Sunday, 23 October 2016

Middle Empire part 2: Sichuan, Red hot chili. Pepper. And mountains

Saturday, 2016, September 24th

Finally, after two relaxing weeks in Chengdu (instead of "a few days" planned) we were ready to mount our steel horses. Last kisses, last hugs, we bid farewell to Gökben and Nico, our lovely hosts, and Seb, the French seducer and wished to see them all again soon on the road.
I also had the chance to try Gökben's recommend bike. Hm, it was quite an experience, an uneasy feeling: the beast seemed very comfy but felt not like a "normal" bike.... I screamed a bit, almost fell over a few times... All in all, I'm happy with my Pegasus :-) !!!

(if you think you know how to cycle, think again!!!)

For the night, we set the tent, for the first time in China! Voila, we didn't bring the big tent along for nothing :-) :-)

The next day could be baptized "the tunnel day". We had an uncountable numbers of them, with every length possible. Or not possible! Such as this one of 4977m!!! Yes, almost 5km of total darkness. The only light came from our pale headlight. Or from cars. It was stressful rolling only with  the dim light from our bikes. It was dreadful when trucks and cars past us. And our hearts made a whole turn in our chest before stopping for one second when a car took over a truck and brushed against us. Yes, they did it. In a tunnel!

Or, this one. Of 5656 m length!!! At first, I thought it was 566m and didn't understand the weird expression on Alessio's face. "OK, it's a third tunnel in a round, probably the tenth of the day. And so what?"

In total, we had not far from 20km of tunnels that costed us probably a few days of our lives but also saved us some horrible mountain passes.
At the end of the day, we stopped, completely exhausted, after what we expected to be the last tunnel.
And it was. But then, the road was drastically uphill. And the weather was misty. Heavily misty. Then the rain came, more and more rain. We decided to stop around a bend. A truck driver made a sign for us to continue a bit further. Which we did. And found a better spot. An another truck driver made a sign that we should go further but the tent was set and we were too tired. Unfortunately because the next morning, just 500m ahead lied the perfect spot, with water, even food and some Tibetan tents where we could have asked for shelter.

 Tuesday, 2016 September 26th

What a pity that the weather was so bad: cold strong wind and rain and fog that prevented us from enjoying the must be beautiful scenery. Yeah, the view could only be wonderful to compensate the road, so stiff, so hard. Minute after minute, hour after hour, bending down on our bikes, we fought our way to the top.
While I was struggling, completely out of breath, some beautifully made up and dressed up girls, comfortably seated in their fancy cars, stared curiously at me, snapping at their precious phones for some pictures.
How I hated them :-) :-)

Shortly before 4PM, after 3h49 of peddling for Alessio, probably 5h and something of turtle-ing for me to cover 25km and 1300m of height, we got to the top, 4509m.

As a reward, the sun, timid at first, ended up by chasing the clouds away and shined over the valley, offering us a marvelous scenery. I am sure that Mamie heard my prayers and sorted it our for us.

Happily, we rolled down the valley. Some bikers past us, thumb up. Yes! We deserved all this encouragement :-) :-)

We started to see more signs of life with hamlet, villages, crops and animals. It was quite a thing to see people skinned and chopped some yaks just by the road. Meat was divided then hang on at some stalls, always with the typical fluffy black tail as an evidence....

Thursday, 2016 September 29th

It was a feeble day. We didn't feel like cycling that much, and the rain didn't help neither. Although the valley was beautiful with trees changing the colors from green to yellow with some sparse red dots.
After 50km, we both fell relieved to say " OK, we can stop for the night now" :-) We wandered through the "YAK Tibeban village" to find to dry place to set the tent. A strong woman got out of her house, observed us and made a sign. As we explained, she smiled and showed us a big warm room with plenty of comfy couches. I tried to be clear "we have no money, we could not pay for the room, we just need a dry place for the tent" but she just shocked her head "kē yi - you can stay".
And when we took out our poor reserves, bought earlier that day for dinner ( some eggs and potatoes) , the whole family (her husband and daughter had joined) just bursted out laughing and gave us a delicious meal.

The same thing happened the next morning when we tried to tell her not to prepare breakfast for us. Deeply touched, we presented our little gifts in exchange: an instant photo for the grand-children, and  some French perfume for the daughter, as we always did in such a situation.

But then, the lady changed swapped her sweet smiling face to something much less nice and friendly. And ask for money. 140 Yuan (around 20 euros) she thundered. I was so shocked that I almost stammered when I tried to remind her of what we said, of what she said. Unperturbed, she "priced down" to 120 Yuan and angrily rejected the 62 Yuan that we found in the pocket and handed to her (a decent price for a night or for a dinner and breakfast). We put the money on the table and tempted to leave. Alessio made it through the gate but she blocked my way: 100 Yuan or you won't pass!!!!

I was so angry that I just went back to the kitchen where we stayed for breakfast and took back the instant photo: I don't want any mark of us in this house.... The woman became a real monster: anger and greed distorted her features. I suppose anger and disappointment also distorted ours...
Finally, her son (who came home late at night and who was with us at breakfast) intervened "give back the photo and we'll let you go".

We got out and crossed a bunch of people on their way to work who stared blankly at us. It was not the first time but this time was particularly hard for us!!! Our morning was kind of ruined and we had to make some serious efforts to cheer us up. It was for the first time ever that we got trapped in such a way. Maybe we were too naive, maybe our soft point to those people mislead us  but Tibetan inhospitality was so unexpected and rude that we felt completely disoriented.

Fortunately, the weather was nice, the landscape beautiful and the road super hard.... all that made us concentrated on rather than stay angry.

14:30, we reached 3900m, then past Bamei, the Eight Wonder, and determined to "conquer" the second pass at more than 4000m before the end of the day.
Outside Bamei, for some reason, the police just stopped all the cars (but let us through), so we had the road almost for ourselves for an hour or so, before the cars furiously caught up.

The road is simply amazingly beautiful: valleys, mountains, rivers, green trees, painted Buda on the rocks, Tibetan flags, yaks, horses running freely, the stones forest.... we were constantly filled with wonder.

But I started feeling tired. Then very tired. Then the wind rose and made everything harder. I simply couldn't handle anymore. At 2km from the top, I just stopped, bursted into tears. Then clenched the teeth and went on.
Our efforts were pay-off when finally we reached the top around  18:00. The view was breathtaking. And we knew that a long downhill was waiting :-)
We set the tent next to a Tibetan tent and made acquaintance with a lovely Tibetan couple. Timbo is 40 and his wife 42, they had a little 4 month old who slept tight when we visited them.
The next morning, joy filled our heart to see the magnificent and peaceful landscape, to hear Timbo's wife singing while collecting some yak's dung. Life is simple and beautiful!
We crossed them again on the road, they past us like the wind on their moto, fully wrapped in clothes and scarfs, waving at us. Small things that warmed us up.

It was the Chinese National Day, the beginning of the Golden Week, so dreaded by foreigner tourists and travelers. So the number of people who took pictures and videos of us was multiplied by I don't know how many (but quite alot :-))

Tuesday, October 3rd

An another great camping spot, somewhere among the famous "18 bends Sky Road" (!) An another beautiful starry night with the black but clear sky.
In the morning, we successively met up with Olly and Tim, two Kiwis and a bunch of Chinese cyclists. More or less altogether, we formed a happy cycling band. It was the first day when the landscape was something close to a "plateau" definition: we stayed a bit at 4000m and something instead of constant alternative between highs peak and deep valleys.

One by one, everybody surpassed me. Without the pictures pauses or rest pauses, I would have been left behind since long. Well, it's easy to be fast when one is young and fit and light weighted - that's how I consoled myself :-) :-)

Before I arrived at the beginning of the everlasting pass, the last and hardest of the day, all the others had gone. Those 4 km were hard. Because of stiffness, because of tiredness, because of the strong icy headwind. Unable to keep up with Alessio and to take refuge behind him, I fought painfully with the elements but made it somehow to the top, entirely exhausted.

The next day was an easy day: we wanted to stop at Litang, so only some 35km of beautiful downhill most of the time. If only cycling could be so comfortable everyday!!!!!
Thanks to Max (who speaks perfect English) and other Chinese cyclists, we could have delicious meals : I could make my way out to have some simple dishes but could never ever order such wonderful things as they did.
Sichuanese food is known to be a delight but hot. Very hot. At first, we tried to have "just a little bit spicy please" but soon, we realized that "a little bit" is something they don't understand and had to act in an radical way "no spicy - bu la - please". That was for the "red hot chili" part. But we could never escape the famous Sichuan pepper. They simply put it everywhere, in all dishes, in even cookies. We love pepper but Sichuan pepper anesthetizes the tongue in such a way that, completely numb, we could hardly feel anything else....

Litang is a place to be if you want to see Sky Burial - the Tibetan burial ritual where they, to be short, give the death body to be eaten by vultures. We didn't want to see that so just chilled out around.

For the first time in almost two weeks, we decided to take a day off because Alessio had some pain and couldn't sleep at night. Tim informed us later that it's very likely a side effect of the anti-imflammatory medicine that Alessio took for the knee pain.

After Litang, the Chinese group took an another way to Lhasa (lucky people) we continued with the G317 and went up to the plateau. Such a wonderful feeling to roll on the "top of the world", there were only us and the bright blue sky, the clouds seemed so close, we were exhausted by the altitude but felt so powerful. The landscape sometimes reminded us of Pamir plateau in Tadjikistan.
We went higher and higher again. 4300m, 4500m, 4650m...

Friday, October 8th, it took us (well me) 5 hours of painful labour to cover the 20km from 4200m to reach the highest point of our trip at 4708m. Fortunately, the road was easier after. Anyway, it took me 7h30 of peddling to cover the 86km till Xiangchiang, where Olly, alias The Machine (never tired,  he rolled uphill at over 4000m as easily as I roll on a flat road) and Tim had waited for us.

Here, we started to notice the change: there were less Tibetan but more people from other ethnies.

The last part of our journey in Sichuan was on a old section of G317 - the road was not only stiff but moreover, was horribly bad with no asphalt but gravel all along. Every time a car past us, it was a tornado of dust. At the end of the day, we were not only physically worn out but also mentally exhausted.

(all we are is dust in the wind...)

But "every season has an end". October 12th, the three of us (Tim had joined the Potatoes since Olly the Machine, who couldn't imagine that we would be so slow, waited for us at a point much further than where we stopped then had to continue alone) past the last Sichuan pass and entered Yunnan province, the promising land of green tea and citrus. And valleys instead of big mountains....

It was good to breath normally again, to be able to talk while cycling, to hold a breath without feeling exhausted.... all the little things that we couldn't do at 4000m and more....

Thursday, October 13th, we arrived at Shangri La. We will tell you more about our stay in the next entry :-) Stay tuned!!!

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