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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #10:
China. The Sleeping Giant Awakes...
19/8/99

China was a mystery. You would be stared at, I had been warned. You would be overcharged, voices had foretold. The spitting and karaoke will drive you insane, came the final damnation. Hygiene and music aside, the rapidly changing face of China has emerged to be a country of friendly, curious people and unparalleled natural beauty. And the sleeping giant has very much awoken...

The highlight of the ride has been the 700km stretch linking the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, passing through the towns of Lijiang, Zhongdian and Litang. Challenges and adventures lurked around every bend. We hauled our bikes over a landslide, loaded our panniers onto mules where it was too steep to ride, dined on pork fat with an ethnic Naxi family, drank tea at a Tibetan cowboy's hangout and shared the road with Nomads herding their yaks on horseback. From the top of a 4800m pass, prayer flags fluttered in the icy wind.

By night, we camped on high altitude plateaux, pitching our tent at dusk. Instant noodles and refreshing green tea were supplemented by heartily portioned meals in villages along the way. Every day climbs and descents of a thousand metres left us exhausted, on unpaved roads that were rough and hard going. Yet nothing could detract from the stunning views from every pass, the scale so vast that looking back, the road seemed little more than a scratch along the mountainside. Storms swept across the blue skies and we froze under the heavy rainfall during thirty kilometre descents, stopping to warm up in remote villages. Mists rolled in and out, revealing 6000m glacial peaks rising out of the rock face like craggy fingers. And when the wind dropped, the silence of the landscape was overpowering...

So close to the border, Tibetan influence ranged from monks in seventies style shades, wild haired cowboys with knives slung to their hips and old women thumbing prayer beads by the roadside. On the 4000m plateaux nomadic black tents peppered the grasslands, surrounded by herds of yak. One morning we rode with a group of families on horseback, enormous yaks strapped with provisions and fierce mountain dogs. We communicated through smiles, moving on to our own destinations.

Possum, currently weighing in at 52kgs, is showing some signs of wear and tear. I've replaced another cracked rear wheel with a Mavic 521D downhill rim. Back on are the Michelin Wildgrippers, ideal in this harsh terrain, after the Nokia touring tyres I'd been running began to split. The Ortlieb panniers have needed a few patches and new rivets, and with parts so cheap in China, I've also fitted a riser bar to give a more comfortable riding position. Finally my trusty Rolls saddle, worn down after 10 months on the road, has been refinished in Yak hide thanks to a bemused local shoemaker...

These last few weeks have provided the hardest and most rewarding riding, both on this journey and in my life, and opened my eyes to new ways of living. There is an old Chinese saying: 'It is better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books.' From what I have seen, nowhere is this is more true, than in China itself.



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