China: Lijiang to Shangri-La

15/05/19 - 21/05/19
Total distance travelled: 10,387 km

Tibetan prayer flags at the Hundred Chicken Temple in Shangri-La

I'm currently sat on some steps outside of the Chengdu Digital Plaza. I am watching the bikes whilst Olly tries to get his camera fixed. Unfortunately, the Olympus decided it had had enough when we were in Shangri-La. This was a real shame for the days that followed, as we soared - inelegantly and very slowly on our bicycles - up to 4000m asl on the Tibetan Plateau, were some of the most naturally scenic of the trip so far. I am sat with my third pair of sunglasses around my neck, newly purchased today at Olly, despairing, also insisted I buy a string to attach to the sunglasses to so that I can wear them around my neck and thus not lose them - again. I gladly did so! Only now, as I sit with my sunglasses safely dangling against my chest, am I realising that I aged phenomenally the moment I placed that string in the basket.
Chengdu is a mega city with the big added bonus of there being a panda sanctuary - the most important of its kind in China - just north of the city centre. As such, we are unlikely to want for anything while we're here; there are two packets of M&M peanuts in my pannier that I am really having to resist eating. I just devoured my first milk-tea in a long time and am immediately craving another. In a few days' time we will catch a two-day train to Kashgar and the milk-tea era will be over. I do wonder what will replace it.

I last had a milk-tea - hot, for the first time - as we arrived into Shangri-La. It was late in the day, around 6pm, when I cried, "milk-tea!" and pulled on the brakes. We had been on the road for ten hours, perhaps cycling for nine of them and I was craving something comforting. The end was definitely in sight, and we could have just pushed on, but those 15 minutes sat still, knowing that we only had a few kilometres to go, were wonderful.

The final summit before descended into Shangri-La

The city of Shangri-La finally in sight

It took us five days to reach Shangri-La from Lijiang and our route took us through the formidable Tiger Leaping Gorge. On our first day leaving Lijiang, we had to retrace our steps by 20km and we enjoyed those 20km as much as we had when we arrived: not at all. There was a huge queue of traffic that we managed to weave our way through, but it was an uphill queue and the warm, toxic fumes from big trucks blasted our sides and burnt the hairs in our noses. The queues had been caused by people trying to overtake when one side of the road was closed due to road works.

Leaving Lijiang

Evocative, sweeping, Chinese roofs

Construction at every turn

Once those 20km were done, we started to have much more fun. We passed two cycle tourists and sat communicating via Google Translate for a while. A little dog tried to get involved too. Olly lifted him onto the back of my bike as we prepared to leave and for a short time he did trot along side us as we pedalled away.

A smooth downhill took us to the Yangtze River and we had lunch, we think, sat at the unfinished observation deck for the first bend of the Yangtze River.  The 'first bend' is a geological phenomenon as the river makes a sharp turn and changes from flowing in a southeasterly direction to a northeasterly direction.  The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world and, starting high on the Tibetan Plateau, is considered the mother river of China.

We continued along the river and glided along in the hard shoulder of a busy road, stopping once the road levelled out to marvel at the magnificent Yulong - Jade Dragon Snow - Mountain.

We took the old road, the road less travelled, to our final destination of the evening and this turned out to be a very good choice. We had depleted our water supplies and had agreed to stop whenever possible. After a short uphill, a small shop appeared around the bend as we began to descend. We pulled in and bought cold water and ice-creams. The previous evening Olly had said we should definitely buy an ice-cream because it was unlikely we'd get ice-cream on this next leg. We very rarely, however, want for ice-cream!

With 20km to go, we enjoyed a descent with fields filled with crops on our left. Spying purple bags and a noticing a punchy aroma, we soon realised it was garlic being harvested. Just as I cherished the moment, I realised I didn't have my sunglasses and that they must still be on the till at the ice-cream stop shop. Back we went, Olly taking on the final few km solo and sans panniers. I really am grateful for this string...

Jane's Guesthouse had been praised in the Lonely Planet guide as being a friendly, Tibetan guesthouse and the perfect place to spend a night before visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge. The ride into the small village of Qiaotou at the start of the gorge had been so impressive and we gawped in wonder at the rushing river and the majesty of the now huge Yulong - Jade Dragon Snow - Mountain.

We walked through the gate into the guesthouse and after shouting "ni-hao" a few times, we were greeted by a man with a cigarette hanging out of the corner his mouth and a big Husky dog. Neither of them looked like Jane. It was a disappointing stay at this guesthouse, which was our first experience of anything Tibetan, which we think must have been under new ownership. The place had such promise and clearly had been very well loved, but at the time of our visit, everything was just a little bit mouldy and broken - including the fridge and so we went off in search of some dinner, hungry for the home-cooked Tibetan food we had never had, but had been fantasizing about all day.

The following morning was the day we cycled through Tiger Leaping Gorge. The views were incredible, like nothing we'd ever seen before. We had aimed for an early start, but didn't get on the road until 9. It was a cloudy, colder morning and I worried we had lucked out on the weather what with the skies previous day being so clear and blue. Luckily, the clouds didn't take long to lift. After we had bought our tickets (Olly blagged student prices...) the sun was shining and the temperature rising.

A tunnel to match our panniers 
Huge construction project in the gorge

I challenge even the most courageous and brave-hearted amongst us not to feel a little queasy on the vertiginous, winding road through Tiger Leaping Gorge, the second deepest gorge in the world. Flanked by vertical cliffs, Yulong Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Mountain stand ferociously tall either side of the gorge which is 3900m at its deepest point. The roaring waters of the Jinsha River - a tributary of the Yangtze - storm through the gorge at 1400 cubic metres per second. The Lonely Planet jokingly notes that visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge is a traveller's rite of passage that is unlikely to kill you, but which very easily could.

We cycled peacefully up and along the road for about five minutes before the buses we had seen arriving at the ticket office caught up with us. For me, this made for pretty nerve-wracking cycling because of the sheer drops to my right and the close passing coaches on my left. We stopped often, overawed by the scenery. It was nice to be able to put our feet on the ground whenever we felt like it, which I'm sure was almost every 500m (both to take photos and to rest our jelly legs). It was a good job we only had 20km to cycle that day.

Olly hadn't been able to secure accurate information about how much climbing was in store for us during our 20km meander through the gorge, reports ranged from no metres to 1000! Our estimate puts our elevation that day between 500m and 750m. It was certainly a winding, uphill route. I stuck firmly to the middle of the road which, once we had passed the visitor centre, definitely became more rugged. There were no safety barriers and at various intervals, the side of the road was cracked and crumbling away. We had to cycle over rags sprayed with chemicals a couple of times and I remember vividly not wanting to have to go back over to the right-hand-side of the road.

Reaching the visitor centre was an amazing sight: there were so many coaches that they were already bursting out of the carpark and were sprawled all over the road. Incredible 6000-point turns were in the process of being attempted in order to bus the tourists back to their hotels. Few coaches go any further than the visitor centre and so although the road afterwards was precipitous, it was fortunately a lot quieter. We easily weaved our way through the coaches, locked our bikes to a pillar and started to shuffle along the boardwalk and down the slippery steps to the thunderous, rushing water's edge.

Every time we paused to take a photograph, we thought we had managed to capture the most impressive view of the gorge, but then we'd take a few more steps, pedal a few more strokes or turn a corner and the scenery would just explode before our eyes. There were hundreds of people gathered on the main viewing platform, many were queuing very patiently to have their photograph taken with the stone tiger; many others were buying, writing and attaching prayers to the railings and the hundreds of people remaining joined us in gawping at the river, the mountains and Tiger Leaping Stone. Tiger Leaping Gorge is so called because of the legend of a tiger crossing from one mountain to another, potentially in a bid to escape a hunter, at the narrowest point in the gorge, leaping from verge to verge via the big rock in the middle of the river. I considered it for a few moments whilst the water splashed my face. It is certainly not a jump I would ever attempt. Olly said the gorge has only successfully been kayaked once and that many have died attempting it. I shan't be attempting that either.

Tiger Leaping Stone

A more comfortable way to travel?

From the visitor centre we slowly and carefully cycled to Walnut Garden, the main town along the road through the gorge. Town, of course, is an exaggeration and Walnut Garden is more accurately a small collection of guesthouses. We had booked into Tibet Guesthouse and proceeded to have the most wonderful, and quite spiritual, stay. The Tibet Guesthouse more than made up for the disappointing stay the night before with the elusive Jane. It was quiet and relaxed with just the most incredible view of a sheer slab of grey mountain rock that stabbed into the brilliant, blue sky. Even from the safety of the veranda of the guesthouse, the frightening sound of the roaring waters resounded all around: a constant reminder that this was a perilous place to live.

We ordered lunch which was freshly prepared for us and which tasted so delicious, I'm sure the taste was even more wonderful because of our spectacular surroundings and our giddy outlook that day. Nothing can be taken away from Dawa's incredible cooking, however, and the five vegetable steamed buns that he made just for us were the most wonderful we have had. I couldn't stop saying "amazing".

Dawa, the son of the owners of the guesthouse, was about our age and he was running the show the day we arrived. His mum is Tibetan and his dad, Chinese. I'm sure it was his Granny, the old, colourfully dressed lady asleep in the chair opposite the stove when we arrived and who seemed to complete an inspection of the place every so often. Our room in the guesthouse was up some steep, metal stairs, over a filled-in squat toilet and then at the end of a wooden corridor. The little room with two single beds felt so cosy and very much like a dormitory room from an early 20th century novel, maybe something by Enid Blyton, but with an "on tour in the Orient" twist.

Goats walking home for the night seen from the guesthouse

For dinner we sat with a couple of other guests and ate more of Dawa's delicious cooking: fried pumpkin for me and another plate of noodles for Olly. In the morning we had hot baba covered in honey to accompany our porridge. I could gladly have stayed at the Tibet Guesthouse in Walnut Garden for another night as there was something so enchanting about the atmosphere there. It seemed to encourage you to breathe and slow down, to revel in simply filling the time between meals with staring appreciatively around you at the incredible landscape.

We continued with our pedal powered adventure and left Tiger Leaping Gorge after a few kilometres on the crumbling road. Upon leaving the gorge, the landscape burst open becoming vast and a flat plain stretched out ahead of us, peppered with small settlements. But we had a hill to climb and so we set about winding our way all the way up to Haba. We kept Yulong Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in our sights until we neared the top of the climb. As it disappeared from view, Haba Mountain grew.

We stopped for a snack on a couple of logs and I sat staring at the mountain trying to etch the moment into my mind for it was so peaceful and brilliant. Below, I could just make out a couple who were having some wedding/pre-wedding photos. The whole photography troop had stared at me incredulously as I panted past. For a couple of seconds, I envied the lady having her hair and makeup touched up. We have been wearing the same two t-shirts and pairs of trousers for ten months; we wear our cycling shorts for far too many days in a row and we consider it newsworthy when we put on clean pants. My reverie was broken by my dribbling nose, I wiped it on my glove and panted on.

The climb to the village of Haba, our rest stop that night, took most of the day. We hadn't stopped for lunch and so when we arrived in the village we stopped at a shop under the pretense of buying some water and instead we both lunged for the freezer and picked out two of our favourite ice-creams and then sat down on a little step to eat them. Once consumed, Olly bought some water and we pedalled a couple of metres further along the road before stopping at the Haba International Youth Hostel. In reality, it was just a standard, Chinese hotel, which usually we're very grateful for, but after our stay in the friendly and characterful Tibet Guesthouse, it felt clinical and sad.

At the top of the climb, our first prayer flags

We had an incredible view out of the window, though and a comedy ensued as I tried to ask for a kettle as our room was without one. I interrupted the owner's game of cards and then stood looming in the doorway of his room whilst waiting for his kettle to boil. He kept saying "room" to which his friends kept laughing and I kept shaking my head and pointing to his kettle and shaking my head. Olly came downstairs to see where I had got to and said he had just pinched the kettle from the empty - and open, I hasten to add, - room next door. I then walked back, thanked the man and his friends, pointed at the kettle, shook my head again and waved my arms around in what I understand to be a "no" motion. Heaven knows what the Chinese man thought I was saying, after all, in China you make the "hang loose" shaka sign to indicate "six". I ran back upstairs only to see Olly taking the kettle back into the room next to ours. I asked what on earth he was doing and he said he'd found our kettle in the bathroom. Obviously. So much for bloody "instant" noodles.

We ate at a Tibetan restaurant that night and sat on tiny stools to eat more food than we ordered! It was not as good as Dawa's meal the night before, but we were grateful to have found some food at all given how quiet Haba was. I was quite surprised by this because Olly had said that Haba Snow Mountain is a popular 5000m mountain for amateur mountaineers looking to summit a big climb and practise and hone their alpine skills. As waited, I stared at the yak skull on the wall and kept stealing glances at the man cracking sunflower seeds open with his teeth and spitting the husks onto the floor.

We left the hostel/hotel at Haba knowing that that night we would have to take our tent out of hibernation. It was an exciting and slightly nerve-wracking thought. Throughout our travels in Southeast Asia we had opted to stay in guesthouses, hostels and hotels and this was largely due to how hot it had been and how badly we had slept the night we did attempt to sleep under our canvas roof. (It made for a slovenly start and slow progress the following day.) Our decision to stay in paid accommodation hasn't had no impact on our budget, but we have been careful that it hasn't decimated it either. The last time we properly slept out under the stars was in Arrowtown, New Zealand some three months previous.

We had done two significant climbs that day, the first was only 4km long and all the while towards Haba mountain and so the mind wandered and wondered as the legs beat their tune; we were at the top in no time. The second climb was slightly more gruelling, but with quite long, sweeping switchbacks, which alternately offered views of the mountain and the plain stretching out from the end of Tiger Leaping Gorge, it was manageable.

Approaching the top of the hill was an abandoned town, it was a little post-apocalyptic in nature, a feeling accentuated by the pigs snuffling freely through it. Then, just after the summit, was a little shop and we didn't hesitate to pull in and buy a drink having depleted our water supplies. If only we'd also bought an ice-cream. A shop further down the road was indicated on Olly's map, but it never materialised and we had said it would be a nice treat to get an ice-cream there once we had reached the bottom of the descent. (However, as I have mentioned before, we rarely want for ice-cream and so I shouldn't complain! If the dentist asks, we intentionally withheld that day!)

The third climb of the day started all too soon, but we wouldn't see the top of it until the following day. Our plan was to cycle until we spotted a camp spot. We cycled maybe three or four kilometres further than the dark, little shack-shop at the bottom of the second hill and the beginning of the third. We had bought six bottles of water from the old man in the shack shop; he had had to fish them out of a box whilst stumpy, gold Red Bull tins lined the dusty shelves. We sat contemplating our water supplies on a little bench outside of the shop and watched as a lady washed vegetables in a big, silver bowl using water contained in a tractor bucket. We decided to fill three of our plastic bottles with tractor-bucket water, which the shop owner motioned to me that I must not drink. I smiled and nodded vigorously and tried, in turn, to mime washing dishes. I'm sure he thought me mad.

We both filtered and boiled the tractor water and then used it to cook spaghetti for our tea that night. It was the first pasta we had had in a long time and the first time we had cooked using petrol too. It had been third time lucky securing petrol for our stove. When we showed the bottles to workers at the first two petrol stations we passed on our way out of Lijiang, they looked assaulted that we had even asked. The third guy just seemed happy to help and we filled our bottle for the equivalent of about 75p. The pasta and sauce, which we had been carrying since we left Bangkok, was refreshingly plain. I'm unconvinced that the tractor water didn't have lasting consequences for our digestive systems though...

We made a great effort to hide our tent in amongst some prickly, pine type bushes that night which, with the benefit of hindsight, really wasn't necessary. Few cars passed along the road once we turned off it and just one car went by before we set off the following morning. We struggled with the tent poles, strength and aptitude for this activity had deserted us in the three months that we had been luxuriating in hotels and guesthouses. (Actually, sometimes I'd have much preferred to sleep in the tent and pee in the woods: more comfortable and cleaner!)

Olly didn't sleep well at all, perhaps partly because we were unaccustomed to camping, but moreover because he was wary of our wild camp spot. We have heard tales of other cyclists being moved on by the police and we had agreed that if this happened we could go back down to the shack-shop and work things out from there. Olly had said that that night the moon was the brightest he had ever seen it, and I regrettably took his word for it as at the time I was snug as a bug in my sleeping bag rug. Unfamiliar birds squawked all night, Olly thought the moonlight might be confusing them into thinking it was daytime. I slept surprisingly well! But I do religiously wear an eye-mask and earplugs, the alternative being to jump at every sound. I prefer the delusion of my downy cocoon.

Preparing to leave the following morning

In the morning, the sunrise tickled the mountain tops pink. It was a really spectacular and special sight.

We had two big climbs that day, the biggest taking us to up to our highest point to date, 3700m. We celebrated finally reaching the top of the hill by sharing a Snickers. We sheltered behind the crumbling sign and watched goats hopping about. The bells that tinkled around the goats' necks seemed to emphasise how remote the landscape was becoming.

Summit 1

Summit 2

The first two kilometres of climbing that day took us half an hour and this fact had a real impact upon my moral. At these rates it would take us about three days to get to Shangri-La! (I exaggerate, but only a little.) I'm not entirely sure how I overcame the huge slump I experienced. I knew we had a few days off in Shangri-La which was a pleasing prospect, and I also knew that I would like to see England again, which was quite far away from where I was stood. In that moment, though, I didn't think I could do it. It's a confusing predicament to be in. So many times I've been overwhelmed by how our bodies can keep going when our minds have long given up.

It was a quite annoying to then have to cycle downhill because there was such a strong headwind! But once we did descend, we were greeted with a Plateau that felt very Tibetan: there were prayer flags flapping wildly in the wind and yaks loitering in the road and grazing as far as the eye could see.

We saw our first Tibetan style houses too: great fortress type buildings with colourful window panes and numerous chimneys, often there was a bare branch sticking out of one of them. It was spell-binding. We passed a national park which was conducting helicopter tours. It reminded me of New Zealand and made me feel a lot less disconnected.

We had a series of short, sharp climbs before our final descent into Shangri-La. I didn't enjoy the short, sharp climbs and I moaned and groaned my way up them which helped a little. There were no signs pointing to Shangri-La, instead we followed the route to Zhongdian. Shangri-La is a fictional, Tibetan town created by James Hilton in his book The Lost Horizon, which I found a copy of in our hostel and which Olly had downloaded onto his Kindle. Zhongdian is the town's original name, but China saw an opportunity in how much it resembled Hilton's town and so renamed it accordingly. The boom in tourist numbers was almost immediate. I think there are a few Shangri-Las dotted around.

Our Shangri-La actually suffered a serious fire in 2014, but it was rebuilt in the same Tibetan style and no damage remains. It was very pretty walking into the old town as the sun started to set as the wooden buildings shone. We bumped over cobbled streets and met a French couple who took our photograph. Most of the western tourists we've met have been French.

We continued up a road that started to lead out of the small, old town towards our hostel, aptly and Romantically named Up in the Air hostel. We struggled a little pushing our heavy bikes and in the days to come this final stint back to our room would always make us breathless and cause us to gasp in lungfuls of rarefied air through our mouths.

The hostel was immediately welcoming, but we were told our room was in a different building as some other guests had decided to stay an extra night in the room that was to be ours. This turned out very well for us as we were shown to such a wonderful room at the top of the building next door: the Kind Ancient Hostel. We were the only people in the house whose other rooms were all perfectly made up, but remained empty for the duration of our stay. I imagined family and friends filling these rooms. There were so many windows in the room and we had a most incredible, panoramic view out over Shangri-La and the surrounding mountains. We could see the worlds largest prayer wheel occasionally spinning and we watched as many of the buildings lit up in funky colours at night. In the early morning a low mist clung to the tops of the buildings before lifting to reveal the mighty mountains.

The view from our room

The hostel owners invited us to have dinner with them the night we arrived. After a hot shower, we walked back to the main hostel building and enjoyed a vegetarian feast sat around the stove. Olly and I vowed to recreate such an evening when we returned home; it was so friendly and welcoming and we all chomped merrily together.

We had two full days in Shangri-La and we used them to wander the old town and visit the Hundred Chicken, Baiji Temple that sat on a hill behind our house. We walked slowly up the steps to the temple, feeling our hearts beating furiously in our chests even so. I found the colourful prayer flags completely captivating and they looked so beautiful contrasted against the clear, blue sky. The temple itself was small with incense burning outside of it and not a chicken in sight!

In gold, the world's largest prayer wheel.  It takes about eight people to turn it. 

I watched as four ladies and a little boy offered their prayers to the Buddha inside the temple and then how they walked together around the prayer wheel afterwards. I had also noticed how one of the women had brushed a leafy twig on the backs of the others on the walk up the many steps to the temple. The day we left Shangri-La, lots of people walked up to the temple carrying bags of incense sticks and pine twigs, necklaces of prayer beads dangling from their hands. Indeed, a window had opened in our building and a lady was selling these religious objects out of it. She waved at us happily. I mentioned the many people to Yoyo, the hostel owner, and she said it was nothing compared with on the 1st and the 15th of the month. Olly said we had never been out this early (0930) and so perhaps that was the reason we hadn't noticed the faithful going to worship before.

Tibetan prayer flags promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom.  The prayers are carried by the wind and spread to all. 

The view of Shangri-La from the temple

We enjoyed our stay in Shangri-La and tried to spend time properly relaxing whilst still tackling our to-do list. We spent time discussing the future of the trip as we had both agreed - again - that we could change our plans if we wanted to. We bought our train tickets to Kashgar and organised our accommodation at the Old Town YH too; with dates in the diary our immediate plans at least were confirmed. We also enjoyed breakfast in bed, looking out across the city and refilling the kettle for second and even third cups of tea and coffee.

At 7 o'clock every night, scores of people flocked to the main square for an hour of dancing

The next leg of the trip loomed large over me the night before we left Shangri-La. We were heading for Litang on the Tibetan Plateau proper, leaving Yunnan behind and entering Sichuan as the mountains reached new, dizzy heights that seemed impossible for me to conquer. We had heard and read tales from other cyclists which recounted how they had struggled, but loved the route that lay ahead of us. I felt I'd had my full of both. As I loaded up Chapter 5: The Dementor of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the only chapter that seems to play without a Wi-Fi connection, and closed my eyes, I felt soothed by Stephen Fry's voice reading JK Rowling's magical words. I also thought about how enraptured I had been by the prayer flags at the Hundred Chicken Temple; how relaxed I had been at the Tibet Guesthouse; and how impressed we had been cycling through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Olly was excited for more mountains and so I decided I was too.