China's Yunnan province is a land of extremes. Its sub tropical south borders on Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam and is one of the oldest tea producing regions in the world. Yunnan's rugged north is spiked with mountains, some over 6,000 meters tall. At the feet of these giants flow three of Asia's greatest rivers: the the Nujiang/Salween, Lancang/Mekong, and Jinsha/Yangtze rivers. For thousands of years and as recently as the mid-twentieth century, the valleys cut through the mountains by these mighty rivers linked trade routes between India, Myanmar, China, and Tibet. Porters carried their body weight in tea by foot along these roads to trade for Tibetan ponies. These trade routes are known collectively as the Tea Horse Road. In April, my friend Sander and I set out to bicycle between Lijiang and Deqin, two major towns along the Tea Horse Road in northern Yunnan.
We started our trip by taking an overnight train from Kunming to Lijiang. After the knife attack at the Kunming train station on March 1, which resulted in 31 deaths and over 100 injuries, we expected to see a huge security increase and consequently get a lot of hassle for trying to bring our bikes on board. Surprisingly, the guards waved us through telling us only to remove our front wheels. No joyriding around the station for us. After an uneventful eight hours on the train, we arrived in Lijiang early the next morning. We disembarked the train, refitted our front wheels, and rolled right out of the station. The massive Jade Dragon Mountain lumbered in the distance to the north and was to dominate our view for the rest of the day.
We ate a quick breakfast of baozi (steamed buns) and coffee (courtesy of the Aeropress espresso maker I brought along) and set off towards Daju, a little town on the northeast side of Jade Dragon Mountain. The first half of the day was a long, gradual uphill slog around Jade Dragon’s east side for about 35 kilometers, climbing from about 2,300 meters above sea level to about 3,000 meters. At the crest of the first big hill we ate instant noodles for lunch. We then pedaled through small mountain villages and resorts for people coming to appreciate Jade Dragon’s alpine beauty. The roads ranged from sealed tarmac, to knobby cobblestones, to loose gravel.
After reaching our highest elevation for the day at about 3,200 meters, we began the long, delicious descent, about 40 kilometers, down into Daju. It was a bittersweet reward after a day of grinding our way uphill, for we knew we would have to make up the lost altitude the next day.
Daju lies at the north end of Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the east bank of a great bend in the Yangtze River, at an altitude of just 1,300 meters above sea level. Because the popular hiking trail through Tiger Leaping Gorge is on the west side of the river, the Haba Mountain side, and because there is no bridge across the river here, travelers rarely make it to Daju. We found a room at the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hostel, one of two possible accommodations in this sleepy town. We walked through the town and its flowing wheat fields in the last light of the day before returning to have dinner and beers in our hostel’s courtyard. Tired from pedaling nearly 100 kilometers that day we settled in for an early night. Unfortunately, our next-door-neighbors had other plans — they were up all night talking loudly, chain smoking, and watching TV.
The next morning we slurped down a couple bowls of noodles and got some hard boiled eggs to go. Before we could begin the arduous climb up to Haba village, we had to find the ferry across the Yangtze River. After descending the steep riverbank, we found a boat but it wasn’t the ferry. The people onboard pointed at another boat, further downriver, which would take us across. So we pushed our bikes back up the riverbank and rode down to the true ferry crossing. Five minutes and twenty-five kuai (the standard denomination of Chinese currency) later, we were on the other side of the Yangtze, struggling to push our bikes up an even steeper embankment on a loose gravel road. Finally up on the other side, we stood directly before the yawning chasm of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
We refueled with hardboiled eggs and energy bars and braced ourselves for the grueling climb to Haba village — 1,000 meters vertical over 30 kilometers of winding switchback roads. By the time we got to Haba village, I was about ready to call it quits for the day. But after another bowl of noodles and a soda, Sander had convinced me to push on to Baishuitai.
As we pedaled away from the village, a man driving a tractor laden with PVC pipes pulled over ahead of us and flagged us down. He asked us if we were going to Baishuitai and motioned to put our bikes on the back of his trailer. Before Sander could refuse I was already loading my bike. The driver said he owned a guesthouse in Baishuitai and that we could stay there. Sander and I agreed to meet there and he took off on his bike. The tractor slowly puttered and spurted up to speed and we soon passed Sander.
When we arrived at the guesthouse in Baishuitai, Sander was only about 15 minutes behind us. The guesthouse was a little rundown but that was quickly forgotten when we saw the splendor of Baishuitai. Baishuitai gets its name from the White Water Terraces, a series of cascading limestone pools of crystal clear mountain water. The Naxi people native to this region of Yunnan believe that their ancestral mother emerged from one of these pools and gave birth to their civilization. It’s an appealing location for an origin myth. Breathing rarified air while gazing at the pools’ tiered reflections of pink and orange clouds and indigo skies, I had the strong sensation that this was indeed hallowed ground.
I awoke before sunrise the next day to see the White Water Terraces bathed in morning light. Ribbons of fragrant smoke curled out of alters besides the pools. Local people were dutifully climbing to these shrines to add leaves to the small fires that burned inside. I wandered up past the pools in the direction of their headwaters and felt compelled to trace the stream further. But dawn had slipped past the mountaintops and begun flooding the valley with golden light and I knew Sander would want to hit the road soon.
As I made my way down the trail past the shimmering terraces, I spotted a man performing a ritual before one of the shrines. He greeted me in a language I had not heard before and offered a piece of incense to burn at the shrine. After I did so, he placed his hand on the wet, chalky side of one the pools and uttered what sounded like a prayer. He then smeared a bit of the chalky substance on my forehead with his fingers and pressed his hands together in a slight bow. I returned the bow and made my way back to the guesthouse.
From Baishuitai our next destination was the legendary Shangri-La. Well, legendary according to the Chinese Tourism Bureau. The name comes from a mythical Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Several decades later, towns in Yunnan and Sichuan began calling themselves Shangri-La in hopes of attracting more tourists. The Tibetan city of Gyalthang (Zhongdian in Chinese) eventually beat out its competitors and crowned itself the official Shangri-La. To get to this mythical backpacker mecca, we knew we had to pedal 100 kilometers and climb nearly 4,000 meters on high-altitude roads.
We started our third day of riding feeling strong and making good time on the first ascent. As we climbed the winding roads up and away from the lush vegetation of Baishuitai, pine trees began to dominate the landscape like an army marching down from the mountains. We rode through small villages of log cabins with stones on their roofs to hold their shingles back from the vicious winds that must rip through this valley. Fortunately for us, the air was calm that morning. Perhaps the blessing from the shaman at Baishuitai was working.
As we pedaled along the rolling hills we stopped occasionally to shed layers for sweaty climbs and then to bundle up again for the chilly descents. After another lunch of instant noodles by the wood stove in a shop, we began spotting patches of snow and ice hiding from the sun in shady nooks along the road. By the time we reached the mountain pass at 3,700 meters, our highest elevation so far this trip, our muscles were begging for more oxygen than the thin air could deliver. The final 30 kilometers to Shangri-La were nearly all downhill but a persistent headwind picked up that afternoon and robbed us of any coasting we might have enjoyed. We churned through the stubborn headwind past grazing yaks, imposing Tibetan manors, and failed tourist attractions until we finally arrived at Shangri-La, an impossible metropolis on a plateau at twice the altitude of Kunming or Denver. Trucks and busses roared through stoplights on intersections of four-lane roads. I was as bewildered as the protagonists of Lost Horizon are upon discovering Hilton’s Shangri-La. We checked into the first cheap hotel we found just as a steel-gray sky threatened to crash down upon us. I flopped onto a bed and fell asleep with all my clothes on.
Later that day I woke up to hear Sander taking a shower. He had made plans to meet up with Pav, a friend of ours who moved from Kunming to Shangri-La to train at altitude for ultra marathons. I washed up as well and we went out to meet Pav and his friends at an Indian restaurant where we gorged ourselves on samosas and curries. After dinner we walked through the charred ruins of the old town. Shangri-La’s old town was once a warren of wooden buildings housing hostels, bars, and shops and was a big draw for tourists. But a fire in January razed it to the ground. We climbed to a temple on a hill that just barely escaped the blaze. Next to the temple stood a massive golden prayer wheel. We sat and watched tourists and pilgrims struggle together to turn the giant wheel, reflecting on our own struggle to spin our wheels that day
After taking a day to rest, eat, and wash our salty cycling clothes we rolled away from Shangri-La. We passed a derelict ski resort with a single lonely chairlift and a smattering of snow as we climbed out of the Shangri-La valley and back up to 3,500 meters. To continue north from Shangri-La we had to take highway G214, a major transportation artery for the region. Massive red and black trucks shuttling goods from Kunming, Chengdu, and Chongqing roared past us belching hot noxious exhaust in our faces. So when we found an opportunity to leave the highway and take the disused original mountain road, we didn’t think twice. The old road was a revelation. Aside from a couple goatherds and their flocks, we seemed to be the only people on the road. Small landslides had scattered scree along the road in places making it impassible for cars but leaving gaps just big enough for our bicycle tires. For a while we rode under the shade of pink blossoming cherry trees through small Tibetan villages before plunging down a massive hill and back into the Jinsha/Yangste river valley.
To climb out of the valley we had to get back on G214. There we passed a large group of Chinese cyclists who were pedaling from Dali to Lhasa — a much more ambitious journey than our own. Some of them were decked out in head-to-toe GoreTex (even though it was about 30°C in the sun) and had every bell and whistle imaginable strapped to their bikes while others were wearing jeans and t-shirts and had their belongings in backpacks haphazardly lashed to a rear rack. But what they seemed to lack in experience they more than made up for in their determination to all reach Lhasa together. They told us that their destination for the day was Shusong, the same as ours. We told them we would see them there and took off hoping that this little village would have enough beds for all of us. After battling the afternoon headwinds in the Yangtze river valley we arrived at Shusong tired and hungry. Our lodging for the night was a multistory Tibetan guesthouse with a large glassed-in atrium at its center. Its inner walls were covered with the names, musings, and doodles of previous, mostly Chinese, guests. The Chinese cyclists we had passed on the road started rolling in at sunset and continued to arrive well after dark. Fortunately there were rooms enough for everyone.
We woke up at sunrise on the last day of our trip to get an early start on the massive task that lay ahead of us. Eighty kilometers and a 4,500 meter mountain pass stood between us and Deqin, our final destination. We had biked further and climbed more on the previous days but this would be our first time above 4,000 meters. We devoured some noodles with the guesthouse owner and his daughter for breakfast and they gave us a hard, flat loaf of bread to take on the road. The owner asked in Mandarin if we were going all the way to Lhasa and I replied, “not this time.” He said that ethnic Tibetans cannot go there without first getting special permission from the government. We all shook our heads at disbelief of the active campaign to dilute Tibetan culture. We thanked him for his hospitality and went to our bikes to saddle up.
By the time we hit the road, the Chinese group had already left. Rolling out of Shusong we soon found a turnoff for the old road and once again chose its bumpy and sometimes unpaved surface to the blustering trucks of the new highway. This section of the old road however was in an advanced state of disrepair and we were soon riding over gravel and deeply rutted dirt tracks. One of the bolts holding my rear rack to my bicycle frame couldn’t stand the rough ride and shook itself free. I replaced it with a bolt from my kickstand and made a mental note to carry spare bolts on future tours.
We eventually ran out of old road and popped up onto the highway right in front of the Chinese group. They regarded us with suspicion until we explained that we took the old road, which must be a bit shorter than the new one. Back on the new road we had a clear view of our trajectory towards the distant mountain pass which beckoned us like gateway to another world. The snowcapped Baima Mountain stood by the pass like a silent sentinel.
As we climbed closer to the pass and left the Chinese group behind, our pace began to decline. Our legs went on strike for better oxygen and our feet pushed the pedals around in slow picket circles. Trees began retreating from the landscape, supplanted by icy fields of grass. Gusts of wind slam danced with us in every direction, by turns stopping us in our tracks, hurtling us forward, and threatening to throw us off the road. Rainbows of prayer flags snapping in the wind welcomed us like a finish line at the top of the first pass. Below them a sign offered a bicycle shipping service in Deqin for cyclists who could ride no further. We still had two more humps to cross before descending into Deqin. As I turned the corner around Baima Mountain, her big sister, the 5,430 meter Baimang Mountain, rose up behind her in iridescent white splendor. Somewhere very far below the Lancang and Yangtze rivers rushed past her feet. I caught up to Sander who was eating peanuts and hiding from the wind behind a pile of rocks. I called out to him but the wind carried my voice away. So I threw a snowball at him and motioned that it was time for an epic photo together.
Wind and dust continued to batter us as we made our way over the remaining two humps of the pass. The highway was reduced to a narrow, barely paved road which clung tenuously to the mountainside — and we still had to share it with the massive trucks that preferred to blast their ear-piercing air horns rather than slow down at blind turns. But our spirits were high despite the adverse conditions. The hardest part of our journey was now behind us and pearly-white jagged peaks spread out before us like reflections of our own toothy grins.
Once we reached the north side of the pass we stopped to catch our breath and adjust our layers of clothing before plunging into a steep 30 kilometer descent. As we raced down the back side of the pass at speeds over 50 kilometers per hour, the 6,740 meter peak of Mt. Kawagarbo burst into view like a spear thrust into the sky. Kawagarbo is one of the most sacred mountains to Tibetan Buddhists, who believe it to be the home of the warrior god of the same name. Its permanently snow-covered peak was shrouded in a cloak of white clouds. The temperature and humidity rose as we plummeted closer and closer to Deqin. Just outside the city we were faced with a choice: a short downhill ride through a tunnel which would take us straight to the heart of town or one more climb that would give us one last unobstructed look at Kawagarbo before descending into the valley. We chose the mountain.