April 28th – May 6th. 585km
Panzhihua was a good place to spend a couple of days. It was a decent sized city with lots of restaurants and shops, and a large pedestrian area in its centre. As with most rest days, we spent a lot of time in our hotel room, doing very little other than relaxing, watching tv and doing some washing. We did venture out a bit to explore and, of course, to eat. One evening we sat outside a bar in the a central square when one of the bar workers who spoke good English came over to talk with us. His English name was David, and he told us loads about Panzhihua and its surroundings. It’s famous for fruit growing thanks to its warm climate, especially its cherries which are the best in China and in season at the moment. We’d been seeing a lot of fruit stalls beside the road, so for the next few days we made sure to regularly pick up bags of cherries which were indeed pretty damn good. The town is perched on a steep hillside next to the river with parallel roads linked by staircases up and down the slope. This made leaving by bike a little tricky. We worked our way down to the lowest road next to the river which turned out to be a six lane expressway. It got us out of town quickly, but it wasn’t the most relaxing riverside ride. After about 10km of fast pedalling and checking over our shoulders, we turned off onto a minor road running up a river which branched off the Yangtze.
We continued north, past the Ertan hydroelectric dam, the second biggest in China (another nugget of info from David) and a number of other smaller hydro power stations. By the afternoon we were into a coal mining area, with coal trucks rolling up and down the road covering everything with a layer of fine black dust. We pulled up our face masks and got on with it, not making particularly quick progress though thanks to the roadworks and steep climbs. Eventually we crossed a pass which dropped us down into a green valley where fruit and veg growing seemed to be the main industry. Miyi seemed like a pleasant enough town to stop in, so we found a hotel. Unfortunately the owner like to do things exactly by the book, to the extend of driving me down to the police station to register our passports in person, when all I wanted was a shower to wash off the coal dust.
The next couple of days we continued north following the G108 through Dechang and Xichang. The mountains either side of us were getting taller, some over 4,500 metres, and the weather was great. We passed an incredibly blue lake in nestled in the hills, very similar in colour to Hokkaido’s famous Blue Pond. We have no idea what made it such a vivid blue, but it made a great spot for a morning tea break.
We stopped for lunch one day at a restaurant with a load of bikes parked outside. During a very spicy Sichuan meal, we got chatting to the group of cyclists who were heading in our direction so we cycled together for a couple of hours after lunch. This took us down to Qionghai Lake, a big tourist attraction it turns out. Being the weekend, it was busy and not particularly peaceful! The neighbouring town, Liangshan was also very touristy, full of big expensive hotels. After a bit of cycling around, we found a guest house above a sweet shop which was more in our price range.
We continued on the G108 for 50km north of Liangshan the following day before branching off onto a small local road which would take us through the mountains and over our highest pass so far. As soon as we left the 108, we were into a wide valley with very tall mountains either side. The villages were made up of old ornate houses, the people seemed shy but very friendly, and most wore traditional dress. We stopped at Mianshan, a small mountain town right at the bottom of the pass at an altitude of 1,700 metres, ready to tackle the climb in the morning.
Setting off, we continued up the valley towards Huatou Jian, a jagged, snow capped peak, 4,791 metres tall. We had a beautiful day for it, clear blue skies, bright sunshine and no haze. Initially, we were directed off the road and onto a rocky and steep detour for the first few kilometres, but soon we were back onto smooth tarmac which continued all the way up. We rode alongside a mountain stream as the valley got steeper and the road started to zig-zag. The switchbacks kept the gradient manageable so we gained height quite quickly, keeping a steady climbing pace. On the way up we passed goat herders, wild horses and, near the top, a mysterious set up of new, unmarked buildings surrounded by a high barbed wire fence.
I think we both had built the climb up in our heads, and found it to be a fair bit easier than expected. I don’t have an altimeter or a GPS, but my Pocket Earth app on my phone told us we were over 3,000 metres when we reached the pass. It was still comfortably warm up at that altitude, so we parked up the bikes and went for a wander up to a rocky outcrop above the road for some photos and a break. Ahead, we saw the glorious sight of a perfectly smooth road descending through countless switchbacks into the valley below, a lot of fun on the way down. After an hour of freewheeling downhill into a lush green valley, we stopped for a late lunch, then continued the short distance into Yuexi where we found a hotel.
We headed out for the usual look around the town and supermarket shop to pick up snacks and something for dinner before returning to our room for a chilled evening. But when we got back to the hotel, the owners were having a big dinner with family and friends in the lobby. The previously grumpy manager invited us to join them, his mood no doubt lifted the the alcohol that was flowing freely. We were squeezed in around a large table and fed bowl after bowl of food and given glasses, filled with baijiu, Chinese white liquor. Saying ‘cheers’ in English became a fun game for the drinkers, and an excuse to top up our glasses yet again. It turned into a fun evening, but we excused ourselves before things got too rowdy, we had some cycling to do the next day! We didn’t get any photos of the evening ourselves, but countless phone photos were taken, with shy children shoved in next to us, women posing for selfies with Clare and drunk uncles wrapping an arm around my shoulders and giving a manly thumbs up. The next day, the manager gave us useful directions out of town, and gave us his business card, telling us to call if we had any trouble. He didn’t speak any English, and we obviously have no Chinese, but the gesture was very sweet.
I was watching my bike computer closely that morning, waiting for precisely 26.2km, at which point we would hit a total distance of 10,000km for the trip. We had to work for it, climbing from the bottom of a valley up the mountainside on a windy and steep road. We reached the milestone in the middle of a steep section, immediately stopping for a big hug and to celebrate with a cuppa and some Oreos. Soon after starting back up, we rounded a corner in the road and were stopped by a roadblock where an excavator was clearing a landslide that had covered the road. We waited for about 30 minutes until a path was cleared and we were able to proceed. The rest of the day was beautiful, but tough riding, mostly up, until we hit a final steep descent getting us into Ganluo, a nothingy industrial town surrounded by mountains.
The next day was quite an adventure. We stayed fairly low on a flat but terrible road, almost all muddy and broken up. It stuck close to the river, its water a dirty brown colour, flowing through the valley which was getting quite narrow. After about 30km, we reached a junction at a big dam and hydro plant. The muddy water from our river met the blue water from the larger Dadu river which flowed out from vents under the dam. We turned right, to the east, to head downstream towards the ‘Dadu River Valley’ marked on our map as a scenic area. We stopped at a small town for lunch, where two women were shaking their heads at us, making out that we couldn’t continue in the direction we were heading. We smiled and nodded, we’re used to warnings that the road ahead might be tough, so we brushed off their warnings and headed on. Then a few kilometres further, we passed a sign saying ‘Area Not Open. Aliens are not allowed to enter.’
We continued anyway. To be fair, the signs were at a junction, and it wasn’t clear which direction they referred to. Finding an alternative route would’ve meant a lengthy backtrack and then a detour of several hundred kilometres so we didn’t really have much choice. We passed quite a few Police cars and even a checkpoint, but they left us to it. Heading further into the valley, the mountains closed in and the walls got steeper. The road was quite a feat of engineering, sticking to the cliff walls or sometimes out on stilts over the river. We got to a point where it had nowhere to go but into the mountainside, and we were plunged into a tunnel for almost 5km. Luckily it was well lit and surfaced, but we were both very glad to get out into the fresh air again.
Once we emerged from the tunnel, we were in the most amazing gorge we’ve ever seen. It was simply breathtaking, the cliffs dropping vertically down to the fast flowing river, honestly the photos don’t do the place justice. A sign told us (they have English signs in an area closed to foreigners, go figure!?) that the gorge was 1,600 metres deep and an average of 60 metres wide. We cycled on, struggling to hold a straight line as we craned our necks upwards to take in our surroundings. We were slowed by a headwind, but mainly by the constant stops to look around and to take more photos. It was a couple of hours before the walls started to open out again and we reached the town of Jinkouhe. We assumed that by now we would be away from any closed areas, so we (possibly naively) started looking for a hotel. But a hotel receptionist called the cops on us!
A van pulled up and three Police officers got out and asked to see our passports. We were informed that this area was closed to foreigners, and told in no uncertain terms that we couldn’t stay here. We apologised, playing the dumb foreigner card, (years of practice doing that) and they were pretty cool about it. I’d love to make the story sound cooler, I’m sure if I recount it to you in person over a few beers in the future, there’ll be a chase, helicopters, drawn pistols, but in reality it was very civilised. They helped us load our bikes onto the back of their van and drove us 20km in the right direction to the edge of the closed area, dropping us off beside the road. We had to cycle another 5km to get us to the next town Ebian, where we had no problem checking into a hotel. We did some digging online (VPN fully engaged!) and found out why the area is closed. I probably won’t post why on here, but if you’re interested, Google the name of the town and do a bit of searching, you should be able to find out.
Thanks to the police taxi service, we had a shorter ride to get us to our next waypoint, Emeishan, a sacred mountain and National Park. We split the distance over two short days of riding, which were still pretty challenging thanks to the steep valleys we were crossing in and out of. We are slowly getting towards the flatter plains around Chengdu, but the terrain here is still very rugged.
We are taking a rest day at Emeishan before heading into Leshan to renew our visas. We had hoped to do some hiking here on our day off, but the weather isn’t playing ball. Just like when we visited Huangshan, a national park in Anhui Province last year, we’ve got rain, low cloud and thunderstorms, hardly idea weather to be up a mountain. Especially when the entrance fee is almost double our daily budget. Leshan is only 30km down the road though, so we will probably return with our extended visas if the weather forecast looks better. From there we’ll take an indirect route to Chengdu, hopefully seeing some pandas at Ya’an, and a short loop into the mountains to the west.
Here’s our route from Panzhihua to Emeishan: