31/10 Early morning swim in the hot springs, but they are only warm. Getting out again is the hard part with the cold and the wind. Unfortunately, it is overcast after a starry night, so it is cold. We proceed to Kandze, where Phuntsok and his wife warm us up with hospitality. We are served a brunch of traditional Tibetan food and Yak butter tea. Thank you both very much for your hospitality. After that we turn South to Nyarong, where we stop for supplies, then continue until the bottom of a pass where we set up camp. A rock falls down in front of our car and Phuntsok can't stop, so they drive over the top of it. There is quite a bit of damage to the car in the front, but nothing serious. Later, however, both front springs break and they have to continue slowly. Strange, it isn't that cold, there is firewood aplenty around the camp site, but the others disappear very early into their tents.
1/11 There was a bit of snow or sleet during the night and I have a lot of ice to scrape off my tent. Luckily, it all soon starts to melt, but not very fast, as it is overcast. The road turns back into a rough dirt track and soon we come to a North-facing stretch that is covered in snow and ice. I go first and promptly fall off. We deliberate for a long time whether to try to continue or turn back and try another route, but there are high passes whichever way we go. In the end Gilles goes with Phuntsok in the car ahead to the top of the pass to check the road condition. We proceed. Over two stretches we have to push some of the bikes. Only Rainer manages to ride more or less by himself. Over the top of the pass at over 4550 m and the road is sealed and free of snow and ice. But the landscape changes dramatically: instead of forest we are now riding through a wintry barren landscape, populated by nomads living in black tents and their roaming herds of cattle or yaks. It starts to snow, but there must have been sunshine earlier on, as the road remains at least partially dry and there is steam rising from it. Eventually we rejoin a major highway (with very bad surface) and cross another high pass, then we reach Litang.
2/11 During the night about 15 cm of snow fall and so we decide to stay put. We spend a lot of time discussing our options where to go. Phuntsok and Dorje drive a distance South to reconnoiter the road and apparently it is clear, except for a stretch of 300 m. We decide to head South the next day. It continues to snow, but the snow melts rapidly, at least during the day. The forecast is good for tomorrow.
Litang town square with plastic palm trees
3/11 The weather has improved and we head South through the wintry landscape. As expected, the first pass (4125 m) is a little difficult near the top with snow and ice on the road. It is Rainer's turn to fall off and he brakes a mirror. On the other side there is a lot less snow and we pass through some lovely, scrubby landscape with bits of snow and all the autumn colours. We decide not to stop for photos, but to try to go as far and as fast as possible, as there is more snow forecast and we don't want to get caught. We cross 4 more high passes, the highest 4718 m, but there is no more snow on the road. We camp again.
4/11 Another icy morning with wet tents being packed up. We press on South until we reach and cross the Yangtse river. The bridge is also the border between Sichuan and Yunnan, however, culturally we are still in Tibet. When the Chinese annexed Tibet they chopped bits off and incorporated it into other provinces. Here, we are at 2000 m altitude, the lowest we have been since we entered Tibet. We then head NW, passing Pondzirak and the road winds its way up again over a double pass (4327 & 4354 m). There is no snow around here, but the pass is cobbled for about 40 km, which makes riding quite uncomfortable. It's so rough, my exhaust starts to come loose and I have to get the tools out. We pass Dechen at nightfall and stop in a tourist trap called Namka Tashi Lhakhang. There is a monastery here, but people come here by the busload for a view of the Kama Karpo mountain range. According to our itinerary "This is the best place to stay overnight and observe sunrise over Mt Kawa Karpo (6,740 metres)-perhaps the most dramatic of all the snow mountain ranges in Tibet, and one of the world’s highest unclimbed peaks." For now most of the mountains are in cloud and we are told it's been like this for the last week.
5/11 We are lucky, it almost clears for the sunrise and Gilles gets some great photos, as do a lot of Chinese tourists. We now have to head back the way we came. Phuntsok gets hit with another fine for his illegal roof rack at a police checkpoint. I feel sorry for him. Bikes never get bothered at these checkpoints, not even big strange looking foreign ones. Once we get past the cobblestones we ride quite fast on the excellent roads South until we reach Gyeltang. This town is a surprise: it's barely mentioned in the LP guide, but Dorje and Phuntsok find us a guesthouse in the old town, which consists of wooden buildings, intricately decorated. Too bad every one of them is a souvenir shop or restaurant. They are building more... In a square we stumble into a performance by a dance troupe, so we watch for a little while. There are lots of tourists about, Chinese and others. We are 3 days ahead of schedule, guesthouse and town are pleasant, so we decide to stay an extra day here. The others find a shop selling real cheese, what a treat!
The rooms in the guesthouse were already amazing, but this commom room blew me away with all the wonderful carvings.
Real skins from real endangered leopards and god knows what else...
7/11 We leave in a light drizzle on a perfect highway South. Strange that there is so little traffic on such a big road. Unfortunately, my boots have long ceased to be waterproof and so my feet get wet and my toes freeze. We go over a low pass. There are a couple of Stupas on the side of the road and then we leave Tibet.