West of Chengdu - the road to Danba and Barkam
There are a few great roads to cycle in West China, west of Chengdu. The most popular road is the one that connects Chengdu with Tibet. Many people have tried there luck over the last years, some succeeded, others were send back in either Batang or Markam. That road goes through Kangding to Litang. Although I have traveled to Litang, I didn't do that on bicycle. Why? It was too late in the season, early December is not a good time of the year to cycle this road. But I did cycle Danba, Barkam and back to Chengdu.
A year later I was back in Chengdu but I was again a little late but not too late. It was late September and already getting colder, quite a bit of rain in Chengdu too. I decided to give it a try. I left Chengdu on my way to Ya'an. In between there was a city called Qiong Lai. Until Ya'an, about 160 km, it was all flat.
In Ya'an I could see the mountains in the west. It felt like Ya'an was the portal to the western mountains. I went first to Tianguan which was only 40 km further on the way.
I felt it was better to do a short ride before going in the mountains as I was not sure if between Tianguan and Luding, 110 km, was any place to stay unless you want to camp.
It was a very nice ride to Luding. At the time I was on this road, the Chinese government had just finished road works and a new tunnel was completed. The good thing was that therefore the climbing was a bit shorter then expected though the highest point was still over 2000 meters! West China is getting more and more accessible.
This is a new tunnel in West China, in fact there are two tunnels, one long and one short. The descending was in an area where road construction was still going on but the road itself was already done.
It was a nice and quick descending to the little town of Luding. And by the time you are reading this page, West China should be even more opened, for tourism and for local purposes.
I was back in the mountains, had passed a pass on the Jia Jin Shan. West of this mountain range is basically a long stretched valley where a river flows and a road goes all the way north. It was this road I wanted to follow.
Luding was another little town in west China with a few guesthouses and restaurants. It offers nothing that justifies a longer stay then a night and a meal. The existence of Luding is justified because the town is right at the junction where a roads cross from north to south and west to east. In other words, this is an important junction.
It was already cold in the mornings though at day time it was still fine. As I didn't have good winter equipment with me, I doubted it was a clever thing to cycle now to Litang and then crossed the mountains to Yunnan. I had done that road some years earlier and remembered it contained long though very beautiful climbs to passes over 3000 meter. Not a good choice at this time of the year though.
So I went north, the loop to Danba and Barkam and back to Chengdu seemed to be interesting enough. Danba was a two days ride from Luding. I camped in between Luding and Danba near the river where there was a bit of vegetation.
When I left Luding I expected I would not be able to cycle in a day to Danba but in between I didn't see any place to stay. Thus I camped in between the two cities. Although Luding - Danba is about 150km it's too much to do in a day as the road slowly goes up.
Danba had a very nice little (then new) hotel with a good bed and a nice hot shower. The town itself was very Tibetan influenced. On the way I had I seen plenty of little Tibetan villages, prayer flags on top of the surrounding mountains and people looking very surprised to see a lone cyclist around.
After Danba it became more serious. The road was still fine but less and less traffic passed me. There was not much vegetation too. I basically followed the river. After a night in Jingchuan I was now close to the junction with Highway 317. This junction connects Barkam with Dege, far in the west.
It was miserable, drizzling rain and it was because of that cold, no more then about 5ºC in the middle of the day. At the junction I found a good bowl of steaming noodles. Barkam was not far. I felt little desire to cycle west and explore the road to Dege considering the weather and the expecting colder days at higher altitude, after all I am not much in love with cold weather.
Barkam was surprisingly big. There were some cheap and descent hotels, some good and spicy food. I recall the dumplings for breakfast which were red of the chilies.
Because of the weather, it was raining a whole day, I wanted to stay a day in Barkam although the town had nothing much to offer. It was a nice walk around there and it was good to dry my clothes and recover a bit.
West China: to the "top of the world"
Shuajingshi was 68 km away at another junction. Going north will eventually leads you Gansu, Xiahe and Xining, going south leads directly to Chengdu.
I stayed a night in Shuajingshi with a family. They offered me a tiny room on the river side, which was good because the house had a toilet. Houses on the mountain side had no toilet, thus I was lucky! The wife cooked me a nice meal of noodles.
After my meal the wife came in with a big kettle with a red yellowish looking soup where I saw some meat and pieces of cigarettes floating around., The woman warmed up the soup and the family ate from it, every once in a while throwing some pieces of cigarettes away. Lucky me, I had a good bowl of fresh made noodles.
I knew the next day would be a difficult day. The people in Shuajingshi told me the road from here would be bad and all the way going up. 15 kilometers it would be to the top. My altitude meter said Shuajingshi was already at almost 2500 meter, so it would be much higher where I was heading.
It was a hard day, those 15 kilometer took me almost 4 hours to the top at 4005 meter. It was quite a spectacular climb. The road swindled around the mountain slopes. I had to stop frequently. It was not only the bad road that made have a hard time. Oxygen at this altitude is by far less available.
Along the climb I got a better and better view over the west and south mountains. In the village, Shuajingshi had about 100 houses, I was told a new road was under construction so in the future it would be a lot easier to go to Chengdu. That new road would be a set of tunnels going under the mountains.
But I had to do it the hard way and I loved it. The closer I came to the top, the more snow was now at the road and the road itself was frozen. It became more difficult as it was now slippery. The pass was indeed a great place. Not all passes I have crossed give a great view to both directions but this pass did. Tibetan prayer flags were placed to protect the people passing here.
Back to Chengdu
What goes up must come down. The road swindled down to a more milder area. I decided to camp at the riverside 15 kilometer below the pass at 3000 meter. There was a hotel a bit further but I found this out only the next day. I camped with cows around me and it was very nice.
The next day I left after breakfast not really knowing where I would end. Li Xian was near but I felt I wanted to camp another night. So I bought some food and camped again near the river.
It went all the way down to Weizhou which looked nice enough to spend a night. Then I cycled in one stretch to Chengdu which was 160 km. It was not necessary to do in one day as I could have stopped Qingcheng Shan with waterfalls and lakes but in Weizhou I was told there was nothing open there. I was too late in the season.
I could however stay in the nearby town Qujiangshan but as the road was all the way down I was quick and went straight to Chengdu. By now it was about 12-15°C and I felt it was time to move south to warmer areas. The road I followed south is described on this page
This journey had taken me 14 days. I had extra days in Danba and Barkam and by the time I was back in Chengdu I could use some rest.
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