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Words by Serene and Photographs by Christopher Chen
Do you know the way to Shangri-La?
Shangri-La, a mythical Himalayan valley where people do not age, a mountainous utopia that is isolated from the outside world. The general idea is that you do not set out to find the valley, it finds you. But should you choose to leave you will not, legend has it, ever find your way back again. As a cyclist, I live for the exquisitely painful feeling that can only be achieved on the last 3km of a 16km climb, with the gradient never dipping below 9%. Why? I do not know, but I know that I am not alone in searching for cycling nirvana. The legend of Shangri-La has clear parallels to this kind of cycling, and the film draws this out beautifully.
Shangri-La is an actual place these days, a town in Yunnan Province in south-west China. Formerly known as Zhongdian, it was renamed Xianggelila (the Chinese approximation of 'Shangri-La') in 2001 by the Chinese authorities. It is a mainly Tibetan town, perched on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, at 3,200m above sea level.
Xianggelila is not easily accessible from the outside world, requiring at least two or three plane journeys within Asia alone. It is a huge province in a vast country, so distances between towns are very large and often made on soulless highways. But we found our Shangri-La, nonetheless, and I encourage you to go out and do the same.
The first day was peppered by shortish, yet leg-sapping climbs. We meandered through the vast countryside, from Yang Bi to Jian Chuan. Tobacco plantations dotted the route and farmers, whips in hand, shepherded flocks of sheep, herds of yaks and cows on the very roads we were riding on.
Before we knew it, dark clouds had gathered. The clouds followed us all the way through and unleashed their malice shortly before we got to the next town. We were soaked and dirty but happy to end the day. Day one gone, and it was already harder than we imagined. Tibetan meals were served communal style. Pots of rice, plenty of fresh vegetables and some meat spiced with fiery-looking chilli oil. Seated on little wooden stools, it was hard not to feel like family, with everyone huddled together over a warm meal and chatter that never seemed to cease.
The second day, a transition, was markedly easier. What struck us all most, however, was the sheer grandeur of the roads we travelled: old towns lined by well-washed bricks; a swooping descent into the valley; the bustling small town; and a sudden manoeuvre on to a section of dirt road and straight into a ferry waiting to take us and our support vehicles across the Yangtze river. By ferry, a very old boat made of wooden planks that were breaking apart. The bolts that held these planks together, having rusted, now expanded in the heat and jutted from the wood. We were tentative how we would all fit on to the vessel and, if we did, how it would carry our collective weight. But it did its job fine and we watched as the river was dwarfed by the gorges flanking it.
Before we knew it, we were back riding, first through valleys, then steadily climbing up the Tiger Leaping Gorge - the view was stunning all the way. With the wind blowing and rain now falling, it became important to concentrate. The roads had deteriorated and there was no kerb to demarcate the side of the highway and the often plunging drop into the gorge below. Just ahead, you could see that a van had plummeted thousands of metres. I hugged the centre of the road, fearing for the guys who were riding so close to the edge.
Most of the evening was spent in the communal hut that overlooked the mountains that laced the area. We then retired into our own little wooden cabins to rest up for the day ahead. The ride into Shangri-La would take in five climbs, between altitudes of 2,000m and 4,000m and an expected 180km distance.
“Let’s make the best use of the altitude! Follow me, try to come past me - sprint for the sign, recover, and then we go again.”
We were only on our first climb, and I was mad to have listened to my colleague Adam Taylor-Campbell, the one guy who routinely rode away from us with fluidity and grace.
Adam Horler, my principal companion for most of the ascents, could only shake his head as we rocked our own way up, recovered in time to pull Adam TC briefly back, only to see him surge off again.
“I didn’t know what you were thinking,” Adam TC told me later. Neither did I. But, at that time, it seemed fun to play along. The feeling of hypoxia was novel - the legs were itching for more, yet the lungs were gasping for air, inhibiting any crazy exertion.
We stopped in a little town for lunch. Tired, yet not quite halfway, ahead lay two more climbs of unknown distance, along with 70km of rollers and flats into Shangri-La. The constant ups-and-downs, at altitude, had given me a gnawing headache and I was not the only one. Lunch was strangely subdued, as we contemplated the miles to come. Straight off, we began to climb. The Tibetan lady, sieving hay in the middle of the road, created some laughter and distraction but it barely lasted.
We were back on - and I was feeling the worse for wear. There was no more waiting around for each other, no more egging our companions on. The bulk of us were battling our inner monsters as we conquered the nasty, seemingly never-ending switchbacks. The tall pine trees on the side of the road made each switchback look like the last, but the peak proved elusive. We rode past one another continuously, nodding our heads weakly in acknowledgement, only to be overtaken a little further up the road.
The penultimate climb proved to be my own downfall. Half the guys had already called it a day and I was raging a ferocious war with the devil in me. I wanted to complete the ride, but the legs had long been screaming for mercy. The gradient was relentless, and I was crawling along. It did not help that I was getting more and more dizzy. Three kilometres into the last climb, I got off the bike and into the truck. Driving past the three guys left on the road, I felt a strong pang of dissatisfaction but also knew I could not have gone on much further. Before long, I had dozed off only to be awoken when we pulled up at the next town. I was so smashed that I did not even make it out of the vehicle to congratulate the three who were sitting by a fireplace trying to warm their weary bodies.
We had suffered and slogged, through stunning and, at times intimidating, terrain, where each soul fought his own independent battle. We had all pushed ourselves to our limits.
The long bus journey back to Kunming, over two days, did little to faze us. We had long grown accustomed to the disgruntled driver, the cramped mini-van that threatened to break down and the uncertainty of the number of kilometres to be covered before our next destination. Shangri-La had been located, and was, and will always be, a beautiful ride.