Up to the Tibetan Plateau
I sit in a cheap hotel room in a small town called Litang and feel completely exhausted. The last days have been one of the most strenuous cycling days of the whole trip. Something not easily said after passing the 8'000km mark two weeks ago!
Eight days ago we left the Tibetan town of Shangri-la, a name given to the city in hope to attract more tourists. There's definitely many Chinese tourists here and to our surprise also three European cyclists. A young German couple, Lukas and Katharina and solo-cyclist Sara from Denmark. We immediately get along great with them and decide to visit the nearby monastery and beautiful Napa lake together. It was supposed to be our rest day, but after cycling to the monastery and around the lake, we had done 45km once again. So much for a rest day...
The next day we left the touristic city of Shangri-la behind us and set off to even higher elevations (Shangri-la is actually already at 3'000 masl). We had seen on our map, that several high mountain passes were in front of us, but we felt strong and were looking forward to this challenge. The area is the closest we can get to the real Tibet and the people living here give us a taste of what it must be like. We see prayer flags blowing in the wind and spot the first yaks as they peacefully graze on the large pastures.
The road out of Shangri-la is in good shape and the inclination is also not too steep. We are in high spirits as we start the first climb. In a small village we entertain the locals by making coffee on our camping stove and continue in warm weather and sunshine. The first pass ahead of us is 3'910 masl high. It will be the highest we have cycled so far, giving us a small taste of what is yet to come. As we reach the top, we are awestruck at the beauty of the next valley. Majestic peaks and rough stone walls peak out of dense pine forests. A river is barely visible at the bottom of the valley, with a few houses along the stream.
The descent of 700m is loads of fun, as the bicycles smoothly run over the paved road. We often stop to take more pictures and take in the beauty of the landscape. After a small lunch in the valley, we stop in front of a colorful monastery. A group of Chinese motorcyclists gawk at us in amazement and strike up a conversation. Luckily they speak English, but what they are about to say, we would rather not hear. The road ahead of us is unpaved and for the next 70km we will be cycling over three passes on loose rocks and soft soil. They even try to convince us to go back and take an alternative route. Definitely not an option, as we are not cycling back over the first pass and in any case there isn't a real alternative option available anyway. After a typical Chinese photo session, we head off with an anxious feeling about what lies ahead of us.
Soon after we reach the dirt road and progress gets slower. We decide to pitch our tent in a small meadow, not visible from the road. It looks like a perfect camping spot, until we sit down to cook dinner and hundreds of small flies circulate around us. Some flies are kamikazes, flying directly into our eyes, noses and ears, while others like the taste of flesh and heartedly bite into our skin. We protect ourselves as much as possible and call it an early night, fleeing into the tent.
With new strength the next morning, we start our day of climbing. The road is uncomfortable, but I think to myself, at least it's not raining and the scenery is stunning. Little did I know then. We reach the next pass before lunch time. Its at 4330 masl and noticeably cooler and extremely windy. After a short break, we continue.
Surely a small town will be ahead of us, we think, where we can eat lunch and regain strength. But we see no towns. Actually we do not even see a single house. With grumbling stomachs, we open our pannier and inspect our food. It doesn't look too promising. Some more peanuts and one pack of instant noodles will have to suffice for lunch. Not the best planning on our part. But it is enough to get us going again. Five minutes later Sera's tire looses air and we stop to repair it. It is the tenth puncture he has on the trip as his Schwalbe tires are beginning to look frighteningly thin and worn. Soon after rain sets in and the dirt road becomes slippery. We continue in hope of a house with some food. Suddenly we hear a loud puff and Sera has another flat. He still has another spare tube and we quickly replace it to continue before it gets dark. Around a bend, we spot a small house and stop in front of it. Three young Tibetans are inside, huddled around a warm stove, looking at their smart phones. They invite us in, but immediately ignore us again to stare at their screens. After 15 minutes we get their attention and ask about the next town or store. Apparently the next town is 30km away, but there is a store in 16km. We decide to try our luck and leave the warmth of the room behind us. Five kilometers later, we pass our second pass for the day and start a relatively long descend. Its bumpy and slippery though, so our speed is mostly not faster than 15km/hour. And there is no store nor house in sight. It is getting late, but along this road, the mountain slopes are steep and pitching a tent is difficult to impossible. The next pass is only a few kilometers away, so we decide to head for it in hope of a good camping spot. We reach the third pass when night falls. Its a little lower than the previous ones, at 3840masl and it has a flat area for camping. Fortunately the rain stops and we eat our remaining food, oatmeal cereal with soy milk powder. Soon after we fall asleep with the sound of rain drizzling lightly on our tent.
The next morning, the rain becomes strong again, so we are in no hurry to get up. However, after 2 hours of rain, small droplets of water start to form on the inside of the tent and parts of my sleeping mat are very damp. Without breakfast, we start the last descend on the unpaved road, to a small village. 1,5 hours later we reach the town and raid the next shop. It has a restaurant next to it and we enjoy a warm noodle soup. We contemplate whether or not to continue to the next bigger town or just try to spend the night here. But as there is no guesthouse in this town and it is only 11 o'clock, we jump on our bicycles and continue. After all, we assume the road should be good from now on and mainly downhill. An easy ride, right? Well, as always, things don't turn out as we expect them to. After four painful hours of cycling, we reach the city of Xiang Cheng, where we fortunately find a nice hotel to relax.
It is also the first time since Shangri-la that we have internet and we are eager to find out how the other cyclists are doing. They had left a little later than we did, and are now 30km behind us. Since we are still exhausted, we decide to wait for them, do some bicycle repairing and relax while watching the town life.
At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the others arrive. To our surprise, the trio has turned into a quartet. Adam, a cyclist from England, joined up with the three shortly after Shangri-la. After sharing some experiences from the last few days, we cycle off together and pitch our tents 30km later along a river. We are now only at 2980masl and it's a lot warmer. Nevertheless, we try to get to bed relatively early, as the next day will be the hardest yet. The Kuluke pass lies in front of us. With 4708masl it's the highest pass on this stretch. The alarm rings at 7:00 AM and at 9:15 we are all packed and ready to go.
The road is undergoing construction in many places and even though its mainly paved, we do encounter many stretches with loose soil and rocks. The inclination is mostly not too steep, but our bodies are tired from the last few days. Progress is slow but steady, as the air becomes thinner and our legs more tired. It is mostly sunny, but the temperature is getting noticeably cooler. 5km before the pass, we spot a bearded vulture circling over us and marmots lure out of their dens.
The last stretch to the top becomes harder and harder as a strong wind blows into our faces and dark clouds hover over us. Exhausted, but extremely happy we reach the pass at 7:30pm.
It starts raining again and the temperature has fallen to an icy 6 degrees. We have a long descent ahead of us, but the light of day is fading rapidly. We all have good lights on our bicycles and in the cold rain, none of us want to camp at this altitude. In the night we cycle down the mountain to reach a small village, where there is a small guesthouse and a nice restaurant waiting for us. We have crossed the highest pass of this stretch, but the journey to Litang is not over yet.
After a good nights sleep and some minor bicycle repairs under the eyes of the locals, we set off the following day for the next hill to climb.
The landscape here is unique, with large pastures and high lying wetlands. Larks sing all around us as we follow a river up-hill. Sera and I stop to take a picture of two yaks by the river.
Five seconds later a pink wall-creeper flies by, but we are too slow to catch it on camera. However, in the next moment a large ungulate with a calf appears in the open. Sera is quick with the camera and takes some great photos of the first large mammal we see since Thailand. Its a chinese serow, an species classified as being between a wild goat and a wild deer. It is a lovely moment, but we soon continue to cycle after the others.
The road takes us over a large plateau, with vast grasslands covered in colorful flowers. In the distance we see dark clouds and an occasional lightning, a forewarning of what the rest of the day will be like.
After lunch it starts raining again and it gets colder. Just after cycling over the highest point and yet another mountain pass, we see snow around us. By now we are wearing almost all our warm clothes, but our shoes and gloves are soaked.
It is getting late and even though we are over 4000masl, another mountain pass with 4600 masl lies ahead of us. Getting on the other side and to the village that lies there at this time seems very unlikely. Where will we spend the night in this cold and inhospitable area? A small hotel is indicated on our maps, called Hotel Cheap. Sounds promising and as our fingers lose feeling, we all hope this place still exists. As we come around the last bend, we spot yak herders and their yurts along a wild river. In the middle of the yaks and yurts is an ugly cement building with about ten doors facing a muddy yard. Hotel Cheap?
With high hopes, the guys go to the building to ask if we can spend the night here. After some back and forth, they point to a room on the far left. Large barrels and hay sacks are stacked inside the 8 square meter room, but it is dry. After some rearranging, we manage to store all of our panniers inside and still have enough room to later lay down our mats and sleeping bags.
A curious woman pokes her head inside the room and motions to the girls to follow her to her room. Her room is the same size as ours, but has a wooden stove inside. She lives here with her husband and 17 year old son. As is tradition among the Tibetans, she offers us tea with yak butter milk. The taste is very strong, like drinking liquid cheese, but it is warm and we gratefully slurp our tea while trying to communicate with the three.
I don't sleep well this night. Maybe because we are lying shoulder to shoulder in the small room and I fight with Sera and Adam for some space. Or maybe because we are above 4000 masl and my body is still trying to cope with the high altitude. 77Km lay ahead of us until Litang, but the heavy rain has stopped and the sky looks promising. By the time we leave, the herders have long gone to their animals, so we cannot even thank them for their hospitality.
Before lunch, we reach the last high pass of this journey, at 4600 masl. The road is now in perfect condition, but the traffic is light making it a very enjoyable ride. We whizz past pastures, forests, yaks and waving school children. Have a delicious lunch in a small village and in the afternoon start the last ascent of 450meters over 20km.
So far Sera's tires have been holding out. But 10km before the pass, I notice the back wheel is losing air. We have one last spare tube, already covered in patches. Quickly we exchange the tube, but we are unsure if it will hold the air. As we race after the others, I notice the tire is slowly getting flatter. We stop, pump up the tire and continue. The other four already await us at the pass, with coffee and cookies in hand. 15 km remain to Litang and we know Sera's tire will not hold out for the whole stretch. However, the others, including me, use a different size wheel, so we also cannot exchange the tube for a new one. With bicycle pump at hand, we mount the bicycles and make haste to reach the town. Even though we have to pump up the tire a couple of times more, we soon after arrive in Litang and stop in front of a small hotel. With large smiles on our faces, we get off our bicycles. We have cycled for eight days over a dozen mountain passes. The weather has not always been on our side, but the scenery was beautiful and unique and the people have been extremely friendly, welcoming and generous. It was an intense week and we have pushed our bodies to limits. But it will remain in all our memories as a special experience, one we don't want to have missed.