Sichuan Tour. Day 12, 25 May. Tianquan to Chengdu

I awake at the crack of dawn with mixed feelings. Today is going to be the last day on the road, and it’s going to be an epic ride – 200 kms, all the way to Chengdu. The good thing is, I’m not feeling as worn out as I thought I would be. In fact, the legs (and butt) have long since crossed any thresholds that hampered me early in the tour. Long days, cold days, hot days, dusty days, high-altitude days – it’s great to know that I’ve ridden through it all. A pity actually. It would have been great to continue for another 2 weeks. But for now, I can subscribe to the maxim that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. But, it’s mostly a mental game, not physical.

All packed and ready to continue eastwards, I head out of the hotel to look for riding fuel. The sun is not quite up and over the horizon just yet, and the sky is a drab, ashen grey. There’s no wind but the morning air is chilly. The town is just stirring too, so not many vehicles are on the road. Outside the hotel, I see a shop a few doors away that has just opened its doors. It’s a mom-and-pop shop, and a couple of woks outside are sizzling with the contents frying merrily in the oil. It smells good, never mind that it’s against my practice of not eating food fried in what looks like the result of an engine oil change.

They don’t have much else besides the round crullers, similar to what we have back home that we call ‘hum chim peng’ but without any filling, and ‘shi fun’ or rice porridge, accompanied by some pickles. The fried stuff is pretty good, so I order another. This meal isn’t going to last me more than 20kms so I’d have to fuel up again soon enough.

Breakfast, prepared fresh and hot.

Rice porrige, pickles and round yue tiow...delicious

Appetite half sated, I make my way out of town. The road is still hugging the river and it makes for great cycling. It’s also still gently rolling but not for long. I am now heading into the plains that fringe China’s fourth largest city. I would find out later just how big the city is, and how long it would take to hit the bullseye.

A great start to the day's ride -- misty, verdant gorge with gently flowing river, just outside of town.

Sure enough, the road seems to level out indefinitely. Also, there are no more deserted stretches of roads that I always enjoy riding through. It is becoming increasingly busy, and even the air is a little muggier.

Halfway to Yaan, which is about 40 kms from Tianquan, I stop at a little noodles shop and order their house speciality – spicy, oily noodles. It looks quite lethal when it is served but surprisingly, it turns out to be quite decent. I suppose that will do until lunch.

Breakfast #2 -- freshly made noodles in spicy oily sauce. Quite good actually.

I soon arrive at the busy town of Yaan. It is morning rush hour and I have to weave my way through the tight traffic in the heart of town. Like Tianquan and Luding, Yaan straddles a river. It’s also a much bigger town than Tianquan, and its sole claim to fame is the tea came from around the district. I haven’t seen any yet though.

Once out of town, I have to contend with 3 unexpected inclines. Worse, they are long, protracted ones – and steepish in some places. Where the heck did these climbs come from? My troubles weren’t over. I’m having a hard time locating the correct road to Chengdu. At one point, I’m heading into an expressway, even riding part of it. Now I’m really desperate. I knew that the old road paralleled the expressway but I just can’t seem to find the exit leading to it.

As is often the case when I’m in difficulties, help comes unexpectedly — in the form of a friendly gentleman riding a purple coloured bike, with a matching purple coloured child carrier seat in the back. Definitely god-sent, as he is the only bicyclist on the highway, apart from me. Obviously, he must be heading somewhere near. After telling him where I am headed, he beckons me to follow him. A little later, we enter a short tunnel that veers off the highway. We exit into a small road and my friend with the purple bike smiles at me and points into the distance. “Chengdu”, he proclaims confidently.

Captain Purple, my saviour from Yaan, leading me out of town.

By now, tea farms are beginning to dominate the landscape. I’m now riding through the heart of Yaan’s tea-growing district. Every other motorcycle on the road seems to be carrying just-harvested tea leaves, or a tea farmer, recoqnisable by the basket on their back or their large hats, some of which are literally umbrella tops grafted onto a hat.

Nothing but tea everywhere.

Even road shoulders were taken over for drying tea leaves, kilometres of it.

Nifty umbrella hats

In between tea harvesting, beekeeping is sweet business

The day is getting hotter by the minute and I wish I am up in the cold mountains instead, even if it means single-digit speeds. At least the scenery there never fails to inspire tired legs.

But, I can’t really complain. I’ve had a good almost 2 weeks of great riding, and it’s now coming to the end of the trip. Today, I will end my tour in big, busy, smoggy Chengdu. The only consolation that makes it bearable will be the generally cool weather.

At the town of Qionglai, I spot a restaurant with big, bright brollies outside and big, bright characters on its signboard proclaiming its Sichuan offerings. It seems like a good place as any to stop and refuel, so I roll in out of the hot sun for another oily, salty meal (I ask to be spared the peppercorns this time).

Lunch in Qionglai

As always, I'm not disappointed, but the French beans fried with strips of fatty pork isn't too half-bad. So is the fried egg soup with fresh greens and tomatoes. Rice, as far my Chinese roots are concerned, is fine with me anytime. I like rice, so I have my fill. At least, the neutral taste of rice helps offset the oily, salty tastes. That, and the fragrant all-you-can-drink Yaan tea.

A loaded Surly never fails to attract attention

It’s getting really busy now, and the road has widened into 4 lanes. At a crucial junction, I ask 2 policeman directing traffic which is the best route to Chengdu (there seemed to be 2). After a quick exchange with his colleague (I catch a few words that sounded very clearly like ‘bicycle’) he points me towards the one on the left. I decide to take a chance with his recommendation and not follow the route already marked on my GPS instead.

Almost Chengdu...

But first, a long boring ride next to the expressway.

The rest of the ride into Chengdu is quite lacklustre, without anything remotely interesting to pique my curiosity. Most of the time (and it seems to go on and on and on), I seem to riding next to the Chenwenqion Expressway. I’m not making good time either, as the road is quite pot-holey, and cracked and broken in many stretches. I’m beginning to regret taking the policeman’s well-intended advice.

At one point, just before the town of Dayi, the old road abruptly ends at a bridge that’s being repaired. The workers ask me to turn back and point to a detour a little down the road. It turns out to be in even worse condition – a dirt track with big muddy potholes but luckily, it’s a short one. Soon, I’m on the big, wide multi-lane road again, coming into the town of Dayi.

Approaching Dayi

Wide, wide road leading into Dayi town.

It’s getting on a bit in the day and my engine is flashing the fuel-near-empty sign. Dayi is a very big, modern town, with many concrete structures dotting the landscape. There is also a lot of construction going on, so I have to contend with the dust and CO from vehicles as well.

A lady sitting at a table under a tree, knitting away in the dusk light catches my eye. She seems to be the proprietress of the ‘xiao mai pu’ behind her. After nihao-ing each other, I ask if she would be kind enough to help cook instant cup-noodles for me to which she happily obliged. She’s a cheery woman, and like so many on the road I had met before, she’s simply glad for some distraction. As I eat the tasty noodles and perk up with a Red Bull, she plies me with the usual questions. It turns out she’s just working at the shop and, rather sadly, aside from Chengdu and the surrounding towns, she says she never been anywhere her entire life!

Inevitably, her neighbours come over to check out the party under the tree. For good measure, I zoom out the screen view on the Garmin to show them where we all were at that moment on the world map, and also where I come from — oohs and aahs from the gallery — such moments are priceless to a bicycle tourer.

Late afternoon snack outside a small grocery shop.


I always enjoy meeting such folk on the road, even if my command of Chinese leaves a lot to be desired

Are we there yet?

Obviously not. I’m getting impatient and Chengdu doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer. The road is getting better though, and I can now cycle in a bike lane. Of course, being China, one must be alert at all times. People who lived on this side of the road will simply drive their motorcycles and even cars right onto the bike lane — in the opposite direction of where I’m going!

It’s the evening rush hour too, and I’m beginning to see many cyclists out for their evening rides on the bike lanes. A guy on a Giant mountain bike comes up to me and asks where I had ridden from. When I tell him Tianquan, he is quite flabbergasted. ‘So far!”, he exclaims. With an encouraging word, he rides off to complete his ride.

The sun has already set and I have just crossed into the first of the ring roads circling the city. It’s getting quite stressful now — I feel so disoriented with the bright lights, the din, the heavy traffic, the multitude of pedestrians going every which way. Worse, I’m feeling very hungry, and I can only think of the Sichuan BBQ shop next to Lazybones, which spurs me on a little harder.

English lessons along the way...

When you need to pump up your basslines...

Not a very tactful way of reminding their English-speaking inmates that they're missing a few marbles.

Bike lanes, with its own traffic lights, not that anyone cares, least of all cars and motorbikes.

Riding on the elevated highways into the heart of the city is not for the faint of heart, more so at night. It’s a good thing I’m running ultra-bright rear blinkers coupled with the blindingly bright, 900-lumen Magicshine light in front. Even so, it’s not an easy task either trying to locate the guesthouse, and I lose some time going round a bit in circles as I got nearer the centre of the city, in part also due to the fact that the China map in my Garmin was not offset-corrected (I had forgotten to add a crack file that would have corrected the irritating offset).

Riding into the very heart of Chengdu. Daylight is until after 8pm or so.

Finally, after what seems an eternity, I arrive at the front door of Lazybones – it is 9.30pm. I have been on the road for more than 15 hours, and I have ridden a butt-breaking 197 kms! It’s official – a new cycle-touring record for me! I feel so elated, even if I’m totally knackered. I can only wonder how much calories I expended today. I know for a fact that my pants are now a few notches looser; they always are after a tour. But for now, a quiet little hip hip hooray will suffice.

Making my way in through the front door, the staff are surprised to see me at such an hour. Although I have reservations, there is no single room left, so the nice girl gives me a twin room instead, on the ground floor. Thank goodness for that. I’m not sure if I can climb the stairs after this. My room is at the end of the corridor, and in my present state of mind, and body, I really don’t care, so I just park my bike outside the door.

Not quite what you'd expect from a backpacker GH. Feels like I'm in Bali.

My lovely room...with no view.

Sichuan BBQ, here I come!

I ate very heartily that night. How heartily, you might ask? Well, even I was shocked by the bill.

Part of my dinner

More of my dinner... I need some roughage.

Yes, that's part of my dinner too...

The mother helping out...sleeping baby and all.

Tomorrow, and the day after, I explore the city of Chengdu. But tonight, nothing will wake me once my head hits the pillow.

……………………………………………………

RIDE STATS:
Tianquan (708m) to Chengdu (508m)

Total ride time: 15.5hrs (13.5hrs on the bike)
Distance to day: 197km
Total tour distance: 957km

Sichuan Tour. Day 11, 24 May. Luding to Tianquan

Big busy cities are not really my cup of tea. Its outskirts are usually not much better either; they’re usually drab, dull and dusty. Chengdu and its surrounds tick every box in the list, which is why I wanted to get the last part of riding over and done with ASAP.

But, as the title of this post suggests, I failed in my attempt to ride at least half of the remaining 300km to Chengdu.

I left Luding at about 8.30am, after another typical Sichuan breakfast of crullers, plain dumplings and soya milk. The air was still a bit chilly, but the day seemed very promising. Today would see me achieve another record of sorts – riding through the longest tunnel ever in my touring career – the 4 km long Erlangshan Tunnel.

But first, there was some climbing to do… not the serious climbs that I had been through early in the tour but still a climb – some 27 kms of it.

First order of the day -- breakfast. Freshly made yue tiow...

..accompanied by soya milk and plain dumpling

The ascent started just a little outside Luding, the well-paved road gently winding its way up into the mountains. As always, the scenery is a balm for tired legs, and immensely gratifying to the soul. I never tire of this.

My guess is it has something to do with making Tibet a better place...by the Chinese, of course.

The only thing that jars you out of your reverie as you pace yourself up this side of the mountain are the massive 10-wheelers (some with more than 10 wheels) negotiating their way down the mountain – the loud revving of their low gears straining under engine-braking, and clouds of steam spewing out of the sides as water tries to cool down the overheated brakes. Which means the side of the road which descended is perpetually wet from all that braking. It’s quite unnerving when these monstrosities rumble pass you, and more so when you’re smothered in the billowing steam.

Fresh fruits in season, those that grew naturally in this region, were in abundance, and they could be found lining the roadside – walnuts, peaches and raspberries being the main draw. It was time to indulge.

Cherries!

and walnuts

and peaches.

and raspberries

After passing a few stalls, at the little town of Gangudi, I stopped at a stall that offered the aforementioned fruits.

As usual, a typical exchange would ensue, with me trying to pass off as Chinese, and the Chinese women in their provincial patois, which meant half of whatever they were saying was lost on me.

“How much are these?”, me pointing to the baskets of absolutely delicious looking raspberries.

“20 kuai”, came the quick reply. She must have seen through me as a poseur Chinese. Well, it was still dirt cheap by Malaysian standards, which works out to about RM10.

“Aahh…I can’t finish the whole basket. Can I just buy half?” I asked the lady.

“Of course, no problem” was her reply and she proceeded to pour half the succulent contents into a plastic bag. I couldn’t wait to pop a few into my mouth. There were incredibly sweet. I then opened the handlebar bag, rearranged the contents a little so that the raspberries were on top, and proceeded to pedal off, happy in the thought that another memorable experience was in the bag.

“Hey” I was jolted by a very loud shout. “Mei yo kei chien ah!” (Haven’t paid yet!)

In my raspberry-induced excitement, I had completely forgotten to pay her, but despite her tone of voice, she was still smiling. Apologising profusely, I paid her the money and she, in her benevolent, motherly manner, took a plump little peach and pushed it into my hand, as if to make up for her shouting at me. How sweet…

I continued on my journey, with the handlebar bag top open, popping a few berries into my mouth every few pedal strokes, slowly savouring its sweetness. After only a few hundred metres, my fingers were all purple in colour, and it looked like it was going to stay coloured for a while. I was pretty sure my tongue matched my fingers in all its purple glory.

How to eat raspberries on the go...

Purple was the colour of the day

The weather was lovely, the air nice and crisp, the scenery captivating, the incline agreeably nice and I was eating freshly picked raspberries while I ambled along at a leisurely pace towards a personal-record-breaking ride through a 4 km long tunnel. Honestly, can it get any better?

It can, and it did.

As I rounded a sharp switchback, I was assailed by very tantalizing aromas of meat being cooked. I thought I must be downwind of some restaurant’s kitchen exhaust fan. I was right … but it wasn’t a restaurant. It turned out to be a huge store that sold only one thing – bite-sized meat snacks prepared in every conceivable manner. I had to buy some, of course. They weren’t cheap but seeing as these were prepared right here in the store, it had to be fresh. It looked like my food store was growing.

Meat heaven..

Meat, cooked every which way you could think of ...

and then some...

including dried.

A few kilometres before the tunnel, I came to a viewing point by the side of the road. It was actually half a viewing point, the other half having been taken over by some locals peddling cure-all type of merchandise. There were some very strange looking things on display. The stall owners were obviously bored from the lack of customers and I was the convenient distraction that just rolled in.

We went through the standard exchange of small talk and the younger of the two I was talking to suddenly volunteered to take a photo of me with his fellow peddler. He must have been bored out of his wits. They were also quite disappointed when they couldn’t persuade me to buy some of their exotica. Well, I obviously had no use for deer antlers and lingzhi and whatnots on the road.

I have no idea what those little furry things are...

Deer antlers I could recoqnise

The view of the valley I had just ridden up from

wish i knew what it meant...

The first of 2 tunnels before the actual 4km Erlangshan Tunnel

In the distance, you can barely make out the entrance of the Erlangshan tunnel

Free for bicycles, of course.

Actually, no bicycles allowed...except for Malaysians.

Almost there...

Finally, the entrance to Erlangshan tunnel.

The tunnel is very well lit, with emergency laybyes at regular intervals. It was cold inside

The tunnel exit...and into a different world..

Misty, wet and cold.

But the scenery was just awesome

It would be awesome too, if one got hit by these boulders..

Just a few kilometres later, I had to stop and layer up more clothing. The cold was just too biting. Even so, a little later, I had simply had to stop…I needed breakfast #2 to warm me up. I stopped at a little shop and walked inside to find that it was also part of a home converted into a restaurant. The living room was next to it and inside, on a low coffee table, was an electric brazier. One of the 2 sisters running the shop was inside while watching TV, comfortably warmed by the heater/electric cooker. Seeing me in my cold misery, she very kindly asked me to come inside and warm myself. Immediately, I sat myself next to the brazier and felt the life-giving warmth creeping back into my body. That wasn’t all. I looked up to see the sister smiling at me and offering me a glass of steaming hot tea. They had to be angels walking on earth.

Pretty soon, the fried rice I ordered was served. I was a bit surprised by the size of the bowl but later, I was even more surprised that I actually finished it. Cycle-touring does make you a bottomless pit.

Also good for warming up humans...

My goal of reaching Yaan, which is about halfway to Chengdu, faded when the last 20kms to Tianquan became rolling hills instead of what I thought would be downhill all the way. Worse, it had begun to drizzle a little. At 6pm, I rolled into the town of Tianquan and I knew I would have to call it a day here.

Tianquan is a mid-sized town, not particularly pretty or interesting. I stopped at the first decent looking hotel and checked myself in, not without some effort though. The residents of Tianquan were mostly Foochow, and I was completely bewildered with their questions, seeing as I wasn’t a Chinese national. I wasn’t quite sure but I think the hotel was only for Chinese nationals. In the end, I had to fill up some kind of from that didn’t look like it was for guest registration. This was an oldish hotel so the the rooms were pretty big, with high ceiling and art deco type of furniture. The plumbing wasn’t in full working order but for only 60 yuan, I wasn’t complaining.

The hotel I stayed in... located at the opposite left of the junction

Another day, another oily, salty meal...

Out on the street, I came upon a pushcart selling roasted corn. It was nice just standing at the stall waiting for the corn to be ready

I’ve also decided that tomorrow, I was going to ride all the way to Chengdu – all 200 kms all of it. It would be flat anyway, and I’d rather kill myself in one day of extreme riding and enjoy an extra day chilling out in Chengdu than do it in 2.

I must be a closet masochist … I think…

 

Sichuan Tour. Day 10, 23 May. Tagong to Luding

(Click here to see full route-map and ride-journal listing)

The van came earlier than expected, so I had to rush through my breakfast while the driver waited, a bit impatiently. Sally Kham and her mother were the dutiful hosts and sent me on my way with warm goodbyes. I shall miss the both of them. They’ve made my short stay here a really enjoyable one.

My bike was unceremoniously loaded onto the roof of the van and strapped down. The van was already full, and I was ushered into the back row, sandwiched in between 2 Tibetans. The entire van was actually filled with Tibetans, all 12 of them, including the driver. But, as is common in Asia, squeezing in a couple more passengers won’t hurt, and this the driver did — stopping in the town to pile on another 2 passengers. Now we totalled 14, of whom 4 were monks.

All ready for the 97km drive to Kangding

2 of the 4 monks

This is what a full load of 14 talkative Tibetans in a van looks like.

Out of Tagong, blue skies framed against green hills, mostly occupied by farms.

As the elevation increased, the temperature started dipping...

At the top of the pass. Cloud-covered and very cold.

Obviously there were others who didn't share my views on riding up a cold, steep mountain. I could only look on in envy.

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After Xinduqiao, the smooth road ended, and for almost 2 kms, it was a slow bumpy ride. The road was climbing steeper and steeper now, and we were moving into the clouds. Sally’s mom was telling the truth about the conditions here. As we neared the pass, there was more and more snow on the hillsides. We were also moving into the clouds, and visibility was starting to deteriorate. I’m very sure I would not have enjoyed riding up this section. It was definitely colder and windier than Balangshan. But, surprise surprise… there were others more gungho than me – Chinese cycle tourers coming from the direction of Kangding, undoubtedly heading for Lhasa.

I was all praise for them. It’s a very, very tough ride heading west, and very slow going, too. After the pass, it was all downhill, all the way to Kangding. The Chinese-ness was very apparent as well. It was also very cold. Due to its location, the wind blows through it all year round. Kangding is worth spending a couple of days to explore its surroundings. It’s quite a pretty town, with a fast river rushing through it. At the local market, the van disgorged all its passengers. It was time to ride – all the way downhill, or so it would seem (doesn’t it always?) After just 2 kms out of town, I had to stop and layer up on more clothing. It was cold.

Thw town of Kangding, with a river flowing right through it. The wind seemed to blow constantly through this town

Sounds like 'I am clever' in Hokkien

Fascinated by these fruits that I had never seen before, I stopped to buy some from these camera-shy ladies. It was cheap, delicious and freshly plucked from the orchards behind them. This fruit was everywhere.

I lost count of the number of tunnels that I rode through. It can be unnerving when a large truck passes you by while you're at the halfway point.

.

As I exited the tunnel, I came upon 3 Chinese tourers headed for Lhasa (don't they all?). They seemed a little underpacked. They were also all smokers, which is as common as bicycles in this country.

As I suspected, it wasn’t going to smooth downhill all the way. 12 kms from Luding, the road turned bad — I was riding through what would be the bottom of a dam when fully completed. I didn’t know it then but it was rough riding all the way to just outside the town of Luding.

Although it was mostly flat elevation, it was slow going, and it wasn’t made any better by the amount of dust stirred up into the air by fast moving traffic. I’m quite sure I breathed in more than enough dust to last me a lifetime.

This was going to be a huge dam. I'm riding through what would eventually be the bottom of the dam itself.

Halfway through, traffic came to a standstill. No cars were coming from the other side either. The line of stuck traffic snaked all the way to as far as the eye can see. It looked bad but… bicycle rules! I merely squeezed my way in between the cars and rode for quite a while and came to a … landslide. A bulldozer was in the midst of clearing the debris and across the mound of rocks and earth an equally long line of useless vehicles stood waiting.

I felt so smug knowing that I was going to be on my way in a jiffy. As I carried my panniers across the obstacle, 2 other Chinese cycle-tourers were doing the same thing. We looked at each other as we crossed paths and just grinned knowingly. It was crazy dusty, thanks to the bulldozer and I could only risk a quick photo as I crossed over to the other side carrying my bike. The motorists could only stare at me glumly. They must have been there for quite a while.

The line of traffic going nowhere stretched all the way to as far the road can be seen.

After crossing the landslide. Bicycle rules, yeh!

Cars suck, yeh! Hapless motorists waiting in the sun for the bulldozer to finish clearing.

The town of Luding, located on the wide and fast flowing Dadu River.

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My first meal in Luding was at a small mother-and-son shop. Not more than 5 ft in height, she's nearly bent doubled over. For many Chinese, life goes on despite their hardships.

Filial son at work in their rustic little shop that had seen better times.

My 60Y room at a hotel meant for Chinese nationals. BY the time I was shown the room, agreed on the price and found out I wasn’t Chinese, it was too late for the young couple owner to refuse me the room, so they gave it to me anyway. Notice the little square hole on top? That’s ventilation for the next room that had no windows. I could hear a whole phone conversation going on between a Chinese cycle-tourist (there was a bunch of them staying here) speaking to his girlfriend in heavily accented Cantonese.

The view from my room. I always enjoy the sound of the river when I sleep.

Luding's claim to fame. The more-than-300-years-old bridge that turned the tide of war between Chiang Kai Shek's nationalists and Mao Ze Tung's Red Army. Both sides were racing through the night trying to capture this crucial bridege as whoever controlled it had the upperhand. When I was there, it was closed for renovations, but later in the evening, I sneaked in the enclosed area and walked across it.

Excerpt from Wikipedia on The Long March and the bridge:

Fleeing from pursuing Chinese Nationalist forces, the communists found that there were not enough boats to cross the Dadu River (Sichuan province). Thus, they were forced to use Luding Bridge, a Qing dynasty suspension bridge built in 1701. [1][2] The bridge consisted of thirteen heavy iron chains with a span of some 100 yards. Thick wooden boards lashed over the chains provided the roadway across the bridge.

On the morning of May 30,1935 the 4th regiment of Lin Biao’s 2nd division, 1st Corps of the Chinese Red Army received an urgent order from general headquarters: Luding Bridge must be captured on May 29, 1935, one day ahead of the original schedule.

The 4th regiment then marched 120 km in less than 24 hours. Along the way, they engaged and defeated numerous nationalist forces which blocked their path. On the dawn of May 29, 1935, Lin Biao’s troops reached the bridge, only to discover that local warlords allied with the ruling Kuomintang had removed most of the planks on the bridge. Furthermore, Luding City itself was occupied by a regiment of troops from warlord Liu Wenhui’s 38th Brigade, 4th brigade, under the 5th division of the 24th Corps. The brigade’s commander, Li Quanshan (李全山), was also a wealthy opium dealer. This was a common business for many of the local warlord commanders. Li Quanshan’s (李全山) direct superior, Yuan Guorui (袁国瑞), the commander of the 4th brigade, was reputed to be an opium addict himself, as were most of the troops[citation needed]. Li divided his regiment into two parts, with two battalions deployed inside Luding City, while another battalion was deployed some distance outside in the suburb. His defending forces still enjoyed numerical superiority over the attacking Red Army. The 4th regiment had lost considerable strength during the hurried 24 hour march – approximately two-thirds of the soldiers had fallen behind during the march – and only a battalion-sized force had reached the western bank of the Luding Bridge that morning.

Although it was officially closed to the public, I noticed there were some tourists walking across. The entrance was covered with hoarding but there was an opening in it and this was where people were slipping through. Obviously, I did the same. Mission accomplished.

The best kebabs I have ever tasted. This hawker is a rare sight in this part of the world -- a Muslim Uighur from Xinjiang.

This particular street on a slope offered stall after stall of Sichuan BBQ.

From Luding, I’m only about 300 kms away from Chengdu, and the end of my tour. Tomorrow, my plan is to ride to about half of that and end the day at Yaan, a tea-growing region. Tomorrow will also be a very interesting ride up the mountains again (the last big one), and I’m really looking forward to riding through the 4-km long Erlangshan tunnel. So far, the longest had been about a kilometre long so this one should be interesting.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

RIDE STATS:
Tagong (3,700m) to Luding (1,350m) via Kangding (2,527m)

Van to Kangding: 97kms

Bike from Kanging to Luding: 54km

Distance today: 151 km

Distance to date: 647 km

Sichuan Tour. Day 9, 22 May. Tagong Pt 2

In all my years of travel, no other land has touched me more deeply than Tibet. And it’s easy to see why travellers are so enamoured of this part of the world. Few destinations can compare to the majestic snow-capped mountains, the cold Himalayan weather, the grasslands, the people, their religion, and the fiercely individualistic nature of their ethnicity, never mind the fact that China has always maintained that Tibet has always been part of China … and always will be.

Life is held in high regard here, as would be expected of a people who believe that in their next life, they could come back as an ant or, if the heavens should so ordain, a Dalai Lama. The chase for good karma is a never-ending one, and one can never accumulate too much of it. It also explains why serious crime is uncommon here.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more days to spend here. If I did, I would have travelled further inland and perhaps, try to wrangle my way into a Tibetan home to stay a night, preferably a nomadic family living out on the open grassland in a tent made of spun yak hair. I had seen one of these in Tagong, but it was on the other side of a long fence.

Tibetans are distinctly unique in the way they look, talk and dress, so people-watching is a great pastime here. But of all the Tibetans I have met, none was more captivating than the woman who manned the public toilet in Tagong’s town square. She would sit all day outside the WC (that’s ‘water closet’ to the uninitiated of this rather archaic term in the British lexicon), as proclaimed in big bold letters in red.

As I observed her (the toilet is not far from Snowland GH), she would move from her perch in the sun to the entrance of the toilet and back again. I gestured to her that I wanted to shoot her portrait but, as is usual with such situations, she made the universal sign for mullah, rubbing her thumb and forefinger at me. I obliged.

Her deeply tanned face was beautifully wrinkled with lines that told a thousand stories, and her rheumy eyes were a striking contrast to her well-cared for teeth, still intact and of good colour despite her years. Her face so struck me that I could only wonder at her life. In spite of her lowly occupation, she looked very dignified.

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A great pun if ever there was one...

This was another beautiful specimen of a Tibetan woman that I came across in the monastery. Her clothes and demeanour seem to suggest a higher station in society.

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Here, she’s with her daughter who, going by what I saw in town, was clearly the most well-dressed woman around.

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Never one to waste a good sunning opportunity, Sally Kham (left) and a friend warm themselves outside the GH.

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Might as well boil some water while we’re at it. These solar contraptions are quite amazing.

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The old dude wasn’t waving a hello, he was telling me to sod off and not take their picture.  Some Tibetans are not particularly happy when a tourist points a camera at them, so sometimes I would do the next best thing — shoot from the hip while looking the other way.

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The new generation Tibetan. There was nothing traditional about him, including the round boom box behind the seat. They would ride around with music blaring at full blast, making a racket, and a nuisance of themselves.

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A friend of Sally’s dropped by for a chat and was surprisingly quite accommodating when I pointed my camera at her

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Laghang monastery was next on the list of things to see. Despite the 20Y entrance fee, it was worth it. The main courtyard was a little messy — they were carrying out some renovations, adding on more buildings to the complex. I climbed up the steps to the main hall and entered a totally different world. My objective was the main prayer hall, the inner sanctum of the monastery. Cameras, unfortunately, were only allowed into the smaller halls and not the main sanctuary where it was the most striking in its colours and experience. So, I’ll try to describe what I see …

As I pushed aside the curtain, I walked over the threshold and entered a kind of ante-chamber. Here, there were 3 devotees doing their Tibetan Buddhist thing. First, they would stretch their hands straight up above their head; then they would get down on their knees and stretch their bodies forward, prostrating themselves fully on the floor. Then they would raise themselves up to their knees again, in reverse, stand up, stretch their arms up in the air, and repeat the entire action — again and again and again, for Buddha knows for how many times.

As I tore myself away from this riveting spectacle, I stepped into the main sanctuary. I was immediately engulfed by warm air, laced with the unmistakeable scent of yak fat which was the main source of fuel for the hundreds of burning candles and oil lamps. The place was dimly lighted by the warm glow of these lamps. It was beautiful. I had never experienced anything like this, and it was quite surreal. All around were every imaginable likeness of figures of Tibetan Buddism, many of which were unrecoqnisable to me.

On the main altar, a huge figure of Buddha loomed over the hall, and here and there monks were about their duties. Something else captivated me as well — Yuan notes stuffed into nooks and crannies everywhere, not just the offering boxes. There was a small fortune here… multiply that by the days of the week, month and year and it could come up to a pretty penny.

The exterior of Laghang monastery

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The main courtyard. The building on the left seems to be newly built.

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The main entrance to the main hall. Notice the black curtains..

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One of the smaller halls where cameras are allowed. The intricate designs and colours are mind-boggling.

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A lot of effort went into the buidling of this monastery. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

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Truly, the yak is indispensable. No other type of fuel will do except yak fat.

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Look carefully and you can spot the Yuan notes stuffed here and there.

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As I walked around exploring the monastery’s many outhouses, I was floored by this sign, or rather, the huge word on it. ‘Reliquary’, according to Mr Collins, is a ‘ receptacle or repository for relics, especially relics of saints’. Never thought I’d improve my vocabulary in a Tibetan monastery.

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Tomorrow, I make my way to Luding, a very Chinese town straddling the banks of Daduhe. Of course, I won’t be riding all the way. There’s a massive 4,300m pass to to cross, which I’m told, is very, very cold, and this was from  from Sally’s mom. Hearing this, I did not hesitate to ask Sally about public transport to Kangding. Sally was an angel, promptly arranging a seat for me in a van going to Kangding the next day. Kangding is 97 kms away from Tagong, and 54 kms away from Luding, most of which will be downhill. Just the ticket, as there was no way I could keep to my schedule otherwise.

Sichuan Tour. Day 9, 22 May. Tagong, Pt 1

Tagong is cold.

Daytime temperatures hover between 15-20°, and at night it drops to below 10, so understandably, not many people wander around at night. The wind blows constantly throughout the day; sometimes it’s gusty but mostly it’s just light breezes. Regardless, the wind is always cold. But, in spite of it, I really like this town; it’s as Tibetan as they come, which is something I’ve been looking forward to experiencing as a cycle-tourer.

I’m not leaving town today, so I take it easy. In any case, it’s a bit of a struggle trying to crawl out of a warm bed when the morning air is sharp, crisp and oh-so-chilly.

Sally’s mother is there waiting for me as I make my way to the dining room. Since I’m in Tibet, it’s only appropriate that I eat something Tibetan, so I ask for the barley pancake that was in the menu. She’s also having her own breakfast so I decid to join her. She is making her own breakfast of tsampa (barley flour mixed with tea and also yak milk, I think), yak cheese and bread.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and its surrounds. I especially enjoyed walking up a small hillock just on the edge of town, giving me a clear view of Tagong and beyond (see video below). I considered hiking up the other hill behind the town, the one bedecked with thousands of prayer flags arranged in a triangle but thought better of it. Even this small little hill had left me a bit breathless. The oxygen level, though not as thin as at the high passes, was thin enough to discourage lowlanders like me to go hiking.

Another very encouraging aspect of this town is the lack of tourists; something the locals lament … not that I’m complaining. Along the main street, almost every pedestrian, motorcyclist and driver was a Tibetan, including a few deeply tanned and tough looking specimens complete with gold teeth, ear-rings, high boots and one side of a long sleeve hanging by the side. No wonder this part of the world is sometimes referred to as the Tibetan wild west, what with the huge expanse of grasslands where the only real way to get around is by horse.

Note: Tibetan jackets feature really long sleeves, a design that does away with gloves. When it’s not as cold, they simply let one of the sleeves hang out, allowing one arm full freedom of movement.

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Sally Kham’s mother having her own breakfast after serving me mine (the piece of barley flour pancake in the foreground).

The bowl on the left is the barley flour. Tea is added slowly to make it a sort of soft dough and is eaten plain. The curly thing on the piece of bread is yak cheese. She gave me a bit to try … it was stringy and tasted sourish.


The view of Tagong town from the hillock. On the right is Laghang monastery. Facing the top left corner of the monastery walls is Snowland GH.


From the top of the hill I was on, a steel cable stretches across all the way to the hill on the other side, holding  hundreds of flags flapping and releasing the prayers inscribed on it to the wind.


(click to see full-sized pic)

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I couldn’t quite make out these slabs engraved with what must be prayers. They were piled up on top of the hill.


A chorten, a Tibetan stupa, stands majestically on this hilltop.


(click to see full-sized pic) An inspiring sight — in the foreground is the famous Nyingmapa monastery built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to commemorate the Han Princess Wencheng’s visit. If you look carefully, the 4 small towers in each corner sport a different colour each — green, red, yellow and white. Lining one side of the wall are 100 chortens (close-up below). The white peak far off in the background is the 5,800 metre Mt Yala, covered in snow all year round. It’s also the source of the Yala River which flows down to meet the Dadu River, which I had already crossed at Danba.

Video: 360° view of Tagong and its surrounds. You can hear the wind blowing in the background.

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Prayer wheels line one entire wall of the Laghang monastery. As the faithful laity walks around it, they chalk up more merit by spinning these wheels.

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Takes quite a bit of effort to get these wheels rolling. Naturally, the lubrication of choice is Yak fat.

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One of Tagong’s hotel/restaurant. This one is facing the town square. The chef seems to be sunning himself in between customers.

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It doesn’t look like much but that stuff on the floor is caterpillar fungus or yartsa in Tibetan. Worth its weight in gold, I was told the best quality yartsa can command up to USD18,000 a kilo! Crazy, when you think that it’s just dried mummified caterpillars unlucky enough to be attacked by some microscopic fungus. The ones in the box are already brushed clean while the newly picked ones are on the floor. No prizes for guessing which country is the biggest market for yartsa.

Here’s what wikipedia says about these expensive worms. Fascinating stuff::

In Tibetan, it is known as དབྱར་རྩྭ་དགུན་འབུ་ yartsa gunbu [Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun ‘bu, “summer herb winter worm”], which is the source of the Nepali यार्शागुम्बा, yarshagumba, yarchagumba. The transliteration in Bhutan is Yartsa Guenboob. It is also known as keera jhar or keeda ghas in India. Its name in Chinese dong chong xia cao (冬虫夏草) means “winter worm, summer grass” (i.e., “worm in the winter, [turns to] plant in the summer”). The Chinese name is a literal translation of the original Tibetan name, which was first recorded in the 15th Century by the Tibetan doctor Zurkhar Namnyi Dorje. In colloquial Tibetan Yartsa gunbu is often shortened to simply “bu” or “yartsa”.

The caterpillars prone to infection by the fungus live underground in alpine grass and shrublands on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 m (9,800 and 16,000 ft). Spending up to five years underground before pupating, the caterpillar is attacked while feeding on roots. The fungus invades the body of the Thitarodes caterpillars, filling its entire body cavity with mycelia and eventually killing and mummifying it. The caterpillars die near the tops of their burrows. The dark brown to black fruiting body (or mushroom) emerges from the ground in spring or early summer, always growing out of the forehead of the caterpillar. The long, usually columnar fruiting body reaches 5–15 cm above the surface and releases spores.

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A vendor with only 3 articles of (fly swatter?) for sale — it can’t be anything else except yak or horsehair.


Nice hat. Exclusively for use by Tibetan monks.


Dusty main street, Tagong.


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Butt crack! The ubiquitous split baby pants are everywhere. This little fella has got to feel the cold wind biting his butt.


Off to hard labour. Those stones look pretty hefty to me.

More about Tagong in pt 2…

Sichuan Tour. Day 8, 21 May, Danba to Tagong via Bamei

Well rested and refreshed, it was time to move on. Today, I’m heading for Tagong, famous for its grasslands. It would have been great to ride there but there’s a 4,000m pass (and freezing cold, too) to surmount and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to another oxygen-deprived ride. The plan was simple — take the mini-van to Banmei, about 80km away, and then ride the remainder of the 38km or so to Tagong (I was assured that it was all downhill from Banmei but…I’ve heard that one before). As well, I would not be able to make Luding and still keep to schedule, as this route is longer and adds a couple of days to my already tight itinerary.

So here I am, after a hearty breakfast of ‘pau’, and looking at the van that’s going to take me to Banmei . I had expected one of those tourist passenger vans, but somehow this one seemed a little shabby…..

A short distance out of town, the van stopped and the driver (in red shirt) proceeded to unload my bike to take in goods for Banmei. He explained that it'd be better if my bike was on top, which made sense.

So what was the load? Freshly slaughtered chickens! Oh man, I thought, I'm gonna suffocate with the stench of decomposing meat (think wet Pudu market, meat section)

But thankfully, because of the cold air, there was practically no smell whatsoever.

The road to Banmei is alpine country...the rich verdant greenery was so amazingly beautiful.

At this particular point, the river is crystal clear, gurgling over rocks that were reddish in colour. The driver very kindly stopped here for me and the other passenger to take in the views

I made a very smart choice in not riding the road to Banmei ... this was a particularly nasty section. Even the van had trouble getting up, so we came done and walked. Did I mention that it's freezing cold here?

Where we had just driven up from

A little after we descended the other side of the pass, the landscape changed dramatically -- arid and flat, very Tibetan.

Just before the town of Banmei where I started my ride to Tagong. The guy does the Danba-Banmei route almost everyday to deliver goods (and the occasional cyclo tourists and backpackers)

On the road, I was hailed with a 'Tashi Delek' from a passing monk ... I'm in the real Tibet now! (Tashi Delek: 'hello' in Tibetan)

The most happening place in Banmei -- where similar vans to the one I rode in congregate to pick up fares, either to Tagong, or to Danba.

The landscape was beginning to be take on a decidedly Tibetan influence. I was so glad I changed plans.

Just outside of Banmei, I stopped at this promising looking shop to have lunch

More 'Tashi Deleks' ... from these local slackers upholding China's national pastime, including the boss and cook.

The youngest waiter ever to have served me. He very dutifully poured me hot cha. Actually it was more like dragging the thermos across the floor.

The little fella was a joy to be with. Another one of those moments that really make your day.

How cold was it here? Count the layers...

Dad cooks up a storm while mom waits to serve it piping hot

Rice vermicelli soup and fried julienned potato with yak meat.

I gave up on the inner-tube yak meat after a couple of chews (discarded on the right side of plate)... As usual the food was spicy, salty and oily.

The road here is of the all-concrete variety...harsh but more lasting

Colourful prayer flags of every configuration are to be found all along the road.

Grand entrance to some grand monastery

Typical Tibetan architecture

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I was right again, or rather, I was conned again. It never fully turned out to be ‘downhill all the way to Tagong’. It was more like half and half, although the gradient was a little more forgiving than the one that went up to pass before Banmei. Still, it took a bit of effort, but the scenery more than made up for it. When it gets a little tough, I always stop to soak in the scenery and just be thankful that I can be here admiring God’s wonderful handiwork instead of slaving for the man in the office 🙂

The first thing that greets the visitor to Tagong — a prayer flag-covered hillside, and the looong row of prayer wheels of the town’s monastery.

The red building is the monastery and the guesthouse I stayed in, Snowland GH, is just next to it, the one with the red and white signboard.

First order of business — food.

Sally Kham, the owner of Snowland,  and her mother run the place. They’re not very good cooks but they more than make up for it with their genuine warmth and friendliness. This here’s is a dish of over-fried eggs and bacon and apple/cucumber salad.

Overly fried potato crisps...tastes great when you're hungry

My room, on the first floor

And the view of the hill from my room.

Tomorrow — exploring Tagong and its surrounds.

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Ride stats:

Danba to Banmei: 80km (by van), uphill all the way to the pass at 4000m, then downhill a bit to Banmei.

Banmei to Tagong: 38km half uphill, half downhill, concrete road all the way.

Distance today: 118km

Distance to date: 496km

Sichuan Tour. Day 7, 20 May, rest day in Danba

Danba, like many towns in China, owes its existence to a river. In Danba’s case, it’s 2 rivers — both of which meet at the confluence where the town sits. The bigger, more important one is the Dadu river, and it was made famous largely due to Mao Tze Tong’s Long March, and their crucial crossing of it at Luding, 133 kms due south and downstream of Danba.

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New uses for old tyres. Notice the special sewing machine next to the man

Danba lies in the eastern side of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is here that the Tibetan influence becomes more and more apparent as one moves eastwards. Danba is no different. The town’s claim to fame is Jiaju Tibetan Village,  a few kms out of town, and voted the most beautiful village in China. Understandably, I gave it a miss. Hordes of tourists are not really my thing.

Instead, on my first day off the bike, I decided to visit a less visited village not far out of town. It’s called Suopo, and the only reason it is less visited is because the only access to it is a pedestrian/motorcycles-only suspension bridge. Real tourists, you see, avoid walking too far to get to a tourist site, which was fine by me. But, the lure of big-bucks tourism has reared its ugly head. I can see a modern bridge being built about 100 metres from the old one. Before long, the lazy tourists will be bussed right up to the ancient stone towers of Suopo village.

The dirt road that runs alongside the main road and the Dadu river leading to Suopo. The bridge leading to the village is just ahead.

The only link to Suopo village...but not for long

This boy took me to see the best towers in the village for just 50Y

 

Some of these towers date back a thousand years

To get to one of the towers, we had to hike up a small hill

 

My guide was pretty good with a camera as well. Here, I've just climbed up to the top of a tower

My guide took me to visit this house when I asked if it was possible to do so

I even went inside to peek at a bedroom

The nice owner of the house

One that's being built. All materials come from the river

In China, they are very practical when it comes to baby clothes...just pee, poo and go, without having to take off any clothes

Villge lasses at a xiao mai pu

This one very obligingly posed for a portrait

I’ve decided to change my plans and instead of riding straight down south following the Dadu to Luding, I’ve decided that I want to go further west into Tibet country — Tagong and its vast grasslands. But, the thing is, I won’t be able to keep to schedule if I rode there. As well, there’s a 4,200m mountain to cross, and my Balangshan ordeal is still fresh in my mind. So, I do the next smart thing — go by public transport over the mountain into Bamei and then ride the last 30km or so into Tagong.

Sichuan Tour. Day 6, 19 May, Rilong to Danba

Warning: Pics-heavy post. Please be patient while it loads 🙂

The hotel in Rilong that I stayed in.

My hostess, a Qiang-chu (pronounced Chiang), a people different from the Qang-chu (Chang) or Tibetans. All the rest are Han-chu, or Han Chinese, which most of us Chinese are.

her husband

and her father.

I feel like lazybones today, even if I’m not in the Chengdu hostel of the same name. The sun was already up but I figured that I’ve earned the right to loll around in bed and get up at a indecently late hour, which in my case would be 9am. I took my time, and since it was too cold to take a shower, I did a quick Chinese-style wash-up and went downstairs to see what my friendly hostess was going to surprise me with for breakfast.

I was not disappointed – Tibetan flat bread, peanuts, raw cabbage and yak butter tea. What a combination. The bread was warm and sweetish with some traces of what I can only suspect to be yak butter. I’d seen 2 huge blocks in the kitchen, partly wrapped in newspaper. The yak butter tea? Well, I needed to tick that off my list, so I’m looking forward to it.

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Yak butter

Note: Lonely Planet lists yak butter tea as #2 in the list of ‘Top 10 Worst Experiences in Tibet’.

The bowl of tea was a murky white in colour. It didn’t smell horrible so I took a swig. It was …. not …. too … bad – a bit milky, a bit buttery in a yakky way, I suppose, and a bit salty as well. I couldn’t quite make out the taste of tea though, and I also couldn’t quite finish it either. Ok, been there, done that; it’s one for the journal. But I do think Lonely Planet was a bit harsh in their assessment. Personally, I would have listed it at #3 or maybe even #4 ……. The raw cabbage garnished with some weird condiments (I swear the whitish stuff on top was MSG, and lots of it) she served me was worse.

Having their own breakfast. The big urn is full of yak butter tea.

Aged pork hanging in the kitchen. There was quite a layer of dust on them. The nice hotel folks were having some for breakfast, so I asked for a bit to try. Surprisingly, it was rather good.

After such an interesting breakfast, the only other sensible thing to do would be – have a cup of coffee, freshly brewed, of course. I brought out my coffee equipment and proceeded to prepare myself a cup of hot brew, much to the amusement of my hostess, her husband, her sister and her father, a friendly guy who was always asking if I was ok. Seeing as I was the only guest in the hotel, I couldn’t blame him for being so fatherly.

Note: Rilong is suffering the same fate as Wolong and other tourist-dependent towns. Since the 2008 earthquake, cyclo-tourists not withstanding, tourists were far and few in between. The main reason tourists came here was to visit or trek up Siguniangshan, or Four Maidens Mountain, located in a natural reserve not too far from the town. The flashy hotel opposite the one (see pic below) I was staying, including a few similar ones, had long been shuttered down and was beginning to look very dilapidated.

Morning wash-up, to last the rest of the day.

After coffee, I went back to the room to pack up and get ready for what I knew to be a looooooong downhill ride to Danba, about 115km away. My legs were looking forward to a lazy ride today. I finally rolled off at 10.30am. Straightaway, I was on coasting on a beautifully sealed road, smooth and pothole-free. The scenery was just as breathtaking, and totally different from the other side of the mountain. There were more tracts on the mountain sides that were barren and arid brown in colour. At the same time, there were also abundant alpine greenery.

The houses are also different in their facade and architecture – mostly a mix of Tibetan and Qiang (say ‘Chiang’). However, they all shared one thing in common – the walls were built with slate, which is plentiful all around them. They also sported similar hieroglyphs and symbols, strangely, spray-painted on instead of drawn with a brush. The road continued to snake its way downhill, following the river faithfully. And for the first time since I started the tour, I was enjoying the awesome scenery unfolding before me … without having to do much pedalling. What joy. This was to continue all the way to the Xiaojin, a sizable town that straddled the river.

Almost every house I saw on this side of the mountain were made of slate, and sported pointed corners on the flat roof.

Check out this unedited, 4-minute video shot while passing through a small town::

Another one on the road…

The Qiang people here were definitely more friendly. This was an ice-cream stop at a Xiao Mai Pu.

Kids on the road:

One very glaring detail that I noticed -- no barriers

I shall always remember this nice, shady spot. I stopped for a break, took out an apple, peeled it and then ...dropped it on the dusty ground.

Just after 2pm, I arrived at the town of Xiaojin

...where I had lunch at this shop run by a friendly lady

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It was after busy lunch hour and I was the only customer so the friendly proprietress took time out to chat

An elderly admirer of my bike outside the shop

Out of Xiaojin....this was something to marvel at; a huge boulder on the left and a solitary tree on the right, directly opposite each other and claiming a section of the road each.

The smooth tarmac ran out soon after, with bad, dusty patches all the way to Danba, but the scenery was still very nice.

Finally at 7, I arrived at the T-junction where Danba is located. It is also the confluence of the Dadu River and Rilong River.

The bridge crossing the Dadu, the biggest river I

The town of Danba. The hostel I stayed in is on the left

My room with a nice view at Zha Xi Zhuo Kang Backpacker

Tomorrow, I take a well-deserved rest day and explore the town and its surroundings, and visit a couple of interesting villages.

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RIDE STATS:

Rilong (3,000m) to Danba (1869m)

Total ride time: 7.5hrs

Distance to day: 115km

Total descent: 1,131m

Distance to date: 378km