Hey China, There’s Flies in the Coffee

Shangri-La, Xiangcheng, Daocheng, Yading, Litang – 400km and feet on the ground

Litang, China. At 4000 meters we’re out of time and out of breath. Literally, short on oxygen and we don’t know why. From the lowlands we had climbed onto the Tibetan plateau feeling like super heroes. We’d conquered big passes over and over again, a bit wobbly but without ill effect. It was surprising even. Katrina, a traveling German doctor, had advised us earlier that there are two ways for the body to produce more red blood cells for higher altitudes. One: slow acclimatization; and two: smoking cigarettes. I had a third theory though. Could it have been the exhaust that prepared us? We were living in it, and undoubtedly had been deprived of oxygen. Our blood must have been kicked into high gear. We’d been acclimatized early, aaaand we’d found our golden ticket: black exhaust cigarettes, all the benefits of tobacco without the addiction. But what’s happened? After two weeks of biking and hiking at altitude we’re left sore, beaten down, breathless, our hunger for the road diminished…

This part of the ride has been something all together different from the biking up to now. The climbs we do in this part of China are extremely masochistic, but we find them to be the opposite experience of Southeast Asia and big-city-Yunnan. There’s something much more meditative about pushing your body than stressing your mind. Back then our minds were lost to the incessant traffic, but our legs and bodies carried us through. Here it’s the body that crashes until there’s nothing left, but the mind powers through the pain and exhaustion, making you aware that your limits are much farther than you’d thought.

We set off from Zhongdian (now called Shangri-La to draw tourists into its outdoor walking mall) and were immediately in high spirits. City and truck traffic faded away and we were on a lone, winding path through relative wilderness. Having marked the highest passes on our maps, we knew basically where to expect the slow downs, but climbing didn’t even matter. We were in the mountains, high in altitude and low in temperature. Euphoria hits more often in places like this, and even the funks are easier to get out of. Is it the altitude? The views from elevated perspective? The release at the top of a 4500m (15000ft) pass is incredible, and it’s impossible not to sing to yourself the entire way down.

But then there was the rain. Every day we set up the tent with our rain gear on, woke up to pitter-patter on the rain fly, packed down our wet camp and biked all day in sporadic rainfall . We were wet, and frustrated by the lack of visibility. Camping at the passes for acclimatization, suffering through the cold, but we had yet to see any snow, because even the 20,000ft mountains that we biked by were buried in clouds. Still we felt victorious, still we sang through the rhythm of chattering teeth.

Up until this point, we’d met only two other bike tourers while on the road, but after one particularly heinous stretch of road over a rainy pass, we came upon a Swiss couple going the other way. How fortuitous; we traded maps – Sichuan for Yunnan – and exchanged info about the road ahead. They had had nothing but sunshine for weeks. Moving on, we found out why. Cresting our third (or fourth) pass, we looked down into a humongous green valley filled with sunshine and shadows, and a dry, brilliant blue sky above us. Life changed then, and at the time we were sure it was for the better.

Idiot drivers are idiots at the top of a pass

Then we tragically descended for 6,000ft, through thick clouds of road dust, to a Tibetan village known for its hot springs. Life was good, but every down means an up, and from there we climbed again for an entire day. We biked up endless switchbacks into the dark, before we could find a flat piece of ground near water to sleep on. As I set up the tent that night, Rob sat by his bike, rummaging around in his gear. He casually asked me a question about the pills we had for altitude sickness, and I thought nothing of it. Silently I wondered why the hell I was setting up camp alone. “Not feeling so well,” he said. “Like, what?” “Like, really, not good.” We paged through our med book and his symptoms compared to those described. The book also described what happens as symptoms progress, and these thoughts are never comforting when lying awake in the middle of the night. We thought we might be near the top of the pass, but we’d been biking much higher than this for the last week and a half, so what was the deal? why would AMS hit now? “And damn it, I can’t see very well out of my right eye…” Contacts are funny, so we left that one alone.

In the morning his condition hadn’t improved. He hadn’t slept, was still woozy, no energy, no appetite. And that damn eye… From here we couldn’t see around the bend to know where the pass was. It was anybody’s guess, and we guessed optimistically, knowing that the optimism probably had no basis in reality but might serve to help us move forward. When you’re biking, you learn to read the landscape, and certain hints tell you how far you are from the top. The steepness of canyon walls, the volume of water in the river/creek/trickle flowing past you – these things never lie, no matter how much you hope they are, and we were biking next to a river.

Slowly, we climbed. And climbed. The landscape opened up and we could see switchbacks, still thousands of feet above us. Every turn we made revealed another, farther up. Where the fuck was this pass? Demoralizing as this was, especially for someone suffering from altitude sickness, we kept slowly on, pedal by pedal as the day droned on. Finally the pass came into view. Prayer flags blowing in the wind over a cut in the mountain. Rob’s state (and my own) found improvement in that sight. Those prayer flags for us represented the end of suffering. We crested the pass, our highest yet, over 15,500ft, and elated in the accomplishment until weather and ill health told us to get the hell down.

Fifty kilometers later found us at a town, a bit off the map, called Daocheng. We rolled in through dusty streets, Rob navigating with one eye closed to ward off the pain of intruding particles. Again we’d found ourselves in one of those (objectively) shithole Chinese towns, but we were too tired for it to matter. We found a guesthouse and planned our next moves. But first, that eye. Something offensive was in it and wouldn’t come out. Painful, sandy horribleness. I finally inspected it with a headlamp and we discovered Rob had a scratched cornea. Apparently it really was time to rest.

We took a day in Daocheng – a place where the price of coffee violates one’s sense of justice, and where the flies in the bottom of your cup provide a perfect metaphor for the place’s complete descent into inauthenticity. (Its impossible for a fresh cup of coffee to have a dead fly in the bottom of it, think about it). A day there, and we prepared for a hike. We’d been longing to have our feet on the ground for months. Every little foray into the woods reminds you how much greater the immersion into the landscape is when you’re walking, pushing the branches aside, putting your head where the sounds and sights of thick, road-bound humanity can no longer offend you. And this hike would be killer. Yading Nature Reserve is home to three 20,000ft mountains. Tibetan Buddhists make a yearly pilgrimage around one or all of them, considering them – rightly so – to be holy. We decided to circuit the entire thing. The mountains are named for Power, Wisdom, and Compassion, and we wanted all of that goodness.


We did some research and printed out the only maps we could find (one hand-drawn, one a jpeg of a GPS track over an unscaled google earth image). It looked like it’d be tough, but maybe could be done in four days – we were bike tourers after all. There was no indication of how many kilometers it was, and the maps showed eight passes, each between 15-16,000ft. We bought five days worth of food and packed it into our convertible backpack-panniers, along with all the warm clothes we had. It turns out that Ortlieb has designed the second most uncomfortable backpack-panniers on the planet. Nashbar takes the cake. (Please, someone in the bag business, figure this out!)

Sources of bodily pain

In the morning we bused to Yading, following a thick caravan of tourists to the park, and started walking from where we were dropped off. Tourism in the park is heavy, and nearly every visitor is compelled to take an expensive electric car into the center of it. Hikers are forced to walk along their road for a ways, but lucky for us, China is not a nation of hikers. From the second we stepped off the road onto an animal track we were completely alone, and wouldn’t see a soul for nearly the entire hike.

view over the world from camp 1

The first night we camped at 15,000ft and looked out over the park’s central valley, feeling the power of the place, and feeling like we had it all to ourselves. It is one of the most beautiful places either of us has seen, and in the presence of these mountains even heathens like us are made to feel spiritual. Then the second day tested us as it began to go sour. We crossed a 16,000ft pass early on, then descended several thousand feet. We found ourselves crossing the second pass in the dark, freezing, a bit scared, and dying to get out of the wind to a lower patch of protected flat ground. Eventually we found a spot by headlamp, got into the tent, ate some foul joke of a dinner and decided to wait for the light to make a decision as to what to do about our situation. The exertion and thin air had prompted Rob’s altitude sickness to come back, and we were sleeping at 14,000ft.

beautiful, unlucky patch of ground at camp 2

In the morning we had two options, neither of which was ideal. We could retreat, go back over two passes, the last probably being the hardest of the hike, or we could push on. Six passes ahead of us and no way of knowing how difficult it would be. It was Rob’s decision, not mine, though I wonder now whether a more rational or more concerned friend would have, or should have, made the more rational and concerned decision for him. Predictably, he decided that we’d march forward. We reasoned that if things got really ugly we could escape down into the valley bottoms and follow the river down until we found settlement. That might mean a week or more lost in the woods, but it wasn’t a matter of life or death. This is what we reasoned, and we walked slowly toward the third pass.

The following day the fourth pass hit and the situation worsened. Rob could only move at a snail’s pace, having no energy, shortness of breath, and going on little to no sleep. The pass was another of those elusive ones, with many false summits and steep terrain. Important points on the trail are marked with cairns and prayer flags, but we found out quickly that these aren’t always summits. Terrain never lies, but prayer flags do. Designed to tatter in the wind, to disintegrate the day after tomorrow like most contemporary Chinese construction, they’re aesthetically beautiful but often dishearteningly placed under yet another five hundred foot wall of rock. At one point on the pass, Rob threw down his bag and collapsed. I tried not to worry, but we were now in a situation that defied our reasoning. We were hiking on a long, precarious scree slope, where the steep angle of repose of slate made me wonder about my own angle of repose, were I to fall. Where would a body come to rest? And this scree was hanging over cliffs. There was no way from here to the bottom of the valley. Got to keep going, up.

We had an unspoken understanding of the situation. Rob knew that there was no escape, and that things would have to get worse before they got better, if they did. We didn’t even know if there was a descent after the fourth pass. Its impossible to know how you’ll react when confronted with your own mortality until it happens, and for his part, he calmly pushed on, step by step. By the end of the day, we’d made it over fourth, fifth and sixth passes, to a spot where we could escape the elevation the next day. We camped on a lake, looking up at the enormous, hanging glaciers on two of the holy peaks. “Wisdom” and “Compassion” loomed over us and drained an icy wind over our camp. It was our coldest night yet, freezing nearly everything we had, including my contacts.

The following day we climbed up over the last pass and escaped into the center of the park, where the views were incredible and the only way to go was down. We’d meet the tourist hordes, but we’d see the tourist attractions, and Rob’s health (and both of our hunger) depended on us being able to leave the park that day.

delirium at pass 7

our escape

The tourism that we encountered on our way out gave us an ugly feeling, made stronger by the experience we’d had and the seclusion we’d been blessed with on our hike. They’ve built a road up between the mountains, into the heart of the place, and it is nearly compulsory to pay for the ride in and out; something that even in our state we were too disgusted to do. The road sits on top of what presumably used to be the shorter pilgrimage route, so in essence they’ve paved and commodified what was once a holy experience. To tap the tourist dollar, they’ve made this beautiful chunk of nature highly accessible to anyone inspired enough to pay for it. But at Yading, its not just that nature has become a commodity. If that were the case, at least we could debate the implications of why one should appreciate non-human nature, be it economic or personal, or whatever. At Yading, they’ve commodified vista. One is ferried to a viewpoint, where they can direct a lens at a scene, whose precise angle is predetermined by some higher authority, snap a photograph, check it off the list and paste it on their wall at home where it acts as a cheap replacement for real, actual experience, and real, actual appreciation of non-human nature. And along the path between viewpoints one can look down and see evidence of this lack of appreciation: trash, everywhere, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Being westerners, and probably looking more wild than your average white dudes (I have to pull facial hair out of my mouth after most bites of food), we get asked to take photos with lots of Chinese tourists. This is arguably a similar, though much funnier and less harmful practice. And also, being westerners, we’re forced to consider our own practices at home. Our National Park System is amazing. Preservation of nature for its own sake, beautiful. But can we really look at Yosemite and claim that our system of tourism is superior to that at Yading? Only a fraction of visitors ever stray more than a short walk from the road. So what is it, for us, that makes tourism seem so much uglier here? Tough to explain; I guess its just that feeling – that intuitive sense that there are flies in the coffee. Authenticity has been forsaken.

After the hike, we can look back on it with fondness. It was the toughest, and probably the most beautiful hike that either of us has been on. Neither Rob nor I regret any decision that we’ve made so far, and for Rob, even the reflection of his own mortality was in hindsight a good, meaningful and powerful experience. We’re in Litang now, an interesting town rich in Tibetan culture, and we’ve got another day or so to rest. We’ve had to make some decisions about our route that will put us on a plane to Bangladesh a week sooner than we’d planned, but we’re feeling good about it. We feel we’ve been in China long enough to get the gist, and an exciting new culture awaits. A cold ride into Chengdu, through some incredible and untouched areas on the plateau lies ahead. We’re tired, wiped from the hike and run down from the road, but as always the future excites us. Whatever this journey is about, its pretty fucking incredible.

Yading Gallery

13 thoughts on “Hey China, There’s Flies in the Coffee

  1. Buddy -- Family reunion in Anniston went well -- Chris & Megan took a nice trail run, the rest of us drank beer, told stories, and ate too much. Hang tough and be safe. Buddy on said:

    Our friends are enjoying your adventure and we are amazed at your endurance. Be safe as possible!!

  2. Hi Alex and Rob, really great pictures there and a massive salute to your endurance and sense of adventure. Enjoying all your entries and as always…ride safe! Hao & Dash (Singapore)

  3. Rob & Alex,
    We have been following your journey, often moved beyond words. Thanks for making us part of. Be safe. Be positive. You are an inspiration to us all.
    Peace & Love,
    Peter & Lauri

  4. Rob This one was hard to read….harrowing…and worrisome. I guess since we had just seen the film Kadoma, we were extra sensitive to the lurking danger out there…whether it be a hidden crocodile, an inattentive driver, an unwanted bodily ailment, or any of a 1000 possibilities. Please, guys, be mindful. Love, Aunt Gretchen and Uncle Bill Date: Wed, 24 Oct 2012 05:07:36 +0000 To: billgretchen@hotmail.com

  5. Alex and Rob, this is Jin, who you met at the hotel in Daocheng. Great story with photos!
    Already shoot you an email

    Good luck in the future adverture!

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