Breathing the thin air


Lijiang to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

 This part of the journey took us from ancient Lijiang through forest and mountains up to the high altitude lake of Lugu on the remote Yunnan/Sichuan border. It remains imprinted on my memory as a time of solitude, surrounded by high peaks, firs and Spanish moss. Of icy thin air, breathlessness, and seemingly endless sweeping views of mountains and blue sky.


It started like most of our days start, with delicious steam buns and noodle soup. This was followed up by shopping at the market for supplies, before heading off towards Lugu Lake, about 200km away according to the signs. We are however in China, a country that is constructing roads at an alarming rate, and where change is a way of life. It was not surprising then, that our road simply ended with a boom gate and we were directed onto a secondary road. Later we would learn that this route added at least 100km to our journey, and was in use while the main road was being resurfaced. At first we weren’t even sure we were on the correct road, but after asking a man herding cows, we were assured that yes, this was the road to Lugu. We climbed steadily through pine forest and then descended forever to a tributary of the Yangtze. This was followed by an epic winding climb, past villages, rice paddies but alas, no shops. We really wanted a snack! Finally around 5pm we found a small store selling biscuits and drinks, and gorged ourselves and collected some more water to filter. The lady who ran the shop was incredibly fascinated by my hair. This would become a theme in China (people are often more interested in my hair than in Astrid or myself) and it was not long before we decided to give the dreads their own identity. They are now called ‘Martha’. Anyway, after she had admired and photographed Martha, we bid her farewell and continued to ascend. Soon the villages and traffic petered out, and just before dark we made our camp in amongst the pines. It felt so good to be camping again.


Leaving Lijiang


Best and cheapest place to shop, the local market.


The long and winding road



Biscuit with hole in it is a winner


Ever upward


First night’s camp

Continuous climbing through forest greeted us the following morning. And it was cold! Soon we were afforded views of snow capped peaks, and lucky for us, also a small restaurant selling soup. The uphill was making us hungry! It was also where the Chinese tourist buses stopped, transporting the New China. Urban middle class Chinese, toting Cannon’s and wearing Northface, on a whirl wind tour of a chosen province. Something unimaginable a generation ago. Some spoke a few words of English and soon their curiosity overcame their shyness and we were asked what we were doing, and for the obligatory photo shoot. Everyone was so positive and friendly, we really can’t say enough about how wonderful the Chinese are.


Through the forests


Loving every minute

Uphill 'rage'

With occasional uphill ‘rage’

In the late morning we passed through a town, where we bought supplies and then, yes, continued climbing. It really was unrelenting, but so beautiful. We began to see firs, some Spanish moss and even rhododendrons. As the afternoon wore on, what was already a lightly trafficked road, became even quieter. We would hear the tingle of cow bells, or spot a herder with his goats. This was the other China, the one forgotten by the 21st Century. As the day wore on we began to feel like we couldn’t get any higher, as we appeared to be level with almost all the peaks around us. The view was incredible. Finally we reached a sign that told us we were indeed high, at 3660m! Both of us were really excited. Until we saw Yaks. Then the Yaks were more exciting. Yaks. Wow. So adorable. I will let the picture’s tell of their cuteness.


Rhododendron’s with goat.


Getting colder and colder as we climb higher


Officially at altitude!


It feels like we are on top of the world.


Mountains make me happy


Yak of awesome


More yak’s. They are surprisingly agile and were high above the road.

After losing our cool over the yaks it was time to find somewhere to camp. We were so high now, that it was freezing. All the spots we could see were way too exposed. Then Astrid had a brilliant idea. I am the one who has often been accused of being a cave troll, but it was Astrid who came up with the idea of camping in a tunnel under the road. Not only did it have a great view, offered protection, but it also had a place to build a small fire. Not since our days in the Australian outback have we enjoyed a cup of tea in front of an open fire. Perfect.


The ‘troll cave’


Enjoying our first fire since Australia


End of the day ‘cup o’ soup’ from the front of our ‘troll cave’.

Watching the sun come over the mountains from our ‘troll cave’ we both felt that Lugu was within our grasp that day (at this stage we did not know how much longer the road we were on was). A few kilometres further on and a ripping descent began. After almost two full days of climbing it felt amazing (except for my brakes, which are on their last legs and complained bitterly). The views of the Yangtze were incredible and I ignored the fact that we were descending into a basin, surrounded by nothing but mountains. At the bottom, it was hot! We pealed off our layers of clothes and set about finding some food. After soup, ice cream and chocolate we felt like we could almost face the climb out.


A fine view to start the day


Is that downhill I spy?


Yep! Down to the Yangtze.


Looking like an utter tool, dressed for the chilly descent




Mountains all around..

It looked very steep. The road ascended as far as the eye could see. We climbed at first through dry and cultivated land, passed small villages, crops and herds of goats. As the afternoon wore on, the road deteriorated, slowing our progress. Soon, the air became thin and cold again and we were climbing through the most beautiful forest of Spanish moss and firs. It was perfect camping terrain but we both felt we could still make Lugu that day. The light began fading (which meant it was close to 7pm) and our progress was down to 5km per hour due to the incline. Still, we were nearly at the top. The summit was reached as the last rays of the sun were fading from the sky. It was freezing. We piled on clothes and switched on our lights, anticipating around 25km of downhill to go. Unfortunately (or fortunately in this case) Astrid’s dynamo was broken, meaning that her lights were not amazing. Descending down a winding, steep mountain road in the pitch dark, you really want amazing lights for that. So after inching our way down painfully slowly for about 8km Astrid called it quits. It was simply too dangerous without two working dynamo’s, and too cold to continue on so slowly. Although we usually like to hide ourselves well, at this stage we were way too tired and cold to care, and instead pulled over at the first half sheltered place we found, right next to the road. The wind was incredibly cold and the tent was put up in record speed, more layers were added and we scrambled into our sleeping bags. Too exhausted (and cold) to cook, we ate a left over apple with peanut butter for dinner and then promptly fell asleep.


Down on the valley floor. It’s time to face the climb out..


And climb we did. All afternoon and well into the evening


A break from the climbing to filter water and eat a second lunch.


It just kept going!


But it was beautiful



The light fades as we try and make it to Lugu


Our camp beside the road

The decision not to push on was a smart one. Although we thought Lugu was only another 17km down the road, we were mistaken. Signs on Chinese roads should never be trusted! In the morning we set off on what we believed would be a short 17km descent. This was not to be. Instead we found ourselves in a muddy town, where pigs and rubbish covered the streets in almost equal measure. To this day it’s the only really dirty Chinese town we have come across. We cycled around, looking for the lake and feeling perplexed and relieved that we had not arrived here at 10pm the previous night. Eventually we decided to have some breakfast and ask some locals where we were. Up until then no one had been able to tell us, but after a bit of pointing at the i phone (which wasn’t working properly) and hand directions we figured out we were 10km from Lugu. To two exhausted cyclists, this seemed insurmountable for about 5 mins. After some rage and quiet swearing, I gathered myself together and we both cycled the remaining kilometres to Lugu. Luckily, this was primarily through a flat valley. It was with relief and joy that we finally reached Lugu Lake. We took some time, just sitting in the sun and enjoying the view, which was spectacular.


Town of giant pig


Our first glimpse of Lugu Lake. It was worth it.


Tired but happy to have made it


Yep, it really is beautiful!


Lige. Pretty typical Chinese tourist town.


View of the island across the lake. You can get there via a bridge.

From the initial view of Lugu, in was a short descent to the tourist town of Lige. Here we secured some accommodation and set about dealing with the necessities of living on the road. Which included an immense amount of washing, drying the tent, cleaning our cooking pots, contacting our families and showering. This was interspersed with cups of tea and snacks. Finally in the late afternoon we wandered around the town and sipped some well earned beers while watching the colours changed over the lake.


Well deserved beer on the lake front


Some more view of the lake


And more


And even more


Tibetan prayer flags above the lake


Till next time!



3 thoughts on “Breathing the thin air

  1. Hi Jude and Astrid the high road to Lugu Lake is my favourite so far the mountains are so beautiful thank you for this amazing journey through china all good wishes from Gwen.

  2. Hi Jude and Astrid, as I sit at my computer in relative warmth on a cold night I can attempt to appreciate the joy it must be to snuggle into a sleeping bag in the tent when it is so cold. What an awesome achievement(of your many!!) , reaching the heights that your have in China. Your travels are giving me such a wonderful insight into aspects of China that I may never experience. Thankyou both for sharing your travels I am very excited whenever I see your new blogs. Cheers and best wishes Sue

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