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

Sichuan Tour. Day 9, 22 May. Tagong Pt 2

In all my years of travel, no other land has touched me more deeply than Tibet. And it’s easy to see why travellers are so enamoured of this part of the world. Few destinations can compare to the majestic snow-capped mountains, the cold Himalayan weather, the grasslands, the people, their religion, and the fiercely individualistic nature of their ethnicity, never mind the fact that China has always maintained that Tibet has always been part of China … and always will be.

Life is held in high regard here, as would be expected of a people who believe that in their next life, they could come back as an ant or, if the heavens should so ordain, a Dalai Lama. The chase for good karma is a never-ending one, and one can never accumulate too much of it. It also explains why serious crime is uncommon here.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more days to spend here. If I did, I would have travelled further inland and perhaps, try to wrangle my way into a Tibetan home to stay a night, preferably a nomadic family living out on the open grassland in a tent made of spun yak hair. I had seen one of these in Tagong, but it was on the other side of a long fence.

Tibetans are distinctly unique in the way they look, talk and dress, so people-watching is a great pastime here. But of all the Tibetans I have met, none was more captivating than the woman who manned the public toilet in Tagong’s town square. She would sit all day outside the WC (that’s ‘water closet’ to the uninitiated of this rather archaic term in the British lexicon), as proclaimed in big bold letters in red.

As I observed her (the toilet is not far from Snowland GH), she would move from her perch in the sun to the entrance of the toilet and back again. I gestured to her that I wanted to shoot her portrait but, as is usual with such situations, she made the universal sign for mullah, rubbing her thumb and forefinger at me. I obliged.

Her deeply tanned face was beautifully wrinkled with lines that told a thousand stories, and her rheumy eyes were a striking contrast to her well-cared for teeth, still intact and of good colour despite her years. Her face so struck me that I could only wonder at her life. In spite of her lowly occupation, she looked very dignified.

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A great pun if ever there was one...

This was another beautiful specimen of a Tibetan woman that I came across in the monastery. Her clothes and demeanour seem to suggest a higher station in society.

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Here, she’s with her daughter who, going by what I saw in town, was clearly the most well-dressed woman around.

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Never one to waste a good sunning opportunity, Sally Kham (left) and a friend warm themselves outside the GH.

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Might as well boil some water while we’re at it. These solar contraptions are quite amazing.

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The old dude wasn’t waving a hello, he was telling me to sod off and not take their picture.  Some Tibetans are not particularly happy when a tourist points a camera at them, so sometimes I would do the next best thing — shoot from the hip while looking the other way.

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The new generation Tibetan. There was nothing traditional about him, including the round boom box behind the seat. They would ride around with music blaring at full blast, making a racket, and a nuisance of themselves.

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A friend of Sally’s dropped by for a chat and was surprisingly quite accommodating when I pointed my camera at her

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Laghang monastery was next on the list of things to see. Despite the 20Y entrance fee, it was worth it. The main courtyard was a little messy — they were carrying out some renovations, adding on more buildings to the complex. I climbed up the steps to the main hall and entered a totally different world. My objective was the main prayer hall, the inner sanctum of the monastery. Cameras, unfortunately, were only allowed into the smaller halls and not the main sanctuary where it was the most striking in its colours and experience. So, I’ll try to describe what I see …

As I pushed aside the curtain, I walked over the threshold and entered a kind of ante-chamber. Here, there were 3 devotees doing their Tibetan Buddhist thing. First, they would stretch their hands straight up above their head; then they would get down on their knees and stretch their bodies forward, prostrating themselves fully on the floor. Then they would raise themselves up to their knees again, in reverse, stand up, stretch their arms up in the air, and repeat the entire action — again and again and again, for Buddha knows for how many times.

As I tore myself away from this riveting spectacle, I stepped into the main sanctuary. I was immediately engulfed by warm air, laced with the unmistakeable scent of yak fat which was the main source of fuel for the hundreds of burning candles and oil lamps. The place was dimly lighted by the warm glow of these lamps. It was beautiful. I had never experienced anything like this, and it was quite surreal. All around were every imaginable likeness of figures of Tibetan Buddism, many of which were unrecoqnisable to me.

On the main altar, a huge figure of Buddha loomed over the hall, and here and there monks were about their duties. Something else captivated me as well — Yuan notes stuffed into nooks and crannies everywhere, not just the offering boxes. There was a small fortune here… multiply that by the days of the week, month and year and it could come up to a pretty penny.

The exterior of Laghang monastery

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The main courtyard. The building on the left seems to be newly built.

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The main entrance to the main hall. Notice the black curtains..

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One of the smaller halls where cameras are allowed. The intricate designs and colours are mind-boggling.

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A lot of effort went into the buidling of this monastery. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

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Truly, the yak is indispensable. No other type of fuel will do except yak fat.

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Look carefully and you can spot the Yuan notes stuffed here and there.

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As I walked around exploring the monastery’s many outhouses, I was floored by this sign, or rather, the huge word on it. ‘Reliquary’, according to Mr Collins, is a ‘ receptacle or repository for relics, especially relics of saints’. Never thought I’d improve my vocabulary in a Tibetan monastery.

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Tomorrow, I make my way to Luding, a very Chinese town straddling the banks of Daduhe. Of course, I won’t be riding all the way. There’s a massive 4,300m pass to to cross, which I’m told, is very, very cold, and this was from  from Sally’s mom. Hearing this, I did not hesitate to ask Sally about public transport to Kangding. Sally was an angel, promptly arranging a seat for me in a van going to Kangding the next day. Kangding is 97 kms away from Tagong, and 54 kms away from Luding, most of which will be downhill. Just the ticket, as there was no way I could keep to my schedule otherwise.

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