Sunday, 17 March 2013

109. Across the Yangtze and into Sichuan

Our route north from Kunming took us through the drought stricken,
sepia landscape of Songming county and up to Qiaojia, where a youthful
Yangtze meanders among the high hills and deliniates the provincial
border between Yunnan and Sichuan. This is the homeland of the Yi (or
Lolo), one of the largest ethnic minority groups in the region who
number almost 8 million and are spread across the southwestern
provinces but their political enclave is Liangshan prefecture in
southern Sichuan. We stopped at a roadside guesthouse one evening and
after getting a bed for the night, the daughter of the establishment,
'Little Snow', a 21 year old arts student in Kunming, invited us to
the family table for dinner. The extended family cater to the passing
motor trade with regional specialities including fried pototoes. Her
aunt stood out at the table in her wonderfully colourful and elaborate
traditional dress after playing the ethnic stereotype for the day to
passing Han tourists - one common form of an attempt at cultural
survival or perhaps, less pessimistically, as an expression of the
minorities newfound respect and tolerance in the country.

On our last day into Liangshan's capital, Xichang, we were soaked in a
downpour at a high pass before dropping over a thousand metres to the
relative warmth of the city. We found a place and took a rest day
there and having failed to make contact with some foreign teachers
whom I had been told by a friend are working there, settled on having
a dinner of astonishing artery clogging capacity - a type of deep
fried pig fat served in a spicy oil sauce. Amazingly I managed to
mistakingly order the same dinner the following night in another cafe.
We left town in a more sombre mood, having learnt from a friend of the
death of a Guernsey cycling couple, Peter Root and Mary Thompson, in
Thailand a couple of day's previously as a result of a road accident
there. We'd never met Peter and Mary, who had just cycled out to Asia
from the UK this past year, but in the small cycling world we'd met
the sister of a Swiss cyclist in Kunming who had cycled with Peter and
Mary through a tumultous summer in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan
region where they were caught up in the skirmish in Khorog and filmed
the event (see their website: and I
had their email in my notebook to drop them a line.

A rare stretch of near flatland and tailwind had us reach Mianning
rather effortlessly before we encountered another of the ever-higher
passes. It took over six hours to reach the 2600 metre summit after 55
km from Mianning with a very cold headwind keeping progress pedestrian
and our extremities frozen. When we finally began to descend at 6 p.m.
with less than an hour's light left, it tried to snow but to no avail
with so little moisture in the air. With just enough feeling to clasp
the brakes we dropped down and reached a roadside hotel in Liziping
where we took the heatless room (they always are) and after a scalding
shower continued the thawing process in our sleeping bags and down
jackets. Only a day or two earlier I'd been wondering aloud whether
we'd actually ever use all the cold weather gear we have with us. Yes
is the answer and so I got to wear my new best investment that night -
flourescent pink thermal leggings from Kunming.

The downhill to Hanyuan that I promised Ellie turned into a
rollercoaster ride along the scenic Dada He river, where less than 24
hours after being frozen in the mountains, we were able to buy oranges
by the roadside - fresh from the orchards we were passing and sit
basking in the sunshine that we are taking a little less for granted
now. It was all a ruse however, designed to lull us into a false sense
of sunshine as we set off the following morning for our final pass
(2200m) before descending into Ya'an and the Sichuan plain where the
provincial metropolis of Chengdu lies. Initial progress was good out
of Hanyuan, largely because I'd overestimated the distance, and after
noodles in Jiuxiang we set off towards the mountain pass, with
ancient-looking irrigated onion terraces and blossoming peach trees
fluttering in the breeze. The breeze soon resumed its cold fierceness
and strength that we had experienced a couple of days previously and
the mountain pass lay in an ominous cocoon of dense, angry cloud. As
the road snaked up the mountain, we struggled forward in the exposed
sections of the climb while catching our breath in the leeward shelter
of a turn in the road. Two young guys from Chengdu with their
day-packs bungeed to their racks were coming down the hill and were
able to tell us that the road was clear although there was snow at the
top. They were shaking with the cold and after a round of
photographing we quickly carried on our separate ways. We got our
thermals and rain gear on as the guys reckoned we had about 15 km left
to the top of the pass although fortunately it was only 8 km as that
alone took us almost two hours through an impenetrable fog that
reduced visibility to a few metres. It wasn't clear either that we'd
reached the top as we dodged the rocks that littered the road and the
odd truck that emerged from the fog. Then in an rather unjust turn the
misty drizzle became heavier rain once we began descending and down we
flew, losing body heat rapidly. We had to stop a couple of times on
the descent to get some feeling back into our hands as we couldn't
grip the brakes. Finally we arrived at a little village, 20 km down
from the pass and huddled around the large boiling pot of stock that
is used for the noodes, as our noodles were hand-battered, spun, wrung
and then chucked into the pot, whilst the village spectated. With
night arriving we opted for the little guesthouse across the road with
a friendly family and hot shower.

Two days later we pedalled into Chengdu. After one night with Dhane,
an American warmshowers host in the south of the city (he was
relocating to Nepal the next day) we pedalled downtown and have been
holed up in Sim's Cozy Garden hostel for the past two and a half
weeks. Whilst we've seen quite a few things here in the city, made
some friends, watched some bad movies, read some good books and made
an excursion to hike up Mount Qingcheng, most of our time has been
spent in various clinics and hospitals trying to diagnose and resolve
some gut rot that I've had since arriving in China a few weeks ago.
There's plenty of scope for some humorous stories relating to seeking
medical treatment here and my miming skills relating to volumes,
quality and texture of poo have been well-honed but perhaps I'll save
that for another time. After a battery of tests and exams here we're
leaving our gear and bikes and flying to Hong Kong tomorrow morning to
see some more poo specialists. Stay tuned!

Chengdu, China
Pedalled: 68,228 km

1 comment:

Amaya said...

Hey guys!

Looks like you're having a wonderful time in China! So fun to see your panda shots--ride safe and enjoy the countryside.