For previous blog entries of our ride through NZ, Australia, South East Asia, China and Central Asia, click on the little arrows beside the dates in the Blog Archive below and use the scroll down menu.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

China – The Himalayas – Shangrilla to Chengdu(via Baiyu, Ganze)


A slideshow from the first part of our China trip

 
 Route: Shangrilla - Derong - Batang - Baiyu - Ganze - Luhuo- Dawu- Kangding-Chengdu

Distance cycled: 17,600 kms



Leaving our Chinese Aunty. We ate here every day in Shangrilla.
When we told an experienced cycle tourist in Lijiang about our winter Himalayan crossing he had one thing to say to us: “I hope you like suffering”. With this in mind we reluctantly stepped out of our electric blanket headed beds for the last time. We said goodbye to Shangrilla and headed for the hills.




It was an ambitious undertaking to say the least crossing the highest mountains in the world in the coldest months of the year but with my usual measure of unrealistic optimism I convinced Ben we should “give it a go”.Ben, having watched the closing scene of “The Shining” was less convinced but was soon onboard the Himalayan express.



The first few kilometres out of town were thoroughly depressing as we struggled through sand, dust and gravel into a headwind. If this “road” was indicative of what lay ahead, this ride would be no fun at all. Thankfully the road improved after 40 kms or so and we camped after a short climb feeling a bit happier with the road conditions. We camped in a peaceful forest cleariing that night and as I was making dinner Ben started complaining of nausea. He couldn't eat hs dnner and his condition got rapdly worse over the next two hours. Before long he was sweating, hallucinating and was on the verge of a panic attack. He projectile vomited out of the tent and said he couldn't breathe. He was having an acute attack of altitude sickness, which can lead to sudden death if the victim does not descend several hundred metres immediately.


Buggar this, I'm getting a taxi
 

After a few kms on the bumpy road, the rack snaps. Bodge stick fix still holding up.

The mighty Himalayas before the snow



It was a total nightmare. He was in terrble shape and I was convinced he was going to pass out any second. I imagined having to drag him down through the woods in the dark to get help in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. I kept talking to him, telling him everything was okay whllst packing up all our gear in record time. Both bikes shoddily loaded, we made our way down the hill and managed to descend several hundred metres. The improvement in his condition was instant and he started to feel better even after a couple of hundred metres of descent. We set up camp by the side of the road for the second time that night feeling extremely relieved.






Next morning we both agreed that much good could come of this incident.We had learned a lot. To cycle in these mountains we would have to always camp somewhere where a swift descent was possible in the onset of altitude sickness. We would also try to know the profile of each ride, trying to master a pass in a day and descend on the down before camping. Altitude sickness is a strange condition. Even if you are not affected by it on one climb, there's no guarantee you will acclimatise the next time. It's totally random, unpreventable(well, it can be prevented by not going up mountains) and can strike at any height above 3000 metres. Ben was weak the next morning and we had a very unexpected day off in the tent watching “Cars” on the laptop.





A smooth ride
We set off the following day and climbed back up to where we had originally camped the first night. After a bit more climbing we were at the top and had a stunning 20 km long downhill to look forward to. We were truly in the Himalayas now. The vast mountain landscape opened up before and the snow capped peaks were getting closer and closer. Riding downhill at 60 kms/h is what makes up for slogging up unsealed 10% gradient hills. After the descent, we turned off the 214 road and followed a beautiful road on the East bank of the Mekong. It was a great ride with few climbs. However with sheer cliffs on one side and steep gorge plunging into the Mekong on the other, camping was difficult. After 70 kms we were still looking for a campsite in the fading light when suddenly we found this..............





What a great little house and so nice not to have to put the tent up. Ben made us a delicious tofu and butter bean dish with rice and we settled down for what was to be a surprisingly mild night. Next morning we carried onto the small town of Derong 45 kms away. Arriving in Derong was amazing. This grey little town was not much to look at but the liveliness of the Sichuan Tibetans living there more than made up for the d├ęcor. The place was buzzing, life was happening. Cycling through town we were bombarded with “Hellos” and even a 'Welcome” as scarlet-clad Tibetan Monks zoomed past on motorbikes blaring out the latest Tibetan dance hits. Everyone stopped in their tracks to greet us, waving and smiling as we passed. It was a wonderful feeling and the attention was very welcome. We were being admired not stared at like aliens dropped from a spaceship with our bikes.




A friendly man let us use his internet for a few minutes before we went round to a restaurant for some noodle soup. We were the talk of the town and people came by to say Hello, trying their best to strike up a conversation in Chinese and now Tibetan. Some men came into the restaurant and instead of shyly keeping their distance came over to look at our maps. Geography aside, we had left China in every way possible.




It was late and we cycled 5 kms out of town camping down by the river. It was another idyllic camp spot where we spent a peaceful night undisturbed. Next morning Ben, in a daring move, stripped down to his undies and had a wash in the river. Let's not forget the climate we were in. I was cold but full of admiration just looking at him. We rode on a further 50 kms that day. We couldn't believe where we were. It was clear that the Tibetans were a lively, happy, colourful bunch. It became fun just going about your business seeing how it delighted and intrigued the good-hearted onlookers. In some of the remote places we cycled through in South East Asia, the attention was often more in the form of staring without interaction, which can be an unfriendly and alienating feeling for the new guy in town.







Ben's pants froze solid straight after his river bath
Not surprisingly, religion is the most important thing in every Tibetan's daily life. The majority of people wander around clutching their prayer beads, repeating mantras quietly to themselves and prayer wheels and stupas are the centrepiece of every village. Brightly coloured prayer flags shroud the mountain tops and monks are everywhere.


We found a campspot by a bubbling stream that night at 3300 metres above sea-level. It was a cold night but bearable. We boiled up stream water on a fire to fill our drinks bottles the next morning in an attempt to save the very little meths we had. The problem with this is though the water tastes of smoke. We lounged around till the afternoon then set off to cycle over our first 4000 metre + pass. It was only 13 kms from our campsite to the peak which didn't sound like a lot. However in that 13 kms we would gain almost 1000 metres in elevation. To make things even harder the road was atrocious and we both had diarrhoea. This was going to be tough.





Doing a 10% climb with no traction due to the gravel and rocks skidding around under your tyres is energy sapping. We battled through the first 6 kms or so without stopping. However as we got nearer to the 4000 metre mark, the thin air and worsening road conditions began to take their toll on us. For one section we were stopping every 100 metres or so, collapsing over the handlebars gasping for air. It was getting close to nightfall and we wanted to get on to the descent on the other side before darkness. When going over mountain passes, it's much better to get to the peak and start descending before camping. That way, if altitude sickness sets in, you can descend by carrying on in the right direction instead of having to lose all those metres you worked so hard to gain during the day.


Our first 4000 metre + pass



As I peered into the distance I saw Ben holding two hands up in celebration of what could only be the top of the mountain. We did it. 4115 metres above sea-level, a happy moment for us both. There wasn't time for basking in our glory though as night was falling. We had to make time for a quick top-of-the-mountain photo.



It was utterly freezing up there. We descended for 2 kms through an amazing lunar-like landscape, vast plains of emptiness spread out to the mountains in the distance. That night, there was utter stillness, not a sound, not a soul. It was also the coldest night so far, dropping to a brisk minus 10. We woke up to a frost covering the inside of the tent and didn't even think of venturing out into the cold until the sun had come to thaw us out.






We had a whopping 50 km downhill to look forward to, the longest we'd ever had. However, our excitement was short-lived when we realised that our average speed would be under 10 kms/h. Most of the descent we spent dodging around boulders and potholes whilst simultaneously feeling our brains and other internal organs shaking around in their cavities as we bumped over the bone-jarring surface. The worst thing about this descent though was having to squeeze on the brakes the whole way. Not only did it result in arm and neck cramp but because of the freezing conditions our fingers were painfully cold. I hit a low after 15 kms having a sly weep under my sunglasses. Ben insisted on a stop to make some porridge and boil some river water as we'd descended with none. After a cup of tea, I was back on form again. The road improved slightly and still on the downhill we camped just before the village of Zongsza. The last 15 or so bumpy kilometres before Zongsza were made more pleasurable by the lovely Tibetan hamlets we passed through. Traditional Tibetan houses are huge, the size of a small castle. We made our way through the hamlets at a snails pace to enjoy a little interaction with everyone we passed whilst keeping moving. Everyone wanted us to stop but you know how it is.

A typical Tibetan house. The size of Skibo castle.




Coming into Zongsza was like arriving in the big smoke again. It was only a small village but had a couple of shops and restaurants. While we ate our noodle soup, we charged up the rechargable batteries and laptop only to discover that the battery had succumbed to the extreme cold and stopped working. No more film nights in the tent. Gutted. Zongsza was as beautiful as all the other towns and villages we'd come through in the last few days and as we stocked up on snacks at a little shop, a 20 strong crowd of spectators came to watch. We could find no meths in Zongsza and we're down to our last drop. As we cycled off this lot ran behind us for about half a kilometre, laughing their heads off.




After petting this wee dog in a restaurant, she ran behind us for several kms.








Ah come on, give the wee soul some wheels


Then the cycling got great. We cruised slightly downhill on a beautifully tarmaced road. It was fast and flowing and good fun. After about 30 kms we would be right at the border of the T.A.R(Tibet Autonomous Region) and were concerned about taking a wrong turn and entering it by mistake. Such an error would see you landed with a heavy fine, deportation or a prison sentence(so they say). However, when we arrived, we were pleased to see a river separating China and Tibet which would certainly keep us on the right path. So as we headed North to Batang, the river was just to the left of us with Tibet on the other side. It stayed like this for the next 100 kms. The rest of the ride to Batang was wonderful. The road was in great condition, tarmaced most of the way and although we were climbing, it felt for the most part like riding on the flat. We camped after 70 kms in amongst some spiky bushes, regretting a little turning down a basic room in a Tibetan guesthouse in the last village. It turned out to be a nice night though. Ben cooked up the last of our mouldy veg with the last of our meths and we had a great sleep. The weather was surprisingly mild.

Pointing across to the T.A.R


Cycling along with the T.A.R in the background



The following day we carried on another easy 70 kms to Batang. We stopped at a village which was home to a major entry point into Tibet. Despite all the stories we'd heard about the police, army etc no-one gave us any hassle and one copper came over to say in English “Welcome to Batang”. The police in China are great as far as we're concerned. We were still 30 kms from Batang but let's not split hairs. We ate lunch in a little shack/Tibetan family home before setting off on the final 30 kms.









A lone cow tries his luck sneaking into the T.A.R without a permit

We arrived in Batang having promised ourselves a hotel. After 9 days in the freezing mountains without a wash(in my case), we felt we'd earned it. Having said that though, we'd no idea what to expect in Batang or even if there was a hotel. Also, in these parts some towns are closed to foreigners but with usual Chinese logic there seems to be no way of finding out which towns these are. We were pleasantly surprised by the size of Batang, it was really a decent sized town with several hotels. We checked a couple, the cheapest was a tenner and totally out of budget. We ended up finding a Tibetan-run “guesthouse” of sorts for 30 yuen(3 pounds). The family were very nice and showed us into a musty little box room at the end of a dark corridor. They brought us a flask of hot water and two little girls came in to introduce themselves. We liked the place a lot. The facilities left a lot to be desired however. When we asked about the bathroom,we were handed this...............



We didn't mind and infact managed to have quite a good strip wash in it in the corner of our room with freezing cold water. It wasn't quite a hot shower but was good enough. I felt clean again and happy to be out of the tent. This was luxury............... Himalayan style.


Ben modelling his designer foot warmers which he made out of a manky old jacket dumped by the side of the road.

Bill from the old bill

This little pup wandered in to our room and spent the night with us
On the second day there I went out to look for internet access. We were keen to get the profile of our ride out of Batang as we'd no idea of the heights of the passes. In the end I asked a policewoman by pointing to the word for internet in my book. In the usual helpful manner she was straight on the phone, handing it to me when the person on the end of the line answered. I was amazed to find a guy speaking perfect English. He said he'd be round to meet me at the supermarket in a minute. “Bill” took me round to the cop shop to photocopy passports and register. This is required for all foreigners who stay in hotels but is sometimes overlooked. He then took me to an internet place where he logged me on with his I.D card(foreigners are not allowed to use the net as they don't have I.D cards and can't be kept an eye on by Big Brother). When I told Bill I was a French teacher, he looked amazed telling me that he had been studying French from a textbook for several months. In exchange for his kindness I arranged to go back round to the cop shop later to give him a French lesson. Bear in mind the lesson went on while he was meant to be working. Did anyone give two hoots? Not likely. China, you gotta love it. Bill gave me his number, saying that if we ever needed any police help we should contact him. A friend in the police is a very valuable contact in a country like China. Bill bought me a coke and some dinner for Ben and I before we parted company.





We had two days off in Batang, washing clothes, repairing bikes, shopping at the market. I asked Bill on average how many foreigners came to Batang a year. The answer, 20. Not surprising then that people were almost falling off the pavement in shock as we walked past. I clocked a young lad following me round the supermarket trying to take a sly photo of me on his phone. I took the phone off him and held it out in front of us to take a snap of us both. We set off from Batang with no idea of the altitudes between there and Derge as I could find nothing on the net. We'd just have to go for it and hope for the best. Our Mandarin was coming on leaps and bounds. Having spent almost 2 months here, we were getting the hang of it which made life a lot easier. Shame that most people had now started speaking Tibetan.








Leaving Batang we followed a tarmaced road for 25 kms or so until we were spat onto another horrible unsealed road which would take us to Baiyu.It was a cold, windy and overcast day and without the sun, my spirits were dampened. My usual cheerful approach to the throngs of onlookers turned to mild irration. It's always a disappointment when the tarmac ends but is par for the course up here. You just have to enjoy it while it lasts. We had been warned about the road to Baiyu by Sandrine and Damian who had done it in the opposite direction a few months ago. However, it didn't seem as bad as they'd made out and as we camped after 40 kms that night, we thought it might be alright. We were in good spirits for the first few kilometres the next day enjoying a bit of mountain biking as we travelled along the very bumpy but manageable road. However, after getting lost and backtracking to what was meant to be our turn off, we soon realised that Sandrine and Damian were right all along. This was the road from hell.



So this is what Chris Rea was talking about





Within minutes we were pushing our heavyily-laden steeds up a steep, sandy potholed hill. After one hour we were still pushing. At one point the “road” got so bad that it took both of us all our might to push one bike at a time. We weren't getting anywhere fast, this was rubbish. However, just as we were losing the will to live, we were given a bit of a downhill. We agreed to push on to 30 kms, a pitiful daily mileage after a full day in the saddle. As we reached 29 kms we came across what seemed to be an abandoned village. We looked around for the best house out of the 5 or so that remained and after a good sweep out we had a little mountain shack for the night. We got a roaring fire going and some dinner in us, it was a great night sheltered from the cold Himalayan air.



Casa del Margo and Ben






We reluctantly left the fireside the next morning and set off up the mountain again. This road was so undriveable that on our whole time on it we'd seen less than 5 vehicles. It was an extremely isolated place. Then at last, the inevitable happened. We turned a corner to be faced by a road of snow and ice. It was like walking across a glacier and started off pretty comical as we fell on our arses every few metres. Then the ice would clear for a bit and we'd get a kilometre or so of riding. Then another huge ice patch. Some of the ice we could ride on as the mushy parts gave us some traction but in general it was totally unrideable. Within an hour it was pure snow and ice and the gradient was steep. After several bruised knees and elbows, we realised that ice cycling was not an option and so we started the inevitable push up the hill. Pushing the bikes through the snow and ice that day was utterly soul destroying. We were up at almost 4000 metres, the air was thin and we were cold and exhausted. I suddenly realised we may be in trouble.





Right, who's f**king idea was it to come up here

The altitude was affecting us both but we had no choice but to keep going. We had to get to the top and descend. We were both at rock bottom and realised we were out of our depth. I slipped on the ice for the umpteenth time, fell flat on my back and cracked my head on the ice. That was it, I let rip. Bawling my eyes out, I continued to lie on the frozen ground until Ben came and got me up. I felt responsible for us being in this terrible situation as it was me all along who wanted us to come up here in Winter and apologised to Ben in advance if we ended up freezing to death up here in a blizzard. I pulled myself together and carried on pushing through the snow. I was now a robot on auto-pilot. Just as I thought things couldn't get any worse, Ben found bear pawprints. What the hell? You guys are meant to be hibernating!! As we trudged on past some prayer flags I looked at them and said “Please help us”. Just at that moment I turned round to see two soldiers getting out of a Toyota Landcruiser.





Some of you will call it sheer luck, others divine intervention. We stripped the filthy bikes down and squashed them into the spotlessly clean 4 x 4. We jumped into the back and got handed cakes and bottled water. These guys were our saviours, doing what the army should be all about.: helping those in need. We couldn't believe our good fortune. The 4 x 4 did an amazing job of getting through the snow and ice and after several more kilometres of gruelling climbing(we'd never have made it to the top that night) we started descending down the other side. It must have been a 5000 metre + climb. The thin road on the way down was hellish but the Landcruiser made light work of it, skirting unnervingly close to the sheer cliff edges.




A few hours later, we were dropped at an army barracks, halfway to Baiyu. A young English speaking soldier came over and said we could camp outside the barracks. After thanking them profusely, our guardian angels disappeared leaving us with a whole new bunch of soldiers. As soon as we started to put the tent up 5 or so young soldiers were over, doing whatever they could to help us. One ran off and came back with two huge bits of polystyrene for insulation under our tent, another started furiously digging out stones from our porch area with a spade and someone else went off to fetch two basins of hot water for us to have a wash. Tent erected, it was dinner time and a meal was brought to us and a glass of Pepsi. The kindness shown to us by these young soldiers was beautiful. They sent us off the next morning with a huge bowl of rice porridge in our bellies and some Chinese arnica(to heal the bruises we would no doubt get from the icy ride ahead).





The sun was shining as we set off and the first 10 kms were flat. 3 kms out of the barracks we stopped off in a little Tibetan village for some snacks and water. The reaction we got here was extremely entertaining. We always attract a crowd wherever we go up here but this village was something else. The entire village came over to see us, 40 or so people. We were absolutely mobbed. As I bought a few things in the little shop I could feel the bodies of children and adults pressed right up against me staring in disbelief at me buying biscuits. I looked over at Ben who had a crowd of bell-ringers and tyre squeezers round him. As we tried to leave, we had to ring our bells for a path to be cleared for our exit. Laughing, we turned and waved one last time as some local kids ran us out of town.



The 40 strong crowd watch as we ride off into the sunset
 
Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

The climbing then started but the gradient was gentle and at this height there was no snow. However, on the way up, everyone warned us of snow and ice up ahead. We knew this time it wouldn't be so bad as the climb was much smaller and carried on. A couple of Tibetan's turned up and offered us a lift for a small fee again trying to let us know about the snow and ice up ahead. We hate taking lifts but after the previous days events, gave in and loaded the bikes into the van. It was such a remote road and in such bad condition that the snow and ice could easily build up much more than on a well maintained road.





 The driver seemed to know everyone we passed and had to stop for a lengthy chat with someone every 5 minutes. He also took us to his friends where we were given rancid yak butter mixed with flour with a cup of some putrid fungal tasting liquid. Everyone watched as we tried our best to eat what had been served to us. However, it was hard to feign enjoyment and in the end, neither of us could finish it without barfing. I think they found it quite amusing. We set off and finally got to Baiyu. Fair play to them, they'd got us to our destination and we thank them for it but I was glad to get out of that van.It had been a truly bizarre day.


Every day we have to make our way past these huge but placid horned beasties

Peek-a-boo

A young soldier saw us looking around for a hotel and with his small amount of English came over to help us. The better of the two hotels in town was shut so we ended up in a filthy hovel. He seemed embarassed that he couldn't find Westerners any better accommodation not realising that we had spent many a night in places just as bad as this.



We were confused now. The passes that lay ahead of us to the North West were very high, often reaching 5000 metres or above and would undoubtedly be impassable with snow and ice. I finally conceded that we were out of our depth and we got the maps out to see what could be done. Our main concern was extending our visa. At this point we had just under 3 weeks before it expired and due to the remote location we were in, the nearest place we could do it was either Yushu or Xining even further away. Going to Yushu involved a lot of high passes so we ruled it out. We then looked at a longer way to Xining further to the East where the passes rarely went over 3500 metres. This was a much longer route than we had originally planned but we decided to go this way as far as we could and hitch a lift to Xining when the visa time was up.





We set off for Ganze to the North East. To our surprise, most of the first days ride was on tarmac and we managed 50 kms in half a day. However as per usual up here, the road deteriorated the next day. We also had the start of a big pass to tackle. As we ascended slowly, the weather got colder and colder. We had no idea of the height of the pass but hoped we'd be at the top before nightfall. It seemed however that this one was a monster and as night fell we pulled in for the night, the top still not in sight. We camped at the side of the road in full view of the approximately 2 cars per hour that passed us. It was a freezing night. We were above 4000 metres. Getting water had been tough as all the rivers were frozen solid. I managed to find a crack in the ice that night though and stuck my hand in the freezing water to fill our bottles. It was agony. Ben had came down with a cold and my month long bout of diarrhoea was worse than ever. We'd suffered more ill health in China than anywhere else.



Next day we climbed for another 10 kms, not having expected a climb of this height. At 10 kms the sky clouded over and we knew we were in for some snow. It came in fast and before we knew it we were in a blizzard. We struggled on, still not at the top as the outline of the road started to disappear. We couldn't go on, it was far too dangerous. To our left we noticed a house and dragged our bikes over to it. The gates were locked but we climbed in over a wall round the back along with 3 Tibetan motorbikers who also didn't fancy their chances in this weather. We got a fire going and checked the place out. It was a semi-abandoned building with several rooms, a snow plough out the front, a stove and enough logs to keep a fire going for a month. It was a lifesaver. The bikers set off after a couple of hours but we were going nowhere in this weather. We set the tent up in one of the rooms and got into our sleeping bags. We were both freezing and wondered how much more the temperature would drop at night at this altitude. After heating up a bit, we managed to get up to cook some dinner and melt some snow for drinking water. We were both feeling terrible, Ben with his cold and me with diarrhoea. As well as this, we were sleeping at almost 5000 metres for the first time and the effects of the altitude were getting to us both. It was a cold, lonely, unsettling night being stuck on that mountain. We hoped we would not get snowed in. That night the temperature dropped to around minus 20.


Our refuge





Snow again for dinner tonight I'm afraid love





Next morning we packed up inbetween running back and forth to the fire to heat up. We threw our luggage back over the wall, loaded up the bikes and set off feeling utterly miserable. The snow was too thick to ride the bikes so we started to push uphill, still none the wiser about where the top was. One hour later we were at the top. Cycling downhill was a sketchy affair as I skidded all over the place on my slick road tyres. I was cold and miserable and the cold in our hands and feet was unbearable. We hoped the snow would clear as we descended but it didn't. It was white snow as far as the eye could see. So when two Tibetans offered us a lift(for a price of course) to Ganze, we didn't refuse. As we got settled in the back of the van we realised that he must have rolled it that day already as the windscreen and drivers door and roof were smashed and caved in. Not a good omen on these icy roads. After a short while we could see how he had crashed. Like most folk around here he was a terrible driver and we spent the next 4 solid entertainment hours rigid with fear. The high point of the lift was when he put the brakes on on sheet ice and sent us careering towards a cliff edge. I began to think we should have taken our chances on the bikes with the hypothermia, altitude sickness and frostbite.Like all Chinese men, our driver was quick to start offering out his cigarettes. We said “No thankyou” in Chinese to which he replied “F**k you” followed by “Good Morning” and “I love you”. We thought he was being rude at first but looks like he was just trying out the 3 phrases he knew in English.


 


Make it stop








Against all odds we arrived in Ganze in one piece and stepping out of the van, we couldn't believe where we were. Our mood lifted instantly. We checked into the Himalaya Hotel which on a sign at the front door proudly claimed to be an “authorized hotel for aliens”. The rooms were luxurious but at 100 yuen per night were on the pricey side. In our exhausted state though we knew we'd be sleeping there regardless of the price but managed to haggle down to 80 yuen. Every member of this lovely Tibetan family then started running around putting on our kettle for us, switching on our electric blankets and lighting incense. They were so nice and being made to feel welcome was just what we needed at that point. It was great to be here, we'd been to hell and back in the last week and needed a rest. After watching “Fantastic Mr Fox” we feel asleep in our cosy twin beds. The room was still freezing though. Ganze sits at 3,500 metres.




Ganze







As soon as we stepped out of the hotel the next morning, a young girl came over looking really pleased to see us. She had studied English at school and was off to University in a few months in Chengdu. We were as pleased to meet her as she was us. We needed some help with a few jobs and meeting someone who could speak English was ideal. Our wonderful day with Jega started with her taking us round to her one room house to meet her family. She also managed to get us on to the net without an I.D card and took me to a traditional Tibetan medicine doctor to get something for my diarrhoea. We then went to a local temple where we had a blessing and watched the locals praying, listening to the monks teachings and doing prostrations. We then walked up to a huge monastery up the hill which houses 500 monks. Jega's cousin is a monk there and he welcomed us into his small but very beautiful room for some tea. We watched the monks debating and had several other blessings, looking out at a beautiful view of Ganze set against the rugged peaks of the Himalayas. As we walked around town everyone wanted to chat, shake our hands or just shout “Tashidalek”. We even met two other English speakers. We took her for dinner in the evening to say thanks. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.



Jega





Jega's cousins room


Lovely Ganze folk







Ganze is the most amazing place and the Tibetan Buddhist culture here is the most authentic of anywhere we have visited. It is a magical, spiritual place with the happiest, craziest and best dressed people we have ever met! We were so welcome here and felt a strange sense of belonging in this tiny Himalayan town miles from home. Everyone here speaks Tibetan but not always Chinese. We are usually discreet when it comes to photographing people in Asia but the Tibetans didn't mind at all. The best part for them was having a great laugh at each other when I showed them the photos afterwards. The have the most wonderful sense of humour.




Rachel?


Monks debating







On our second last night at the hotel, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find the hotel manager with 7 policemen. I almost pissed myself laughing. They'd only came round to check the passports. Ben wanted a photo of them for comedy purposes but thought I'd best leave it. It is so ridiculous, the Chinese often make no sense whatsoever.








Riding out from the hotel, we ran into a French couple in a van. “What the hell are you doing here?” they cried. I could have asked them the same thing. Fred and Lauren have been travelling around Tibet for 7 years working as journalists for the National Geographic. They were in a hotel round the corner which had wi-fi, hot water and best of all a centrally heated room. Our plans for setting off that day were abandoned and we checked into the new hotel. Fred's comment that on exiting the hotel, we looked like “two bitten dogs” was probably fair enough. Neither of us were looking forward to setting off into the unforgiving mountains again. We spent the day with these two enjoying watching people's reactions at two foreigners speaking fluent Tibetan.





Having spent the last 7 years here, they have seen many changes and they both feel that there is maybe only 1 or 2 years left before the few remaining pockets of traditional Tibetan culture that are left are completely wiped out. Since the Chinese exiled the Dalai Lama amongst other things, Tibet has changed beyond recognition.They say that a lot of the kindness has gone, citing as an example the fact that in the past, people on a journey like ours would be given money by everyone as we were on a pilgrimage. Now, people are trying to make money from us. As is always the way, the more people have, the more they want and since the Chinese intervention, consumerism is becoming a big part of Tibetan society. This has only really happened in the last few years, before that the Tibetan culture was untouchable.Tibetans will maybe become as greedy as the rest of the world and as a people who have been torn apart, may start to lose their identity. It would be a shame though for such people to become like everyone else and I hope that doesn't happen to the Tibetans. Whether Fred and Lauren's observations are true or not, Tibet is a magical place and the Tibetans, magical people. You just have to look at their faces to see that. To first timers like us, traditional Tibetan culture seems very much intact but we are glad we got to see Tibet now before it changes even further. Tibet is actually a huge area 7 times the size of France but the Chinese created the shrunken T.A.R(Tibet Autonomous Region) to make it look smaller and less significant than it really is on maps. As it turns out though, we have been in Tibet for over a month. Most of Western Sichuan IS Tibet.

In Chinese markets, live fish are kept flapping around in a couple of inches of water in basins until someone comes along to buy them.A monk in Ganze stands at the market asking for money to buy the fish back then takes them to the river to set them free. Ladies also spend their days in summer collecting worms off the road so they don't get squashed.






We stayed another 2 days in our cosy hotel over Chinese/ Tibetan New Year. Over the deafening noise of the fireworks, we had to have a chat. Neither of us wanted to carry on in the mountains. We were cold and done in and to be honest, it was dangerous up here for a couple of novices like us. As we headed North the weather would only get colder. No Hutch, we actually don't like suffering and we had suffered enough the last few weeks. We decided on a less adventurous but more sensible change of plan to head East to Chengdu, Sichuan's biggest city. We could get our visas extended there then head North, perhaps rejoining some of the lower Himalayas north of Zoige(or perhaps not) on our way to Xining. We could stick to the 213 road, staying off the minor roads this time. Our tourers are not mountain bikes and are not meant for off-roading. They've done a great job over the Himalayan roads from hell though and have done us proud. I would recommend cycling the Himalayas and Tibet to anyone. However, if you do come, make sure it's SUMMER and you have a mountain bike.






Chinese New Year fireworks
 We set off in the opposite direction to Scotland towards Luhuo. I was back on the antibiotics trying to cure my diarrhoea. Chinese hygiene is non-existent and we have more or less been constantly ill the whole time we have been here. South-East Asia was nowhere near as bad as this. It makes me laugh that the Chinese are obsessed with wearing pollution masks to safeguard their health yet use filthy, bacteria ridden kitchens and bathrooms. It is definitely a country of paradoxes. Being ill for this long was really getting me down. Ben was in a similar state with his immune system at rock bottom.



I fell in this puddle



Riding off into the mountains again

We started our ride out of Ganze with a climb up to 4100 metres. The road was clear of snow this time though and we got to the top in no time. Luhuo was like a ghost town when we arrived. The police and army had a heavy presence there and all the shops were shut for the seemingly never-ending Chinese New Year. There was hardly a soul on the streets except for a group of teenagers wanting there photo taken with us.We did find a friendly restaurant to eat in where most of the town came by for a good look at us. Leaving Luhuo the road turned into a joke and we cycled the rest of the day at a snails pace over chunky gravel. We camped on a hill top overlooking a village and watched villagers walking round the stupa as we drank our morning tea. Camping in Tibet is a relaxing experience. There is so much wilderness out here and camping is the best ever. As well as this, I trust theTibetan people completely and feel that no-one out here would do us any harm. If anyone finds us camping, they are just interested and greet us with a big smile.


Round the stupa











The road to Dawu was appalling, no fun whatsoever. 10 kms past Dawu a car load of Tibetans stopped to chat. Dorje spoke perfect English and spent the next half hour trying to convince us to cycle back to Dawu 10 kms away to come stay at his house. We'd have loved nothing more but it felt like the right thing to push on towards Kangding. We were now worrying about overstaying our visa . I could see that Dorje and Sona were disappointed we weren't coming back and so were we but before they left they told us they were proud of us and gave us whatever food and drink they had in the car. They also put a couple of Tibetan sashes round our necks. These sacred lengths of silk offer protection to those on a journey. We were honoured and wore them for the rest of the nights cycling. We camped in a beautiful spot by the river that night but both woke up really cold in the morning. The weather had started to improve a bit as we came down off the High Himalayas but it was still well below freezing every night. After more slogging and a day of bad road, sullen faces and arguing we arrived in a town whose name I don't know as we lost our Chinese map.

No they're not bodypopping. Infact these women go from village to village doing full length prostrations as they go. Now THAT'S devotion for ye.
 
Dorje and Soma





We had ridden on an empty stomach that day and after dinner in a fanguan found a decent enough hotel which we got reduced from 120 to 40 yuen due to there being no water. I love those money-saving frozen water pipes.







The following day we got on to a smooth tarmac road and cruised along at 25 kms/h. It was a great feeling, definetely what these bikes are made for. At around 70 kms before Kangding, a Tibetan man invited us into his house to stay the night and eat. We couldn't speak to each other much but ate together and looked at photos of his family. Once again, we were offered some extremely unpalatable Tibetan food, a stale sour tasting bread made with rancid milk. We couldn't eat most of it and shoved what we had left in our coat pockets when he left the room. He also made us some tea which tasted exactly like blue cheese and was actually very nice. His son came over in the evening and we were shown into a little room with twin beds. That night rats the size of dogs scurried around under the beds and in the walls. I don't mind rats but didn't really fancy them crawling over my face in the middle of the night either. He was a nice man with a kind face and we were sure he was offering us hospitality out of kindness. However, as we got ready to leave the next morning, he had one word to say to us: “Chyen”. You can probably guess that it means “money: If people without much money can make an income from the rare few tourists that come their way by offering them food and shelter for the night then great. However, we felt misled and disappointed that we had not got to see the kind Tibetan hospitality we had heard about. He wasn't even that hard up. 



Riding to Kangding was a huge climb made easier by the road being as smooth as a baby's backside. We were both ill though and finding it hard. Before we knew it, we were back up in the mountains. After hours of climbing we turned a corner to see at least another 10kms of steep climb ahead of us. This one was a monster and no mistake. A few kms before the summit as we rested by the side of the road, a huge, slow moving truck slowly made its way up to us.As the truck passed us we each grabbed a side and held on as we made our way uphill at 16 km/h, 4 times faster than before. After 10 mins my arm was really feeling the burn. It was such hard work holding on not to mention downright dangerous but the free lift to the top was too good to pass up.


4298 metres

 We then had the best downhill of our frickin' lives! 60 kms of tarmaced piste. I reached a maximum speed of 67.7 km/h before reaching for the brakes. Ben however broke his record reaching......................




The best downhill............................ever!





In Kangding, the PSB told us they could not renew our visas as the polis were STILL on holiday for the Chinese New Year. We had to get our visas renewed and went straight to the bus station to get the next bus to Chengdu. It was sad to take a bus for this of all parts as it was all downhill! We booked on a bus for the following morning thinking we still had 2 days to play with before the visas expired. However as I lay in bed that night I started to recount 90 days from our first entry. I sat bolt upright in bed. Bollocks. The visas expired the next day, I had miscounted. I wanted to tell Ben straight away but let him sleep easy before I told him the bad news the next day.



Playing silly buggars on the bus
After cramming our bikes into the bus, we were off. After 8 hours we were in Chengdu. It was Friday evening so we had to spend the weekend illegally in China before we could get to the PSB on Monday morning. We were uneasy about it but put it to the back of our minds. Dhane from Couch Surfing rode out in the rain to meet us in town and take us back to his house. What a welcome. A delicious meal, bottle of red wine and our own room were waiting for us. It was so nice to be here. We spent a really nice weekend with Dhane, a 57 year old American teaching English and two other couch surfers. We felt instantly at home and soon realised that Dhane had "a heart the size of the universe". On Saturday I cycled out with Dhane to a supermarket selling Western imported food. I came back with bread, Heinz baked beans, 1kg of peanut butter, a selection of cheeses and 200 lipton tea bags. Meanwhile Ben stayed in bed nursing his cold and more seriously his painful wisdom teeth. We told Dhane about our 6 week long diarrhoea, nausea, eggy burps and sulphourous farts. Having lived in Nepal and India for many years he had had every kind of diarrhoea bug known to man and said it was definetely giardia. It was no surprise then that we'd felt so rough up in the mountains. We'd get a blood test to be sure and some medicine before we got on our way.

Chengdu

Ben's lower wisdom teeth needed extracting. Dhane's local dentist wouldn't touch them saying it was a hospital job. At the West China Stomatology Hospital, his mouth was x-rayed and extraction was arranged under local anaesthetic. The teeth were seriously impacted. It was going to be a big job.



However as soon as the Lidocaine was injected, the colour drained out of his face, he broke into a sweat and had a panic attack. He then passed out. Before long a bunch of medical staff were round him, taking his pulse etc. He regained consciousness a few minutes later. He felt too weak and unwell to go ahead with the extraction and we arranged to try again the next day. He went home on the bus with his unnecasserily numb mouth and I ridiculed his poor speech.


Wheel building

Ironically Ben's uncle and cousin are both dentists back home. His Uncle Peter looked at the x-rays and advised a general anaesthetic. The horizontal impaction of the teeth meant that he would have to have the jaw bone chipped away at and other stuff you don't want to be awake for. We arranged to go for a general.




So here we are still waiting for his operation. It's been 5 days and we still don't know what's happening. The level of English in the hospital is poor. One guy said "If you want to die in the operation, your wife can sign. You understand?" No I don't actually mate. The level of logic and common sense is also poor and no-one can give us any answers. It's driving me round the bend. I'm staying in a fantastic hostel near the hospital. I went to the hospital last night and kidnapped Ben. The two of us went back to the hostel on my bike. There's no point him being in there if he's still not getting the op. The hospital is pretty depressing and the visitors of the man next to Ben sit right next to him staring. There's no privacy. Dhane lives away out of town so relocating is better while Ben's in hospital. It's really nice to be in the city centre. I don't want to sound mean. Everyone at the hospital is so nice and they do try their best but China is infuriating sometimes and everything takes 10 times as long. You need the patience of a saint and it's not a nice feeling leaving the person you love the most in the hands of people you don't fully trust. We just want to get back on the road. Kyrgystan is calling us.

New friends. Manon and Etienne

Before we left two cycling Frenchies turned up at Dhane's. We went for a daytrip out on the bikes and as we pelotoned back at high speed I had to use all my might to keep up with them. It's been a while since I've felt like the fat kid at the back but there you go. We loved meeting these two, yet another amazing, vibrant travelling French couple. Really hope to see you soon guys. Dhane also was just the sort of helpful, kind person we needed to meet when we arrived in Chengdu. Thanks for everything. We only came to Chengdu to see the bloody pandas!


Crepe night with the Frenchies
So there you go. It's all gone a bit tits up at this end but normal service will be resumed shortly. Thanks to all Ben's wellwishers. He'll be just fine and no doubt our experience at the hospital will end in smiles and photographs. That's China all over! Join us next time as we motor up to the Stans at a rate of knots to boggle the mind. Bye for now