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Peter Snow Cao

Peter Snow Cao
"Cycling to Danba in Western Sichuan, China"
Part 3

Copyright © Peter Snow Cao, 2001.


Cycling Trip to Danba, Sichuan: Day 3 Dengsheng to Rilong and Balangshan Pass

The attendants don’t wake us, but Rainer is an early riser and gets me up at 6:20 AM. We wake the staff and ask them to prepare breakfast. Our only choice is noodles, so we eat as much as we can: 4 bags of instant noodles each. We also stock up on cookies and sweetened puffed rice cakes to provide the fuel to take us over the top. We have heard there are no restaurants or shops between Dengsheng and Rilong on the other side of the pass 60 kilometers away.

At 7:20 AM we say our farewells and start the climb. My legs are sore and tired from the previous two days, and I wonder what this day will be like. Every five or ten minutes a truck, bus or car passes. When the slow moving trucks pass, we are tempted to reach out and grab onto the back for a pull, but we both refrain. The weather is cool and the sky overcast, good weather for a long climb.

Climbing Balangshan Pass

The best thing about long mountain passes is the progress you can see yourself make with each hairpin turn. ‘Just a few minutes ago, I was down there.’ ‘An hour ago, I was way down there by the river.’ With each turn, a bit closer to the top. We stop to rest about every 10 minutes for one or two minutes. The air is cool and I chill quickly, so I don’t rest long. We brought four bottles of water each , and the combination of cool temperatures, lots of water, and tired muscles give us plenty of reasons to make frequent pit stops. We are like dogs on a walk in Central Park, leaving our scent behind on every tree.

Two hours after our start, we reach a shack that supplies water to trucks and busses to cool their brakes. Rainer sprints ahead to test his limits and I roll up slowly behind. The blood-shot eyed old man is hungry for company, and forces a chipped and stained porcelain cup of tea upon Rainer and tells him to sit down. We have climbed 400 meters in 11 kilometers. It is going to be a long, long day.

I dance around for a minute, begging off the tea and then continue up the hill. The temperature is falling as we climb and I start to chill immediately. Rainer follows soon afterward, and we fall into a routine: cycle five minutes, stop, pee, eat a cookie, drink water, cycle five minutes…

We are both feeling the effects of reduced air. I can’t seem to get enough. Breathing through my nose is not enough, so I resort to periodic panting.

At 3,600 meters, the trees disappear from the landscape. A lush green carpet of grass and wild flowers covers the land. We rise into the clouds and the mist envelopes us, sometimes obscuring our view, other times clearing with astonishing clarity. We spot a few people walking on the road and wonder where the heck did they come from? The men urge on with the familiar, "Jia you! Jia you!" (Step on the gas! Go for it!) Later we spot several herds of yaks moving down the slopes.

At about noon, and 4,000 meters, we have a lunch of more cookies, rice cakes and for Rainer, a can of soda. While on the previous two days the river was our constant companion, we are now enveloped in silence broken occasionally by a passing vehicle. A light rain starts and we don our raincapes. Rainer wears my baseball cap so the rain doesn’t hit his glasses. We have made an agreement, when it rains he wears the cap, when it is sunny, I wear it.

Tall electric power towers escort us up the hill. It seems amazing to me that it takes so much effort to go up a few kilometers. As we continue, our stops become more frequent and our breathing more labored. I am now finding myself panting full tilt nearly all the time to keep up with my body’s need for oxygen. Rainer warns against breathing too hard, but I can’t seem to get enough, so I continue.

The temperature continues to drop and the mist has limited our visibility to a hundred meters. We hear the vehicles before we see them. Faces stare out at us wide-eyed and open-mouthed. I take a reading with the GPS and am disappointed we are not higher. We still don’t know how high Balangshan pass really is.

Mark, Peter and Rainer

Peter and Rainer at the Pass - 4,550 meters

Gradually, the landscape starts to change. The velvety grass gives way to sharp rock edges; the hairpin turns become more frequent. The first bus of the day makes its way up the hill, and we spot a bicycle on the top of it. It must be Mark’s. The bus stops and Mark pops out dressed in a T-shirt and cycling shorts followed by half the bus to gawk at the crazy cyclists. A guy jumps on my bike for a joy ride, but returns winded after a short ride. We tell Mark that he might be better off getting off at the top of the pass since he hasn’t had the chance to acclimate to the elevation. Mark asks the driver how much further to the pass. Two kilometers. Mark decides to cycle it so we help him unload his bike and gear from the bus. There is a heavy mist/light rain, and Mark is quickly chilled as are Rainer and I. We help him get ready as fast as we can and pepper him with suggestions on dealing with the altitude. Heavy breathing, plenty of stops, "man, man, zou" (go slowly).

Soon the three of us take off, and we are surprised that the driver was right about the distance to the pass. There is a small Tibetan temple there with three truck drivers making a quick offering for their safety on the road. Rainer and I are thrilled to have made it. Several obligatory photos, pee, eat and drink. Then all three of us put on every piece of clothing we have with us in preparation for the ride down. I spot snow falling, but it melts on impact.

Mark outside the Tibetan Temple at Balangshan Pass

We shoot down the other side, and I let me exhilaration get the best of me. The road is wet from the rain, and the pavement at the turns is slick from vehicle oil. At the first turn I go down hard, bruising my right hip. I yell a warning to Rainer and Mark and they negotiate it safely. The rest of the ride down is much more restrained.

The pass on the west side consists of a wide grassland shoulder area. The road snakes its way down to the beginning of the deeper and ever larger stream valley. Water is coursing in from all directions. Several kilometers from the top there is a first-class toilet, but we give it a miss. Down, down, down watching the valley unfold before us. Clouds below keep us from seeing the full picture. We pass several slow moving trucks also on the way down, billowing clouds of stream on strained brakes.

Rainer cycling down the Pass to Rilong The road surface is fairly new concrete and in great condition. As we near Rilong, Mark starts to point out landmarks. He and his Chinese girlfriend, Scarlet, were here in July visiting Siguniang Shan (Four Sisters Mountains). From the road one can view an impressive ridge that connects the valley below with the four peaks, making a seemingly easy path to the top. Unfortunately, the weather has obscured the snow-capped peaks, so we can only imagine what lies beyond. We don’t have to use our imagination for long as that spectacular view is plastered on trucks, buses, paintings and hotel pictures throughout Rilong.

Rilong is at elevation 3,300 meters and the town is undergoing a massive transformation as hotels are springing up like mushrooms after the rain. Siguniang Shan is being targeted for a huge influx of tourists and the horseback-riding business is gearing up in a big way. Horse manure is everywhere. We snag a terrific room for 30 yuan per person. But the catch is there is no shower. However, the friendly Tibetan staff supplies all the hot water bottles we want and we luxuriate in some well-earned comfort. There are telephones, internet bars, cafes, etc. and we make the most of them all.

Next: Cycling Trip to Danba - Part 4: Rilong to Xiaojin

Cycling to Danba: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | More Pictures

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