A cynic would argue with gloomy enthusiasm that high hopes and fine expectations are a sure fire recipe for disappointment, as, I suspect, would many a realist. And so it was that I headed for Mongolia earlier this month with both high hopes, and a niggling foreboding of doom.
It is for some years now that I have been eager to host a Mongolia tour, and so the surprise meeting early this year with an agent in Ulaanbaatar who asked to cooperate on a camping tour in the Kangi Mountains gave me cause for much excitement and the anticipation of a super adventure to come.
As I discussed the details of the tour and my requirements with the agent I felt more and more that I was dealing with a trustworthy fellow who valued the need for quality highly, and believed in a fair and honest working relationship. And so it was that for the first time ever rather the venture alone or with a chum to inspect and explore a route I contacted a small group of PaintedRoads valued regulars and invited them to join me on a Mongolia expedition. Unsurprisingly most eagerly jumped at the chance of adventure in an unknown land and quickly became known collectively as, the LabRats.
And so it was that Dianne, Nigel, Marko, Phil, Keith, Echo, and I all met early in July in Ulaanbaatar’s Grand Khan Irish Pub, eager for a few pints of Gobi Gold and two weeks of Mongolian cycling adventure.
Rather than describe the two weeks in detail here and now I will let a few of my photos from the trip give you a little flavour of this wonderful land, and over the next week or so as I go though the pics I will post a few more prior to adding the tour to PaintedRoads' collection.
It is early days at the moment, we have just returned to our respective homes, but soon I will add the thoughts, comments, and opinions of the LabRats along with further images.
The bottom line for now is that I had no concern whatsoever to lumber my journey to Ulaanbaatar with nagging doubts. The Mongolia LabRat Run was absolutely superb in all respects. The crew were excellent, the food, produced in a kitchen tent was exceptional, the tents and the camping were great, and the overall organisation was splendid.
For anyone wishing to exchange the Westernised life of the 21st century for two weeks of wilderness, where neither car nor wifi nor crowds of people roam, then this tour is just the tonic. It’s a wilderness of trails, through desert and meadows and forests and pastures, across hills and valleys and rivers. It’s a land of nomadic herders who live a tough but pure life and understand the value of kindness, sharing, and friendliness, far above and beyond greed and materialism - am I smitten with Mongolia? Yes, I most certainly am, and I cannot wait to return.
Full details of the new Mongolia tour will follow soon.
Finally on a personal note, many thanks LabRats, it was, and you were, brilliant!
Our support vehicles were the rather wonderful Russian made UAZ - think of it as a VW camper on steroids.
A wilderness tour for sure, Mongolia offered a wonderful variety of terrain and riding from smooth tracks and grassy hills...
to river crossings
Camping was a civilised affair with a kitchen/dining tent, shower tent, loo tent, and a four made dome tent between one or two depending on booking
The camp chefs turned out an amazing selection of quality cuisine
The Orkhon valley, quite lovey
Cycling guide, mechanic, camp guard, and instant PaintedRoads legend - Toro
Riding across the pastures
From time to time we would over night in a ger camp, an agreeable and comfortable experience
Another wonderful meal. The food far exceeded expectations
Wide open spaces
One of the many nomads we met along the way
More friendly nomads
Meeting yaks, a regular occurrence
Cheers all, a typical tea break
Cycling in beautiful solitude
A sneak peak at a whole new tour
So many images and impressions are swimming in my head at the moment that it’s difficult to believe they are all from just one tour. It has taken me some time to calm these swirling fragmented images and organise them into some semblance of a tour description, but I am getting close, and am rather excited about it.
If your after advice on a cycling route you need to ask a cyclist. Fortunatly this fellow turned up on cue with some sound advice
Lijiang is a much visited tourist haunt in the very north of China’s Yunnan Province. Many visit this town with good reason - once away from the tourist hordes its cobbled streets are a delight to explore. Few though head north from here, quite likely because what lays ahead is a little daunting. On the southern edge of China’s Tibetan region the area north of Lijiang takes one into a land of immensely high mountains, dry dusty valleys, forests of pine and rhododendrons, pastures where yak graze, villages of wooden house, and the traditional fortress like stone mansions of the Tibetan people. Nomad camps are populated by motorbike riding cowboys (yak boys?), and guarded by roaming Tibetan Mastiffs. And so with much excitement Echo Lee and I drove north from Lijiang to explore PaintedRoads’ latest Chinese adventure.
Typical Tibetan architecture
Wot, No Bikes?
For the first time ever a PaintedRoads tour has been explored by car rather than by bicycle. Having made such a statement I shall state that it is not exactly true, as I have explored the region by bicycle on more than one occasion (see pics from the previouse blog post). What we were doing this time was going over ground previously ridden to see how things look in 2017, and to see how best to piece together the collection of routes we already have. Taking the car proved to be wise as we backtracked and amended the route on enough occasions to cover 1700 kilometres in order to put together a 900KMS tour.
Our resech vehicle
A Little Bit Of Yunnan
Early on in the tour is the dramatic little town of Bao Shan. Perched precariously atop a rocky outcrop high above the Yangtse river this delightful little spot has narrow flag stone streets where ponies are the only transport. Were it not such a choir to get to and from, Bao Shan would be a major tourist hotspot, however it is not easily accessible with the result that during our visit we were the only tourists in town. But a journey is what we are all about, and so the dramatic bicycle ride into town combined with the river journey away is perfect, and the dearth of tourist is a delight as we wander the streets.
Bao Shan perches high above the Yangtse river and is home for one night
Lugu Lake, our next port of call, is a beautiful body of fresh blue water right on the Yunnan/Sichuan border, and a fine spot for a rest and acclimatisation day before we head into the Tibetan world.
Lugu Lake, the site of our first rest/aclimatisation day
The last time I left Lugu Lake on a bicycle was ten years ago, and the way we chose back then was so vague it took us two days to find our way into Sichuan. Today the road is better, it is sealed, it is quiet and it is immensely beautiful. Two days after leaving Lugu Lake we find ourselves heading towards our first 4000 metre pass via our first climb in excess of 35KMS. The surface is super, and the gradient is kind, gaining just over a thousand metres during those 35KMS. But the air is thin, and one must never underestimate the effect of altitude when cycling.
And here in lies one of the beauties of this tour, although it is by all accounts a high altitude tour we have the benefit of sleeping notably lower each night that the day’s highpoint. This is a great feature to ensure safe and comfortable acclimatisation to altitude.
The only night we do not sleep lower is our overnight at Baheng Pasture. This is the midway point for our two day off road section, mostly gravel tracks, but with some rocky stuff thrown in to keep us on our toes. The pasture is a beautiful spot situated a tad below 4000 meters, and the following morning our first hour or so takes us to a beautiful pass that offers stunning views of snow peaks and a forty kilometre descent on a white gravel road - strada bianchi, fantastic stuff.
And In The End
As always when exploring a route there are highs and lows. The lows are generally when a part of the planned route doesn't work out for one reason or another, which in the case of this tour was the originally intended ending.
Chengdu was initially penciled in as the end of the tour, but as we explored it became acutely apparent it was just too far to fit into a realistic time frame.
So we drew things a tad closer to the start with the lofty town of Litang, which according to sources is the highest in the world. Cycling to the world’s highest town has quite a touch of drama, doesn’t it? It gives a wonderful element of romantic adventure, people would like that we thought, and so we went to Litang. This was an option that seemed quite splendid until we reached Litang, where we discovered that a decade after my first visit this dusty Wild West town remains a veritable dump. It has beautiful evening light, and we found a great hotel, but a tour must end on a high, and Litang, although lofty in altitude, does not create a sense of euphoria when, after a tough two weeks cycling, one rides into town. Litang also lacks a good infrastructure for departing the tour, and so with a flourish of pen we crossed Litang off of the list of ending places and refilled the car with fuel.
Three cycling day’s east of Litang is the town of Kanding, the final Tibetan town before dropping to the provincial capital of Chengdu at a lowly 900 metres above sea level. We set off to Kanding crossing valleys and passes and high plateaus on a road that a decade before had been bereft of traffic. Now, alas, dreadful internal combustion powered vehicles blight the road with fumes and noise. The road has no shoulder, and the traffic, whilst not exactly an endless stream, was to my mind too heavy to make for an enjoyable three days riding however beautiful the vistas may be - “this will not do” went the cry.
One of the hotels we will be using on the tour
And so we backtracked to the ending I had favoured secretly from the start, Shangri La. It was to my mind, in all ways but one, the perfect finale to this tour. To end with a dramatic ride across rugged wild passes into a beautiful Tibetan town with character, fine food, good locally brewed beer, and an airport was surly a winner. And so we looked.
It was a road I had ridden back in 2007 when it was empty, very empty. It was also remote, it was high, and I was keen to see it again.
Now it is remote, high, and empty. It is sealed in places and not in others. We also found the finest hotel of the tour along this route, which came as a surprise as finding accommodation was a big concern.
Typical for this tour, baron brown walls, a blue and white ceiling, and a carpet all hues of green
All but one?
I said that ending in Shangri La was a perfect finale in all ways but one, and that one short fall is an imaginary short fall. Unfortunately a lot of things in life are imagined but believed to be true. I expect that many people will tell you that Iran is a dreadful country to visit, that it is a nation of dastardly characters all out to slit your throat. You will, however, only be told this by people who have not been there, it is imaginary, it is untrue, but it stops people from visiting. Likewise fitting Shangri La into this tour can cause the imaginary problem that because Shangri La is the start point for our Yunnan tour the Sichuan Tibet tour must be similar, it is not. It is in actuality very different. Shangri La is the edge of the Tibetan world. In the Yunnan tour we start on the edge of Tibet and travel away, we drop lower and towards SE Asia. The Sichuan tour is high, and it is for the most part Tibetan in culture, in architecture, in scenery and smells and textures and taste. Shangri La is a fitting and very suitable end, a lovely place to wind down and relax, to wander the cobble stoned streets, to drink good coffee, and to enjoy a fine craft ale.
Architecturally this tour is divided with the earlier days seeing bare stone houses that give way to white painted abodes as we move on
This road is so new it doesnt even apear on digital maps, fortunatly we stumbled upon on and it fits perfectly in the tour
Anyone who has been on the PaintedRoads Yunnan tour will be only too aware of how delightful the little town of Shangri La is. Fly into Shangri La from the low lands and it feels high, Tibetan and exotic. Cycle into Shangri La from Sichuan and it feels low altiude, and more regular Chinese. It also has all the little luxuries one will no doubt have missed during two weeks of high altitude adventure cycling, cappuccino, apple pie, pizza, strong beer. It also boasts an airport but an hour’s hop from Chengdu and Kunming, and a lovely comfortable little boutique lodge we have been using for the past few years.
A small town as we head towards Shangri La
Oh I am looking forward to this tour. It will be the 2018 Lab Rat Run begining in Lijiang on June 2nd next year, and finishing 16 days later in Shangri La. Full details soon.
Yaks graze in a high altitude pasture
A Buddhist monestary along the way
High passes are always crowned with prayer flags through which the wind blows and sends incantations to the hevens. This pass sits at a lofty 4250 metres
The streets of Tibet
Yak pastures and pine trees at four thousand metres
The road into the vilage of Longsa Pasture, out highest night of the tour
Yep there's even cactus
The streets of Bao Shan
Many of the roads are perfectly sealed and bereft of traffic...
some are not sealed - this deserted gravel road descends for forty kilometres into the valley below...
where these fellows reside
Back when the 21st century was in it’s first flush of youth my adventure cycling chum and I developed something of a passion for China’s Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. We would cycle there from Thailand, via Lao, loaded to the gunwales with tent, and stove, and sleeping bags, and water filter, and sundry paraphernalia in search of wilderness and adventure.
As anyone who has joined me on the PaintedRoads Yunnan tour is well aware this is a truly beautiful part of the world. But for all the drama that the landscape of Yunnan has to offer it is heading away from the big hills, away from Tibet, away from an altogether other worldly experience. For it is in Sichuan Province to the north of Shangri-La where the real Tibetan world lays. Here we are heading into the Himalayas. Yaks and Tibetan nomads roam the grasslands that sit amidst the world’s most rugged, dramatic and lofty mountains.
Back in the early noughties as we rode through Sichuan we were crossing passes on our bicycles, higher than any peak in Western Europe on a daily basis. We would wake on the morning, as one does, and as the sun rose and warmed the land we would watch the hues of red play on the towering snow peaks from our tent, warm in sleeping bags and savouring coffee brewed in the wild.
It was clear all those years ago that this was the perfect venue for a Tibet cycling tour. Sichuan is as Tibetan as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, it is as beautiful, it is as buddhist, but for we Western cyclists it has the huge bonus that it is far easier to visit.
And now, after years of pontification and procrastination the time has come to put the Sichuan tour together. Having cycled much of the region on the past I have a good idea of the route I wish to use, and with much bicycle tour experience in the region Cathy and Lee have been able to give tremendous input into the route. Now, for the next couple of weeks Lee, Echo and I are taking a look at what will hopefully be PaintedRoads new tour for 2018 - Eastern Tibet.
I will keep a journel of our journey on this humble blog, updates of which publicised on Facebook.
Cheerio for now
Camping high in the Himalayan foot hills
Camp fire merriment
A typical Tibetan village
Spotting a poor old fellow huffing and puffing and wheezing to the top of a loftey pass these Tibetan kids rushed out to give me a push