To Shangri-la, part 3.

11th November

My turn to flag today.
We’ve run out of food, or food we don’t need to cook anyway. We’re so close to our destination, but so far. The hill we started climbing yesterday, that we always knew we’d have to climb to get there lies in front of us.
This hill is slow and my stomach is growling.
My arm is hurting from my crash, every time I go over a bump in the road it aches.

I suppose it wouldn’t be Shangri La if it wasn’t a trial to get there.

We make it eventually, skimming the edge of a lake we are surprised to see. It, like so many things round here, wasnt on our map. By the look of things it’s not really meant to be here at all – we spot fences and vehicles half submerged. A rubbish sorting station has become an island several meters from dry land. It makes for a scenic if surreal entry in to the fabled land.

This place has been on my radar for many months , at least since we started to invent our Chinese visa application in Tbilisi.

What, there’s really a Shangri-la?
And we can go there?
Right let’s do it.

I realise now this was probably the reaction the Chinese tourism agency were hoping for when they announced that they had discovered the mystical land in 2001, renaming the existing town of Zhongdian.

They picked a good spot for it though. High on the edge of the Tibetan mountains. Thin air, clear skies, breathtaking views.

Unfortunately the town suffered a big fire a few years ago, the tourism boom partially responsible, caused by some dodgy wiring in a guesthouse. The old town has been rebuilt but doesn’t feel tacky as is so often the way, its nice to wander through.

The trade is almost soley aimed at visitors.
It’s hard to tell whether the shops contain genuine traders selling beautiful bells and singing bowls, traditional garments and paintings or Chinese knock-offs (umm… can you have Chinese knock-offs of Chinese goods?)

Every sign in town is written in Chinese, Tibetan and English. We begin to suspect that the English translator was having a laugh. Across China we’ve seen some brilliant ones, such as Bohai Roping Amorous Feelings, Guangkang Bomb Florist, The Popular Front, Fat Girls Snack Bar and my personal favourite Ordinary Hair.

We visit the main monestary in town, and help to haul the enormous prayer wheel round. It takes six people to get it going, apparently, though I suspect it depends on the people. We saw a dozen or so struggling…

In the evening we come through the main square. Crowds of people are dancing in two concentric circles. We’ve seen similar dances before, but this one is different by the sheer variety of people participating.
In the centre ring there’s a number of women in traditional Tibetan dress, they clearly know what they’re about. There’s small children mimicking the movements of the rest. There’s young women who show varying levels of enthusiasm. There’s young men, some shuffling their feet, hands deep in their pockets only to be removed when the dance requires a hand- flutter to the right or the left. One older man catches my eye, he’s dressed in camo which juxtaposes wonderfully with his frolicking. I’m sure he’d click his heels if the dance allowed for interpretation.
But it doesn’t, everyone steps the same steps, turns together.

I’m told later by the friendly woman at our hostel that it happens every night, that it’s a traditional Tibetan dance and that you learn the steps as a child by joining in.

I’m reminded of ceilidhs I went to as a child, down at the village hall. Not grand affairs, you just went along and joined in, learning the steps as you went. The point was being there and being together, forming a community by dancing together.

The music on this occasion is not traditional, unfortunately. It’s pretty awful, piped too loudly from speakers around the square.

We wander on to visit the local reggae bar, sadly almost deserted on a Sunday night. Maybe they were all out at the Tibetan ceilidh.

Shangri La.
Evoking images of paradise, a harmonious and happy land.

It’s not the place for us, nice as it is.

Shangri La.

The road to Shangri La was hard and trying and really some of the most beautiful road we’ve been on.

Maybe our Shangri La is the road to Shangri La…

That’s deep.

To Shangri-la, part 2. At the end of a long day

10th November

120km travelled, we are weary, it’s dark again and this hill is going to take many many hours to traverse.

We’re skirting the river on a road high up the gorge, there’s no unoccupied flat land to put our tent.
Jamie’s lagging behind, he didn’t sleep well last night and it’s finally catching up to him.

Each house we pass we assess, should we ask if we can stay?
No let’s move on.
We are really bad at asking for help. Maybe because we know we can always push on, we can avoid asking.

There’s a few buildings that look promising. There’s loads of cars outside. As we draw up there’s a massive cheer from a tent down the way. My heart sinks, it’s bound to be a wedding. A young man approaches and he speaks a little English.

Is there anywhere to sleep? I ask.
Yes, sure. He replies and begins to lead us inside.
A woman calls to him.
Ah, no sorry. He explains, the wedding.

We sigh. Ok.
We grind up another 10km of hill. Tunnels, darkness is falling.

Another set of buildings appear. It looks like it might be a restaurant. It has some flat land around. We could pitch the tent maybe?
As we pull up a man comes out.

Can we sleep here? We mime.
I look purposely pathetic, I point to the corner.
Do you have a tent? He mimes
Yes, we agree.
I think we can stay.

He invites us in and sits us by the fire.
He and Jamie begin to chat via translate. Jamie is visibly perky now, I think he knows there might be food in the offing.
He’s right. We’ve happened upon a restaurant/shop/local hangout.

After a brief discussion about what we want to eat, Jamie returns announcing he has no idea what we’re getting. This isn’t wholly unusual.
What we get is delicious and incredibly welcome.

As we’re eating a few cars arrive, and from each three or four young men appear. They wander in, make themselves at home, start the affectionate play-fighting thing practiced by men across the globe.

We are loathe to leave the warmth of the restaurant to pitch the tent in the cold and dark, but as we finally rise to leave we are beckoned to follow our host.
He takes us outside and down the path to a partially built building. We can stay in there, he offers.

Sounds good to me.
He returns with a box of keys and he and his friend go through an amusing exercise trying to find one set of keys to open any of the three doors in front of us. Finally we find one and are shown in to a conservatory at the front of the house.

I’m now lieing on our mattress in the dusty conservatory, wide awake, revelling in the night sky spread out above us.

I couldn’t have wished for better.

To Shangri-La, part 1. Some days are just mental

9th November

I was a bit anxious when I woke this morning.

I lie. Initially I was delighted that I didn’t feel as shit as I had the night before.

But then,  as I looked at today’s route I began to feel a little nervous.

We have 200km or so to Shangri La, with a few almighty climbs inbetween. The road looks pretty isolated and the cold has been brutal. But we are NOT ready to get on another bus, so bike it is.

We got going a little late, with a few bits of bike tinkering necessary after the bus ride,  but we are gratified to see a bright blue sky above. We are also pleased to discover that our legs have finally recovered from our silly walking induced injuries.

So feeling fit we enjoy a few kilometres of flatish and downish to warm up before the 2000m climb begins. The road is excellent. We’re in the back of beyond, up in the mountains near the border to Tibet. We pass tiny villages with brightly coloured decorations round the windows.  The terraces have been cleared and are waiting to be replanted. We see fountains of ice as a broken pipe spurts water in the shade. The road turns to ice briefly and a road crew stop work to watch us negotiate it carefully. More often we dodge piles of rock which have tumbled on to the road from the steep hillsides above.

The climb starts in earnest and we slowly start creeping up the mountain. As we approach what might be the last village for many kilometres a motorbike catches us and its driver starts indicating that we should go back, that this road was bad – steep and unasphalted. There’s another road, he gestures.


We don’t like going back, as a rule. It’s only 8km but we’ve just spent the best part of a  hour climbing it.

We consult our maps. The route he is suggesting seems to just disappear after 10kms or so. We try another map and another, but the road is just not there.

But if it was there it would follow a river which would probably mean less climbing if nothing else… and it might just join up with that road over there…

It’s lunchtime so we decide to eat and consult a few more people before we make up our minds.

We find the village restaurant, we think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but the kind woman makes us some food while we sit in the sun in the courtyard. She and her friend entertain themselves filming us as we eat, picking the ideal – awful – music to go with their movie.
They confirm that we should go back down the hill and take the other road.

We hop on our bikes and whizz back down the hill. While we’d been gone a road crew had turned up and started asphalting the road. The road is now closed, there’s a queue of vehicles and the drivers picnicking at the side of the road give the impression it’s not moving soon.
We decide to try riding the edge of the road, which eventually becomes impossible. We’re forced to make a dash for it, dodging the various machinery and cross the smoking asphalt trying to cause as little damage to it and our tyres as possible.

Not the best way to look after your beloved tyres.

A moment later Jamie’s chain comes off, an odd occurrence on our set-up. Easily fixed though.

We find our turn off.

Moments later I am scraping along the tarmac, shouting for Jamie as I go. Grinding to a halt a few feet further on I curl in to a ball and curse.


Nothing broken. Rolling back my undamaged sleeve we discover a deep and filthy scrape up my forearm to my elbow.
The other arm is also grazed, and somehow I’ve managed to give my chin a serious thwack.
Having ascertained I’m not broken Jamie turns his attention to the bike, a little too quickly perhaps…? The bike is ok. A scratch here, a tear in the pannier, the handlebars are facing the wrong way but easily sorted.

What happened? Not much. After spending the morning negotiating actual obstacles in the road I topple misjudging a lip in the road a few centimetres deep. I can’t even think how my various bits hit the ground. Oh well.

We bust out the first aid kit, clean and bandage me up and are back on the bikes within half an hour.

As I cycle on I realise I haven’t shed a tear through the whole encounter, remembering my last tumble way back in Kyrgyzstan which was much less dramatic but had me briefly bawling.

I decided early on in this journey that I wasn’t going to cry when things got hard. I’d caught myself welling up and realised that I’d been about to cry for sympathy, like this was harder for me because I was weak and pathetic. But I’m not weak or pathetic and I rarely need sympathy.
And, on the whole tears really don’t help the situation much, practically speaking.
Of course there have been a few tears on the journey, but it’s funny what brings them on.

Not this apparently.

The thing is that it is a glorious day. And the road is running through a spectacular gorge banked with stunning red and golden foliage. The river is an iridescent turquoise.
And our detour has us descending instead of climbing and despite the lack of road on the map it is determinedly in existence. Which is a good thing. And we’re not on that bloody bus!

It is a glorious glorious day.

I’m waiting for the adrenalin to wear off and things to start to hurt more. But apart from a vicious but superficial sting things feel ok. My chin hurts, especially when I pull faces to see if it still hurts.

I notice Jamie’s bike is ticking.
He’s broken a spoke.

My bike came out the crash fairly unscathed and he manages to break a spoke. Weird.

He bodges it for now and we decide to head to the next town and call it a day to tend to the various ailments.

We arrive and call in to the pharmacy. I’m seated on a tiny stool and they manage to elicit some yelps as they pour alcohol and iodine and swab my cuts clean. They bandage me up and wave us off.

We cruise around the tiny town asking for somewhere to sleep, finding the sleep mime difficult without bending my elbow. The smiling locals point us on before finally one just yells and a young woman appears and takes us to her hotel. I happily collapse on the bed while Jamie sorts out the increasing number of ailments our bike and panniers have picked up.

80km today, not all in the right direction.

Another adventurous day for Jamie and Maria.
It’s totally fine if tomorrow is less exciting.


It was such a beautiful day yesterday that not even an unexpected backtrack, a broken spoke (Jamie) and a dramatic tumble* (me) could dampen our spirits. *I’m fine. We’ve made it to Yunnan. Only 1300km (+/- 100) to go, ~21600m up, ~22200m down and 15 days left on the visa. #biketouring #ilovemybike

35 Likes, 1 Comments – Maria (@mariamazyoung) on Instagram: “It was such a beautiful day yesterday that not even an unexpected backtrack, a broken spoke (Jamie)…”


Kangding – Xiangcheng

7th November

We arrived in Kangding in the cold and the dark. The town appeared suddenly as we rounded a switchback, multicoloured streetlights snaking in to the distance.

We are high in the mountains now, and the temperature is telling.

We found our way to the hostel recommended in the guidebook and balked at the price for a private room. After trying a few more we found one, chilly but cheap.

The following day, determined to be a day off by our inability to get out of bed, an oasis of warmth in a chilly room, we finally packed up and got ourselves ready to try and find somewhere a little nicer.

The snow was falling thick and fast as we left – really beautiful. I rode along admiring the gentle flakes. A kilometer later I was over it, cursing my decision not to put on my full finger gloves as my fingers fought numbness. No hood either meant I was squinting into the snow as flakes got past my furrowed unplucked brow.

The hostel we were recommended appeared completely shut and attempting to call the numbers outside got me “no, no English. No, no hostel.” Anxiety set in, trying to find other reasonably priced places as the snow fell and hunger rocketed.

Ok, food first.

Remembering Jamie’s struggle yesterday, I discovered how frustrating it is to have a pile of hot, delicious food in front of you and your fingers are too cold to coordinate your chopsticks. The slippery strips of meat or tricky vegetables wriggle out of your grasp as the sticks slide past eachother over and over again.

With sustenance giving us more resilience to the cold we ventured out again. Eventually we gave in and took another ok, but cheap enough room.

Several hours later, having warmed our feet under the electric blanket we set out to explore.

The snow had stopped, but knowing that the next section of road began with a 2000m climb (Kangding is already 2500m) and that the forecast for the next major town enroute was -12°c overnight, we debated whether we really wanted to ride it.

In a reverse of our desert drama, I was more optimistic, but Jamie is not a fan of the cold.

A visit to the bus station was surprisingly and unusually uncomplicated so we decided to catch a bus the following day to Xiangcheng, a town about 300km further on.

8th November

The first trauma of the bus ride, foreseen, was the 5am rise, required to get there in time to negotiate our bikes on to the bus for a 6am departure. Top tip, arrive early and be willing to take control of the situation. Open up the hold doors and be confident that you’ll get everything in.

We got everything in and boarded the bus with a few moments left. The bus turned on its engine, exited the car park, drove out of town and promptly pulled over.

We sat there for two and a half hours.

Eventually the engine came on again and we set off. I assume the road was too treacherous so early in the dark.

The journey was long, uncomfortable and utterly nauseating. More than one passenger was sick as we went over the highest passes and came down bumpy switchback after bumpy switchback.

I’m just glad we didn’t invest in higher quality snacks for the journey.

We disembarked 12 hours later in Xiangcheng, completely exhausted and a bit broken.

Stomachs turned, heads hammering, suffering travel and altitude sickness for the first time on the whole journey.

We’ll be sticking to the bikes for a bit now.

Approaching Kangding

6th November

I glanced behind me. He wasn’t there.

I pulled over and rearranged the clothing causing concurrent overheating and freezing, and waited.

Just as I was beginning to think about rolling down the hill again he came grinding up.

It was a tedious hill, with more traffic and less space than we’d prefer. But as usual in China, just when you are about to get utterly fed up it gives you a stunning section of road that makes you forget your weariness for a while.

Today is not Jamie’s day though.
I’d overdone it on our day off, running up and down up a few thousand steps and had spent the last two days fairly miserable. Today I felt not better exactly, but not wincing every time I put my foot down.

Jamie, on the other hand, looks like he’s about to fall over.
We like to take these things in turns.

Yesterday we’d ridden long and late and hadn’t been able to find anywhere to eat in the tiny village we’d stopped in. We’d made do with some instant noodles which isn’t enough for weary cyclists, especially when they come in Jamie-size.

So today we’re running fairly empty and it’s not til we’re nearly at the top of the first huge climb that we stop to eat our second breakfast. It’s welcome, but the freezing mist we’ve been admiring on the way up has descended to meet us.

We’re not on top of things today. We put on extra clothes too late, we’ve got chilled and are about to descend. Novice mistake.

The tunnel we have to go through is freezing cold and we didn’t think to get the full finger gloves out. I’m attempting the reckless trick of folding my fingers into my palms instead of covering the brakes, just to keep them above freezing.  Luckily it’s quiet.

The temperature rises a few degrees as we approach the other end of the tunnel and we immediately pull over again to put on the rest of our clothes. Overshoes, gloves, wooly hats.

By the bottom of the descent we’ve burnt through second breakfast and are ready to refuel. Jamie recovers over lunch, I can see him visibly rouse, despite fumbling with his chopsticks, hands frozen. He manages to feed himself without resorting to anything that might embarrass us. We get back on the bike and he looks like he’s back to normal… powering on ahead.

But I find soon I’m in front and he’s sitting – a little irritably – on my back wheel.
Ok, sometimes it’s like this.

We’ve got a long climb still to come.

Emei Shan and the habits of tourists, in two parts

Emei Shan is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist mountains in China, treated by many as a pilgrimage. At its summit, 3099m, is an impressive temple and spectacular views. There are many other smaller temples and pagodas dotted round the mountainside. It would take several days to explore fully.

It’s a major tourist attraction of course, with a steep entrance price. All the major paths up the mountain are paved and for a pretty penny you can get a bus ride to near the top, and a cable car even closer. 


Part 1.

You climb hundreds of stairs up a mountain in tottering heels and a tight crocheted skirt to be ready for the inevitable photo-op at the summit. I admire your dedication.

You reach the top. Time to look holy.

Standing on the temple steps, arms raised to the sky. The photograph will appear to have caught you in a moment of joyous adulation.

Or hands together palm to plam in front of the magnificent Buddha. Did you think to offer a prayer as you posed?

It’s make believe.
When you look back on the photo, if you ever do, will you see yourself praying or posing?

And yet I do admire the frivolity, the silliness. You know it’s just an act and maybe you know not to take yourself too seriously.

I stand with my back to the crowds and look out over the view I’ve spent my morning climbing towards. The view is mostly clouds, from above. A rare experience to admire the cloud from the other side.

“Hello. Hello!”
The repetition makes me turn around. A man is shooing me off. He wants a photo of his friend alone against the skyline, as if the hundreds of other tourists are not really there.
I scowl.
I turn back around to admire the view again, but my peace in shattered now so I leave them to their suspended disbelief.

On the way back down the stairs we dodge round dawdellers who are attempting to video chat as they walk.

The sections of path between the bus stop off points, the cable car and the major accessible sights are rammed with people. There are countless stalls renting coats to those who didn’t anticipate a cooler climate at +3000m.

Away from the main sections the paths are almost deserted. We pass barely a dozen people over the course of a few hours.

Where did the other people go?
Is it true they just collect selfies in front of major landmarks and then scarper?
What happens when you collect the full set?

All your photos exclaim – look world, I was here!
But I’m not sure you were.

And was I?
Or was I too busy judging you all?


Part 2.

After spending a few weeks at altitude Jamie and I discovered the joy of bounding up the steps leading up and down the mountain with significantly more oxygen at our disposal.

Legs feeling strong, lungs healthy, we took the little steps two at a time overtaking all the other tourists. On the way down we practised what we termed stair spinning – almost tipping ourselves down the stairs, feet pitter-pattering as we stay on tiptoes. It’s fast, and it’s quite fun.

Now, two days on I can barely walk. I can cycle fine, but when I have to put my foot down, to stop for example, I almost topple over with the pain.

I feel foolish. I thought I was fit, but it turns out I can just ride my bike.

More work needed.

Instagram post by Maria * Nov 3, 2018 at 12:55pm UTC

28 Likes, 1 Comments – Maria (@mariamazyoung) on Instagram


A parting

We’ve travelled a long way together you and I. We’ve had a blast. We’ve been so close, bosom buddies. You were always supportive, through all the ups and downs.

But now it seems that you’ve let me down at last. I see you are sagging, you used to be so uplifting.

It’s me, not you, I know that. I am just not fulfilling you any more, so it’s time for us to part.

Ode to my bra.

Pollution, Leshan Buddha

We looked out across the river. We could barely see the other side, let alone the 71 m Buddha we’d made a significant detour to come and see. The day is still, no breeze, and the pollution hangs like a semi translucent mist across the city.

I can taste it as I cycle.
I can feel it on my skin.
It oppresses me.

We cycled 175km yesterday, on a slight detour to see the giant Buddha in Leshan. We got up late. We weren’t sure whether to go to the Buddha park and see the big man up close for the price of 80¥ each or ride twice the distance round to the other side of the river and see him for free.

We flipped a coin and free won.

As we rode across the bridge I began to see the flaw in our plan.

I don’t understand how people live like this? You literally cannot help but see the filth we’ve created and spewing in to the atmosphere.

We know it’s not just a problem in China, though the solution of fashion face masks does feel stereotypically Chinese.

The reports are pouring out in the media at home now about the illegal levels of pollution in most of our cities. I can’t imagine that we’d succumb so quietly if we couldn’t see the end of the road because of the pollution.

Surely there would be riots.
Wouldn’t there?

Ps. We do go back and visit the giant Buddha up close, he’s very nice. The path leads you up to his head height, so you have an excellent view of the plants growing in his ears.