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RoughGuides #4:
China
2/11/99

It's 4,800m above sea level and I'm huddled beside prayer flags fluttering in the icy wind. The forest is far below and our road seems little more than a scratch across the mountainside. From this windswept and barren plateau, the views are breathtaking. As we descend, looping our way through valleys patched with scree and bush, I'm reminded of the mottling of ageing turtles. Dark clouds hang above us and hues of green and brown contrast against pockets of blue sky. I can hear nothing but the wind. When it drops.... silence. I stop and let my riding companion Trystan disappear from view. The enormity of the landscape and the silence that envelopes it make me feel alone in the world...

China had always seemed a distant mystery to me. You'll be stared at constantly, I'd been warned. You'll be overcharged, voices had foretold. They hawk at your feet, came the final damnation.

No one had prepared me for the unparalleled natural beauty of the land nor the diversity of its people. As modernisation sweeps across this vast country, the sleeping giant has undoubtedly awoken. Yet in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, in the shadow of snow capped mountains, minority people live lives untouched by the outside world, amidst some of the most dramatic scenery I had ever seen.

Once part of Tibet, the Western Sichuan plateau is rich in culture and tradition. Old women thumb prayer beads by the roadside, repeating an endless cycle of mantras. Their faces tell stories of their own - cracked, worn and tired - yet their smile is warm. In a cowboy's hangout, wild haired Tibetans fill the room with their raucous laughter. Each carries an ornate silver scabbard slung at his hip, housing a gleaming blade. They watch us intently as we warm ourselves on steaming bowls of meat and potato soup. Pulling out our wallets, the whole room seems to rise up and lean over our shoulders. It's time to settle up, saddle up and ride...

Amidst rainy season downpours, our trail climbs over passes and plummets into deep valleys smothered by forest, passing makeshift tarpaulin shelters where woodcutters huddle around smouldering fires. Diesel belching trucks sweep by with friendly blasts of their horns, packed with passengers crouched under plastic bags, waving enthusiastically. At checkpoints guards replenish our supplies of green tea and fill our pockets with apples to keep us going.

The plateau is home to nomads, whose yaks dot the distant plains like spilled grains from a pepper pot. The sound of bells awakens us one morning as a caravan of nomads passes by, and we listen to their calls and watch them steer their yaks, strapped with provisions; heavy hooves kick up a trail of dust. Astride horses, some wear red and brown robes, others have donned peaked Chinese military caps and decorated coats over their yak hair trousers. Everyone works as a unit. Young children stroll behind, expertly targeting straying animals with stones from their overhead slings. We join the family on the road, feeling some kind of connection, despite living lives a world apart.

These encounters have provided a real taste of China and its diverse minorities, and through them perhaps I have achieved what I set out to do so long ago: reach remote parts of the world by bicycle and feel approachable to those around me. Equally curious and welcoming have been the the Han majority. On one occasion, we arrived in a village, hungry for a bowl of noodles and hoping to escape the incessant rain. Caked in mud, we sat ourselves down in a restaurant. A crowd soon gathered around our table, while others clustered in the doorway and peered through the window, throwing the room into near darkness. The men wore the classic two piece suits seen all over China, be it roadside workers or tractor drivers. A few shy girls in Chinese caps ran off when we caught their eye.

From amongst this commotion, an 'English speaker' came forward, ready to test his knowledge in front of an expectant crowd. Nervously, he cleared his throat. 'What is your name?' came his promising opening line. 'Cass,' I replied, with an encouraging smile. 'Mr Cass?' He continued confidently. 'No, Cass,' I clarified. 'Ahhh, Nocass!' he repeated, as his face lit up with understanding. A little lost, I tried again. 'Erm, no...just...Cass.' I realised my mistake moments too late. 'Welcome Justcass,' he announced to the beaming the crowd, clearly impressed with his ability to grapple with the foreigner's language...

When we finally arrive in Litang, high on a plateau at 4000 metres, a Tibetan cowboy, as if on cue, rocks out of town astride a galloping horse. Monks in oversized seventies style shades cruise by on motorbikes. Tibetan men, their long black hair braided beneath red head scarves, sport leather jackets. Holding hands, they shop in the market and gather around the open air pool tables, where younger monks are busy practising. A familiar soundtrack is playing on the large outdoor speaker. It takes a moment for me to place it: 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.' Trystan and I look at each other. Could things get any more surreal?

At night a medley of sound is provided by the curtained 'cinemas'....halls from which television sets blast out a seamless flow of Hong Kong action movies, challenging the half heartedly neon stripped disco. Kebab stalls cloak the town in smoke. It's been a long and tiring day and I'm looking forward to a night in the bus terminal hotel. Though our room had been thrown into darkness by a power cut, a generator ensures uninterrupted entertainment from the hotel's own karaoke bar. Oblivious to this cacophony of sound, my head hits the dusty pillow and I'm soon fast asleep.

These last few months have provided the hardest and most rewarding travelling of my life, and opened my eyes to new ways of living. Everyday has been an adventure, and bicycling has allowed me to realise everything I might have hoped for. There's an old Chinese saying: it's better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books. From what I have seen, this seems no more true than in China itself.



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