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

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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