Another day, another two mountains. When we reached the Yangtze we thought we would be cruising down the river for a few days, but China 214 took a hard left into a narrow gorge where we found yesterday’s accommodations.
We began this morning in the rain. The mountain ahead – a 1,000 meter climb – looked grim, with tatters of gray rain hanging from charcoal clouds. Rain dripped from our parka hoods, spray from trucks and small streams crossing the road had wet us thoroughly. We settled in to listening to Zippy creak and grind in the wet and grit.
We stopped often for moon cakes and Tang, our primary power sources these days, and plodded on at the reasonable pace of 6 to 8kph (about 4 to 5mph) for a couple of hours. The road made a switchback that took us away from the rain and we slowly began to dry. An hour or so later, we topped out for a few kilometers of descent and began another 500m climb, with rain threatening the summit.
Our day was made sunnier by the friendly Chinese tourists foisting food on us. At one point, we had to reject a girl who was on her third trip to give us fruit and moon cakes. We were already loaded down with walnuts from this morning.
We also had a great exchange with some other bike tourists. David and Maria from Bilbao, Spain are going north. I felt bad that they seemed anxious about how high the climbs were and we couldn’t tell them anything encouraging; yes, there would be some very hard all-day climbs ahead. I know exactly how that feels, but during the climb it doesn’t seem so bad after all.
David gave us a map he would no longer need and I gave him my notes transcribed from Mark and Julie McLean’s great website: Mark-Ju.net. Julie’s detailed description through this last segment was spot on.
We are seeing some of the plants we all take for granted as garden plants here in the West, but originated here. It was Joseph Rock’s explorations in these mountains that began the garden boom in England, and subsequently the Western World. An English author read a story in National Geographic, and based his mythical Shangri-la on Joseph Rock’s cultural observations as an aside to his botanical work. So it is in quite a round-about way that the Shangri-la no-tell-motel on the seedy side of town is named “Shangri-la.”
Is this part of China still Shangri-la? For many of the people content to live the simple life of farm work and devotion to Buddhism, it still must be a peaceful existence. They watch the world pass and wonder at it, but have little desire to follow it to the cities. Of course, some of the young do follow China 214 to the city, and village life no doubt suffers for their loss. The outside world nibbles at the edges of their world, but so far makes seemingly minor inroads. We see a village high on the mountain as we pedal the China 214, and wonder at how they possibly can get up there, how they found a place to put a house – let alone a barn, and those terraced fields. A few hundred meters is a long way when the slope is 45 degrees.
Are they the healthy happy people who live long lives, as described in the novel? Their smiles indicate they are happy. As for their health, they must have strong hearts to navigate the near vertical hillsides all day – every day. Their sanitary systems are nonexistent, but they’ve probably adapted to some degree, and all consumed water is boiled.
Many of them live as my grandfather lived in West Virginia more than 100 years ago. He was still mowing hay by hand when he was 90 years old. He worked with horses, had no electricity, went to the outhouse, ate pork every day, and died peacefully at home at 93.
Shangri-la? Not for us, but considering the challenges of modern life, and that American’s life spans are decreasing for the first time ever, perhaps there are lessons to be learned.
Claire took a nice video of a man dragging logs with a team of oxen that reminded us that we were in a world not wholly made up of diesel belching trucks, wildly driven SUVs, and kilometer long lines of tourist cars.
The National Holiday
We are in the middle of one of two national holidays in China. All Chinese who can afford it, and there are many more than four years ago, want to drive their personal autos to some tourist hot spot. We are entering the area defined by the tourist industry as “Shangri-la,” and it is apparently a prime destination.
We’ve had our picture taken so many times by so many Han Chinese, with their huge Canons and Nikons, that I am considering declaring us an official minority and charging for our images. One time it was a huge tour bus filled with photographers, wearing camera vests and sporting lenses larger than both of our cameras put together.
It gives me a new perspective on photographing people. When I was a photojournalist I often just charged into a group and began knocking off frames at a furious pace, with no consideration of the feelings of the people. I don’t have to do that any more. Now I ask, or am so unobtrusive that I don’t disturb the flow of their lives.
Claire shoots from the back of the tandem, and that seems to disarm people. We also get a kick out of the Chinese amateur photographers, scrambling for the best angle, jabbering away, finally waving and giving a thumbs up; it’s all road entertainment for us.
Shangri-la, The City
After a short descent to a large lake which seems to be a major tourist attraction, judging from the traffic jams, we again rode in the rain into the city of Shangri-la. Claire was surprised at the size of the city, and despaired of finding the guest house we sought. We finally found it, paying eight times what we paid the previous night for the privilege of hearing our neighbors, and choking on their smoke that seeps through the walls. The extra price is for arriving during the national holiday; the Chinese also pay the higher fee.
So far it seems like any other medium sized city, except there are many more hotels (all full). There is a tourist “Old Town” that we must see while we are here.
We’re off on a back road trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Claire says more mountains are ahead of us – and no doubt some spectacular scenery.