“Don’t you know that bird flu is sweeping across Asia?”
“That ride is far too hard – it’s got hills in it”
“The high altitude will make you really sick”
“I would never go to China, it’s too far away from Australia”
“The organizing company might go bankrupt”
“I’ve heard that trucks in China run straight over cyclists and don’t even bother to stop”
“I wouldn’t ride such a tough ride unless there was a National Title at stake”
The free “expert” advice seemed to go on forever. If I had listened to them then the adventure that I am about to describe to you would never have happened. And yet, as I sit in my hotel in Bangkok, I can look back on an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Like all of life’s true adventures this one began unexpectedly. About eight months ago I was sitting in my office plowing through the daily deluge of unsolicited e-mails. As I was working down the list with my finger regularly tapping the DELETE key I happened to notice one unfamiliar message from a sender with the somewhat whimsical name of Grasshopper Adventures. For some reason I withdrew my deadly deletion finger and decided to read the message. I discovered a list of Asian cycling adventures which undoubtedly struck a chord somewhere in my imagination.
I had been harboring a wish to take my Ghost Rider cycling companions on an overseas adventure, but my initial efforts had met with limited interest. As I read the e-mail further I was particularly attracted to a tour to the rather exotic soundly Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Chinese Himalaya. Although I had never even heard of Tiger Leaping Gorge, I quickly knew that this would be a ride that I would like to do – after all it combined the two great loves of my life (cycling and high mountains).
Within a couple of days I had learnt a lot more about Tiger Leaping Gorge, including the fact that it is one of the narrowest and deepest gorges on earth. I started to imagine a group of our cyclists riding through the gorge wearing their famous yellow jerseys. Although I was excited about the prospect, I still had the rather daunting proposition of getting at least 10 others to share the adventure with me.
The first step was to notify the members of the Ghost Riders via our regular e-mail newsletter. Almost immediately I had the first keen acceptance, John Green was just as excited as I was and asked me to put his name on the list. Over the next couple of months the number gradually grew as new participants decided that they would also like to be a part of our Tiger Leaping Gorge Adventure. For some the decision was easy, but for others it was much more difficult. The hardest part of any such challenge is not the physical aspect, but the fear of the unknown, of not knowing exactly what to expect once we arrived in China. Since the initial dream had been mine, I also carried the added fear that I could be leading the other participants into a disaster of some magnitude. With 4 months to go we exceeded our target group size with 13 riders signed up and ready to go. A new chapter in all of our lives was about to begin.
Now, as I sit by the pool in Bangkok and recall, my mind is flooded with the vivid memories of the past two weeks. Memories of landing in Kunming , not knowing if anyone would be there to meet us, memories of the first few magical days on the bikes in China, of riding in splendid isolation through almost lunar landscapes, of triumphant cresting of mountain passes, of spectacular views of Snow Dragon Jade Mountain, of crossing the Yangtze River by prehistoric motor ferry, of bone shaking descents over cobble stoned mountain tracks, of the succession of small villages that we passed through each day. But, above all, my most fond memories are of the people we met along our journey. Naomi, our competent and capable tour leader, Cathy the pocket rocket cycle guide, Glen the mechanic with the flip top glasses, of the ever smiling John, the mysterious “Mrs Wu” and of all the dozens of other characters we met along the way.
It is without doubt the journey is far more important than the destination, and it is always people that make any journey so memorable. I am so glad for all those who helped made this adventure so amazing. With any challenge in life it is impossible to convey in words what has to experienced in the flesh, however for the benefit of those readers who have been interested onlookers on our adventure I will endeavour to describe some of the highlights of this trip.
Since the trip was based around cycling it was important to make sure that all our riders were well prepared physically. We spent several months on a series of training rides, mostly involving climbing and mountain biking – skills which we knew we would need once we were underway. The one thing we could not prepare for was the altitude, after all there is simply nowhere in Australia anywhere near the altitude we would be reaching in China.
An added ingredient of uncertainty was that our riders not only came from 3 different states of Australia, but one would be joining us from New Zealand. I knew that this would make communication very difficult since none of us knew how to speak the New Zealand language. The first time we would all be together as a group would be when we arrived in Kunming for the start of the ride. The final group of 13 consisted of 6 men and 7 women with ages ranging from 39 to 68.
The full list of participants was as follows:
Dennis Dawson – IT consultant (Vic)
Donald Ellesmore – University Lecturer (NSW)
Cheryl Leary – Training Consultant (Vic)
Lisa Barstow – Secondary Teacher (Vic)
Lothar Rockman – retired (Vic)
Annette de Pledge – retired (WA)
Kathleen Ooi – medical doctor (Vic)
Marysia Murray – Nurse (Vic)
Christine Mackay – Veterinary Surgeon (Vic)
Richard Dodd – Industrial IT consultant ( Queensland)
Jenifer Rogers ( Queensland)
John Dawson – Engineer (Vic)
Martin Delich – Aeronautical Engineer ( New Zealand)
Unfortunately for John Green, our first entrant, the China Ride was not to be. John was diagnosed with Leukemia and sadly passed away a couple of months before we were due to depart. In a very real way, a significant part of the motivation behind the ride was to “do it for John”.
After a long and rather turbulent flight from Australia and with a change of planes in Bangkok we finally made it into Kunming airport at about 2 pm in the afternoon. Kunming is a bustling city of some 3 million people situated on the Eastern end of the elevated Tibetan Plateau. After passing through immigration we were all relieved to find a smiling face holding aloft a prominent sign reading “MR WARBY GHOST RIDERS”. We were thus introduced to Michael, who was our first contact in China.
Like so many others we were to meet during our journey, Michael turned out to be an entrepreneur of considerable business acumen, having just returned from his “latest business trip to LA”. He showed us out of the airport to a modern van which was to transport us to our hotel.
The trip from the modest airport to our hotel took only 20 minutes or so and showed us a quick view of an impressive city caught in the middle of a rapid metamorphosis from frontier town to modern, high tech metropolis. When the van turned into the entrance to the Camellia Hotel, I began to realise that my expectations regarding the standard of accommodation in China had not been accurate. I had prepared everyone to expect very basic lodgings with dormitory style sleeping arrangements. On the other hand the Camellia Hotel looked very much like any large hotel you would find in many large cities around the world. The impressive entrance to the Hotel was covered with a prolific display of ivy and flowers.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that all our rooms had private facilities with showers and western style toilets. (In fact we progressively discovered that all our rooms for the whole trip had western toilets). Although we were to soon learn that the facilities did not go quite as far as always including HOT water, it was still a most pleasant way to begin our adventure. The beds turned out to be clean and warm, although the hard mattresses took a little getting used to.
On our arrival at the hotel we were met by Naomi Skinner, the 31 year old part owner of Bike Asia, who was to be our tour leader for this trip. Naomi is originally from Melbourne but has spent the past 6 years living and working in China and speaks very good Mandarin. We soon realized that we were going to be in very competent hands. Throughout the trip she demonstrated time and time again just how well she handled the detailed planning that underpins any successful travel adventure.
With two nights at the Camellia Hotel we would have a free day to spend seeing a little more of this interesting city. Sited at over 1800 metres above sea level, Kunming is blessed with a temperate climate all year round and there is no problem with the high humidity that is so typical of much of South East Asian travel. Broad flat streets make cycling a natural way to travel and it was great to see so many riders using the special cycling lanes which are an integral part of Kunming’s road system. In spite of the dire warnings about the traffic in China, I was impressed to see the orderly and efficient way that traffic flowed each day. There was none of the gridlock that plagues other large cities like central Bangkok with most vehicles were content to travel slowly and surely through the city, albeit with more vigorous horn tooting than we are used to in Australia.
The central section of Kunming boasts an impressive array of modern buildings which, at night, are transformed into a dazzling display of neon lights. In the multicoloured glow of these signs it does not take long to discern the familiar landmarks of Macdonalds, KFC and a host of other western companies.
On our first evening together we shared a meal at the Noodle Palace restaurant, only a short walk from our hotel. We were soon to be shown just how impressive is the volume and quality of the food served in Yunnan Province. A sumptuous dinner for 9 cost us the total of 140 Yuan (about $24 Australian). Just as impressive as the low price of the meal was the fact that the young waitress absolutely refused to accept any form of tip from us. This was a practice we found everywhere we traveled in China.
On our free day in Kunming the group chose to take advantage of Michael’s offer to arrange a tour of some of the city’s highlights. We were loaded up into a couple of vans and set off to the famous Western Mountain. I had been told about this attraction while on the plane trip from Bangkok and was looking forward to seeing it. Situated high on a series of steep cliff faces with an imposing view of the city are a collection of Buddhist temples interconnected by a maze of staircases and tunnels through the rock. After climbing through these dark tunnels you emerge and find yourself in a precarious “crow’s nest” hanging on to the sheer face of the cliff. We started to discuss what we would do in the event of an earthquake and decided that the safest place to be would be in one of the tunnels.
It was also at Western Mountain that confusion with the local currency saw a couple of the female members of our group being taken advantage of by an enterprising toilet attendant. When Michael heard about this he was quite irate and immediately proceeded to make sure that they were charged the correct price.
After Western Mountain we were taken back to the city centre to explore the wonders of some of the local markets. We witnessed an amazing cornucopia of exotic items on sale – including hundreds of turtles, live eels, birds, cats, dogs and other living things of more obscure origin. Scattered throughout was a vast collection of food venders, however I chose to be circumspect by resisting the temptation to try the local food this early in the trip. With the warm sun streaming down, it felt good to be able to just wander the streets and explore the new world we were now in.
At the end of our second day in Kunming we were to meet the last members of our group. Annette was a sprightly retired farmer from Albany in Western Australia. She had recently returned from a cycling tour of Ireland and was keen to test her cycling legs against the real mountains of the Himalaya. Martin was a 39 year old Aeronautical engineer from Auckland in New Zealand. Thin and muscular, he looked like his legs had done a lot of cycling miles. After learning about the ride through the Internet he was willing to take his chances riding with the Ghost Riders.
Following our time in Kunming we returned to the airport for the short 55 minute flight to Li Jiang. This fascinating town is situated about 400 km from Kunming at an altitude of 2500 metres. Although the original town was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1996, it has now been faithfully rebuilt to retain the character and distinctive architecture of the Naxi minority group that inhabit this region of China. Unfortunately the majority of the original Naxi inhabitants of the town have now relocated to other cities, but active efforts are being made to preserve the heritage, music and culture of this group.
We were quickly whisked from the new Li Jiang airport to the Guyan Shan Hotel , which was to become our home for the next two days. It was good to see that our arrival must have been expected since we were greeted by a long red carpet which had been laid all the way from the entrance through to the secret courtyard which housed all our rooms. The double rooms were comfortable and clean, although slightly tired looking by western standards. We soon realized that the Chinese penchant for hard beds is apparently universal. In spite of these small inconveniences the setting was something straight out of a romance novel.
On our arrival we were introduced to the rest of the members of our support crew, all of whom were to become such a key part of our adventure over the next 10 days. Cathy was distinctive because of her diminutive (40 kg) size and startling punk style spiky hairstyle. I was also impressed because she always wore brightly coloured Cannondale cycling gear. Cathy was to be our cycling guide, always at the front of the group to show us the correct route.
Glen was our wiry mechanic, indispensable for ongoing maintenance and repair of all our bikes. Each night he could be seen conscientiously tinkering with the bikes, almost always with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His unusual flip-up glasses gave him something of an insect like appearance as he intently studied each bike.
John seemed to be a crew member without a specific portfolio, assisting with a wide variety of tasks as required, including driving the van, assisting with puncture repairs, directing us the correct way, etc, etc. His most important contribution, however was to smile 24 hours a day. We later found out that his father is one of Kunming’s top heart surgeons.
The final crew member was the enigmatic “Mrs Wu” who was to be the official driver of the support van. She was also in the enviable position of being the part owner of the best bike shop in Kunming. (Many of us were to find out just how useful this was at the end of our trip !)
On our first morning in Li Jiang we were introduced to the bikes which were to become our transportation for the trip. They were solid 27 speed mountain bikes made by HASA, and were equipped with knobby tyres for maximum traction on a wide variety of surfaces.
Riding out of the hotel on our first cycling experience in China was rather daunting, as not only did we have to get acclimatized to riding on the right hand side of the road, but all the horror stories of Chinese traffic fatalities were fresh in our minds. Fortunately Cathy quickly took charge and safely led us all out of Li Jiang, through the crowded market area and soon we were out on quiet rural roads. Since this is the type of cycling that we were most looking forward to , everyone was soon on a cycling high – so thrilled to be finally on the bikes after so much anticipation.
Our first trip was intended to be a familiarization ride to get us prepared for the more serious challenges that would lie ahead. The destination was Lashi Lake at an elevation of 2500 metres and home to untold thousands of migratory water birds. As we rode away the object that captured most of our attention was the spectacular silhouette of Jade Snow Dragon Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan), with its beautiful snow capped 5596 metre peak. This was to become the focal point of our riding for the next few days. A cable car allows tourists to reach over 4500 metres up this mountain and view the glacier at close range. Snow Dragon Mountain is part of the Eastern extremity of the mighty Himalayan Range.
Lunch was held at a quiet spot next to an old Buddhist temple, with plenty of delicious food and snacks to keep everyone satiated. Then it was back on the bikes to complete a quiet circuit back to our hotel. We still had plenty of free time left in the afternoon to explore the historic town centre. Lothar and I decided to head off on our own journey of discovery and soon found ourselves wandering a vast labyrinth of narrow cobble stoned alleys – hopelessly lost. This did not matter, as each corner we turned revealed a new vista to be enjoyed. We spent over an hour wandering the maze before we eventually stumbled back into the familiar tourist part of the Naxi township.
Many of the local Naxi minority people bear a striking resemblance to the Tibetan people I had met in my previous trips to Nepal. They are experts in silverwork, producing an amazing range of intricate silver jewelry, often while you watch. The shops here sell a dazzling array of quality handicrafts which (with a little spirited bargaining) can be purchased for unbelievably low prices. Of course, no trip can be considered really complete without at least some shopping. Over the next 10 days we discovered that, for some of our fellow travelers, shopping actually became almost as important as the cycling.
Since the next day was to be our first day of challenging cycling we all retired to bed early, and then battled to find a comfortable sleeping position on the punishing mattresses. Some later joked that it would have been softer sleeping on the concrete floor.
When touring by bicycle the weather assumes an extremely important role in the overall enjoyment of the experience. We were therefore thrilled to find that the Yunnan Region provides almost perfect cycling conditions at this time of the year. Every day was fine and sunny with top temperatures between 18 to 22C and very low humidity. Not once did we get wet while on the bikes!
Our first task was to ride to the town of Bai Shui He, nestled in the valley between an imposing array of snow capped peaks. Dominating all else was the now familiar shape of Jade Snow Dragon Mountain. The ride involved some strenuous climbing on a range of surfaces, including cobble stoned twisting mountain roads with numerous switchback turns. Although the riding was tough, the roads were quiet and we all had adequate time to stop and enjoy the scenery. I am sure that pure adrenaline helped us all climb more strongly than we might have expected.
As we progressed through the day it seemed that, with each passing kilometre, my stress and worries were left further and further behind me. After so much time spent planning , what a pure joy it was to be finally just turning the cranks and enjoying each new experience. I could not help but feel sorry for those back in Australia who had been too fearful to be a part of our adventure. Even, after only two days of cycling, I knew that this trip was going to be something that all of us would treasure for the rest of our lives. How privileged I felt to be able to be a part of it.
Just as everything seemed to be going so well, fate stepped in to bring me back to reality with a crash. My lack of mountain bike skills was reinforced on a particularly demanding section of loose gravel when my front wheel suddenly developed a mind all of its own. Soon I was sitting in the dust examining my arm for scratches. Fortunately no permanent harm was done and I was back underway a little wiser for the experience. It did give me a chance to pause and examine my surroundings. At this point we were riding through a rocky flat expanse surrounded on almost all sides by a ring of towering mountains. The quietness was overwhelming and for a while I was almost intoxicated with the sheer pleasure of being able to ride through such a magical place.
After riding this section we were amazed to come across a perfectly straight and smooth bitumen highway, with not a vehicle in sight as far as the eye could see. I daydreamed that one day I would return to this spot and ride that road on my Cannondale road bike. What fun that would be.
The road to Bai Shui He involves climbing a succession of high mountain passes but the final few kilometres rewarded us with an exhilarating fast descent. For those of our riders who love high speed, this gave them a good chance to let off steam as they careered down the winding road to the town. With its famous blue lake and its mountain setting Bai Shui He could be compared to many towns in the European Alps.
On arrival at our hotel Lothar and I were thrilled to find that we had been allocated a room on the third floor with an unbelievable view of the surrounding mountains. Not so welcome was the discovery that the hotel (like most Chinese rural hotels) had no lifts, leaving us to manhandle our luggage up 3 flights of stairs. Hot water was also not on the menu, however the rest of the surroundings more than compensated for these minor inconveniences.
Back at the Bai Shui He hotel, the now all too familiar hard beds were waiting for us after dinner. I was slowly perfecting the new nocturnal skill of switching from side to side every 30 minutes or so, to prevent one side from becoming numb. I guess we all learn to adapt quickly to such disturbances to our familiar lifestyles. At least we still had western style toilets and boy was that a pleasant surprise. We also found that when we returned to our rooms the hot water was flowing, enabling us to enjoy a hot shower.
Another fact that was a pleasant surprise for many in our group was the fact that most of Yunnan Province receives excellent mobile phone coverage. For me, I was not so sure that it was such a welcome change. The experience of walking through an old rural village of mud brick homes with their archetypal Chinese architecture, then seeing the proliferation of huge satellite dishes on the roofs and the high number of people clutching their ubiquitous mobile phones to their left ears, always left me feeling a little sad. Others apparently thought that this was just progress and that I should “get used to it”.
After our memorable night in the shadow of the mountains it was time to hit the road again. With the sun obscured by the towering peaks we set off in rather freezing conditions, but the initial steep climb out of town soon got our temperatures rising again. Each bend in the road revealed new wonders with serpentine roads that snaked their way around the hills (but somehow always seemed to be climbing upwards). By now I was starting to develop my mountain bike climbing skills by utilizing the wide range of low gears and climbing with a higher than normal cadence.
As well as the ever changing scenery, Cathy was always a welcome diversion at the head of the peloton as we laughed and joked over her new English word for the day. With both her parents working as teachers, Cathy had been enrolled in a B.Ed degree course, but she now told me that she knew that her real interest was in cycling – both in racing and in leading cycle tours.
The first new English word I decided to teach her was OXYMORON. I don’t know why I chose this word, but somehow it just happened. This led to a very long explanation as to what the meaning of this word was, with and to a lot of fun thinking up some examples – “a bad Cannondale”, “a good head wind”, “a welcome puncture” were some of the suggestions we came up with.
Although almost everyone in China seems to own a bicycle, for the vast majority it is simply a means of getting from place to place. Cathy was one of the few that had discovered the thrill of cycling for it’s own sake. She obviously enjoyed the thrill of riding fast and competing in races. With her brightly coloured lycra she even looked like a real cyclist. With her tiny structure it is little wonder that she seemed to be able to climb hills without any effort whatsoever.
Speaking of climbing hills, one of our riders made the decision to apparently forsake common sense by refusing to change gears on his bike. Martin Delich from New Zealand belongs to that unique group of mountain bikers who believe that all riding should be done on a single gear. After the first introduction to his allocated bike, he selected the gear he was to use for the rest of the trip. No matter how steep the climb or how fast the descent, Martin never once resorted to touching his gear selector. I am not sure whether this earned him the respect of his fellow riders or whether it just served to reinforce our opinion that all New Zealanders were a little crazy in the head.
There were also some who thought there might have been another reason why Martin seemed to prefer riding at the back of the peloton, but it is probably better to leave that topic alone.
The continuing series of climbs from Bai Shui He were to bring us to the highest part of our ride at approximately 3500 metres. Each time we crested a summit we were reluctant to lose altitude as we all knew that we would only have to climb back up again to yet another even higher point just around the next bend. When we finally rounded the last bend and were told that we could go no higher I was almost a little disappointed. Amazingly enough I was actually beginning to enjoy grinding my way up those hills. Maybe this was just because the surroundings were so special that they took our minds off the pain we were fighting.
It seemed a logical thing to do to stop at the summit to pose for series of group photos. Cameras were passed around while shutters clicked and mouths ached with broad smiles. This moment reflected both an individual and a collective sense of achievement so no one was in too much of a hurry to move on. By comparison, the descent we were now faced with would seem to be something of an anti-climax by comparison.
We had been warned that “whatever goes up must also come down” and we were all about to see just how true this was. In order to cross the mighty Yangtze River and enter Tiger Leaping Gorge we first had to drop at least 1500 metres in altitude. Whilst this might normally seem like a lot of easy fun, in this case “fun” is not really the first word I would choose to describe what followed next. In fact, the descent manifested itself in a 35 km continual downhill on a rough cobble stoned surface. Even after the first few kilometres, you begin to feel that every bone in your body is being shaken to pieces. With my video camera precariously perched in my front pannier I started to imagine just how hard a time it must be going through. I wondered if it would it ever work again.
I spent some time trying different strategies – riding in the centre of the road, riding on the edge, riding fast, riding slowly. Nothing seemed to work. The front suspension of the bike pounded fiercely as it fought to carry my 95 kg weight down the hill. I started to wonder whether the bike was ever intended to take this kind of abuse.
As I looked ahead I noticed that some of the others who had less inhibitions than I obviously had, had simply abandoned all restraint and just let gravity take it’s course. Soon our riders were stretched out over many kilometres and I was once again riding in splendid isolation. Talk about the “road less traveled” – it seemed like the rest of the world was an eternity away as I gradually progressed down towards the valley floor so far away below me. It was hard to believe that I could go on downhill for such a long, long way, surely it felt so much further than the familiar 1100 metre descent from the summit of Mt Donna Buang in Australia.
I finally came to the realization that, if I continued with my current rate of progress, it would take hours to reach the bottom. Trying not to think about the consequences of a crash, or about the well being of my precious video camera, I finally let go of the brakes and pushed down hard on the cranks instead. The speed quickly built up so that I was almost flying along. At this point I made an interesting discovery. If I allowed my speed to increase it reached a point where the shaking actually reduced in intensity. Maybe at this speed the wheels did not follow the bumps, but sailed over the tops of them. In any case, it certainly made for more efficient progress.
After about 2 hours of this torture I turned the final bend and was greatly relieved to see the support van waiting for us by the side of the road. At this point the road could go no lower since we had reached the floor of the valley.
When all the riders had survived the descent we were directed to a local inn for lunch. This involved an intricate series of turns down narrow lanes, across creek beds and over loose rocks until we finally entered a garden courtyard where we were told to stop. The abundant flowers hanging from the buildings and the beautifully curved lines on the buildings made me feel like I had stepped straight into a willow pattern.
The only problem was that a head count revealed that we had two riders missing! Whereas in Australia this would be regarded as a par for the course, in a foreign country where none of us could speak the language, the prospect was a frightening one. Fortunately Marysia, one of the missing riders, soon arrived but Kathleen was nowhere in sight. Various search parties were sent out looking for her, but 30 minutes later she was still missing. It was not until over 45 minutes had elapsed that she was eventually located in another nearby village. It had been a distressing and unfortunate mishap, caused in no way by any of our own crew, but by relying on a local to point out the way for our riders. It turned out that he preferred to sit and have a smoke than to do the job he had been asked. We immediately discussed procedures to make sure that such an event would never occur again. Once our missing friends were located we were much relieved, thinking of how frightening it would have been for anyone in that position.
After lunch, a short ride took us to the top of the steep bank of the Yangtze River, where a group of locals were already gathered to carry our bikes down the steep and slippery bank to the ancient ferry waiting at the bottom. This path demanded all our concentration, if we did not want to slip and end up cascading down into the raging torrent a couple of hundred metres below us. The sound of the nearby rapids made a continuous background roar that echoed up the gorge.
The last 50 metres or so were particularly difficult as we had to slog through deep black sand that had us sinking in up to the ankles. It was a relief to finally be safely at the bottom, although a glance at the prehistoric ferry and at the rapids about 300 metres downstream did little to settle the nerves. The ferry looked like it would make Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen look like a jet boat by comparison. With a narrow rusty deck and two struggling old engines it was the only thing that stood between us and oblivion.
The bicycles were stacked on board and we followed them on, struggling to find any leftover space to stand up in. The motor struggled to life pulling the ferry from the shore and out into the current. There was a collective silence as we held our breaths and willed the motors to keep chugging away. A couple of bravado comments from the comedians in our midst did little to ease the tension.
I looked across to the opposite bank, where there was not only no obvious landing point, but also no discernable path back to the top. Never the less the aging “Captain” seemed to know where he was headed – straight into the opposite cliff face. Ahead of us lay a daunting scramble back up to the top of the bank, towering at least 200 metres over our heads. In many respects this was the most difficult part of this very long day’s exertions. We were not used to walking, let alone climbing ap such a steep slope carrying our back packs. The climb seemed to go on forever, with each upward step followed by a slide back down again. With our chests heaving and our hearts pounding we just survived any way we could.
What a blessed relief it was to see the small van at the top which was to transport all our packs on to Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was an even bigger relief to find our familiar bikes also safely waiting for us. Our day’s work was still far from over. Although it was after 5 pm we still had a considerable ride ahead of us in rapidly fading light.
Since Tiger Leaping Gorge was to be the undoubted highlight of this trip we had all been eagerly looking forward to our first glimpse of this natural wonder of the world. With it’s towering, almost vertical, cliff faces reaching 4000 metres above the thundering Yangtze River it is certainly a spectacle with few equals. As we began our long awaited entrance to the Gorge our expectations were certainly not disappointed.
With its incredible vertical dimensions the Gorge challenges your normal perceptions of space. Michael Palin, in his recent Himalaya book, says that Tiger leaping Gorge gave him a overwhelming sense of vertigo, almost convincing him that he could fly. It was indeed an “otherworldly” feeling that accompanied me on the final few kilometres as we climbed up to Sean’s Guest House which was to be our home for the next 2 days.
Each turn of the road revealed a new vista to be awed by. It was tempting to stop every 100 metres or so to take photos but we needed to be at our destination before nightfall, so there was no alternative other than to keep pushing on. Finally I turned a corner and Cathy told me that I had arrived. All that remained was for me to carry my bike up the steep stone steps to the courtyard in front of the guest house, where I would finally be able to rest. Over the next 30 minutes or so the rest of the riders arrived and made their final stagger up the stairs. By 6.45 pm we were all safely at the end of our day’s efforts, very glad that we would have a rest day tomorrow to recover and explore the Gorge.
Sean, the owner of the lodge, is an interesting character. With his long pony tail and his Australian (ex) wife I suspected that he was something of a Chinese hippy. His guest house is a welcome destination for the steady stream of backpackers that come from all over the world to hike the gorge. Apparently he is also one of the finest experts on all the walking tacks that are available for the ardent explorer.
The accommodation, although basic, was comfortable and clean and I think we all had one of the best night’s sleeps of the entire trip. We awoke in high spirits to watch the rising sun progressively illuminate the towering cliff behind us. It would be hard to imagine a more impressive place to sit and enjoy a meal, especially once we discovered that the kitchen at Sean’s could produce a staggering array of mouth watering dishes – all at a very modest cost and with a minimum of fuss. I was thrilled to find that they even made cappuccinos! What more would a cyclist ever need ?
After a delicious morning breakfast we disbursed in different directions on our individual journeys of discovery. Although the road was of a very high standard we found that almost no vehicles passed along it. We were therefore able to walk back through the Gorge with no interference from passing traffic. The only noise came from the river so far below us. This was truly a special place, which I suspect touched every one of us in a slightly different way.
The rest day proved to be a most enjoyable chance for all of us to unwind and recharge our batteries after the days of hard cycling which were now behind us. We well knew that we would probably never be back at this spot again and wanted to make sure that we could all soak up as much of the experience as possible. For some it provided an ideal chance to just sit in the sunshine while enjoying great food, drink and conversation.
After another good sleep and a breakfast of hot oat porridge, it was back on the bikes again to complete the second half of the Gorge. Somewhat surprisingly, after the rest day, we were all very keen to get back to pedaling again and see what new sights awaited for us. We were not disappointed, if anything the second half of the Gorge is even more spectacular than the first, although we soon discovered why the traffic had been so sparse.
In this part of the Gorge the road is still in various stages of construction. In many places we rode along precarious rocky ledges, trying not to look at the landslips and rockslides all around us. We even had to ride under a succession of small waterfalls that cascaded down onto the road from the cliffs above.
It was while riding under one of these that we suffered our only accident of note on the entire trip and unfortunately I was the victim. In an attempt to provide a good photo opportunity I decided to ride closer to the falling water than common sense should have dictated. I soon realised the folly of this maneuver when I found the bike going one way while my body went the opposite way. The next moment I was sitting in the water feeling rather stupid. It was not until a few moments later that I noticed that the little finger on my right hand was no longer pointing in it’s familiar direction. I quickly popped it back in place but for the next few days a blackened and swollen digit reminded me of my stupidity. Fortunately it did not stop me riding.
Further on along the Gorge we met the other section of the main road where the Chinese tourists come to see the site of the mythical tiger’s famous leap across the river. What concerned us most was the preliminary works that were being started to construct huge dams across the river in this region which would result in a large section of the gorge being changed forever. Surely this would be environmental vandalism on a colossal scale.
Once out of the gorge we followed the mighty Yangtze (more correctly called the Jinshu River at this point) further upstream to the key town of Shigu. This location has special significance for the Chinese as it is the location where the river makes almost a complete U turn from its southward journey to head back northwards into the heart of China. Many Chinese make this a special place of pilgrimage and the town contains large monuments to the Red Army to commemorate the crossing by Mao Zedong in 1936.
The road led us through a series of rural villages before we reached a long straight section of high quality bitumen. After struggling with my lack of mountain bike skills for the past few days it was a good chance to be able to crank up the speed with some tight team riding. For 20 km or so Cathy, Lothar and I were able to maintain a speed of over 30 kph to arrive early for lunch. Along this section were many obvious signs of growing prosperity with new estates, underground power and fancy new petrol stations.
Another feature of this region was the incredible strawberries that we saw being sold at numerous roadside stalls. Freshly picked, bright red and succulent, we were to discover that they tasted as good as they looked. In fact I cannot remember ever having a strawberry that tasted as good as these. If only we could get them like this back in Australia.
At Shigu we spent some time wandering the town and walking down to the actual bend in the river. I guess that many towns all over the world have their own “colourful local identities”, and we found that Shigu was no different. We soon met a local whose sole claim to fame was that she carried a trussed live duck about on her head. As soon as she saw us approaching, she proudly put the duck on her head to pose for our pictures. Apparently she thought this was quite a clever skill and put out her hand for a donation for her efforts. Another example of private enterprise I guess.
After leaving Shigu we parted company with the Yangtze by turning on to the old main highway from Lhasa to Kunming. With an ancient history dating back to the old Silk Route, this road has played a key role in trade for thousands of years. Although a busier thoroughfare than we had previously been riding on, we found that the vast majority of the Chinese drivers were most considerate to us. Every kilometre along the road there was a stone marker showing the distance from Lhasa. These mile posts provided a convenient way to chart our progress.
We were to continue almost due South along this road to our next overnight stay at Jian Chuan. After an initial steep climb we were able to enjoy more relaxed conditions as we passed through a regular series of small rural villages enabling us to observe everyday rural life taking place before our eyes.
One aspect of these villages that I found particularly fascinating was the fact that each village obviously specializes in a specific trade. We passed through villages where everyone was working in stone and others where the streets were full of coal fired kilns making roof tiles and pots. The skills were presumably passed from generation to generation, although with the technological revolution taking place we wondered whether these old skills will survive the next generation. Outside the villages, the surrounding landscape was rich and green, bursting with abundant production from the family farms.
On the other hand Jian Chuan proved to be a rather unattractive place. My first impression was that it was filled with a collection of dirty shop front industries, all seemingly engaged in repairing engines, making windows, cutting steel or selling electrical goods. We even noticed a doctor’s surgery, also situated in a cramped shop front. The one main chair was occupied by the current patient with three other patients sitting about 1 metre behind. Obviously privacy does not rate highly in this situation. The resident doctor was busy with a long needle, sucking up some coloured liquid from a row of small glass ampoules. All of this was taking place in an area about 3 metres by 4 metres. We did not stop to watch what sort of treatment the patient was about to receive.
On the other hand our hotel was modern and clean but, like most of the other hotels we had encountered, had no lifts. All our luggage had to be carried up several flights of stairs. Once we had settled into our room I went out in search of an Internet café. In the foyer of the hotel I was met by the local “Mr Big” who asked what I needed. When I told him I wanted the Internet he immediately took me in tow and walked me a short distance down the road to a small computer shop where the owner was playing FREECELL on his computer. Mr Big apparently told him to get off the machine so I could use it. This was a little embarrassing but I appreciated the thought. The only problem was that as I sat down to check my e-mail I was surrounded by a group of about 6 people tightly gathered around to intently watch my every keystroke. Not the most relaxing way to read your mail ! I suspect that they had as little understanding of what I was typing as I had trying to decipher the Chinese characters in all the pull down menus.
From the very start of our trip we had been warned that the section from Jian Chuan to Er Yuan was one of the toughest parts of the entire ride, with a strenuous 11 km climb at the start of the day. In previous times this would have brought on a feeling of dread, however that was now not the case. After all our hill climbing early in the ride, the previous flatter section almost seemed like an anti-climax by comparison. In a rather macabre way we were actually looking forward to another serious climb – if only to once again try out our new high altitude cycling legs.
In the morning we all headed off with heaps of smiles and lots of friendly banter and soon we were into the promised climb. A few clicks of the shifters and we were down into the low gears and spinning away. The true secret is to let each rider climb at their own pace, keeping their own breathing in control. All too soon we were over the final pass and flying downhill again, just hoping that the brakes would hold on the tight series of switchback turns on the way down.
The views ahead down the valley were breathtaking and certainly worth stopping to admire for a few minutes. The final few kilometres to Er Yuan were on a smooth surface with a very fast descent – an opportunity to really open up and enjoy some high speed flying, although we had been told to watch out for oil on the road.
Er Yuan is famous for two things – hot water springs and fresh milk. The modern hotel was equipped with a large swimming pool filled with hot spring water and the local shops sold fresh chilled cow’s milk. This was sheer luxury in anybody’s language. Our room at the hotel was large and new. It even boasted a separate annex – just for playing mahjongg! It was even fitted out with a mahjongg table and a full set of fancy mahjongg tiles. The only downside was that, once again, the lack of a lift meant that we had to carry our luggage up three flights of stairs. I was beginning to envy those who had a ground floor room.
During the afternoon our riders discovered that, not only was local beer very cheap (about 50 cents a large bottle) but so were the small bottles of local rice spirit. Soon they were busy mixing some very lethal combinations. This experimentation continued with some vigor at the evening meal. Since I am one of those individuals who has never been able to derive much pleasure from alcohol, I decided to leave early and explore the town instead.
With a perfectly clear sky I was able to observe the northern constellations – the Big Dipper was prominent overhead and our familiar Orion (the “saucepan”) could be seen the correct way up. Behind the hotel there was a large public bathing complex where tourists travel from all over China to enjoy the hot spring water. The entrance to this complex was illuminated by fancy neon lights and a profusion of glowing Chinese lanterns, giving it a fairyland appearance. It almost felt surreal walking through the town while reminding myself that I was actually in China, and the fact that our trip was rapidly drawing to a close. With tomorrow as the final day of cycling I was sure that I was not the only one feeling a little regretful.
The final day of cycling was a relatively easy and predominantly flat ride to the historic town of Dali. This section took us through several town markets with a diverse array of local produce, food and handicrafts being traded. The cattle market was particularly impressive, with a couple of hundred head of cattle being offered for sale. As far as the cycling was concerned, no one seemed keen to force the pace as we did not want our adventure to end.
Dali is best known for its old walled city centre and for its concentration of the Bai minority group. As we came in sight of the city the first landmarks we saw were the prominent three pagodas which were visible from a distance of several kilometres away. Our first glimpse of the walled city elicited a collective exclamation of wonder. After checking into the MCA Guesthouse we headed back to explore the town at leisure. It did not take long to discover that this was another fantastic place for shopping, especially for clothing, silverware and leather goods.
The MCA Guesthouse proved to be another welcome haven, with a wide selection of food available and a free Internet café. Our final dinner together with the crew gave us a chance to thank them for making our adventure so special for each one of us. We all felt that they had become good friends who we would be sorry to say goodbye to. A sumptuous final dinner was another experience to savour for a long time.
I spent my free day in Dali on a solo journey of discovery, taking the opportunity to ride the cable car to a high vantage point overlooking the entire town. It is also possible to continue on foot up to a final height of about 5000 metres, but this requires a planned hike with proper equipment. After riding the cable car back down I walked back to the centre of town, trying to decide what to do next. It was at this point that serendipity again intervened in the form of a friendly local who introduced himself as Patrick. Noticing that I must have looked rather lost, he walked up and asked if I needed help. Patrick had been a travel agent in Hong Kong before retiring to Dali at the age of 48. He was very eager to chat and show me around the town.
This was another example of how we can often gain the best travel experiences by just relaxing and letting things just unfold. You never really know what is going to happen, but somehow I have found that this is when events seem to sort themselves out for you.
After our time in Dali we had a 140 km bus ride back to Kunming, mostly along the new high speed expressway. Our driver seemed intent on setting a new speed record for this trip so when his speed crept up to 140 kph (downhill and in neutral) John politely tapped him on the arm and asked him to slow down. He seemed to take this as a personal insult on his driving skill, but did reduce his speed considerably for the remainder of the trip.
All too soon we were back at the Camellia Hotel where our journey had begun. So much had happened since we had spent our first night in China at this spot. Over the past 12 days we had experienced China at first hand and had accumulated an enormous store of precious memories. I was left wondering how could we ever convey the adventure to those waiting back in Australia. At least we all had hundreds of photos to bring back with us and every time we looked at them I was sure that, in a small way, we would relive parts of the trip. One thing was that certainly true, was that all of our participants felt that the trip had vastly exceeded their best expectations.
Thank you to Naomi, Cathy, Glen, John, Mrs Wu and all the staff at Bike Asia for a fantastic experience!
General Observations and Comments Concerning the Trip (in no particular order)
- All participants were impressed with the quality of the organization of the trip. In spite of the obvious complexity of planning such an exercise, we always felt that Naomi and Bike Asia had everything in very good hands.
- The standard of the accommodation was considerably higher than we had expected. It was a very pleasant surprise to have clean beds, western style toilets and showers (mostly hot) on each night of the ride.
- The route was very well planned with a wide range of cycling experiences to satisfy all of our participants.
- The quality and quantity of the food was always excellent. In addition, we were supplied with nourishing morning and afternoon teas on each day of the ride.
- All support crew staff were highly professional and helped make the trip enjoyable for everyone.
- Mobile phone coverage was almost universal. For those people who took their mobiles with them, contact with home was very easy.
- The cost of the trip represented very good value for money when compared to similar offerings by large Australian travel companies. By dealing directly with Bike Asia we felt that we had been given a very good deal.
- In spite of ill informed warnings about the dangers of riding on Chinese roads we all felt that we were generally shown more consideration by drivers in China, than by drivers in Australia.
- The bikes supplied by Bike Asia for this trip were good quality HASA mountain bikes with knobby tyres. They proved to be reliable and very well suited to the conditions we faced. In fact 5 of our riders chose to purchase new HASA bikes in Kunming at the end of the ride. We were able to bring these back to Australia without the payment of any excess baggage penalties.
- The ride was strenuous in parts but achievable by any person with a good level of fitness who was prepared to put in a reasonable amount of training in the 6 months prior to the trip.
- The weather in Yunnan Province in April was excellent for riding, with mild sunny days and temperatures in the low 20s. Because of the altitude, high humidity is NOT a problem.
- The average Chinese person (especially in rural areas) speaks NO English at all. It is advisable to have a Mandarin phrase book to assist with communication.
- There are great opportunities for shopping, especially in Kunming, Li Jiang and Dali. Take adequate money for personal shopping and sightseeing trips.
- Although larger shops are happy to take US dollars, it is advisable to convert your money to Yuan for day to day shopping. Australian dollars can be converted to Yuan at the Bank of China in the major centres. Current exchange rate is about 6 Yuan to the dollar.
- Although most of the ride was conducted at an altitude of 2000 metres or higher, I could not honestly say that this played a significant part in the difficulty factor of the ride. Any ride that involves a lot of climbing is going to be strenuous, and this ride was no different.
Editor’s Note – The official DVD of this trip is now available for sale. The price is only $20 per copy, including packing and postage. Send your orders to Dennis Dawson, PO Box 196, Emerald, Vic 3782.