Friday, May 2, 2008

Week 4: A great ride, giving up, and the train to Chengdu

Week 4 was a pretty good one for me. Leaving Lijiang, I had definitely my best ride of the trip so far. One day through some magnificent mountain scenery, air slightly crisp, excellent roads, and at 3100 m, my highest altitude to date. Excitement was welling within me. Up to 3100 m now, an additional 1400 m to ascend those Tibetan passes seemed like child's play. The only thing that stood in my way was the concrete possibility of getting turned around by PSB transport patrol. Or so I thought.

Enter Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the world's deepest crevasses, a pristinely beautiful chasm chiseled out of the Earth by millions of years of the Yangtze river, a huge draw for hikers in China, and directly in my path. After getting up to 3100 m, the road started to descend a little bit. And a little more. And a lot more. And after descending to 1700 m, losing 1.4 km of vertical progress in the mix, there it was. Another 300 meters below me the Yangtze river, the gorge trail off to the left, and the promised (per my map) ferry going across the river. Great! Except,

The one thing my map failed to mention was that the ferry and the 300 meter descent down to it (and 500 meter ascent on the other side) was for foot traffic only. It was a steep, narrow trail along a sheer cliff that seemed would give even a mountain goat the shivers. In addition, the cold front that I had been waiting for came in a blast of wind and rain that drenched the trail and caused the temperature to drop from short-sleeves to three-layers-plus in a matter of minutes. I figured I was done for the day, and after a surprising amount of time searching, finally found a hotel in what eerily seemed to be the end-of-the-road concrete ghost town.

After a good night's rest, I got out and looked at the trail again. I realized that the gorge was so deep, that what looked like a frighteningly precarious trail from a distance, was actually moderately passable. It would be a struggle guiding my bike down a third of a km and then pushing it back up a half km, but doable. The hotel owner confirmed that the trail was indeed more traversable than it seemed from the precipice.

However, the weather was still frighteningly cold, and if I was already cold at 1700 m, I knew that going higher would only get colder. I only had one more thin layer of clothing to put on. Things didn't seem good. I ended up spending one more day in that eerie ghost town pondering what to do. The next morning, I woke up, it was cold, rainy, windy, and an easy decision.

Damp and shivering, under-equipped with only four thin layers of clothes, a three-season tent, (and virtually zero-season experience), I decided that a solo journey of at least fifteen days across the largely unpopulated high-altitude plateaus of western Sichuan was probably beyond my capacity, technically and (perhaps more important) psychologically, and booked a minibus back to Lijiang.

From there, I figured since I had already broken the ideal of going all the way across China without using public transport, I may as well go ahead and save myself two weeks and booked a bus to Panzihua, and from there a train to Chengdu. It was an interesting experience getting my bike and all my luggage onto all this public transport. Not something I'm gonna want to do very often if I can help it!

Anyway, I've spent a couple days here in Chengdu doing nothing but relaxing and drinking various fruit smoothies from yuppie-ish smoothie shops downtown (needed to soothe my stomach after the real-deal extra spicy Sichuan hotpot I gorged on when I first arrived). Oh, and seeing the pandas at the big conservation outside of town. A fairly livable city by Chinese standards, though it'll definitely be a lot better once the subway is done.

So, I'm planning to take off tomorrow and start all this again. I'll be going up into northern Sichuan and once again trying to get into the Tibetan highland regions once I reach Gansu. Though these regions are almost as high altitude-wise, they're a lot more populated and thus a lot less intimidating. Also if I get turned around either by PSB or weather or whatever else, Xi'an is only a hop a skip and a jump away; there's no way to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere like in western Sichuan.

So, that's the story for now. The good news also is that I'm back on track by my original map. (Actually the train I was on rolled into Chengdu at 11:40 PM on April 30, so I'm officially 20 minutes ahead of schedule!) All in all, I'd have to say things are going pretty well, and I'm definitely more than ever looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Until next week....


nath said...

Today I was talking about you at work...I said, "My friend is riding his bike through the Himalayas."

You can keep that in mind if you ever need another reason to rationalize riding a bus.

redmondmel said...

That picture is amazing!! I'm thinking of you a lot & hope things continue to be safe in your next week of travels. Very cool.