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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
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...
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the top of Balangshan
and the road pointing down the other side
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.
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.
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