This interesting thing about this is there were twice as many people before I took out the camera to video. Chinese do not like to be photographed as a part of a crowd, and yet they always like to be a part of a crowd. I wonder if it has to do with how much they are under surveillance, or think they are?
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.
You might wonder why we don’t find better accommodations? The next Bingwan was 84 kilometers, and 1500 meters up the road, a hard all day ride. Sometimes the basics seem awfully nice after a long hard day, with another one waiting.
Shangri-la is changing as we drop in elevation. The yaks are gone, replaced by mixed breed cows, sheep, goats and donkeys. The high meadows, empty of human habitation, other than seasonal tents, with sparkling air and clear water, have been replaced with terraced fields of crops, villages with substantial houses, roofs filled with drying corn and racks with hay. The people remain friendly and vocal as we pass, our unusual mode of transportation a novelty still.
But there is a change. The prayer flags, stupas and monasteries are fewer, the flags more likely to be tattered and faded, and the architecture increasingly Han and not Tibetan. There have been a few instances of architecture new to us, indicating we are entering an area of more diverse ethnicity. Groups of women walk in brightly decorated dresses and several varieties of head dress.
Today was a nearly perfect cycling day: the road was smooth, and mostly downhill, with just enough cooling upstream breeze. We had a few hills, but none were long. There were friendly people, cute donkeys and goats, spectacular gorge scenery, and all our official interactions at check stations were pleasant. I’m beginning to think we just got a couple of bad eggs, on edge because of the 60th anniversary of Communist China’s founding. The army was even guarding a bridge, complete with sand bagged bunkers, though they seemed relaxed, perhaps because the day, October 1, has come and gone without incident, as far as we know. Unescorted foreigners are still blocked from the Tibetan Autonomous Region, though that was supposed to be lifted this week.
This is the second time small Tibetan boys have stood at attention as we passed and held a salute until we released them with a return salute. We wonder what it means? Is it serious, or is is sarcasm reserved for foreigners and police and army?
October 2, Derong, Sichuan, China: A Thorn Tree Grows in Shangri-laBob:
We left Xiang Cheng, for another long day of climbing, our last over 4,000 meters. The road had a reasonable grade (we could maintain 7kph (about 4.5mph) and the surface was good bitumen. The views back down the valley to the monastery were spectacular and the few small farms blended organically into the vertical mountains.
At one curve in the road, a woman looked up from weeding her small orchard, and let out with an extended soliloquy on our presence, accompanied by a large smile. Her husband, walking in the road, waved us down, and eagerly suggested, in pantomime, the we join him for a rest under a shade tree. He too beamed with joy at the possibility of enjoying our company. We had a difficult (more than we knew) day ahead of us, and I pointed at my wrist and shook my head in denial. He persisted, and we went back and forth, all with smiles.
Finally we waved and pushed off, our 26 inch prayer wheels spinning out thousands of goodwill messages up his mountain; but I think we might have missed the point. The farmer and his wife live Shangri-la, not just in it, but they are Shangri-la. They are poor, but well fed, and the circle of their days allows for a break when tired, a visit with passing strangers, the rhythm of weeding, or wall building when they feel like it, and the song of bird and stream as accompaniment to it all.
We, on the other hand, have brought our schedule laden philosophy with us. We are here to SEE Shangri-la, not be it or live it. We have conquered her mountains, seen those living Shangri-la, but have not made the truth-based myth our own. Oh, we have absorbed much more than those black SUVs that pass us by the scores each day, carrying Chinese to possess for a holiday, their most exotic locations. At least we have the memory in our legs and lungs of the place; we have the images of the genuine smiles from the minorities directed to us as somehow kindred spirits. But will we bring it home with us?
Now for that thorn tree: As you will read in Claire’s note, there are many police in Shangri-la. As we have descended the Himalayas, the number of police posts on the roads has grown with one about every 50 kilometers. As we came up the eastern side of the range’s fingers, there were few posts, and they always waved us past, usually with a smile. Here it is different. We are still in Tibetan minority area, and very close to the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where we assume they are expecting trouble. We were not able to go into the TAR as independent travelers, only as part of an organized group with a minder/guide. About a week ago, even that privilege was revoked for foreigners.
To me it seems at least a few of the police on this side have taken a negative tone with laowai (foreigners). Not all by any means, most perform your passport check professionally and even smile. But, after a beautiful descent of our last 4,000 meter peak, we came to a village where we understood there was accommodation. At the police stop, in the center of the village, one young man strutted back and forth of Zippy, regaling the growing crowd of mostly Tibetans with his apparently negative opinion of us. He particularly seemed to dislike the Tibetan prayer flag we had attached to the handlebar bag, and indicated his disgust with a sneer and a dismissive flip of the flag. He also told us the accommodation was no longer available, and through a translator, that we get a family to put us up, an unlikely possibility after word spread about his dislike of us. The locals fear the police. They don’t seem to be there to solve crimes, but to watch over the non-Han population, and make sure they have little contact with foreigners.
At this point we knew we would have to guerilla camp, and bought two chicken legs at a store, and got some stir-fried egg and tomato, a huge bowl of rice, and all our water bottles filled with boiling water. While we were eating, an old Tibetan man fingering his beads, came over, touched our prayer flag, nodded his head and smiled. There is a split here and it revolved along religious/ethnic lines. Only one side wears uniforms. This could get us thrown out. Yesterday, I had to help a policeman go through all the pictures on the camera Claire uses to shoot from the back of Zippy. He was a pleasant young man, just doing his job, but to an American, it was difficult to endure. Few countries have a First Amendment. Treasure yours.
We left the village for a 12 kilometer climb to an uncertain camping spot. The mountain sides are so steep, below the Plateau, that we had to camp on a power line road, in full sight of the main road. We used a few limbs to break up the contour of the tent, made sure headlights wouldn’t hit us directly, and we don’t think we were seen. Claire had a couple of disturbing dreams, but we both slept well.
There were two more encounters with the police, including a mostly pleasant one here in Derong. We hope this eases us; even though we are getting accustomed to the delays, they are not the delays we would choose.
The (renamed) town of Shangri-la (here it is pronounced Shan Ge Li La) is two days away. Stay tuned.
We watched the National Day festivities on television last night. The hyperactive, color coordinated crowds rallied for the cameras and the massive, meticulously staged production was visible only to Party members with box seats and everyone in television-land. Our celebration of the day consisted of us wishing the police well on China Day, three different times. The roadside checkpoints only grew tiresome because our day wore on longer as we waited for our passports to be returned. One lone police man called us in to somewhere, browsed through the photos on one camera (he didn’t know about the other one), then after some tense effort to communicate, made it clear we were to check in at Derong, 40 kilometers down the road. At one checkpoint, the police seemed to laugh at us for interrupting their card game.
The festivities here in town consisted of ten minutes of fireworks a few meters in front of our hotel, but I think we were the only ones watching.
We’re enjoying the light traffic and rural roads of this steep mountain country, knowing that we’ll soon come back down to more densely populated areas. Here, the land is simply too vertical to support a large population and any relatively flat space is occupied or in use for growing food. The thin, clear air has been good for our lungs and the stiff climbs certainly good for our legs.