(almost) Alone With the Mountain

Our next destination on the Cycling in China route is Ba Mei, a town on the No.317 Sichuan-Tibet Highway. The scenery should get grander in the upper canyon. We are fully aware that it would have been wiser to cycle the other way around, as we have a mammoth climb ahead of us on the S303: from 1893m to 3420m altitude. This is what I’m talking about.
Out of Dan Ba John spots a tyre issue and waves me to keep on rolling while he’ll sort it out. Today I’m in high energy and by the time I realise I must be more than 10 km ahead and switch on my mobile to text him, I’m already out of network coverage.

I ride on, searching for a signal and as soon as I can, I text his mom in Romania with instructions to let him know where I am. She freaks out a little, worrying we might have gotten lost. This is one of the lessons my bicycle has already taught me. If I were at home, I would get sucked in all this nonsensical worrying. I would have to carry John’s mum worries while making my own assumptions about how John might have been eaten by a boa (ok, a panda then) or kidnapped by the Communist Secret Police.
But a bike teaches you that things are much easier than they appear to be. Anyone can tour on a bike and climb high mountains even if they have lousy gym credentials. And while something can go terribly wrong, usually it doesn’t. So instead of worrying I’ll  just park here and wait. This happens to be a very nice place. I have a nifty rock to rest on, a bag full of baked goodies and the air is heavy with the smell of these bushes.

John who joins me in bit is really enjoying his recent immigration to the world of smartphones.

The only car we encounter all day carries members of Canon Club who are rushing to capture the elusive red foliage in Xinduqiao. We are amused to spot their big guns pointing at us as we cross a bridge. When we approach, they roar around us, surging admiration splashed across their faces when they hear that we are cycling in China, as if they’ve just witnessed Tom Cruise shooting an arduous scene. I can’t imagine why our wobbly mugs would impress anyone enough to cancel a tele with image stabiliser, but these are the photos they’ve sent us. I am aware we are not very photogenic, but even Yeti was photographed looking less “fuzzy”.

The bridge we just crossed and the misty, classically Chinese-looking mountains looming across the river.

The climb becomes steeper and we stop often to catch our breath and admire the Tibetan houses, which at times appear to defy gravity, as they cling to impossibly steep escarpments or at the foot of waterfalls.

Whoever designed the road is a fan of ridiculously long switchbacks. In just under 15 km we gain more than 1500m in altitude! This is mental.

We are now (almost) alone with the mountain. Sometimes we see eagles hanging in the wind. Given our love for dirt riding we are also suckers for lonesome roads, but there is something that makes me feel more alone on a bike than I do on a motorcycle. The silence. I can hear myself breathe, the river thrusting into stone, the wind shuffling leaves. As I am no faster than snails, I also have to listen to my thoughts. The inner noise advances to extreme close-up, calling out at me in the neutral auditorium of nature. There are idle desires, bullying hard data, intimidating questions I thought long gone. The tic-tac of biological clock. Now that’s scary. I must confront and embrace this loneliness, and try to discard the need to resolve it. Since our long trips by motorbike, we both wondered often about how adventure motorcycling compares to cycling. I know we’re both glad that we get to find an answer. We have many reasons to travel on two wheels. The sense of balance and of loosing it in the face of danger. Being essentially vulnerable and open to human and wildlife encounters and under the elements. These are things that make for an intimate traveling experience, which I and John strive for. Slowing down as much as possible is of course beneficial – you get to see more, to allow time for experiences to settle. Frankly, on a motorbike that is hard to do, because a motorbike pushes you to push yourself far out of what you’d dare to attempt on a push bike. The right motorbike messes with the rider, it attempts to perfect their riding abilities in order to selfishly achieve its own potential. On our motorcycling trips, we were eventually drawn to places that look like this:

Now this cycling in China business is much closer to the idea of touring, and I feel that the longer we ride, the more we become aware of our natural pace. The bicycle is clearly more aligned with the body and cycling is quite peaceful. I’d dare to say that it’s teaching us to be more accepting of our own limitations. There are 82km from Dan Ba to Ba Mei, and clearly we will not make it today. Now if we had our motorcycles, we would venture far to scout for a scenic bivouac. After a long day of cycling that is not an option. We need to spare ourselves for tomorrow’s climb, you know. Yet we cannot complain. As dusk falls, John spots a promising piece of flat ground in front of some prayer flags and soon enough we are installed.
Rain comes. Lying flat on the ground feels amazing. I just hope that we are not sleeping on a grave.