Stay tuned for part two of Alex’s Tibetan Bikepacking story tomorrow.
After a challenging but wildly interesting summer in sweltering Hunan, I finished my Invited Faculty tenure at Central South University of Forestry and Technology and was all set to travel by train to Sichuan Province in western China where I would begin 800km bikepacking trip at nearly continuous elevations above 4000m. Having spent the previous year in Ecuador biking in the high Tropical Andes, I figured I was an expert at high elevation riding, but the next few weeks would be a true mental and physical endurance test. However, before I could begin the trip, I had to bike 20km through the traffic and choking smog across the 15 million person metropolis of Changsha, Hunan to drop my bike off at the Chinese Railway Shipping office to send it ahead of me for pick up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. No one spoke a word of English nor were they willing to try to use my translator phone app, so it was impossible to convey what I was trying to do. After numerous failed attempts at communication, I decided to bumble around in the throngs of humanity at the massive Changsha Railway Station until inevitably someone would ask to take a selfie with me. I figured if their English was good enough to ask for a selfie, then they could help me ship my bike across the country. This is the degree of desperation one often encounters in China if you don’t speak Chinese. Fortunately, it worked and before long a teenage girl came up giggling and coyly asked me for my photo. I said sure, but first she had to help translate at the shipping office. We walked to the office together and with her smattering of English, we managed to fill out the necessary forms. I hesitantly handed over my bike with the hopes of somehow finding it at the Chengdu train station 1200km away a few days later. I then spent my last night in Changsha, and took my own train to Chengdu the following evening. I had hoped to ride one of the amazing high speed bullet trains, but they sell out quickly and so was forced to take the slow 22 hour 1200km ride across the country. The scenery was actually incredibly boring for the most part. Just small agricultural villages and the occasional sprawling metropolis that I had grown accustomed to. One of the city-states we passed through, Wuhan, has an unfathomable population approaching an estimated 40 million people. The sheer mass of humanity in China is staggering. The train ride was pretty uneventful (a welcome event in China where ordering a meal had often been a major operation) and I was able to get some sleep. I arrived in Chengdu late at night and had to find a hostel for the night before trying to recover my bike the next day. Chengdu was even bigger than Changsha, though it was a much more inviting and interesting place. The city center has an incredibly modern, chic feel while some of the surrounding neighborhoods feel like you stepped into a time warp of tight pedestrian alleyways, paper lanterns, and teahouses. As with all Chinese cities, the size and density of the city was mind boggling. I managed to find a hostel after searching around with my tuk-tuk (small 3 wheel moto-taxi) driver for nearly an hour. The next day I took a taxi to the Chendgu Western Railway Station (not to be confused with the Chengdu Railway Station!!) which is quite possibly the biggest single building I’ve ever seen. I was quickly dispirited when I saw the size of the place and settled in for an epic day of trying to locate the shipping office. It literally took me several hours just to locate the railway shipping office/warehouse. I asked numerous people and showed them my receipt, thinking mistakenly that when they read on the ticket that I was looking to pick up something I had shipped, they could easily point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, everyone I asked pointed me in the opposite direction so I just kept going in circles for hours. Just before reaching my breaking point, I noticed the Chinese character logo on the receipt matched a sign in an adjacent building and walked on over. As I approached, I miraculously saw my Chumba Stella leaning against the warehouse wall (I’m sure some of the employees had been taking it for a joy ride-I hope they had fun!). I produced my receipt and they handed the bike over. I couldn’t believe it. I figured that would be an ordeal to get them to release the bike to me, but they handed it right over, easier than ordering a meal! I braved the Chengdu traffic and smog and managed to navigate, with difficulty, back to my hostel. The last thing I had to do was get my tickets for the bus up to Kangding. I quickly strapped on my Sawtooth handlebar bag and Divide frame bag, loaded my stuff, and set out across town to the special bus station for trips to Kangding in Western Sichuan, which makes up part of the Kham region of the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately there were no tickets until the next day, so I found a hostel then spent the day riding around the city sampling the excellent spicy Sichuan cuisine and the famed Chengdu teahouses. The next day I miraculously managed to get through bus station security with my bike and then get it loaded onto the bus with minimal grumbling from the bus driver. I was finally on my way to the Himalayas. The bus ride lasted about 7 hours as it wound its way up from the lowlands of around 500m to nearly 3000m. The drive through giant panda country is quite stunning, climbing through bamboo forests waving in the wind, past large mountain lakes, until finally reaching the Qionglai mountains of the Garze province. Despite the rugged beauty of the landscape, I was dismayed to see the rampant proliferation of dams, pipelines, and other natural resource development. I imagined there were few if any environmental safeguards involved in these efforts. I hope to return to the area one day to study the environmental impacts of these projects. But, for now, I assumed the level of development would dissipate as I traveled further west into more remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau and tried to focus on and enjoy the landscape. I arrived in Kangding and braced myself for the typical onslaught of humanity you experience in Chinese cities. Kangding, despite being a small village (pop. ~100,000) by Chinese standards, did not disappoint. That is another marvel of China, village or bustling metropolis, there always seems to be jostling crowds, rampant honking, and a general sense of chaos and nonstop activity. After reassembling my bike, I set off to find a hostel for the night. I luckily stumbled on the lovely Zhilam hostel high up on the hillside above town where I met several western and Chinese tourists including an American owner of a bike shop in Chengdu. Wish I could remember the name of the shop, as it would be a great asset to bikepackers hoping to explore the Kham region of the Tibetan Plateau. After a pleasant evening with some Chinese speaking Argentine expats I went to bed early, knowing I’d have a big day ahead getting to Tagong, about 120km away. My plan had been to spend two days in Kangding to acclimate, before climbing up to the 4500m pass on route to the high Tagong grassland-land of yaks, Tibetan Buddist temples, and nomadic herders. But, I felt quite good and figured I was accustomed to breathe-taking altitudes after living in the Andes, so I got a pre-dawn start to begin the long climb up to the pass. Getting out of town was kind of a maze, but I finally found the muddy road under construction that lead out of town. Another interesting thing about China is that massive infrastructure are built by oceans of laborers yielding rudimentary tools. The road was going to be paved, and hundreds of villagers were mixing up the asphalt in woks, and other cooking pans by the side of the road. Once I made it to the outskirts of town, I could finally take in my surroundings. I was finally seeing glaciated Himalayan peaks, including the famed Gongga Shan, highest peak in Sichuan at around 7600m or 25000ft! I had searched in vain for fully singletrack or unpaved routes leading up to Tagong, but instead had to settle for staying on an improved road for the first 60km or so, before turning off onto a dirt track once I reached the plateau. So despite the lack of interesting biking, the yaks, stunning mountain views, prayer wheels, and other symbols of Tibet kept me entertained during the unending climb. I finally reached the pass at about 4500m the after steadily climbing all morning and was rewarded with the typical Tibetan adornments found across the Himalayan mountain passes. I had been traveling on the main “highway” that leads from Chengdu to Lhasa, which has become rite of passage for Chinese mountain bikers, so I was often in the company of numerous other cyclists. While the “highway” to Lhasa is now mostly paved, several of the high passes are still muddy, rocky, rutted thoroughfares, so the route remains the province of mountain bikes, but will soon be handed over to the roadies. This will be a sad day indeed! After the pass, I dropped down a few kilometers before turning off the main route and onto some much more enjoyable dirt roads (though at the current rate of road building in China, the road might be paved by the time of writing this!). But for now, I was glad to find some peace and solitude amongst the yaks, grasslands, and stunning mountain views. I also began to pass by nomadic herder huts for the first time around this point. As I traveled through Tibet, I continually witnessed the clash between traditional Tibetan culture and rapid Chinese development. I was only a couple of kilometers from a major road and all of the development, yet these herders preserved the way of life their people had been living for generations. I sadly wondered how long they could possibly continue a nomadic lifestyle as the modern world encroaches all around them. I admit that it’s easy to romanticize this way of life, but it’s obviously not without its struggles, and development can bring many positives to these communities. I just hope a balance between tradition and development can be struck in this magical land before it’s too late. Sadly, after my trip, I am not very optimistic about this prospect. After managing to buy lunch (a bowl of the ubiquitous packaged fried noodles found all over rural China) from a nomadic herder family, I passed by a few traditional Tibetan villages along a small river before coming to a massive Tibetan Bhuddist Temple. I then began climbing my 2nd pass of the day, thankfully much shorter than the first climb of the day, as I was now starting to feel the altitude. At the top of the pass I was rewarded with a view of the Tagong Monastery and surrounding grassland. What a stunning area. The sun was out, I was finally in a remote land of yaks, grasslands, and mountains. This was what I had been looking for in a bikepacking journey in Tibet, and it was all on day one! I could barely contain my excitement at this point. I rolled on past a few more small villages before reaching Tagong where I was met by some Chinese bike tourists and a group of Isreali travelers who had travelled by van via the main road from Kangding to Tagong that same day.Although I was carrying camping gear, the proliferation of Tibetan guesthouses across the region proved to be a much better option where available. Staying in guesthouses provides income to locals and gives travelers the opportunity to interact with the community and learn about their culture. Not to mention, the interior of Tibetan homes are incredibly unique and ornate. So, if you find yourself bikepacking across Tibet, be sure to stay in the occasional home of a villager or in a nomad hut or tent! After dinner with a nice group of ladies, I turned in early for the night and set off the next morning for a 150km stretch that would involve a mix of dirt road and pavement and thousands of meters of elevation change. I stuffed myself with yak yogurt and momos, not knowing when I’d find such a nourishing meal next.