In search of a yak / by Rachel Banfield

I have a thing about yaks. How could you not? They are, clearly, the coolest animal in the world. Something about the scraggly hair (very similar to mine at this point) and the 'and what do you want?!' expression. Ever since I started planning this journey I was determined that yaks would feature. So, I set out from Chengdu and headed Southwest, towards the Tibetan Plateau where, as numerous books and blogs promised me, I would find some of these wonderful creatures. For the first few days the scenery was disappointingly yak-free.

Instead, I saw lots of Chinese cyclists, all heading to Lhasa.

I found a campsite and had my first 'wild' camping experience. Terrifying but wonderful. Too tired to attempt to use stove, I settled into my tent for a dinner of peanut butter and lychees. In the morning I set out along the river again,

and stopped for a steaming bowl of fried rice (with a rather large amount of lard) at the next village, cooked up by the lovely lady on the left. Her and her friend (who was also enjoying some lard-rice) had a wonderful giggle at the sight of their photo.

With the lard taste still in my mouth, I set off again.

Still no yaks, I wound my way up, up and up for hours,

Passing beehives,

And honey (and Redbull) stands.

At the top, always fashion conscious, I donned this elegant attire and set off through a 4km tunnel, sharing it with noisy trucks, speeding buses and fumes, lots of fumes.

I emerged out the other side to see this,

and I stopped to have a gesture-chat with this guy

Who had some very nice, albeit non-yak animals.

I woke up the next day, certain that today would be the day. Yaks here I come! I left town,

And went through yet more tunnels,

Past lakes,

Prayer flags,

And truck washing stations

Before eventually reaching Kangding, at 2600m, where I pushed my bike, bum sticking out like a duck, for 500m up a so-steep-cars-can't-come-up-here path to one of the coolest hostels I've ever stayed in. But still no yaks.

The next day I planned to sit around, edit photos, catch up on emails and rest my aching legs.

But then I heard about a hike that starts just behind the hostel. Rest day shmest day... Off I went. Three wrong turns later and I was bushwhacking my way up through wet, spikey plants. Absolutely soaked, after an hour I finally found the official path. Trudging uphill, I had to stop regularly to catch my breath, I mean, to admire the view.

After two hours of steep uphill plodding, I emerged into the grasslands at the top to find some friends from the hostel, who, somewhat reassuringly, had also got ridiculously lost.

It was over 3300m at the top and the only sound was that of the bells around the horses' necks.

No yaks in sight, but it was worth every second of the uphill slog.

I hobbled into town that afternoon, stocked up on supplies from the last supermarket I'll see for a few weeks and had my first taste of yak butter tea.

Can't say I polished off the entire jug...

The next morning I was up at 5 and on the bike by 6.30am. Today was mountain pass day!

It was a steep uphill out of Kangding where my promised 'view of snowy mountains' was nowhere to be seen.

I stopped for some fried rice at a cyclist guesthouse, where piles of fluro bags indicated that groups of Chinese cyclists were overnighting before attempting the pass.

I thought about staying, knowing most cyclists choose to break the climb in two, but the idea of dragging out the uphill riding at altitude over two days was too painful, so I set off into the clouds,

Depositing any rubbish in the bins provided like a 'well-behaved bicycler'.

The clouds finally cleared to show some more non-yak creatures,

I wound my way up the endless switchbacks, my mouth open in a grimace like one of those scary theme park clowns, sucking air in as I peddled up,

accompanied by a few other cyclists, whose luggage, or rather lack of it, I gazed at enviously.

We were all going at the same snail pace, or we were until I saw some fluro zooming past out of the corner of my eye. He was truck surfing, holding on to the back of a truck and whizzing up the mountain. I'm not going to deny the temptation. It would be easy to find something to hold on to and you'd be at the top within minutes. But no, I was determined to make it there under my own steam, even if it meant inching up at what was now less than 5km an hour.

Those last ten kilometres of high altitude climbing were one of the hardest things I've ever done. A powercut at the hostel meant that my phone was turned off, with the last bits of battery life saved for an emergency, so there was no music or podcasts to distract from my screaming lungs. Stopping to drink water left me gasping for breath, my legs were running on empty and the sweat pouring down my face would quickly turn cold whenever the sharp wind blew in my direction.

By 4000m, visibility was back to almost zero, making my yak finding dreams more and more unlikely,

and I had to stop every 500m to get my heart rate back to normal. Well, and to ration out a packet of M&Ms from my handlebar bag.

But then, at about 3pm, 8 hours since leaving Kangding, I turned what felt like my thousandth switchback and there it was!

The summit! Zhe Duo pass at 4298m!

Soon there was a group of us,

and, given the near freezing temperature and the icy wind, the others kept pointing at my bare legs in amazement. One guy who'd been pushing his bike up a particularly steep part as I cycled past, arrived a bit later and came up to say "You are very strong!" With my wobbly legs and even wobblier emotions, I felt far from it. We stood around, snacking (there were a lot of snickers bars in sight at the point) and putting on more and more layers.

With my legs finally covered, five layers on top and a double-glove combination, I set off down the hill. Within minutes sharp icy rain was flying into my face.

I raced the rain cloud down and soon was off the dark rocky mountain and into the open grasslands. But the real question was: where were the yaks?

I hurtled down at around 50km an hour (sorry Mum!)

and suddenly, there they were! Yaks! By the hundreds!

Aren't they gorgeous?!

Ahhh, my life is complete.

I continued downhill in the with a big grin on my face,

riding past beautiful houses,

yak farms,

stopping often to look back the way I'd come,

and pulling over to strip off my layers and buy some yak cheese,

before getting back on my bike and rolling down in the glorious sunshine, chewing on the weird tasting cheese, in absolute awe my surroundings.

My beautiful, yak-filled surroundings.

Arriving in a tiny village an hour later, I was given a room in a Tibetan-style home, where I collapsed into bed, snuggled up under four heavy blankets, pigs snuffling outside my window, and went to sleep with a big smile on my face.