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.
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.
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.
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.