We leave Lijiang and it is 6 degrees. The day before was a rainy, cold day with the prediction of snow where we are headed! But we wake up to the most perfect day one could wish for – absolutely magnificent! As soon as we break the city traffic we start climbing and we come into view of the Yangtse River – this is where it starts it’s journey through China. We ride alongside it and I am reminded of reading to my kids when they were little “The Story of Ping” – what a wonderful tale that is of the little yellow duck.
The mountains become steeper and the river narrows and then we are at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge – with a million other Chinese tourists! Not a white person in sight!!
Wang tells us that the road we are taking from here to Shangri-la (200km) will have no traffic – only locals – and motorbikes are allowed! As we leave the tourist spot we climb and the road is just cut in to the side of the mountain – literally – no armour guard railing around here!! And there’s lots of random rocks on the road so they could fall from anywhere at any moment!
We reach Middle Leaping Gorge where we stop for lunch at an International Hostel and a Frenchman talks to us about trekking around these parts and his motorbike experiences!! We are all totally in awe of our surroundings – the weather, the road and how lucky we are to be having this experience! If we had taken the other tour group with a support vehicle we would not have come this way. Ride China really know the roads. We head over mountain after mountain on a road that snakes up and down taking us through very remote villages.
Their crops meander down the slopes in terraces and form quite a picture with the differing colours of wheat and rice harvests. We stop often for photo opportunities and around every corner is another magnificent snow-capped peak that we haven’t seen before. It is breathtaking and so serene with the absence of traffic – this definitely rates as the best motorbike ride ever!
The people in the villages are starting to change in looks and dress and we feel like we are in the pages of National Geographic – it would be easy to stop and just photograph the people. Lots of animals free-ranging everywhere – the best moment was when a tiny, black piglet took off in front of my bike for about 30m – his little legs going ten to the dozen! The temperature is a pleasant 18-22 degrees and we are climbing to 3,600m. Mark’s Honda Transalp is not happy at altitude – has no throttle power and Pete’s old R80 is running a bit rich. The KTM’s are carving it up and enjoying their European heritage! We all donned our warmest gear for this ride (a day like the one before and it would have been freezing!) and it’s interesting to see what each person has. We all have heated grips and Paul, Pete and I have thermals. Mark has some over-handlebar glove protectors but little else! I have a heated vest from Victoria and it’s proving a treasure and my possum wool socks! Pete’s secret weapon is his balaclava. On the last peak the vegetation becomes tundra and we start seeing grasslands with sheep and yak grazing (and on the road!). Paul and Wang have a large black yak come between their bikes! As we descend it is like we have crossed a border as the grasslands become vaster, the houses start to change and the people are very different.
Traditional clothes are everywhere – lots of black with bright colours.
We come into a town and the houses are absolutely massive – two to three stories – with lots of elaborate timber carvings (Wang later tells us they use 100 year old trees and the government is trying to put a stop to it as they are running out of timber!!). The windows are small and their is generally a large high-walled courtyard with gates – they must experience incredible winds in the winter. Around the villages are chorals for the yak with huge drying racks for their feed. It’s a sensory overload as we come into Shangri-la and drive on the cobblestones.
Wang directs us to our hotel in a back street. We are to take the bikes up steps and into the foyer but without motor please! Their is a massive glass atrium over the foyer and this seems to be the norm for a lot of the buildings – a sun trap when it’s cold.
We walk up town and enjoy a Chinese Hotpot for dinner. We are to have two nights here to acclimatise us even more to the altitude – and a day off to visit the Tibetan Monastery. We sleep with thermals on again and the heater going! Breakfast is vegetable dumplings and pork steam buns – yum. We take the local bus up to the monastery and it passes through another traditional village – lots of photo opportunities here.
We see the monks in prayer, where they live and what incredible craftsmen they are – as Paul says – they have all the time in the world to paint all day!
It is 2.7 degrees when we leave Shangri-la and there isn’t a cloud in the sky – absolutely beautiful and fresh. On the outskirts of town the houses are more spread out and there are grasslands with yak crazing and the snow-capped peaks on the horizon. The super highway takes us up a mountain and becomes another incredible engineering masterpiece – god knows how much these roads cost – with their mammoth bridges and endless tunnels. We turn off on to a minor road and follow a tributary of the Yangtse River through a gorge that goes on for miles. Mountains flank either side of the river cutting and are dry, brown and barren – but down at river level there are trees and houses with terraces for rice and wheat. The women in their colourful clothes make a striking contrast with the green of the crops – and there are now donkeys, pigs, yak, cows and some chickens wandering the roads. As we travel further into the gorge the water becomes a beautiful aquamarine in places – away from the road construction and bigger villages. We have entered the Kham eastern Tibet region and the houses are different again – more medieval lines but still with the carved wooden window frames and colourfully painted.
The seal ends abruptly for roadworks, or just a stretch that hasn’t been fixed – so we have to keep our wits about us. Eventually, we start climbing and the terrain seems to be a native pine. The road climbs and each time we come over the top there is another set of snow-capped peaks – just beautiful. Our last climb of the day reaches 4.150m and far below we can see our destination for the night so we descend again.
Coming in to Xiangcheng is another monastery with an amazing wooden entrance all intricately carved (the pieces of timber used are massive) right near the road. We are now on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan Province. Driving in to the main street is like being in another world – the women are wearing ankle-length dresses and a lot of the men wear hats. Wang takes us to the nicest restaurant in town and my favourite dish is the sweet and sour pork – done to perfection and not too sweet.
We leave Xiangcheng and descend altitude to another river gorge which we follow for quite some time until the inevitable ascent – another minor road – and mainly sealed. This time we climb to our highest point of 4,700m – to put that in perspective, Mt. Cook in N.Z. is around 3,700m and Mt. Kosciusko is around 2,200m! It is very cool and barren but a wonderful wilderness. Mark only just makes it to the top in first gear but that doesn’t stop him throwing snow on me as I ride past him!!
We descend again on to a plateau with another really interesting village where the houses blend in to the colours of the prairie. Yak are wandering the streets and it’s a whole other world!
From here the road suddenly becomes an amazing highway – quite new and absolutely perfect – not unlike the Snowy Mountain Highway! It is time for a blast and some high-speed cornering!! Lots of switchbacks but the occasional yak to remind us of where we are!
From a lookout and across a vast grassland we can see Litang – our home for the night. The wind across the prairie is very strong and dust blows in waves around town but it’s all so interesting and unique. We are still at 4,100m and any over-exertion results in breathlessness. Pete has been having respiratory issues and bought some cans of oxygen which seems to be readily available (just in case).
We leave Litang and immediately start climbing again – this time it’s another new road that becomes another motorbike heaven – it just keeps coming and coming! We get to 4,400m and start descending again with incredible switchbacks, corners and brilliant surface. We pull up at a lookout at the same time as a group of Chinese motorcyclists coming the other way. They are riding from Shanghai to Lahsa (Tibet) and two of them were on scooters! It is over 6,000kms each way and they will take a month. We had a photo session with them and they were a very happy bunch.
The road is called 318 and is apparently renowned as China’s most scenic and a pilgrimage for pushbikes – their are heaps of Chinese on bicycles on this route and they wave to us – we can’t help thinking they are truly mad as the magnitude of these roads is mindblowing (apparently it takes them three months). With no warning, the road turns to shit – this is the bit they will bypass altogether – and it’s rock and holes and powder and it’s first gear for me. The way up goes forever and I overheat when a very slow car stops me on a corner. Paul and I wait 15 minutes for the bike to recover. The views are again spectacular with more magnificent mountains – and we are blessed again with the weather! Lunch is in a small village right beside one of the unique houses that scatter through all this region – I talk to a couple of small boys and then ask the mother if I can look through her house! It is so interesting and the rooms inside are monstrous and every skerrick of wall is covered in murals – not dissimilar to what the monks do in the monasteries. She indicates that she has done the work. The rooms are set up for large gatherings and there is lots of colour everywhere. Everything is hand done – from the stone walls, the carved and painted window frames, furniture. The clothing on the people in this region is a cross between quaker and black Americans in the slave era – with more Tibetan colours. It’s like they are in fancy dress and we are in another time.
We take another amazing super highway to Chengdu – and a stop for two nights. Time for oil changes, repairs and a chance to see the giant pandas – but Yunnan Province…we will never forget you – your beautiful motorcycle roads, your wonderful foods, incredible scenery that we never imagined, your unique minority groups…what an absolutely amazing experience!
ONLY IN CHINA…
Only in China do they call overtaking lanes up a hill the “climbing lane”.
Only in China do they use umbrellas while they ride their scooters, and talk on the phone and hold the baby!
Only in China do they NOT redo roads – they just build a brand new one right next to it!
Only in China do they call the truck safety ramps “escamp ramp”.
Only in China do you enter a tunnel and it’s about 32 degrees – then 10km later when you come out the other side of the mountain the temperature has dropped 15, it’s pelting down and visibility is nilch!
Only in China does your guide put plastic bags over his motorcycle boots when it starts raining…
Only in China can every road side stall for miles have oranges, the lunch stop gives oranges away and yet no-one can do orange juice!
Only in China do cars honk and pass you in a tunnel that is pitch black when a truck is coming the other way!
Only in China do they fill your bike to overflowing, then as you’re leaving indicate that your bike is leaking!!
Only in China do you pass only when there IS oncoming traffic!!
And Only in China do you hear the constant drawn out hoick as they build up a big spit – and every time it turns your stomach – even though to them it is quite normal!