained that much height. Just around the corner though, the road climbed again. There was no sign of a height marker though, just a group of about eight CCs heading to Lhasa (again). They keep asking me if I have come from Lhasa. It’s as if they think there is only one route to ride and if I am not on my way to Lhasa then I must be on my way back from there.
Once more the scenery was fantastic, although maybe not as dramatic as the first leg across the mountains, but then again I do have another four days or so to go. Later in the day I came across a couple of large tents on the roadside where another CC flagged me down. It turns out that this is one of the stops for many of them. The owner charges fifty Yuan for an evening meal, a place to sleep in the tents, complete with raised mattresses and blankets etc, and breakfast. As it was only five o’clock and the next group of tents was only twelve kilometres away I decided to push on, even though it was just about all uphill and the clouds looked menacing. The climb wasn’t too bad but the wind was picking up on the top of the mountain. For about an hour I had dodged all but a couple of drops, the rain seemed to stay just behind a rise on my right. During the day I had been watching the clouds build across the mountains. Only to be expected of course, but you never know when things can turn at this altitude. Rounding a bend at the top of the hill I caught the full blast of the wind and more than a few drops of rain. It was all downhill to the next group of tents and I could see them in the valley below so down I went. As it turned out it was closer to twenty kilometres, not the twelve I had been told about, to the tents.
As I descended from the crest of the mountain the wind picked up even more, making it almost impossible to ride in a straight line. When I reached the tents there were three women all trying desperately to stop the tent door flapping in the wind. Just as I got off the bike the wind picked up even more and the rain started to slant in. I had to wonder about my decision to spend the night there. The tent, although anchored securely to the ground, was flapping so much I could barely hear myself think and the rain was coming in sideways. The temperature had also dropped very quickly and I thought it best to get my sleeping bag out as well as using the blankets available. Twenty minutes later however the rain and wind had gone, the temperature had jumped right back up to where it had been and I was sitting down to a three course dinner. The wind here is definitely a warning signal that I have come to trust when it comes to rain. Thankfully it had abated during dinner as I don’t think I would have got to sleep with the tent flapping all over the place.
The next morning was spent undulating along the top of the mountain for about three hours before I rounded a bend and saw the next climb. Luckily it looked a lot steeper than it was and before too long I was at another crest, this time at 4659 metres. Just as I rounded the bend at the top I met yet another group of CCs, this time singing along to one of their teams guitar playing. The song was about going to Lhasa and was made up just before they set off. Once again a lot of photos were taken before I headed off on what has to be the longest descent I have ever made. It took me almost three hours before I had to pedal again, or at least it would have been if there weren’t any roadworks. The road surface was very bad in places with not only stones but rocks jutting up from the road. Another aspect of the rebuilding work is new bridges over the streams that join the main river from side valleys. The way this is done is to use a square shaped box through which the stream passes. Unfortunately this leaves a very hard edge protruding from the road bed until the whole section is tarmacked. Coming down hill this was particularly frightening as the concrete box was at times about ten inched above the rest of the road. The cars coming uphill were hitting them so hard I’m surprised there weren’t a few punctures.
Near the bottom of the valley was a hostel used by cyclists and motorcyclists on their way to Lhasa. As it was lunch time I decided to stop and took my first proper look inside a Tibetan style house. It was amazing. Every wall and ceiling was covered in panels, each painted with a different motif. The houses here are big and the rooms inside them much larger than the normal sized rooms at home. The panels were richly painted with characters and storylines from local folklore. Before leaving I was asked to sign the visitors book so I left a little note, my name and date and continued downhill. I began to notice a change in the CCs at this point. Previously they had all waved and shouted hello or good luck, but now there was barely a nod of a head from anyone. The groups are usually about 6 to 8 riders, although they tend to get stretched out on the climbs. I decided that I would wait for them to acknowledge me first before making any greetings. The number that did acknowledge me were very few. Perhaps it was because I wearing a buff around my face, that way they could not see I was a westerner. Maybe if I had removed it I would have received as many greetings as previously. I mean, don’t they know how unique I am out here ?
Talking with another group of CCs later on I was told that I had a very bad climb with a very bad road ahead. I assured him that the climb they were headed for was worse, very long and badly surfaced. He again asserted that my climb would be harder. While having lunch at a road side water stop (the trucks use a water drip to cool the brakes) I asked about the distance to the next large town called Yajiang. Indicating with fingers, I was told it was about ten kilometres and mostly uphill. Further on I was told it was 3.5 kilometres, with some downhill. This seemed about the correct distance if it was ten from the lunch stop. The climb seemed to go for a lot longer than ten kilometres though. The gradient was getting as bad as the road surface and to make matters worse there were convoys of army trucks heading in both directions. Blasting their air horns to eachother and at anything that moved, and even more so at anything that didn’t move out of their way. I was cursing loudly as I heard the noise echoing along the valley.
At one point I looked up and saw a line of trucks snaking their way up the mountain ahead of me. Tracing the line of the road to the summit I felt sure that this was not the road for me. It was definitely longer than three and a half kilometres jut to the top. Remembering that Yajiang was next to a river I ploughed on expecting the road to split just around the corner with me heading downhill. How wrong could I be. As I rounded the corner I realised that there was no other road and that my route was upwards. All day long my phone had refused to pick up a signal strong enough to allow it to pinpoint my exact location so I had relied upon others to tell me where I was and how far to Yajiang. Reaching another of the temporary construction crew villages I stopped to ask where Yajiang was. There was only one road and it was up. It was at this precise moment that my phone caught a signal and pinpointed me on the map. It turns out that Yajiang was about thirty kilometres behind me. I had been thinking of making that my stop for the night only to find that I had passed it earlier in the afternoon at the bottom of the mornings descent. This meant of course that I was destined to plough my way to the top of the mountain, not turning off and heading downhill. This was the climb I had been told about. So, what about the two people who both pointed in the direction I was heading, and who both gave me distances too ? I don’t know where they were thinking I was heading but they both looked at the map on my phone and were quite confident of their direction and distances. My only problem now was food and somewhere to sleep.
Just like last week when I ran out of water, a construction site crew came to my rescue. When I motioned to them that I needed somewhere to sleep they opened a door and showed me into an office complete with a bed. It seemed much better than the portacabin huts they used themselves, but I wasn’t going to complain. A hot instant noodle soup was also laid on and I was soon making myself at home. The only problem that I could figure out was the light switch, or lack of it. I had to sleep with the light on all night. But then again, if that is to be the worst of my worries for the evening then I can’t be doing too badly. I can’t imagine this happening at home, just like the local government admin centre staff in Thailand who gave me a place to put my tent and then bought food for us all and stayed to eat it with me before going home.
Back on the road the next morning I climbed for about 45 minutes before realising that the last part of the line that I traced to the mountain top was just a track and that the road was topping out just around the next corner. What a relief. A few more photos with some CCs at the summit and it was off again, undulating for about ten kilometres. Another huge descent with a fairy good road compared to those I had been riding lately, brought me to a huge traffic jam near the bottom where the new tarmacked road begins. When a motorist encounters a vehicle stopped in front of them their first reaction isn’t to find out what is wrong but usually to pull out and overtake it, regardless of whether there is somewhere for them to go. If there is a tail back due to roadworks it ends up with two lanes of traffic taking up the whole road with the same on the other side. As soon as the blockage is removed there is a new stalemate as drivers attempt to squeeze through gaps that are often non-existent. Luckily for me I can weave my way between them all and find a way out of the mess.
Not long after lunch and in the bottom of a beautiful valley I decided to stop for the day as my backside was killing me. My legs didn’t seem far behind either. Perhaps a bit of dehydration together with lack of sleep from the night before was taking a toll. I had been woken often by the sound of trucks going up and down the hill. With only about five hours in the saddle and a lot of it downhill it felt a bit of a cop-out, but Kangding is another 67 kilometres from here with a long climb involved so there is no way I would have made it that day. Instead I found another hostel that had only been open for about three months. After teaching the owner how to use the twin tub washing machine as I was the first to use it, I hit the sack for an afternoon nap. Kangding would be a good target for the next days ride.
As it turned out I decided to have another rest day and spent most of it lying in bed watching films copied from the owners laptop, getting up only for meals. A very lazy day indeed and one I was beginning to regret the next morning as it was raining slightly as I left the hostel. Climbing gently but against a headwind I was making little progress when the road turned up a different valley and the real climb began. The top of the mountain was hidden by clouds which swirled around giving only brief glimpses of the road near the top. At this point I was even contemplating how much it would cost to jump on a bus or to try flagging down a ride with a truck. The weather has been kind to me on this journey, only raining a few times and then only for short bursts which dried up quickly in the heat of SE Asia. Now in the mountains, the thought of spending long days riding in the cold and rain wasn’t making me smile, but once I had crested the mountain the lower I got on the descent the warmer it became and I was soon riding in a t-shirt again. The further I went down this climb the sorrier I was feeling for those heading up. It was long and in places quite steep. Even reaching the town of Kangding at the bottom the road still dropped as the valley fell away steeply. The valley is home to a number of hydro-electric dams, the river alternating between raging torrents over rocks to placid lakes waiting to unleash their potential energy.
Looking for a place to sleep that night I crested the last climb before Chengdu, another two days ride away, and found a cheap roadside hotel, and was almost immediately joined by three CCs. Nice timing for me as they were able to order dinner for us all, a six plate feast that disappeared quickly. At least they didn’t make a fuss about paying for my dinner as so many others had done. They took great pleasure in telling me how easy the next days ride would be for me. As we were only a couple of hundred metres from the top of the climb I was happy to tell them that tomorrow morning they would have a nice long downhill start to the day. Unfortunately I also had to warn them not to get too excited as they would have to face the long climb that I came down.
Reaching the town of Tianquan I stopped for lunch and found myself outside the China mobile shop where I dropped in to use their wifi. I was immediately met by a young man who worked there. He pointed out a stronger signal and gave me the password for it, apparently it's the private network they use within the shop. Very kind. He then asked me if I had eaten and would I like to join him across the road when I had finished. Yes, that would be nice, I said, just give me five minutes. When we crossed the road there were two of the young women who worked with him sitting with four large dished in front of them, waiting for me. A whole meal had been ordered, and paid for. Sichuan is famous for its food and I have to say that this went down as one of the best meals I have had in Asia. Absolutely refusing any money for the meal they told me that they were treating me. Considering I had only walked into the shop to use the free internet, and that I hadn't even spoken to the two women before, how could they treat me ? We like to help people they told me. With that they all went back to work leaving me absolutely stuffed. How much kindness and generosity can one person experience from complete strangers ?