Lijiang to Chengdu on a Tandem Bicycle Part 2: Along the Tibetan Boarder
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More gorgeous scenery awaited us as we rode out of old town Shangri-La. Today we were descending down the mountain that so painfully took us five hours to climb just two days before. Eventually we were to make it over 4600 m of elevation, 1300 m higher than Shangri-La, but as if 1300 meters wasn’t enough to climb we had to first descend back down to a mere 2000 meters in height. As much as we were looking forward to a nice fast descent, the prospect of turning right around to climb it all again was admittedly quite daunting. Then again, we can’t say we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
Riding out of Shangri-La we rode past Napa Lake, a stunning mountain lake that only appears through the months of September-March, blending in with the surrounding meadow as it dries up during the summer months and becomes home to various yaks and cattle. While you can get up close and personal to lake if you want instead of just riding past as we did, I would be sure to take the Lonely Planet’s advice and pay the “unofficial admission fee” at the entrance as, while not government mandated, it is “enforced by a small, rock wielding Tibetan villager, who is not afraid to pelt you with stones if you don’t pay…”. Enter at your own risk. We enjoyed some great views from the road, so that is always an option if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee or chance getting pelted with rocks.
It didn’t take long before we started our descent rolling down the mountain, stopping only to admire the views and take some pictures. The area around Shangri-La is like nowhere else in the world (that we’ve been anyways). It’s unique in its culture and variety of landscapes, offering everything from snow capped rocky mountain peaks, to lush valleys, lakes, marshes, and meadows dotted with yaks. Not to mention of course the abundance of Buddhist monasteries and temples.
What took us a total of 6 hours to climb we descended in a mere hour and 20 minutes. An hour and 20 minutes of pure wind in your face stunning views all around fun, but still, you get my point. And we got to start the climbing all over again shortly after hitting the bottom. If there’s anything a trip like this can teach you it’s to live in the moment. Just because there was another mountain ahead (mountains actually) didn’t stop us from enjoying every moment of that descent, and subsequently the climbs that make it possible to enjoy such a roller coaster.
After riding for 143km we stopped by a small village to ask for a place to stay or camp and fill up on water, only to be told that 12km away there was a small city we could stay in. With such a precise distance we figured the villager makes the trip frequently and was probably trustworthy in his measure of distance, so back on the bike we went to plug along for another 12km. Even just a few days into our trip we’ve noticed that the Chinese definitely have an aversion to camping. We haven’t seen any of the Chinese cyclists camping, or even carrying camping gear, and when we tell them we are planning on camping some during our trip their first reaction is “So dangerous, you need to be careful!”, another in a vast gorge of cultural differences between China and the West. Thankfully, the villager was truthful, and at 12km on the mark we rode into the town of Songmai 松麦镇riding a total of 155km (almost 100 miles). The town had a nice hotel and we were grateful for a hot shower and an abundance of restaurants to choose from for dinner.
Having already started our uphill journey, tomorrow we would crest 4000 meters for the first time. We had been warned by some fellow cyclists at Our Unlimited Traveling Dream who had traversed this area, though admittedly not this exact road, that the roads were in really bad condition with lots of loose gravel and potholes. Because of this, we were prepared for gravel roads but hopeful that the road we were taking would be paved, or at least in better condition than what they described.
We chugged along for hours, wheels on pavement, when the road just straight up quit. Like for real, we went from nice pavement to gravel, mud, boulder sized rocks (I might be slightly exaggerating on the sizing, but you get the picture, they were big) and potholes, the kind of road suitable only for a mountain bike with lots of suspension (looked down at our bike, oh right it’s a road bike, tandem). Being as we were, in the middle of nowhere, little engine that could style we trudged on through the dirt and rocks, hoping to stay upright. After about 45 minutes of pedaling and going pretty much nowhere, it was clear that this plan was a bust. It was time to put our thumbs to work.
Luckily, after only about 10 minutes of waiting, an SUV drove up that looked like it could fit our bike. I flagged down the driver and half asked, half pleaded for him to take us over the mountain (it’s quite demoralizing to have to this, by the way, when you can see the top from where you’re standing, but it’s still so unreachable). Unfortunately, while we were sure that we could fit the bike in his car, he was adamant that there wasn’t enough room as he had two passengers and they each had a suitcase in the trunk. The driver drove off and left us to try, once again, to make it up the mountain using strictly human power. Thankfully, we must have looked pitiful enough that, not but 30 seconds after he drove off, he stopped and one of the guys got out of the car and started waving at us. They reversed, quite skillfully, down the one lane dirt gravel road, on the side of a cliff might I add, and said they had a change of heart and that they would try and see if we could fit our bike in the car.
Five minutes later, the bike, our gear, and their suitcases were packed, and off we went on a bone jostling journey up the mountain. We seriously cannot express enough gratitude to them for agreeing to pick us up, as little did we know that the descent on the other side of the mountain was in just as bad of shape as the climb. We only expected them to drive us until the road conditions improved but they were nice enough to drive us all the way to their destination, which just so happened to be the nearest town some 70 km away, where we could stay in a hotel and get something nice to eat. The three of them were engineers working at a hydroelectric dam just down the hill from where they dropped us off. They were also nice enough not to ask for any money from us, which was definitely a pleasant surprise. The world is certainly full of some genuinely kind people, and we were glad to run across some today when we really needed them.
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