This feels like a long time ago. Like a completely different world. Obviously the place has a romantic appeal, so may be I am succumbing to someone else’s version of where we went. The name of the town we set off from was invented by an English novelist to describe a mythical Tibetan utopia. But there is something about being so detached from the rest of the world that has overcome the cliche and my own cynicism to lend this experience a special significance. All the way from Shangri La to Litang we were around or about 4000m: up to 4000m; down to 3000m; up to 4700m; across long, barren plains at 4500m; and finally down to the monastery town of Litang, nestled more or less in the centre of the Plateau at 4300m.
After Litang I continued on my own for another 1700km at a similar altitude. And now, sitting in a coffee shop in Chengdu under a blanket of smog, listening to ambient house and surrounded by nouveau riche teenagers, the world seems like a very different place. The transition started with a sudden reintroduction to highways, trains, trucks, KTV joints, seedy truckstops, and industrial cities, descending 185km from 4800m to 2000m in one day, literally spitting out loathing for my new surroundings. Then I lay low for a week with headaches, nausea, a weird tooth ache, and an ear infection. Thankfully I recovered in time for a glorious wedding in Paris. And now, back in Chengdu, alternating between making a very rough plan for the future, far too much filter coffee, DVD’s, and cheap beer, I’m itching to take on the vast expanse of the Taklamakan desert in up to 40C heat. What happened to me.
We cycled the 462km from Shangri La to Litang in seven days. The weather was often terrible. On the first day a local guy said the rule was one day bright, one day overcast, and one day rain/hail/snow. It was a good rule of thumb for the rest of the Plateau. We ended up being pretty conservative as a result, not heading up the next pass if we were going to get there in the dark, risking a night in the tent in a snowstorm at altitude, and instead staying in local guesthouses where we could have hot food and a bed. We only got caught out twice. If we ever forgot that we were cycling through someone else’s story, regular signs reminded us where to look and where to take photos. Like “Traditional White-House Tibetan Village Photopoint” and the all too honest “Tibetan Village Developed for Tourism.”
The smooth new roads and hydropower projects were ubiquitous but so were towering, fortress-like white houses and pretty bustling villages and towns. In valleys surrounded on all sides by 4000m mountains, far, far away from any significant market, we wondered where even these modest levels of prosperity came from. We were a bit inspired by the local officials, after spending a night in our sleeping bags at the provincial government headquarters, with young workers letting off steam at the end of another six-day week. Young locals passionate about their work and equally adept in Tibetan and Mandarin explaining their approach to the challenges of supporting local development. It might surprise people to hear that I sought out local police stations rather than avoided them. I would invariably end up warming up by their fire and drinking copious quantities of hot tea. Occasionally I would get given lunch, once I got bought replacement gloves and sometimes we would ask to stay and sleep on their sofa.