On the highway forty kilometres north of Zhongdian there's an unassuming turnoff to a rough dirt road thru the high mountains. I'd been told about this 'secret road' by a cyclist named Matthew Harris back in Sydney. He said the road was truly very bad, but also very beautiful. That sounded perfect to me.
It was a long steep hellish climb along the road past a large-scale earthworks project, complete with dynamite blasting and a cracking altitude headache. Waking the next morning and continuing on into the high mountains, though, the views felt well earned. The mountains were wild and snowcapped and sharp and I drank snowmelt straight as it poured into freezing streams off the huge snowfields there. Past the flapping prayer flags at 4600m, the road wound down in rough, rocky, muddy tracks crossed by torrents of meltwater, an hour of white-knuckled ripping downslope that's as fun as any riding I've done.
It ended, like so much here, in a raw gouge in the earth snaking ambiguously downward, which presented a navigational problem. A paved road? Well, that naturally leads somewhere. A battlefield-like maze of Chinese construction tracks coming off a mountain at 3800m, pocked and rutted and covered in moon dust two inches thick? Well, let's just say that just because you have a GPS doesn't mean you aren't lost. The roads you're on don't technically exist yet, and they're all the more treacherous for it. My brake rotors were too hot to touch, and bouncing from one gigantic, dust-covered pothole to another, I found myself pitched off the bike and lightly bleeding. Nonetheless, this was the precisely the route I'd chosen my equipment for. The 29+ platform, even fully loaded, made the secret road not just possible, but fun.
And when I finally reached the tarmac again near the hamlet of Geka, filthy and aching, I bivvied by the river, washing the dirt off my body by moonlight beneath the high steep walls. In the morning, a gorgeous 2000m climb on landslide canyon roads to a freezing pass in the spooky twilight, then descending screaming-fast to the village of Echu, where I found no lodging but instead a group of ambiguously friendly strangers who bundled me into a van to a Super 8 Motel in city I had no idea even existed, just in time for me to become violently ill.
That secret road thru the mountains, though, was indeed the real deal.