Entering the Back Gate to the Garden of Shangri-la

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We’ve called this often grueling trip from Chengdu, the Back Road to Shangri-la. A few days ago, we entered the high gate to the garden of Shangri-la. We topped out above 15,000 feet each day, and often stayed there for hours. We meandered the Tibetan Plateau, in company with yaks and Tibetans, surrounded by a landscape stippled with stupas, prayer flags, tiny wildflowers and singing mountain streams. Meadows of jade steepened up to fresh snow covered peaks, at least some days backed by a cobalt sky and cotton clouds.

At least one day was miserable with rain and we cut our day short, rain soaked and freezing, at an unheated roadhouse infested with Mahjongg playing and yelling, day off revelers. But those are not the things we will remember. We will remember the smiling Tibetan greetings of “tashi dele” from every roadside yak camp or a passing motorcycle, laden with bags of grain, and sometimes the whole family.

We will remember the hours long climb each day, each switchback revealing new wonders of high meadows and lines of blinding peaks. Then we begin the long descent through rock walled paddocks, friendly villages, and herds of yaks and deep gorges of evergreens, autumn coloring trees and roaring streams.

Do the people here live to very old ages? Are they always healthy and happy as the Shangri-la myth tells? No, they are mortals, increasingly invaded by the outside world, nudged into ways foreign to their culture and religion. But from the smiles on their faces as we pass, an exceedingly strange apparition from afar, the hearty waves and open-faced surprise, I know they are a happy people. We were told by one man that they don’t even think about the weather, no matter how bad, and it can be very bad! That tells me the Buddhist philosophy is real and alive in their lives. We’re not there yet, especially when it comes to weather!

So Shangri-la is in some measure real, at least here in the high meadows. There is much more to discover, much more to come.

Tibetan plateau

Tibetan plateau

Claire getting a hug

Claire getting a hug

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Lucky’s High Pass

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Lucky made it! I guess we can take credit for 16,000 ft. since we’re all on the same team.

We’ve been in the high meadows of the Tibetan Plateau, most days over 15,000 feet for hours; we have found the back garden gate of Shangri-la. Look for a longer post soon with lots of pictures.

Claire:
Poor Bob had to pedal by himself halfway to Sangdui because I was too busy kicking myself up the mountain. Can anyone tell me why one remembers something left behind only after you’re well beyond going back to retrieve it? My security blanket is gone, and it’s all my fault.

At the breakfast table, in the roadhouse where we spent the night, I left my packet of maps, phrases and our chopsticks. It was an envelope I clutched tightly anytime we were off the bike. Now, it was 30 kilometers back and 1000 feet down. We weren’t going back for it. So we’re without a good map until at least Shangri-la (Note: Bob was smart enough to photograph the road atlas pages, so we do have a backup). The phrases? I’ve mostly got down the basics enough to get us a room or a meal without my cheat sheets. And the chopsticks? Well, this is China.

Bob:
There will be more mountains to come, and some will probably seem harder than this one. Zippy is making strange noises from the drive-train, and we fear we have put him under too much strain this time.

We are sometimes tired, but feeling stronger every day. We’ve reached that magical three-week point in a long challenging bicycle tour, when we are in the zone, when we feel pretty much ready for anything.

The next post is one you won’t want to miss: we now know we have entered the high back garden gate of Shangri-la. The success was hard won, but all the more rewarding for the suffering.

It will be posted soon with lots of photos.

Loving Litang; a look back, a look forward

Tibetan woman spinning her prayer wheel in Litang

Tibetan woman spinning her prayer wheel in Litang

Bob:
We’ve been traveling two weeks now, but somehow it seems much longer. The Chengdu valley and the Tibetan Plateau are very different places, in landscape and people. Chengdu is a very large city of Han Chinese, and the Himalayan west of Sichuan is sparsely populated with Tibetans. Many people think of the Tibetan people and the Tibetan Plateau as being only within the lines drawn by the Chinese government, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Both the Plateau and the Tibetan people are spread over several other provinces. The government  encourages Hans to move into Tibetan lands with various incentives, and by building new cities deep in formerly exclusive Tibetan lands. But the fingers of Himalayas we crossed to climb the Plateau, and the difficulty in building and maintaining roads, have kept this part of Tibetan land Tibetan.

We will now turn south, remaining on ridges of the Plateau for a few hundred kilometers, with at least one pass higher than any we have yet crossed, nearing 16,000 feet. Not far from here, the great rivers of SE Asia are given birth; the Yangtze and the Mekong are the two we will meet. We will cross the Yangtze as it turns north, and follow the Mekong south into Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Here, these already powerful streams, are separated by just a few high ridges before becoming the two greatest rivers in this part of the world. Along their courses live one of the largest concentrations and most diverse collections of peoples on Earth. We will encounter many cultures and the landscapes that helped form them, and we will share what we learn with you.

These postings are a small part of the material we are gathering, and they will be expanded into a larger picture of the region, after we return home.

And now a brief look at Litang:

Monk at the Litang Meat Market

Monk at the Litang Meat Market

Litang is one of the few cities in China with a majority Tibetan population. We were told in Chengdu, by a resident experienced China traveler, that we would see a more genuine view of the Tibetan people on the route we were taking than the throngs of tourists going to Lhasa. It does seem that we see few laowai (foreigners) here and we haven’t seen any touts (“Hello friend! Let me take you to a wonderful hotel!”)

A Monk Detailing His Motorcycle

A Monk Detailing His Motorcycle

They are a rambunctious people, and demonstrative toward strangers. Their culture and religion seem more important to them than to most, and they seem eager to share it. We visited a chorten (stupa square) Baita Gongyuan, where a smiling man invited us to take a lap and spin the prayer wheels. There seems almost an element of play to the practice; Claire noticed the Tibetans were so fast that they lapped us.

Turning Prayer Wheels

Turning Prayer Wheels

The public market is lively and filled with interesting fungus, vegetables, fruits and sides of yak, with men arguing over the value of various cuts. There are various fried breads and all manner of hand-made and manufactured things unknown in the West.

We have enjoyed walking the streets and interacting with the people, more than most Chinese cities, and I will miss it when we turn south toward Shangri-la, still many kilometers and mountains away.

Claire:
While we wait out the rain that has not yet materialized, we’ve spent some time getting to know Litang. I feel more comfortable now than when we first arrived; it’s like arriving in a new country. The people look different, act different and it takes some time to acclimate to the change in culture as well as in elevation.

I’ve been learning to speak a little more Mandarin and was even able to say: “We have friends who (do) Mahjongg, but we can’t.” But now, my limited Mandarin is useless here and I had a very funny exchange today with a friendly Tibetan woman who guessed, through graphic gestures, that I was looking for a toilet. She led me, arm in arm; she was going to the same place.

Monastery

Monastery

Today, we walked up the hill to the monastery through traditional Tibetan neighborhoods. The monastery reminded me of San Xavier del Bac because of all the intricate detail being put into the renovations. Huge murals filled the walls, yet looking at them up close, we could see how fine the painting was. That level of detail went all the way up, so high that no one could possibly appreciate it up close, yet there it was. I’m sure the artists who painted it appreciated it. The entry to the main hall was in the process of being carved and was not yet painted, yet it was just as beautiful as all the painted woodwork. While we were looking at the large Buddha, some Tibetans came in with young children and began the prostration ritual.

Buddhist statue

Showing off for the Laowai

Showing off for the Laowai

They love their trucks, and decorate them.

They love their trucks, and decorate them.

Decorating his stoves: winter is coming.

Decorating his stoves: winter is coming.

At the market

At the market

Monster scaring laowai

Monster scaring laowai

Two young women enjoying the streets of Litang

Two young women enjoying the streets of Litang

Elation, Pain, Surprise; Part 3, Weary Pass

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Not that day anyway…

September 24, Litang, Sichuan, China

Claire:
Neither of us slept very well through night with our Tibetan hostesses. We were grateful for a warm, dry place but I fretted about the rain, relieved to hear it stop, only to find it had turned to snow.  The snow stopped long enough for us to get started and we knew we had another 15,000 foot pass to get over, but it was hard to tell our elevation (we don’t have an altimeter on either bike computer).

With the sky socked in and lots more climbing, we were convinced we’d reached the pass even though neither the Tibetans acknowledged it with prayer flags nor the Chinese marked it with a sign. To us it was a pass, so we took photos, made a video and descended. The snow turned wet and the road muddy and we discovered we had more climbing. This time the pass was marked, with flags in one spot and with an official sign a half kilometer away.

For cyclists who know the great 30 to 50 mph descents we have in the western U.S., these are nothing like those. The asphalt is not up to the weight of the heavy trucks and the road is full of ruts and moguls so we have to keep our speed down to 20 kilometers per hour. At one point we were bouncing so much our sleeping bag and Thermarests bounced off into the muck (they were in plastic bags). We reached the end of one long downhill and could see a long climb ahead. My knees were stiff and Bob’s neck and shoulders were worn out from controlling Zippy. Neither one of us wanted to face that climb.

Yesterday, we’d passed what looked like a roadhouse with a big Chinese flag and here at the base of the climb was another one. I walked into what I thought was a restaurant and asked about a room. Yes, they had one, it was a storeroom with two cots: $6. There was no heat, water or electricity, and the short-drop was outside. Zippy’s secure parking spot was the meat locker that was the entryway to our room. Through gestures, the proprietor made it very clear we were to keep the meat locker door closed at all times, I guess to keep the cats and any loose dogs out.

We tried to regain some heat by curling up in bed for a while, then ventured out for dinner. That’s when we finally figured out all the people coming in were road workers; we were staying at a road maintenance camp. We ate what everyone else ate, a big comforting bowl of noodles and sat around the kitchen stove to warm up. I don’t know that it was really so cold, but we were still so chilled that we went to bed huddled together with Lucky in one twin cot with four fluffy comforters on top of us. We slept well in the very cold room; there’s a reason they store the meat there.

Zippy in the meat locker

Zippy in the meat locker

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