‘I didn’t imagine to meet other cyclists on this small road!’. This is what a Chinese cyclist tells me and Marco as we meet each other. We would meet him again the following morning at breakfast, which he prepares turning on a fire and cooking a soup that he shares with us, telling us about his year-long trip in China. This time we don’t have to wait for our tents to defrost, we had a big descent the previous evening and at 2500 m of altitude it has been a relatively warm night.
Also the landscape changed, the open green valleys have been left behind, trees are suddenly everywhere and we are now cycling through a forest, something that reminds Marco of Germany. Also yaks disappeared leaving space to cows and pigs. The road starts to go up again, we climb surrounded by trees and there are so little cars that I struggle to understand why this road has been paved. It’s a huge climb, we have a last unpaved section, before arriving to the top at 4000 m. We camp along the descent, not too far from the road, making a fire to warm us up. ‘Big fire, big attention’ is Marco’s comment to the unexpected visitors: two Tibetans on a motorbike, probably coming from a nearby village and informed about us from one of the rare passing cars, that want to make sure we properly turn the fire off before going to sleep.
A way to understand how much a road is travelled is the reaction of people to your passage: the more waving, smiles, invitations and curiosity from people, the less the road is travelled. And now we are attracting really a lot of curiosity, even invitations for tea, almost completely absent in China, happens more often. During the long climb we are invited by some women – all very traditionally dressed – who are cooking lunch and tea on a fire on the side of the road. Between lots of smiles and laughter for the two foreigners appearing on bikes on this quiet road, we are offered the typical Tibetan tea: warm water and tea leaves mixed with flour and yak butter; like it or not, it’s definitely something energetic. Another time when asking for water in a village we are invited into one of those very typical houses and offered tea and potatoes. The room we are seated is more elegant than the average village room in China – there are even cutlery sets – and on the walls there are two posters, one showing the Dalai Lama and the other one depicting Mao at the head of a group of soldiers; I am still not sure about the meaning of these two posters in the same room.
After another completely unexpected climb, during which we are the subject of literally thousands of pictures from Chinese tourists directed towards the Jiuzhaigou National Park, we arrive in Pingwu, the first real town after all those villages and mountains; there is even a food market where we can finally buy something more than biscuits. From here is less than 300 km to Chengdu that we cover in less than 3 days, it is flat and uneventful riding, most of the fields are cultivated and finding a place to camp is not always easy, but the abundance of villages and towns along the road means that tasty and cheap food is always available, as well as street food. And during a food break, in front of a tricycle selling some kind of fried bread filled with meat, we meet a Chinese boy who just finished a three-year long bike tour across China and South-East Asia.
Not long after this encounter we are in Chengdu, a 15 millions people city that we enter at its busiest moment – Saturday at lunch time -, there are hordes of people, cars, scooters and bikes everywhere, trying to avoid them all feels like riding in a video game and a group of boys riding some Giant and Merida bikes help us to locate the hostel. And now there will be a long break from the bike: my visa is expiring and I am heading to Hong Kong, where I’ll also meet my parents, to try to obtain a new one.