October 8th-October 10th; 18,231km-18,839km; Guanyinqiao-Luhuo-Xinlong-Litang
Let’s rewind back in time now, back to where we were a couple of weeks ago. Before the giant Buddhas, before the CIMA motorcycle expo, before the pandas in Chengdu, we were taking our exploratory, 1,300km journey out west back towards Tibet on the Tibet-Sichuan highway.
Head crouched down, visor so covered in dust that it was impossible to see through anymore, shoulders sore from days of keeping the bike upright through potholes, over cliff side landslides, and around trucks determined not to deviate from their path. This was more or less the scene a couple of days into our western Sichuan excursion. This originally unplanned section of the trip turned out to be the most challenging part so far as we encountered hundreds of kilometers of more or less continuous construction, gravel roads, and trucks.
A Fine Start
Leaving Guanyinqiao we still had pavement for about 100km. It was of the distorted, wavy variety but definitely manageable. It wasn’t long before the serenity of windy river canyon roads gave way to face-fulls of dust though. It ended up taking us 5 hours to do the last 100km (60 miles) of the day.
The next day we did get a break from the seemingly endless construction. We had about 100km of paved highway with only a few stretches of construction going through some very stunning scenery reminiscent of Tibet (we were moving back towards the Himalayas again after all). We had moved out of the greener, almost sub-tropical river gorges and into more open and mountainous terrain.
The Challenges Of Route S217
Pulling into Ganzi county, a relatively developed intersection of a couple of highways and the gateway into Tibet on the G317, we passed right by our turn off to the S217 which would take us south to the G318. After lunch we went back to look for it with the help of our GPS and found that the reason we missed the road intersection was that the start of the S217 looked like nothing more than a dirt and gravel entrance to a construction or factory site. It seemed like we had come to the end of our repose from the dust and potholes.
This stretch of about 250km ended up taking a full 1.5 days and was even more difficult then the previous stretch. The dirt roads moved into a new river canyon area. The climate in this area is significantly wetter than what we’ve been experiencing thus far and the runoff water from the mountains, the sides of which the S217 is carved into, was pouring down across our path on its way to join the tumultuous river which roared a couple hundred feet below us to our right. In some places the road itself had gone along with the rain runoff leaving spaces just wide enough for a single car to pass through with mountain boulders to one side and nothing but a steep fall to the right.
These roads more or less continued on through to the next day of riding until there was only about 50km or so left before reaching the S217. Cleaning off the dust from our gear, bike, and, most importantly, my visor seemed a fruitless endeavor. I got the bike cleaned every day through this stretch though as the dust was taking it’s toll on our now nearly 20,000km old chain.
Our second day on the S217 was made more difficult by several very poorly marked intersections. With no cell reception in these deep canyons we made our best guesses based on the state of each road and what we could guess from the saved map tiles on our phone (usually trying to guess which side of the river it looked like we should be on). The first time the wrong way turned out to be the paved one. The pavement quickly turned to dirt and the dirt road gradually became narrower and narrower. When we looked across the river and saw the other road had hordes of construction workers and our road climbed far too steeply up the side of a mountain to be the official road, we decided to turn back.
As much as I’ve been complaining about the S217, the last 50km were something out of a motorcyclists dream. Sounds dramatic, but it could not have been more idyllic. The newly paved road was perfectly smooth without blemish aside from one landslide. The route weaved us through a peaceful river valley with low hills surrounding us on either side as we paralleled level with the flowing stream of water almost the entire way. There was hardly any traffic with the only real interruption to the seclusion being herds of grazing cows, yaks, and sheep off in low valleys to our sides. We stopped at one flat area next to the river to enjoy the nice weather and cook up some instant noodles for lunch. It really could not have been any better.
Before long we had reached the G318 which we would be taking us back east towards Chengdu. We had expected some sort of town at the intersection where we could fill up on some desperately needed gas but unfortunately we found nothing and the closest town was 20km westward, not the direction we wanted to be going in, at Litang. With the sun on its way down behind the snow peaked mountains in the distance, we made the call to end our day in the little mountain town where we were able to find a International Youth Hostel certified hostel in town before heading back in the direction of Chengdu the next day.
As I said, this section, between the dust, construction, trucks, windy roads, and precarious cliff roads, was probably the most difficult for me as the driver. My shoulders were getting worn down from hours upon hours of tension in an attempt to keep the bike upright (a successful attempt I might add ). That said it was also one of the most rewarding. The scenery was some of the most scenic and varied that I think we have passed through up until this point. The difficult roads meant that the areas we were passing through remained in relative seclusion. We felt very fortunate to be able to visit some of these towns and villages before these roads had been converted into full highways bringing in much heavier flows of tourists coming through on their way to Tibet, a boon to the local economy to be sure but also a circumstance that would bring about permanent change to the area. It also felt as if we got to have a relatively authentic Tibetan experience but without the necessity of a guide or the oppression of speed control. Temples and stupas were everywhere and the hillsides were blanketed in prayer flags wherever possible. Most of the people we met were Tibetan as well and most signs catered to this by having both Chinese and Tibetan.
So, despite the challenges, I’m very glad we made this detour as I think it has become one of my favorite parts of the trip so far. If you can find the time, I would highly recommend this little loop, though you might want to try it on a dual-sport/adventure motorcycle not loaded up with 100kg of gear.