A big blue sky for Eric’s birthday ride up Balang Shan pass.

A spectacular place to celebrate!

I don’t suppose many people get the chance to celebrate a birthday at 4,487 meters.  That’s how Eric began his 47th year, on the top of Balang Shan Pass in China’s Sichuan Province.

We hadn’t planned to celebrate his big day way up in the clouds.  Like so much of our bike tour, things just turned out like that.

In fact, sunset arrival on the top of a mountain peak had become  a distressingly common pattern for us.  With the days growing shorter, we were hitting the road later and later.  We’d make fairly good time before lunch.  The morning air was chilly and spinning our wheels kept us warm.  But by mid-afternoon we’d begin to dawdle.

In the tropics the scorching sun was enemy #1. In Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia or Laos, a cloudy day meant perfect cycling weather.   But here, high up on the Tibetan plateau, as sun as the sun hid behind a cloud we’d be begin to shiver and reach for an extra layer. Here we took pleasure in the sun, we wanted to soak it up–just like Europeans on a Thai beach in December.

Lingering too long

And so we’d linger over a late picnic lunch.  We’d snap photos, admiring the majestic snow-capped mountains that surrounded us.  We’d forget about the big climb ahead.  Despite knowing full well the probable consequences (ending up stuck on the top of a mountain and a cold night in the tent) we’d still laze about enjoying the crisp autumn weather and colorful landscapes.

By 5PM we were harshly berating ourselves.  How could we have been so foolish!   Still four more kilometers to the top and breathing wasn’t getting any easier.  Eric pumped the pedals steadily while I alternated between sprinting ahead in short bursts and bending over gasping as Eric plodded past.

At exactly 5:58 we finally reached the top of the pass. Prayer flags flapped violently in the wind. as we posed for a commemorative shot.  Eric was feeling weak and a little nauseous and complained of a throbbing headache—ill-effects, no doubt, of the altitude.

Top of Balang Shan Pass–4,487 Meters. This was the absolute last flicker of light before the sun hid behind the mountains.

Gotta get down

We need to lose some elevation. Fast.  Even if we had wanted to camp at the pass, there seemed to be no suitable spot.

The road tumbled down in a series of broad switchbacks.  After donning gloves and extra fleece jackets, we begin zipping down the smooth highway.  The light was spectacular with fast moving clouds darting across the darkening indigo sky.

Eric’s ailments meant it was vital to get a move down the mountain.   Still, I couldn’t help firing off a few shots (sadly, none really capture the magic of the sunset).

We’d hoped to make it to a small settlement for the night, but suddenly we were completely caught in the clouds. Our beautiful view out over the valley had vanished and visibility was almost zilch.

The clouds starting blowing in fast as soon as we began the descent–just minutes later we’d be down to zero visibility.

Where are you?

I called out to make sure Eric hasn’t taken a dive over the edge.  “I’m here, I’m here,” he shouted back.   In the distance we could hear the sound of trucks grinding their way up the pass, but the vehicles were almost on top of us before we could  even make out their headlights.

Balang Shan suddenly had taken on an eerie, menacing air.

We set up camp around 500 meters below the pass in a tiny rock-strewn pull-out right next to the road.  Hardly ideal.   I imagine a boulder breaking loose during the night or a driver veering off the road and crushing us.

A few carloads of Chinese tourists stop to gawk as they make their way down the mountain.  One man speaks English and informs us that we’ve chosen a dangerous place to camp.

“Are there bandits?” we ask.

“Oh,no,” he chuckles, shaking his head, “Here is very cold.  You will freeze.”

He’s right.  It is very cold.   But we survived just fine.  Later the weather clears and we’re treated to a spectacular star-filled sky.

Eric’s dinner that night consisted of instant noodles.   It was not followed by a decadent slice of chocolate fudge cake.  Still, he says it was one of his best birthdays ever.

When the clouds cleared we realized there was a beautiful view out over the valley.
This is Cat’s Nose Ride, it’s actually on the way up Balang Shan pass near Rilong.
sichuanese locals
The Lady on the left does not have her hand outstretched asking for money–she’s offering me some walnuts.
This part of the descent was really fun–later it got really, really cold as we cycled through a narrow shady gorge.
A typical sturdy stone home in the Sichuan countryside. Many homes have solar water heaters but none have the luxury of central heating.
A big change from Balang Shan! This apocalyptic scene is a shot from the region near Wolong that was destroyed by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. A brand new road is being blasted through the mountains, but for now this is the way traffic travels. It really is a nightmare. There are several muddy, rough surfaced unlit tunnels to traverse–dripping water and speeding trucks only add to the terror.
I’ll slip in one more nice photo of the mountains here so you’re not left with that miserable image of Wolong in your mind. We cruised into Chengdu in a a heavy rain and chilled out for a few days. The next update will bring tales of our backroad ride to Kunming including a jaunt along the Yangtze.
Tibet for Foreigners: Part 4
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6 thoughts on “Tibet for Foreigners: Part 4

  • November 8, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    Your posts are incredible and inspiring; thank you for sharing your travels with us!

  • November 8, 2014 at 8:35 PM

    Happy birthday Eric!
    You Spring Chicken!

  • November 12, 2014 at 7:14 AM

    All pics are really very nice and inspiring .Thanks for sharing such a great post.

  • September 20, 2015 at 2:27 AM

    Hello Amaya and Eric!
    Your blog is so inspiring and your pictures are amazing. Thinking about doing that route also. We will probably get there in March or April, do you think it will be too cold to go From Shangri-la to Chengdu? How long did it take you to get to Chengdu? Also, where did you get your visa? Was it difficult?
    Can’t wait to see when you arrive in Ladakh and Kashmir, it’s gorgeous!
    Thanks for all the info, it is really appreciated.

    • September 20, 2015 at 7:38 AM

      Yes, may still be a bit cold in March and April. We cycled there end of September early October and it was chilly. Got the visas in Kuala Lumpur. Process straight-forward and efficient–check online for details.


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