The Central Mountains of China
24 May 2007 - 16 August 2007
A majority Tibetan region

We follow the bicycle paths of Chengdu city center for 150 fills our ears and we hit the road. At times we even have more room than when we were biking on the freeways.

Its cyclist heaven here!
Its cyclist heaven here!

Even though Peking is northeast of us, we head straight south towards Leshan to see the biggest sitting Buddha sculpture in the world. This time the Buddhist temples and their surroundings are Chinese looking.

Visitors are dwarfed!
Visitors are dwarfed!

A simple bridge over the river
A simple bridge over the river

Whether you are in northern India or southern China, nuns and monks spend their time studying their prayer beads...

We now cycle west, towards Tibet. Our bathroom pit stop introduces us to something new: two holes side by side, separated by a low wall and no door--very conducive to doing your business and getting to know your neighbor intimately! Farts and other noisy bodily functions are not frowned upon; in fact, people let fly without a hint of embarrassment. The excrement of two big pink pigs behind us slips into the same trench as our own. Two journalists arrive (luckily right after this exotic little scene). They interview us and take some pictures for their little local paper, the "Leshan ri Bao She". Some teenagers, proud of the little English they speak, accompany us for a while to show us the way.
We arrive in Emei Shan, a mountain whose summit is a highly sacred pilgrimage site. It’s vast, green, and luxuriant. For four days, we go up and down the staircases in the mountainside. Unfortunately, the fog is thick as pea soup and we cannot see much of our surroundings.

These hikers amuse themselves by feeding the wild monkeys, who become aggressive. The stick we brandish doesn’t do the trick to chase them off. Um, Christine?...can you come give me a hand ?

Nuns on a pilgrimage
Nuns on a pilgrimage

We told you the Chinese were organized: here, if you are tired, they can give you a lift over several kilometers. Even in the Swiss Alps, we never saw anything like this!

They are neither old, nor crippled
They are neither old, nor crippled

I must say, though, that Chinese women usually climb mountains in miniskirts and high heels, with their purses in tow! On the way down we meet a deaf-mute couple in their 50s; they follow us for a while. They are energetic sportsmen, and funny to boot. When we get back to the hotel we meet another couple fellow cyclists this time. They are at their 4,000th kilometer in China. Bicycle tourism seems to be gaining popularity in China; in the two months that are to follow, we will meet over 60 Chinese bicycle tourists, more than we met in Italy! We hear that the second biggest race after the Tour de France is in China (true or false?)

On the road to Ya'an, we give 100-year-old eggs a try. Chris manages to swallow hers, but I just can’t. Then on to toads’ legs and sweetened tomatoes, followed by fruit salad with mayonnaise. To chase these unusual savors, we order 2 ice creams: one pea flavored and the other corn!
Drat! I forgot my stainless steel lock and cable at last night’s hotel. I backtrack alone and add 82 kilometers to the meter thanks to my stupidity. The next day, we bike 18 km in the wrong direction. Great—more useless time added to the clock! But these frustrations are more than made up for by the arrival in Ya'an, which is superb.

Brochettes at the water’s edge, music, and a good time had by all, though there are a few too many spectators surrounding our table, where two teenagers joined us to practice their English. At the table next to ours is a group of Tibetans on vacation in China. They are sweet and attentive, singing and drinking vast amounts of beer.
Our next stop at a small-town hotel introduces us to the local dancing style. We share a few beers with a medical team that runs an eye clinic in Chengdu. We dance away the evening; the atmosphere is laid back and homey. The team dances with us, and two young girls give an expert performance of the latest hip dance.

The road is tough, rainy and crowded, but we buy the best honey we have ever eaten directly from a beekeeper; it has a strong taste of spices and flowers and is delicious. The honey gives us the little kick we need to keep pedaling to get to Luding, a lovely little town encased in a deep valley. It is the site of the most glorious event of The Long March: on May 19 1935, twenty communist soldiers crossed the bridge, swinging from chains, and joined the Guomindang troops.

That night, we see women in Tibetan clothes for the first time. And Eric discovers the magic of Chinese massage at 3 Euros an hour. From then on, he uses any excuse to get in as many massages as he can! Every evening, dance and gymnastics are held on the main square of the town.
In Kanding, at 2,500 meters’ altitude, there are scores of Tibetan women in long robes, red and black wool knotted around their heads, or sporting "chic" hats. The architecture is very colorful.

At 10AM, we are riding uphill out of town; the hill rises even more after the first turn in the road, then the second, but it should level out by the third… No such luck -- it keeps on rising at every turn. By noon, we have sweat pouring down our backs, our muscles are aching, and we’ve only gone 12 km! We stop for a light picnic. The trucks we come across seem to be freewheeling, so if the downhill isn’t round this bend, it should be after the next, right? We wish! After 16 hours, with only 24 km logged, we see the bottom of the valley before us, hidden by the fog of the heights. It’s raining harder and harder. We would like to get past the mountain pass but the road is endless. We cycle another 4 km and we are really getting very cold. We find a little grassy spot on a flat piece of land a ways from the road and on the banks of a river. At 5PM we pitch our first tent in China, though we are not feeling very at ease. Eric is not particularly courageous. We are at 3,600m altitude. The next day it takes us 7 km to finally pass the mountain pass at 3,820m. We have to bike another 43 km before we arrive at the Tagong plateau at 4,200m altitude, where there are scores of Buddhist monks. We are now in a totally Tibetan world. This area of Sichuan belongs to them and is called the Kham. It stretches across the eastern third of the Tibetan plateau. We haven’t seen such beautiful landscapes in a long time: soft and verdant prairies, flowers as far as the eye can see, and scintillating torrents.

The roads with their good sides…and their bad…

We buy spaghetti-shaped yak’s cheese that is preserved in vinegar and water. We arrive in Tagong, a typical traditional village with horses in the streets, people in traditional dress, and a beautiful temple on the main square. The "Khampa" nomads come here for supplies and then return to their family camps by their yak herds.

Modern Khampas have motorized vehicles

We go on a hike among the fir trees, sorry, I mean the prayer flags

There are a lot of prayers, but we haven't seen a cemetery in days! Where are the dead? Well, in keeping with Tibetan tradition, they have flown away...

Celestial Burial
A butcher monk (tomden) sharpens a big knife. He recites mantras as he plunges the knife into the body, which he cuts into pieces outdoors on a large, flat stone. He then grinds the brain and the bones, which he mixes with barley flour. As soon as he starts to move away, the vultures that have been circling above dive down on the "present" he has left behind, and the body disappears, having flown away with the birds.
In the 1970s-1980s, the Communist Chinese (in opposition to the church) banned this practice, which they considered barbaric. But in 1980 they changed their minds and have now granted Tibetans the right to practice this ecological ritual. Even more so as the ground is often frozen and wood is hard to come by.

There is beauty in tradition: it gives you goose bumps, makes for beautiful photographs, and gives rise to moving memories of adventures. But we didn’t go see this particular ritual.
Where should modernity start?

Old lamas with a student,I mean with a Boy Friday...
Old lamas with a student,I mean with a Boy Friday...

At lunch we are served chicken feet. Not the plump and well-cooked legs we are accustomed to, but just the toes and the nails, with skin and bones. We weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to eat…? But the Chinese are crazy about this dish!
Luckily there is a second course: pretty, golden little pieces of meat, all exactly the same size. They are duck tongues with cartilage and rough skin. Our excitement disappears with the first bites.

We head straight north with half-empty bellies. Valley upon valley appears—some green, some arid, some wooded. The population seems quite poor, but their homes are huge, beautiful and colorful.

It is built of whole tree trunks
It is built of whole tree trunks

Over the next two weeks, we pass mountain pass after mountain pass of 4,000 to 5,000 meters’ altitude, with peaks of up to 7,000 meters as a backdrop. We have logged a lot of kilometers and we’ve only had one flat tire with our Schwalbe tires! Schwalbe recently decided to sponsor us by providing us with tires and inner tubes and we couldn’t be happier. Our flat tire average is 1 per 3,000 km, despite the bad roads we often have to ride on, and in spite of the small diameter tires (HS308) we use.

Right after a fight with two big, mean dogs, we meet a friendly French lama who hospitably offers us the use of his guesthouse and a meal near the Dzogchen temple, even though he will be away. As we leave the next day, we leave a little money anyway, money that the local lama finds to be too little -- Westerners, he tells us, are rich!
He is a nice fellow nevertheless, he wants to help me cook and offers to set me up with a local woman that I could take away with me!

By chance we come across a village that is holding a traditional country festival. One tent is for puja (Buddhist prayer), one is for making tea in a huge cauldron; there are smaller tents for snacks, as well as religious dances, horses and a variety of activities. It is a big meeting place for populations that come down from the mountains, and for us a lovely and interesting synthesis of the Tibetan world of the Kham region.

Two lamas are fascinated by the religious dances
Two lamas are fascinated by the religious dances

Lama Eric - a lama, but only hat-wise!
Lama Eric - a lama, but only hat-wise!

The road runs on, still at over 4,000 meters’ altitude. Practically every village decorates its new temple in gold leaf. The lamas cruise around in new, leather-interior 4x4 Land Cruisers. One of them wears sunglasses with lenses encrusted with heart-shaped fake diamonds. They come to watch over the construction work and to give orders to the Chinese laborers and artists who have come from Lhassa, statuary of the Gods. The money donated to the Free Tibet cause flows in—they need to use it somehow or other! And why should they give it to the people? Since, in order of importance (defined by the lamas themselves), the Dalai Lama is number one, then the minions and at the end of the line are the people, admiring and adoring their Lord.

In the tiny guesthouse sitting room, we are witness to the dubious behavior of a lama who "helps" his 12-year-old disciple get up by putting his hands in the crack between his buttocks. The young disciple doesn’t seem phased, as though he is accustomed to this sort of treatment. We are shocked by this behavior. The other lamas are sitting proudly in the grass in front of their shiny new car, lazing about all day long. We still have to cross the rest of Tibet before we form a definite opinion of this country. We’ll see how we feel next spring.
What a nightmare: we are covered in sticky, powdered Nescafé! The atmospheric pressure made a jar of the stuff explode on us.

Camping Anecdotes
The road is hard, with a mountain pass per day and it rains practically every evening but we collect enough anecdotes to keep us warm and feed our spirits!

It is 7AM and we are in our tent. A nomad comes up to check out our equipment. She has a plastic bottle containing a half-liter of yak’s milk. We go take our leave of the nomads behind the hill and end up staying for another hour under their tent woven of yak’s wool. Sitting on a bed next to a moped, and with a hanging side of bacon drying next to us, we drink the traditional salted, buttered tea under the steady gaze of two tribal elders. A big wooden vat of fresh yoghurt attracts the attention of a child, who dips his hand and part of his sleeve into it, before slathering it on his nose, mouth, and forehead. He unwittingly does what every outdoors laborer does to protect himself from the sun: they spread yoghurt on their faces; then the yoghurt dries, hydrating and protecting their skin all day (why does Christine have to buy fancy, expensive creams when this is just as good?)

They also protect themselves from the sun with masks
They also protect themselves from the sun with masks

Overlooking a lake, two Chinese fishermen spot us and come for a "chat". They warn us against the numerous wolves. "You’ll hear them at night", they tell us, "but just don’t move and you’ll be safe". It’s true; there are a lot of wolves. That very morning we saw three loping off, leaving an eviscerated yak and a surprised young boy in their wake. The two fishermen disappear and reappear an hour later with two little brochettes simmered in spicy tomato sauce, and a thermos full of hot tea. How did they know we were down to one sausage and a packet of ramen noodles and were in no mood to set about cooking in the gusting wind?

After a long, cold, and rainy day – and a mountain pass at 4,800 meters – a team of 14 road workers invites us to set up our camp by them. Christine accepts, happy and reassured at the sight of the first little white Muslim bonnets we have seen in China. In spite of the muddy terrain, we pitch our tent. They take turns cooking and share their vittles with us as we all sit in the darkness of their tent around the mud oven. It’s hard going to communicate, but the warmth of their hospitality and their friendliness speaks volumes more than words can.

The road goes on
On this bit of road, we have crossed paths with 60-odd Chinese cyclists on their way to Lhassa. It’s vacation time in China. The Wuhan team gives us their t-shirt, which each of them signs for us. We come across a lone couple of Western bicycle tourists who, lowering their heads in the downhill, see us too late and don’t stop. We are very disappointed!

Anecdotes: On the Road
My bicycle pump slips into my spokes. I brake as fast as I can but my bike leaps forward nevertheless! It's Christine who pays the price, though; she didn't have enough time to brake, so she tried to go around me, but with her wide load (the bicycle's not hers!), she hits me with her front pannier. She falls and leaves the skin and blood from her elbow on the asphalt. She has broken her spoiler but we'll be able to repair it.

Eric in the rain
Eric in the rain

The Chinese Village of Xiewu at 3,700 meters’ altitude
The Chinese Village of Xiewu at 3,700 meters’ altitude

On August 1st, a Swiss holiday, Christine is the honored guest. She’s dancing around and gesticulating in the middle of the road—has she gone crazy? The three bees who are dancing with her call their friends over and in very little time hundreds of bees are swarming around her. With my help, Chris jams her hat down on her head and pulls on a long-sleeved sweater, panicking all the while. Her dancing speeds up and we dive into the closest house. The tenants are scared by our arrival at break-neck speed, though they quickly understand what is going on. We run inside where I hurriedly start removing bees and stingers. Chris has two stings on her neck, two in her right ear, and five on her head. I get one on the end of my thumb and one on my forearm. Our doctor Remy Peysson isn't with us! What to do…? We protect ourselves as best we can with mosquito-netted hats, gloves, and long sleeves and, accompanied by a local man, we ride to the nearest hospital—ten kilometers and all uphill! Christine's deformed head hurts. On our left, a village built of rammed earth and dirt streets appears—there it is! The hospital is nothing more than a pharmacy and we have to wake up the disheveled salesman/manager who was having a nap. He seems more interested in the alien strangers than in their beestings… He finally digs out a vial of green liquid and a miracle cream, before 30-odd dazed villagers who have come to watch the show.
Happily, a deformed head has never stopped a cyclist from riding :-). Three days later, Christine is ok again.

Xining, then Lanzhou and Zhongwei: a series of beautiful downgrades that bring us back to 1,500 meters' altitude. We are starting to feel the approach of the desert with the heat, the dust, the night winds, the sand and the aridity. The farmers in the region spread 20 centimeters of rock on the sand, thereby locking in the little bit of humidity there is in the soil. As a result, they are able to grow melons, and even watermelons!

We have left the Tibetan world without really having voiced our impressions. Two months' traveling in the Kham and Amdo regions did, indeed, shake up our preconceived notions of Tibet. In a nutshell: how can it be that we were so disappointed by our contact with practicing Buddhists whose thoughts are more philosophical than religious?

Tibetan Buddhists from the Kham and Amdo Regions: Observations and Random Opinions
We have left the Tibetan world without really having voiced our impressions. Two months' traveling in the Kham and Amdo regions did, indeed, shake up our preconceived notions of Tibet. In a nutshell: how can it be that we were so disappointed by our contact with practicing Buddhists whose thoughts are more philosophical than religious?

Tibetan Buddhists from the Kham and Amdo Regions: Observations and Random Opinions

The Chinese have built schools, but the Tibetans still don't really send their children there (though we don't know any precise figures). They tell us that it's "useless—you send them there for six years and they still won't be able to read"! Is this a way of keeping them working in the fields? It would seem this situation benefits the feudal state of Tibet, whose spiritual leader and monarch, the Dalai Lama, lives in India at McLeod Gang in a little castle, awaiting his return to his much larger castle in Lhassa.
Money arrives piecemeal from charities in the West. The lamas cash in, and new temples are built with gold-leaf roofs, sumptuous paintings, and a plethora of buddhas.
The big-bellied, well-fed lamas spend their days lazing about in the shade of their big cars, eating candy and cakes and drinking Cokes while the rest of the population drinks hot water and eats rice.
The West, which acknowledges that God is dead, thinks it is supporting Free Tibet. But when we ask people in these regions, they seem to benefit little (read not at all) from this financial outpouring. When the money finally reaches Tibet, it is used on religious architecture, which serves only to increase the power of the religion's representatives.

We don't really understand who, after 57 years, wants a free Tibet, and how many of those really do…? In any case:
· Not the Dalai Lama, in his small- and medium-sized castles,
· Not the lamas, who are living high on the hog! Financial security, big cars, and little servant boys (one of them, with his beautiful blue eyes, reminded us of the child abuse that has occurred in Western religions—if it happened with Catholics, there’s no reason it shouldn’t happen with Buddhists!)
· Not the Tibetan refugees in the USA or in Switzerland, where very few would really want to return to their yaks in the ice for 6 months of the year;
· Not the youth who watch satellite TV and who are tired of traditional life in Tibet. They are starting to follow in the Chinese' footsteps, opening internet cafés and discos to bump and grind in with girls. A Tibetan nun in Dzogchen Gompa told us, "I left Lhassa, in large part sickened by the Tibetan youth, which bears a strong resemblance to Chinese youth."

Poor families who live in yak dung don't have a say. They can only bow down before the chief and naively give what little they can save to the local lamas, to whom they send their young boys (or girls) who, because they were given this honor, will not dare complain or leave their new abode.

It’s 11:30 PM; we are in our room with the lights out. A monk pushes open our door, exhibiting neither respect nor shame (this is not the first time this has happened). Christine is in bed, but I am squatting behind the door, tinkering with something. I slam the door closed, jamming his head in the doorframe. Not even vaguely embarrassed, a stupid grin spreads across his face and I yell at him. He wants to spy on us so badly that he as he’s walking off, he stops to glue his face up against the window, while I make a demonic face at him from our side of the greasy glass.

I think I’ve seen the same demon in our churches. This one has been around—proof positive that tourism wasn’t invented yesterday!

At this point in time we are far from convinced that a minimum of hygiene, education and responsible behavior are detrimental to a culture’s traditions.

We were told that Buddha was seeking perfection! What if he were to wake up?

A Short Break
We arrive in the village of Shapotou, near Zhongwei, and at the edge of the Gobi desert. This village, on the banks of the Yellow River, looks like a theme park with a slide on the dunes. We stay a few days in order to write, get organized, and recharge our batteries before taking on the desert ahead. Restored antique waterwheels distribute water to the groves of fruit trees; animal skins are used to keep traditional rafts afloat.

We decide to go to the nearby city of Zhongwei to go on the Internet—it’s my son’s birthday and we probably have mail from some of our 9,000 monthly readers. On the sidewalk we see groups of young people wearing white t-shirts bearing the slogan "Les Foulées de la Soie" ("The Silk Strides"). Then, a bit further, we see a Western couple wearing the same t-shirt. They are French, and are taking part in a foot race over the course of 15 days, today's leg of the race being across the city in the afternoon. This is the 12th anniversary of the organization SDPO’s race; their slogan is "If our goal was to run, we’d miss out on many unforgettable moments". Jean-Claude, the group’s president and organizer, gives us our own t-shirts. Fabrice, director of the race, puts us to work directing traffic and Christian, a talkative charmer, makes us laugh, especially when he crosses the finish line hand-in-hand with a young Chinese girl. We give the prize to the fastest runners and Fabrice invites us to share their evening meal. We have a great time. Photos, texts, information, and sign-up information are available on their site: (I didn’t have my camera with me.)

We have found a little road in the Gobi desert, which should bring us to Hohhot, 900 km away, and then it’s on to Mongolia.
Happy Holidays to all!

Christine and a friend
Christine and a friend

(Text translated by Maia Demorest)