Chengdu – Songpan Cycle for Bipolar UK: Day 1

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So a couple of months ago I decided to embark on a four-day, 350km cycle through the mountains of old East Tibet in aid of Bipolar UK. As the name suggests, they’re an amazing charity who give invaluable, practical support to bipolar sufferers and their families in the UK. Here is my diary of the trip:

I saddle up, chuck my tent on my back and head out before dawn, feeling vaguely Tolkein-esque as I point my front wheel towards the misty mountains in the distance. I’ve become used to working disorienting days that begin in the early afternoon and end late in the evening. Now, however, wanting to take in as much of the scenery as possible and definitely not wanting to risk the mountain roads with their hair-raising truck drivers after dark, I feel like my body clock is back in tune with nature. I weave my way out of town through the Tibetan district as the sun rises, mottled pink clouds.

So a couple of months ago I decided to embark on a four-day, 350km cycle through the mountains of old East Tibet in aid of Bipolar UK. As the name suggests, they’re an amazing charity who give invaluable, practical support to bipolar sufferers and their families in the UK. Here is my diary of the trip:

I saddle up, chuck my tent on my back and head out before dawn, feeling vaguely Tolkein-esque as I point my front wheel towards the misty mountains in the distance. I’ve become used to working disorienting days that begin in the early afternoon and end late in the evening. Now, however, wanting to take in as much of the scenery as possible and definitely not wanting to risk the mountain roads with their hair-raising truck drivers after dark, I feel like my body clock is back in tune with nature. I weave my way out of town through the Tibetan district as the sun rises, mottled pink clouds.

It takes a good three hours to get out of Chengdu and its interminable suburbs, and they barely end before I reach Dujiangyan. Here I stop to carb-load with a huge bowl of beef noodles and attract even more attention than usual (Laowai < Laowai on bike < Laowai on bike with pop-up tent strapped to back giving impression of outdoor pursuits ninja). A pattern, to be repeated with increasing intensity at every stop along the route, establishes itself: a small crowd gathers to poke around in my panniers and speculate on their contents, fiddle with my bike and speculate on how much I paid for it, and - most troublingly - why I am alone. The Chinese yi ge ren carries the literal, neutral meaning ‘one person’ but is also used to mean ‘alone’, ‘by oneself’.and – depressingly – ‘single’, all of which are widely regarded as negative things to be. This has been a sticking point throughout my time here: despite being something of a sociable person, I have always enjoyed my own company and found comfort in solitude, never more than when travelling alone with the calming sense of motion and the open road for company. Talking Heads singer David Byrne describes solo cycling as meditative, and as grounding him during hectic global tours, and I am inclined to agree. In China, however, being alone is most definitely cause for comment, and the concerned question ‘yi ge ren ma?’ follows me throughout my travels in the country.

Getting to my destination turns out to be relatively easy: essentially, turn left out of Chengdu, point your front wheel towards Tibet down the Guo Dao 213 and don’t stop til you hit Songpan. There’s a tricky bit in the middle of Dujiangyan, however, where I lose my way a little. The laoban’r of the noodle shop takes my cue sheet down the road to where a group of elderly gents are playing cards. A lively debate follows, ending with the most officious of them hand-drawing me a small map. As I leave, he asks ‘yi ge ren ma?’ When I respond in the affirmitive, he gives me a smile and a thumbs-up. I take this unusual approval as a good omen and return the signal, grinning from ear to ear.

Characteristically for this land of extremes, it seems that the moment I turn off Dujiangyan’s main drag the thronging crowds of a Chinese city fall away and I am plunged into a profound silence and near-unspoiled natural landscape of soaring peaks and horizon-brushing lakes. It really is incredibly beautiful, and I feel renewed for being in such surroundings; the urge to explore drives legs that had been starting to raise significant complaints.

A couple of hours or so into the mountains, the landscape changes. I cruise through villages half-submerged in rubble; roads end abruptly, falling off into those shimmering lakes. When the bridge that should have carried me over a stretch of river turns out to just not be there anymore, a shopkeeper directs me down a near-vertical, barely-visible track to a makeshift replacement bridge made of seriously suspect, rotting wooden slats. I experience the first of several heart-stopping moments pushing my bike over it. This is Wenchuan County, the origin of the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan.Five years on, repairs remain far from complete and groups of people shifting landslide rubble by hand is a common sight. It is impossible not to feel anger at the apparent lack of concern for these isolated communities. 

More conflicted feelings are aroused when, around dusk, I reach what seems a logical place to stop for the night. The village of Yingxiu was the location of the epicentre of the quake. Today, this title is the basis for its transformation into a tourist town, complete with KTVs, stalls selling ‘traditional’ Tibetan jewels etc. The transformation is only half-complete, however – in the spirit of ‘build it and they will come’, whole complexes destined to become guest houses, restaurants and tat-touting shops lie deserted. This lends an aura of eeriness to a place already steeped in it, and I’m glad to be leaving early the next day.

I stuff myself with kung pao chicken at one of the deserted restaurants, my journal-keeping drawing ever more attention to myself, then fall gratefully into a 12-hour sleep.



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