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Cycle Touring in Eastern Tibet: Marion Shoote

The marvellous thing about cycle touring is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Each day brings new experiences and encounters which can’t be predicted from whatever map you have, and that only occur because travelling by bike allows you to immerse yourself in the landscape and culture in a unique way. When we decided to go touring in eastern Tibet (now part of Chinese Sichuan province), we anticipated big mountain views and some Buddhist monasteries to explore, but we could never have predicted the fascinating personal interactions which came with each new place we explored.

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Our trip started in the grey and relatively uninspiring city of Chengdu, whose panda breeding center is really its only claim to fame. A day’s bus ride took us away from the multi-lane highways and construction traffic, into the mountains west of the city to the town of Kangding, from where we would start cycling.

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Fuelled by fresh pomegranite and pomelo, our first day’s ride set the tone for the rest of the trip with a brutal 1500 metre hairpinned climb straight up to 3800 metres. With a 1:1.6million scale map of the area being the best that we had been able to find, this was just marked as a little wiggle on the map and came as a bit of a shock! The traffic was heavy, the highway narrow and I started to wonder if this was the right kind of adventure to be embarking on after all. We weren’t the only mad ones though, as we leapfrogged a group of four Chinese lads who we managed to ascertain were also on day one of their trip, but were heading all the way to Lhasa. Friendly smiles and waves were exchanged as we overtook them on the steepest sections where they had already resorted to walking, and they overtook us again as we stopped to finish the last of our chocolate from home.

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Our first main goal was the monastery city of Litang, at 4100 metres altitude. After a long descent on day two, we spent all of the next day churning our way up hairpins again to top the next pass. After an early start, around lunchtime we passed a sign celebrating a project “To creat [sic] eighteen bends” on the road above us, suggesting we still had a little way to go! We finally made it to the top, encouraged by various Chinese leaning out of their car window to shout at us (mostly unintelligible, hopefully positive; the occasional “Good! Good!”), and were greeted by the sight of a man selling dried kiwi fruit, who looked at us like we were mad, gave us a handful and refused our money.

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The road here – which we later discovered was well over 4000 metres, which might explain my overuse of granny ring – followed the gentle contours of a high plateau. There were plenty of opportunities to stop and admire the view (and regain my breath). Each time we stopped, we seemed to gather a crowd – from the family of Tibetans selling yak yoghurt from a bucket, who plied us with butter tea from their flask as we exchanged mentions of the Dalai Lama; to the group of Chinese tourists who emptied from their minibus to come a look at our bikes and take photographs with us. We spent our third night  camping on yak pasture away from the road, with no sound except the deep and rather comforting mooing of the yaks in the distance.

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Finally we made it to Litang, which felt much more Tibetan than Kangding in the architecture of the old town and in its population. Aside from having a first shower in four days our next priority was to go eat some momos (Tibetan dumplings) – yak flavour for Ed, potato for me. We spent a day in Litang exploring the old town and the famous monastery which is situated on a hill above the town.

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Traditional Tibetan houses have a very particular style, being very square in shape and made of compacted walls of mud, and with very intricately carved wooden windows, often painted in bright colours. We admired them as we wandered through the alleyways of the old town, being rushed at by small groups of giggling children who were clearly daring each other to try out English phrases they had learnt at school on us: “Hello-how-are-you”, “What is your name”, “I love you!”; before running away or collapsing in a heap of laughter.

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The monastery complex housed a number of impressive buildings, stupas and prayer wheels, although was undergoing major renovation works of one of the temples so was less peaceful than it could have been.

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In search of some tranquility, and a viewpoint, we cycled up a steep hill along the monastery wall and were greeted by a group of small boys who beckoned us through a side gate into the top of the monastery complex. Here we found our way up to a courtyard in front of the highest temple with a lovely view over the town and mountains beyond. We were soon joined by three adult monks who didn’t speak any english but were keen to welcome us – and to have a look at the bikes. They were soon taking it in turns to ride our bikes around the courtyard and exclaim over the narrowness of our tyres. Using a combination of sign language and our limited shared vocabulary we spent a happy hour enjoying the view, exchanging pleasantries about the Dalai Lama, outlining our route, and being taught to count to 10 in Tibetan (and then laughed at for forgetting it so easily).

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After Litang we turned onto a quieter road to head north along a river valley. The landscape changed from peaceful yak grazing along the river to a steep pass with a descent into the woods and then a narrowing river valley dotted with small Tibetan villages and temples. There was plenty to see – tiny flag-covered shrines and water-driven prayer wheels in little streams by the road, gold-roofed temples with brightly-painted walls, villages full of wandering cows and people shouting “tashi dele!” (hello!) at us as we rode by, vultures circling overhead and a steepening gorge with the sediment-laden river rushing through it.

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After stocking up our supplies of noodles and weird snacks in the town of Gandze we headed west further into the mountains. The views of snow-covered peaks were incredible and we found some great wildcamp spots: the first with a panorama of rugged mountains lit up by the sunset; the second at a sacred glacial lake of amazing turquoise with intricate carvings on the lakeside boulders.

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The greatest challenge of the trip now beckoned: the Tro La pass. At around 5100 metres altitude, this would be the highest I have ever cycled and the road was unpaved over the main part of the climb and descent. As it was only 4 months after my shoulder operation I was pretty nervous about how it would hold up riding on rough roads. Although we were travelling very light, with minimal gear and bikepacking bags, I didn’t want to be stuck pushing for miles on end.

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After a steady approach along the river, as we rounded a corner at the head of the valley the true scale of the pass revealed itself. Far above us we saw clouds of dust as lorries clawed their way up the road which was scored in harsh zigzags into the side of the steep mountain. It was a pretty intimidating view and we stopped to gather ourselves and eat a selection of not particularly appetising deep-fried crispy cakes and strips of spicy tofu.

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The road was beaten dust with rocks poking through, and was mostly rideable although we were slowed by the need to close our eyes and cover nose and mouth every time a car or lorry came past in a cloud of dust. Happily, because of the need for HGVs to ascend the pass, the gradient was very gradual and we made steady progress. Finally we reached an arch of prayer flags flapping madly in the screaming wind and popped through onto the other side of the mountains. If we’d thought the way up was scary then it was nothing to compare to the hairpins of the other side, winding their way around ridges and beneath overhangs to drop madly down a steep face to the valley bottom. It was here that the limits of my shoulder strength showed up and I was forced into a very slow descent with plenty of front braking.

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We headed to the town of Dege where we were keen to eat lots of food and also visit the traditional printing press which was marked on our map. Ordering food in restaurants was one of the trickiest aspects of the language barrier in China – our tactics were: (i) to try to find a restaurant with pictures on the walls or in the menu; or (ii) a restaurant where plenty of other people were eating and we could have a look at their food and point at something that looked nice; or failing that (iii) to try and get into the kitchen and point at things in the fridge! We resorted to the latter regularly, much to everyone’s entertainment – imagine the reaction if a Tibetan tried to do the same in this country!

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The printing press was fascinating – rooms and rooms of carefully stored wooden tablets onto which Buddhist scriptures and pictures had been painstakingly carved. These tablets were being used by pairs of workers to print paper and cloth banners. We also visited the monastery where hundreds of people were sat out under an awning listening to Buddhist prayer and chanting, while others span huge golden prayer wheels in one of the buildings and in the kitchen enormous fires were heating giant saucepans of food to feed the congregation.

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Our next goal was the monastery town of Yarchen Gar, where 10,000 nuns and monks live tucked away in the mountains. It sounded almost mythical and information about it was limited so we were excited to see what we would find. We weren’t disappointed as we arrived under a brilliant golden stupa in the warm evening light and pushed our bikes up the hill to take in the view under the watchful eye of a giant statue of a guru. Crowded into a meander of the river below were hundreds of tiny houses where the nuns live, with some large temples dotted throughout the site, and on the sloping hillside beneath us a scattering of meditation huts.

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The sun was setting fast so after enjoying the evening colours we headed to some empty land near a collection of monks’ houses on the near side of the river and pitched our tent, which immediately glazed over with ice in the plummeting temperatures. As we started cooking dinner a monk approached and beckoned us to come to his house. We followed and he showed us into his colourful prayer room, which along with a small area for cooking formed the ground floor of his house, with a tiny room for sleeping above. He produced a stove for us to finish cooking our dinner, and then disappeared for a minute, returning with a cup of instant coffee which he gave us. We sat with him in his prayer room and admired his posters of the Lama Rimpoche and his many prayer wheels and bowls. He presented us with some pictures of his Lama and a ceremonial ‘phur ba’ peg used in Tibetan Buddhist rituals; we felt rather ashamed that we only had a pomegranate to offer in return. After putting some Buddhist chanting on his mp3 player for us to listen to he left us to sleep in his cosy room and by the time we woke up the next day he was long gone to morning prayer.

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The end of our trip was drawing near as we headed back towards Kangding via a different valley, but more unexpected encounters were still to come. We finally found a homestay where we could spend the night in a traditional Tibetan house, and after a particularly spicy dinner of hotpot (I got to share the vegetarian pot with a famous local Lama who was also staying) we were invited by the hosts to go for a dip in the local hot spring along with the other guests. We all crammed into their SUV and headed up a random side road in the middle of the night, where we enjoyed a very relaxing soak under brilliant stars. A couple of days later, descending from the penultimate pass of the trip we saw a large gathering of people in a field by the road where some tents had been erected. Deciding to wander in and see what happened, we were graciously ushered into one of the tents where a feast had obviously been taking place, and we were plied with butter tea, dim sums, peanuts and what seemed to be miniature sweet potatoes in a bowl of melted butter and sugar (but we really weren’t sure). The Tibetan girls were all dressed up to the nines in embroidered gowns and hats and I think they must now have a strange impression of what Westerners are like: rather grubby and dishevelled after three weeks on the bike!

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Back on the bus to Chengdu in time for a trip to see the baby pandas, we had time to reflect on what had been a physically very tough trip, with plenty of climbs, high altitude riding and freezing overnight temperatures. But once again the rewards far outweighed the pain: the amazing landscape we rode through and wildcamped in, the beautiful monasteries and temples we explored and, most uniquely, the day-to-day interactions with Tibetans and Chinese that gave the trip its unpredictable and wonderful colour.
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