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.

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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.

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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