CHINA

Into the Himalaya—Part 4
Deep gorges and one last pass in Western Sichuan

Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China
1 May 2005
The end of the road for Bill and "Bessie Too"

Dear Friends and Family,

We made it!

This amazing ride that began in the tropics surrounding Bangkok, headed into the lofty eastern Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, then rolled down to the subtropical Chengdu Plain, is at its end. I've been pedaling 4 months and 6,268 km (3,886 miles), meeting many friendly people along the way. Landscapes and cultures have been incredibly diverse. Now the ride is just a fond memory—and 25 rolls of slides.

I enjoyed all three countries of this trip—Thailand, Laos, and China. So what does one do upon completion of such a long, adventurous trip? Plan the next ones, of course! My hope is to revisit all three countries, and probably some others, in the next year.

The final nine days of the ride mostly wound through deep canyons. From Danba, I headed up along the brown and turbulent Dadu River. Stone watchtowers along the way once served to signal villages of impending raids. Attractive stone villages of Tibetan and Qiang (close relatives of the Tibetans) clung to the steep hillsides or nestled in the canyon bottoms. Houses often had peculiar stone "horns" sticking up from each corner. Some houses had wooden "hanging toilets" attached to the outside wall high above the ground; stone enclosures below caught the droppings.

Up Along the Dadu He and Its Tributaries
Villages in this arid valley channel water from tributary streams to irrigate their crops.
The muddy Dadu He has many rapids.

 

The people of this region are famed for their fine stonework.
These two lookout towers in Songgang village have
an unusual star-shape cross-section. Most
towers are square and have fallen into ruin.
One of the friendly kids in Songgang village.
This boy and his friends took me to one of the towers.
The wooden steps inside had rotted away, so I couldn't climb the tower.
Local boys show off a stone lookout tower in Songgang.
Note the "horns" on the upper corners of the buildings.
Zhuokeji village, 7 km east of Maerkang,
is exceptionally pretty.
Mao Zedong stayed here on his Long March in the 1930s.
The fortified mansion at Zhuokeji undergoing a major
renovation; there's a stone tower (not visible) behind it.
The ultimate in luxury--a three-story outhouse!
Toilets with a view!
These hanging toilets on the mansion don't smell.
The scenery keeps getting better, even though I'm only four days from the end of the trip.
The valley became increasingly alpine as I
ascended above Maerkang to my final pass of the trip.

Seeing and smelling the lush green fields and orchards was a novelty for me after so many weeks at high elevations where winter still held sway. I also liked the warm sunny weather. But I was gradually climbing, so spring began to fade back into winter after three days of riding upriver. Snow arrived on the fourth morning from Danba; "no problem," I thought, as it would soon melt. Unfortunately, when I turned south to my last big pass, 4,132 meters high, the pavement ran out and the melted snow had turned the road into awful sticky mud. I crept and crawled up the too-long 24 km climb. The only bright side was that the road was nearly deserted; other vehicles were taking a new road through a tunnel. Snowy peaks lay in all directions from the top. Downhill was easier and I was sure glad to hit pavement and whiz through alpine forests and villages. The next day I followed the Zagunao River 123 km downstream to the Chinese city of Wenchuan; it was the longest daily distance of the trip and nearly all downhill. The hotel in Wenchuan left a lot to be desired—holes in the dirty carpets, no hot water, then no cold water, then no electricity. I took a shower from two kettles, one cold and one hot, mixed in my bicycle water bottle.

From Wenchuan I joined the wide Min River for its journey to the plains. The first part of the ride was fast and smooth below ever-greener hillsides. After 60 km the road forked and I had to decide whether to take the bumpy, muddy, dusty detour along the river or sneak past a barrier and ride the brand new smooth highway ahead. Of course I took the new road with its fine views of the valley and hardly any traffic, but a few curves later I came across a policeman in the middle of the road. OOPS! He waved me on, though, and I continued enjoying the new road as it wound up a side valley, through a tunnel, down, around, and into a second tunnel—this one still very much under construction. Then, around yet another curve, I saw the valley open up onto a vast plain. I was about to leave the mountains that had been my companions for nearly the entire past four months.

I took a rest day in Dujiangyan to stroll the extensive gardens and temple complexes. Rhododendrons were in full bloom and bonsai lined many of the paths. Exhibits chronicled the clever system of irrigation canals developed 2,300 years ago at Dujiangyan to divert the Min River waters out onto fields surrounding Chengdu.

Rolling Into the Dujiangyan Scenic Area
This bicycle trip has been a great adventure! I'm sorry that it's almost over.
The end of the mountains and my ride is near! You can see where the Min River meets
the plains at Dujiangyan ahead on the right. It's the site of a 3rd-century B.C. irrigation
project that made the city of Chengdu the largest and most important in the region.

This illustration shows Dujiangyan's canals and diversion islands, designed to channel the Min River's
waters and remove silt. Today it's a vast parkland with gardens, temples, pavilions, and bridges.
Admission to the park is a pricy $8, but worth it, I thought.
Chinese tourists strolling in Dujiangyan Scenic Area
Major parks in China usually have a teahouse for visitors to relax in.
music for a teahouse
In the early 1900s, western plant explorers discovered many rhododendron species in China.
rhododendrons

On April 27th I sped across the plain, imperceptibly downhill, to the outskirts of Chengdu and the confusing network of ring roads and radials—more than my pitiful map could ever show. The first travelers' hotel I tried refused to let me bring my bicycle into the room—unusual for China—but a second place had no problem with the bicycle. So "Bessie Too the Bicycle" has now rolled her last for a while, and will soon go into a cardboard box. She has held up well; a rack bolt being the only part to break. Considering the debris on the roads, six flats in four months aren't too bad (3 from glass, 2 from wires, and one from a thorn).

I'm staying at Holly's Hostel, a small guesthouse in Chengdu, resting and packing for the flights back to the USA. Chengdu is one of China's oldest and most important cities, with a population of about 4 million. The weather at this 500-meter elevation (1,640 feet) has been warm, humid, very hazy, and prone to occasional thunderstorms. I've done a little sightseeing and shopping, but nothing too strenuous. On Tuesday May 3rd I fly to Bangkok, then continue on to the USA on May 15th.

From the end,
Bill Weir and "Bessie Too the Bicycle"

CHINA THOUGHTS

Happiness
Although most Chinese put in a long, hard day's work for low wages and have to put up with all kinds of inconveniences, somehow they nearly always manage to be cheerful. This is one of the delights of traveling in China.

Health
The Chinese definitely need to improve their living habits—smoking, spitting, and industrial pollution here are among the worst in the world. On the other hand, restaurant people are good about "boiling it, cooking it, peeling it, or forgetting it." I've always been able to get boiled water at hotels and restaurants.

Bill's Health
I mentioned that "Bessie Too the Bicycle" has held well up for the entire trip without a visit to a bike shop. Bill did even better over the four months, without getting sick or suffering an injury despite some long, tough days. That's partly because cycling is such and enjoyable sport that one tends to be happier and physically stronger.

Wealth
If you're wondering why petrol prices are so high, one reason is that wealthy Chinese love to drive big SUVs. I've seen a few Hummers, but Mitsubishis, Toyotas, and Jeep Cherokees are the most popular. While some Chinese do very well financially, the majority do not. Unemployment remains one of the government's biggest challenges.

Safety
Chinese drivers are well accustomed to dodging slower-moving objects on the road and have a marvelous ability to survive near misses. I use a rear-view mirror to keep an eye on what's going on while I'm cycling. Nearly all Chinese are honest, with bill padding at restaurants and hotels the main hazard. Theft is said to be a danger at bus and train stations and on crowded buses and trains, places I easily avoid. Cyclists have lost their money belts to thieves elsewhere, however, so I try to be very careful.

The Chinese Government
You have to give credit to the leaders of this police state for successfully guiding their huge population on an unprecedented growth rate for the past two decades. The government has also managed to hold the country together despite the aspirations of some minority groups, especially in the west, to break away. The Chinese people really seem to enjoy their current economic freedoms, though democracy does not seem to be on the horizon. No Chinese on the mainland have ever told me that they desire a democracy. The problem with China's one-party system is that it lacks checks and balances; corruption at high levels is said to be a major problem in the country's development. The government also HATES criticism—most citizens know better than to risk the wrath of officials! The US government's latest human rights report about China was not appreciated, and the Chinese responded with a scathing report of their own about crime and Iraq prison abuses of the United States.

Chairman Mao Zedong
The "Great Helmsman" still appears on posters, currency, and as massive statues. The Chinese remember him as a resourceful leader against the Japanese during WWII and as one of the founders of the Peoples Republic of China. While he helped lift the country out of the economic depression caused by WWII and civil wars, his policies also led to famines, invasion of Tibet, and the terrible persecutions and destruction of the misnamed Cultural Revolution (1966-70). Today, Mao's communist policies have fallen by the wayside, but he remains a folk figure.

China Transformations
This is my fourth visit to mainland China, with the first one back in 1982. That trip was totally unplanned. When China opened to tourism, only groups could come and each member had to pay about $100 per day—way, way over my budget. But on a cycling trip through East Asia in early 1982, I stopped off for a brief visit to Hong Kong and found my hostel flooded with travelers who had just come back from mainland China. The country had just opened to low-cost independent travel! I stored my bicycle and took off on a six-week grand tour of China. Travel remained highly restricted—if a place wasn't on my permit, I couldn't go there—so cycling touring didn't seem to be an option. There were no guidebooks at the time, so I relied on other traveler's notes about what to see and where to stay—it was a great adventure. I found city streets streaming with bicycles as nobody had private cars then. Shops were filled with drab merchandise that nobody especially wanted, but tourists and well-connected Chinese could use black-market money to visit the Friendship Stores, which had the good stuff. A few daring young women wore Western fashions, but most everyone else only had dark, dull, monochromatic clothing of the Communist era. I was back in the steam age—the sound of steam whistles was common and I often rode on steam trains, even on the main lines. Shanghai, especially, looked like a city in a 1930s black-and-white movie; the old architecture had hardly changed since the Communists took power.

Tibet
My descriptions of traveling in Tibetan lands of northern Yunnan and western Sichuan may have been a bit confusing because these are no longer part of Tibet. When China occupied Tibet, large chunks were lopped off into Yunnan to the southeast, Sichuan to the east, and Qinghai to the north. The remaining parts of Tibet became the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.) even though the Tibetans have no autonomy! The Tibetans I met in Yunnan and Sichuan seemed to be doing well. The government also seems to be allowing a fair amount of religious freedom.

Newspapers
I've never been to a country with so few of these. Only the cities have newspapers, and only tourist centers have anything in English. Of course, the papers that do exist only print what the government approves. Most Chinese prefer to get their news and entertainment from television.

Internet Cafes
One frequently hears of government crackdowns on these based on moral grounds. Here I'm 100% with the authorities. Most Internet Cafes in China are dark, dismal, filthy, smoky dives that desperately need either closing down or cleaning up. The Chinese are at their worst here; most users come to play games or watch movies. The computers are aging machines without software updates. At least they are cheap and often have useable Internet access. I try to find Internet computers elsewhere, such as in hotel business centers or Westerner-friendly guesthouses.

The Great Firewall of China
I've never found a computer with high-speed Internet in China. Part of the problem may be the government monitoring of e-mail and websites that probably takes place. Some sites are temporarily or permanently blocked. The BBC's site has been blocked at times in the past, for example, though I've usually been able to access it. Personal websites on www.geocities.com are always blocked; fortunately I printed out some bicycling articles on it before coming to China.

Hotels
My guidebook tells a humorous story of a "typical" Chinese hotel where the Western guest encounters one problem after another; when his head finally hits the pillow, loud karaoke downstairs starts up. Hotel descriptions in the guidebook usually feature dormitories as the top budget option. But hotels have improved greatly in recent years. The biggest improvement has been the dropping of "foreigners prices" that once doubled or tripled a room's cost; this was purely racist as hotels gave overseas Chinese the regular price. Another government trick to rip off Westerners was the police policy of only permitting the more expensive hotels in town to accept foreigners; thankfully that has also largely been abandoned. Privatization and new construction has increased competition, raised standards, and lowered prices. Few hotels meet Western standards, but then few charge Western prices. I've paid between $1.20 and $12 for rooms and often get a private bath. Only once did I stay in a dormitory, and that was in a tiny village. Of the few hotels/guesthouses that refused me, some were genuinely full, one was run by a cranky official, and one claimed to lack a police permit for foreigners.

Camping
The Chinese are not into this activity, except for the nomads of course, but I found carrying a tent worthwhile. I camped four times in China, three of which were at idyllic spots near a stream.

Cycling
I've been pleasantly surprised just how good traveling by bicycle is in China. I highly recommend it! My only previous cycle ride in China was across Tibet from Lhasa to Katmandu, though I don't really think of Tibet as actually being a part China. If you would like try cycling in China, the easiest way to get started is with a tour run by Bike China Adventures; you can see itineraries, photos, and travelogues on the website, www.bikechina.com The owner, Peter Snow Cao, is based here in Chengdu. We got together at a teahouse for an enjoyable afternoon of chatting about cycling.

A Guaranteed Weight-Loss Program
Looking for a sure-fire plan to lose weight, while eating whatever you like? Well, all you need to do is grab your bicycle and head over to the Himalaya! A high-altitude bicycle ride will melt those pounds and kilograms away. I'm on my last notch of my belt and my pants fit like a circus tent.

Back to the beginning of Cycling from Thailand to China