Ba Mei to Tagong

Our exhilarating descent ends at an average altitude of 3,500 meters at the eastern edge of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The mild blizzard from earlier has melted away and the sun died behind the horizon. We cycle past a first few Tibetan houses and we are pushed by the gnarly wind into the red lanterned main street. After the loneliness of the past two days, this is a quirky scene. There is steam rising out of manholes and smoke wisps straggling from open cooktops laid out in front of local eateries. Strange city types scuffle around, gawking at our bundled up, earmuffed, gaitered sorry asses. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Ba Mei Town, famous as the birthplace of the 11th Dalai Lama and for some other things I can’t remember right now, mainly due to hypothermia. I know it was once an important post on the Sichuan-Tibet tea and horse road and still one of the very few gateways to Tibet, as the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is passing through it.

Finding shelter is urgent, so we quickly settle for an enormous apartment in what may be some sort of workers’ hotel. The communication with the girls tending for the hotel works brilliant: we tell them in English we need hot water and electric blankets, they explain to us in Tibetan that we could totally buy the entire building if we wanted (maybe). In the morning we learn that the price has mysteriously been halved. From our communist-looking crib we have a splendid view over the grasslands. On the other side of the building, the streetscape is a little less serene: fresh meat is being delivered and men start butchering it.

Suddenly very hungry, we venture in search for a hearty breakfast as only mountain people can deliver. Again, a husband and wife affair, this restaurant entices us with the bamboo steamers piled on smouldering coals. They seem thrilled to feed us heaps of hot baozi (a steamed bun filled with minced meat), zhou (rice porridge) and the ginourmous bawl of soft tofu and greens soup we’ve learned to love. As always in China, the meal is cooked fresh: the husband kneading dough, trays of homemade tofu resting and a man delivering more greens by bike. There’s also plenty of green tea to wash it all down with.

Gearing up

After the face-to-face encounter with snow from yesterday, we absolutely cannot leave town without buying at least two pairs of fleece gloves, to wear on top of our cycling gloves (which are in fact our super-ventilated motorcycling summer gloves). I am also in dire need of a winter jacket or anything that could protect me from future snow. Coming unprepared to this part of Tibet in October was quite stupid. Unfortunately I cannot find anything my size. I guess I’ll keep my fingers crossed for nice weather till the next town.

To arrive there we have to cycle a roller coaster of passes and ancient Tibetan meadows, going south and then a bit west towards Kangding. Now riding down is usually painful, because you know that it means you have more ups to make up for, eventually. This winding road through vast empty grassland is so beautiful and so much fun though, that it’s easy to just be in the moment. We go full on downhill, cutting corners and probably reaching our fastest speed since starting off. This is the egotistic part, where we focus on the adrenaline rush that makes the body stiffen. Then we hit the long switchbacks leading to the 3900-something pass, and we take the time to take in the surroundings. This part is all about what’s outside, the rich bits of information emanating from rock, sky and plant, absorbed and hopefully processed with a less foggy mind. Before purchasing these bikes we’ve never bike toured, and well, these things emerge not only the best $200 we’ve ever spent on any vehicles, but the best deal for therapy.

At the summit there were small sheets of paper printed with prayers and auspicious symbols, and I taped three in my notebook for good luck.The road is solid, ranging from very rough gravel to super-smooth asphalt. There are only a few stretches of old asphalt with patches of mud and dust from the roadworks.

We are on the Southern route of the Sichuan-Tibet highway, the longest high altitude road in China at present. Back in the 50s when it was built it was a tremendous task for China, because of the complex terrain. This part is 2149km long and it reunites with the Northern route (2412km long) at Xindu Bridge (Xinduqiao). The whole road system links Chengdu of Si Chuan to Lhasa of Tibet Autonomous Region and is part of G318 (Shanghai to Zhangmu). More of a station for Buddhist pilgrims coming and going than a proper town, Tagong welcomes us with a stupa and a travellers’ joint under brilliant sun. Right now nothing tastes better than some well-earned food and drink. I climb up a hill behind the restaurant to admire the view. The Tibetan dogs are said to be formidable, but I manage to scare they away with the violent cough that I picked up from the other night camping in freezing cold. So I’m left alone to count prayer flags and take photos.

Three very different groups have arrived at the temple across the restaurant. There’s a tour group of Han Chinese dressed in colourful ski jackets and armed with DSRLs. Quite contrasting, sitting crossed legged on the soft tufts of grass and wild-flowers in front of the temple, the Tibetans appear to have arrived here by horses, with their many young kids and heavy luggage on tow. My eye is caught by the third character, whose driver helps him exit a shiny limousine. He unbuttones his crisp jacket, takes off his white leather gloves and hands them to the driver, then lights up a cigarette with the gilded temple towering behind.

Late in the afternoon we get moving. Fantastic tarmac for such a remote place, except for the track leading to the lamasery which is a couple of kilometres outside Tagong. Near it there is a small village. The entire place has a closed-off feel; life in Tagong is slow-paced, revolving around the monastery and its 60 or so resident monks. The present lamasery has been slowly returning to some of its former glory and size, after being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. And so it should, as there has been a monastery in Tagong since A.D. 652. At this altitude the air is so pure and glowing with afternoon sun. Against the dark sky of the highlands, this stupa resembles a divine intervention, rather than a humble product of human naivety.

There is nothing to shelter us at this altitude and the strong gusts become aggravated by the minute. It would be stupid to pitch in this. We have no choice but keep on cycling, at least this keeps us warm. Luckily the road crashes into a village and we each go to knock on several doors. A long and incomprehensible debate later, a young Tibetan lady sets us up in her tatty house. One room is the family living room and kitchen, with an electric stove where we all congregate and try to unfreeze our hands. The lady of the house appears to be alone with the children, while the husband could be away to town. Some time later a man arrives with a big yak leg to sell, and the women starts joyfully chopping the meat right on the floor. We look at her disastrous butchering skills and imagine that leg in the form of a yak steak, but of course we’ll go to bed unfed. Later we find ourselves led to the other room, which is huge. Dozens of mattresses lining the perimeter? Check! Long low table with plastic pineapple in the middle? Check! Giant subwoofers and oddly titillating 1980s laminated poster of a young western couple kissing next to a newspaper cut of Dalai Lama? Triple check! Ah! Home, sweet home.