It was more than a 3 day journey in total, not including a 6 hour wait inbetween the two trains. A 30 hour journey and then a 48 hour journey. The first train we were in separate carriages. My choice of saving $15 and having a hard seat instead of a bed wasn't a great one.
The first few hours were ok as it was quiet, but soon the whole carriage was full. Boiling hot, no room, screaming babies - not great at all. By the evening I decided I'd try and distract myself by watching a movie on the laptop, this didn't go well. Even so everyone had a smart phone or a tablet (all of them much better than my 7yr old battered netbook), and me watching a movie was fascinating to everyone around me. Most would try to watch it from over my shoulder with no sound - as I was using headphones. And the others would constantly be asking me questions in Chinese about the movie or notebook. It was hopeless.
I changed tactics and instead got my small notepad out to write a few things down. Great, this seemed a lot less interesting to everyone. Suddenly though, the notepad was yanked away while I was writing. The smiley guy opposite me and the guy next to him held it in-front of them and stared at what I'd written. One tried reading it out, but a minute later he gave up and they handed it back. I carried on writing but 30 seconds later the same thing happened. They couldn't read or understand anything I was writing but they had another look at the new words on the pad and then handed it back. This happened another 3 times in the next 5 minutes. So, much to their disappointment I put the pad away and tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep.
My back, neck & soul were happy when the ordeal was over. I met up with Dan when we get off the first train. He had had a great sleep. Six hours later we were on the next train, this time we both had a bed and it was a newer, nicer train.
An entire two days on a train, with a comfy bed, with nothing else to do but sleep was exactly what I needed. We made friends with the family in the compartment beside us. They gave us lots of food, including a huge bag of chicken and taught us a few words in Chinese. The biggest plus of the whole train journey though was that the illness that we'd both had for the previous two weeks completely disappeared the entire time we were on the train - no running to the toilet for either of us.
Chengdu was a big modern city and was the first place where we had seen lots of backpackers since Istanbul. The previous 6 months of being well off the beaten path had been great, the best traveling of my life, but we were both looking forward to dipping in and out of the backpacker routes from now on and sharing some beers with other travelers. We got talking to a couple of cool travelers from Belfast that evening, Dan mentioned how one of his best friends was from there...turned out they knew Dan's friend and went to school with him - small world.
The next morning I felt terrible. The "few" beers had turned into double figures, but Chinese beer is among the weakest, and yet I could hardly move. This was something different - the weird illness was back again and worse than ever it seemed. Three weeks ago it had started, all from eating 2kg of fruit a day for a few days and somehow it was still here.
We had to go and pick our bikes up from the train station. By 2pm I thought I might be able to make it there. I walked out of the hostel, hunched over and edged my way down the street. We got about 100 meters before I had to sit down for fear of passing out. This was the worst I'd felt all trip. After a few minutes I knew that getting to the station was out of the question. We turned around and headed back to the hostel where I curled up in a ball on the floor of the common room for a few hours and then headed to bed.
The next day I felt a little better, enough to make it to the train station at least. Getting the bikes was a simple process, we went to the cargo area, handed over our receipt and out came the bikes moments later. We then began assembling them on the street outside.
All was going well until I tried putting the handlebars back on - couldn't find the bracket that screwed in and kept it all in place. Then I remembered - I'd made a special effort not to just chuck that part into the big cardboard box, where I thought it may fall out on the journey. I'd purposely kept it on me the whole time to be safe - I'd put it in my camera case.
I opened my bag I'd had with me for the last 3 days and pulled out the camera, but the camera wasn't in its case. I looked everywhere for the case - but it was nowhere to be seen. Eventually I gave up looking resigned to the fact that I'd somehow lost the camera case.
We tried using cable-ties and lots and lots of tape to tie the handlebars to the bike, in order for me to get back to the hostel. That was too hopeful though and immediately it came off as soon as I tried turning the bike - I'd have to push it through the city.
With that in mind we started slowly walking to where we knew was a large cycle shop - the other side of the city. After an hour we stumbled across a bicycle repair man on the side of the road. He only had a little stall outside under an umbrella, but we thought he may be able to help with the handlebar problem. After trying lots of different sized brackets and screws we found the right combination. One problem solved...
The next day I headed to the smaller of the two shops first as it was closer. They didn't have the part so went to the other one. The biggest Specialized shop in Asia also didn't have the part! Which meant nowhere would have it.
I've had many problems with it on this trip, which is only because it's the wrong bike for all of the terrible roads we've ridden on. It's an expensive, quality bicycle and is in great condition now that I've had so much replaced on it in the last few months. I'd just recently decided though that I'd have to sell it when I get home, to pay off the slowly increasing debt I've incurred from this trip - My budget had worked out perfect for the 6 months I'd predicted this trip would take, but we were into month 9 now and still had 2 countries to cycle through.
Now everything was sorted though it meant we could leave in the morning. We had about 20 days left on our visa - just enough to get through China and down into Laos, as long as we took a fairly direct route.
Dan though, had been planning a different route over the last few days. I had a look at it that evening and was a little baffled as to why the first part of the route headed west, towards Tibet, huge mountains, small roads and most importantly nowhere near Laos.
Not only would it be really, really difficult - just when I thought we'd be having a nice wind-down, it was also a massive loop, around 1000km in the wrong direction - which meant we'd have to get a bus to the border of Laos, so we didn't over-run our visa. After Kyrgyzstan I'd done enough of big mountain passes and bad roads, so I questioned all of these points and asked why we didn't just cycle in a straight line, through what was supposed to be a very beautiful part of China, on perfect roads and down into Laos. Dan said that it was "too late now", which basically meant he'd done a lot of research and put a lot of time into this pointless route, so he wanted to go through with it. So for some reason, I agreed.
The next morning we set off, the first few days weren't so bad. The road was slowly gaining height the whole time as we made our way up into the mountains and there were many Chinese cyclists on the road, as it was a popular route that went all the way to Lhasa in Tibet.
With good tarmac on the road and working bicycles, the passes weren't as hard. They were much higher than any we'd done in Kyrgyzstan, some over 4000m, but the views were nowhere near as spectacular. We stayed in a hostel one of the nights, in a town called Kangding, £2 a bed was too tempting to turn down.
The roads up and down to the passes were huge, most around 40km/50km of pure uphill and then the same down. It was starting to get difficult and it was all in the wrong direction but we were happy to be back on the bikes after a week off them.
The road stayed well tarmac-ed, which I was surprised about. However the weather turned bad and it poured with rain that day. I was ill-equipped for rain at around 3500m altitude and it wasn't long before I was soaked through and freezing. Also, the moment it started raining I had to make myself colder by taking off my trousers and just wearing shorts – I needed my trousers dry to sleep in at night. It was only 5pm but we had to stop and set up camp and then I tried to get warm again.
A couple of km further along the road and it started to slowly climb again. Just as it began, we met our first Tibetan Monks in the form of a group of kids...
At 6am I was awoken by the sound of the tent unzipping. I looked up and it was Dan, running outside. Then there was lots of vomiting sounds, followed my some moans and groans. He wasn't in a good way, 'Room With A View' was a little different that morning...
Our options were -
1. For us to stay in the tent and wait it out
2. Both hitch a lift to the next town to get medicine/doctor
3. Dan to hitch a lift and me to cycle
We chose the last option. Two people and two fully loaded touring bicycles - our options to who could carry all of that gear in their vehicle would limit us. So I carried all of Dan's gear and bicycle down to the road and left him there trying to get a lift.
Forty minutes later the rain had passed, so I emerged and got changed into dry clothes and carried on down the road, enjoying the long stretch of downhill. I kept up the speed as the road started to flatten out and was flying along when unfortunately I was waved down by someone. It was the Chinese girl again. She explained that she'd found Dan on the side of the road and that he wasn't looking good so had taken him to a nearby Monastery.
He was concerned about Dan, so as soon as we sat down in his lounge, he threw something onto his electric hob that was in the middle of the table. Loads of smoke came from whatever he had just thrown on to it and he quickly gestured for Dan to lean over it and inhale. Turned out it was just weed.
Then he made a big bowl of porridge and offered some salt for me to add to it, I asked for sugar instead. This seemed to be the strangest combination he'd ever heard of - porridge & sugar. He seemed genuinely confused by it, but handed me the sugar and then watched very closely while I ate it. Dan slept while the three of us chatted away for a few hours, the Chinese girl trying her best to translate. Then we all got some sleep too.
It would mean Dan would miss out on the section he said should be awesome, but we were running out of time on our visas. If we both waited around for Dan to recover then we may run out of time to get to Dali (where we were getting the bus to Laos). I had to push on and Dan would have to get the bus after he'd got some medicine and was feeling better.
With that now decided we all set off together from the Monk's house and made our way to the T-junction. We found a pharmacy at the junction but they couldn't help and pointed Dan in the direction of the big town he was already heading to.
I thanked the girl for all the help and told Dan I'd see him in a couple days...I wish that was the truth...
I started off ok, but soon felt the sun burning me. At high altitudes the sun is much stronger and we'd been around 4000m altitude for nearly a week now. Unfortunately, Dan had the sun cream. I tried wearing my jacket and putting the hood up but was sweating buckets after 10 minutes, so I just had to hope I didn't get burnt too bad.
After 5km the switch-backs started, hairpin bend after hairpin bend...
Unfortunately the sign at the top was a bit pathetic and the view of lots of electricity pylons wasn't that impressive either...
It was soon apparent that the road wasn't actually that good, it was paved throughout but really bumpy. However, it wasn't bad enough to slow me down and in fact just made it more fun.
After overtaking a few motorbikes, being chased by a very fast and very angry dog and about 25 minutes later, I reached the bottom. I rode along the flat for a bit and then a little uphill that lasted less than 100 meters. Then it looked like the road started to go down again, another road sign up ahead confirmed this - another 17km downhill, great!
This time round I slowed it down a little and stopped to take a few pictures...
20km of slowly ambling along next to the river and it was time for me to stop and camp. 75km had been done though, leaving me around 55km until I reached Shangri-La. Dinner was fried eggs and onions. My diet hadn't been great because of the lack of meal options from the poorly stocked shops and I was getting very tired of instant noodles, which everyone seemed to eat here, and these horrible processed sausage things...
So, instant noodles was the winner again. The woman in the shop put the kettle on and i got two packets prepared. I sat outside, watching the dogs barking at anything that went past, the old people chatting away and the kids chasing the pigs down the road, while i tucked into my double serving of noodles. When I'd finished, I bought another two packets, heated them up and put them in my container for later.
As soon as I crossed the small bridge over the river, the road took a turn for the worse. Loose rocks replaced the perfect road and after 100 meters had to get off and walk my bike along it. Hopefully it was only about 15km to Shangri-La though.
"Oh, i was thinking more around 5km?" I replied.
They were pretty sure though and the road didn't look like it was about to suddenly come into a city any minute. There was nowhere around to camp, as no flat ground either side of the road, up ahead though I could see a big bend. Hopefully on the corner there'd be a bit of flat ground big enough for my tent. It was about 3km away I guessed but took over an hour to get there... I started to feel quite ill as soon as the Chinese couple left and wished I'd accepted the water they'd offered. Every 5 minutes I was bent over the handlebars, struggling to breathe and feeling like I was going to throw up.
When I reached the corner I must've been at around 4500m altitude and it was almost dark...
The next morning I didn't feel great, but knew it wasn't what Dan had. I was really hungry but the side effect of throwing up made me feel physically sick at just the thought of any of the Chinese food I had with me. I longed for a Full English Fry-up, but that wasn't going to happen.
I packed away the tent and carried on pushing my bike along the rocky road.
I slowly bumbled along all day. The road ahead was often in view as it bent it's way up and around the mountains. I reached what I thought was the top at one point, only for the road to descend for about 2km and then start climbing even higher again. By the evening I'd managed about 30km and that was enough for the day - I was knackered.
After a good night's sleep, I was awoken by the sound of a lorry stopped above me. My tent door on one end was open and I saw the lorry driver poking his head down looking through the tunnel from the other side. I gave him a wave and that scared him off. Half an hour later when I was forcing myself to eat these horrible cake things for breakfast another guy came to have a look at the tent. He jumped down and lifted the other end of the tent door up, to peer in. I said "Ni hao"(hello) to him, he laughed at me, like lots of people do for some reason, and then he climbed back up to the road.
I was still really hungry, out of water completely, exhausted and my face had taken a beating from the sun.
I was too tired to explain that wasn't the answer I was hoping for, so i just thanked them and then posed for a photo, trying my best to smile for them. They drove away and along came the next car behind them, they paused for a second while the passenger took a photo of me. Then the last one drove past, passenger with a smart phone in hand and another photo was taken.
I was hard on the brakes all the way down, as the road was just as bad on this side. It took me 2 hours to get to the bottom where the road joined the side of another river and ran next to it.
The good news was the road became perfectly paved and smooth again, meaning I was able to actually cycle. The bad news was that there were kilometer markers dotted along the side of the road and they were counting down to something(usually the next big town/city), and they started at 109km - it had to be the distance to Shangri-La. Which meant that every single person I had asked about the distance to Shangri-La was massively wrong. I thought I was 5km away from it two days ago, and twice I had been told I was 100km away, but here I was now, still 109km away.
At least the road was good though and it was still slightly going downhill following the river. I found a small shop and got a much needed sugar-hit inside me, in the form of a bottle of coke and then sped along for an hour or so, enjoying the feeling of cycling again.
I carried on up the long ascent the next morning, but was feeling very weak again. I needed to get to the city just so I could splurge on some western or fast food in the touristy areas.
About two hours into the climb, a bus came around the corner from behind me, beeping constantly like every single vehicle that sees absolutely anything moving. does in China – it's like car horns are a new invention in China and everyone is super excited by them. I swore at the bus in my head as it went beeping past me but it came to a stop in front of me, then a familiar face poked out the rear window....Dan.
We had about a minutes chat where I spent the whole time telling what an idiot he was & how hard the route had been, how the distance was massively wrong and how pointless it all was - as it was no better than any of Kyrgyzstan. He laughed lots and apologised for it all and by that time the bus driver had got bored and started to drive off. Dan dropped me out his big bottle of water through the bus window as it pulled away and I said I would hopefully see him tomorrow. Then I quickly tried to get a photo of him hanging out the bus as it drove off...
I zoomed down the other side until I came to a small town with a couple of shops. Hungry & un-hopeful, I went inside. I had a good look around and surprisingly found something that resembled a very small chocolate bar. This was a rare, exciting occurrence. I bought one at the cost of about 5p and had a test of it. It was quite tasty. This didn't happen often. So, excitedly I bought all of what they had left - a whole box and a few more loose ones.
Much to my horror though, 15km up it the road suddenly turned really bad. Thick mud was everywhere and it was clear that during daytime they must be renewing the road, which meant at this point in time it was in a horrible state. The only vehicle that passed me in the last 7 hours was the bus Dan was on and at times I wondered how it had gotten through all the mud or over the rocks. It was tough just getting a bicycle through there...
The second truck passed me and the driver gave me a thumbs up as he drove past. It was tough going but it looked as though the mud stopped after about 50 meters.
By this point it was pitch black. I walked forward about 20 meters with my torch shinning ahead of me and came across what appeared to be about 50 more meters of thick wet mud. I wouldn't be able to do it in darkness, so I looked for an alternative route. There was some mounds of gravel running along next to it, I would be able to get the bicycle up there, but it would be pointless as the mounds didn't go far enough, they just dropped back into the mud further along.
The only problem was, with all the huge rocks and thick mud around there wasn't a single place to pitch the tent. So I had no option but to try and downsize it. There was a small area, just big enough for me to lay down, which was flat and dry. So I lay the ground sheet down on it and then my camping mat. Then I propped the bike up using some rocks and my front handlebar bag and draped the outer tent over it all. It looked good enough except it needed something propping the outer tent up, else it would be too low and touching me. So the tent poles did their usual job but in a different fashion. It was good enough and surprisingly comfy.
The next morning I was awoken by a drip on my head. It was pouring with rain outside and water was starting to collect in a puddle above me. I pushed it up so the water ran off the tent. It was 6.30am and I was wanting to leave, but if I got out in the rain I'd be soaked and freezing instantly.
I got out and took my camera from my handlebar bag that had been next to me all night, so I could take a few pictures. I tried turning it on but nothing happened, then I noticed lots of water behind the screen. I checked my bag that it had been in all night and everything inside was bone dry. The camera was somehow soaking though and now broken. Not a good start to the day, but luckily I still had my sports video camera, which also takes photos and...it was waterproof.
I packed away and pushed through the mud, taking just as long as the day before. That was the end of the really thick mud though and next was just lots of easier sections of mud to navigate. What I needed was one of these things really...
A big clump of mud got caught on my chain, which then got caught and dragged into the spokes and took along with it my derailleur. The dropout snapped off and I immediately slammed on my brakes. It was too late though, the derailleur was mangled in the spokes. I was gutted. I was only 19km away from the place I'd been trying to get to all week, where the roads would be perfect and now my bicycle was bust again.
For now though there was nothing I could do but walk. A downhill would have really come in handy but for the first time in the last two weeks the road stayed flat. So I spent the next 5 hours walking along pushing the bike. Even walking it wouldn't have usually taken that long, but two landslides were blocking the road and everyone was queued up waiting for the diggers that were moving it off the road as fast as they could.
He arrived after 10 minutes. I was sat upstairs and saw him pull up alongside my bike outside. He had a look at it covered in mud and then start laughing lots. He walked into the restaurant still laughing. Then I explained in detail about my last week, making sure he fully understood I blamed him for everything!
Then he told me how his week went...
They had some lunch before heading into the hospital and she insisted that she would pay for it. In the hospital he got asked many times if he had a fever, to which he kept replying that he didn't. Unsatisfied they took his temperature from under his armpit. Somebody then came back and told him he didn't have a fever.
Next was he got asked about headaches, he didn't have those either. A common symptom of altitude sickness though, so they made double sure it wasn't that and asked him over and over again until they were satisfied he was telling the truth.
Eventually they had come to a conclusion about what they thought it was, they couldn't explain it properly though but he got a long list of pills that he had to buy, luckily they were only about 50p a packet.
The Chinese girl then showed Dan to a hostel, where he was put in the dorm room where the hostel staff slept. The Chinese girl was then happy that Dan was safe there and explained to everyone in the hostel that he was very ill and off she went, after spending the whole last two days helping us/Dan for no reason.
That was where Dan spent the next four days. He wasn't left to fend for himself though - the whole time he had three Chinese girls who brought him food and drinks throughout all the days and would put the correct amount and correct pills in a little pile and made sure he took them each day. By the 3rd day he was feeling much better. He then found out that the three girls didn't work in the hostel, they were just tourists who had taken it upon themselves to help him and had bought every meal he'd eaten for the 3 days and wouldn't accept any money for it.
The next day he tried again. A different driver this time and a different outcome...himself, his bike and all his luggage was allowed on. Then he began what he still thought would be about a 150km bus journey. He was initially worried that I may have already left Shangri-La and given up on waiting for him. As it dragged on though and as the road became very bad, he knew it was much, much longer than we'd both thought. As the road progressively got worse Dan progressively started laughing more at the thought of me trying to cycle along it.
Nine hours into the bus ride was where he spotted me draped over my handlebars. He shouted to the bus driver to stop and we had our little chat. Then he had another 3 hours to go, through all the mud, rocks and landslides before he reached Shangri-La.
So now we'd both met up again, we headed back to the hostel. We got an early night after a few games of pool and the next morning were up early ready to go...after we got some more western food inside us. The hostel was in the tourist area which was surrounded by awesome restaurants. Dan had really wanted to try a burger “which has the meat off the animals, that live on the high mountains” - those were his words.
“Not a cow” he said...“and not a Yeti”.
“Yeti??!! No Dan, correct, they probably don't do Bigfoot burgers. Do you mean Yak?”
The hostel opposite did the best Yak burgers in town supposedly, so we headed there and ordered one each. Dan went for the “monster burger” the huge version, and I went for the one with bacon – The last 5 countries we'd cycled through had been mostly Muslim, which meant pork of any kind had been off the menu for about 5 months. Thankfully that was about to end...
Our first bus was to Jinghong and was pretty straight forward. Although it arrived at the bus station at midnight, which was closed at that time, so it dropped everyone off outside. With no Chinese money left we made our way to the front of the bus station building where it was very quiet and nobody around. Our next bus, that would take us to Laos, was at 10:40am the next morning. So we lay our camping mats down outside, next to the closed shutters of the station and went to sleep outside in our sleeping bags.
We were woken-up by the station shop owner whose shutters our bicycles were leaning against. We moved them for him and then waited a few minutes until the whole station was properly open, before going inside to sit down. At 10:40am, with the bicycles strapped securely to the roof of the small bus we set off and headed to the border of Laos.
The bus journey gave me a lot of good thinking time and now that I had a belly full of good food, I wasn't just thinking about Cornish Pasties. The end of the trip was near, which ultimately was very sad. But already I've been getting excited about the next few adventures I have planned. China/Tibet had been great but you could easily spend 6 months just cycling around it - it's huge.
All of Laos lay ahead though and we both couldn't wait to tackle another country. We may be the 'Dumb & Dumber' of adventurers (Dan being the latter hopefully), but being daft & Cornish, surprisingly wasn't hindering us - we were now on the final stretch...