China Part 6: Descending from the Roof of the World (Litang to Judianzhen 27/01/16-12/02/16)

After a quick lunch break in Litang I turned south, to continue in the ‘right’ direction towards South East Asia. The last week had been incredibly hard work, but it was about to get even tougher. The minor road south would lead me over the highest roads of the trip so far and it certainly wasn’t getting any warmer.

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Litang to Judianzhen route

Just to make matters worse, I was behind schedule to reach Shangri-La in time to get my extension. It wasn’t that far, but if the snow continued to slow me down I might have to get a bus. That’s assuming a bus would even be running in these conditions…

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Leaving Litang – one of the highest towns in the world
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And up even higher towards another big pass

The weather was fair to begin with. I cycled through open plains until the first mountain and camped just before the climb started.

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Camping above 4,000m once again. No wolves tonight please!
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Hacking into the frozen river to get water in the morning

Once again the snow started to fall. By the top I looked like a snowman. The pass over ‘Rabbit Mountain’ was just shy of 4,700m – the highest I’ve ever been in my life. The cold was awful but at least it distracted me from the lack of oxygen in the air…

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Rabbit Mountain – 4,696m

There were no cars on the road. I did pass one, but it had slipped off the road and was leaning lopsided into a ditch. I checked to see if the driver was OK – he was sitting with the lights on waiting for help. I was glad he didn’t need any assistance from me, it was snowing heavily and it was too cold to stop moving.

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Descending in the snow

After my recent camp site visit from the wolf I was keen to get inside so I pushed on until a small junction village where I could stay in a Tibetan family’s back room. The problem with this cold is that it’s impossible to escape from. In ‘developed’ northern countries you can warm up once you’re inside but in this region there are no radiators or electric heaters. Everyone huddles around small ovens in the village homes, wrapped in monster fur coats.

I’d been checking my thermometer and it hadn’t gotten any warmer than -10C all day. All I wanted was to defrost my water but it was as cold inside as it was outside. I’d managed to defrost my banana and left it on the table by my bed but in the morning it had frozen solid again inside the room. Crazy.

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A brief break from the snow in a wide valley
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The sun is back! (Almost)

Onwards and upwards. The next pass was the big one. Climbing for an eternity on a really crap dirt road. 4,708 at the top. Hurray!

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The section of tarmac at the start of the climb
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4,708m above sea level. The highest I’ve ever been in my life…

On the other side everything changed. After a stunning descent I dropped into a new valley. There were actually people living here and they’d built their houses unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

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Dropping down the far side of the mountain
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Snow-free + (slightly) paved road = very fun descent
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Beautiful village homes

All the homes were these beautiful white squares, embroidered by colourful borders. The people were great too – suddenly everyone was waving hello and greeting me with big smiles. It was a very fun cycle.

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Colourful homes
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Riding towards Xiangcheng

I stopped in the town Xiangcheng to get some supplies and try to find a hot shower. I failed on the hot shower, but a ‘kettle & bucket’ job was better than nothing. It seems hot water is too much to ask for in these parts.

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A relocated village miles away from anything
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Don’t you just want to live there!?

I reached a turn off where Shangri-La was marked in two directions. One was recognisable from my map, but the alternative one was a shorter distance and on brand new tarmac. I’ve cycled along so many brand new roads in this country I guessed it was another new one. It would make sense for one to follow the river further along before making a lower pass.

I went for it, but after a 10km (mostly downhill ride) the road suddenly stopped and turned into a dusty dirt road. A local guy came after to me to tell me I was going the wrong way. Great. Back up the hill to where I was…

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Riding towards the dead end
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Really helpful. Thanks.

The road quality started deteriorating. The next pass was a painstaking climb along rattling dirt roads. I camped in the forest at just under 4,000m

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Zooming in on the local homes
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Another lumpy road
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Can’t remember the last time I camped amongst so many trees!

I’d been confident of reaching Shangri-La in time now that the roads were snow-free, but with the roads this crap I was in trouble again. I’m never that quick above 4,000m but on roads this lumpy I’m even slower.

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Breathtaking!
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Why are the lumpiest roads always the most beautiful?

There was just one last pass above 4,000m to conquer but the high mountains didn’t want me to pass easily. Once again I was above the snow line walking large sections of the climb over un-cyclable roads.

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Walking towards the province border

It was getting dark and I still hadn’t found anywhere to camp. The road was cut sharply into the mountain side and there was nowhere flat. When I spotted an abandoned electrical unit at the pass I decided to make that my home for the night. A storm was picking up and I reckoned it was better to be stuck at high altitude with shelter than braving the conditions further down.

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My home for the night

The storm was violent and winds blasted the walls of the hut all night. I’m fed up with the altitude. I’m tired of struggling for breath and not sleeping well. Another cold night in another storm was the last I could take.

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Not the coziest spot but at least it wasn’t windy inside!

I opened the door in the morning and saw the world around me covered in snow. Great. The snow storm was still raging but I left early anyway, desperate to descend.

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The morning. Another great day to be stuck in the high mountains…

The pass marked the border between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Yunnan is always portrayed as China’s tropical region. Didn’t look like that to me…

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My first day riding in Yunnan
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The struggle is real!
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Seems a little pointless to be so high up when the visibility is so poor…

After a couple of white hours I was out of the snowline and onto tarmac again. Hurray!

I’d like to at least have the option of having children one day, but if I keep abusing my balls on roads like these I won’t have a choice.

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Tarmac! A bit of tarmac, at least…

One last pass at just under 4,000m and that was it. At last. No more big mountains. They’ve been a lot of fun, but it’s time to warm up now.

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White wash out
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‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’

There’s barely anyone living in this part of the world. I pushed on to the next village on my map hoping to find somewhere dry to sleep but when I reached it the whole settlement had been abandoned. Empty buildings with smashed windows lined the road so peddled on and found somewhere to camp.

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Camping next to this frozen waterfall
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Camping at around 3,000m

I was now at about 3,000m. Hardly warm and still a good few degrees below freezing, but compared to the last few nights it was boiling. I was a happy man.

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Village architecture not nearly as charming around here

I was finally in Shangri-La. Exactly when I wanted to be there. Tomorrow I could head over to the PSB office, giving them two days to process my extension before Spring Festival. Perfect.

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Another ‘biker’

On the way into town I met an American backpacker called Lisa. She was the first foreigner I’d seen since Chengdu. She’d found a hostel for 25RMB (£2.50) so I joined her there.

The next day I asked the staff for a registration slip that I could take to the PSB office. Turns out they weren’t allowed to accept foreigners so they couldn’t write me one. Stupid. I had no choice but to head down the road to the other hostel that would accept me officially.

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Shangri-La

After all that rushing, guess what? The PSB office told me I was too early. I was correct in thinking that they’d be closed over the holiday but they refused to let me apply more than a week before my visa expiry date. I was told to come back in two days time (Friday) and they’d process it ASAP. A guard could let me collect when it was ready. It sounded a little dodgy but I didn’t have much choice.

I passed the time playing ‘hostel spy’. The cheaper hostel was new in town and were trying to work out how they could get foreign tourists to stay at their place. (Getting the paperwork to accept them might help). They said I could stay for free if I snapped secret photos for them of the more expensive hostel’s internal signs, menus, tours etc.

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Planning my next month in Yunnan with a watery beer

Then at the other hostel the owner offered to pay me to fix his rental bicycle’s flat tyres. Deals all round! I found it amusing to think about how long it took me to fix my first puncture back in Armenia. Now I’m an expert apparently!

I accepted beers as payment instead of a pathetic amount of cash. These local brews were the best beers I’d had in a very long time. I’m not a big fan of the lager in China – weak in both taste and percentage. At least they’re cheap… (30p a bottle).

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Finally a proper beer in China!

It was Chinese New Year. All the shops began to close and people ran around doing their last-minute firework shopping.

As well as fireworks, all the shops in Shangri-La were selling oxygen canisters – never seen that before.

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Fireworks. So many fireworks…

I was invited to join the Chinese guys at the hostel’s festive preparations. We wrapped up a million jiaozi for dumpling dinner.

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Jaozi for dinner
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Everything closed for the holiday

I get drunk and go out on the razzle dazzle for our new year. There celebrations weren’t quite as exciting: TV was turned on and that was the centre of attention for the four hours leading up to midnight. Apparently the show is a big deal and it’s tradition to watch the whole thing.

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Pyjama wearing New Year party

It was a pretty entertaining mixture of dance shows, comedy sketches, theatre and martial arts. My favourite part were the cuts to different parts of the country to show everyone getting excited about hitting midnight. In England the street parties look pretty much the same whether they be in London, Bristol or Manchester. But here it’s something else. My favourite was in Inner Mongolia, where the two presenters sat on snow mobiles by bonfires while colourfully dressed minority locals and camels walked around in the snow behind them.

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One of the best firework displays I’ve ever seen

I got the good news phone call over the weekend from the PSB office and I could nip over to get my passport from the guard stuck on shift over the holiday.

I cycled over to Tiger Leaping Gorge to go hiking. I had over a month left in China now so there was time to play with.

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More wonderful ‘Chinglish’ signs
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Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

The gorge is at about 2,000m. Suddenly I was in a T-shirt walking in the sunshine. Spring has finally arrived.

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Springtime stroll

The route was gorgeous – a nice easy two day hike. I walked with American Lisa so I could get some pics of myself in action for once…

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Action shot!

There weren’t many people on the trail at all. I guess the Chinese aren’t into hiking for their New Year holiday. A little peace and quiet in the sun was all I needed. Things were going to get easier, I was sure of that.

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Down by the ‘middle gorge’ stone

The last couple weeks of cycling had been phenomenal. Every single day there’d been serious ‘hairs up at the back of your neck’ moments. But it wasn’t easy – that’s probably been obvious from the writing and photos.

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Nerve-wrecking climb down to the river

It’s been the coldest temperatures I’ve ever experienced at the highest altitudes I’d ever been over the most strenuous mountain roads I’ve ever cycled. Plenty of superlatives fit the bill.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the ride from Chengdu to Shangri-La was the toughest fortnight of my life. I pushed myself miles outside my comfort zone and I’m proud of myself for coming out the other side in one piece.

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Bent-neck walking along the gorge

When I left London in January I told myself: ‘if I can cycle up to Scandinavia in the middle of winter I can do anything’. I felt like I was a real intrepid explorer cycling over a meagre inch of snow in Holland. Had I known I’d be camping in snowstorms at 4,500m exactly a year later I wouldn’t have felt so tough.

It’s time to cycle into spring…

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Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of China’s most ‘touristy’ valleys. From there I decided to cycle over to the least touristy valley in the country…

When I read about Dulong valley described as ‘the most remote valley in China’ in the guidebook I decided that it would be a perfect place to go cycling. So, from Tiger Leaping Gorge I began yet another detour: instead of heading straight for South East Asia I zig-zagged west towards the Burmese border.

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Riding along the banks of the Yangtze

Chinese New Year was still in full swing – all the shops were closed and the roads packed full of tourists on road trips. As I cycled past the Yangzte River’s ‘first bend’ I was joined by a bunch of domestic tourists out to explore the province.

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Chinese tourists at the Yangtze’s ‘first bend’
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Terraced fields along the river

It didn’t take long before I left the traffic behind and found myself riding north through beautiful villages crammed in between the mountains and the wide Yangzte. I put my tent up by the river excited about my new direction.

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It’s hard to find anywhere to camp in this country as the Chinese farm on every inch of land. Fortunately they haven’t worked out how to grow anything on sand yet…
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Local fishermen

A group from the nearby village came down to the beach to do some fishing in the last of the sunlight. They were pretty amused to have found me cooking my dinner. They were Naxi people, one of the dominant ethnic groups around here. (Word of warning: these next couple of blogs are going to feature a lot of different ethnic groups). I posed for some pictures with them and they promised they’d come back with breakfast in the morning.

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Naxi crew

True to their word, at 8am when I stuck my head out the tent there was a bag of snacks for me (not the most substantial breakfast but I’m not complaining!). I helped them drag a huge net across the shallow waters but they only caught a few pathetic fish. I returned to my breakfast of oranges, biscuits and peanut milk before heading off into the sunshine.

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Breakfast in bed!

It was the first night since Kyrgyzstan (back in October) that the night time temperature hadn’t dropped below freezing. I can’t say how happy that made me. I still had my coat on, but the cold wasn’t insufferable any more. That, along with the breakfast-in-bed put me in the best mood I’d been in for a long time.

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The haul of fish

Winter had finally passed. I could stop and picnic for lunch, read my book and soak up the sunshine. The village houses were beautiful aged white blocks with ornate paintings decorating their sides, separated from bright green rice terraces by giant shoots of bamboo exploding between. It was that romanticised picture of China I paint in my head when dreaming of the Orient. I was finally here.

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The cutest villages along the Yangtze valley

I stopped in a small town for lunch where I met a young English speaker called ‘Bob’ (English name). He was studying in Lijiang city but was back for the holidays. His English wasn’t great, but it’s so rare that I meet anyone who can speak a word in this country that I jumped at the opportunity to stay in his village. They were Bai people, another people with another language. I can’t really hear a difference though…

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Bob village

It was beautiful like all the villages around here. They proudly told me that I was the first foreigner to come to the village and paraded me around to the grandparents who’d never seen a westerner before.

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Looking at the village from the rice fields

Dinner was a special one due to New Year – all the family gathered round for a communal hotpot, taking it in turns to pick out boiled bits and bobs from the bubbling stew.

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Hotpot dinner

Sometimes I find the table manners pretty off-putting in China. They love grizzly meat and boney fish but just spit the inedible bits out on the floor. It’s pretty grim. Everyone’s just taking it in turns to drop out bits of meat from their mouths onto the floor between their feet.

The floor is just a rubbish bin in this country – you wouldn’t want to go barefoot anywhere. After dinner it gets swept up but surely it would be a little more hygienic just to have an extra bowl? I’m not really a silver-spoon person and table etiquette doesn’t really bother me too much but spitting food on the floor… is that really necessary?

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Yum! And the bits that aren’t yum? Just spit ’em on the floor!

They advised me to follow the road further north before crossing the mountains but I didn’t fancy the ‘safer’ detour so headed west on the crap road. Bob’s mum told me to be careful of people killing me to sell my organs on the black market. I think someone’s been watching too much TV…

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Bob and his mum

China was changing for me. Perhaps it was the sunshine, perhaps the people. Probably both.

I wasn’t just starting to enjoy my time here. I was starting to really love it.

One mountain pass separated me from Dulong valley, but more on that next time…

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