As we cycled away from Labrang (Xiahe), pilgrim women both in groups, pairs and alone were prostrating along the roadside. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing and knowing they where along way from their final pilgrimage destination. Prostration takes several movements, a type of yoga sun salutation, some women wear wooden pads on their hands for protection moving very gradually along the road. We were both left speechless at this devotion and cycled off thinking our pilgrimage is a lot easier.
For several days we cycled through beautiful and sparse landscapes from grass and wetlands that went on for hundreds of kilometres. Yaks, horses, cattle and sheep dotted the terrain for as far as you could see. Little traffic passed us and the cars and lorries that did, were mindful of us. We headed towards Langmusi, at approx 3000metres, a high altitude monastery town that was positioned in a magical location. High snow capped mountains encircled the town and the 2 monasteries created a spiritual and special atmosphere. However, the season had come to a close and as we cycled in, the place seemed closed up! We found an open hotel and we were the only ones there. We even had to ask to put the hot water and heating on. The next day with the sun out, blue skies and snowy mountains, we breathed in the incense and watched the monks go about their rituals. The river that ran from the gorge through the village, gave out steam and on inspection the water was warm. Some prayer wheel bells rang frantically as the force of the water pushed through the devices. Many monks and locals seemed to welcome us as we were the only western visitors. We were incredibly lucky to witness a ceremony, where pilgrims sat and watched and we squeezed ourselves in amongst them to watch the ritual. Old women were as fascinated by us as we in them. A mutual curiosity and respect. A very special place indeed.
Once back on the road the landscape continued to be unpopulated and unspoilt. Prayer flags dominating the hills and mountains gave out a tranquil tone with their colours and movement. When the sun was going down everything was becoming more harsh. It was cold in the day but with the heat from the sun and energy generated from cycling we were fine except when we stopped at sunset the temperatures plummeted. We were between 3-3500meters for over a week, we had never been below 2,000 metres in the last 2/3 weeks and it was November, Where possible we stayed in a motel/hotel or if nothing we camped. Barbara referred to this style as “dalle stelle alle stalle” (from star to stable). Thankfully, the coldest night (and at 3700m) we camped and managed to light a fire (from wood collected during the day), which kept us toasty for a few hours. It must have been below -10+ that night as I woke at dawn to an inside/outside iced tent. On another night we stayed in a rather upmarket hotel that was a little pretentious to say the least. Oxygen was provided in the bedroom via a tube, so you could get a good sleep due to the lack of oxygen at altitude. We declined as the idea of sticking a tube up our noses while asleep was not appealing and we had adjusted to altitude by now.
Our next stop and rest day was in Songpan, a ancient city which had been rebuilt recently but it had managed to keep its charm and some authenticity. We wondered the streets on our day off and walked to the hillside monastery but this is where we saw a very macabre scene, the meat market or killing field. Our viewpoint reminded us of a film scene from a war movie. The large concrete floor was scarlet with blood, different sections men went about sawing, cutting and breaking up animal parts, while alive yaks stood in pens. Other men were hosing areas of the red fluid which ran into the river! Kids were running around in the red field of blood as this was a normal scenario. Songpan was freezing at night and as we looked at the next 4 days of cycling we were concerned about the nights camping and possible lack of alternatives so decided to fast track via bus (300km) to the city of Chengdu. Within 6 hours the next day we were bang in the inner circle of the city, circumnavigating the traffic, noise and looking for our hostel.
Chengdu was warm. Now at 500 metres the climate was sticky, the vegetation was verdant. The grey fog of the city lingered as people on scooters, cycles and cars somehow managed not to collide into each other. This is how we imagined a Chinese city to be. We were here only for the Pandas!
As excited kids we cycled through early morning rush hour traffic in Chengdu to arrive at the panda reserve in time for the morning feeding. We had been looking forward to visiting the centre for weeks and within minutes of arriving we were at the first giant panda enclosure and 2 pandas were gorging on bamboos. We stood and watched them wide eyed. They were captivating, mesmerising and cute. The outside enclosures allowed you to watch them eating, at rest and at play. The cub enclosures gained the crowds and deservingly so, as young pandas comically ran around and played. We spent the whole day there drunk on panda cuteness and ended watching a BBC documentary on the centre narrated by David Attenborough before leaving (good old BBC).
Chengdu is a large city and if you go behind the scenes you get a glimpse into city living. We joined Buddhist nuns for a communal lunch at their monastery. Here, a variety of vegetarian dishes were served and the ceremony concluded with prayers and chanting. It was open for anyone to join and a donation of 5 Yuan was asked (70 pence). We left full and happy to have experienced the openness of communal eating. Our 3 night stay was restful and the hostel (lazybones temple side posh-packer) was well run but it was time to escape a foggy city.
Skip 800km yes please! Bikes sent ahead and there were security checks at the train station. This time we were pulled over by 3 officials each armed with translators on their phones. “You have 3 flammable substances with you, give them up”. Oh no, not our cooking gas! We tried to give the smaller one but they insisted we had another 2. We did have another 1 so that went. The 3rd one was our olive oil can and no way was Barbara giving them that. She opened the can and began to gulp down the extra virgin olive oil! “Look its oil, I’m not going to drink gas! We were given our tickets and passports back, lost the gas but B had her oil.
We arrived in Panzhihua station (which was 20km away from the city) early am and after a bad sleep we collected our bikes (thankfully there waiting for us) and headed out. We estimated 4-5 days to get to Lijiang but had little information about the route. There were several roads that cycles were not permitted on so finding a road we could use was testing but once on a quieter road we were off until after a short while a police car pulled us over and out stepped 3 officers armed with smart phone translator apps. “You can not continue on this road….you must detour… the road is closed for works.” With our google translator we managed to express our concerns about a detour! They finally said we will escort you, so we followed the police car with it’s lights flashing and locals all staring at us. Following a police car up a steep hill is no fun and they were kind to stop several times to give us water and let us rest. Finally we were left as the detour was now complete.
The following 5 days cycling were a real mixed bag, the main down side was the push to create new infrastructure in China, to create better, faster highways and even though this is seen as progress this can have impacts. For numerous days we had a long line of trucks carrying dirt, rubble, coal, stones and steel in both directions. We both began to wear the residue of their cargo. Mentally it was also draining, finding ourselves swearing lots and losing our sense of humour. There were villages abandoned as the planned new viaduct or road would intervene. The scale of the building and construction was immense. Then there were times when our paths separated and we had some truck free sections, which were pure joy. The scenery has been stunning, semi tropical, dry and warm. Gaining altitude again which always means hard physical work gave us vistas and one amazing camping spot on top of a brow of a mountain and out of sight. This was our only chance to camp as the mountain sides were either vertical or the terraced agricultural land took over every inch of it. The terraces were beautiful and from our vantage point they looked like contour lines from an ordnance survey map. Each late afternoon we work cycle and search for camping ground but too no avail, so thankfully their were (kind of) rooms to rent. This is back to the ‘stable’ reference and these rooms were basic and often unkept but at least we had somewhere to rest even if we slept badly. Being in more rural areas we have experienced a much poorer and more rudimentary way of living. People have little but they have land, their labour and love seems to go into the growth of food. There are sanitation issues and often the toilets are communal, which are a building with numerous holes with just planks separating them. Not sure of communal shiting!
The mountainous landscape also rewarded us with some great fruit, mangoes, bananas and other nameless fruits that were a hybrid of apple and pear. Giant bamboos grew in ravines and eucalyptus trees clung to mountain slides. The ride was demanding and we took many hours to scale one mountain with over a dozen switchbacks and steep inclines we never thought the down would come but it did and finally we ran down into Lijiang and looking forward to a good bed, good food, a flushing toilet and a bit of tourist stuff.
All photographs by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2017©