Category Archives: Sichuan

On the Road Again

2009/03/13: Zitong – bus and 74 km
We rode 10 km to the bus station through Chengdu. One doesn’t “take the lane” here. For non-cyclists, “taking the lane” refers to that North American urban cycling tactic of asserting oneself among the cars, secure in the knowledge that we have the same rights as a motor vehicle. In Chengdu, the streets are broad and there is is a separate lane for bikes and motorcycles, of which there are many. Off we went. The vast intersections, we learned, have separate crossings for two-wheeled types and for pedestrians. A lady with a flag and a whistle keeps order. We made the faux pas of cycling in a pedestrian crossing, and were chided. I managed to catch the word for “leg” as we were scolded by Mrs. Flag. We hopped off to wheel our bikes, appeasing her.

We took a bus to Mianyang, avoiding an industrial area, and set out on our new route from there as per Dong and Mike’s suggestion. The first day was less than spectacular, and we found a basic hotel in Zitong. I was being cheap, and had turned down a more expensive option, so we were in the hotel that had the correct forms to register foreigners but had probably never used them. The girl at the desk likely made mistakes in the process, so we received another visit from the PSB. It was not at the late hour of the Danba visit, and was a friendly affair. “Canadians good people! Norman Bethune! I like to ride bicycle too.”


2009/03/14: Pu-An 78 km
On the way to Pu-an, the road climbed and followed a ridge through cypress forest. Fields of canola were in flower. We began to pass through villages with roads lined with piles of bricks, and where every building was under reconstruction. We’d entered the earthquake zone. We had changed our route for the more westerly option after the quake, since the Canadian government had been advising against travel here during reconstruction. There were hotel rooms available, however, and we didn’t get the feeling we were interfering with the recovery process. We have only passed through the edge of the zone, and not near the epicentre.


2009/03/15: Guangyuan 87 km
A man on a motorcycle led us to a hotel in Guangyuan, and had a great time seeing us to our room and exclaiming over Chris’s beard, which is getting large and long. He very jokingly called him a yanguuizi – foreign devil. I agree that he’s starting to look like one.  


Off-Bike Days in Chengdu

We were relieved when our bikes came out of the bus’s luggage hold undamaged. And it was great to be met by Michael and Dong, who led us by car (us cycling) to The Loft Hostel where they’d booked us a room on two hours notice. After helping us move in, they took us out for a fine dinner.

2009/03/10: Chengdu
Tuesday was spent doing errands, and enjoying what the big city usefully offered after two months of villages and smaller towns. There were outdoor gear shops and bike shops right near our hostel. We bought good insoles for my cycling shoes, genuinely effective Nivea sunscreen, dental floss, Sensodyne toothpaste, Oreos, and Dove chocolate bars. We’ve eaten a few western style meals and even had cappuccino! We had the bike repair place near the hostel clean our drive trains, rather than hunting for rags and making a mess in the hostel courtyard. The result was a better job than we’d have done ourselves. Thank you to “Firewall” at Banner Cloud.

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2009/03/11: San Xing Dui Museum
On Wednesday we visited the Sanxingdui Museum, taking taxi and then bus about 40 km north of Chengdu. The museum showcases a relatively recent archaeological find that allows a glimpse at the highly developed Shu State which existed here during the Bronze Age. To us as Vancouverites familiar with Haida and Coast Salish art forms, the style of the Shu bronze masks looked very familiar. We wondered how styles travel through time and across oceans, and whether Bill Reid had seen the Shu masks before he began to carve yellow cedar, to cast bronze, or to work with silver.


We also went out with Dong and Mike again, and the food was superb. Please don’t think that we are existing on meager rations of rice; quite the opposite is true, as you can see!


2009/03/12:  Pandas
This morning we went with others from the hostel to see Chengdu Base of Giant Panda Breeding and Research. The Pandas are fed in the morning, and we arrived in time to watch eighteen-month-old pandas munching bamboo, as well as six-month-old pandas receiving their bottled formula and vitamin supplements from hygienically gowned human “mothers.” There are only 1,000 giant pandas left on the planet, so to leave the species to continue only by natural reproduction would be to doom them to certain extinction. The exhibits and film explained the species’ evolution and natural history, as well as the centre’s work.


Chris took a video of the baby pandas being bottle fed. More panda photos and videos are in Chris’s Panda Flickr set. Enjoy!

We have a new route plan which will avoid currently closed areas. It will take us northeast to Guangyuan, and northwest toward Lanzhou in Gansu Province. From there, the most likely route will take us westward to Xinjiang passing north of the Qinlian Mountains. We’ve bought several new maps, and Mike has given us the name of a Uyghur travel agent in Kashgar.

We plan to leave Chengdu tomorrow morning, taking a bus at first to get beyond the busiest roads. We’ll need to get our visas renewed in about three weeks, and will get haircuts before then so we look less scruffy. Off we jolly well go again.


Goodbye Yak Butter Tea

09/03/08: From Danba and back to Danba 84 km
We headed north towards Barkam, planning to spend a night en route in Jinchuan. It rained a little, but the widening valley was welcoming spring and the fruit trees were in flower. The painted stone houses had turrets at the corners and a distinctive style of painting on the stone. We understand this is an area where the Tibetan style has been influenced by the Qiang people.


We passed a police checkpoint in mid-morning, where we served green tea as our passports were examined. When we reached the prefecture boundary, however, we encountered a larger and better-equipped police presence where we spent a little longer. We were served instant noodles while our passports were examined with care. We were informed that to proceed to the next prefecture would be “dangerous”, and that we should return to Danba. The next prefecture was now closed to foreigners.

We pedalled back to Danba, getting a different view of the valley. We returned to the hostel and asked the staff to put us in touch with the PSB so we could determine our travel options, but it seemed that PSB staff with appropriate language skills were unavailable. The PSB contacted us in our hotel room quite some time later, and the outcome was that our best (only?) choice was to catch the bus to Chengdu at 6:30 a.m..

(Addendum January 2010: The above text was written keeping in mind that the PSB was likely reading our blog. We were being extremely cautious about what we wrote, in our self-interest at the time. We knew we would need a visa renewal, and did not want trouble. After returning to Vancouver, we wrote in greater detail about this expulsion incident in Self-Censorship Removed.)

09/03/09: Bus to Chengdu
We made our way to the bus station in good time. The bus trip took 11 hours, and our bikes were jammed into the luggage hold with other people’s bags piled on top of horizontal wheels to our dismay.

View down valley. Note ancient Qiang watchtowers at right.

We called Mike, whom we’d met in Laos, from the bus. He and Dong had kindly invited us to contact them in Chengdu, but we’d recently told them we were planning to pass west of Chengdu, when our travels in Tibetan areas were going more smoothly. Mike and Dong leaped into action to make our arrival in Chengdu go well. What a difference they made!

Chris took this video clip mainly for the sound:


Resting in Danba

2009/03/07: In Danba
We’d been riding for five days, so we took a day off in Danba. In the afternoon we watched a colourful Tibetan dance performance in the town square. Some of the onlookers’ clothing was as interesting or more so than the dancers’ costumes. Traditional dress here isn’t just for performances and special occasions.

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We had dinner with Brits Hannah and Ian, and it was a relaxing novelty to converse easily in English. They’d altered their travel plans due to the closure of areas to foreigners, but planned to take a bus north to Barkam in the morning, an option approved by the local PSB. We hoped we might meet them there, as that was where we were also heading, only a little more slowly.


Yak Butter Tea

2009/03/05: Xia Suo Zi 71 km
We left Luding quite late, not sure how far we’d get. We turned onto a more minor road to continue following the Dado River, one of the four rivers that define Sichuan Province. (Si=four, chuan=rivers) . The two days took us through a spectacular narrow canyon, a landscape that would make a good set for Lord of the Rings movie. We were travelling upstream alongside the river that boiled and tumbled.

Some of the road surface was reasonable, other parts torn up by construction or destroyed by rockfall. Hydro projects were under construction, and we contemplated setting up our tent in the intake of a (not yet used) turbine tunnel. We spent the first night at a tiny village, where a basic room, meal, and the three computers of the local wang ba were all in the same small building. Dinner was served communally, so we ate with three young Sichuanese couples, including the cook. We struggled to converse, with phrase book and dictionary in hand. My last post is a thank you to our friends there.

2009/03/06: Danba 78 km (odo at 3,421 km)

Breakfast with the road crew

On the second day, we had a breakfast of noodles at a road construction camp. At a later snack stop, a Tibetan man was doing skilled woodworking to build some kind of threshing implement. Just before entering Danba, we were stopped by PSB officer along with a local policeman, and questioned about our motives and specifically whether we might be journalists. They escorted us to the hotel (“Backpackers’ Hostel”) that takes foreigners. Our planned route forward seems to meet with their approval, and I think we seemed to be suitably non-threatening. There is rumour of some areas of western Sichuan and Qinghai being closed to foreigners during early March, but so far our planned route seems to be doable.

We went in search of a snack, and found ourselves in the Tibetan part of town where we were offered cha, with gestures toward a traditional wooden butter churn. We were served yak butter tea in bowls. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s not bad. We haven’t seen any yaks yet, but the cattle are starting to look a bit yak-like to me, shaggy with upturned horns. Can they be hybrids?

Tibetan house of local stone

We will be climbing to the highest part of our route in China during the next week, and Chris is carefully checking the weather forecast in that area. It is looking quite good, and we will likely move on tomorrow. A month ago, I could not have imagined ever reaching the desert areas of Western China, but now it seems a real possibility. We would prefer to have made it through there before the beginning of June, because we understand that June is sandstorm month. We could reach Xining in about two weeks.