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.


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 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 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.