Monday 30 May 2011

Dali, Southwards to Laos border

In the rice fields bordering Erhai lake it was planting time. The bright green, lush lawns of seedlings were being uprooted, packed into baskets and loaded onto backs, bicycles and tricycles for the short journey to the flooded paddies. Men bunched them into small bundles and threw them at expertly spaced intervals into the shallow water where groups of somehow clean and colourful women would deftly plant them in rows along a double string measure.

Everyone was shin deep in mud and water. Rotovators crossbred with paddle steamers played alongside buffalo, straw-hatted drivers suspended out back on a cast iron tractor seat and splattered from shirt-tail to toe. Young men wade waist deep in the lake collecting green weed. Further East in China there is a drought.

The villages are deserted as everyone is in the fields. Every white painted house is adorned with murals depicting landscapes and wildlife and we have the narrow streets almost to ourselves as we ride along the lake shore toward the distant pagodas of old Dali.

After a surfeit of 'Old China' in Lijang we had little interest in the sights of this pleasant tourist town but we met an entertaining pair, Sharon and Steve a Kiwi and an Englishman who seemed to have perfected the art of backpacking with bicycles.

From the lake we climbed up once more then had a flattish run and spent the night in a great old town called Waishan or something similar. Eating steamed dumplings in a shaded square, we met a man who swore he was a hundred years old. He walked twice daily round the perimeter and spoke at length with those he met, us included.

We were riding through heavily forested mountains, down and up small river valleys and over low passes. Our collection of maps bore little relation to the topography at times but the network of roads was sparse and it was hard to get lost. There are remarkably few roads in these parts and away from those there are must be pretty wild. By foot across country would be the best way to travel. The tribal outfits seemed to change almost daily.

One morning we woke up in the tropics once more. The thermometer rose over 30 degrees and bananas fought with canna for space under the jungle canopy. Unseen armies of cicadas sharpened their scythes all around us and helped the fretting crickets to beat and churn the hot moist air into a soup thick enough to tempt hand-sized butterflies into braving improbable flight. The warm arboreal blanket pulled over the wrinkled, sleeping bodies of the mountains was torn in places by rice or tobacco farms. These tears had scoured away the Earths green skin leaving open and unhealing wounds to bleed the lifeblood of plants into the Devonian-red river. We followed this river for some days as it slid guiltily along the valley floor, laden with silt and the broken dreams of forest trees, drawn, inexorably toward the mighty, indifferent Mekong .

It takes time to travel where there is so much life going on. Anja is always behind. I turn back only to find her crouched over some poor, flattened creature, taking photo's for her future 'road-kill' expo or stuffing hapless Tettigonids ( bush crickets) in her lepidopterists collection box. She spends campsite evenings after noodles and coffee carefully sticking her specimens in a rapidly fattening book. To date she has discovered two new species; one an insect of paradise, a springer with a plume of white feathers, the other, some kind of worm with its own disc-house, found in India, so strange I reckon it rode in on a meteor or stowed away on a space-ship from another planet. We will of course present these discoveries to the Natural History Museum, London, in due course, assuredly to much acclaim from the scientific community. In fact, I think I saw the wormy thing first so it should be named after me: 'Toms Worm' or 'Franklinoptera'. Sounds much better than Anja's Bug or Lesser Spotted Bollmannid....finally an invitation to the entomologists ball.... National Geographic....Blue Peter....John Cravens Newsround..!!! I must be careful though or Anja may publicise my less than heroic antics when I discovered a leech latched onto my foot, happily sucking out my much needed corpuscles.

Traffic has been light this last week. We admired a passing motorcyclists bamboo basketwork safety helmet and were wondering about its pro's and obvious con's when we came round a corner to find said fellow and bike prostrate in the middle of the road. No serious injuries it seemed, lucky he didn't hit his head. We picked his bike up and hundreds of seedlings that had spilt from his over sized basket panniers. I think he had swerved too sharply to avoid a pothole and with so much weight onboard, lost his balance. Further along a truck-driver needed help tilting his cab forwards so that he could get to the engine. Our good deed day.

After a rainy day in a town named Pu er we climbed up into tea-garden mountains. I never considered much the implications of tea drinking but the jungle is being cut down and replaced with plantations both large and small. Its tea or trees it seems. Guess who's winning. 'Hug a tree, don't drink tea'! (sorry Ma). Some clever fellow once said something like 'Science is the faith of man in the ignorance of experts'. I slip this little nugget in here because, though I have most likely mis-quoted and forgotten who said it, I liked it. It can be taken a number of ways. The experts, the biologists, the earth scientists, the climatologists tell us felling all our little planets forests is a bad idea. Advice based on what they do know. Imagine all the consequences they don't know about. Deforestation may not cause any serious problems to life on Earth, we have already done away with so many trees and survived, but I can't help thinking we are making a far bigger mistake than we know, than we can imagine, far worse than the present science indicates. We are going to look pretty foolish when we learn that it was the moving shadows of the trees which pulled the sun each day across the skies. Here they would call me a" Panda Hugger" , sorry to go on so, but a new hole in the rain-forest is the starkest reminder of the follies of man.

In a town who's name we never knew we took a room in a hotel. Guest-houses and hotels are such good value in China. Four or five Euros gets one a clean and bright room with bathroom and hot, mostly solar shower and a big shiny TV. The staff are always friendly and the food really good. On this occasion we were dragged more than invited by a drunken chief of police to his daughters 23rd birthday meal in a private room out back. The food was fantastic, apart from the chickens head picked out of the soup and ceremoniously dumped on Anjas plate. Had to happen sometime. The drinking culture at such an occasion seems to consist of constantly filling someones glass from an endless supply of beer and spirits, standing and randomly picking a victim with whom to clink glasses and down drinks. This goes on and on and seems more important than eating.

We had no common words but had a great evening. I was ready for bed when the youngsters announced we were all off to a Karaoke club. I hate this sort of thing and was already half cut but in the interests of cultural research we said we would tag along. A short walk brought us all to the club. Up some stairs to a dimly lit corridor we were shown into a smallish empty room with a TV screen and singing machine with microphones, about 50 cans of beer were then aligned carefully on a low, long table in front of a bank of sofas facing the screen. Our group was down to about 8, the oldies having ducked out and we were alone in the room. The girls started singing along with videos and dice were produced for the drinking game. Anja sang well with Britney Spears and I mumbled something quietly half a bar behind a youthful Micheal Jackson. As easy as ABC it was not! I figured my best bet for survival was concentrating on the drinking game so I would not have to sing. Rock and a hard place. My head was already spinning from the dinnertime session and the dice were not being kind. Birthday-girl passed out first, the boys seemed to spend more time singing, Anja threw good dice and I seemed pitted against some slip of a super-model girl who was definitely out to win. She did. All that lovely dinner went down the drain.

We stumbled home and had trouble recognising our Hotel. Next day we nursed our heads, ate mostly mangoes and bananas and managed only 30 odd kms uphill through the woods. Cultural immersion sometimes hurts.

A small amendment to the above. The red river we followed, though at one point only a hill away from the Mekong, on closer inspection of our inadequate maps flows into the Black River in N. Vietnam. Here,where we are, it is hot and wet but the middle and lower Yangtze basin, whose upper regions we left a few weeks ago, is suffering a terrible drought. It is the worst in half a century and is effecting almost 40 million people.

Monday 16 May 2011

To the ‘Gorgeous Leapy Tiger’ & Lijang

The road from Lu Gu Hu to Lijang turned out unsurprisingly to be a beautiful ride though hard. We started over a mountain where roadworks and a temporary track left us pushing up so steep we were sliding backwards in the dust. This turned to a winding cobbled street up and over a pass. Fabulous road, but it shook all our nuts and bolts loose on the descent. (maybe we had a few loose already).
The houses turned from log to rammed earth and pine-framed, with the odd stone or mud-brick. All of similar, practical and appealing design.
Crossing the big yellow river and climbing up the other side of the valley through nectarine orchards was a day to remember. All our camping spots had been good, but a narrow terrace clinging to the valley side with the river an unguessable distance below, topped them all. As the moon traded places with the sleepy sun we cooked our noodles with the last of our gleaned ognions and ginger. We slept once more with our re-found friends the stars.
Somewhere on this journey we were informed that we were in the most beautiful city on Earth. I forget now where it was. Lijang could boast this if it wanted, and I would not argue. It is these days a tourist town. I would say 'Disneyland' but the 'Fakes' or new-builds after the Earthquake of '96 are built in the style and materials of the originals along the same meandering canals. The details of the woodcarvings and the craftwork in the shops is astounding. Usually I hate this sort of thing. I love this town in the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snowy Mountain.
We took a walk up Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Jainsa River (I’m sure it's the Yang Ze) itself at about 2000m above sea level here, cuts a gorge at the foot of a mountain range so a rock wall rises almost 4000m to unusually shaped craggy and snowy summits. A goat-path winds its way along the opposite hillside which we followed for a couple of days looking down at a small brown river below.
At last we descended impossible trails and ladders to the muddy tumult. Maybe 30 yards across at the narrowest point, small it was not. The rapids were the most ferocious I have ever seen. No happy laughing rafting outfits here. Un-navigable in the extreme. You could toss in a 40 ton truck, fully laden, and it would disintegrate and disappear in seconds. Legend has it a Tiger once leapt across from a flat projecting stone. Legends are great. So is this pace.
Back in Lijang, we head South tomorrow. Non-stop to Laos before our visas run out.

To Lu Gu Hu

We were making our way the only way we knew how.
'beat all we ever saw 'till we got in trouble with the law and they made us return.
Tibet or not Tibet. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stings of outrageous misuse of uniform......
Copious snow and confounding officials led us to backtrack a way and try a more southerly route. Anja’s handlebars tired of the journey on a real rough stretch. They were loyal enough to snap at a low speed causing no spill, and submitted to being splinted with wood and string for the short hobble into the nearest town.
A replacement was not to be had but my rummaging around in the back of a few metal workshops produced a stainless pipe of the right diameter. Comically, the boss would not sell it to me for any proffered sum and invited the street in to laugh at my ludicrous idea of replacing handlebar for straight pipe. Foolish foreigners. I had little choice but to ride off, bar in hand to the cackle of laughter and shaking of heads. I got it cut to length in a different shop. If it wasn't back up a big hill I would have rode back to show off my finished handiwork and got the neighbourhood back to eat their words, whatever they were.
We spent some days with a pair of adventurous Spanish cyclists. Alberto and Alicia, who had also been on the road for a year. Rough roads, waiting for landslides to be cleared, talking two wheeled talk and swapping tall tales of high times. An un-awaited pleasure to ride with company. It was sad when we parted ways and Anja and I headed S.West into deep-red, goat-scoured hills and towny dusts which, with gaining altitude turned to leafy rain and pine-needle camps by watery falls.
Once again we were clambering over the garden gate into Eden. This time Eve ruled the roost. Each river cut a deep valley now as we followed ever decreasing flows to passes that divided climates, vegetation, head wear and house-stiles of the natives.
In two days we had descended from chain gangs of trucks wallowing in snow, slush and ruts to harvest time in golden, winnowing valleys. Almost all was reaped by hand and often laid on the road to be threshed by the tyres of passing cars. The next valley grew enough onions for everyone in China. It smelt a sweet pleasant smell and a few found their way into our kitchen bag.
Back in prayer-flag land we came one morning to Lu Gu Hu. A Lake up high. Bluer than blue. Bigger than small with boats dug out from trees. Pined hills, Willowed banks, log and earth built dwellings. Floating islands where princesses preside over one of the last great matriarchal societies. The hats are good too. This will be a hard place to leave.
The only others showing pale faces around this blue and green patch of paradise were Mike and Adam, a cyclist and a hitch-hiker equally enamoured with this part of heaven. A great evening was spent grilling our food over charcoal, drinking beer and chatting until what for us was relatively late. Good luck guys.
Tomorrow we delve into Yunnan. To Lijang, the Leaping Tiger Gorge and other tantalising touristic delicacies. Well, its a few hundred miles of hard terrain but we are promised a road with a friendly surface. The friendliness of the people here seems to run a little deeper.

South from Chengdu

Our trip seems to have got itself divided into chapters; until Iran, the Indian subcontinent including Nepal and now with yet another flight we begin the S.E Asia section starting in Chengdu, China. The 'direct' flight to Chengdu made a short stopover in Lhasa much to our frustration and we saw Tibet out of the window.
We knew not what we would find in Chinas 5th largest city of 15 million people but as we hurtled down uncrowded modern motorways and broad boulevards in an unofficial taxi (he was willing to hang our bikes out the back), we were surprised at the lack of people about. Perhaps we had got used to the mass of bodies in India. The Chinese seemed to have somewhere to be other than on the streets and those that where appeared to have a destination. The traffic flowed easily and most people rode bicycles or electric scooters in the designated, tree lined and separate non combustion lanes. I was impressed and figured most European cities could learn a thing or to from Chengdu. It was very quiet. If rather dull.
Temples, gardens and monasteries were visited then we headed out of town. Well, we tried but lost after about 10km in an area of fly-overs and motorways, realised we could not pronounce anything that anyone could understand so we scuttled back into town and bought a map with names written in Mandarin. After lunch it seemed a bit late to set off so we stayed another night, feeling a bit like failures and realising we had had an easy run with languages up till now. Still, next day we escaped the city without a wrong turn and headed south on the most boring road yet. It was a concrete dual-carriageway, well made and not at all busy but straight and dull with only the odd bleak socialistic tower block town built around a forlorn quadrangle to add any interest. The overcast skies and acid drizzle that stung our eyes didn't lighten our spirits either.
After 80km we saw a brown sign with English subtitles saying turn right for Pingle old Town its only 10km. Right being west and our general direction we figured it was time to get lost on some back roads and maybe see a bit of China. After a hundred meters we realised we had made a good decision. Here we were at last and it was all more Chinese than we could have asked for.

The road wound through undulating hills which were all garden. From the tended shrubs of the roadside verges through the drippy green vegetable patches where not an inch of ground was wasted, to the topiary tea plantations on the slopes. All this was broken up by spinneys and copses and clumps of the most wonderful trees. I figured when in Germany that perhaps the perfect group of trees toward the corner of a field was birch, oak and larch or pine in a ratio of 6.2.1 respectively. I will have to revise this when I find out the names of all these new trees. Over the next few days I would realise that this country knows the value of trees. They are planted along the roads, by the factories and power stations, Oranges, willows, larches, Chinese pines, cherries, almonds and a thousand I know not what they are. They grow over broad beans and peas and lush oriental grasses. They are bonsai ed and trained in the public parks and planted on rocky islets in fishponds which is only a mirror, a smaller version of, as we were to see, the natural landscape of gorges, forested mountains and rivers.

Pingle old Town was theme park China. Willow pattern plates of my childhood mealtimes come to life. All wooden houses, pointy roofs, hanging lanterns and candles floating down the river after dark. I loved it. We found a little old guesthouse run by a smiling old couple and went out for the most god-awful meal I have ever eaten. Chicken seeped, steeped, marinated and cooked in a spice that not only tastes awful but makes your whole mouth go numb.(why the Chinese have a problem pronouncing L's)? I have since been struggling to avoid it.
The thing is, although we have some lists of stuff written in Chinese to show people, really we just look hungry and eat what we are given. Often it is great and always good value.

Once again we had inadequate maps where most of the roads are not shown so asking directions was not easy. We were working mainly by compass, probably the best method of the true cycle-tramp. Another brown sign said Langou Bamboo for rest and the narrow road was again heading generally west so we paid a meagre entrance fee and felt we were being good tourists by seeing another 'Sehenswurdikeit', having been a bit lazy on the sightseeing front in both Kathmandu and Chengdu. If not all the cities we have passed through.
The Bamboo forest was astounding. Not a planted few acres of show specimens as I have seen in Europe but whole mountain ranges of tree high varieties. The natural landscape of the region and habitat of, yep, the old Giant Panda.
We wound our way alone up through this bright green jungle, hoping the road would not end before the final mountain ridge. Getting off to push for the first time since Turkey we finally reached the Fish Cliff Pass where the Red army famously held off the evil forces of Imperialism. Before us we could see a bamboo and vegetable valley stretching of into the green tinged haze. Black tiled roofs with turned up ends sat on top of tree clad hills which lay isolated in a see of spinach, yellow rape and broad bean. Skidding down a steep little track into this paradise made me realise that this is what this trip is all about. Not the great achievement of heroically riding to Australia solely by pedal-power but just being out and about in the world on a bicycle. For moments like this, of which we have had so many, where it just feels damn good to be alive. Often it is just brewing coffee in the early morning bird-song or seeing something you never knew could exist or marvelling at the natural beauty of the planet we live on. We have seen so much along the way, of how man can make a mess of the world (although Anja looks on the bright side with her motto 'pollution can be pretty'), it was enlightening to see an environment where agriculture and wilderness looked in harmony. This landscape seemed to fulfill all tree-hugging eco-hippy adjectives. I don't know what the Giant Panda's problem is. I think it must be fussy.
So we bumbled about on the quiet paths and roads of this landscape which became increasingly mountainous until we were riding over high ridges and plunging through deep cut gorges and visiting Buddhist temples set in cherry and almond gardens until we were finally spat out into the real world once again. Namely the city of Ya'an and the start of the Sichuan-Tibet highway, the road to Lhasa and beyond. We would follow it some 650km to Litang then cut south to Yunnan and into Laos. It all looks straight forward on a large scale map but we knew the road rose up to the Tibetan plateau, a title that could delude one into thinking that once up it is flat. We would have to cross many passes well over 4000m. At least the road surface started out pretty good.
It began busy, too many trucks but as there is pretty much only one road heading west I figured with each town we passed the traffic would thin out. It did pretty fast though a number of trucks and land cruisers remained. We stayed in a town whose name we never knew in the 'Business Hotel' a communist architectural monstrosity for some reason painted pastel yellow and blue. It looked both bad and expensive but what the hell, it was getting dark and raining and as yet no camp spots were available. An archway under the building between a hairdressers and a supermarket led to a surprise, another Chinese garden and the back of the hotel which, in stark contrast to the front was traditional, smart and looked way out of our price range. 10 Euros saw us into the poshest hotel room we had seen and with breakfast thrown in. Gallons of hot water (all hydro-electric so don't worry) and a big TV with an English language news channel. We could hardly believe it. Hotels in China are good value. Things must have changed here recently because I was led to believe it was hard to find accommodation. OK. its not always easy to know what a guest-house looks like not being able to read a damn thing but once located they are clean and cheap. Hows 5 Euros for bed dinner and breakfast?
I was also told the Chinese are a hard generally unfriendly bunch. Not in Sichuan, (no-one has gone "hey look funny round-eyes" and stretched with finger and thumb their eye-lids top and bottom. Not yet anyway Ricky!). People are willing to be helpful, are friendly and polite. They wave or give us the thumbs up from their car windows. As I was sweating up a long hill a teenage girl leaned out of a passing car, took a photo of me and shouted 'you're so cool'. Understandably, I like it here.

The reason I am rambling on so is that Anja has a bad headache and needs a day to acclimatise and I have little to do. We are ostensibly in Tibet. Culturally and geographically if not in the political 'autonomous zone'. Its all Yaks and prayer flags again and a bit like Scotland with different houses and darker people. We camped in some beautiful spots in the narrow valleys on the way up. Good to be in the tent again. The bamboo turned again to flowering rhododendron and the most wonderful mixed forest (I'm going on about the trees again) with the odd flame of a magnolia burning alone high up on a crag. On the second great hill, 70 odd km going up! we met with a group of Chinese cyclists. All in their early twenties and had got together over the Internet and were cycling to Lhasa. It seems this is China's great cycling road and many groups were underway, some riding the 4000km from Beijing. They all have flash mountain bikes and widely differing levels of fitness. The team we met had a super fit man who seemed to be made of elastic and a girl who had never really cycled before. She was great fun and spoke good English, would laugh at her slowness and would always arrive hanging onto a truck or having charmed her way into the back of a pick-up. I was impressed by the lack of macho-ness in these young people, they were out to have fun and help each other along.

The first big pass was no real problem. 4295m, but it seemed our walking in Tibet had got us a bit used to the heights. I just found I was going real slow. I could see the hill was not steep but just could not pick up my pace any. Anja seemed unaffected and the difference in our speeds was narrowed down to almost nothing as we reached the top. We had (sadly) left behind the last of the trees and were up in the snow again. The views were fantastic but the landscape ahead looked a little barren and foreboding. Still, finding a spot for the tent should be easier. Tomorrow comes the second pass. We are not covering much ground in a day and I only hope we make it to Laos before our visas run out!

One hears a lot about China's controversial dam building projects. We have followed a number of river valleys from small to medium sized and seen a lot of hydro projects. Often they are one after the other silently and cleanly pumping current into the grid. I don't see the problem. Yes the eco-system of the river is buggered up but the problems are localised and when mans time on earth is up the dams will break and the fish will return.(if there are any left). We are all helping in China's rapid economic development by buying all the cheap plastic un-necessities that it produces, surely hydro-electric is a better solution to its hunger for power than coal or as we are once more reminded; the nuclear option. China, I suspect, has no interest in petty restrictions in emissions and 'environmental' targets set by self interested democratic pseudo-politicians in the west. Particularly when they have no intention of following them themselves. It has 1.3 billion people to look after. I am going to go out on a limb here and predict that while all our wonderful democratic leaders and their cronies are bickering and worrying about re-election and keeping in with the lobbyists pending retirement, China will get dirtier but re-emerge in 20 years as a nation with some functioning and effective solutions to the great environmental problems. Democracy is of course the best political system there is and though it can prevent great mistakes being made it can also hinder great advances. It seems that here that when the government decides to do something they get on and do it and damn quick. Great if you decide to do the right thing. Lets hope.
There is an image I will not forget: as we were passing through a 20km section of valley to be flooded, a house was being attacked from two sides by diggers and an old man was poking the rubble of his ruined home with his walnut walking stick. Whole villages and communities were being destroyed and the old fella will probably be packed off to a high rise on the edge of Kangding. Sad. But China has no time for the whims of a few communities, the nation needs power. The greater good is more important and today I tend to agree. Tomorrow I may not. I just hope they give him a new vegetable plot.
Ok. enough moralising and speculating. Its snowing outside and another army convoy is grinding past taking troops and supplies to and from the military posts strung along the road. The people here are Tibetan (Qiang) and we are told recently there have been protests against central control. Understandable as they are a different race to the Han, live in a different climate, speak a different language and eat different food. More importantly, they wear different hats. There is also the Tibetan Buddhism thing to consider. They all look pretty wild. Mountain men and women. Its always a pleasure when a real fierce looking character waves and smiles from the saddle of a horse or motorbike. I wonder whether all Tibetans wish for the return of the Dalai Lama or, a couple of generations since the occupation the young folks see some benefits being part of a developing China. Its a long way from almost anywhere in Tibet to Lhasa and I bet most Tibetans have never been there. They all seem attached to their traditions though. There is a lot of building going on in this village and all in the traditional style; stone walls tapering towards the third floor where a quarter of the flat roof is missing creating a corner 'terrace' up high. These houses look real solid and are big with numerous highly decorated windows. Quite impressive and unique. In fact, apart from a few villages near the Tibetan border in Nepal, the mud houses on the Terai and a few villages in lowland Sichuan I have not been much impressed by any new-build dwellings since.. since... probably Austria!

Dinner was good last night, rice in a wooden bucket and some fried greens and bacon bits. Tasty. I hope we get the same this evening. We seem to have left behind bland noodle-soup country and entered a land of more palatable fodder. Though Sichuan is the culinary capital of China we didn't seem to eat in the right sort of establishments. We did get a great meal when we ate with the cycle group one night. All sitting round the same table helping yourself to various communal dishes seems to be the prefer ed way of dining here and we benefited with amongst others a great pork fat and sweet rice concoction. Ideal mountain cycling food. They make some great stuffed dumplings as well but I cannot figure out what they are called. Communication is hard. People even count numbers on their fingers differently and want us to write things down as if not being able to speak mandarin is merely a handicap. Still most people are patient and have a sense of humour and where I used to be terrified of not being understood or understanding I now quite enjoy our daily interactions.

Though we are only cutting through the bottom corner of this massive land I must say I like it. Cycling here is a real pleasure. There is always something new to see (off the main roads anyway). Maybe the whole backpacker train-bus deal is not so easy. Going city to city with excursions on a coach, buying tickets and haggling with taxi-drivers, that could be stressful. One is spared all that on a bicycle. The worst we have to deal with are the exhaust fumes of the occasional buses and trucks. Could do with vehicle emission controls here.

It is now the next day, the 22nd April. Exactly 1 year ago we left your front door in Bradninch Ma. I expected that after a year on the road we would be almost if not already in Australia. Instead we are snowed in somewhere in China. A foot of snow fell last night and all the cyclists in town decided it was too dangerous to head up and over the next mountain. I reckon it would have been OK as a few trucks began to roll and clear the road but it is a long way to the next settlement and we would have looked a bit silly if we went against local advice and froze to death before the pass. We'll set off early tomorrow if the weather doesn't worsen.
We all made the best of it, tied plastic bags around our boots and had a snowball war with our new pals. Some of them had never seen snow before. Even the natives are chucking the odd snowball at each other, the town is a slushy mess but quite lively. The hills blend into the white of the sky and the birds are finding it hard to land. They wonder what's happened to spring. They are not the only ones.