Entering the Back Gate to the Garden of Shangri-la


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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A New High: A Layered Meaning


September 17, Xinduqiao, China

Yesterday we rode Zippy to the highest elevation ever for us. We started at 8,500 feet in Kangding and topped Zheduo Pass at 13,900 feet in 35 kilometers, or 21.7 miles, all under construction/repair. For our Olympic Peninsula friends, that’s like taking the Hurricane Ridge Road, raising the sea level start to 3,000 feet above the Ridge, loading 70 pounds on your tandem before beginning. Oh, I forgot, put 1,000 people and hundreds of trucks and equipment on the now gravel/dirt/broken concrete road.

We had some concerns about the rapid elevation gain from low Chengdu. Other cycle tourists had told stories of riding for a few meters, resting, pushing for a few meters before riding again because of the lack of oxygen. Others reported terrible headaches and lack of muscle strength.

Near the pass we were stopping for short rests every half kilometer or so, during extra steep sections. We had a little dizziness and mild headaches, in the steeper sections. We topped out in a good mood; although there were moments along the way of despair.

We dropped off into a beautiful Tibetan valley, unfortunately with only a few kilometers of newly paved road, and arrived in town much later than usual. We are taking another acclimatization day, at about 11,000 feet. There are some higher passes to come. Today we took a walk through the village and enjoyed the Tibetans in their beautiful land.

I’m not sure which part was the most trying of the day; the construction was a nasty surprise, sometimes the route looked more like a mud track than a major highway. I asked directions more often than our Azeri taxi driver did on the run for the Georgian border. Going up into the fog was pretty demoralizing, partly because it was eerie and also because I didn’t want it to get as thick as it did on that Iceland Hellisheidi Pass. It didn’t, and ultimately may have been better for us because we couldn’t see how much farther up we had to go. Overall, the worst part may have just been the unknown, but really, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Dealing with whatever happens. We put ourselves here for just this type of experience, and though it can feel harrowing at the time, the intensity of the day becomes a part of us. In retrospect, yes it was hard, but for me, my resolve came from a continual mantra of: “We’re doing it, we’re still moving forward, we may be slow, but we’re doing it.” And both Bob and I kept good spirits and good strength the whole day through. We’ll need that for the 7000 foot climb to 15,000 feet soon.

I’m not surprised that Claire touched on what I intended to end with. I am sure some of you new to our travels are saying to yourselves, “What would possess them to do put themselves through the things they do?” I’m pretty sure a lot of Chinese are saying that to us, we just can’t understand them!

Here’s a major part of the answer. Creating challenges for ourselves, and facing them together strengthens the bond of our marriage. Couples often allow the romance fade as the years progress. It’s easy to become immersed in career, children, differing interests and circles of friends, and put the partner in a secondary position. We said some vows nearly twenty years ago, and our habit of creating challenges for ourselves, and meeting them as a team, has helped us keep those vows, and kept the romance alive. We may seem crazy, but the rewards of our mutual struggles are great.

Stupa at first pass into Tibetan lands

Stupa at first pass into Tibetan lands