The road to Lhasa

The Fabled G318 begins its journey in China's economic engine room, Shanghai, and winds its way west for 5,476km before reaching the spiritual homeland of Tibet, Lhasa. You won't find two cities in China with more opposing souls than these, and the G318 has become a modern pilgrimage for young Chinese in search of their identity in the rapidly evolving China of the 21st century.


Short on time and weak-kneed with excitement at the prospect of climbing through the clouds on 4500m mountain passes, we jumped on a bus and joined the 318 in Kangding, at the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. Little did we know that this meant our first day of cycling would involve an ego-crushing, lung-piercing 1700m climb.


It all started well. After three days of fattening up on chocolate cakes and eye-watering Sichuan hotpots, we pedalled out of town full of excitement for our last month on the road. One hour in and it was all smiles on the team as we gently pushed uphill, surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks and zenned-out yaks taking baths in crystal clear streams. It was one of those days when I thought I could cycle on forever.


Things can change quickly in the mountains, though. With 800m still to climb the jagged peaks were enveloped by foreboding black clouds and visibility quickly dropped to 100m up the road. The rain was only light when the first thunderous explosion shook right through my bones, as if the lighting had struck only meters away. But then the rain reached monsoon levels, and we made a hasty retreat to the closest bit of protection we could find. Crouching under a boulder, wet as a drowned rat, I strongly regretted going for the cheap Chinese rain jacket that I'd bought only weeks before. It was one of those moments when I couldn't wait for this adventure to be over.


Just as my lips were beginning to tremble, and I was asking myself some deep life questions, we heard screaming coming from up in the clouds. The next minute a Chinese man comes flying down the road on a bicycle, covered in bin bags for rain protection and screaming in pain from his frozen hands. We couldn't help but jump out from under our boulder, laughing and cheering for this crazy cyclist who was braving the torrential downpour. And then the huge smile that spread across his face reminds me why we're doing this. It's the people we meet along the way.


Two days later we were slogging our way up a 4700m pass, the highest of our trip. Down on energy, we'd made a mere 30km in 6 hours and the top was nowhere in sight, when we cycled through a small Tibetan town whose economy thrived on cyclists travelling the 318.


Every year thousands of cyclists pedal to Lhasa, and every 90-100km you'll find hostels catered purely for cyclists, where $8 will get you a bed, dinner, breakfast, clothes washing and even an onsite mechanic. After 11 months of wild camping, sleeping on the floors of strangers, and hotels whose quality ranged from 5-star to some very shady establishments, I felt like I'd discovered Shangri-La.


For three hours we sat on the balcony sipping tea and welcoming cyclists who arrived in all states of being. From frothing at the mouth with pure excitement to eyes rolling and absolutely shattered, 40 other cyclists slowly arrived. My personal favourite was a 68 year old gentleman who pushed his bike through the door just before sunset, wicked grin across his face and cigarette hanging from his mouth. We high-fived, backslapped and congratulated each other in foreign languages like old school friends.


These cyclists were all part of our team for the next 48 hours, as we ate, slept and cycled together. There's no better feeling when you're cycling up hill through the pouring rain, than the cheers and support from other cyclists as crazy as you are. But the best part of cycling the 318 was the insight that we got into the minds of the young Chinese today, quite possibly the leaders of the world tomorrow.


So what do they think? Like every country we've visited, they burn with hope and struggle with fear for the future. Over dinner we learnt that young Chinese men have no hope of a girlfriend until they own a car and a home, which means tough competition in a country with such an unequal gender balance. They were seriously impressed to know Manon still stays with me minus a car or a home (and minus any hope of one in the near future). 


On one hand, we spoke with young graduates who could barely stand still from excitement at the prospect of endless business opportunities in China. On the other hand, we spoke with young adults in their late 20s who were questioning the insatiable desire for consumption and endless quest for growth that drives the country. One man even confessed to a life-changing interaction with Tibetan monk that day, and swore he was quitting his job in Shanghai to teach children in the Tibetan monastery.  One thing they all said in common though, was China will slowly move to a democracy... One day.


Most importantly though, the young Chinese we met were just like the young adults we've met everywhere. They want safety, stability and the freedom to live life how they choose.