Sichuan Tour. Day 5, 18 May, Deng Sheng to Rilong

Note: This post is photo-heavy. Please be patient while it loads 🙂

It was a cold, cold night sleeping in the tarpaulin-covered shelter. By 9pm, the temperature was already down to 15°, and I knew I was in for a tough night. The hut was not fully enclosed and the wind was picking up. The loose tarpaulin in front of the structure was flapping wildly in the wind, making quite a racket.

My Quecha sleeping bag had held up well. I’d just bought it at Decathlon, the sports hypermarket in Chengdu, as my arsenal of sleeping bags in my overflowing storeroom didn’t have one that was rated between 0° and 5°. Cheap at just 300Y, it kept me reasonably warm throughout the night. If it had been rated any less, I would have probably been frozen stiff in the night, which must have been well near the 0° mark. It sure felt like that when I reluctantly crawled out of it in the middle of the night to ease myself.

At daybreak I took a look at my watch. It was 5°. Worse, there wasn’t going to be any hot breakfast today. The camp was already up and about. I noticed that even the workers couldn’t handle the cold water that spewed out of the makeshift tap. The camp cook must have boiled a big pot of water for their morning wash-up. Using a small plastic container in the shape of a wide, shallow pot, they luxuriated in a quick wipe of their neck and face. It’s quite easy to easy to see when a person last took a full bath; just look at their hair. The principle is the same as those rasta dudes with dreadlocks. The key is not to wash it; just let it be. It’ll soon end up looking matted and hard.

At 8.30am, I was ready to hit the road. Blame the sleeping bag – it took a good 15 minutes before I could squeeze the darn thing back into its bag. It’s really amazing how it was packed in the first place; I mean, the whole thing would fill itself out into a voluminous sleeping bag once it was let out of its container. More practice needed, I guess.

Although it was still quite cold, the sun was already out and the clear sky was a promising blue in colour. 6 hours, maybe 7 tops – I reckoned that was how long it would take to ride 37 kms up to Balangshan. After that it would be a glorious 34 kms down to Rilong, which is still at a high altitude of 3,700m.

A few of the workers came out to see me off, including the kindly cook. Today, I was clad in insulated pants instead of shorts; going down the other side would be cold going. I felt so inspired today – the mountain tops were beckoning, and I was going to achieve a personal record of sorts.

Raring to go. Notice that my hair is beginning to take on the unbathed, matted look

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From here, I could see the road that I had ridden up the day before from Gengda

Almost level with the snow-capped peaks now...

 

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Endless switchbacks ... i enjoyed every torturous minute of it

The only tunnel of this road

and the awesome view that greets you as you ride out of it

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There were many yaks grazing on the impossibly steep slopes. These 2 were in the midst of crossing the road and stopped to eye me for a moment before dashing off as I came near.

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At 3,500m, about halfway up, I started to falter. The air was getting thinner and my engine was protesting against the lack of oxygen. But the scenery energised me. It was indescribably beautiful – alpine green mountains and white snow-capped peaks framed against a clear blue sky. Every once in a while, I would just stop and soak it all in. I would probably not be coming this way again so I wanted it to last.

At 3pm, my projected hour of arrival at Balangshan, I was nowhere near the top. It had been arduously slow going. In fact, it had gotten slower and slower as I moved up the altimetre. I was stopping more and more often, to get in some liquids as well as morsels of by-now very cold food (yesterday’s packed fried rice and eggs which had kept very well in the cold climate).

The last 8 or so kms were the worst. By now, I was nearing 4,000m and I was absolutely exhausted. At one point, I wanted to laugh out loud when I noticed that my cyclomputer kept registering ‘0’. It was that slow. I was in agony. I had moved into the clouds, and the wind was picking up. It was colder now.

Then I had a thought. Straight up wasn’t working. Every pedal stroke was painfully hard and the exertion was draining me. I started to wind (and whine) my way up instead. To say that I did not feel discouraged and defeated in this situation would be a lie. All I wanted was to go home, get a warm hug from my wife, drink a hot cup of Milo, eat a freshly toasted baguette slathered with melting butter, tuck in to my warm bed……

The winding helped tremendously. I was now making better time and suddenly I was chalking up the distance again. In granny gear (22 X 34), it was just easy spinning.

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Hitting a ceiling of clouds

At about 6pm, I turned a corner and there, laid out before me like a long, long snake winding its way up the mountain, was a set of switchbacks that led to the top of Balangshan. I knew this was it because of the familiar looking shrine that I had seen in photos of the pass. I counted the switchbacks and proceeded to make my way up. By this time, the wind was even stronger than before, and colder. My fingers and feet were already numb with cold. Then without warning, it hailed! Tic, tic, tic, it hit my helmet. Oh god, I thought, I was going to be deluged by a hailstorm. But, just as suddenly, it stopped.

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I continued on my last leg of the climb, riding into a howling wind. So near and yet so far. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached the pass. It had taken me 10.5 agonising hours. Words cannot describe the relief and joy that I felt on finally reaching the summit. It had been a long, hard day.

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At the top of Balangshan

and the road pointing down the other side

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I couldn't stay more than 5 minutes. I was shivering with cold in spite of 4 pieces of cold-weather clothing and a windbreaker. It was already 7pm by now, with only an hour or so of sunlight left. Reluctantly, I prepared to roll down the mountain, 34 kms to Rilong, the next nearest town.

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The other side of the pass looked pretty much the same, except that there was more snow

I turned round for one last look at this beautiful mountain pass before I sped downhill...what a ride it had been.

It was actually worse going downhill. The cold bit into me even harder. I was literally shaking with cold as I coasted down as fast as I safely could. It took me an hour to reach Rilong. As I rolled into town, darkness had started to settle on the landscape. Past a few dingy looking places, I paused to consider an offer by woman outside a 4-storey hotel. Actually, it was the warm, cosy lights that drew me in. I went in to take a look at the first floor room, which was very decent looking, and bargained her down from 60Y to 50Y (on a lark actually, but she gave in immediately anyway, so I said ok, I’ll take it.)

After I had luxuriated in a long, hot shower, I went downstairs for a hot (and oily and salty and spicy) meal which tasted absolutely delicious when you have have just come in from the cold and are ravenous with hunger (it was no fun eating cold, overnight fried rice and eggs in the cold). A celebratory beer was in order as well. I gave myself a pat on the back for a job well done.

At 3,000m, Rilong is even colder than Deng Sheng, but I slept very well that night in spite of the altitude. The electric warmer and thick quilt made sure of that.

Tomorrow, it would be an easy-peasy 115 kms downhill to Danba…… a fitting dessert to torturous Balangshan.

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RIDE STATS:
Deng Sheng (2,825m) to Balangshan (4487m) to Rilong (3,000)

Total ride time: 10.5hrs to Balangshan, 1hr to Rilong
Distance to day: 71km
Distance to date: 266km
Max altitude: 4,487m
Total ascent: 1,495m

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Sichuan Tour. Day 4, May 17. Gengda to Deng Sheng

The altitude has been creeping up ever so steadily since I left Dujiangyan. At the same time, the temperature has been going the opposite direction. Gengda is at only 1505m, but even then it was pretty cold in the evening and early morning. When I left this morning, I had to layer up more than usual. But this would only be until the sun started to shine a little stronger.

After a quick breakfast of plain congee and man tau (not that there was anything else), I loaded up, together with 6 hard-boiled egss, and hit the road. The morning was bright and cheerful even if it was a bit cold. The air was sharp and fresh. I felt so alive. The trip was starting to get more challenging and at the same time, more rewarding in the scenery around me.

My destination for the day was Deng Sheng, located at the first switchback leading up to the 4,500m Mt Balang, or Balangshan in Chinese. I was really looking forward to this segment, with some trepidation as well. There were so many unknowns – this would be the highest I had ever been on bike, so I had no idea what to expect. I only knew that the altitude would be a challenge.

The highest I had ever been was 4,000m up Mt Kinabalu in Sabah, but that was on foot during the Kinabalu Climbathon, actually a race up the mountain and back. I had done that (up and down) in 7 hours, and I did suffer a little at the end. But then again, I was only carrying my puny 57kg frame at the time. This time, however, I was pedalling up with an almost 40kg load – bike, panniers and all. My 22 X 34 granny gear will be taxed to the limit.

As the day wore on, I was treated to another beautiful part of China. The gorges are always spectacular, with the clear river winding endlessly alongside the road; sometimes roaring as it passed over some rapids, and at times, quietly gurgling along at a serene pace. When you’re presented with such scenery, the last thing you’d want to do is hustle. I made numerous stops, for photography as well as to just soak it all in. Traffic was very sparse as well, making it a real delight to be on the road. The last time I rode in such similar conditions was in Laos, but that didn’t even come close to this.

Scenes like these continued to play out for the rest of the day...

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At times, it looked a bit dicey riding past a recently cleared landslip

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My first encounter with hairy yaks. They're very shy creatures and will run away the moment you come near.

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At about noon, I arrive at the once-bustling town of Wolong, famed the world over for its panda sanctuary, which is now closed. Ever since the 2008 earthquake, the town is a shadow of its former self. All the tourists are gone and most of the hotels closed. The smaller ones are barely surviving. Every establishment had an employee stationed outside trying to wave in passing vehicles and the occasional cycle-tourer.

Another closed panda sanctuary

I stopped in at a diner where the only other customers were a couple who had just driven down from Balangshan enroute to Chengdu. Intrigued, they asked me where I was going and when they found out I was heading the opposite direction, the only encouragement was a “Oooh, it's cold up there at the pass...5°!” Great, I thought, and it was only noon, and worse, everyone I spoke to said there was no hotel at Deng Sheng.

Undaunted, I ordered my food and tucked in. Think positive, I told myself…and pray hard. I also ordered fried rice to go, to complement my hard-boiled eggs….just in case. After lunch, I stopped by a Xiao Mai Pu (small grocery shop) and stocked up on water; again, just in case.

Towards dusk, my gps indicated that Deng Sheng was near. Since Wolong, this stretch was very sparsely populated. I’d only come across one single largish settlement of new houses. At length, I saw a building in the distance, and some tiny figures moving about. As I came near, it turned out to one single building, and an unfinished one at that. It was a a new hotel in the making. I’d realised that Deng Sheng was merely a point on the road, located at the very first switchback of many that led up to Balangshan, and not a town or even a village.

It was about 6pm and the workers had just called it a day. Some of them were congregated in groups having their dinner – rice and a single communal dish as accompaniment. The only alternative was to ride back to Wolong if I wanted to stay in a Jiu Tien…not a feasible idea at all. I decided to ask if I could bunk in with the workers, somehow, even if it was the uncompleted hotel, which at least offered a roof over my head. With the exception of a tent, I carried with me a Thermarest, a down-to-0-degree sleeping bag. That plus the extra food was going to be enough to last me through the night.

At first, some of the workers said no, you can’t sleep in the hotel, and no, we don’t have any bunks to spare. Then I approached a head-honcho of sorts and he pointed to a tarpaulin-covered structure and said I could sleep there if I wanted to. Great, I said, with much relief. I’ll take it.

Inevitably, I was now the centre of attention among the workers who were very curious about this cycle-tourer. My suite was located just next to the kitchen and the old man who was in charge of dinner very kindly offered me some as well. It was nothing more than just rice and a single meat and vegetable dish but I ate with relish. Kindness and relief help make for a very good appetite. I actually had seconds.

This was Deng Sheng. One solitary uncompleted building, nothing else...and a workers' camp.


This is the first of numerous switchbacks going up the mt. My hut is on the extreme right, covered in striped tarpaulin

Here, I’m having dinner outside my suite. At least I had a roof over my head.
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My first 2 visitors
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The camp's cook. Nice man

..and his kitchen

Camp shower. The workers merely wipe themselves down and it's off to bed.

All ready for a very cold night's sleep

Obviously, there wasn’t going to be a hot shower tonight. The workers themselves don’t bathe either, as the weather is very cool and dry even during the day. Just a quick wipe and that was it. A pipe behind the kitchen was spewing out a water and this was the only source for the whole camp. I washed my bowl in the water and was nearly frozen upon contact with the water. Deng Sheng is at 2,825m. Already quite high, and correspondingly, the temperature started dropping very fast the minute the sun went down.

After dinner, I proceeded to bunk down for the night, cozying myself in a corner of the hut. The wind was picking up in velocity, and it was getting quite chilly. But they were not done with me yet. One after another, the workers came by to say hello and ask the usual questions. After a while, it was getting quite tiresome but I played the grateful tourist well. Even when it was dark, they kept coming. I decided to switch off all lights and hoped the visits would end. It did.

Tomorrow, it’s onward and upward to Balangshan! Can’t wait.

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RIDE STATS:
Gengda (1,5490m) to Deng Sheng (2,825m)

Total ride time: 6:45
Distance to day: 57km
Distance to date: 195km
Max altitude: 2,825m
Total ascent: 1,285m

Sichuan Tour. Day 3, May 16. Dujiangyan to Gengda

Mun Tau, Pao, Yie Tiaw, Shi Fun, Tau Jiang (plain dunpling, meat dumpling, crullers, rice congee and soya milk)… they would feature quite constantly in my diet. But what I really liked was the price – cheap, cheap, cheap. It made up for the lack of breakfast variety, I suppose.

There's nothing like steaming hot man taus and freshly fried yew tiows to warm up a cold morning

along with shi fun...congee, and pickles

I always make it a point to sit with the locals if possible. They're always good for an interesting conversation. This guy was no exception. The hotel is directly in the background. 7 Days is just a little behind to the right.

After breakfast (featuring all of the above), I headed out of Dujiangyan. The sky was cloudless, and the sun shone hot and bright. I couldn’t wait to hit the hills. About 10km out of the town, the road quieted down from the sparse traffic (most of it went through the expressway), and I started on the first of many climbs for the day.

The first of many dams that I would be passing

The first of many tunnels I would be riding through

I see a guy waving excitedly and taking a photo of me as I turn a corner. An admirer? His name is Michael Leonardo; from Shanghai en route to Lhasa on a solo bike tour, and he is mighty pleased to see me, or my bike pump* rather, after experiencing a puncture. Michael (call me Leonardo) suffered the same problem I had with his puny pump but my new 30Y pump made short work of filling his new tube.

* I’d just bought a new one prior to leaving Chengdu, as the one I’d brought had developed weak lungs and couldn’t seem to make it past 50psi; my Marathons demanded 80psi at least to be able to hum a nice tune on the tarmac.

Leonardo bade me ride with him as far as we were going on the same road until we parted ways, each to his day’s destination. Collecting brownie points seemed to be the order of the day as, a little later, we came upon a stalled 3-wheeler in a tunnel. The owner, an elderly man, was obviously having trouble pushing his vehicle to the end of the tunnel. Passing him by, I asked if he needed help and his face broke out in a huge sigh of relief. We rode quickly to the end of the tunnel and then ran back to the old man. He got inside to steer while we pushed him on his way. There was an ever-so-slight incline but we easily managed. Out of the tunnel, the old man was very thankful that providence had sent 2 timely rescuers to his aid.

Fruits are cheap and plentiful. We stopped a fuit vendor in a van and gorged on watermelon and fresh plums. Perfect for blazing hot days like today

Chalking up 2 good deeds in one day sure felt good so lunch was in order. At Yingziu, the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake, Leonardo repaid the pump favour with a huge lunch, one which, hungry as we were, we couldn’t managed to finish. I wondered if it was the shop owner who fleeced us with bigger-than-necessary portions of food, or was it Leonardo in typical generous-Chinese-host mode, making sure that I was not wanting for food.

Coming into Yingziu

The old Yingziu was totally wiped out. Every house here is spanking new

You can tell it caters to the many tourists who come and gawk at nature's handiwork

Lunch was fried tomato and egg, fish soup, and fried vegetables.

After lunch, we parted ways. Leonardo to Wen Chuan directly north, and me to Gengda, directly west. The road to Gengda almost immediately deteriorated into broken gravel and loose dirt. This was to continue for 20 kms, but it did make up for it with some very stunning views of the gorges. Remnants of the earthquake could still be seen here and there – houses rooted up and hung at precarious angles, and the sides of the gorges raw and broken where tectonic plates rubbed each other into submission. It’s a very depressing sight.

Riding into earthquake territory. It started out nice and smooth.

then got rough...

and then it got rougher..

But it was still beautiful country

At one point, I rode through a longish tunnel that was unlit, wet, muddy, potholed and cold. My 900-lumen Magicshine light helped immensely in lighting up the dingy bowels of this tunnel. Everything is doubly amplified in a tunnel, especially the sound of heavy vehicles. A bright rear light is an essential piece of equipment when riding in these tunnels.

Finally, I climbed one last long incline and came into the small town of Gengda. As I passed a decent-looking building with a restaurant downstairs, a man in rubber boots called out to me. And another round of ‘Do you have a room, how much, let’s have a look first’ conversation took place and pretty soon I was carrying my stuff into the room.

It was 30Y for a room, with attached bath, hot water and all. It was getting cheaper as I rode further out. But when I asked for the room key, the lady boss who checked me in said there was none but not to worry, it’s very safe. Oh well….It didn’t really bother me, as I wasn’t going anywhere after dinner in this nothing-town.

It was cold that night, but the thick, heavy quilts which are used in all these hotels are very efficient in keeping one warm. Complemented by the electric blanket, you’d be warm as toast. Actually, I’ll never understand why they call it ‘electric blanket’ when it’s laid underneath the bedsheet and not on top of the sleeper.

Gengda

Gengda Jiu Tien or whatever the Chinese name is.

Dinner was fried fish with Sichuan peppers and fried egg with onion...again very salty and very oily.

Next, riding in panda country.

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RIDE STATS:
Dujiangyan (708m) to Gengda (1,540m)

Total ride time: 7:26
Distance to day: 74km
Distance to date: 135km
Max altitude: 1,540m
Total ascent: 832m

Sichuan Tour. Day 2, May 15, Chengdu to Dujiangyan

I lived up to the Lazybones culture the next morning. After a meal of ‘pao’ and ‘tau jiang’ opposite the hostel, followed by a mug of freshly brewed coffee (yes, like the coffee-geek that I am, I brought with me a pack of fresh coffee beans, a Hario mini grinder and … an Aeropress!). It would be almost noon before I was ready to leave.

The all-day restaurant directly opposite Lazybones. It was cheap and good.

Only for the serious coffee geek -- Aeropress, Highlander beans (from Sg btw) and Hario mini grinder

It was quite easy heading out to Dujiangyan. I simply followed the Ying Men Ke Ou Lu a couple of kms from the hostel, all the way to my destination. Didn’t even turned off once.

It turned out to be a dull ride. Nothing much to see, plus, I had to share the road with a fair bit of traffic. Just before Dujiangyan, however, I caught a glimpse of snow-capped peaks way in the distance; my pulse fairly jumped a bit.

Flat all the way to Dujiangyan. It pararells the elevated railway and the expressway

As I rolled into town, I kept an eye out for some decent digs to roost for the night. Dujiangyan is not a particularly attractive town. Its only claim to fame is an ingenious irrigation system that some brilliant Chinese engineers constructed after taming the Min River – 2,500 years ago! Clever fellows. No wonder they’re such accomplished dam builders.

One of the many irrigation canals in Dujiangyan. Notice how high the water is?

A bright yellow building caught my eye; it had the words ‘7 Days Inn’ screaming in big bold letters across a bare wall. It was also the only hotel around that advertised itself in English. The yellow-uniformed receptionist quoted me 177Y for a room, no breakfast. Too steep for just a night’s sleep. I moved on.

A girl sitting outside a shop called out to me, and although I didn’t understand what she was saying, she couldn’t be offering anything else except a room. I decided to check it out. The entrance was at the back, a little doorway with a sign that probably said ‘hotel’ in Chinese. It looked a bit shady, but her brother was there and said why not have a look first? I half expected a lady of the night to come strolling down the stairs at any moment….but thankfully, it wasn’t that kind of joint.

Hotel entrance cum lobby cum...

..Internet Cafe

60Y was the asking price for a clean, no-frills room; with squat toilet, of course. After I checked in, I went looking for dinner, which was at an interesting looking little diner nearby. It was my second experience with Sichuan street food. All the raw items are laid out in bowls and you simply picked what you want and they’d be cooked for you.

Mandarin is not my preferred spoken language; English is, followed by Hokkien (or Fujian) dialect, which incidentally is a corrupted version of the real thing, being a Penangite and all. And so, I struggled a bit to convey my dinner requirements, but with a bit of gesturing and prompting, I ended up with a decent dinner. I was also to learn that the Sichuanese are very liberal with the use of salt, MSG, oil, and spices, especially peppercorns.

Tai Chao Sichuan style...no lack of variety here

Looks good but ... oily, salty and spicy

View from outside my room window...hawkers selling BBQ, fruits, porky stuff etc

The same scene the morning after. No trace of the night before.

It was an uneventful first day of riding but tomorrow, granny gets her workout for sure.

Sichuan Tour. Day 1, 14 May, Chengdu

Chengdu is big. Very big. It is, after all, China’s fourth largest city of some 11 million people. I was quite impressed with its modernity. But most of all, I was impressed with its provision of bicycle lanes in all its thoroughfares. On the other hand, this isn’t surprising because the bicycle used to be a major form of transport for its citizens. Today, bicycles still rule; except that the Chinese have gotten lazier – it’s all electric now, and it comes in every shape, size and colour.

From the airport, I breezed into the city in a van pre-arranged by the hostel I was staying in. The driver was waiting for me with a scribbled piece of blue A4 paper with my name on it, ‘Michael Khor. Lazybones’.

A bit excessive in the name-calling, you might think, and not the kind of welcome one would expect but… he wasn’t labelling me actually; that was just the name of the hostel.

Hot, balmy and humid it was not (that would be where I’d just come from). The Sichuan weather was sunny with a very agreeable temperature of 22°. Lovely. Didn’t even need air-con in the car.

Lazybones didn’t look too promising from the outside. Located right in the bullseye of the city (which is arranged in a circular manner with 3 major ring roads circumscribing it) on a busy 4-lane road, this was downtown Chengdu.

For slackers, backpackers and cyclo-tourists.

The chill-out area

But inside, it is a welcome oasis from the chaotic streets outside. The local staff are very friendly, speak decent English and sport very funky names – Rogge, Kaye, Sunny, Ivy, Violet, Laura and, the boss-man himself, who goes by the name of … Mix???

Green and orange seem to be the colours of choice here. Not too bad actually. So was the single room I was boarded in. It felt more like a Balinese budget resort, but it was clean, cosy and comfortable.

Rooms are predominantly green while corridors are in Balinese orange

After putting the Surly back together on its 2 wheels, I went looking for food. There was a Sichuan style BBQ 2 doors away and it looked very promising. I ended up enjoying different meats and vegetables. This was my introduction to the ubiquitous Sichuan chillies and peppers – zingy, zesty stuff that’ll liven up your tastebuds with never-before-experienced senses. The low-alcohol Snow beer was a perfect complement.

Tomorrow, I head out to Dujiangyan, a flat 65 km ride to the north-west.

Into the high mountains of Tibetan Sichuan

Wô shi hànrèn. I wonder if that’s even correct….

I may be Chinese, but I’ve never been to China. I don’t speak Mandarin, but I’ll be able to get by if my life depended on it. It’s been a year since I went on a tour, and I really need to go somewhere….soon. So, what better country to do a cycle-tour next than that of my forefathers? I’m also fascinated with Tibetan culture, so I’m thinking it would be nice to experience both cultures while I’m there.

That being the objective, I would have to head to the north-western part of China — Sichuan, to be more precise. This would take me into the TAR, or Tibetan Autonomous Region. No permit needed here so I won’t have to worry about the PSB, the highly bureaucratic Public Security Bureau, ejecting me from the region. This would also be my most challenging tour yet, as I would be riding into the fringe of the Himalayas…very mountainous country.

The route I’m following will also see me achieve a personal record of riding at some seriously high altitude — Balang Shan Pass at 4,500+ metres! I don’t know what to expect, or how long it’ll take me to ride up to the top of the pass. Altitude sickness … I’m looking forward to it 🙂

Balang Shan Pass. Can you feel the howling, biting cold wind?

Common sense dictates that I take at least a month off to do a ride like this… but reality says otherwise. So I’ll settle for 9 days of annual leave; throw in 3 weekends and a Wesak holiday and I’ll be away for a total of 15 days, from 14 – 28 May.  Barely enough, but it’ll do. Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, will be the start and finish of my approximately 800km round trip.