Lijiang to Chengdu on a Tandem Bicycle Part 3: Climbing Onto the Plateau
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After the terrible road conditions we traversed yesterday, we were anxiously awaiting the intersection of highway G318, China’s route 66, which would guarantee us a good road for the rest of the trip. I have literally never looked forward to seeing a specific road so much in my life (seems like a weird thing to look forward to, to be honest) but I pretty much screamed with joy when I saw the sign indicating we were entering onto G318. We were both pretty excited about it, and have the road sign picture to prove it.
Once again we were riding along a river gorge, this time of the Yangtze River which marks the border between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province. Our longed for road G318 actually runs all the way from Shanghai to Nepal, and, as we discovered on our trip, the most popular bike tour in China is to ride G318 from Chengdu to Lhasa. We saw many cyclists and hitchhikers traveling this route, which was, of course, the opposite direction we were riding. This proved especially confusing to the Chinese, who couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t be riding to Lhasa. That is until, of course, I explained to them that we would love to go Lhasa, but as foreigners we need a special visa and can only enter Tibet under the supervision of a tour group. Minds, blown. Seriously. To the Chinese people, Tibet is no different than any other province in China, and as much as we wish that were true (for travelling sake) it is most definitely not. While we won’t get to see Lhasa on this trip, lucky for us, the scenery in western Sichuan is virtually identical to that of Tibet, so while we might have to forego the culture, we can still appreciate the beauty of the Himalayas.
By the afternoon we had started 1500 meter climb number 3 and were once again reduced to a crawl as we slowly but surely gained altitude heading up to a dizzying max elevation of 4600 meters. Having wised up following our two previous long mountain traverses, we decided to split this current climb over two days, allowing our bodies to recover as much as possible overnight before heading to the peak.
Trying to outrun a looming thunderstorm, we climbed as fast as possible up a particularly steep section of road until we found a small gravel lane that lead off the highway. Rain was starting to fall as we got our gear off the bike and set up camp, slipping inside our tent just in time for the sky to let loose. At almost 3100 meters the rain would have felt pretty cold had we had the misfortune of having to ride in it.
The rain stopped as night fell, and we awoke the next morning to a beautiful sunny day to finish our climb up onto the Himalayan Plateau. We were definitely glad to have gotten some of the climb done the day before, as a couple hours in and we still had a ways to go to reach the top. The scenery over this whole trip so far has been stunning, and, as I’ve said before, makes climbing all these insane mountains totally worth it, but today, today’s scenery knocked it out of the park. I’m talking breath taking eye candy beautiful, like, I could dreamily talk to you all day about it type scenery. And don’t even get me started on the panoramic views as we were reaching the top. Unreal. I clearly don’t have the words to describe the beauty of today’s ride, so you’ll just have to see for yourself. Here it is.
We crested the peak at 4680 meters (15,354 ft.) of elevation, noticeably huffing and puffing from the lack of oxygen. Luckily, we were now on the plateau which blessed us with flat roads. Riding along we watched the scenery transform from stark snow capped mountains to grassy hills and planes dotted with yaks, horses, and tents. This was nomad’s land, and white yurts were everywhere, some with vans or motorcycles next to them suggesting that perhaps the nomads were wealthier than we thought, or maybe they just had visitors, you never know.
I half thought we would be camping with the nomads (which would probably have turned out to be a pretty cool experience) when we saw a lone standing hotel with a restaurant to stay for the night. There was no heat, but at least we could get out of the wind and eat, a lot. The middle of nowhere was just about the last place I expected to find a hotel, but, as usual, China never ceases to amaze me.
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