Chengdu to Xiahe
Tibet. It seems to endlessly fascinate westerners and draw us in with its remoteness, isolation and mystery. There is something particularly captivating about Tibetan Buddhism and culture and I have met few travelers who do not dream of going there one day. Sadly, it is now almost impossible to go to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) unless you have a mega amount of funds. Gone are the days of being able to cycle to Lhasa as a westerner, sneaking passed checkpoints in the dead of night. The crack down has been all encompassing and I don’t know of any non Chinese going to Tibet on bikes these days (unless with a very expensive tour). Luckily for us, the Tibetan world extends far beyond the borders of the TAR (60% of Tibetan’s live outside of it), mainly because the Chinese moved the border and these parts now encompass the high regions of Sichuan and Gansu (also Yunnan). It was towards these high plains above 3000m that we looked with eager anticipation.
But first we had to get out of Chengdu. The longer you stay in one place, the harder it seems to leave. It took us till midday to roll out of Mix Hostel but the 60km to Dujiangyan did not take us long. The only challenge being the truly awful Chinese drivers. It seems we had been sheltered in Yunnan from this phenomenon, perhaps because we avoided big cities, perhaps because there are less people. Now it became apparent how horrendous it really was. China differs from a lot of the rest of Asia that we have cycled through because on the surface it appears to be more organised. I mean it has the infrastructure to suggest some kind of orderliness, like bike lanes, footpaths, traffic lights, wide, well built roads. These however appear to be only a vague suggestion to drivers, and being in a bike lane doesn’t mean you wont have a car drive at you in the wrong direction, or having right of way when going straight doesn’t mean someone won’t turn into you. There is no awareness of other road users, no giving way, only the horn. Ah the horn. Putting your hand on the horn, basically gives you the right to drive at people, and puts them at fault for not moving. The amount the horn is used appears to directly correlate to the shitness of the driver. More horn equals worse driving. Anyway, besides dodging these zombie drivers and ninja bikes (silent, electric bikes that sneak up behind you) the cycle was quite uneventful. We found a cheap hotel and had dinner using our normal giant baby charades to order food.
The next day the bad driving took another turn. For as we climbed out of Dujiangyan we witnessed how the terrible driving caused a traffic jam of several kilometres. Instead of utilising a bit of patience on the narrow, winding road, drivers would start overtaking the line of traffic and inevitably come face to face with oncoming vehicles. Both would slam on the breaks and then get stuck. Yep, stuck. Neither vehicle could easily get out of each others way (no one can really reverse here), they would block traffic trying to turn around and subsequently a huge jam ensued. Traffic was at a stand still. We couldn’t believe it and had quite a laugh. That morning we also cycled passed what had been the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake. It was eerie to see how violently the landscape had been altered, the scars still easily visible 6 years on.
As it was the weekend, we were not alone on the road. Scores of Chinese cyclists on mountain bikes were with us and after lunch two insisted on chaperoning us the remainder of the way to Wenchuan. Our new companions were a university student who spoke some English and his older friend. They were lovely, although it did feel like we were on an organised tour, our time no longer ours. It was hard to have a pee break! After a long day we reached Wenchuan and because there was a cherry festival going on (we ate so many cherries!) it was difficult to find accommodation. Luckily for our ‘guides’. They were able to secure us an overpriced hotel room just before the skies opened.
The ‘tour’ continued the next morning. Astrid and I were roused early, our bikes carried down for us. Any hope operating on our own time evaporated. Breakfast was shared and then after a few kilometres we bid our chaperon’s farewell. They were continuing on to a tourist village and then an epic ride back to Chengdu. We were continuing up the valley. The day was beautiful and sunny, we followed a river gradually upwards, stopping for snacks in the small villages. Our camp was made beside the river and we enjoyed a wash and the freedom of being back in nature.
We reached Songpan the following evening as the rain was once again beginning to fall. It had been a long day, I was on the verge of coming down with something and painfully slow, despite the tailwind and gradual nature of the ascent. A hot shower and delicious meal certainly helped. The next day we had a break in Songpan, a morning marked by cups of tea, followed by a stroll through the old town, tea by the river with the locals and a climb to the old fort above the town. It was one of those really perfectly balanced rest days, which can be hard to achieve on the road, because often you are trying to do so many things (washing, maintenance, emailing, skype).
After shopping for some food and a coffee for me, we hit the pedals. Surprisingly we had learnt from the café owner that we were already at 2800m! The climb from Chengdu had been subtle indeed. From here on in the Tibetan world began to show her face. We climbed more noticeably, it grew colder and barer and we visited our first Tibetan Buddhist Temple. It was so beautiful. I thought I had seen enough temples in SE Asia, but this was different. It captured my heart and my imagination immediately. A few hours after stopping at the temple we reached a pass of 3800m and felt that we had indeed entered the Tibetan world.
From here we descended to the grasslands and herds of yaks and the tents of nomads began to appear. It was beautiful looking across these vast, stark grasslands, hills and mountains to our right and left. It was cold up there and we were grateful for our tent and warm sleeping bag that night. Our cycle across the grasslands continued the next day, the weather was moody and cold. We stopped to take photos of yaks and watch nomads herd these animals on horses. For lunch we crawled under a bridge to get out of the weather.
The Tibetan town of Zoige was reached in the afternoon and here we stopped for second lunch much to the amusement of the locals. We also stocked up on more food and then continued on. The weather had improved and we pitched our tent high on a grassy hill with a sweeping view across the plain.
Langmusi, the town straddling the Sichuan/Gansu border was within our reach the next day and we were steadily cycling towards our goal until a ‘hello, where are you from?” interrupted my train of thought. We get a lot of ‘hello’s out here but generally not one followed by more English. I pulled over and ended up having a 15 minute chat with Yonten, a Tibetan guy who speaks incredible English and runs a guest house. Astrid was up ahead filtering water and when I told her about my encounter we both decided to go back and chat with Yonten. It is rare to be able to communicate out here and we felt it would be amazing to be able to talk more to a Tibetan about what life was like for him. So we turned around and settled into Yonten’s restaurant for a good talk. We learned about the nomads that are soon to be spread all over the grasslands with their animals and tent’s made from yak hide (so far we had only seen a few of this type). He told us of his journey to India, where he learnt English, met foreigners for the first time and started a business on his return. We were given insights into Tibetan Buddhism and life in China as a Tibetan. For him he says it’s okay, even getting better, but up on the plateau, in the TAR it is very difficult. There are many checkpoints with continued harassment of Tibetan’s and restrictions on their religious freedom. Also Yonten spoke of the censorship and propaganda that paints the peace loving, gentle Dalai Lhama as some kind of evil force threatening China. We could have chatted for hours, but eventually we needed to get back on the bikes and continue on our way. Bidding farewell to a truly remarkable individual we felt incredible lucky to have had the experience of talking with Yonten and gaining some small insights into his life and that of his fellow Tibetans.
The cycle into Langmusi afforded some incredible views, the town itself was under going some heavy renovations, common for China. The hostel we wanted to stay at was closed, also common for China. We have a very recent guidebook, but things change here so fast, it’s often out of date. Instead we found a room at a small hotel for an okay price. Langmusi is an Amdo Tibetan town and boasts 2 monasteries, from the 15th and 18th Century. It is surrounded by grassy meadows, pine forests and the ever present mountains. We explored Kerti Gompa, the monastery on the Sichuan side the next day. The crumbling buildings of the monk’s residences surround the immense temples, which are protected from the weather by huge drapes, behind which colourful art work can be seen. The insides are dimly lit by yak butter candles, adding to the atmosphere of mystery. The whole experience was other worldly.
Unfortunately, not all our time in Langmusi could be spent exploring monasteries. Making use of the finally decent wifi of the Black Tent Café, we settled in by a window seat to deal with some serious logistical issues. It seems the Chinese government changed the rules on visa extensions last year, effectively meaning we may not be able to extend our visa for a second time. A definite problem. Internet research revealed that we may be able to extend in Lanzhou and after many hours of further research and staring at our China map, we came up with a plan. It would mean compromising the cycling by taking one bus and one train, as well as hoping for a bit of luck, but it was achievable.
Leaving Langmusi it was back out onto the grasslands, albeit not quite as picturesque at what we had already come through. We camped beside a small stream and then made it to Xiahe the next day. Another monastic town, Xiahe embodies the Tibetan culture. Labrang Monastery in Xiahe is one of the most important in the Tibetan world, a kind of Tibetan equivalent of the top Western Universities. It houses nearly 2000 monks, with chapels, temples and monastic colleges studying theology, medicine, law, astrology and esoteric Buddhism. Around the monastery is 3km of prayer wheels, where pilgrims and travellers alike walk the kora (walking around the outside of the monastery) together. Walking the kora and peering into the dimply lit temples with the heavy aroma of the yak butter candles certainly feels like you are gazing into another world. It is intoxicating and magical, and exactly what I hoped to experience by coming to the Tibetan world.
When we weren’t experiencing the wonders of Labrang monastery Astrid and I were sitting in the Tara Guesthouse Café, chatting with fellow Australian’s, Jinta, Gerhard and Margret. We had met them on our first afternoon cycling into Xiahe and continued to spend many hours together. They were inspiring travelers who had traipsed the globe many years before and their tales were endlessly fascinating. More amazing people to visit when we get home!
Sadly, our time in the Tibetan world was drawing to a close. We needed to keep heading west, towards the great deserts of Western China and mountains of Central Asia.