As soon as we’re out of the hostel and into the traffic, we feel completely different.
In China they call this state of being ‘爽’ – Shuang. It can say many things about you: one could be shuang while celebrating some hard-won achievement. Another fellow could be shuang-ing around, but that requires a bunch of giggling Chinese girls. Our situation is much simpler: the shuang hits us the moment we have a sturdy Brooks 17 under our buttocks and right beneath it our own set of two wheels.
The city of Chengdu is soon eaten away by a chocking mix of fog and smog. We cycle on the wide shoulder of the road, all smooth tarmac. A school boy pedalling home joins John. I stay behind and watch them chat and laugh and I wonder at the fact that not all Chinese are too shy to engage strangers. Of course that the kid is in disbelief at our plan to cycle down to Thailand. John tells him that we’re taking it easy. The destination of the day, he says, is the town of Dujiangyan, just 65 km out of Chengdu.
When we roll into town my butt hurts a little, but hey, we left way after noon, and we’ve made it well before dinner. The urban scene is as provincial as it gets: shabby shops, communist residential slabs of concrete pierced by small windows where laundry hangs to dry. One could hardly guess that this is a place of 600,000 people. Well, this is China. Our bellies growl with hunger and amazing food should be easy to find. Tonight we trust our cook so much that we let her fix us whatever she wants. The rice is fluffy and the greens crunchy and bursting with flavour. Again, nothing like the typical Chinese dishes laden with oil and MSG we know from Europe.
Hotels in China are cheap as chips. We “splurge” almost 8 euros on a room with ensuite bathroom. Thing is, when I’m about to fall asleep a familiar rodent shows up from behind our headboard. We scramble to catch it, but he knows this room better than we do. After all, we are squatting in his place. Sleep is elusive as the mouse scurries back and forth. We expect little footsteps on our pillows at any minute, but they never come. It’s our first menage a trois with a mouse. Unfortunately it is not going to be the last.
In the morning we cycle across the Min River once plaguing the people who lived along the banks by its annual flooding. The two thousand years old Dujiangyan Irrigation System solved the problem. Instead of a dam, an artificial levee of baskets of woven bamboo filled with stones was built. The river’s flow was redirected and the excess water discharged into the dry Chengdu Plain beyond, which became a fertile land. Even today it’s still the country’s most productive agricultural area, probably sustaining our beloved Sichuan cuisine. We are heading in the opposite direction, to the west. The road starts climbing and the mountain shoulders gather, their deep shade of green reflected into the naked water.
We cross a small town, all empty streets and shut doors. On exit, we are met with a delicate silhouette rising against a background of mountain and sky. We stop to measure and weigh, with our eyes only. It’s a strange sight, a lonesome pagoda exiled at the fringes of suburban monotony. It makes us eager to push beyond. Chasing an elevated state of shuang.
A few hours later the road tightens.
The climb is more vigurous and as any cyclist will tell you, our fuel is food. Soup, I say – dark, unnamed meats boiling together for hours in a huge cauldron, freshly pulled noodles, greens, mushrooms and the mother of all hot and spicy peppers dumped in a ball of instant happiness. It costs sixty cents and John decides a serving of dumplings would also do us good. They come with a weird and wonderful serving of pickles, not that we can complain.
The map says a healthy climb awaits. Before the tunnel leading up the mountain we meet two swiss cyclists, Christian & Yvonne, who are coming from Kyrgyzstan. We discuss our routes and they don’t’ know anything about the next section of Wenchuan County as they came down a different way. Later we bump into a couple of young dudes, expats from the UK rocking a couple of scooters. We buy together a bag of unripe kiwi and then we split.
Less than an hour before dark we are far from where we were planning to pitch. We have a very steep section ahead, with hairpins that make my skin crawl. At each new level there’s a house with the accompanying corn field below. One looks empty, so there’s our opportunity to stealth-camp. With water from a reservoir we clean some of the mud from the wheels. The place will do for the night, but it reeks. Right behind the house there’s a pig farm, now deserted, the wet dung caking the outside walls and the slope. Our tent is oriented towards the river, a few steps out of the doom of smell. So we sleep. The dude in the photo shows up in the morning, when we are about to stove away our stuff. Our notebook with the text from Killva does nothing for him. Therefore he’ll remain a mystery.
At lunch we take a snack break on a cobbled platform where a signpost towers. God help us if we’re supposed to take this nutrition pyramid for serious.
Munching on our crackers, we spot a monument close to the river. In a twist of fate much like when we toured Sri Lanka and happen to arrive in the coastal villages ravaged by the tsunami, we realise we are at the epicentre of a recent drama. The May 12 2008 earthquake, or as the Chinese say, the “5.12”. We are barely 80 kilometres northwest of Chengdu, but the 8.0 magnitude tremor was felt as far away as 1,500 km north-east, in Beijing and Shanghai. The skyscrapers just swayed; the dwellings in Wenchuan simply collapsed. Official figures say that 69,197 died under the rubble, with many thousands missing and almost 5 million people becoming homeless. And the horror did not end on May 12. Strong aftershocks, some exceeding magnitude 6, continued to hit the Wenchuan Country for months. The fact that we are here, completely throws us off the exploring mood. The valley looks… strangely quiet. We don’t know what to expect.
It takes a couple of kilometres to enter the world of nightmares. 5 years after the earthquake things are far from back to normal. First, the tarmac ends, giving way to a mix of pointy rocks, gravel and mud. Even if the Schwalbe would not be caked in dirt, it would be hard to maintain the grip on something that has no consistency whatsoever. Adding to the toil, what was once a road has been remodelled into a succession of climbs and descends. The earth just opened and ate itself. How can I put it? We are rolling on scars.
We relish any bits that look like gravel, but are as slippery as wet soap.
Left and right the mountains obliterate the sky. In between escarpments there are huge landslides. I see nothing but grey. But we are not the only souls roaming this forsaken county. There are some articulated dump trucks, excavators and graders. The machines are either parked in a mountain of rubble, or munching the land. These beasts are not here to smoothen the road for cyclists, so what started as a strenuous ride, turns into an impossible task.
We pedal and curse, push and spit. This is a road for caterpillar tracks only, not for MTB and human legs. Please see the tilted building in the background of where we stop to catch a breath.
When I thought the ordeal cannot get any worse, it starts raining, then the clouds start shooting icy droplets. We’re screwed. We put on our warmest gear and raincoat and continue for another kilometre or so. Then we decide that we must hitchhike, if we don’t’ want to spend the night in a pool of frozen dirt next to a crawler. We’ll try to stop a vehicle at the entrance of the Huayanzi Tunnel. It’s the first recognisable feature after not seeing any of the villages that are mentioned on our maps. I don’t even know if the settlements were wiped out by the earthquake and landslides.
The first car is a pickup but they cannot take us. 30 minutes later we spot a van. The guy is friendly and immediately agrees to drive us up the Mount Balang pass, which sits over 4500m and maybe to Rilong village which will be at 3160m altitude. Of course he speaks no English, so we can only hope for the best. We strap the bikes, hop inside and immediately it starts snowing. The tunnel is scary; on the other side the road goes up, up, up. In fair weather these must be great switchbacks and spectacular views. Halfway the driver stops at a shack where a man is boiling tea on coals piled directly on the ground. His hut is so smoky we can barely breathe, or see each other; but the man is chatty and offers us hot instant soup. Around midnight we hit Rilong and we are dropped off in front of some hotel. We ask the man at the gate if they have rooms – I am quoted something worth of a Swiss Alps chalet and I walk away. Meanwhile I hear John arguing with our “friendly” driver who now wants 400 kwai (50 euros) for the job. It gets ugly. We agree to give him 100. We part ways enemies. Some time later we knock on a door and ask for a guesthouse or something and we are offered a decently priced bed. It took a lot to make only 220km from Chengdu and it looks like winter is already here.
We wake up to a glorious sun.
The sky is spotless and blue. The mountains, menacing yesterday, are covered in thick forest. It’s an astonishing display of colour, and we go out to have a walk around town.
Rilong is a a small Tibetan settlement and the base for visiting Siguniang Shan, the 6250m Four Sisters Mountain, snow-capped all year round. As the shorter route to Chengdu – the one that we took – is not ready for normal cars, tourists are fewer, being forced to take a detour. On the main street we find some souvenir shops and a couple of restaurants. One of them belongs to our host, who has converted her old Tibetan house into a hostel. Yak is the staple ingredient here. Dried meat hangs in front of all shops and precious chunks of fresh meat are being roasted and cooked into soups that will flavour many more meals.
The grub is simple and superb: wild mushrooms sautéed in yak fat, some sort of collard greens in a soup with silky tofu and thin slices of yak filet on top of white rice. Our host is a sweetheart. She lets us hose the mud off our bikes and play with her chubby baby whose name is Rinchen (meaning precious). Shuang‘s back! So we decide to linger another day.
Our next breakfast is quite Tibetan: yak milk with a dash of black tea and lots of butter dumped inside. Served with roasted peanuts and Tibetan bread with a stuffing of meat and lard. A greasy reminder of Mongolian cuisine.
Strolling around town we hear the weather is about to turn spooky again. There’s a bus to the next town, they say, but we are keen to ride. So we re-gift the wooden toy we received in Beijing to little Rinchen (sorry Killva, he likes it too much!) and we pedal out of Rilong.