Provincial highway S303 cuts skyward through the valley of Wolong Township, in China’s Sichuan province. From top to tail the road is 1263km long and its entire length is 4,200m above sea level. Leading deep into the Qionglai Mountains the S303 winds its way into the Mount Siguniang National Park, peaking at Balang Shan La – a high mountain pass that stands 4,500 metres tall. Considered one of the most spectacular and dangerous roads in the world, it provides a challenge that’s hard to match.
As we began our 70km ascent to Balang Shan, La the villages along the route rustled awake. Cafes opened their doors and accepted our breakfast orders and the locals began their daily business. It was cold, the giant mountains blocking out all trace of the sun.
But as we climbed slowly so did the sun. The moment it emerged – defrosting our fingers and bathing the road in warm light – seemed to signal a turning point in the day.
Siguniang Mountain, or Four Sisters Mountain, is the highest peak in the Qionglai Mountains, which lies on the south-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. A truly astonishing mountain range, affectionately known as the Oriental Alps, the weather can be unpredictable, the gradients unforgiving and the altitude crushing.
As climbs go this was a tough one. The road, sealed in some places and laden with gravel in others, has countless hairpin turns and in many places drops away hundreds of metres to the valley below. Elevation markers came in 1,000 metre increments. Adorned with playful cartoon pandas they seemed to taunt more than encourage and as we rode into thinner air, the conversations became laboured and limited to four letter words.
The people who live in these extreme conditions are cut from tougher cloth than most. The Great Sichuan earthquake of 2008 devastated the region and the scars are still plain to see. Perhaps it’s their remoteness, or the fact that seeing foreigners on bikes is a novelty but their warmth and encouragement certainly boosted our morale as our muscles began to fade.
Climbs of this length tend to be isolating. Even small groups can fracture and those riders who do manage to stay together quickly run out of new ways of saying, “are we there yet?” But the solitude that characterised the final push to the top was like nothing I’ve encountered. Legs and lungs wished it would end but a simple look over the shoulder was reminder enough to enjoy every second. It’s a stunning part of the world but we took the hard way to get there.
The top of the pass was most notable for its simplicity: a religious shrine and colourful Tibetan prayer flags marked the summit. It was the highest place my feet have ever stood and if the thin air wasn’t enough to take our breath away, a look back down the pass surely was.
After enjoying a silent moment to reflect on our accomplishment, we began the snaking, cold, 30 kilometre descent into Siguniangshan Town, where hot coffee, spicy yak jerky and more Tibetan hospitality awaited.