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.

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RIDE STATS:
Tianquan (708m) to Chengdu (508m)

Total ride time: 15.5hrs (13.5hrs on the bike)
Distance to day: 197km
Total tour distance: 957km

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Sichuan Tour. Day 9, 22 May. Tagong, Pt 1

Tagong is cold.

Daytime temperatures hover between 15-20°, and at night it drops to below 10, so understandably, not many people wander around at night. The wind blows constantly throughout the day; sometimes it’s gusty but mostly it’s just light breezes. Regardless, the wind is always cold. But, in spite of it, I really like this town; it’s as Tibetan as they come, which is something I’ve been looking forward to experiencing as a cycle-tourer.

I’m not leaving town today, so I take it easy. In any case, it’s a bit of a struggle trying to crawl out of a warm bed when the morning air is sharp, crisp and oh-so-chilly.

Sally’s mother is there waiting for me as I make my way to the dining room. Since I’m in Tibet, it’s only appropriate that I eat something Tibetan, so I ask for the barley pancake that was in the menu. She’s also having her own breakfast so I decid to join her. She is making her own breakfast of tsampa (barley flour mixed with tea and also yak milk, I think), yak cheese and bread.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and its surrounds. I especially enjoyed walking up a small hillock just on the edge of town, giving me a clear view of Tagong and beyond (see video below). I considered hiking up the other hill behind the town, the one bedecked with thousands of prayer flags arranged in a triangle but thought better of it. Even this small little hill had left me a bit breathless. The oxygen level, though not as thin as at the high passes, was thin enough to discourage lowlanders like me to go hiking.

Another very encouraging aspect of this town is the lack of tourists; something the locals lament … not that I’m complaining. Along the main street, almost every pedestrian, motorcyclist and driver was a Tibetan, including a few deeply tanned and tough looking specimens complete with gold teeth, ear-rings, high boots and one side of a long sleeve hanging by the side. No wonder this part of the world is sometimes referred to as the Tibetan wild west, what with the huge expanse of grasslands where the only real way to get around is by horse.

Note: Tibetan jackets feature really long sleeves, a design that does away with gloves. When it’s not as cold, they simply let one of the sleeves hang out, allowing one arm full freedom of movement.

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Sally Kham’s mother having her own breakfast after serving me mine (the piece of barley flour pancake in the foreground).

The bowl on the left is the barley flour. Tea is added slowly to make it a sort of soft dough and is eaten plain. The curly thing on the piece of bread is yak cheese. She gave me a bit to try … it was stringy and tasted sourish.


The view of Tagong town from the hillock. On the right is Laghang monastery. Facing the top left corner of the monastery walls is Snowland GH.


From the top of the hill I was on, a steel cable stretches across all the way to the hill on the other side, holding  hundreds of flags flapping and releasing the prayers inscribed on it to the wind.


(click to see full-sized pic)

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I couldn’t quite make out these slabs engraved with what must be prayers. They were piled up on top of the hill.


A chorten, a Tibetan stupa, stands majestically on this hilltop.


(click to see full-sized pic) An inspiring sight — in the foreground is the famous Nyingmapa monastery built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to commemorate the Han Princess Wencheng’s visit. If you look carefully, the 4 small towers in each corner sport a different colour each — green, red, yellow and white. Lining one side of the wall are 100 chortens (close-up below). The white peak far off in the background is the 5,800 metre Mt Yala, covered in snow all year round. It’s also the source of the Yala River which flows down to meet the Dadu River, which I had already crossed at Danba.

Video: 360° view of Tagong and its surrounds. You can hear the wind blowing in the background.

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Prayer wheels line one entire wall of the Laghang monastery. As the faithful laity walks around it, they chalk up more merit by spinning these wheels.

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Takes quite a bit of effort to get these wheels rolling. Naturally, the lubrication of choice is Yak fat.

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One of Tagong’s hotel/restaurant. This one is facing the town square. The chef seems to be sunning himself in between customers.

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It doesn’t look like much but that stuff on the floor is caterpillar fungus or yartsa in Tibetan. Worth its weight in gold, I was told the best quality yartsa can command up to USD18,000 a kilo! Crazy, when you think that it’s just dried mummified caterpillars unlucky enough to be attacked by some microscopic fungus. The ones in the box are already brushed clean while the newly picked ones are on the floor. No prizes for guessing which country is the biggest market for yartsa.

Here’s what wikipedia says about these expensive worms. Fascinating stuff::

In Tibetan, it is known as དབྱར་རྩྭ་དགུན་འབུ་ yartsa gunbu [Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun ‘bu, “summer herb winter worm”], which is the source of the Nepali यार्शागुम्बा, yarshagumba, yarchagumba. The transliteration in Bhutan is Yartsa Guenboob. It is also known as keera jhar or keeda ghas in India. Its name in Chinese dong chong xia cao (冬虫夏草) means “winter worm, summer grass” (i.e., “worm in the winter, [turns to] plant in the summer”). The Chinese name is a literal translation of the original Tibetan name, which was first recorded in the 15th Century by the Tibetan doctor Zurkhar Namnyi Dorje. In colloquial Tibetan Yartsa gunbu is often shortened to simply “bu” or “yartsa”.

The caterpillars prone to infection by the fungus live underground in alpine grass and shrublands on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 m (9,800 and 16,000 ft). Spending up to five years underground before pupating, the caterpillar is attacked while feeding on roots. The fungus invades the body of the Thitarodes caterpillars, filling its entire body cavity with mycelia and eventually killing and mummifying it. The caterpillars die near the tops of their burrows. The dark brown to black fruiting body (or mushroom) emerges from the ground in spring or early summer, always growing out of the forehead of the caterpillar. The long, usually columnar fruiting body reaches 5–15 cm above the surface and releases spores.

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A vendor with only 3 articles of (fly swatter?) for sale — it can’t be anything else except yak or horsehair.


Nice hat. Exclusively for use by Tibetan monks.


Dusty main street, Tagong.


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Butt crack! The ubiquitous split baby pants are everywhere. This little fella has got to feel the cold wind biting his butt.


Off to hard labour. Those stones look pretty hefty to me.

More about Tagong in pt 2…

Sichuan Tour. Day 8, 21 May, Danba to Tagong via Bamei

Well rested and refreshed, it was time to move on. Today, I’m heading for Tagong, famous for its grasslands. It would have been great to ride there but there’s a 4,000m pass (and freezing cold, too) to surmount and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to another oxygen-deprived ride. The plan was simple — take the mini-van to Banmei, about 80km away, and then ride the remainder of the 38km or so to Tagong (I was assured that it was all downhill from Banmei but…I’ve heard that one before). As well, I would not be able to make Luding and still keep to schedule, as this route is longer and adds a couple of days to my already tight itinerary.

So here I am, after a hearty breakfast of ‘pau’, and looking at the van that’s going to take me to Banmei . I had expected one of those tourist passenger vans, but somehow this one seemed a little shabby…..

A short distance out of town, the van stopped and the driver (in red shirt) proceeded to unload my bike to take in goods for Banmei. He explained that it'd be better if my bike was on top, which made sense.

So what was the load? Freshly slaughtered chickens! Oh man, I thought, I'm gonna suffocate with the stench of decomposing meat (think wet Pudu market, meat section)

But thankfully, because of the cold air, there was practically no smell whatsoever.

The road to Banmei is alpine country...the rich verdant greenery was so amazingly beautiful.

At this particular point, the river is crystal clear, gurgling over rocks that were reddish in colour. The driver very kindly stopped here for me and the other passenger to take in the views

I made a very smart choice in not riding the road to Banmei ... this was a particularly nasty section. Even the van had trouble getting up, so we came done and walked. Did I mention that it's freezing cold here?

Where we had just driven up from

A little after we descended the other side of the pass, the landscape changed dramatically -- arid and flat, very Tibetan.

Just before the town of Banmei where I started my ride to Tagong. The guy does the Danba-Banmei route almost everyday to deliver goods (and the occasional cyclo tourists and backpackers)

On the road, I was hailed with a 'Tashi Delek' from a passing monk ... I'm in the real Tibet now! (Tashi Delek: 'hello' in Tibetan)

The most happening place in Banmei -- where similar vans to the one I rode in congregate to pick up fares, either to Tagong, or to Danba.

The landscape was beginning to be take on a decidedly Tibetan influence. I was so glad I changed plans.

Just outside of Banmei, I stopped at this promising looking shop to have lunch

More 'Tashi Deleks' ... from these local slackers upholding China's national pastime, including the boss and cook.

The youngest waiter ever to have served me. He very dutifully poured me hot cha. Actually it was more like dragging the thermos across the floor.

The little fella was a joy to be with. Another one of those moments that really make your day.

How cold was it here? Count the layers...

Dad cooks up a storm while mom waits to serve it piping hot

Rice vermicelli soup and fried julienned potato with yak meat.

I gave up on the inner-tube yak meat after a couple of chews (discarded on the right side of plate)... As usual the food was spicy, salty and oily.

The road here is of the all-concrete variety...harsh but more lasting

Colourful prayer flags of every configuration are to be found all along the road.

Grand entrance to some grand monastery

Typical Tibetan architecture

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I was right again, or rather, I was conned again. It never fully turned out to be ‘downhill all the way to Tagong’. It was more like half and half, although the gradient was a little more forgiving than the one that went up to pass before Banmei. Still, it took a bit of effort, but the scenery more than made up for it. When it gets a little tough, I always stop to soak in the scenery and just be thankful that I can be here admiring God’s wonderful handiwork instead of slaving for the man in the office 🙂

The first thing that greets the visitor to Tagong — a prayer flag-covered hillside, and the looong row of prayer wheels of the town’s monastery.

The red building is the monastery and the guesthouse I stayed in, Snowland GH, is just next to it, the one with the red and white signboard.

First order of business — food.

Sally Kham, the owner of Snowland,  and her mother run the place. They’re not very good cooks but they more than make up for it with their genuine warmth and friendliness. This here’s is a dish of over-fried eggs and bacon and apple/cucumber salad.

Overly fried potato crisps...tastes great when you're hungry

My room, on the first floor

And the view of the hill from my room.

Tomorrow — exploring Tagong and its surrounds.

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Ride stats:

Danba to Banmei: 80km (by van), uphill all the way to the pass at 4000m, then downhill a bit to Banmei.

Banmei to Tagong: 38km half uphill, half downhill, concrete road all the way.

Distance today: 118km

Distance to date: 496km

Sichuan Tour. Day 6, 19 May, Rilong to Danba

Warning: Pics-heavy post. Please be patient while it loads 🙂

The hotel in Rilong that I stayed in.

My hostess, a Qiang-chu (pronounced Chiang), a people different from the Qang-chu (Chang) or Tibetans. All the rest are Han-chu, or Han Chinese, which most of us Chinese are.

her husband

and her father.

I feel like lazybones today, even if I’m not in the Chengdu hostel of the same name. The sun was already up but I figured that I’ve earned the right to loll around in bed and get up at a indecently late hour, which in my case would be 9am. I took my time, and since it was too cold to take a shower, I did a quick Chinese-style wash-up and went downstairs to see what my friendly hostess was going to surprise me with for breakfast.

I was not disappointed – Tibetan flat bread, peanuts, raw cabbage and yak butter tea. What a combination. The bread was warm and sweetish with some traces of what I can only suspect to be yak butter. I’d seen 2 huge blocks in the kitchen, partly wrapped in newspaper. The yak butter tea? Well, I needed to tick that off my list, so I’m looking forward to it.

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Yak butter

Note: Lonely Planet lists yak butter tea as #2 in the list of ‘Top 10 Worst Experiences in Tibet’.

The bowl of tea was a murky white in colour. It didn’t smell horrible so I took a swig. It was …. not …. too … bad – a bit milky, a bit buttery in a yakky way, I suppose, and a bit salty as well. I couldn’t quite make out the taste of tea though, and I also couldn’t quite finish it either. Ok, been there, done that; it’s one for the journal. But I do think Lonely Planet was a bit harsh in their assessment. Personally, I would have listed it at #3 or maybe even #4 ……. The raw cabbage garnished with some weird condiments (I swear the whitish stuff on top was MSG, and lots of it) she served me was worse.

Having their own breakfast. The big urn is full of yak butter tea.

Aged pork hanging in the kitchen. There was quite a layer of dust on them. The nice hotel folks were having some for breakfast, so I asked for a bit to try. Surprisingly, it was rather good.

After such an interesting breakfast, the only other sensible thing to do would be – have a cup of coffee, freshly brewed, of course. I brought out my coffee equipment and proceeded to prepare myself a cup of hot brew, much to the amusement of my hostess, her husband, her sister and her father, a friendly guy who was always asking if I was ok. Seeing as I was the only guest in the hotel, I couldn’t blame him for being so fatherly.

Note: Rilong is suffering the same fate as Wolong and other tourist-dependent towns. Since the 2008 earthquake, cyclo-tourists not withstanding, tourists were far and few in between. The main reason tourists came here was to visit or trek up Siguniangshan, or Four Maidens Mountain, located in a natural reserve not too far from the town. The flashy hotel opposite the one (see pic below) I was staying, including a few similar ones, had long been shuttered down and was beginning to look very dilapidated.

Morning wash-up, to last the rest of the day.

After coffee, I went back to the room to pack up and get ready for what I knew to be a looooooong downhill ride to Danba, about 115km away. My legs were looking forward to a lazy ride today. I finally rolled off at 10.30am. Straightaway, I was on coasting on a beautifully sealed road, smooth and pothole-free. The scenery was just as breathtaking, and totally different from the other side of the mountain. There were more tracts on the mountain sides that were barren and arid brown in colour. At the same time, there were also abundant alpine greenery.

The houses are also different in their facade and architecture – mostly a mix of Tibetan and Qiang (say ‘Chiang’). However, they all shared one thing in common – the walls were built with slate, which is plentiful all around them. They also sported similar hieroglyphs and symbols, strangely, spray-painted on instead of drawn with a brush. The road continued to snake its way downhill, following the river faithfully. And for the first time since I started the tour, I was enjoying the awesome scenery unfolding before me … without having to do much pedalling. What joy. This was to continue all the way to the Xiaojin, a sizable town that straddled the river.

Almost every house I saw on this side of the mountain were made of slate, and sported pointed corners on the flat roof.

Check out this unedited, 4-minute video shot while passing through a small town::

Another one on the road…

The Qiang people here were definitely more friendly. This was an ice-cream stop at a Xiao Mai Pu.

Kids on the road:

One very glaring detail that I noticed -- no barriers

I shall always remember this nice, shady spot. I stopped for a break, took out an apple, peeled it and then ...dropped it on the dusty ground.

Just after 2pm, I arrived at the town of Xiaojin

...where I had lunch at this shop run by a friendly lady

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It was after busy lunch hour and I was the only customer so the friendly proprietress took time out to chat

An elderly admirer of my bike outside the shop

Out of Xiaojin....this was something to marvel at; a huge boulder on the left and a solitary tree on the right, directly opposite each other and claiming a section of the road each.

The smooth tarmac ran out soon after, with bad, dusty patches all the way to Danba, but the scenery was still very nice.

Finally at 7, I arrived at the T-junction where Danba is located. It is also the confluence of the Dadu River and Rilong River.

The bridge crossing the Dadu, the biggest river I

The town of Danba. The hostel I stayed in is on the left

My room with a nice view at Zha Xi Zhuo Kang Backpacker

Tomorrow, I take a well-deserved rest day and explore the town and its surroundings, and visit a couple of interesting villages.

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RIDE STATS:

Rilong (3,000m) to Danba (1869m)

Total ride time: 7.5hrs

Distance to day: 115km

Total descent: 1,131m

Distance to date: 378km

Sichuan Tour. Day 5, 18 May, Deng Sheng to Rilong

Note: This post is photo-heavy. Please be patient while it loads 🙂

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

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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...

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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At the top of Balangshan

and the road pointing down the other side

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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.

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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.

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RIDE STATS:
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

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

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 style...no 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.