Kevin Henley (Big Kev)
Phil Jones (Dr Phil)
Michael Litchfield (Mega Mike)
Robert Leedham (2 Bob)
Glenda Wise (Blondie)
David Prowse – Bike Asia Tour Leader
Michael Shen (China Mike) – cycling guide
Xiou Wu (Miss Wu) – driver/mechanic
Glen (senior mechanic)
Michael Sen (Tall Michael) - driver
The Trip Begins
When I first had the privilege of completing a bicycle ride through Yunnan Province to Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2006, little did I realise that a mere 12 months later I would be back to do it all again. And yet, here I was in March 2007, back on my way with 14 other riders from the Ghost Riders to introduce them to an adventure that I hoped they would never forget.
Over the past 6 months our team had completed a regular series of training rides to help prepare them for the challenges that riding up and down mountains would surely bring. Although I had done my best to let them know what to expect when they arrived in China, I knew that no amount of verbal description can really convey what has to be experienced to be appreciated.
The outward flight from Australia took us via the new international airport at Bangkok, where we had a four hour stopover before catching a flight through to Kunming, the bustling capital of Yunnan Province. While waiting for our connecting flight Glenda and Viv entertained the departure lounge occupants with an intriguing display of leg and arm waving for about 30 minutes. The rest of us were more circumspect choosing to sit back and laugh instead.
A couple of our team had departed Australia a few days earlier. Mark had arranged to meet us in Bangkok to catch the same flight to Kunming, but by the time the plane was ready for boarding there was still no sign of him. Since we had no way of contacting him we had no choice but to board the flight without him. Although it is not such a great start to lose a rider before the ride had even started, I knew that the remaining 14 riders would be more than capable of acquitting themselves with distinction.
Apparently Mark was not the only one who had missed the flight – the plane was only half full. This was easily the most empty seats I had ever seen on an international flight. This made the short 2 hour flight an absolute dream, with most of us spread out over 2, 3 (or in Phil’s case) 4 seats. This is really what all air travel should be like.
Arrival in Kunming
It was not until we exited from Kunming airport and were met by Mike (aka “China Mike”) that we were informed that Mark had contacted them to let them know that he had “missed the plane”. Talk about stating the bleeding obvious ! Apparently he was hoping to catch a flight the next day.
After 22 hours of travel we were glad to safely reach the sanctuary of the Camellia Hotel where we met David Prowse who was to be acting as our tour guide for this trip. We soon learnt that this was to be David’s first experience as a tour leader, so I assured him that we would do all in our power to make the trip “memorable” for him too. After a short rest we headed out for a wander around the area of Kunming near the hotel.
Trying out the new Garmin GPS unit I noted that the coordinates of the hotel were precisely N25degrees 02.544 minutes and E 102degrees 43.606 minutes and the elevation was just over 1900 metres. After setting the GPS at the door of the hotel I was able to wander off into unfamiliar territory knowing that the GPS would safely guide me back again. It turned out to be accurate to within about 5 metres.
That evening we all headed out to a large restaurant just a few hundred metres from the hotel. Since David would not be taking over as official tour leader until the next day, we set off without any of us being able to speak more than a couple of words of Mandarin. Armed with this two word vocabulary we sat down and hoped for the best. The fun started in earnest when the menu appeared, along with two expectant waitresses, carefully explaining (in Chinese) what each dish was all about.
About 15 minutes later we had ordered our meals, solely by using gestures and facial expressions. The waitresses left us with rather bemused looks on their faces while we were all left wondering just what would actually appear on the table. A few moments later the green tea started, followed soon after by the first of dozens of bowls of food of all manner of shapes, sizes and aromas. We proceeded to eat like only true middle aged cyclists can, welcoming each new gastronomic surprise with hoots of happy laughter.
The cooks did their very best to defeat us with a seamlessly never ending procession from the kitchen, but we were up to the task. We waved our chopsticks and passed food and rice back and forth along the table. This was a perfect introduction to what dining in China is all about and, judging by the smiling faces at the table, it would appear that no one could have been happier.
The only trouble with such prodigious eating is that it does accelerate the primal need for sleep. It was now starting to seem like days since we had visited that wonderful land of Nod and soon the conversation started to turn to all things somnambulistic. All that remained before we could retire for the night was to pay the bill. With 14 hungry Australians bloated to bursting point and the table still loaded with numerous other delicacies that we were simply too full to attempt, the total bill for all our food and drinks was totaled up and the result was 473Yuan (about $AUD 5.00 each).
We all tossed in our share of the cost , paid the bill and still had enough surplus to buy 14 Magnum ice creams at the shop around the corner. Of these we ate 12 and gave 2 to the beggar on the footpath near the hotel. I reckoned it was a win-win situation for everyone that night.
What a perfect way to finish off our first day in China. The evening was warm, still and quiet as we walked the short distance back to the hotel. Back in the hotel room I collapsed on the firm bed and enjoyed a most appreciated night’s sleep, before I was awoken by my alarm going off at 6 am the next day.
Somehow I had managed to miss out on being issued with a breakfast voucher so I had to surreptitiously sneak past the breakfast attendant and thus gain (illegal) access to the forbidden fare that was waiting in the dining room. The buffet contained a wide selection of western and Chinese foods and I was pleased that they had repaired the toaster since I was here 12 months previously.
Two glasses of orange juice, 2 cups of coffee, 2 slices of toast and jam, several Chinese sausages, noodles and dumplings later I had finished my breakfast and returned to my room. Not bad for a stowaway at the breakfast table. It’s a tough trip but someone had to lead it.
|Western Mountains - Kunming (a good place for a view over the city)|
At 8 am we were once again gathered in the foyer for our trip to Western Mountain on the outskirts of Kunming. This is a spectacular series of Buddhist shrines that have been carved into a soaring near vertical cliff face. It also affords a panoramic view of the city – or at least it would if the air was transparent. We learned that Melbourne is not the only city in the midst of a record drought. After 46 consecutive days without rain the city is rapidly running out of water. This is apparently a record for the city which is famed for having China’s best gardens.
The bus trip gave those who have not been in Asia before a chance to see what real road driving skill is all about. Although the traffic might appear chaotic at first it generally flows quite well and most drivers seem quite placid and prepared to go with the flow. Unlike in many countries, losing your temper in a fit of road rage is regarded as one of the quickest ways to “lose face” and is steadfastly avoided. The generally low speed of the vehicles help to ensure that most city accidents are minor ones.
Once everyone had explored the wonders of Western Mountain it was back to Kunming to explore wonders of a much more carnal nature. In Miss Wu’s Wonderful Bicycle Shop we were able to drool over the latest Cannondale mountain bikes and a host of other carbon fibre sprockets and widgets. Noel and I both spied a wonderful set of rear panniers that we both decided had our names written all over them. 500 Yuan later we were the proud owners of the panniers AND two bike stands as well. I have once heard it said that there is no such thing as “too large a pannier’. I suppose we will find out the veracity of this statement.
When the buying frenzy at the bike shop had finally died down we split up to go our various different directions. Whilst some headed to the famous bamboo temple, some headed to the lake and I just decided to put the Garmin to a more difficult test by deliberately walking in circles, getting myself hopelessly lost (not hard for a directionally challenged person like me) and then relying on the GPS to get me safely back to the hotel.
When I switched it on it informed me that I was about 3 km from the Camellia Hotel and indicated the direction I should walk if I wanted to get back there. It even estimated how long it would take me based on my current speed. What a marvelous piece of hand held technology. How did I ever manage without it ?
I started to wander further, knowing that my small security blanket was safely in my pocket. For another hour I meandered around lakes, along rivers, through parks and up and down streets and lanes, then decided it was finally time to make my way back to the hotel. With the Garmin all I had to do was follow the arrow – too easy. I watched the distance reduce steadily as I walked in the indicated direction. With about 1 kilometre to go and still not recognizing any familiar landmarks I put my hand in my pocket to recheck my bearings. To my horror it said “Battery Low”. After using it for the past two days without recharging the unit was obviously in need of an energy boost. Fortunately it still had (just) enough in reserve to get me safely back to the hotel. I was impressed at its performance but made a mental note to make sure it was recharged every day from now on.
Near the entrance to the hotel I also met Mark Gallagher looking tanned and fit from his extra day in Phuket. Apparently he was having so much fun that he deliberately missed the plane (or something like that). At least our team was complete, fully fed and ready for the mighty challenge that still lay in front of us.
Since that afternoon marked the “official” start of the tour, we arranged to meet David that night for dinner at another local restaurant. All our riders had been instructed to be back at the hotel by no later than 4.30pm so that we could all attend our preliminary briefing meeting. At the appointed hour about half of the team were present but the others were nowhere to be seen. Obviously without access to a GPS they had difficulty finding their way back to the hotel and could be scattered all over Kunming by this time. After our unblemished record for punctuality this was not an auspicious start.
About an hour later the prodigal passengers finally tramped into the hotel foyer. They all looked like they had been on a marathon. I guess three hours of frenzied shopping can do that to even the strongest athletes. Finally David was able to belatedly call a start to his meeting.
We were informed that our dinner was booked with the restaurant for 6.00 pm and so by 6.10 pm most of us were gathered outside the hotel ready to leave. Since we still had a lengthy walk ahead of us it was obvious that our punctuality was, once again, being called into question. We finally got underway only 45 minutes late; all we had to do was to walk across Kunming to the chosen restaurant. While this would have been easy if David had known the way, he seemed to have become directionally disoriented and led us on a magical mystery tour up and down back alleys and through building construction sites, rubbish dumps and the like before finally turning a dimly lit corner and announcing that we reached our destination.
Up a couple of flights of very narrow stairs we emerged into a most attractive arrangement of two matching dining rooms and divided into two groups (spicy and non spicy). There we were bombarded with a continuous succession of courses. We once again settled down to 90 minutes of serious eating and drinking, before embarking on the long walk back to the hotel. I quickly settled into a deep sleep, well knowing that with my alarm set for the ungodly hour of 4.45 am, my sleep would have to make up in quality what it would certainly lack in quantity.
The next morning Kevin and I packed up our gear quickly and made ready to meet the others in the foyer for the early bus trip to the airport. As I was doing a final inspection of the room there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find a uniformed and rather embarrassed house maid standing there. She tried to explain something to me in Chinese. At first I thought she was asking if I had any laundry that needed washing, but when I obviously could not understand what she was saying, she entered the room and pointed animatedly at Kevin’s pillow. A few moments later she had removed the pillow and quickly left the room. I was left rather mystified.
When I made my way down to the foyer I was relieved to see that our reputation for punctuality was restored, with all 15 of our team members packed and ready for the bus. My early relief was soon dissipated, however, when David informed me that there had been a “problem” with our room. Apparently the room inspection had revealed an unsightly stain on Kevin’s pillow so the management was now demanding that he pay the cost for a new pillow (about $3).
Kevin was immediately taken aback by this affront on his personal hygiene, and adamantly refused to pay anything. The situation had escalated to a Mexican standoff and threatened to worsen even further to an international incident. We did not wish to be deported back to Australia before the trip had even started, and eventually convinced Kevin to sacrifice his principles to benefit the greater good. The tarnished pillow became his property and the source of much merriment for the remainder of the trip.
Because of the early start we did not have time to enjoy the usual buffet breakfast. Instead the hotel had provided us with a brown paper bag with a few sad looking assorted food items inside. The banana was the only item worth eating.
Off to Li Jiang
After the unfortunate pillow incident, we made the short trip to the airport and were soon seated on a China Eastern Airlines flight to Li Jiang. The plane was comfortable, modern and only about half full, but the erratic descent to Li Jiang sent a few gasps through the passengers. Fortunately the pilots regained control of the aircraft before impact and we all lived to tell the tale.
Another 30 minutes bus ride took us to the centre of Li Jiang and the hotel where our ride was scheduled to begin. Since we had not really eaten since the previous evening, we quickly dropped our luggage in the foyer of the impressive hotel and set off to the old town of Li Jiang in search of food.
Situated about 1 kilometre from the hotel, old Li Jiang is a kaleidoscope of narrow canals, hundreds of shops and eateries and a veritable labyrinth of interconnecting laneways. Although the section near the town entrance is always crowded with tourists, as you progress further into the town the crowds quickly disappear and (we soon discovered) the prices of the goods get significantly cheaper the higher you go up the hill.
In the devastating earthquake of 1996 when much of Li Jiang was flattened, it was the traditional old buildings that escaped largely unscathed, whereas the newer concrete and masonry buildings collapsed. The fact that we were staying in a more traditional style hotel building may have helped ensure that we all slept more soundly.
Lunch was at Sakura’s Restaurant near the centre of the old city. This is in fact not a single building, but an unbelievable collection of rooms and levels connected by almost vertical staircases. Overhead is a framework of impressive rough sawn timber beams that helped to allay our fears that the whole structure could collapse at any minute. The smiling young waiter introduced himself and explained that his name meant “fish”. The menu consisted of page after page of dishes from China and around the world and none of us could wait to make up for lost eating time.
With our stomachs once again stuffed to bursting point we waddled our way back to the hotel to check into our allotted rooms. I suspect we must have looked like some grotesque parody of those marching emperor penguins in the recent film. Our rooms were wonderfully representative of the classic Chinese style but the atmosphere unfortunately was tinged with the distinct aroma of sewage effluent. Although this was a little daunting at first we soon agreed that the charm of the place more than compensated for the olfactory offensive.
Believe it or not we soon were back out to indulge in yet more eating (Was this our second lunch or our first dinner ? I was beginning to lose track). Once we had stretched our trousers even more we staggered back to the old centre to commence another challenging part of the trip – that of shopping till you drop.
Murder in Old Li Jiang !
As team members dispersed in all directions in search of the Holy Grail of the elusive bargain, I spent the next couple of hours wandering from store to store, watching the skilled local artisans at work and generally just soaking up the fantastic energy that is so abundant in this place. It was not until I met up with Michael and Jon that I learnt that not all had been so perfect in the town that afternoon. In fact Li Jiang had just experienced its first murder and some of the Ghost Riders had almost been witnesses to the heinous crime!
Although they had narrowly missed out on seeing the dastardly deed being carried out they were there in time to see the chosen felon being captured by the police and almost being executed on the spot by a furious lynch mob, presumably made up of friends and relatives of the victim with a few hangers on who were keen to inflict summary justice.
The arresting policeman apparently had wasted no time in administering some preliminary justice of his own by virtue of his large stick and unholstered pistol. The resultant trail of blood could just as easily have come from the perpetrator as from the victim himself. The local “CSI” team arrived to make a belated and apparently superficial examination of the crime scene. We could probably assume that final justice was also about to be meted out in a similarly rapid and permanent fashion.
Once all the excitement of the crime had died down, with police and perpetrator out of sight, life quickly returned to order in the old town. By that evening there was no remaining indication that we were walking through a crime scene.
Later we met up with David in the town centre, walking a short distance to another restaurant where we again separated into spicy and non-spicy tables. I was quite happy to join the latter table, as I have a theory as to why some people crave a geometric progression of successively hotter and hotter food. Surely it is because they have destroyed their taste buds then have no alternative other than to unendingly increase the ante in a vain attempt to regain the taste sensations they once enjoyed.
The next hour was spent in yet another orgy of eating as plate after plate piled high with food was produced from the kitchen. I don’t think I have ever eaten so much as I had in the previous couple of days. If the Chinese eat so much why are they so darned thin? There’s a question to stump the obesity experts.
|Gathered for the start of the ride in Li Jiang|
First Day on the Bikes – Lashi Lake
Since this was finally going to be our first day on the bikes I awoke with an excited sense of anticipation. This was the day that we had been looking forward to for almost 12 months. I jumped under the shower – and promptly jumped back out again. Unfortunately the water was stone cold and I have never really been into inflicting pain on myself for no good reason.
Breakfast was a little uninspiring but I did manage to find a few items that appealed, although they must have been out of Coca Pops that morning. After breakfast we gathered in the car park to select our bikes for the ride. China Mike also took the opportunity to unveil his impressive legs. It was obvious that this guy had done some serious riding in his time. He later told me that he had ridden his Diamondback mountain bike up to 120 kph on a downhill ride. That would have been worth seeing. In fact he was the sought of guy who could safely kick sand in anyone’s face at the beach without risk of retaliation.
I grabbed the closest bike that looked about my size. It was a HASA bearing the number 38. As I took it on a test ride around the car park I discovered that apart from a few groans, squeaks, clicks and other assorted noises it was completely silent. It did have one small problem in that it could not engage the small chain ring. Apart from that it was perfect.
|The first day on the bikes|
We were soon all lined up posing for the obligatory group photos before winding out of the car park then straight across the busy main road. Instant panic ensued, but we all managed to survive this near death experience, escaping to the quiet back roads around Lashi Lake.
On the way we stopped at a friendly village to completely disrupt their primary school, leaving the entire school population more hyped up than if they have just consumed a truck load of red cordial. Phil’s Frisbee was quite a hit with the kids, although when Glenda approached for a photograph the kids all ran for their lives. It was just like Moses parting the Red Sea. None of us could understand what she had done to instill such fear in them. In spite of the commotion going on at the school gate the teachers seemed strangely reluctant to appear. Such unexpected experiences are what this type of travel is all about – the secret is to just go with the flow, letting events happen around you. I have found that is how some of the most special moments of any trip unfold.
|Night Life in Amazing Li jiang - one of our favourite spots|
|Sakura's Restaurant in Li Jiang - the food was amazing !|
Lunch was held near a Buddhist Temple Complex and gave us an opportunity to explore the surrounds. Then it was back on the bikes for the somewhat leisurely ride back to the hotel. The 37 km ride was completed by early afternoon and gave us plenty of time to either rest, chat or return to Old Li Jiang for more shopping.
We had already decided that dinner would be at Sakura’s once again. Everyone had loved the atmosphere of that place and the service provided by our smiling waiter. Young Steven impressed us all with his prodigious ability to eat more than any four normal men combined and I enjoyed the best pizza that I have ever eaten. I thought it was ironic that I had to come to China to find the world’s best pizza.
After tea we entered into the singing duels that this part of Li Jiang is well known for. We bravely sat in the top tier of the balcony and performed such classic Australian favourites as “Tie me Kangaroo Down Sport”, “I love to have a Drink With Duncan” and even (when we were running out of ideas) “We’re Happy Little Vegemites”. After each performance a challenge is shouted across the canal “yassoo, yassoo, ya ya sooo” (apparently loosely translated as “come on, come on”). Unfortunately the competition was fierce so we were no match for the professionals on the other side of the canal, and finally had to reluctantly admit defeat.
After dark the old town centre bursts into light and life with thousands of red Chinese lanterns strung from every possible hanging point along with extensive bud and feature lighting helping to make the whole place into a fairy wonderland. The streets are packed with hundreds of happy people partying the night away. It was fantastic to see so many people of all ages just having such a fun time together.
On the way back to the hotel a few of us joined a large circle of people folk dancing around a central fire. We were soon invited to join in the fun, although I never did quite master the ever changing foot movements. It was a perfect way to round off a lovely day. We all knew that tomorrow we would be leaving Li Jiang to begin the ride in earnest.
The road to Bai Shui He
Riding out of Li Jiang in cool but fine conditions we quickly left the city behind as we began the 49 km trip to Bai Shui He (“White Water River”). The first section of this ride took us through a succession of small rural villages where we were able to witness everyday country life at first hand. The responses we got from the locals were invariably friendly , especially from the bright eyed children who would wave happily to us as we rode past.
|The view from my window at Bai Shai He ("White Water River")|
We had not ridden far before we found ourselves making our way through another small village. Its narrow cobblestoned streets were neat and clean indicating that the locals took pride in their upkeep. A small Naxi woman, probably no taller than 140 cm, approached us and started chatting animatedly with China Mike. We later found out that she wanted to invite us all to her house for lunch.
Finally we were beginning to get into some serious climbing giving us our first chance to put our 6 months of training to good use. Zig zagging up a mountain pass got the legs and lungs working hard before a brief respite on a more level section. It was then time to head off road to test out some of our bike handling skills. At one point we stopped to check for directions. When David pulled up to join us he suffered every cyclist’s worst nightmare – a decleating mishap of the most embarrassing kind which sent him sprawling sideways off the road and down a short embankment. He thus had the extreme indignity of having the first (and self inflicted) crash of the ride, and to make matters even worse we were all there to witness it.
After David had dusted himself off and the laughter had finally died down we continued on our way. A delicious picnic lunch was a very pleasant way to prepare for the more strenuous climbing of the afternoon. The final ascent to Bai Shui He involves a testing climb up to 3084 metres before an exhilarating descent down to the river and holiday resort. The road is smooth and had recently been fitted with safety barriers which helped to allay some of our fears on the tight bends.
Since Bai Shui is progressively being turned into a national park most of the accommodation has already been closed and/or demolished. The only rooms we could find for the evening were in a quaint Korean guest house where we divided up 4 to a room (3 of whom even got a bed). Actually the rooms were very comfortable and the views out over the lake and the surrounding towering snow capped peaks were priceless.
|Our Korean Guest House in Bai Shui He|
Once the sun set the temperature quickly dropped to near freezing, sending everyone in search of warm clothing. Dinner was provided in the palatial dining room complete with very high ceilings and wonderfully ornate light fittings, obviously a remnant of earlier and much busier times. We filled two tables while the remaining twenty or so other huge tables were a silent reminder that this building too is earmarked for imminent demolition. Only a few light bulbs were operating to provide any illumination in the cavernous interior with the dim lighting helping to add to the moody atmosphere of this place.
We retired early to bed in anticipation of the hard day that lay ahead. So far everyone had kept in good health although I could feel the beginnings of a solid headache taking root in the back of my head. I hit the pillow and soon settled into a rather restless sleep of jumbled dreams and brief periods of wakefulness where I watched the full moon reflected in the still turquoise water of the nearby lake.
When the alarm went off at 6.30 am I was concerned to find that my headache had got worse. With such a long and hard day ahead I was not looking forward to the prospect of a 38 km downhill ride on cobblestones. I reached for the aspirin and swallowed a couple. After a moment’s thought I reached for a third and swallowed it too, hoping that they would help dull the ache thumping away in my brain.
On to Haba Snow Mountain
The mechanics had been working on the bikes during the night so I was pleased to find that the grating noise had stopped emanating from the bottom bracket area. I don’t know what magic they had performed but obviously it had worked.
|Just one of the interesting characters you see every day|
Because Bai Shui is situated in a hollow it is impossible to avoid an early climb and soon we were all labouring away in our granny gears trying to regain the altitude we had lost the previous afternoon. Gradually the legs started to warm up, although my breathing was laboured and heavy. We found ourselves zig zagging upwards on a rough cobblestoned road in which every bump resonated through the hollow space inside my head. I had to resign myself to taking the climb in short stages with frequent rest stops to let the breathing settle down and take a sip of water.
At this altitude dehydration can set in rapidly and it is essential to drink up to one litre of water for every hour of hard physical effort and riding a bike up a 6 to 9% gradient certainly qualifies as hard work.
Finally every one of us was at the top of the climb and we were relieved when the cobblestones gave way to a smooth black top bitumen surface. Morning tea at Yak Meadow gave us a chance for a rest or (for some) the opportunity for some unexpected shopping at the market. Steve took pity on me handing me another two Nurofin tablets to further anaesthetize my headache. In the meantime the smooth operators of the local shop took advantage of our more gullible shoppers by flogging them some dubious “yak leather” handicrafts.
The next section took us to the highest point of the ride at nearly 3300 metres. This was the signal to stop and pose for some triumphant group photos before we began the mammoth 38 km descent to Daja. Since the start of the ride all of our team members had been warned about this road which would take us on a scenic descent from 3300 metres down to approximately 1700 metres, and all of it on a rough cobblestone surface that would challenge even serious mountain bikers.
|The faithful support crew - China Mike, Tall Michael, Miss Wu, David, Glenn|
This gave everyone ample opportunity to hone their downhill skills and experience some of the most exhilarating cycling you could ever imagine. Although this road is almost completely devoid of traffic it does contain an ample assortment of holes, rocks and piles of gravel, just to make sure that your concentration does not wander. The only way to tackle such a surface is to abandon your cycling inhibitions, just letting the bike find its natural speed. With the front forks pounding away, forget about all the things that could go wrong and just savour the experience.
Soon everyone was wearing smiles as big as the Grand Canyon as they came alive to the occasion. I am normally a cautious rider but also discovered the fun of just riding on the edge. I was also pleased that the constant pounding seemed to frighten my headache away.
The descent was not without some incidents as four riders suffered punctures and had to wait for the support van to come to their assistance, but fortunately everyone made it safely down to the valley floor without any serious mishaps. As we progressively got lower and lower we gained glimpses of the Yangtze Valley so far below us. The further we progressed the more the valley opened up before our eyes, until we could go down no further.
The final few kilometres took us through several amazing small villages, each immaculate with its crops nearing harvest time, neat piles of cut firewood, classic Chinese architecture and always smiling and waving locals. What a perfect way to end the “mother of all descents”.
At the bottom of the descent everyone was emotionally intoxicated with the sheer thrill of having completed a once in a lifetime experience. Surely there are few roads on earth that could compare with this one. It was especially pleasing to see Glenda roll into the pit stop with a huge glowing smile of achievement on her face. It was almost unbelievable to recall that 12 months ago she could not ride at all. Seeing everyone else enjoy themselves so much was a fantastic testimony to the success of the ride.
It was also so good to see the way that our group of riders had melded together. Although we are from a wide range of backgrounds and with an age range from 28 to 67 years, there was already a great spirit that had developed and I was sure that the friendships had been indelibly strengthened by so many unforgettable memories that we had already shared.
After lunch in Daju we rode the short distance to the high West bank of the Yangzte River where we handed over the bikes to a team of porters who were already waiting to carry them safely down to the ferry. We then followed them down the steep and unstable path to the river bank. An ancient ferry safely conveyed us all to the opposite bank where we faced the harder task of climbing back up to the top of the steep cliff. In many respects this was the most exhausting part of the day’s activities. With our packs on our backs this climb was demanding and soon had everyone puffing in earnest as we reawakened unfamiliar muscles.
|Haba Snow Mountain Inn - a fascinating place to stay|
Once at the top of the cliff we transferred our bikes and packs to four waiting trucks and minibuses for the 20 km drive to Haba. This road is incredibly beautiful as it winds its way higher and higher out of the valley, back up into the snow capped peaks. It also afforded us our first glimpses of the entrance to Tiger Leaping Gorge itself. When we finally tumbled out of the trucks we had regained an altitude of almost 3,000 metres and spent the evening under the imposing shadow of the 5396 metre Haba Snow Mountain.
During the ride to Haba an interesting event took place in one of the minibuses. While we were gazing at the view all around us, the interior of the van was filled with a noxious gas that gave undeniable evidence that someone had committed a bodily indiscretion of the worst kind. Not known for gilding the lily, Kevin, sitting right next to the driver exclaimed with a loud voice “Who farted?” As the rest of us held our breaths and looked around for a culprit, the driver casually reached under his seat and produced a can of air freshener. Not only did we now know who was the vile offender, we also knew that he understood at least one word of English. It was a precious moment and one that we will long be remembered with a chuckle.
|What a perfect road for cycling - We Loved It !!!|
The Haba Snow Mountain Inn had a dark, low ceilinged room where a most welcome hot wood stove was burning slowly. We huddled together to share our experiences of the long day that was finally drawing to a close. After dinner we all retired early, looking forward to a well deserved “sleep in”. The night was almost perfectly quiet with no road noise of any kind. In fact it would have been completely silent if not for the nearby dog who had apparently been practicing for the world non stop barking competition. Judging by his performance that night he should be a shoe in to win. He was still going strong the following morning.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
When the sun dawned the next morning, some of the group set out on a 4 hour walk to a nearby village but I was determined to take the opportunity for a well earned rest. After the headache of the previous day I was still feeling rather washed out so decided to simply chill out and snooze on the soft arm chair, enjoying the warm morning sun on my body.
|Gathered to admire the view - note the perfect road surface|
Lunch was delayed until about 1 pm and we had previously decided to set off in two groups – the hares and the tortoises. Because of more delays the tortoises group included nearly everyone. During the previous drive we had gained the impression that the first few kilometres out of Haba would be very steep and no one seemed too enthusiastic at the prospect of riding back up to the top of the pass. As is very often the case the actual climb was not as challenging as we anticipated. With our granny gears engaged and a comfortable cadence we all made the 7 km climb in good shape.
As we pulled to the side of the road at the summit we were joined by a young couple of Canadian cyclists who were battling their way up the long climb from the Yangtze. They had just run out of water and the diminutive female companion looked like she was just about to collapse. In order to assist her to the top of the climb her male partner had tied a rope from her bike to the back of his. I suspected that neither would have dreamed that they would round the corner and meet 15 Australian cyclists with 2 support vehicles. We were able to replenish their supplies as well as giving them the welcome news that they had only 7 kilometres of downhill riding before they reached Haba – their stop for the evening. We chatted together for some time before heading off in opposite directions.
After the brief stop is was time to prepare for the long smooth downhill section. The road was in excellent condition with smooth black bitumen and concrete edging. It was an exhilarating feeling to be able to roll and enjoy the incredible scenery unfolding before our eyes. Last year when I came to Tiger Leaping Gorge we had turned left after crossing the Yangtze and ridden directly into the mouth of the Gorge. This meant that we had not been able to observe the entrance to the Gorge from this vantage point. It was truly awe inspiring.
Each bend in the road revealed more incredible scenic vistas to stagger the senses. From this angle the Yangtze Valley forms a huge amphitheatre with the soaring backdrop of the Himalayas to form a spectacular frame. Even though the slope was continuously downhill, the howling wind meant that on a couple of sections we actually had to pedal hard to make any progress. I think this is the only time I have had to change to the granny gear to pedal downhill!
As I neared the bottom of the slope I could see the support vehicle and a few riders gathered a few hundred metres ahead. I assumed that it was an afternoon tea stop so coasted to a halt alongside. It was only then that I was shown the bloodstain on the bitumen and told that Daryl had come to serious grief on the tight bend. Apparently the bike had skidded sideways with Daryl losing control and hitting the road heavily.
The resultant cuts and abrasions made him a sorry sight indeed. Fortunately Steve’s medical background came to the fore and he was already busy applying bandages to his face, legs and hands. Although the crash had been serious the preliminary assessment was that he had no broken bones. It was a salutary reminder that accidents can happen at any time and that care and attention must be exercised on these sections.
|See the road winding all the way down to the valley floor|
We continued on to the Gorge in a more sombre mood. For Daryl the day, and quite possibly the entire Great China Ride, had come to a premature end. Everyone’s thoughts were with him as he was transported in the van to Sean’s Guest House, about 15 km further up the road.
Once we had reached the valley floor we could clearly see the gaping entrance to the Gorge beckoning us onwards. The only major obstacle waiting to be overcome was the relentless headwind which seemed determined to send us back to Haba. This, combined with the steady climb, made the final few kilometres a taxing ride. It is no wonder that each rider was so glad to be able to round the final bend and dismount at Sean’s Guest House.
One by one the tired riders climbed the stone steps and flopped on a welcoming chair in the courtyard. Within fifteen minutes all the remaining riders were safely in the Gorge and reminiscing on the day’s events.
When the Ghost Riders came here in 2006 the extension at the rear of the Guest House was still only at the frame stage. By 2007 the building was complete and we were thrilled to find a two storey collection of wonderfully inviting rooms, each with its own private facilities. Each room had a very attractive combination of timber and stone interiors. The external windows were all double glazed with the two sheets of glass sandwiching a layer of intricately carved latticework. The final result was a magical melding of old and new.
|Heading to Tiger Leaping Gorge|
We were also relieved to discover that, provided you waited long enough, the water did eventually run hot, allowing us to enjoy the best showers we had had for some time. In the meantime Daryl had been more closely examined and it was decided that he would need more expert medical attention than we could provide. He was patched up and set off on the 5 hour return drive to the nearest medical clinic. He was not to return until late in the evening wearing six stitches in his chin and assorted other bandages on other parts of his body. We all knew that the next few days would be very painful for him but hoped that he might still have a chance of getting back on the bike before the end of the trip.
As another day drew to a close we retired to our clean and warm beds to gain a good night’s rest. With the next day being a free day we were looking forward to an opportunity to chill out and enjoy some good food and fellowship. For those of our riders who were incapacitated it would also provide them with a day’s rest to prepare for the second half of the expedition. I looked out of my bedroom window at the mighty silhouette of the towering 4,000 metre rock wall opposite and could just see the faint hint of the rising full moon. This must surely be one of the most spectacularly beautiful places you could find anywhere and I felt especially blessed to have been able to visit here for a second time.
|The road winds its way through Tiger leaping Gorge. Can you imagine a more spectacular place to ride a bike ?|
The food at Sean’s is legendary. It is hard to understand how they can constantly prepare such a wide range of Western and Chinese food from such a primitive kitchen, but produce it they do. The rest day gives our riders a chance to either explore the Gorge or to simply soak up the experience of just being there. I chose to do a short walk along the road, catch up with laundry and bring my diary up to date. The next day we would be back on the bikes to ride out of the Gorge and on to the famous city of Shigu. The first few kilometres from Sean’s are all uphill and we were hoping that the wind would be kind to us, blowing from a favourable direction instead of pummeling us directly in our faces as it had done on the way in.
Leaving the Gorge
The road upstream from Sean’s began with a 2 kilometre climb. After a rest day it is always hard to get the legs working again but our task was made all the harder by the cruel wind racing down the gorge and fighting us every inch of the way. It felt like every metre of progress could only be gained by sheer force of will. After crossing a large bridge near Tina’s Guest House the road started to descend in a most impressive fashion with numerous switch backs and incredible views of the Yangtze River and the Gorge itself.
|Our room in Sean's Guest House - we didn't have to rough it every night|
As we turned some of the corners the brute force of the wind felt like it was about to tear us off the road. I was starting to feel as if every road in China came complete with its own headwind. Whichever direction we were riding the wind was always in our face. Further on towards the entrance to the Gorge the road deteriorated to a rough stony track with abundant opportunities to fall heavily off the bike. This section involved a great deal of concentration but we were rewarded with the sure knowledge that very few cyclists have had the privilege of riding this way before us.
Eventually we emerged from the gorge and followed the river upstream for quite a few kilometres. The road in this section is new, wide and smooth and we even passed an area with a multitude of brand new accommodation units which we discovered were nearly all vacant. Apparently they are having great difficulty attracting new settlers because of the lack of business and employment opportunities.
Lunch was a pleasant affair at a local restaurant by the river. Although the appearance was a little shabby the food was excellent. After lunch we continued over a short climb before a thrilling descent to Shigu. I have leant from experience that Shigu is one town that looks better from a distance than it does at first hand. Although the town has great historical significance to the Chinese it is obvious that they have not done a great deal to maintain it in clean condition.
|On the way upstream through the Gorge|
For some reason Ken was especially keen to get into town before the rest of the peloton and, when he came to the toll gate at the end of the freeway, he had such a head of steam up that he decided to ride straight through without stopping. While in itself this might not seem like a serious misdemeanour, the fact that the boom gate was lowered at the time put a different slant on proceedings. His substantial momentum carried him straight through the gate, breaking it off at the hinge. Not willing to become the proud, but unwilling, owner of his own boom gate he decided to do the only wise thing that he could think of – do a runner and ride as fast he could to the hotel. We expected to have an unfriendly visit from the toll gate stormtroopers, but somehow the crime seemed to go unpunished. Since we already had Kevin’s pillowslip from the Camellia Hotel we didn’t really have room enough to bring Ken’s boom gate back on the airplane.
The accommodation in Shigu was at a rather forgettable hotel (which probably explains why I can’t remember the name) situated down a dirty alleyway off the noisy main street. Our room stank of stale tobacco smoke thanks obviously to the prolific smoking habits of the previous occupants. We were all looking forward to dinner, however the greasy fare that was produced by the kitchen left most of us out looking for other alternatives. Fortunately they did have cold Coca Cola and I had a large bag of cashew nuts that were just begging to be eaten.
A Real Cracker Night
Earlier in the ride I had asked if we could buy firecrackers so that we could stage our very own old style cracker night. This had originally been planned for Tiger Leaping Gorge but due to the fire danger this had been postponed till Shigu. After dark we walked to the local park carrying a large box filled with a frightening collection of industrial strength rockets and assorted other products of the Chinese fireworks makers. After Daryl’s accident I could understand why David (our tour leader) looked more than a little nervous. Perhaps he could visualize another trip to the local casualty ward. It was to be a night we would never forget.
|Gathered at Shigu to admire the river|
As soon as we arrived at the appointed detonation location I was immediately handed an impressive looking cylinder about 80 cm long and 2 cm in diameter. I was told to hold it over my head but I was more than a little concerned by the obvious mirth that this act triggered in the Chinese staff that were watching. The wick was lit amid much hilarity and I was left standing helplessly not knowing whether I was going to explode or take off. After a few anxious moments the action began when several loud detonations took place (some of which came from the firework in my hand) and exploding objects were sent flying high into the night Shigu sky.
The clear sky was lit up with a kaleidoscope of colour and noise causing the watching crowd to erupt into laughter. Soon everyone was joining in the fun with a large group of locals coming out of their houses to watch. The next fifteen minutes went by in a blur of continuous laughter as bangs and sparks flew in all directions. The experienced cracker handlers bent over the bulging box of fireworks with cigarettes hanging from their mouths and we could all see why every year several Chinese fireworks factories go up in smoke.
Midway through the spectacle one of the erupting crackers tipped over sending a torrent of fire and coloured sparks into our midst. It is hard to run when you are bent over double in laughter and I could not help but recall those innocent times of my own childhood when cracker night was such an important part of the community calendar. I think we are the poorer for having it removed from our lives. In any case it was a magic evening. If I close my eyes now I can almost still hear the laughter and smell the gunpowder that filled the air during our “Cracker Night in Shigu”.
When the final cracker had exploded and the last fire was extinguished we walked back to the hotel. We all knew that the next day was one of the longest of the entire ride and a good night’s sleep would be essential. I probably would have slept better if it had not been for the tireless yap dog that managed to bark continuously until 6.00 am the next morning and the overwhelming cigarette stink emanating from my doona. In spite of these minor irritations I did manage to get a few hours of dreamless sleep.
The Road to Shaxi
In order to get to our next overnight stop at Shaxi we had to first retrace our route of the previous afternoon. This of course involved a long climb back out of Shaxi which soon had us all puffing once again. Such climbs are not for those of us blessed with more ample proportions, and I once again found myself cursing the force of gravity. For Ken the return trip was made all the more dangerous because of the very real danger of his being recognised at the toll gate.
We all passed where we had stopped for afternoon tea the previous day, then climbed on for several more kilometres before the gradient finally relented enough to allow us some easier going. This was then followed by a series of undulations (sometimes called “minor fluctuations”) in the road that took us through another succession of small villages.
The weather started to deteriorate but the one constant was the head wind, always taunting us and daring us to push harder. We finally pulled into Jin Chuan about 60 km from the starting point. This is a chaotic wild west style town with an endless road block of traffic and tooting trucks. It was a relief to get off the bikes and sit down (on very small chairs) to enjoy a most excellent lunch.
After leaving Jin Chuan the traffic got even heavier as we for fought for space with belching behemoths, cars, bikes and a never ending assortment of moving machinery of every imaginable size and shape. We had been making quite good progress when an errant on-coming car forced us to bunch up on the edge of the road. I heard a quick warning shout from Jon before he careered into my handlebars, sending both of us sprawling into the dirt, narrowly missing a deep trench and a large tree.
I staggered to my feet spitting blood and dirt from my mouth and started to examine the damage to body and bike. Fortunately the damage to both Jon and myself was mostly superficial although I did lose some skin from my nose, chin, hand and knee. Both my wrists were very sore, making it difficult for me to grip the brakes or handlebar. Apart from those minor inconveniences I was OK and able to get back on to continue the ride.
The support crews were quickly on the scene and after about fifteen minutes we were both underway, shaken but not broken. What we didn’t know at that time was that the most fierce climb of the day was still ahead of us. This took us up and up a narrow, rough (but fortunately deserted) rural road. Once again the riders put their heads down and struggled their way to the summit. Because of my sore wrists I could not pull back on the bars which made climbing even more laborious than usual for me.
After what seemed like an interminable time the summit was finally reached where we all stopped for a short breather before the last rough downhill section to Shaxi. This descent seemed to go on forever but we eventually arrived at our inn and our 15 riders huddled together in shell shocked silence while we wondered what was going to come next.
From what we could see in the fading light, the inn was quite beautiful and the town of Shaxi consisted of an intriguing mix of old, but very clean houses separated by narrow cobblestoned alleyways. It was impossible to tell how old some of the buildings must have been but judging from their weathered appearances I bet they could have told some fascinating stories.
One of the more pleasant features of Shaxi is that it is much cleaner than many of the villages we had seen and after dark it was perfectly quiet. It didn’t even have a single barking dog to disturb the peace. It also didn’t have any hot water, leaving us to retire to bed dirty and tired. I tried not to feel embarrassed when I sat on the nice clean sheet and left a black mark behind, although I feared that I might be forced to buy it before being allowed to leave.
During the night the only sound to disturb the silence was the regular cacophony of Kevin’s snoring. In spite of this I was soon adrift on my first 10 hour sleep for many years. It really had been a long day!
Free Day in Shaxi
I eventually awoke at about 8 am and staggered out into the light. I was relieved to see some patches of blue sky overhead giving promise that we might be blessed with a sunny day (and hence some hot water). When all our riders had managed to fight off the grip of Morpheus we sat down at the miniature tables in the courtyard. It is not all that easy to eat when you are sitting with your knees pressed tightly into your armpits.
The owner of the inn more than made up for the uncomfortable seating by presenting us with a huge bowl of warm cow’s milk , pancakes and honey. The previous night China Mike had told us that we would be having “bees” for breakfast, now we understood what he meant. It was the closest thing we had experienced to cereal and milk since leaving Australia and it was hungrily devoured by our enthusiastic riders.
|Nearing the end of the ride - loaded with memories but not with cares|
With our tummies full thoughts started to turn to servicing the opposite ends of our alimentary canals. This was in fact the first Asian “squat style” toilets we had been inflicted with and the prospect of precision alignment over a tiny hole while precariously balanced on the soles of your feet does not inspire confidence in scoring a bulls eye. One by one people returned from the distant toilets with stories of either triumph or terror. For some reason people even seemed intent on describing in lurid detail just how well their digestive systems were working. As Noel commented on more than one occasion “Too much information !”
With empty bowels and pocketfuls of Yuan we walked off to explore some of this fascinating town. Our accommodation appeared to be in the most interesting part of town with some of buildings looking as if they could be many hundreds of years old. Then again, in China it is often hard to ascertain the age of buildings when so many of the construction materials are recycled over and over again.
|Enjoying a coffee in Shaxi|
I was momentarily excited when I discovered an enticing looking bakery crammed with cookies, cakes and other sweet looking delicacies. My initial enthusiasm waned when I noticed the large number of flies also happily inhabiting the glass display cases and busily feasting on the sugary contents. I walked away somewhat crestfallen.
Later that day Mark and I went off on a shopping expedition of our own. After the great fun we had had with our cracker night at Shigu I thought I might buy some more fireworks for a small celebration that night. When I asked David the Chinese word for fireworks he replied that it was “goro”. Armed with this knowledge, Mark and I visited a number of shops but we were met with confused looks from the respective proprietors. Eventually with the aid of hand signals and sound effects we did manage to secure a small quantity of the crackers we were looking for. It was only on return to the inn that we learned that we had indeed been asking for “dogmeat”. David had really set us up but I now know what to ask for when we return to China in 2008.
|Meandering laneway in Magical Shaxi|
Linton had also been on a shopping expedition of his own that day. He had realised that he needed a new supply of deodorant and somehow managed to find the local pharmacy. He was even happier when he found that the owner spoke a little English, but he was not prepared for the reply he got when he asked for deodorant. “Arsehole or Ball?” the owner asked with a serious professional look on his face. Linton reddened while trying to think of an appropriate answer. It was not until the owner produced a can of aerosol and a roll-on for him to choose between that the pharmacist’s original question became clear.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent in a lazy fashion with a short nap followed by a long rest. The freshening wind made me hope that it would NOT be blowing in our faces when we headed off tomorrow. We had already been warned that it would probably be the hardest day of the entire trip.
The Going Gets Tough
|Pretty main steet of Shaxi (The Paris Quarter ?)|
Although it is true we had been warned to expect a challenge on the climb out of Shaxi, after the hills we had conquered in the past ten days we felt confident that we could tackle anything that China could throw at us – headwinds, cobblestones, trucks, hills, you name it we beat it. The first couple of kilometres were not so bad, although the laughter of the locals watching us depart up the “road of no return” should have given us some degree of foreboding. The weather also started to set in with low cloud cover and a gentle drizzle of rain.
Soon the surface deteriorated to rough cobblestones and the gradient quickly increased to at least 6% or more. By choosing a path near the edge of the road it was possible to avoid the worst corrugations so we all made quite steady progress. Although this was strenuous it was no worse than many other climbs we had completed.
It was only when the cobblestones ended that reality hit hard. The rain had converted the previously dusty surface into glue-like red mud which quickly caked on our knobby tyres to make any sort of forward motion almost impossible. We were soon reduced to pushing our bikes through this incredible “slough of despair”, fighting not only the steep slope but the exhausting task of having to stop to remove the build up of mud every few minutes. Just when we thought the going couldn’t get any worse the punctures started.
The GPS informed me that we were steadily gaining altitude . When we stopped for a short break at 2380 metres I had the sad realisation that our climb was still less than half completed. In addition, the temperature was steadily dropping leaving us in real danger of hyperthermia as we shivered in our short knicks and wet lycra jerseys.
Once the group had reformed we resumed our push for the top of the pass but to our dismay the going actually got tougher still. I was not sure which was worse, the gluey mud or the sections of the track that were strewn with huge loose rocks and gravel. There was certainly no way that any support vehicle could reach us here in the event of a real problem. In many ways we were really on our own.
As I turned each switchback I hoped that the crest would finally be in sight but it seemed to be endlessly elusive. I had no choice but to simply ignore the pain and keep pushing onwards and upwards until eventually I reached the point where there was simply no uphill left. Mark had already summited a few minutes earlier and was sitting by his bike with a blank look on his face. The GPS revealed that we had now climbed over 800 metres since leaving Shaxi.
Over the next thirty minutes the rest of the team arrived in various stages of distress. I was somewhat relieved to see China Mike arrive dripping in sweat and panting heavily. It indicated that he really was human after all. By this time we were above the cloud layer and had very little visibility in the freezing conditions. I stomped about in a futile attempt to keep warm but lycra is not known for its heat retaining properties. We had assumed that at least the hardest part was now behind us. We assumed wrong.
Instead of the nice downhill coast the next 3 kilometres actually involved a further altitude gain of another 100 metres, before the descent finally began in earnest. At the top was a desolate plateau, covered in stunted shrubs. There was a not a tree in sight. You can imagine our surprise when in this bleak spot we turned a corner and discovered a remote village with several women out working in the field looking after the herds. We assumed that the men folk were snugly sitting by the fire in one of the small huts. When China Mike called out for directions, they apparently invited us back to their hut to escape from the weather. Another example of genuine Chinese hospitality.
Once we knew which path to take we climbed wearily back on the bikes to resume our struggle. Instead of being easier than the climb, the downhill was, if anything, even more daunting. The “road” surface deteriorated to nothing but a rocky goat track and the rocks posed a continual menace, threatening to throw us off the bike at any moment.
If you managed to gain any speed you would turn a corner and find yourself back in the gluey red mud, forcing us at times to get off and push the bikes downhill! This was cycling in the extreme, certainly harder than anything we had faced thus far.
As we gradually descended we were rewarded with stunning views down into the valley where we could see a large blue lake and numerous small villages scattered across the valley floor. Somewhat surprisingly we could also see a large blackened area that had obviously been scorched in a recent bushfire. The smell of smoke still hung in the damp air. We later learnt that the fire had occurred just over a week earlier during the long hot dry spell. This was another reminder that the Ghost Riders had broken the Yunnan drought.
About four and a half hours after leaving Shaxi the first riders finally rolled into a small village. The roads were covered with huge mounds of black straw and rotting manure, which were apparently maturing ready for application onto their crops. The thought of crashing face first into one of those piles was an added incentive to keep concentrating until we were safely into the village itself.
Not long after we had dismounted the locals came out to smile at us and welcome us to the village. We were beckoned to follow them into one of their homes. Since our shoes were still covered with wet red mud you can imagine our embarrassment at dirtying their clean floors. They were absolutely unfased and invited us to sit down and warm ourselves at their small fire. To me this simple act re-emphasised the fact that there is a common thread of kindness that flows through most people and it so often seems that the poorest people are the ones most willing to share what they have. It had been a hard day so this expression of charity will remain vivid in my mind for the rest of my life. It is moments like this that make adventure travel so rewarding.
Over the next 35 minutes the remainder of the riders arrived at the village, all of them in various stages of exhaustion and hyperthermia. Once the last riders had arrived we shook hands with our hosts then continued the short distance down the rest of the mountain to the sealed road and the belated lunch that was waiting for us. My watch told me that it had taken something like 5 and a half hours to cover the 30 km section.
The Hot Springs of Er Yuan
After lunch the remaining 23 km ride to Er Yuan was completed in relative ease along a sealed road with very few climbs. The waiting hot springs and showers were a most welcome way to end the most exhausting day of the trip. The support crews immediately went to work cleaning and servicing the bikes. They were still working well into the night and were still at it when we awoke the next morning. That evening I settled into a deep sleep under a clean now white doona and tried hard not to dream of rocks and mud.
The Road to Dali
In the Tour de France the final day is traditionally a rather social affair, with riders coasting along, chatting and even sipping champagne. In a similar way it is a tradition in all our China Rides that the last day is a day for a gentle pelotonic roll into Dali. With this in mind I told everyone to keep together and to make sure that they were all wearing the coveted yellow jersey.
To our dismay the day dawned grey and drizzly, once again reminding us that when we break a record dry spell, we do it properly. The mechanics had been working for many hours working on the bikes after the beating we gave them yesterday (we beat the bikes NOT the mechanics). When we found Glen still bent over a bike with ball bearings and tools spread all around the floor it was obvious that there would be a delay in our planned starting time.
By 10 am the bikes were finally all certified to be ready for riding so we bade farewell to the hot springs of Er Yuan and turned our sights towards Dali. To my horror, no sooner had we turned out of the hotel than the first group of riders disappeared into the distance at high speed leaving our peloton in tatters with riders quickly spread out over a couple of kilometres. This was NOT how it was meant to be.
I set off after the premature accelerators and eventually caught up to them a few kilometres further down the road. With my blood boiling I forcefully reminded them of the standing orders for the final day of the ride. Suitably chastened, they stopped to wait for the rest of the group to catch up and form the peloton we had planned.
Once that had been achieved we were able to settle into a most enjoyable pace of 20 kph along the mostly flat final section of road. It was the ideal way to finish a hard 2 week’s riding and to enjoy some of the scenery along the way. The weather remained drizzly but that did little to dampen anyone’s spirits. After 25 km we stopped by the roadside for morning tea knowing that in little more than another hour our long ride would be over.
On the outskirts of Dali we followed the side of the huge lake for many kilometres and then caught first sight of the impressive Three Pagodas complex. The huge multilane freeway that had been under construction on my last visit was now complete and gave us a magnificent surface to ride for the last few kilometres to the old town itself. It is a strange feeling to be riding on such an impressive highway with almost no cars whatsoever.
|Part of the old town of Dali - a shopper's paradise|
All that remained was to turn off the freeway and follow the huge bluestone wall of the old town centre till we reached the MLC Guest house which was to be our home for the next two days. As we climbed off our HASA bikes for the final time I am sure that most of our team members were filled with a mixture of emotions. It really had been a memorable ride – tougher than we might have expected but certainly one that we will never forget. What a magnificent way to forge life long friendships and to discover your own personal strengths and weaknesses along the way.
To our relief the water at the hotel was hot and the cappucinos excellent. That evening we had our final celebratory dinner with the support crew. The huge outdoor wooden table was candle lit and soon covered with a delicious assortment of food as we sat together to talk about the time we had shared together. Dozens of red Chinese lanterns and other concealed coloured lights helped make a magical, romantic scene.
After dinner we made our farewell speeches, before shaking hands with our Chinese friends for the final time. Over the past couple of weeks we really had grown to admire the tremendous contributions each one of them had made to the success of the ride. We all knew that, in a few day’s time we would have to face the difficult task of readjusting to everyday life back in Australia. But then again, there’s always next year……
Thanks to all of you who helped make the 2007 Great China Ride such an amazing experience.
Appendix One – List of articles damaged during the Ride
(a) One pillow case, property of the Camellia Hotel, irreparably damaged by Kevin on the second night in Kunming.
(b) One porcelain toilet, completely blocked in a most disgusting fashion as a result of an overload by Mega Mike.
(c) One boom gate on the outskirts of Shigu, snapped off by Ken Lister when he rode straight through without stopping. Still under investigation by the China Roads Bureau.
(d) Ten metres of bitumen road near Daju, damaged by Daryl during his death defying descent down from Haba. The roads patrol is still trying to remove the blood stains.
(e) Large number of concrete paving tiles in Shigu, scorched and burnt during the impromptu cracker night held by the Ghost Riders. Probably will need to be replaced.
(f) One rear derailleur, destroyed by Jon Bate during the technical descent between Shaxi and Er Yuan.
(g) Various sewer pipes across Yunnan Province, blocked through illegal use of toilet paper in hotels by selected team members.
(h) One small yap dog of Shigu, still receiving counseling after the abuse it received from some riders due to its keeping us up all night with its barking.
Appendix Two - Ride Data
Distance Travelled (km)
Total Ascent (m)
Final Elevation (m)
Bai Shui He
Tiger Leaping Gorge