We’re up with the sun and quickly get ready. Today’s our biggest day with a climb over 4700 m so we have little time to waste. After complaining about the lack of Tibetan food for breakfast, feasting on dumplings instead and adding a pumping our tyres up properly, we roll down the steep hill and leave this dump behind.

Tower-like Tibetan structure
Tower-like Tibetan structure

The day starts with a long gentle incline and for the first time this trip, we are able to cruise at around 20 km/h. Following the river upstream, a small hamlet with oinking black pigs in all formats and sizes marks the beginning of the long climb. We decide on a steady 7 km/h to climb the mountain, something which initially works out but after a while proves impossible to maintain. So we stick to our own tempo.

The skies are initially overcast, and the air cold, making the climb somewhat strenuous. Fortunately, there are plenty of silly-looking yak adding spice to the mix. As the altitude metres tick away, the sun finally breaks through and we get a lovely view of the “horse-bear ditch” (马熊沟), a long gorge cut in twain by a bright blue river with a line of trees in all kinds of autumn colours feeding off its water. There’s a short but steep downhill to a bridge over the river and we decide to take a moment to replenish our energy with a lunch of chocolate, Dali bars and some beef jerky.

River coming from the way we're going
River coming from the way we’re going
On the right, a murmuring river, brushwood
On the right, a murmuring river, brushwood

A short steep climb out brings us back to the normal incline. We’re nearing 4000 m now and the going is getting tough. At first we’re pausing every 5 km until this rhythm becomes more and more difficult to maintain. After another stop with Dali bars, we’re down to a 2 km at a time rhythm. The pass, presumably near the snowy mountain peak ahead of us, seems ever so far away. We stop at another road-workers’ encampment for water, an apple and a Red Bull. A short chat with a trucker reveals his intention to drive all the way to Shangri-La today. We wish him best of luck with that venture and continue our plight.

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A few kilometres further up, we are welcomed by the signs of an entirely deserted tourist town. Either it missed its purpose or it is still being built, but except for a few construction workers, there isn’t a living soul to be seen in it. “Long live the Communist Party” is written in large letters on the hillside hugging it. We don’t know what to think of it and we have better use for the tenuous air in our lungs anyway.

It takes over two more hours for us to reach the pass, even though it was only 10 km from the encampment. A flurry of snow, a chat with a Swiss guy and his wife in a Chinese Jeep, several breaks and the bitter demise of a pear at the teeth of Sandy were partly responsible for the delay, but the altitude made all the difference. We had to force ourselves to pant, because our physical effort didn’t cause our bodies to do so automatically. Without enough oxygen in our lungs, our legs felt like lead and every time I swallow, I feel the blood drain from my ears and my head spin.

Some nonging on the kickstand in the snow.
Some nonging on the kickstand in the snow.

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The snow intensifies near the top and a stubborn wind is blowing right in our face. Yet we make it after a lacklustre attempt of racing each other there, one going not much faster than the 6 km/h of the other. At the top, we pose for some pictures and accept the congratulations while dressing for the descent. Layer after layer, waterproof socks, two pairs of gloves, extra coating of sunscreen and down we go – only to realise there’s another little up to scale before we really go down.

And when the downhill comes, it’s divine. Even with the shoddy road quality, we’re still zipping down at 60 km/h against a gorgeous backdrop of snow-covered mountains and menacing skies with funky weather, and pausing only to shoot a few silly videos and a gasp at the scenery. It seems to last forever, but we really only drop 700 m. Tonight’s goal of Sangdui 桑堆 is still above 4000 m.

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Cool weather ahead
Cool weather ahead

Sangdui’s architecture consists mostly of large constructions pulled up with beige stone and accents in darker brick. Very different from the shiny white Tibetan buildings everywhere. We wonder why this is but find no answers, as night is falling, the cheapest showerless place is 300 RMB a night, and we decide to keep riding until we find a good camping spot.

Camping spots galore, with a fast-flowing river and nice meadows on its banks. But in the distance we spot something much better: a monastery. We’ve never stayed at a monastery before, but I heard of many backpackers in southeast Asia accepting the hospitality of the monks. We decide to give it a go, rock up on the monastery’s court yard in a cloud of dust, sweat and other bodily odours you amass after a day of riding. The first guy in a robe gets it. We want to stay the night, please. Whether we have our own sleeping gear? Why, certainly. Then we are led to the collection of small buildings outside the monastery. The quarters of monks that do not stay inside, we learn.

Cool snowy peak
Cool snowy peak
Sunday(?) the monk, leading Sandy and Sander to his quarters
Sunday(?) the monk, leading Sandy and Sander to his quarters

While preparing yak butter tea and cooking rice, our monk who introduces himself as Sunday(?) uses a brushwood to kindle a nice fire in the massive iron stove in the middle of his room. Shortly after Sunday, Sandy and Sander are sitting on the couch and mattresses, warming ourselves with tea, fire and conversation. The monk is a whole different kind of person. None of the usual dumb questions, but an very laid-back conversation about tourism, history, Buddhism and life at altitude. We may be the ones asking the dumb questions here.

Sunday(?) the monk.
Sunday(?) the monk.

Sunday’s Mandarin is slow and not perfect, which makes him actually very easy to understand. He’s happy to finally make conversation with his guests. Before us, there had been a French couple that stayed over, but they hadn’t been able to speak any Chinese at all. In his room I spot a children’s book with poems from the Tang dynasty, a glossy magazine starring the Dalai Lama called “The happiest people on earth” and a bunch of works on Buddhism. After an hour or so he fires up the stove once more and leaves with the promise to make us some instant noodles for breakfast. What a delightful person!

We hit the sack relatively early but are kept awake by the noise of a million rats in the walls, ceiling, floor and ultimately in the room. One jumped off my phone when I wanted to check the time and the others occupied themselves with keeping Sandy awake. It reminded me of a children’s horror story I had on tape when I was little. About a massive evil rat in a monastery that would kill everyone, until a kid tried to control his fear by drawing cats on the wall. In the morning they found out that the cats had come to life and killed the rat. We just put ear plugs in our ears instead.

Sandy pouring some hot yak butter tea
Sandy pouring some hot yak butter tea

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