Follow the Mekong

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 Getting a bus from Chengdu for some of the way was the only way to cover the over 2000km to the Laos border with more than 3,500 metres ascent in the 28 days left on my visa. The town of Litang is located at an altitude of 4,014 metres (13,169 ft) among open grasslands and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Its actual altitude is about 400 metres higher than Lhasa, making it one of the highest towns in the world.The thought of getting there by bus from Chengdu at only 500 metres of altitude was most attractive!

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Litang in the Tibetan Grasslands one of the highest towns in the world

After three weeks off the bike in Chengdu and Hong Kong I knew I had lost all the acclimatisation I had gained during weeks and weeks of cycling above 3000 metres and with some mountain passes of over 4,600 metres ahead of me, I was glad there was no direct bus to Litang and I had to break the journey and stop at a town called Kangding (2,900 metres) where I could begin to re-acclimatise.

Something I have loved about China is the daily dancing in the square in the evening. Everyone, young and old take part. In Kangding they was dancing in two squares and I had the chance to put to good use my ballroom dancing skills by asking local women to waltz with me much to the amusement of the locals.

On the way to Litang the bus climbed and climbed going through Tibetan villages with their fortress like houses, once again the yaks made their appearance, older people with weathered faces sat by the road constantly spinning their hand held prayer wheels and women combed their long hair outside their homes, thin plumes of smoke coming out of their chimneys. I was back in the Tibetan world.

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Tibetan village
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Spinning the prayer wheel
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Little Tibetan girl

Litang felt like a place in the middle of nowhere. This sleepy town was the birth place of the 7th and the 10th Dalai Lamas and very much at the centre of Tibetan resistance to the imposition of the communist rule in the region and as a consequence was heavily bombed but life now had no obvious reminders of those days.

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Cleaning yak butter lamps in the house where the 7th Dalai Lama was born
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Young Monk at Litang Market
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Yak butcher

One of the rituals that was forbidden from the times of the Cultural Revolution of 1960s until the 80s was the Sky Burial practice.  Visiting one of the local sky burial sites was my lasting memory of Litang.  It was nearly dusk when I went there with three French cyclists lodging in the same hostel as me. We threaded our way through the narrow streets of the village to an area in the mountainside covered in prayer flags, our breathing laboured due to the altitude. Rubble, discarded plastic bottles, old shoes and other rubbish scattered around; I could feel myself reacting to these surroundings, surely this environment wasn’t respectful of the dead. We reached the prayer flags but could see no evidence of sky burials. It was getting darker and the lights in the village below were coming on as we headed to a pile of stones on a slope to the side of the flags. To start with we came across a knife here and a feather there and then we saw big piles of discarded knives, scissors, axes, rocks marked by sharp instruments and a big block of wood whose scars made clear what it had been used for. Hundred of small fragments of human bones and feathers were scattered in bold spots in the grass. I shuddered, imagining the macabre feast that took place in those spots and then I remembered the words of the Zoroastrian couple I stayed with in Yazd (Iran): “Sky burials are a beautiful act of generosity, giving the human body back to nature”. I realised that for the second time in less than one hour the deeply engrained Catholic belief system of my upbringing had got on the way and I made a conscious effort to look at the place and the whole ritual with different eyes but I just couldn’t. It was time to get back to the hostel.

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Prayer Flags near the Sky Burial site
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Sky Burial tools

Over the next few days I stayed above 4000 metres plodding up to high passes. On a particular day I was delighted to have crossed a pass that was nearly 4700 metres high without much difficulty, I was tackling the second one of the day when the headwind started and I realised how close I was to the limit of my physical capability, I couldn’t stay on the bike any longer and I had to push my way through the second pass. I still had more than 10 kilometres of ondulations between 4600 and 4700 metres to the nearest village and I couldn’t go on, I had to stop and camp but where? All there was around me where big boulders and lakes. Eventually I saw a tiny piece of grass by the side of the road and pitched my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. It rained non stop all night, in the tent it was like being inside a drum and in spite of being exhausted I found it difficult to sleep.

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Endless climbing
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Rabbit Mountain
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Nowhere to camp

The following day I got up ready to climb the highest pass of the trip, 4716 metres. Soon it became clear I would never reach the nominal targets had given myself. It was then that sitting by the side of the road I met Pablo from Zaragoza in Spain How nice to meet someone with shared language and culture! We sat together for a while sharing stories and soon enough we decided to hitch a lift to the pass and if not successful camp as soon as possible. After a couple of failed attempts a tractor stopped and took us both and our bikes 10 kilometres up the hill towards the pass. Switchback after switchback the tractor climbed impossible gradients. It would have taken me hours and hours of pushing and half heartedly cycling to have covered that distance. It was the most wonderful of feelings to be standing on the muddy tractor’s cart, breathing its petrol fumes, seeing the cooling water spluttering out of its noisy engine whilst holding onto the bikes for dear life and seeing the village at the bottom of the valley getting smaller and smaller in the mellow light of the evening. I was exhiliariated, thrilled, happy. The moment was just perfect, I didn’t need absolutely anything else.

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Pablo on a fully loaded bike climbing after the rain

At the pass it started raining but as we got lower down it stopped. We followed the most beautiful valley and found a good camping spot. Scrambled eggs with Chinese sausage, a beer and great conversation finished off an excellent day on the road. As I was going to sleep I made the decision to take a bus to Shangri-la and miss out on the last really big climb in China. Rationally I knew it was the right decision but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment at having to make it.

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Beautiful after the rain
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Camping by the road – loved having company!
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Shangri-la at night
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And in the day

From Shangri-la I cycled to Tiger Leaping Gorge which was as spectacular as its name promised.  The gorge it’s one of the deepest and most spectacular canyons in the world. It gets its name from a legend that tells how a Tiger jumped from one side of the gorge to the other to scale from hunters. I had come down a steep hill when the gorge came upon me all of a sudden and it took my breath away. To see the Yagtse, the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world,  the mother River as the Chinese call it, squeezed into such a  channel only 25 metres at its narrowest point was awe inspiring.

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Entrance to Tiger Leaping Gorge

 

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Tiger Leaping Gorge
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The Yangtse unfettered

I was at a much lower altitude now and able to cope with the ondulating terrain enjoying some beautiful old towns and wondering around their markets.

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Marker seller
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Market butcher

 

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Noodle seller

Feeling more energetic, I now could cover  longer distances on the bike fuelled by the food from small stalls which looked pretty dirty but as the food came from huge cauldrons of boiling stock I wasn’t too concerned about the state of the places.

As the daily distances got longer I found myself entering a meditative space – thinking a lot and at the same time not thinking at all. I revisited moments and situations if my life from the safety of time and geographical distance,  occasionally getting ‘light bulb’ moments that helped me understand myself a bit better.  I remember one day when I was sitting in the courtyard of an old Chinese house in a town called Dali,  a quiet, peace space with pots of azaleas and fuschias around a gold fish pond.  In my mind I went to my London garden and I saw myself planting ivy underneath its huge fatsia shrub,  adding clumps of colour with big pots of bulbs and annuals. I realised that the love of and for my daughters,  for my family and friends; the knowledge that my house and garden are waiting for me give me the deep roots I need to feel safe enough to be a nomad for a while.

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Light bulb moment in Dali

As a nomad it is my second harvest time.  I was in Romania this time last year,  thousands of kilometres away,  in China,  I’m witnessing the same frantic activity: peasants harvesting the crops,  ploughing and feeding the fields, lighting fires to burn the scrub,  bent over by the weight of the huge bags of grain they are carrying on their backs. Scenes that have been repeating them unchanged for centuries.

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The time for my visa was get tight so I caught my very last Chinese was to bring me 300 kilometres from the Laos border to a town called Jinghong. Once again a new world opened up,  this one full of tropical vegetation,  golden peacocks decorating the roofs,  Buddhist temples and statues of elephants and gorgeous Botanical gardens but then each part of China has been very different –  the Kasbah like old town of Kashgar,  the mud Amdo Tibetan villages,  the tents of the nomads in the grasslands,  the ochre and yellow Muslim houses of Gansu,  the fortress like towers and curvy tiled roofs of Si han,  the wooden houses in the rice fields near Guilin,  the castle like Kham Tibetan houses,  the stone courtyards in Dali and Lijiang  and now the golden peacocks of  Xixuangbanna. Like everywhere I’ve been,  this is not a homogeneous country,  houses,  people,  food it all points to difference.  It is these difference that is making my trip so fascinating  and yet it is what we have in common as human beings that is making it possible,  the ability to connect with the hundreds of people I’ve met in the 2,340 kilometres I’ve cycled in this country.

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Jinghong Botanical Gardens
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A world of Golden roofs

I was leaving Jinghong and had stopped at a bike shop to fix the mudguards of my bike damaged in my last bus journey. I asked directions to my next destination from the shop owner and totally blasse he answered: “Follow the Mekong” so off I went to find the mighty river. For quite a few kilometres, silently and with excitement, I repeated the instructions in my head: “Follow the Mekong”, “Follow the Mekong” what incredible directions I’ve been given, I thought, for him they may be quite ordinary, the same as for someone in London to say “get on the M25” but they conjured up all sort of exotic images in my mind.

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Crossing the Mekong in Jinghong

Laos is somewhere near following the Mekong…

 

 

26 thoughts on “Follow the Mekong”

  1. Inspirational, time and time again Blanca. What a world you have opened up to me (and others).
    I would like to know what you ate in those remote Tibetan villages and in future places.

    I agree with Gillian write more you modern day Marco Polo.

    Regards
    Ross

  2. Hello Blanca,
    What a story, great respect! Actually I am cycling in China at this moment to but never as high as you were. 3500 is the absolute limit for me, and is was cold as well around Shangri La! I enjoy reading your story. I have a blog as well but I write in Dutch. I am to lazy to write in English!
    I wish you al the luck you need and keep on cycling!
    Yvonne

  3. This post brought back memories for me, Bianca. About 15yrs ago, I did one of those charity walks along the Great Wall of China – then took off on my own – taking a 3 day train ride to Kunming from Beijing – and walked Tiger Leaping Gorge. I loved Lijiang and the whole experience and hankered after more (and here I am – following in your wheel ruts!). Thank you.
    You write so evocatively.
    Good luck in following the Mekong: Saiba-dee!

    PS – am about to fly to India for the start of chapter two.

  4. Thankyou for telling us about your wonderful and totally inspirational journey.

    I spent five weeks in Laos last January/February. A gentle country with beautiful people.

    I’m looking forward to your next post already!

    Kind regards Jill

  5. hello Nomad
    from your friend routed firmly in E5. Another wonderful account of your amazing trip. Brilliant woman.
    Big hug, carol xxxxx

  6. Wow, Blanca, what a beautiful description of your adventures. It’s so lively, it makes me feel that I’m with you all the way.
    Lots and lots of love!

  7. Hi Blanca, I so look forward to reading your posts, your writing is so decriptive and your pictures just wonderful. I would love to be setting off on the adventure you are undertaking. I am just about to set off on one cycling south down south America but hope to follow your wheels in a few years.
    Keep safe
    Best wishes Sarah

  8. dear Blanca,
    A Wonder Woman you are!
    Very much impressed by your descriptions and your ‘light bulb’ moments. You can only be a nomad if you know you’ve got a home somewhere. Write more often, your diary should turn into a book when you are back.
    PS. I will be in London next week and visit the Leighton House as you advised me to do in Shiraz.
    Chris Jagtman

  9. How wonderful to see up close, the differences in our cultures. The food and the clothing, (I wondered how they get such wonderful colours – so bright). And fascinating to see how they go about their daily lives, the markets and the way they deal with their dead. Thank you for sharing you’r fascinating Journey Blanca. I also wish you health and strength. Lots of love Margaret. x

  10. Thank you for sharing your journey, choices you make & why, & feelings. I will never forget the images you have planted in my heart & head. Love to you & this wonderous journey. I see more of you in the last year & more than I did in the loads of time we danced along in the two years prior. Hugs & kisses Liz xxxx

  11. Blanca – another fabulous, beautifully written, evocative posting. I was panting reading those high altitude sentences! So looking forward to the next one – soon, I hope!
    Xbox

    1. Hi there
      I too read about the dam, but in the route I followed could see no evidence of it. Let’s hope it stays that way because the place is amazing. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  12. Brava! Thinking about you about to discover Laos and the Mekong. You will have a great time as we did 16 years ago. We nicknamed the Mekong the Capuccino! Good coffee is also to be had in Laos. Thank you for sharing your trip in China we were transported there in our kitchen with your good writing! X x Carine and Dinks

  13. Hello Blanca,
    My wife and me, we cycled the opposite way from PnomPen up to Shangri La through the Tiger leaping gorge. It was januari and freesing cold but never the less a fantastic journey two years ago. Your story brings back memories. In Laos one can cycle a loop over the Bollaven plateau where you will find the best Asian coffee.
    The Laotians are very frendly people . Watch out for the 4×4 drivers in the mountains, they often drive like crazy.
    Enjoy your journey and keep on pedalling.
    Jos and Greta

  14. For Blanca

    Blanca asked me to give comment on her blog – as a critical friend and someone she feels she can trust.

    Let me start with the words in my journal at the beginning of October….
    Blanca’s blog
    Exquisite words
    Exquisite pictures
    Beautifully evocative

    It is the way in which each blog report has touched me that made me want to travel half way around the world and travel with this lady. Her deeds and writings are inspirational. A lady travelling around the world with a bicycle.

    Through words and pictures each blog show the heart and souls of the people who pass into Blanca’s journey. Photos of faces young and old captured in the moment. Often also reflecting Blanca’s lie of food, markets and colour. Her changing world is researched for its history and cultures then described via the impact it has on her. Blanca reveals her whole self, tells you how it is “in her very being”, how things related to her values and her upbring. The complexities of travelling alone and the personal journey of learning are all shared and she is not afraid to express vulnerability, for example when things have been hard – all there on the page for all the thousand of readers to see. You can not help but be in awe of this lady’s guttural determination blended with insight and compassion.

    I’ve been fortunate to be around Blanca whilst she crafted her latest blog. So many hours of preparation, and such care and concern for her followers. Yet there is a humility – no idea how here words are changing people, giving courage, to women especially, to set off on their own journeys. To get on a bike, to follow a dream. To become a cycle tourer, a traveller or even an adventurer.

    Reading Blanca’s blog there’ll be a sentence that resonates… In the last China blog it was this one
    “I went to my London garden and I saw myself planting ivy underneath its huge fatsia shrub,  adding clumps of colour with big pots of bulbs and annuals. I realised that the love of and for my daughters,  for my family and friends; the knowledge that my house and garden are waiting for me give me the deep roots I need to feel safe enough to be a nomad for a while.”

    And so is there anything critical…. we’ll occasionally there is the odd typo…. but even these I love because they are always the Spanish pronunciations of the words – and it’s special to see the Spanish somehow finds its way into the page.

    Keep inspiring with your words and pictures – and see my arrival as just one of the many many hearts you have touched on your journey……..

  15. Kaixo Txuri!
    Todo es tan maravilloso. ¡Que capacidad tienes para realizar un viaje lleno de lugares y situaciones impensables! Y siempre hacia adelante.
    Describes todo con bellas palabras y fotos, nos llevas a lugares lejanos sin movernos de casa. Es maravilloso.
    Vamos acompañándote en tu viaje, incluso en esas carreteras llenas de piedras en las que espero no tengas ningún contratiempo con las ruedas.
    Un montón de besos, disfruta y ánimo, todavía queda mucho viaje.

  16. Just loving the updates….. and in utter amazement of your achievements – I am still on the gentle slopes of Essex and you are conquering mountains. What amazing sites sounds and smells you are witnessing on your journey. Can’t wait to here all the nitty gritty stuff. How are the tyres holding up?

  17. I so enjoy reading your updates and this one was special because you came into my mind earlier today as I was raking up leaves and remembered the time we spent together last year and all the help you gave me with this annual chore. Lots of love to you, Carol X

  18. Brave girl! Supervaliente Txuri. Me encanta tu determinación y tu forma de transmitir tu visión de cada pequeño mundo que atraviesas. Gracias por compartirlo. Un abrazo desde Donosti

  19. Thank you Blanca. You describe these wonderful places so well I feel I’m with you, which of course I am! Take care my dear friend. xx

  20. Hey Blanca,
    It’s so lovely to catch up with your adventures. That was serious altitude in the high passes in China, a good move to get a lift! Your photos are wonderful, and completely complement your evocative writing.
    BTW I’m properly in training… Can’t wait to come and join you!
    Loads of love
    Kath xxx

  21. Txuri!!!

    EGU BERRI ON!!!!
    Que pases unos días muy bonitos y un poco más tranquilos……
    Animo, que eres una jabata!!!!

    Un abrazo superfuerte

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