On with the adventure; a night in a hotel in Xiewu (room: £8) and we were back on the road. In sunshine we crossed a mountain pass and rode downhill straight into Sichuan province. Unfortunately, on the county border, the road quality went steeply downhill too! After much bumping rattling and swerving of pot holes, we made it to Serchu Dzong, with its imposing monastery complex. Another night, another cheap hotel (no heating, no running water and a drop toilet…again). We cooked breakfast on the windowsill and spent the morning wandering around the massive monastery, poking our heads into the brightly coloured prayer halls and watching the monks scurry around on their daily business. For once there was an equal amount of starring going on, as the crimson cloaked monks seemed just as fascinated by us as we were by them.
Inside the prayer hall – Crimson robed Monks
Surchu Main was the next town and only 30km away but with a mountain pass between. We were looking forward to finding a hotel with a hot shower and restocking with cash, as we were now well into our reserve money. After a couple of hours cycling around the town, we eventually found a hotel with hot shower for a reasonable price (room: £15), but we did not have so much luck with the ATMs. One was out of order and the other required a six digit pin number (ours is four), so with our wallet rather lighter than we would have wished, we restocked with the essentials and set off. After 84km we refilled our water from a stream and made camp under a snow threatening sky that had been following us for most of the afternoon.
Fortunately we were inside the tent by the time the blizzard started; we rearranged our bags in the porch to stop the snow blowing under the door and shone the torch in an attempt to assess how much snow was falling. The snow built up on the canvas and pushed in the sides of the tent – so the bags were carefully distributed to provide the best support! The snow had stopped by the morning and the landscape had been transformed into a beautiful winter wonderland. To keep our feet dry(er) we wrapped carrier bags around our shoes and set off for our days pedalling. However, just as we started, the sun disappeared and the snow came back! The road surface became ridiculous, the snowfall became stronger the road became steeper, approaching the top of 4425m pass (unsurfaced). Tim got a puncture and the situation was far from ideal.
Our white tent and bikes the morning after the snowstorm.
However, on the summit there was a road-workers camp, so without waiting for an invite we dumped the bikes and headed straight over to the only tent with a chimney in the hope of warming up by the stove! The workers were incredibly kind and gave us their seats (upturned buckets) in front of the stove, fed us hot noodles and gave us as many boiled eggs as we could fit in our pockets! They even found new carrier bags to cover our shoes the originals were ripped and torn from the mornings riding.
Riding through the snow – Inside the road-workers tent
We knew that the descent would be cold but this was an understatement…..it was arctic! The road surface improved as we headed downhill but with wind and snow in our faces, it made for an extremely chilly descent. In an attempt to keep warm we limited our speed to 20kph and pedalled against the brakes, but still our hands got painfully cold. Without any sun, it was not long until we needed to stop and camp, but we pressed on to lose as much height as possible and get below the snowline. After 49km we dropped below 4000m and found a grassy spot by a river.
Campsite ‘before’ in the evening – and ‘after’ in the morning.
Overnight snow meant that by the morning our dome tent looked like an Igloo once again! Fortunately the sky cleared and the sun came out meaning it was significantly warmer and after drying the soggy gloves on the stove we dried the tent and continued riding down the valley. The scenery was spectacular with its covering of snow and temples glistening on the hills, however the road surface deteriorated again from fresh tarmac to the spectacularly bad. The combination of snow and heavy road construction trucks had churned the mud track in to a trail of treacle. Progress was painfully slow, even with the slight downwards gradient, so once again we camped with only 48km clocked up.
Sunshine lifts our spirits as we pass through amazing scenery.
By now, we were also getting a bit low on food (as well as money). From looking at Google maps we thought this road would take 2 days, we were now going into day 4! The bad weather and awful road surfaces were to blame, but we went to sleep with positive thoughts that the road can’t be like this for ever, can it???!!!!!
Its sno joke any more – snowy camping and poor roads.. aggggh!
After our third night of Igloo camping and we shook the snow off the tent and opened the doors to find that this morning, the snow hadn’t stopped and it was still building! So with plastic bags on our feet and now also on hands in attempt to keep our gloves dry, we packed up a very wet, soggy tent and started out on the days mountain pass. Our spirits were surprisingly high – China was turning into a bit more of a challenge….. and we wanted to win! So, all day we pedalled up the dirt road with snow on our backs, gaining height at a slow but steady speed. On the final hairpin bends the cars and trucks began to lose traction as the snow settled into the icy mud and before long pedalling became impossible too. We were off the bikes and pushing within sight of the top when a pickup truck stopped alongside and mimed that we should put the bikes in the back. We almost said no (we were only 200m from the top), but riding was impossible, pushing wasn’t much fun and the truck had a heater – we gratefully accepted! It turned out to be a great decision – the road on the other side was even worse, and with the falling snow we would have got unbearably cold. We probably wouldn’t have made the town, but with the help of the pickup we made Manigango at a very reasonable hour. The town did not have a cash machine so our budget was limited – fortunately the only hotel was very cheap so we had room and dinner for less than £12. With our final few Yuan we bought provisions for the next day – eggs, fruit and cake! Unfortunately the hotel room was colder than the tent so although we were indoors, we still had to use our sleeping bags fully clothed!
Pushing but still smiling – Rescued by a pickup truck so smiling more!
The main road through town was in pretty poor condition (imagine a muddy farm track) and the road out was even worse! After a short stretch of dirt road, pot-hole hell, thankfully a newly laid surface started and we whizzed the 95km to Ganzi. The day included another epic mountain pass but we knew that a real hotel would await us… if we could make the distance! Sore and in need of some rest and recuperation, we made Ganzi and found a functioning cash machine meaning we would be get a hotel! What a relief!
Dodging potholes on the worst ‘main road’ ever!
Over the next five days we abandoned camping and hotel hopped our way to Chengdu. Due to the terrain we only pedalled 170km in three days and then took a taxi, a coach and hitch-hiked the remaining distance. The pedalling over the mountains had turned from an enjoyable adventure into an endurance test! There were many more snowy valleys to cross and we were running out of time, so these beautiful and challenging peaks we’d crossed were to be a fitting end to our cycling in Asia.
Snow and mountains on one of our final summits.
It was such a refreshing change to enter the modern City of Chengdu with its forest of sky scrapers and modern facilities. We craved the things that we normally take for granted back home – running water, flushing toilets, showers, heating, electricity, internet… Such joys! It was also a delight to take a break from noodles and rice and get some ‘normal’ western food. Due to smog, we didn’t actually see the sky but it was super-great to catch up with some cyclists that we’d previously met; Marica from Kashgar joined us at the hostel and we toured the City sights together. We also caught up with Baptiste (whom we rode with in Turkey); it was great to find a Belgian-Beer-Bar and reminisce the night away with some quality booze! Great memories!! Both Marica and Baptiste’s bicycle journeys continue south-east, so we wish them the best of luck and warmer weather – for us it was now time to visit the sights… but now….by train!!