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.
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.
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.
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