First Pass, Chinese Cycling Friends, and a Long Tunnel


Last night at a basic binguan, we met three Chinese cyclists and they showed great interest in Zippy, our tandem. In the morning a larger group of their club friends arrived and there was round of picture taking and general language confusion, but lots of smiles. We saw the large group off up the mountain, had our breakfast and followed about a half-hour later.

We caught them 1,000 vertical meters later at the entrance to the summit tunnel to great exclamations of pleasure and another round of picture taking, with Zippy at the center. Lucky was busy flirting with one of the girls and got left out of the picture, again!

There were police and army personnel all over the place, protecting the tunnel no doubt, and we had to show our passports to be allowed through. We had heard horror stories about the tunnel, but found it reasonably well lit and smooth. As usual, when you worry, it is always unnecessary.

It was fun riding through with the large group and part way down the hill;  Zippy, is fast downhill and we soon left them. They are staying in the same town and we will probably see them tomorrow on a 5,000 ft climb to the next binguan and food.

They are a really sweet group of young people, all in their 20’s, and we look forward to seeing them again. Two different people in the group stopped at vendors and bought us apples. They all have nice looking mountain bikes with slicks and the most up to date clothing, so they are not poor.

It’s really fun to see the Chinese getting into bike touring and seeing their own country.

The Tea and Horse Route

Picking Tea in Sichuan

Picking Tea in Sichuan

We have been interested in the Horse Tea Route, Tea and Horse Route, and other translations, of an ancient trade route that rivals the Silk Road in importance for China and Asia. We first heard about it from a friend, Cindy, and wondered if our route would take us near the ancient route.  It must have been a slow brutal traverse of the Himalayas, from what we endured, in the foothills today on the “modern” route.

Horse, Symbol of Ancient Tea Horse Route, and Tanker Truck, Symbol of the Modern Route

Horse, Symbol of Ancient Tea Horse Route, and Tanker Truck, Symbol of the Modern Route

As we were leaving Ya An today, we saw some beautiful, larger than life, bronze statues of horses and men carrying heavy burdens. A sign nearby indicated that it was a memorial to the ancient route that took tea to SE Asia, India and Lhasa, in exchange for trade goods, and horses from Tibet. We are roughly following the southern route that was supposed to go to Yunnan (Shangri-la) and into present day Laos. We hope to find out more as we get deeper into the mountains. If we are lucky, maybe we will see a bit of the original.

For now, the modern route is challenge enough, with landslides, constant mud and water on the road, trucks, buses and all manner of smaller vehicles competing for a narrow deteriorating road surface, often with precipitous drops into a burnt sienna river raging with rapids. The captain’s shoulders are tired and the stoker’s nerves are frazzled.

Videos of our first days on the Tea and Horse Route

So many things go on during our days of pedaling that we thought it would be good to post a video of what we see in an average day so far. This is combined from three days, with lots left out!


Goat to market

Goat on the way to market.

Lucky says he is not ready to comment on this bicycle touring thing, or China. His white is turning gray like us, and everything else here, and the rough roads are taking a toll. He’ll reserve comment until the mountains, soon. I hope the beauty of the high country wins him over, and ends his silence. Claire and I have done this a few times, but it’s all new to Lucky.

The locals in Ya’an make steep uphill signs, raise their eyebrows and exclaim when we tell them where we are going. One man, in elaborate pantomime, told me we should take a bus.

It’s all a bit unnerving, especially the idea of the four kilometer tunnel somewhere ahead, and the rain last night didn’t help. Ah the pleasures of the unknown. It always works out, somehow.

First Days


September 8, 2009

Day One: Left Chengdu to parts unknown. Encountered difficulty: finding the right post office, getting our bank card to work, finding our way out of town. Visited a nice big plaza and took pix of Chairman Mao statue. Traffic eased as we got out of town, but were almost hit by a car coming onto the street from a side street. We both stopped in time. Then it got really, really hot and the humidity was killing me. We stopped twice and I chugged sodas; the sugar and caffeine kept me going for another half hour each time. Finally found a binguan after asking at least five times. Air conditioning! But nothing else works very well. Finally got hot water after dinner which was an epic. All we could find were streets filled with hot pot restaurants and they couldn’t really accommodate us for under 100yuan, and a lot of confusion. We weren’t that hungry.

Near a street market, we stopped for a meal of baozi, and met a nice family group and a regular customer. Lots of language issues, but lots of fun communication and laughter. The regular customer bought our dinner! We presented the family with business cards. Stopped for pastries to eat on the way back to the binguan. One was filled with sweetened squash! Wonderful.

September 9

Day Two: Went back to the same place for breakfast: two tea eggs, three jiaozi, two bowls of rice soup, and pickled vegetables: 5y or 70 cents for a great breakfast for two. Claire was made happy the one person who didn’t get a business card last night, and they all got to wonder at Zippy!

On the way out of town, one missed turn cost us about 3k, not too bad for getting out of a medium sized city.

We stopped at 39K. The heat/humidity index has to be over 100 because we are exhausted early; we have four months (or more) ahead of us, and some 12-15,000-foot mountain passes not many days away, so we need to ease into this thing! We should be getting into some cooler temperatures soon; today our closed plastic bags collapsed some, so we gained some elevation, but it’s still hot and humid, though the pollution is easing.

We would have done another 20 k, but are pretty sure the next binguan is 78k more. We’ll save that for tomorrow. We averaged less than 20k/hr even though there was much less stopping for traffic obstructions than yesterday. Today was riding near the edge of a 2m concrete drop/off into trees or an irrigation (empty) ditch. My shoulders and back are tired wrestling a fully loaded long wheelbase tandem. I’ll work into it.

I packed extra hex wrenches because I wasn’t sure I had all the sizes necessary to fit every hex bolt on the bike. Turns out I had, and I had probably 200g of excess baggage. We looked for a bike mechanic all morning and found one fixing an old bike for a waiting woman. I offered them to him, “I don’t want, do you want?” in Chinese (Wo bu yao, ni yao, ma). Claire knew how to say that! She keeps amazing me, and I keep using pantomime. At first he asked me how much I wanted, “Duo shao qian” (more money, less money literally). I told him I didn’t want any money, “Wo bu yao.” He looked a little confused at first, then happy. Those tools would have cost him quite a few bicycle repairs.

That little interchange, like many others we have on these trips, helps remind us how fortunate we were to have been born in a wealthy country. A small gift, like the reading glasses I gave the Uyghur man in far western China, or those hex wrenches, makes us realize how much we take for granted the little things that most people lack.


Today, it only took asking once for a binguan – it was right across the intersection. Bob impressed the whole front office of the hotel when a woman dropped her scooter coming down off some steps and he was able to fix something that broke. I could tell they were also in awe as he muscled the fully loaded Zippy up the same steps.

I’m learning that, in this language, context is everything. So many syllables sound so similar, (and with four tones, my chances of getting the pronunciation wrong is 4:1) that mumbling single words doesn‘t seem to work. If instead, I can prattle off a full line of words, people seem to get the gist. I’m also trying to memorize just the sounds of the last few syllables of the questions people might be asking us. Otherwise, I just get a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.

Saw three dead pigs today – two in the river and one in the irrigation ditch. I didn’t think pigs had the chance to die a natural death here.