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?
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.
September 23: Litang, Sichuan, China
In our last video post (scroll down and watch it first) we’d made quick work of a 7,000 ft climb to a 15,252 ft. plus pass, and were feeling pretty chipper considering the troubles other cyclists had encountered with the steep grades and high elevations. Our regular climbs of Mt. Lemmon (close to 9,000 feet elevation) in Tucson, had prepared our legs well, and we took enough off days for good acclimatization. After a nearly two weeks of our legs getting accustomed to the 80 pounds our so we carry, the climb was not as difficult as expected.
However, rather than the long descent to lower elevation for rest and a decent camp spot, we found the road stayed high, rolling up and down 1,000 feet or so as the weather deteriorated to rain, wind and sleet, and then climbing again. We knew that a night of rest at lower elevation would be essential for the next pass of 15,475 feet, but this was not to be.
We stayed high as the clouds lowered and the sky darkened. We were shivering from the wet and cold and the effort of the pass. We knew we had to find shelter, high altitude or not, and hope our light sleeping bag would be enough. We failed to find a flat spot; this is called the Tibetan plateau, but it is riddled with 1,000 to 2,000 foot mountains with steep gorges and very few spots flat enough for a tent. Just as we were about to give up and camp beside the road (not something we do unless in dire circumstances) we saw a Tibetan settlement, and decided to see if we could at least get water. We were low and there was only some snow to eat, and maybe find a place behind a house out of sight. We would have to sleep at well over 14,000 feet, but we needed shelter.
As we rolled up to a small stone house/barn, an older looking woman smiled at us and made the international sleeping sign: prayer hands laid next to her head bent sideways. Nothing ever looked so good to us. A young woman, whom we took to be her daughter, and her child were in their small barnyard with their small herd of yaks preparing for milking.
She motioned for us to bring Zippy into the house, which was on the bottom level, the barn. We leaned him up against the stone wall, unloaded our bags and followed grandma (we’ll never know her name) upstairs. Their living quarters was one large room with a small hearth and a cozy fire. There was not a chimney, but a stovepipe reached just as far as a roof hatch, and the space was filled with a blue haze of smoke that softened all shapes and colors.
The floor was rough cut slabs and the roof was supported by large log beams, but in the stone walls were set modern aluminum windows with latches. Various food items were drying on feed sack material and the beds were rolled up in one corner along with corn husk pillows. The hearth held all the pans they owned, and all the cooking was done on top of the fire. The daughter hurried up from her milking to prepare our meal and grandma sat and smiled at us and attempted to communicate. She knew no Chinese, only Tibetan, and our communication was by pantomime.
First, we were served a liquid from a pot that seemed to have a permanent spot on the hearth. It was yak butter tea. It’s pretty much as its name describes: water, yak butter (lots), and a few tiny leaves of tea. Now this sounds awful, but we found it quite good, and warming after a trying day.
Our first course was a white crumbly substance that Claire likened to the curds we had in Wisconsin, only they didn’t squeak in your teeth as much and had a very fermented flavor. I looked over and I could see a large pile of what we were eating drying/fermenting on the floor near where we would probably sleep. We ate from a communal bowl, grandma first, showing us how with the fingers of her right hand (this is important to remember). We are not prone to insulting the hostess, so we imitated her. We both liked the unusual texture and fermented flavor. I could see uses for it in other genres of cooking.
Grandma prepared the next course while the daughter finished milking. She sliced potatoes French Fry style and fried them in a huge amount of an unidentified oil poured from a large plastic container stuffed with a rag. Then she added some water for a steamed finish. This was served with rice, and more yak butter tea. It was quite satisfying, and enjoyed with the company of a Buddhist monk who’d dropped in for a meal. Apparently you feed a monk when he shows up at your door, anytime.
After dinner, and another couple of rounds of yak tea, we both needed to relieve ourselves of some liquid, and asked (don’t ask how we asked) for the toilet, which we expected to be a short-drop, i.e. a shallow pit with weather shelter over it. Not here. We were pointed to the guardrail and over the hill to the village toilet. It wasn’t as bad as you might think. Such places in America are littered with toilet paper, the white of which announces each deposit. Here they do not use toilet paper. Remember how all the eating and touching of food is done with the right hand? Yep.
The next morning, just at first light Claire and I both felt a need and headed past the sleepy yaks, over the guardrail where we each found – recently at least – an unused bush. It had snowed overnight and we had two inches of something much better than toilet paper to use. Chilly, but refreshing.
During the night we slept like the family, fully clothed on the floor on light pads with husk filled pillows. We went to sleep to the sound of grandma reciting her prayers on her prayer beads. Breakfast was – guess what – yak butter tea, leftover potatoes and rice, and an addition – yak butter rolled in a mixture of rough meal and some sugar. Again, strange sounding, but good and filling. The little girl of three or so got her breakfast from mom, two teats worth.
It sounds romantic: going to sleep to the sounds of chanting and waking to the sounds of milking. But these women’s lives are a gritty existence that our culture hasn’t known for generations. Hauling wood, water, and food up the ladder to the living space, making butter and curds, grinding grain, hand washing clothes, keeping the fire going, cooking… Mundane, routine, weather-dependent, smoke-filled and layered with years of grime. At first, we were both a little uncomfortable with their aboriginal way of life (we even took some Pepto-Bismol as a prophylaxis against any reaction to the yak butter). It’s kind of like going feral in Australia, at first, you try to avoid the bull dust, then you live with it, until finally it becomes your outer layer.
The five tiny calves at the bottom of the ladder were the future for these women. Their house was smaller than most in the village. I wondered where the men were? What would the little girl’s life be like? Would she get an education? Would she look at that post card of the horse those people on the bicycle gave her and realize someday what a big world this is? We used Bob’s jacket printed with a map of the world on it to try to convey where we were from, where we’d been and where we planned to go. I have no idea if they’d ever seen a map before. It doesn’t really matter to them, their world is an isolated village along a road between two passes and 50 kilometers from the nearest town. An occasional bicyclist may pass by their house or ask for shelter. To us, these women will always be a part of our world, and I don’t ever want to forget them.
And it’s not over yet. We left the family as the snow began to melt, expecting the second 15,000 foot pass to be a few kilometers further since we had slept so high, and also expecting the weather to turn.
The Road To Shangri-la is not always what is expected.
We get a lot of these surprise reactions from Chinese. These were at yet another pass, this one about 14,339, and a several hundred foot higher summit a few kilometers on. The road was nice all the way to the top, and looked like a beautiful 40 kilometer downhill from the top. It was not however to be; the road was severely frost heaved. It was fun at first to ride the moguls, but got old after a few kilometers. Here are some pictures from the day:
Claire: We’re getting to the stage where we think about food a lot, and we tried to make a decent dent in the big bucket of rice, but we failed to come close to finishing it. Yes, we’re eating pork now, or any kind of protein for that matter, and we eat whatever vegetables they bring us. At the grocery stores, we study and poke the packages and hope they’ll sustain us through a night of camping. Yogurt and cookies (a whole roll) is a before bed tradition of carbohydrate loading and we even bought Tang for our water bottles tomorrow. Wish I had some Cheerios, they always charge me up. If you’re out pedaling today or tomorrow, push a pedal stroke for us, we’ll need it; tomorrow; (tonight for you) we climb 7,000 feet to well over 15,000 feet and hope to get down in elevation to find a camping spot low enough to allow for sleep, before dark.