Despite only being about 200 miles apart, it takes a good seven hours to reach the city of Shangrila from Dali. Harrowing hairpin turns around blind mountain corners and a steady climb from 6,500 to 9,800 feet make the journey rough going. Once I arrived here I quickly set about renting a motorcycle - a street-legal "dirt bike" and shot out west. A cluster of ethnic Tibetan villages fills a grassland plane between the mountains. In the summer and fall a shallow lake appears.
Yaks, pigs, horses, cows, donkeys and sheep constantly wander across the roads. The Tibetan farmers build large wooden racks to dry their harvested rice crops on. The racks fill the flood plane like organic solar panels. As I coursed through rough, muddy and sometimes non-existant gravel paths I was met with smiling farmers and snickering women. A small child called out to me "hello?"
The next day, I rented the bike for three days and headed north toward Deqin, the last developed town before the Tibetan border. Along the way I met, by total coincidence, a motorcycling friend from the internet: Loh, Kaiwen (Singapore). We happily shared the road together and took on the endless mountain passes. Two-thirds the way there (70 miles out), the road seemed to disappear just over a smooth hump. We stopped the bikes at the top to take in the awe-inspiring scene: A sloping grassy plain that dropped off into a deep gorge surrounding an enormous, glacier capped alp. So beautiful it was nearly frightening.
Just outside of Deqin a sign read ELEVATION: 4,290 Meters (14,070 Feet). We could feel it - every breath was a struggle and the bikes also seemed tired. Loh and I discussed the various perils we had encountered riding in China on the rooftop of our hostel. Tibetan trumpets called out eerie low hums and high-pitched wails through the chilly full-moon night.
Loh continued his ride north alone and I set off to hike the nearby glacier. I thought I should see one while they still exist. After arriving at the park, I parked the rental bike and began the 2-hour hike up the mountain to the glacier's foot. I considered turning back no less than 1,000 times. Short of breath, exhausted, every step seemed impossible - just not enough oxygen. But I pressed on and somehow made it to the glacier. A hot day suddenly turned chilly in the presence of all that ice. Hard, cold, brutal, jagged ice. Stunning.
I returned to Shangrila to sort out the motorcycle question. I decided not to buy the rental bike. It was in short, a piece of junk. I fruitlessly searched high and low for a similar dirt bike but to no avail. No sooner had I left the bus station to buy a ticket for Kunming when I saw it. Perfect condition, low miles, proper license plates. I approached the owner and made an offer. A few phone calls later and I have about 10 Tibetan friends and a motorcycle. I have christened this one "Rocinante" - the name of Don Quixote's horse. Thanks Brian for the idea!
Enjoy the photos. Next it's Dali, then Kunming then the drive south toward Laos.
Oh, while driving back to Shangrila, a bull tried to ram me. Did he think I was going to steal his harem?