TEXT // STEFFI MARTH
PHOTOGRAPHY // MARCO FISCHER
FILM // ALEXANDER MICHEL
China is a mysterious, almost enigmatic place. As a major economic and technological power, China seeks influence in world politics and even space. Internally, you will find a communist, one-party authoritarian state. Not much gets revealed out of the most populous country on earth and not much information comes in either. Statistically, almost every fifth person on earth is Chinese. The country is almost as big as all of Europe. Gigantic dimensions.
We went on this trip shortly before Covid started but held back the content for over a year now. We are more than happy and grateful to finally share our story about these incredible places, wonderful people and lessons learnt. In the following, we take you on some of our most memorable scenes of this adventure...
I'm a winter refugee and I like to be comfortably warm all year round. As soon as the first snowflakes fall here in Germany, I get on the plane heading south. I'm not proud of it. But I find the cold terrible. Yes, we actually want to go to the Chinese Mountains in winter and yes, we also want to camp outdoors!
The journey starts four flight hours south-west of Beijing in Kunming - the capital of Yunnan Province. Dahua is our driver for this week and since his English is only slightly better than our Chinese, we don't quite understand where we're going. I keep trying to trust, contrary to my normal control mania. The sun has already set when Dahua turns off the main road into a dark labyrinth of small side streets. It's been going uphill for a long time. We stop at an altitude of 2,600m. A tall blond guy with Clogs and a headlamp waves to us - our dutch tour guide Frank really exists! Brief relaxation. From here on we are off the grid and travel through the Sinotibetan Highlands for ten exciting and, more than anything, challenging days.
Did I mention that Google, Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and co. not work in China? I feel sick to think that we are now cut off not only from the internet, but also from civilization. I'm concerned about whether our camping equipment is suitable for freezing temperatures. However, the freedom to be totally self-sufficient somewhere in China's backcountry feels pleasantly exciting. The night is uncomfortable but I'm not freezing to death. Next morning the bikes have a layer of frost on their baby blue frames. Now our mule family rides in and will accompany us. The whole day goes uphill through large fields, over narrow paths, sometimes very steep. Again and again we meet farmers with mules, sheep and goats until we arrive in the Mongolian-looking highlands. The expanse here at 3300m is breathtaking. Finally at camp Nathalie and I sneak into the tiny hut of our mule family and watch the female head of the family cook. Fascinating is the calm routine and precision with which she conjures up a meal from something hardy, onions and spices in four pots over an open wood fire. We enjoy the warmth but almost die of nitrogen poisoning in this two-square-meter cabin.
We visit Shaxi, where a Chinese picture-perfect old town awaits us with beautifully landscaped small fountains, ponds, bridges and courtyards. At the local market we are flooded with curiosities: hundreds of types of mushrooms, strange smells, loud cackling and an outdoor dentist pulling teeth on the street.
Another day at 6 o'clock in the morning we stop at an altitude of 4,292m. The Buddhist prayer flags wriggle in the icy wind. The sun won't rise for an hour. Now I also know how oppressive thin air feels, just think about the first ascent of Mount Everest and smile. I have never felt so far away and at the same time in my center. When the sun finally fights its way over the high mountains, it becomes endlessly epic.
We continue towards Tibet in the town of Deqin at an altitude of 3,500m, which stands in front of the year-round snow-covered Meili mountain range. Here we are just before the Himalaya Mountains. Ornate Buddhist stupas, gates decorated with gold, white stoves from which smoke rises - here and there we turn a prayer wheel; clockwise, of course. Our karma account is growing. Biking through a forest decorated with thousands of prayer flags is another unforgettable experience on my already rammed biological memory. Suddenly one of these flag chains pulls me off the bike. It looks nice but the prayer flags in the forest are not practical.
Soon we drive south along Asia's longest river, the mighty Yangtze, to Shangri-La, where we are invited to a Tibetan family. Lunch with the family is exciting. We are served typical yak tea - a mixture of tea with yak butter and salt - a drink that takes getting used to. We have already seen some yak cattle on our trip and we wished we had their warm, multi-layered fur. Now we have to try the yogurt from their milk and as culinary as it sounds - disgusting is an understatement. It tastes like it´s 5 months past the expiration date but is probably great for our digestion. Out of politeness, I torment myself with the lousy stuff and never changed my face.
Later on our trip we also visit a Buddhist monastery. We stroll up about 200 stairs to the majestic main buildings. So far I haven't had much contact with Buddhism, but compared to the religions that are most widespread at home, Buddhism is more colorful and somehow seems happier. At least that's how it comes across when we see the young monks making music and dancing.
Our last destination is Lijiang. Here we will sleep in the same bed for two full nights for the first time on our trip, what a luxury. On the last morning we enter a very rustic temple, non-touristic and peaceful. As we push our bikes through the inner courtyard, a monk is opening the prayer chamber and greets the day, the gods, the Dalai Lama and whatever else with drums and rattles. We turn into the trail and immediately switch to full throttle mode. The trail is easy because this was the first time that shovel and rake were in use before. We swing our bikes through the banked curves, let our rear wheels break out on pine needles. Lots of bumps, washed-out gullies and small drops conjure up the biggest smile on our faces. We say goodbye more appropriately to our MTB trip in foreign but no longer so enigmatic China.
Our winter bike vacation in China was a very valuable experience for me. Yunnan is colorful and culturally and culinarily exotic. The untouched nature is a stark contrast to the image of the world power China with its industry and smoggy megacities. Our little bike adventure in the infinitely large China: Just wow! Above all, I learned something about myself here: I can just let go. Just like we do when biking. At first I was worried our bikes would not arrive, we would be poorly equipped and I could freeze to death while camping. But with every day these oppressive thoughts disappeared and the more we saw of Yunnan, the greater the curiosity and the smaller the mental barriers. In any case, the German winter no longer scares me. I translated this from German, sorry for any mistakes.
Nathalie Schneitter started her international mountain bike career in 2004 when she won the UCI Junior XC World Championship. Since then, she has been racing at full throttle on the world's racetracks. In 2008 she qualified for the Olympic Games in Beijing and in 2010 she celebrated a home victory at the Cross Country World Cup in Champéry. Nathalie also gives everything off the race track. She laughs a lot, is a little crazy and dances in every possible situation. Since autumn 2016 she has been responsible in the organization team of the Bike Days in Solothurn and the Cycle Week in Zurich and speaks the German co-commentary of the UCI MTB XC World Cup on Red Bull TV.
Steffi Marth's mission is to take full advantage of every second of life. The professional mountain biker from near Dresden loves challenges and exploring trails in Germany, the Alps and the rest of the world. Her life on two wheels began as a twelve-year-old on the BMX bike and went slowly through MTB Fourcross to larger mountains and rapid Downhill. Two UCI World Champs medals and 6 national titles mark her career highlights. For many years she has been passing on her experience in various riding skills courses, where she loves to share her enthusiasm for bikes with others. For Steffi life is just an amazing “Endless Adventure”.