23 Days, 1,300 Miles, and Some Very High Expectations

This article first appeared on ChinaFile’s multimedia section.

“We were at an altitude of 15,000 feet on Mount Haizi. It started to hail. The temperature dropped to 40 degrees. We were only wearing t-shirts. They didn’t stop biking.”

It was photographer Wang He’s second time on the Tibetan Plateau. The first hadn’t gone so well—Wang had ended up in a hospital for altitude sickness. But if he worried about whether he’d make it through his 23-day shoot along one of the world’s most treacherous roads, he had a harder time imagining how his subjects, 42-year-old Wang Chao and his 12-year-old son Runxi (who had never been at this high an altitude before), would complete the 1,300-mile trip entirely on their bicyles, as they had planned.

Chinese parents are known for being laser-focused on their children’s achievements. Generally, that entails making sure they spend a lot of time indoors studying. But Wang Chao, a gym owner and fitness enthusiast who has raised Runxi since divorcing his mother nine years ago, applies the diehard approach some of his peers use for test prep and poetry memorization instead to long-distance running and other feats of athletic endurance. He worries his son’s school doesn’t put enough emphasis on physical education, and that too much time in the classroom will make his son unhealthy and weak. Runxi is a good student, but, says Chao, “You don’t want them to be nerds.” Together, the father and son have run more than 30 half and full marathons. Runxi finished his first full marathon in Berlin when he was 10.

Still, the trip by bike from Chengdu to Lhasa took special preparation. Three months before they left, Chao began Runxi’s training by having him bike alone to school each day. The boy’s school found the regimen unnerving and asked Chao to sign a liability waiver. On weekends, Chao took Runxi for 10-mile rides up mountains not far from their home in Chengdu.

When Wang first learned of Chao and Runxi’s plans, he was interested primarily in the physical difficulty of the undertaking. He’d heard from a relative that only about 10 percent of people who attempt to get from Chengdu to Lhasa by bike make it without hitching a ride for at least part of the route. He also looked forward to getting to know Chao and Runxi as he photographed their journey. But while he and Chao became close, Runxi remained distant. Wang says the child “probably had a lot of bottled-up rebellion in him, and he took it out on me.” The father and son had what Wang describes as an “absolute leader/follower relationship.” On difficult parts of the trip, Runxi would sometimes cry and ask to stop biking. His father responded by simply biking away, leaving him to fend for himself.

Wang saw this as an effective strategy for cultivating perseverance. “These days,” Wang says, “only children are so easily pampered.” Chao’s approach, Wang believes, will keep Runxi from growing up “soft.” Wang plans to become a father himself someday. When he does, he says he hopes to “expose the child to different experiences, to develop resilience.”

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