The pilgrimage trail around the foot of the mountain is considered one of the most impressive nature trails in the world. No one could tell us if it was suitable for cycling. We set out to find out and experienced unforgettable moments.
I have got used to using chopsticks when I eat. What I find hard to get used to, though, are the duck heads that are brought to the bubbling surface from time to time in our hot pot, a kind of Chinese fondue. Between them and the various offal floating around, I try to grab a few pieces of vegetables or tofu to satisfy my vegetarian appetite. A real challenge, I discover. When the next load of fish heads disappears into the fiery red broth, I finally strike sail and decide I've eaten enough for today. I spend the rest of the evening drinking jasmine tea.
Together with three riders of the "Liteville Enduro Team China", Kevin, Terryn and Arsenal, I am sitting here having dinner in Shangri La. No, we have not discovered the fictional, legendary Shangri La, made world famous by the novel "The Lost Horizon" by James Hilton. We are sitting in a small Chinese town in the province of Yunnan, which until 2001 still bore the name "Zhongdian", has about 130,00 inhabitants and lies 3150m above sea level. The name had changed for purely business reasons, in order to attract even more tourists here now with the legendary name. Accordingly, the old town has been lovingly renovated and is dotted with hundreds of shops. All kinds of Tibetan souvenirs, from prayer flags to singing bowls to yak jumpers, can be bought here. There are also countless tea rooms offering local tea for tasting and sale. They are also reminiscent of the old "Tea Horse Road" that once ran along here. It was a network of old trade routes. It was mainly used to transport "Pu Erh tea" from the town of the same name to Lhasa on horseback.
We have also been travelling towards Tibet for two days. Without horses, but with our mountain bikes in our luggage. We have planned to ride the eastern part of a so-called Kora, a pilgrimage route, around the mountain "Kawa Karpo". For the Tibetans, the circumambulation of the mountain, which is sacred to them, is a ritual act. For them, the mountain represents the manifestation of the Buddha's spirit, and by circling it many hope to come closer to this Buddha. In special years of the Tibetan calendar, thousands of Buddhists make a clockwise pilgrimage around the mountain.
We too are pilgrims on our way. At least, if you look at the Latin root of the word. "Pilgrim" comes from the Latin word peregrinus or peregrinari, "to be a stranger". And we feel very much like strangers here. Certainly Kevin and I, who are both from Germany, are even stranger than our two Chinese friends, but even they only know the route ahead of us from vague descriptions on the internet. Without them, we wouldn't even be able to order the hot pot that is bubbling away here in the restaurant. Chinese characters are like hieroglyphics for us and indecipherable. Our knowledge of English doesn't get us very far either. Most people in this region speak as much English as we do Chinese, practically not a single word. And so, more than once a day, we are happy to be on the road in an internationally mixed team.
Another day in the minibus awaits us before we are finally allowed to get on our bikes. We ride along the valley of the Mekong. The flanks of the surrounding mountains rise steeply from the wide river valley. Hour after hour passes. The next stop is planned in Deqin. The city in the far north of Yunnan province doesn't have much to offer at first, except a harsh climate. For us, however, it is extremely important. It is the last chance to buy food for the next few days. We also want to meet a Tibetan here who will accompany us with his pack horses.
Our driver skilfully drives the bus through the narrow streets into a backyard and parks. In a restaurant we meet our "Horseman". He greets us with shining eyes and a broad grin. He has prepared three horses in his house and will pick us up tomorrow morning by bus to drive the remaining kilometres there, he announces. Lengthy negotiations begin about the price for his services and the duration of the ride. Since we don't know whether and how much we will be able to drive on the way, or whether we might even have to push everything, we want to give ourselves enough time. We plan seven days for the tour. On the other side of the mountain range, our driver is supposed to pick us up again by bus. He will drive all the way back along the Mekong and then upstream in the Yangtze valley back to the agreed meeting point. This will also take him four days! The dimensions here are indescribably huge. After much toing and froing, we arrange to meet at 8am the next morning. We spend the night in Feilei Si, 10km away, a tourist village at a higher altitude. The sleeping altitude of 3300m helps us to get used to the thin air. Because on our route, the highest pass with over 4500m is already waiting for us on the third day. In order not to get altitude sickness, we have to get used to the altitude slowly.
We also hope for good weather in the evening. From Feilei Si, if the air is clear, we have a fantastic view of the 6740m high Kawa Karpo, the sacred and highest mountain in Yunnan. Unfortunately, the view does not materialise, the mountain hides behind a thick cloud cover the whole evening. During dinner we plan as far as possible what we want to buy tomorrow. Rice, vegetables, a little meat and biscuits for the road. Everyone is very excited about what awaits us. Will it be rideable? Will we be able to cope with the altitude? What will the weather be like? Will we sleep in our tents or in the few camps along the way? Will our driver arrive on the other side? Questions upon questions.
The next morning we go shopping at the huge market in Deqin. Quite lost we stand there, because none of us has any idea how much food we will need. We have noodle soup for breakfast, biscuits and chocolate for lunch and rice and vegetables for dinner. That's the meal plan. Well then, just don't buy too little, starving on the road is not good. Especially not with the effort. We carry our shopping in big white bags into the small bus. Packed to the roof, there is not enough room for all of us. So we get on our bicycles. The bus pulls up, the goods are unloaded, then the driver collects us at the roadside to get to the meeting point with the horses in a small Tibetan mountain village. Down in the valley we passed the border into eastern Tibet, visible only through a sparsely staffed checkpoint in a tiny tent on the side of the road. The officials only briefly checked our identity cards and otherwise showed no interest in us.
The luggage is weighed, distributed among the horses and we pack our daypacks. We need four horses now with all the feed, otherwise the load will be too heavy for the animals. Before we are allowed to start, we have to "sign" an agreement about the service and payment. This is not done with pen and signature, but with ink pad and fingerprint. Only when there are four red fingerprints on the paper are we allowed to start. A steep gravel road leads us up to 3200m, our first crossing. Here the road ends and the tension increases immeasurably. What awaits us around the first bend? Driving? Push? Or even carry it downhill?
Our "Horseman" is saying goodbye to us. He will not go on the tour with us. His wife and a relative accompany us with the horses. They have already gone ahead and want to wait for us at the first camp. From now on we are on our own, with no phone reception, no internet and no contact with the outside world. We have to carry everything we need ourselves and help ourselves if something happens. An altitude profile and an inaccurate digital map are all we have for orientation. According to this, however, there is only one way over the mountains.
We clap off, pedal away and already we are immersed in a completely different world. Like a roller coaster, the path winds down into the forest in a tunnel of prayer flags. Thousands of them hang waving in bright colours to the right and left at the edge of the roughly 50 cm wide, smoothly trampled path. It feels like racing through a paint box at high speed. As if you had pressed a reset button in your head and switched to "now and here". The feelings roll over. Only after what feels like an eternity do we stop for a moment. All four of us are beaming like honey cakes, fall into each other's arms and can hardly express our joy. Supernatural is the only word we can agree on to describe this path. It is the most impressive thing we have ever ridden. If it continues like this over the next few days, it will be a lot of fun.
We catch up with the horses at a half-ruined wooden hut in the dense forest. It is already dark. This is our campsite. A campfire burns in a shelter. Kitchen and recreation room are combined here. A stream babbles behind the hut. A few upright tree trunks are covered with plastic sheets and are our bedroom. Old mattresses and damp blankets lie on wooden platforms. We lay our sleeping bags over them. Our Tibetan companions cook together with us. None of us can pronounce their Tibetan names, so we christen them Annemarie and Hans, which they obviously enjoy. Big laughter on the first evening of a trip with new companions is a good sign for a relaxed atmosphere in the days to come.
The next morning we sit around the campfire with noodle soup and rice. We will probably have to get used to that in the next few days. Arsenal nibbles with relish on dried chicken legs he brought back from the market. Outside it is raining lightly. Here at almost 3000m, dense forest grows around us. Astonished, we look at the diversity of species, which we did not expect up here. After breakfast, we start on a muddy path littered with slippery stones, often almost completely swallowed up by the dense vegetation. A complete contrast to yesterday. Again and again we try to ride small pieces, which rarely succeeds. Along the path are a few abandoned wooden barracks, evidence that thousands of pilgrims used to travel here in some years. Now they have fallen into disrepair and are waiting to be reclaimed by nature.
It's uphill for most of the day. Today's camp is at 3900m. The last 250m are so steep that we have to carry the bikes. Again thousands of prayer flags line the path. Halfway up, various Buddha figures are carved into a rock face and colourfully painted. It feels like we are crossing a sacred place. After eight hours we reach some small wooden huts. We see our horses and have finally made it. The bed camp is a bit cleaner and bigger. Otherwise, the camps are all very similar. A fireplace with wooden benches at knee height to sit on and a "dormitory" covered with tarpaulins. Annemarie and Hans have been here for a long time and have prepared rice and vegetables for us by the fire. Exhausted and grateful, we help ourselves. Sated, we linger only briefly around the campfire. Tomorrow will be a long day, the highest pass awaits us. So we crawl into our sleeping bags.
An early start with rain heralds the next day. Very slowly we find a rhythm. The air gets thinner and thinner and we breathe heavily. The altitude was already getting to us yesterday and the pace was noticeably reduced. Driving is once again out of the question, the path to the soon visible pass is too steep. Only up here is the tree line, at about 4000m. At home in the Alps there is only snow and ice at this altitude. The group spreads out a little, everyone goes at their own pace. Far before we reach the highest point, garlands of prayer flags begin to show us the way. The rain lets up a little and we drag ourselves, breathing heavily, across a carpet of colourful fabric flags. The ground is no longer visible, everything is covered with billions of "wind horses", the correct translation from Tibetan for the flags. The mountains are rugged and covered in clouds. 4500m my GPS device shows here at the "Duokha La". The highest point of our pilgrimage has been reached!
A dull rumble accompanies the jet-black clouds and reminds us to get going. We push our way down the slippery carpet of prayer flags for the first few metres until we reach rocky ground. We look down into a deep valley. Far below we recognise a green meadow with a stream between the steep rock faces. A demanding path leads there, which requires full concentration with over 100 serpentines and saps our strength. The thunderstorm has passed and when we arrive at the bottom, the sun is shining. We park the bikes and ourselves on the meadow and treat ourselves to some biscuits. We look back to the top of the pass and see the impressive descent ahead of us. Exhausted but happy, we enjoy the view before we roll the last half hour to the campsite.
The next morning we find it hard to get out of our sleeping bags, yesterday is still in our bones. But already the first metres behind the camp give us hope for a fantastic day of driving. The road is as flat as on the first day and invites us to top speeds. It feels good to finally feel the wind again. This continues until we enter the forest again. Here it immediately becomes blocked and slippery. A group of Tibetan pilgrims, accompanied by a monk in red-orange robes, passes by. After spotting us, he walks directly towards us. Friendly with a "Taschi Delek", the Tibetan "hello", he greets us. We don't understand a word, but we manage to communicate with hands and feet. He shows great interest in our bikes and can hardly believe that we came over the pass with them. We are amazed when he pulls out a golden smartphone from under his cape and wants to take photos with us. Of course, we gladly do him the favour and also take souvenir photos of the friendly encounter. We spend the afternoon pushing again until we reach our camp.
The fourth morning on our tour begins as usual with noodle soup and tea. We crave coffee and bread with jam. Renunciation is certainly part of the journey. We may not only give up familiar foods, but also distractions like the telephone and the internet. We haven't missed the achievements of the digital age for a minute. There is always something to do. And how nice it is to be able to talk without someone constantly typing on their smartphone and being distracted. At the beginning, the path leads along the rushing stream. Slowly but steadily, the path climbs and leads to a small hill. This is also decorated with thousands of prayer flags. Hundreds of food bowls are also piled up here, probably left behind as offerings. Next to them, various pieces of clothing are also lying together in a small pile. It makes a less sacred impression on us. It is more reminiscent of a rubbish dump.
The path zigzags steeply downwards. Our hairpin technique is once again put to the test. The forest thins out and we come to a raging river. Somewhat surprised by the scenery, we cross a bridge and follow the path downstream. Our surprise is even greater when we see a house standing on the side of the path, the first one in five days. And indeed we have a camp for ourselves here on the second floor. After the days in damp and shabby wooden barracks, we enjoy the unexpectedly clean change. Up to here, we have not met more than 20 people in the last few days. Around the small dwelling there are about as many. In the basement there is a small grocery shop where we can buy the bare necessities. Colourfully decorated motorbikes with huge loudspeakers are used to transport the goods. On them, tired pilgrims can also make their way to the road over the last pass. Of course, accompanied by Chinese folk music at a deafening volume. Hope germinates in us for a road that is passable throughout.
We help load the horses in the morning and start together. At the beginning we are faster with the bikes, but that changes after a few kilometres. The path is soon too steep to ride it without motor assistance, so we descend. Today we want to climb more than 1000 metres uphill again. And from the looks of it, we will probably push 100% of it. For hours, monotonously, one foot in front of the other. In between, the bikes really become a burden. A board stand with cold drinks offers a little change. We order a Coke and take a short break. Loud music comes from the forest and announces a few motorbikes. Secretly, each of us probably wishes for an engine to go with his bike. After almost four hours we reach the last pass without having ridden a single metre. We are still thrilled by the colourful flags that also adorn the highest point here. The view reaches back over the stages of the last two days. We are relieved. Until Abingcun, the village where we have to meet our driver, it is all downhill. The landscape changes completely. It is dry as dust and hot. The dense forest has turned into sparse, lonely pines. But the trail is just as good as the first day and puts exhausted smiles on our faces.
On a ridge lies our last camp. We have been looking forward to washing ourselves all day. Wrong, there is no water up here. It has to be brought from the valley on motorbikes and is used exclusively for cooking. Dinner is also meagre. Our supplies are pretty much exhausted and so we have dry rice with leeks. There is nothing left from our shopping at the market. Behind the hut is a large prayer wheel. As the sun sets, we turn it devoutly, striking a bell with each revolution and a bright "clang" resounds across the otherwise completely silent landscape into the distance. Almost wistfully, we sit together around the campfire for the last time and review the experiences of the past days. We have been preparing for over a year and now the journey is soon over.
The trail on the last day is again a highlight. Dusty, but made for biking. We rush through the light trees from the mountains to Abincun. After seven days in seclusion, we slowly return to civilisation. After about three hours by bus, we reach the first larger town and immediately storm a restaurant.
After Terryn and Arsenal have made the choice for all of us, we toast to the successful tour. Afterwards, silence descends. This time it is not pleasurable and sublime, as so often on the last evenings, but digital in nature. There is reception again and so we read emails, look for the latest news and send reports to those at home. Only when the food is brought to the table is everyone fully awake again. It is very convenient that there are lots of vegetables and potatoes to choose from and this time there are no duck heads on the plates.
Text: Gerhard Czerner
Pictures: Martin Bissig