East to Yajiang

The Sichuan Tibet highway feeds out of Litang via a series of long and low snow covered passes. Between the odd settlement, the jet black tents of nomads, stitched together with yak hair, are pitched in the snow. When we cycle by, keen-eyed grungy children scamper down to the road at breakneck speed and shriek Tashi Dele, hoping we’ll stop so they can run their grimy little fingers over our bikes. Like everyone else, they’re bundled up in fur. One has a large clump of keys jangling importantly from his neck. When I ask to take a photo, he pulls out a pendant of the Dalai Lama. Although Tibetan Buddhism seems far more accepted and open than it used to be, officially there’s still a ban on images of their spiritual leader. But here in West China, the people are strong-minded and continue to resist the wills of Beijing – despite what the propoganda posters may say. The size of advertising billboards, one depicts a line of Kampas, known to be the toughest, hardest of Tibetans, welcoming in the Chinese army, as women dance and children wave…

We camp below what we hope is the last pass top, just out of sight of the enormous, overloaded supply trucks that grind past, brakes squealing as they’re doused with water to cool them off on these endeless descents. But come morning, we realise one last climb into the snow line lies ahead, just as the snow starts to flurry. As we pass an abandoned road crew building, a couple of huge, furry dogs lunge out at us, yelping as they’re pulled back by the long, rusty chains that are bolted to the gates. Chains taught, they growl, bark and snap to get to us. Who knows how often they get fed.

Soon, the last remaining switchbacks fade from view as the storm picks up strength and snow settles on the road. A police post offers the chance to refill our water, boilded over a wood fire. Like the truckers, we queue up to have this smoky tasting water laddled out into our Thermos, taking brief respite in the warmth, before pushing on once more into the cold. Decending in bitter, freezing conditions to Yajiang, winter gives way once more to autumn, as leaves seem to sprout back onto trees with each metre dropped. Stopping off in a boistrous restaurant, the women sit us straight round a table with a built in electric hob, and ply us with green tea as we dry off, and a warming potato, meat and bean stew.

Once we’re settled in Yajiang, Cara hops in a mini bus to Kanding, where she can extend her visa, and I hang out in the local smoky internet cafe for the day. Both men and kids are gaming, or surfing the net, slurping on big bowls of noodles that splatter on the dirty screens. Beside me, a man chainsmokes, stopping only to pound the keys frantically – he’s playing a kind of Dance-Off game, where you mimic a dance move, then better it, a la Zoolander – and clear his runny nose, which he does directly onto the floor, adding to the mounds of sunflower seed husks and cigarette butts…

Out in the streets, we see the same wispy-bearded Chinese traveller asking for money in Litang. He stands beside us and admires the bikes, lost in his own thoughts, giving us the thumbs up sign. By comparison to all the kit we carry, his rucksack looks small, minimal and simple – he’s lightfooted and free of constraint. Despite the fact he’s begging, there’s definitely a noble air to him, to the way he carries himself. In my imagination, he’s a kung fu master wandering the land, or a poet from Ma Jian’s Red Dust, the book we’ve been reading that recounts the travels of a liberal Chinese writer in the 80s. We give him another note, which he humbly accepts with a slight bow of his head, then load up and pedal off once more.

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