TOUR TALES: THE ROAD TO SHANGRI-LA
A description in an old guidebook I was given said, “If you can only visit one province in China, then visit Yunnan” and it had me hooked from the beginning, along with the chance meeting with a couple who had given me the book, having cycled round the area. They were gushing in their praise of the province and its surroundings.
The seed had been sown. Further investigation revealed that the area was also home to Tiger Leaping Gorge and bordered by Tibet and Myanmar – home to a multitude of hill tribe minorities and the mythical city of Shangri-La. But Shangri-La doesn’t exist does it? That’s it I gotta go – find me a motorcycle, a guide and a fixer!
Just over a thousand k’s into the ride and the penny dropped – this was the China of my childhood imagination. The curly roofed, timber buttressed houses, the towering snow peaks and fertile valleys; the smell of burning wood; the sight of hill tribe people going about their business as they had the same way for thousands of years; traditional dress, traditional architecture.
This is where Monkey and Pigsy fought demons, while protecting Tripitaka, where the peasants of the Water Margin tilled the soil, badly dubbed into English on Saturday evening telly.
I was starring in my own weekend B-rate TV adventure….
Back in a smog covered London The Adventurers Club has just received the latest dispatches from Colonel Zed Willoughby Mccreadie-Smythe, year of our lord Two Thousand and Sixteen. The Club had thought Smythe long lost exploring Deepest China on a motorcycle, in search of Tibet and the headwaters of the Mekong River.
Dear Journal, we are six days into our expedition and are looking at the mountain range that not only serves as the primal source of the mighty Mekong river – known locally as Lancang, but also the border between China, Myanmar and the most holy of holies Tibet.
I can at last say I have laid eyes on Tibet, at least the very edge of it, and am hungry to see more. The vista in front of me, seen from the village of Dequin is spectacular containing the worlds highest unclimbed mountain, the sacred peak of Kawa Karpo, and the edge of the Mingyong Glacier. I had anticipated no finer sight than the arresting natural beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge earlier in our trip, but during every step of this trip the scenery has surpassed the exceptionally high standard set by the previous day.
Our Chinese steeds have proved more than up to the task, which I have to admit, I had my doubts about at the start of the trip; along with, as it transpires, unfounded doubts about the quality of the local driving. Unpredictable it may be, as to be found in the rest of Asia, but quite mellow in attitude, not aggressive. A relief as some of the roads have skirted deep gorge barrier-lacking drop-offs that would end ones ride quite permanently.
Roads are brand new and virtually deserted and the weather Gods have for once smiled on our party with one’s usual nickname – ‘Captain Raincloud’ – being happily forsaken on this occasion. Even when the weather broke briefly and sleet came over the shoulder of one the high passes, very localized, were rewarded with a rainbow that framed the pine lined valley below as we scrambled into our waterproofs. My Buffalo skin black all in ones have proven lacking, ripping up one entire leg. Luckily I have only needed them for extra warmth, not protection from the elements. Our highest pass so far, at over 4300 metres was well within the snow line and I celebrated with a quick game of snowballs, much to the bemusement of my travel companions.
Our guide, the stout and tenacious Yunnanese native Mr Tang, though lacking in English has an outstanding talent for finding best tucker. The food has been amongst the finest I’ve ever tasted in Asia, from really quite humble local eateries. His skill as a scavenger has made mockery of comments we have heard from fellow travellers about how poor the local provisions were. Those without a Tang of their own, even with the aid of modern translator applications on ones mobile device, still have to know what is the speciality of the house is for the device to translate it. Fried rice will always be fried rice even if translated into Chinese!
Who knew that a skilled kitchen craftsman could make the humble eggplant the taste and texture of belly pork; or that roasted red chillis could be flavoursome rather than just fiery hot. Yunnan and Sichuan cuisine styles local to the area have proved a revelation, that would not have been revealed without our new friends help. An earlier attempt to order without either guide or modern smart box back in the capital Kunming, proved quite the disaster. Wild gesturing and pointing at photos laid out in the extensive menu produced a dish of sliced liver and kidney, served cold, with a topping of shaved ox-tongue. Really not suited to ones palate, no matter how well travelled ‘Old Iron Guts’ might be. The innkeepers were good enough to take back the dish and were gracious enough to be quite amused by our strange antics as we blundered through their menu.
Mr Tang has taken to referring to my two travel companions as Muzzie and Leeeeee, unable or unwilling to pronounce their names in full. Leeeeee has recently returned to two wheels after a lengthy absence and has found some of the going quite challenging, not least in the industrial lowlands where our fellow road travellers seem slightly less concerned about our safety and well being than up in the National Parks.
He has unfortunately been dismounted on two occasions by the desperately dangerous practice of local trucks spraying water on their over-worked brakes while going up and down hills and mountains, thus making the roads on occasion extremely slippery and treacherous. Thankfully, although injured in both offs, he was able to soldier on, despite smashing the cover on his box brownie into his ribs…
Muzzie on the other hand, seems to have a talent for attracting the attention of the local constabulary, as well as the local ladies, and cannot be left alone for long for fear of either being pulled over for a document check, or surrounded by an excited crowd of local women, all wanting their picture taken with him.
In fact it’s a few years, and a few countries since I have been approached by so many holidaying locals to have my picture taken with them, a light hearted and amusing event for all concerned. Yunnan is obviously a popular holiday draw for Chinese Tourists from all over this vast nation.
This theory has been bourne out by another facet to this fascinating land uncovered by Muvee late one evening – huge purpose built entertainment centres for the masses. He ventured out by himself one evening only to return some hours later with fantastical tales of aircraft hanger sized night clubs, complete with Vegas style canals and gondolas. As he imbibes neither drugs nor drink we just put it down to delusions caused by altitude or sleep depravation. But so insistent was he that he had found clubs and restaurants to rival the top five centres in the world, evidenced by blurry digital images on his smart device, that we had to believe him, although limited time did not allow us to investigate further.
Dear Journal, Day Eight and we have arrived at the mythical city of Shangri-La. Being a man of low education I knew little or nothing of the history of Shangri-La except that it was a place that one aspired to visit. Upon consulting my learned guidebook, affectionaly refered to as ‘The Book of Lies’ I was somewhat surprised to discover that the place didn’t exist at all despite the fact that I was quite obviously sitting in one of its coffee shops sipping on a cappuccino and admiring one of it’s many Tibetan Temples out of the window. Was I in fact the victim of some insidious con or plot device to part me from my savings? On further investigation its transpires that the Chinese authorities have claimed that the town of ‘Zhongdian’ was in fact where the author of Lost Horizon, James Hilton ascribed the location of his lost city, despite, rumour has it having never ventured further than his study in London. (Although in fact several other towns in the locale claim similar heritage). I had indeed been hoodwinked. And I don’t care. The town is fascinating and the name merely adds to the allure. Good on the Chinese I say in their brazenness.
Dear Journal, day seven and I returned to the village of Dequin at dawn to see the sunrise over the mountains. My fellow travel companions struggle in the early mornings so I left them enjoy their slumbers and went exploring. Initially heavy cloud cover prevented first light from hitting the mountains, so after a quick calculation I surmised I could ride to the nearby Mongyong Glacier and be back before my companions were ready to depart on todays journey to Weixi.
During a speedy 30 kilometre decent through, of all things, vineyards – the source of an apparently famous local tipple titled ‘Ice Wine’ – it occurred to me that perhaps the Glacier wouldn’t have a navigable road leading to it, as the moving ice has a habit of destroying such things. My suspicions proved correct, there would indeed be a 4-hour trek from the nearest ticket office to the base of the mountain. Well, one does not ride motorcycles in order to walk! Content with a fine ride I rode back up the valley, affording as it did excellent views of the glacier itself, that one had hoped to touch, a treat for another time perhaps.
I was however, later that same day, able to put hands into the source waters for the Mekong River, my mighty companion for so many years down in the southern climes of Cambodia.
Next day we were to arrive in the small town of Shaxi, another traditional town left to rot by the cultural revolution only to be saved from obscurity by modern tourism. We stayed in the wonderfully monikered ‘Tea and Horse Caravan Trail Inn’ a genuine throw back to a bygone age when Shaxi was on the main trade route for tea and horses, a smaller and lesser known cousin to the Silk Road. The twon itself is a protected site hundreds of years old and full of old-school Yannanese artchitecture.
I shall return to this enchanted land with another team of ardent adventurers – next time I shall reach the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Zone, the city of Lhasa, and even the haloed ground of Everest Base Camp, and we shall be riding 600s…
Our trusty stead for this first Recce were Jialing 250’s – a Chinese copy of a 1980s Honda XR185, twin shock pre-RVFC head, simple and reliable. Tenacious Tang, who’s bikes they were, said they were bored out to 250 (although the side panels said 150…) with after-market long range plastic tanks. Mine had 40k on the clock and started and went like a 1980s copy should. Of the 4 bikes not one let us down. Any motorcyclist can have an adventure on a modern bike – it takes a real biker to take a Chinese Bike on Tour.
WANT TO JOIN THE COLONEL ON HIS NEXT EXPEDITION RIDING 600s THROUGH LHASA TO EVEREST BASE CAMP IN APRIL/MAY 2017? – SIGN UP HERE FOR MORE DETAILS