One of the most exciting aspects about planning this trip was the chance to experience the Tibetan plateau. With such a vast expanse of mountains to explore it’s a shame that I will only get to see a tiny fraction of it. There are so many Chinese cyclists heading to Lhasa in Tibet, a trip that I would love to do as it is supposed to be a beautiful ride, but unfortunately the Chinese government won’t allow unescorted foreigners into Tibet since they began occupying the country.

The route I have chosen skirts the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau, from Shangri-La, to Litang and on to Ya-an, before dropping again to Chengdu. There are other areas of beautiful mountains to the north west of Chengdu often referred to as the Chinese Alps which I plan to explore later. If they are anything like the mountains I have experienced over the last five days then I am in for a treat. I also have about five more days riding from Litang to Ya-an to feast my eyes upon.
I had calculated about 4 days to ride from Shangrila to Litang. The profile for the ride included a number of peaks above 4000 metres, higher than anything I had ridden before. In fact it took me five long days in the saddle to reach Litang, including four nights sleeping above 4000 metres. The route was dependent upon  the weather though as it can get quite nasty at that altitude. As long as it stayed fine then I shouldn’t have a problem. I managed to find a pair of waterproof over-trousers in Shangri-La that should keep my legs warm and dry but nothing to keep my feet dry. Fingers crossed that my toes don’t suffer too much if it turns cold. Things didn’t look good at the start of the first climb when it started to rain so I took shelter under an overhanging building where I was unknowingly being watched by a couple of women in the next doorway who ushered me inside to a warm fire. It was a couple of hours later before the rain had stopped. Luckily the women ran the local shop so I was able to buy a large pot of instant noodles and eat it around the fire while smiling at everything they said without understanding a word of it.

Although the rain clouds looked like they still had more to offer up the valley the road I was following turned up a different valley where the sun was making an effort to break through. It was a long climb with an increasingly strong tail wind which didn’t bode well for the night. Just after reaching the top and with the clouds darkening the sky I came across a group of shepherds huts made out of concrete blocks with a solid roof and wooden floor. A perfect refuge for a night out. I could have used the tent but later that night I counted myself lucky that I had found the hut as during the night the wind howled and the rain lashed down onto the corrugated metal roof with such ferocity that I’m sure the tent would have fared poorly, if not being uprooted completely. Warm and dry inside the hut I smiled to myself as I waited for the noise to stop again so that I could get some sleep. The morning didn’t look too promising either, but as I was camped out in a dip between two crests I knew I only had to ride a few kilometres before I could start descending again, and as soon as I did the sun began to show itself and light up the scenery around me.

That day I had to climb another mountain with three peaks all over 4000 metres. The scenery again was spectacular, but with a stony mountain road it took a long time to cross all three peaks. Finally cresting the third peak I needed to find a place to sleep and soon found a flat space next to a forest fire look-out tower. Thinking I was alone on the mountain for the night I was surprised the next morning to round the corner about fifty metres ahead and find a truck stop. There aren’t many in the mountains so it was quite good timing as I had almost run out of water. Refilled and with an early morning warm up by the wood stove I had to climb again before descending for what seemed like forever before reaching tarmac again. The view down into the valley was spectacular. It was so nice I decided to take out my tent and sleeping bag again to air them while just sitting and admiring the view for a while.

The only town of any size marked on the map during this stage from Shangri-La to Litang provided a good stop for lunch, after which it was back on the bike and climbing hard again. Another long hot climb took its toll that afternoon as I ran low on water. Refilling a bottle from a mountain stream just in case I ran out I was fortunate to find a little village shop selling water at three times the normal price, a bargain when it’s the only water around. The heat was still taking its toll though and during another prolonged climb I reached a point where I flagged completely and decided to stop at the first opportunity. It was a lovely spot next to a stream with the last of the days sun beaming up the valley to keep me warm while I cooked dinner. Continuing the climb the next morning I reached the highest point I have yet cycled at nearly 4400 metres. Once again the sun was shining all day and the scenery was spectacular.

Another long descent and another long climb followed that day. Once again I camped at over 4000 metres. Day four brought another new high at 4708 metres. Patches of snow lined the road but nothing of any size. I was still riding in shorts, t-shirt and jacket. Not long after that I met a Chinese cyclist coming the other way. We stopped to say hello and struck up two conversations, one in English and one in Chinese. Laughing at the fact that neither of us could understand what the other was saying except the names of towns from which we were riding from and heading to, we swapped snacks as a good will gesture and set off again. It was another one of those fleeting encounters with a fellow traveler that only seem to happen in the middle of nowhere. It was also the start of the new construction taking place along that road. The next day or so was spent riding along rough roads and through a lot of dust. A dramatic descent into a typical Tibetan town brought me to the point where I had to make another decision about my route. As the sun was still shining and I was still riding in shorts and t-shirt I decided to head north to Litang instead of opting for the lower southern route that was my last get-out should the weather not be favourable.

Not far along the road I met a Swiss guy and a German couple walking toward the temple about a kilometre away. Arriving in the early afternoon we were surprised to find the temples all but deserted. There were many houses provided for the monks but they were all locked up and empty. Less than ten monks were living there. We climbed up to the old temple to take a look at the view before descending to the river where I ate lunch before ploughing my way along another dust road. I almost ran out of water again but came across one of the construction crew villages. Refilling my water bottles I also spotted the tuck shop where I bought some Coke and biscuits. That took care of my afternoon snack dilemma. One of the cooks then came out and presented me with four hard boiled eggs as a gift. Once again the spontaneous generosity of strangers has shown

One more night under canvass brought me to Litang and the worst road I had yet ridden on this trip. Although the road had been recently rebuilt it proved a nightmare for me. The surface was gravel on top of a corrugated bed, an absolute pain in the backside to ride along. Unfortunately it was about 5 kilometres long and very dusty too. Reaching Litang I noticed a lot of cyclists, one of which led me to a hostel filled with cyclists heading to Lhasa. Apparently it is a famous stopping off point on the route to Lhasa as it is at the confluence of the two roads from Chengdu and Kunming, the two setting off points for the trip that thousands of Chinese make every year. Being the only westerner there I was immediately the focus of attention and was soon sought out by anyone speaking English or in fact anyone with a camera.

Litang is very much a frontier town. You can see Tibetan style houses, clothing and facial features everywhere. In most other places traditional dress has been worn only by the women there are quite a few men here wearing it too. Even the motorbikes are decorated in a distinctive style. There is also a large but mostly unobtrusive police presence here. I’m not sure why but maybe it’s all a part of the Chinese governments attempt to assert control over a people who stick very much to their traditions. It’s an interesting place to people watch as they spend time socialising in the main street and square. You can tell they are a close knit community by the way everyone acknowledges and greets eachother. Strangely enough though I have felt self-conscious about taking photographs of people here. Despite being greeted or smiled at by many there is a difference between people dressed in a traditional style for their daily lives and those dressed up for tourists. Even though I have had my own photograph taken so many times itf

One more rest day before I set off again into the mountains, a six day jaunt towards Chengdu.

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