Into the Tibetan World

 Chengdu to Xiahe

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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.

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Looking out on the Grasslands

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.

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Towards the grasslands we go, climbing gradually from 500m to 3800m.

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.

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A traffic jam caused by BAD driving

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Roads in China don’t always make sense..

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Monument at the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake

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.

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You can see how the earthquake has changed the land..

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Tunnel after tunnel. These are not much fun..

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Our friendly chaperon’s

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All the Cherries

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And even more..

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.

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Breakfast steam bun and rice soup.

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Dancing! Just cycled by this

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Camping by the river

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).

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What a surprise, a truck on it’s side..

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Blow dried Yak with crimped hair!

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Beautiful cycling

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Cute villages

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On top of the ancient wall above Songpan

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High above Songpan

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Looking out on Songpan and where we had cycled from

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The partly rebuilt west gate,  Songpan

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Mahjong and tea, the Chinese way to spend an afternoon..

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.

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First Tibetan temple made us both extremely happy

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Prayer Wheels

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Higher and higher we go. It’s exciting to see snow on the road.

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3840m!!

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Yak’s equal a happy Jude!!

 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.

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First night on the grasslands

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Yak mama

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Endless green..

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Nomads and horses

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Sheltering under the road for lunch

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.

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Epic view from our campsite

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This Yak baby got separated from the herd and started following Astrid and the dirty samon. We had to lead it back to the other yak’s.

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Awesome Chinglish

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Herding Yak’s

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Indeed!

 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.

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Yonten’s Guest House

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Yonten and his dad.

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Relaxing in the sun on the way into Langmusi

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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.

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Exploring the 15th Century Kerti Gompa

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Kerti Gompa, Langmusi

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Monastic goat, Kerti Gompa

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Monk’s in the temple

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The Tibetan temples are solid and well protected against the cold weather

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The inside is lit by Yak butter candles, it’s beautiful and 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.

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Tea in the tent to start the day

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Selfie with yak

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.

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Labrang Monastery complex

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Yak butter candle

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Prayer wheel

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Monk’s, Labrang

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!

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Tibetan ‘buffet breakfast’ at the Tara Guest House

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View over the monastery – it is epic

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Pilgrims walking the kora

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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.

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Desert here we come

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.

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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.

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Leaving Lijiang

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Best and cheapest place to shop, the local market.

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The long and winding road

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Biscuit with hole in it is a winner

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Ever upward

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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.

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Through the forests

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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.

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Rhododendron’s with goat.

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Getting colder and colder as we climb higher

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Officially at altitude!

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It feels like we are on top of the world.

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Mountains make me happy

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Yak of awesome

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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.

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The ‘troll cave’

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Enjoying our first fire since Australia

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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.

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A fine view to start the day

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Is that downhill I spy?

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Yep! Down to the Yangtze.

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Looking like an utter tool, dressed for the chilly descent

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Happiness!

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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.

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

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

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

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It just kept going!

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But it was beautiful

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The light fades as we try and make it to Lugu

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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.

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Town of giant pig

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

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Tired but happy to have made it

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Yep, it really is beautiful!

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Lige. Pretty typical Chinese tourist town.

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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.

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Well deserved beer on the lake front

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Some more view of the lake

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And more

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And even more

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Tibetan prayer flags above the lake

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Till next time!