And if you want to read about it, you should start following our new blog:
If anyone is still subscribed to this blog and would like to read about a cycle trip to Iran, I have a new blog – check it out: http://www.iranbybike.wordpress.com
See you there,
That last post was intended for my new blog, which you are all welcome to check out if you like at http://www.flybacktoshanghai.wordpress.com
No, the fireworks were not for my arrival, but my-oh-my the Chinese do love them. I breathed a large sigh of relief on touching down in Beijing for two reasons. Firstly, I was not spending be night in a hotel, as seemed likely when our flight was grounded for four hours in Shanghai due to thick pollution (visibility < 50m). Secondly, the flashes we could see underneath us all over the east coast did not shoot us down; a constant flurry of fireworks and crackers below us was akin only to a movie about The Blitz and unlike anything I had ever seen from above!
I was welcomed by Mayu (马玉) with his daughter, Anan (安安), at the airport and they whisked me away to their home about twelve kilometres east of the centre of Beijing (ie: pretty central). I had arrived too late to help pack dumplings, but was promised an opportunity the next day! These bite-sized filled pastry delights supposedly resemble money bags, so are eaten for good luck – specifically, and unashamedly, everyone wants to get very rich so send each other pictures of money to be nice. Sometimes the money is falling from trees, or flowing out of a fountain; sometimes it is being burped out by a frog: each to their own.
I have been receiving a crash course in Chinese. Totally immersed in everything I say, hear or read, there is no escape, which is ideal. Also slightly tiring as my host family have realised when I fall asleep in the car, on the sofa, most of the time. Though I do that quite often anyway. They are certainly extremely hospitable and friendly, so far including me in everything and making me feel welcome.
We went to Mayu's mother's house for dinner, I did get an opportunity to wrap some dumplings and was told I should have a rest. I'm not sure whether mine did not quite resemble money bags enough for them to be lucky, or whether I just looked tired! Having been subjected to other people's fireworks for the last 24 hours, we went outside to fire out own, Chinese style,
Method: hold firework in your hand. Light the fuse. Shake it about in other people's way. If brave, hold two.
The largest ones are placed on the ground, but none of this "sticking it in a field with professionals in charge and everyone else a safe distance away" rubbish. Oh no, no distance is unsafe when setting the sky alight here. Having said that, the Chinese did invent them so they have a lot of experience in these matters!
So, Shanghai, Paris of the East. We’ve finally arrived. I don’t really know what to say. After five months on the road, we’ve finally made it.
We’ve pedalled through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, crossed the Caspian, battled through steppe in Kazakhstan, desert in Uzbekistan, mountains in Tajikistan, and survived the greatest challenge of them all, roads in China. We’ve rubbed shoulders with carpet sellers, goat herders, fresco painters, and hajjis in hats. Our arrival into Shanghai was, if anything, anticlimactic, but then this was always about the journey and not the destination. It’s gradually settling in, however, that we’ve reached our goal, and it feels good. Nick heads home tomorrow, and I’ll follow in a couple of weeks after a tour of Beijing. It’s time to wind down and catch up with our friends, and settle down for some Christmas schmaltz. Thank you all for following out blog – we hope that you’ve had as much fun reading it as we have in writing it. Lots of love to you all.
Over and Out,
Alex and Nico
p.s. for those who (like us) like that kind of thing, we present Why Not Fly to Shanghai by Numbers (approx.):
Number of kms: 11,000
Days cycling: 120
Highest pass: 4655m
Number of passes above 4000: 4
Longest day: 220km
Total rotations of our wheels: 21 million
Other cyclists crossed: 25
Number of languages spoken: 15
Minimum temperature: -15
Maximum temperature: 55
Number of arrests: 1
Number of illegal border crossings: 1
Number of times I fell over: 11
Number of tyres used: 8
Number of dangerous items confiscated by Chinese trains: 2
Number of dangerous items confiscated by Central Asian border patrol: 0
Smallest number of cars seen in a day: 2, one in each direction
Percentage of Les Miserables Nick read waiting for me to catch up: around 70%
Unlit tunnels crossed: around 20
Most number of meals in a day: depends on how you define the end of one meal and the start of the next!
Cheapest hotel: £1.50
Most wine drunk with lunch…: 2 litres each, but we can’t really remember.
Longest sleep in tent: 12h30
Number of Mao statues passed: somewhere between 1893 and 1976, we lost count.
Longest single period with an upset stomach: 40 days and 40 nights.
Number of eyeballs eaten: 9
Sum I spent on snickers: £50
Largest bread: 26″ across, wheel size
Number of drowned iPads: 1
Number of diamond rings recovered: 2
Number of bust cameras: 3
Number of offers of prostitutes by concerned hosts: 5
Worst road: Aktau to Beyneu
Best road: close contest but Black Sea coastal highway between Sinop and Samsun
Number of riding partners: Ant and James, you’re more than numbers to us!
A strategic camping spot left us in prime position to go straight to a delicious breakfast of tangbao, jiaozi, baozi and doujiang. Today saw us aim south east to the town of Suzhou. The way was littered with canals, great and small, carrying barges full to the brim all around the various towns and building sites. It never really felt as though we left town at all, constantly surrounded by factories, skyscrapers and motorways, but we headed off the beaten track a bit to follow the Grand Canal, a great feat of Chinese engineering dating back as late as 498BC and joining up huge chunks of the eastern coast.
En route, we passed by a famous ‘old town’, which Chinese tourists all adore. Suitably decorated by huge quantities of flowers, and stuffed full of restored architecture, the village is only filled with shops and tourists. A quick five minute walk through it told us all we needed to know about the architecture and whether we wanted to hang around. As we continued further south, we stopped at a yummy noodle joint (the Muslims really do it best, wherever you are in China it seems) and cycled by the third largest freshwater lake in China.
For anyone who read the Suzhou praise in the previous blog, I am afraid we found it to be a little outdated – a few hundred years, no more. Other than fancy bus shelters and lots of small rivers crisscrossing under bridges, the town itself has little to offer other than tourist traps. If you delve behind walls into the paying gardens, however, there are some remaining pretty landscapes: our exploration of these was limited due to the sun going down! No doubt a more thorough visit was required.
One hundred kilometres or so to our destination. Keeping our eyes open for any drivers on the rampage…
We woke up early, set on our intention to make Shanghai in three days and keen to see as much of Suzhou as possible tomorrow, described as Chinese Venice, or even better by the local saying: “In the sky is heaven; on earth, there is Suzhou”. The barman last night had helped us and a couple of German girls we met to some of his delicious cocktails and fajitas, and the impression was that drinking may have carried on later as everything was still closed as we left!
A 25 km mission along busy Nanjing streets ensued to head out, but as the sun was rising with mist poised on the rivers and autumnal leaves blowing around, the way was deceptively pleasurable. This theme continued for most of our day of riding around 150km. The sun was out bringing a bit of warmth and making the scenery a great deal more welcoming than the downpours of yesterday. We cycled along small-ish roads most of the day: past lakes, canals and strawberry farms, hardly noticing the time fly by as a hearty tailwind joined in the fun in the afternoon!
I rode by some dollar bills at one point, raced back to pick them up only to find, perhaps unsurprisingly, and to my great disappointment, that they were one hundred million dollar notes, with a Confucian priest in the middle: a telling sign of the Chinese trying to establish the RMB as a second global reserve currency. I am sure Tony Rudd would have something to say about that…
We stopped for dinner, and another, as we rejoined our trusty G312, and put up the tent in a big factory yard.
It was to be an educational morning, we decided, setting out to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, the museum which memorialises the bloody occupation of the city by Japanese troops in 1937. Nanjing, the capital of Republican China, was captured by Japanese troops (or forces of Japanese aggression, as the captions in the museum had it) in December 1937. Mass slaughter ensued in the city and the surrounding area, accompanied by systematic rape. The accepted figure is 200,000 deaths, and 20,000 rapes. Any more detail is probably too explicit for this blog, but you can read about it here, and if you don’t
know anything about it then I recommend that you do: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanking_Massacre. It makes for sobering reading. And it also reminds you that World War Two, that we in the West comfortably think of as starting in Poland in 1939, arguably began two years earlier in China.
The Memorial Hall was a stark granite streak, somehow still striking against a grey sky in a grey city.
It houses the remains of some of the victims, and the testimonies of countless more. The weight of memory there, detailed in hundreds of individual lives, was overwhelming. Does anybody ever take in everything in one of these museums? I doubt that I read more than 10 percent of what was on display, or looked at more than 20 percent of the pictures, and that was already more than I could bear. Some of the photographs in particular I expect never to forget.
So that was a sobering few hours. Appropriately, perhaps, it had started to rain, and we emerged into a puddle filled courtyard, on the other side of which was a sign for an Auschwitz exhibition. We couldn’t face any more, and went back into town for a restorative lunch.
We intended to spend the day looking round another museum, but when we arrived at our hostel, we realised it was the wrong one (cunning cyclists of the night before had led us astray!), knowing neither the name or location of the one we were actually residing in. The afternoon was therefore spent wandering around Nanjing looking for our hostel, sheltered under a pink umbrella we had bought at the Memorial Hall. At least we’re incompetent with style.
The day dawned grey but surprisingly warm. We rolled out of our cabbage patch campsite onto the road, which was every bit as abominable as we had left it, but was now clogged by construction trucks. Fortunately after breakfast (some rather tasty dumplings) the road improved. I plugged in my iPod, and soothed by tales of gang violence in Southern Los Angeles c.1990, watched the kilometre markers go by.
The real adventure of the day, however, was yet to come. After a little lunch, we continued down a road on neither of our maps. Of course, not everything is on maps, but then this was a dual carriageway. Classic China. After twenty kilometres, we met a group of cyclists, pelting from Hefei to Nanjing in one day, all on their mountain bikes.
They guided us to the banks of the Yangtze, where we boarded a ferry to cross a body of water that looked more like a small sea than a river (and to think that we’re still a few hundred kilometres from the coast). So we got our half and hour of Yangtze River Cruise after all. Take that, Three Gorges.
We then cycled the rest of the way into Nanjing with them, a diverting late night dance with the traffic which eventually brought us, via a group photo in front of the station, to a hostel. Only three days of cycling left to Shanghai!
The morning was spent in anticipation of lunch. I went hunting for a little breakfast; Nick went out to do some form of exercise (he’s feeling rather chubby, and is on a diet). But otherwise we counted down the hours until lunch. And it was worth the wait, an embarrassment of soy braised pork, chilli smothered fish, sweet corn pancakes and pumpkin cakes. Nick urged me on, with a hint of envy in his voice: ‘go on…eat it.’ I think he may have been eating vicariously through me. I was happy to oblige.
We set off out of Hefei down an abominable road that seemed to have been imported from Central Asia as some kind of tasteless joke by the local authorities. I don’t know what beef the mayor of Hefei has against the next town, but it must be pretty bad.
We eventually gave up, and slept by a cabbage field.
We were woken at 7 by a stacatto stutter, loud and close. It sounded as if we were under mortar attack, but it turned out to be a car backfiring. All was well. We peddled all day along the same road (the same road we’ve been on since Xi’an, the endless Highway 312, but today it felt more the same than the other days), and made it to Hefei in time to find a China Post. I despatched some long promised postcards. When I say that we found a China Post, of course what I mean is, Nick found a China Post, and then flagged me down as I came by a few minutes later. I would have cycled on obliviously (N: ‘I sometimes wonder if you would just keep going to Shanghai if I didn’t stop you’). We then found a binguan below a bypass, where we watched a stupendously boring documentary about a Highway 308 (a paltry rival of our Highway 312) and went foraging for dinner, where we met a man who offered to take us out to lunch the next day. Could he do dinner? No, he wanted to take us out to lunch. After a hurried conference, we decided we could make it to Nanjing in two days starting after lunch, an we surrendered to our stomachs.
We left the hotel via breakfast with our hosts and made our way towards Hefei, two days away. The weather has been very nice to us the last few days and we started seeing a bit less sun today, but still much better than rain. We are now far enough East that our faithful G312 road temporarily turned into a motorway, so we hit some smaller roads and were rewarded with scenic twists and turns, a refreshing change!
Very little to report otherwise. We had dinner in a friendly family run place and convinced them to let us camp on their driveway. This took their children to a whole new level of excitement to have such unusual visitors!
The staircase was relatively comfortable. Alex had the upper floor, with stargazing potential, while I occupied the lower. We headed into town pretty early to find breakfast, but just as we settled down realised that we had picked a busy school route and all of the food stands disappeared as soon as the school bells had rung, while we were enjoying a pre meal drink… We relocated and our problems were solved, so we hit the road on a full stomach having tried out the local delicious vegetable, the water chestnut: looks like a mushroom, tastes like coconut (sort of).
A kind shopkeeper gave us some of her vegetables and loo roll as we cycled out and we headed on for forty kilometres to a town we hit just at lunchtime. While waiting for Alex, I was asked many a time where we would be eating, and no offers having been offered, I invited ourselves to join them instead. What a great plan: they were delighted at the idea and we met all the friends, a constant stream of people coming though the restaurant for a photo while we ate…
After lunch, we decided to join one of the men in his daily hobby of fishing. His job entails no work, so he spends the morning in the market chatting, and the afternoon fishing! Once we got to the lake, however, fishing it was not. The lake was nearly dry and had thousands of fish in, all gasping for water while drowning in mud, and the Chinese men trawled it by foot with a big net and without any difficulty filled at least a hundred buckets of fish. The same exercise was carried out a few times until they stopped for dinner when the sun came down. It was interesting, though confusing, so any fishing experts are welcome to let us know what they think: the biggest five or six fish were sold, the smallest were eaten, and the 99% remaining thrown into another lake…?
We returned to town to find a hotel room had been booked for us, a wonderful treat which we enjoyed to the full!
We left Xinyang via a street breakfast and a dash to the supermarket to buy thirty bottles of probiotic yoghurt. Our intestines are unstable at best. Once again with nice weather, we were able to enjoy some improved scenery and some pretty countryside! Lots and lots of fields, so not too drastic, but better than just buildings. We found a picturesque field, freshly harvested, on which to pitch and watched the sun go down over a factory to the dulcet tones of snoop doggy-dog.
The next morning and rain had returned; this time, only inside our tent as an incredible amount of condensation rendered our tent’s waterproofing inconvenient, allowing streams of water to gather and drip onto us. As a wise Scottish lady told us on the Pamir Highway, deserts or freezing temperatures keep you dry, everything else gets you pretty moist… Outside, a beautiful sunrise was in order and we hit the road hungry for breakfast. We found our fill at the next town where we sat in the warming sun and had some beef stew with steamed buns and chestnuts. It turned out that we were sat right next to a newly opened roast duck restaurant (read: stall). As well as tasting their produce, we were treated to what is so far, and I hope remains, the closest fireworks display of my life.
We let our ears recover and wiped our bikes clean of firework box excrement before continuing our journey east. Other than some sugar cane (which we thought was bamboo) to chew on, the rest of the way was not fraught with excitement, though did provide pleasant riding conditions if the noise is excluded. We stopped just off the road for early dinner of chicken in vegetable broth, did some reading and found a place to pitch the tent when a man whom we believed to be the owner of the restaurant told us we could sleep upstairs for free instead. We unsurprisingly agreed, unpacked our bikes, got settled in and changed. Then the actual owner of the restaurant told us the other chap had been spouting rubbish, they were closed tomorrow so we couldn’t sleep inside. We ‘negotiated’, and ended up on the outdoor staircase…
We woke from our field when three schoolgirls came to shake our tent, keen that we should go to their school and be showed off to their teacher. We politely declined and decided to do some cycling instead, funny that. We went ten kilometres before coming across a pretty little temple we walked around. Another half hour of cycling took us to breakfast, in the sun, of multiple pastries, bean milk drinks, and noodles! The improvement in the weather has been majestic, I cycled in shorts!
We made it into Xinyang in the middle of the afternoon and found a hotel with wifi, conveniently located nice and centrally with respect to the food markets so I might really enjoy my birthday! We decided to take a rest day for said celebrations, did lots of reading, emailing, discovering of small streets and tasted our first roast duck, complete with trimmings. After this amuse-bouche we proceeded to the real business of the evening, that is, of finding a good place to have dinner, as a present from Lisa. After extensive polling of random people on the streets, we ignored their advice and found a grill in the city centre. It turned out to be a DIY affair, where you cook the dishes yourself at the table, which confused us so much that the waitresses did most of the cooking for us. After this, Alex treated me to birthday puddings (we couldn’t find cake) in a pudding joint. We entered, muddled through the menu, then decided to ask whether they had any birthday specials:
Me: ‘so today’s my birthday…’
Cashier: ‘that’s 74 yuan’
Alex handed over the cash. Work before play indeed.
It seems perhaps the Chinese Gods have been listening to our wishes, or reading the blog. Over the last few days, as Alex wrote about in the last two blogs, we have been welcomed into two families’ houses, and last night in Nanyang some locals took us out for a terrific dinner in town as well as treating us to their favourite breakfast(s) in the morning. It is nice to confirm in our minds that although a lot of people here are reserved to the point of rudeness, there are also a lot of really friendly Chinese men and women who chat to us and welcome us to their country!
To add to our upturn, a dash of sunshine popped out of the smog, two days after I had discarded my £1 sunglasses sure of not seeing anymore of that bright yellow thing until London! A man pulled us over to his van to give us some red bulls, which was nice, and we generally cycled feeling pretty happy, in T-shirts, until lunchtime.
We saw an outdoor wedding taking place just off the road and went to take a picture, when rather embarrassingly the bride, groom and guests all took a much greater interest in us than in the ceremony. We were invited in and spent a few hours meeting lots of guests and learning about Sino-neo-western wedding traditions, lots of bangers and so on… We take the criticisms of our blog being too food-oriented very seriously, so instead of writing too much about the delights of the meal, we just made a short list of the dishes served to us (shared between seven people):
Chocolates and sunflower seeds enough for an entire terracotta army
Lotus root, bamboo and garlic
Fried beef with peppers and green beans
Red bean sesame puff balls
Fungus and cabbage chilli salad
Different fungus salad
Delicious meaty soup with herbs and stuff…
Whole Steamed fish (鱼 and 余 , meaning fish and surplus respectively, are homophones in Mandarin, yú, so sometimes this is left uneaten to imply extra wealth and prosperity)
Glazed chicken: head, toes and all
Another meaty soup with pork and tofu
Roasted and falling off the bone pork leg, cooked within inches of fat and absolutely delicious
Stomach and greens salad
steamed buns with rich soy-braised pork
Pork and vegetable hodge podge
American wine – 3% alcohol! Very sweet grape juice
BaiJiu, of course
No noodles, no rice!
Enough said, it was tremendous. Quite unusually for us, all of the guests were just in casual clothing, and as soon as the final round of bangers had cracked our ear drums, most of them left in the biggest of hurries, plates half-full: back to work!
The cycling after that could be likened to two balloons wobbling along the road thinking about digestion in the hope this might speed it along. We kept going until sunset, chatted to some sweet girls who wanted to practice their English, and pitched the tent in a field at least 50m away from accommodation: oh, the beauties of the countryside!
Nothing has really happened so far, but the road is flattening out, the street food is improving, and Nick climbed up a big orange bridge for kicks. Here’s a photo.
We ended our day in Nanyang, a small Chinese city, which is to say, larger than any British city except London, and were fortunate to make the acquaintance of a pair of wedding planners, who invited us into their shop for endless rounds of tea served in preposterously small
glasses. Once we had worked our way through the green tea, the red tea, and the fermented tea, perhaps as a test of our mettle, they invited us to dinner. This turned out to be a buffet with their friends, including an entertaining english-speaking businessman who informed us that we were in the home of the dumpling (apparently during a cold snap a couple of millennia back, peasants’ ears started to fall off, and the mayor cooked up a plan to feed them spicy dumplings, stopping the earshedding.) Oh, and there were roasted chestnuts. A great evening.
Nothing much happened, except that there were mushrooms being grown, picked, and sold everywhere. Mushrooms being transported in precipitous piles on the back of clunky old threewheelers. Mushrooms being chopped up and out in soup. Mushrooms at the centre of violent roadside altercations. Mushrooms.
Just as the night before, it all kicked off when we were looking to set up the tent. Except that we had already set up the tent and brought in our bags when the offer of hospitality arrived. I agreed, rather grumpily, to shift indoors, and we were soon cracking monkey nuts with a friendly Chinese family and their excited kids (apparently you can pay 10,000 yuan to have a second child. How does this work? Does the government do discounts? January sales? BOGOF?)
Nick made conversation in his increasingly smooth mandarin, while I was put to practising my monkey nut cracking technique (press on the seam, apparently). A solid night’s sleep was followed by a delicious breakfast of pork noodles, sweet potato in corn broth, some fried greens with a strong, irony taste, a reddy brown chutney, improbably made from yellow beans, that tasted a little like sweet marmite. Yum.
It was a fairly uneventful day. We cycled up a hill, stopped for lunch, then cycled up another hill, and stopped for dinner. So instead, we’re going to share some of our experiences of the road. Today was the day I decided that I had to stop getting angry at Chinese drivers. It’s pointless. They just don’t understand. I was swearing loudly at a man who had just passed dangerously close, and he looked back at me confused and slightly hurt because he had no idea why I was angry. ‘Because you just tried to do a high speed triple overtake down a wet hill, you stupid fucker,’ I thought, feeling slightly sorry for him at the same time. It wasn’t his fault really, any other of the pirates driving those three wheeler trucks would have done the same. Nick has had a couple of similar experiences – in Xi’an for example, where somebody pulled out straight in front of him so close that he smacked their window in frustration, or today, where he stopped to slow clap somebody who did the same. In both cases, they waved obliviously back, smiling faces all round. In London he would have been knifed. So the resolution from today is to keep my cool when next faced by the next duel between juggernauts, duking it out to be king if the road. My carefully cultivated selection of bad driving curses and gestures will stay unused, my middle finger will remain resolutely uncurled. A new dawn in Anglo Chinese road-rage is here.
Oh, and we passed our first road sign for Shanghai!
Something did happen today after all, inconveniently after I had written the blog. I learnt to count in Chinese through a drinking game of such beautiful simplicity that I hope to bring it back with me. Look out for it in a drinking den near you soon. It was getting dark and we had rolled off the road to find somewhere to pitch the tent, when we came across a group of guys milling around. It was singles day in China, and these men intended to drown their sorrows with copious quantities of baijiu, accompanied by some delicious duck and mushroom dishes. They very kindly invited us along. As for the game, it went like this. Two people guess a number between five and ten and simultaneously hold out their right hand: if one guesses the total number of fingers correctly, the other drinks. Simple. Watch out London, I’ll take all comers in Chinese.
I apologise to (the) avid reader(s) of this blog: the following is about three days, we really could not find enough to talk about to fill three blogs!
We left Xi’An with a last heart wrenching goodbye from Mark outside the hostel and headed due East. With 1800km to go, we are going straight towards the destination, via a couple of small detours and the extra distance which not using motorways entails. Smog encapsulated the whole city and fog (or still smog, I cannot tell the difference) covered everywhere outside of the city, so we could only see about 200m away. This is perfectly safe on a road, but just a bit of a shame considering the no doubt beautiful mountains whose bases we can observe temptingly without the view of the peaks.
We stopped for lunch in a petrol station restaurant, fell asleep at the table – as a result of using too much wifi in Xi’An, no doubt – and pushed on until dusk set in. We did not realise we would be going uphill, nor could we see ahead to check out the profile, so we just peddled into a constant mild drizzle, pulled over by an unused house on the hill, erected the tent and cooked some noodles.
Lights out by 7pm and neither of us awake until twelve hours later… We will no doubt dream of nights like this in years to come! The drizzle continued through the next morning, so we reluctantly removed our panda bear and reindeer hats as we cycled off to keep them dry. We stopped for an early lunch of the local specialty, bread and meat soup (in fact rather good), and delved deep into our books. Two hours later, we set off again. The rain had gotten worse, and twenty metres down the road, we saw another restaurant. We gave each other a telling glance, soaked through our helmets already, and stopped for another lunch… and dinner… before camping right next door in a soaking car park!
We woke up to a warm breakfast of steamed stuffed buns and rice pudding type thing served outside by the restaurant, along with a whole new crowd of Chinese men and women asking why we had just popped out of that wet green fabric in the car park. Enthusiasm unharmed, we set off and continued along far more mountainous (though low altitude) terrain than we had anticipated!
The constant muddiness on the edge of the road meant we took our bikes for another power shower to reduce the grinding we could hear and feel. Does anyone know why the right hand side of the road (Eastwards) is always wetter and muddier than the left? Very little happened of interest… We bought some peanuts, and some sweet potatoes, and cooked them in a campfire started with cardboard and a lot of fuel to get the wood dry enough to burn at all!
There is a quiz later on in this blog. We are really using modern multimedia to the max!
Having not had a rest day for over two weeks, we felt we had earned a few in the Himalayan foothills and duly claimed them in Xi’An. Staying in a very friendly hostel, it is always a nice change to speak to some other travellers, share stories and discover a new town together.
I went for a run on the first morning, towards a big public park recommended to me for its ping pong and taichi. Unfortunately, as with many other parts of China, it was all a building site and my run became an end in itself… On my return, I enjoyed the fourth floor terrace gym (consisting solely of two dumbbells) which the hostel offered, cleaned my bike, and waited for Alex who went into town to buy himself a pair of headphones I had bought myself for a good price the previous night.
We went to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, far too touristy for our liking, but had a great couple of encounters on the way. As we sipped soup on nursery-sized chairs in the middle of the pavement, a passer by came to chat in chinese, asking us questions until he figured out I had studied physics at Cambridge, then the floor was his… He was very excited to be able to display his startling knowledge of cambridge physicists while we struggled to figure them out! Can you guess who is who?! Pinyin in brackets for those who cannot read characters!
However easy you may have found that, we were very impressed by this chap’s knowledge, and he used our full attention to introduce us to his young male friend who was also close by. Within a couple of minutes, this latter gentleman had revealed himself as a ladyboy by the display of multiple photos of himself all glammed up on his mobile phone. Interested and touched by his openness towards us, I did not hesitate in giving him Alex’s phone number so that he could get in touch at a later time in our stay in Xi’An! He did, three times:
“Hello? Where have you been? Night live there? I want to see you play? Can?”
“I love you? You in that hotel? I find you”
If anyone going to Xi’An wants his/her number, we still have it!
We returned to the hostel for the highlight of my day which I had been looking forward to since I found out about it. A sixty-four year-old table tennis master came to the hostel for a whole three hours playing with anyone who wanted to. This being low season, I was the only one, and endured two and a half hours of being thrashed by an admirable adversary before I had to rest and recover! At one point, I even wore my China sports top I had bought the night before to try and scare him, but it didn’t work. I did have a great time and learnt a couple of new serves though…
After heading out for our first dinner of the evening in an Easterly direction, we returned to find Alex had lost the room key, though even this had a positive outcome: as he waited for a new one at reception, he intercepted Clémence, a charming French girl, as she arrived from Pyongyang. We therefore inevitably went out for a second dinner in her company and resolved to meet up in the morning to go and visit the Terracotta Warriors.
After another hour on the terrace gym early in the morning, we met up with Clémence and her newly arrived Australian/Brit friend Emily, a motorbike postie in her home town with an enviable joie-de-vivre! Via a noodle breakfast in a street restaurant and a big punch up by the train station, we made our way to the Terracotta Warriors, the main attraction around here, and absolutely loved them. The mix of authentic and renovated is much better balanced than in most other Chinese attractions, which tend to favour the latter far too heavily. I climbed up the city walls as we walked back towards the center for a good view of the town and the sunset before we stopped for noodles and kumquats!
As we came back into the hostel, we were delighted to find Mark, a great guy whom me met and spent days with in Kashgar, sitting on the sofa. It turns out our change of route just meant that we bumped straight into him! After another quick game of ping pong, we all set out into town, tasted duck head, hearts and chicken foot (mostly Alex, I was not so keen, nor was Emily the vegetarian!) and found a bar to relax in. We all made fools of ourselves playing a knee tapping game in the street, then Alex sang on stage and we made a quick getaway!
On the way back, we witnessed a car crash while driving too fast around a corner and were shocked to see no one help the drivers. They got out and the car burst into flames, I tried to get a fire extinguisher but no shops or hotels had any! The flames grew and grew, the tires exploded and just before (we reckon) the whole tank blew up, the most useless fire crew in history arrived and slowly extinguished the blaze. Ten firemen were present: two manned the hose, one operated the video camera, and the others watched on without lifting a pinkie!
We then headed back through the Muslim Quarter, bought some attractive (?) panda bear and reindeer hats but resisted the tempting offer of stargazing from some locals who had rolled out their telescopes onto the streets. Apparently Jupiter is visible even through the smog!
I went for another jog around town the next morning, feeling tired from one of our latest nights of the trip (2am), we are usually asleep in the tent by 7pm! Along with the two girls and their roommate Jennifer, an American living in Beijing, we went walking for a few hours around the small street around the town centre, checking out any stall selling anything vaguely edible and also trying my hand out at selling some Chinese shoes!
That afternoon the girls left, taking the train to Shanghai and beating us there by at least three weeks. We spent the evening with Mark and tried out some bugs, larvae, bull penis and testicles. When in Rome…
*** Answers ***
Sir Isaac Newton
We woke up in our orchard, rolled out onto a busy road and pedalled as fast towards Xi’an as possible, stopping only once [ED: other than a few breakfasts] for noodles (what restraint) in a restaurant where a group of boozed up Chinese made us buy beers before rolling out,
rather befuddled. Hopefully they didn’t get back in their cars, but you never know… We hit the road again, making it into the centre of Xi’an in the middle of the afternoon, and checking into our sweet new hostel, Han Tang Inn. Ping pong table, sauna, wifi…paradise. A prolonged internet binge ensued, followed by a street food binge, and moderate sleep deprivation (so exciting to be in a place where there’s something to do after the sun goes down!). Good times.
We dragged our stuff down from our fourth floor hideout, stopping to wash our pots to eradicate the odour of fish (possibly for the last time?) which had clung on from the previous evening. Before cycling out of Baoji, we sat down at a street stall for a breakfast of silken tofu and mystery substance a little like processed meat, a little like hard tofu. We hit the road, and were treated to 25k of skyscrapers, set against the palid backdrop of smog. In this sort of circumstance, food comes to the fore, and we soon stopped for a sugar bun thing (white and brown sugar in batter, deep fried). Delicious. Town blended into countryside (Central China seems to be cultivated everywhere…no scrap of land is too small for a cabbage patch), and we passed a series of fruit processing plants, huge pictures of apples, kiwis, strawberries, cherries, kumquats, and so on by the side of the road. By midday we had made good progress, and decided to break by the side of the road, when a guy welcomed us in for tea. He was soon called away on business, however, and his son took over, gave us fruit and sour noodles (a new taste). We pushed on through a series of villages, before stopping for second meal (mealtimes no longer have much meaning, we just eat all the time) in an eatery owned by a nice couple who gave us baijao [ED: BaiJiu, means white alcohol…], a Chinese spirit. We stopped off to investigate a funny Confucian temple, before N feet a bit dodgy, and we wheeled off the road into a fruit field to set up the tent. Bike cleaning and an early night ensued!
I had to fit new brake pads before we left this morning so Alex was in charge of going to find breakfast. Whether he forgot his glasses or not I don’t know, but he came back with jellyfied noodles, and they were cold. On account of the disapproving face I pulled, he offered to eat my portion which I gladly agreed to before finding my own breakfast of hot pastries and egg baps!
Leaving Tianshui put China into perspective. A few locals the previous night had asked if we liked their small town. This town, admittedly small by their standards, stretched out for over twenty kilometres and contained innumerable skyscrapers as far as the eye could see (not actually very far – it is pretty smoggy here). We finally left its clutches and felt a ray of sunshine on our backs. For the first time in China I only wore one layer of clothing. It was liberating, then I reached the top of the hill and put my coat back on.
We stopped for a big plate of fried meat and a reading session halfway through the day after which Alex had a few technical problems, puncture, brakes, gears, flagpole disappeared etc… Such that by the time he caught me up it was clearly camping time. We chatted to some locals outside our tent for ten minutes: they were so insistent that we would be cold and that we would be more comfortable indoors but the optimistic next step, their house being fifty metres away, never came.
So we chowed some rather old Pamiri pasta and canned fish before getting into bed.
I finally finished reading Les Misérables: hooray!
Dried and rejuvenated, today was the day we were to rejoin the main road. The ancient Silk Road finishes in Xi’An and we were keen to follow a bit of it into the famous city, however unrecognisable it may now have become.
Our morning snack(s) was (were) a (few) delightful filled pastry(ies) which reminded us of peanut butter but did not contain peanuts. In Chinese:
Nico: What is inside?
Nico: What is inside? (in a slightly different tone, this stuff is important here…)
Nico: yes…, and?
Them: complicated xynthol based ingredient which even my super duper dictionary could not decipher for us
Anyway, it was good, so if anyone knows what it might be, please send the recipe!
The road was vastly improved from the last few days and other than some testing hills, we had some beautiful descents down toward a normal altitude once again. We arrived in Tianshui just after lunch, though it took us about two hours to convince a hotel they were allowed to have us as guests and consequently to fill in an official online form for them. Included on this form were multiple choice selections with over fifty (Chinese) options… GCSE was a lot easier.
We spent the rest of the day strolling around town, admiring hideous plastic cactus statues presumably mistakenly placed in the middle of the main square and of course tasting the local street cuisine. Soy based drinks are becoming a favourite!
Having pondered whether we could reach Lixian last night, with two hours of light remaining, will explain just how astray our map led us. It abbreviates hairpin twisting roads up hundreds of meters over mountain passes with a straight line. Therefore we, blindly expecting truth and only truth from our navigation tools, trusted it like we do Ordnance Survey maps, and were all geared up for an easy day in the saddle.
We began in the rain, or in a cloud, it was hard to say, and headed up a river valley. The road swung right a full 180 degrees. I stopped to check the map; no such change of direction was indicated. Three hours later, we were back on track, bird’s eye only two or three kilometres away, now surrounded by snowy fields hundreds of meters higher and a lot of sweat spent later! We had promised ourselves during any bad patch of road in the rest of the trip that China’s roads were all perfect, now we realised how wrong we were!
The mud, grit and streams across the road produced a sticky combination which unavoidably made our bikes so filthy I had to listen to music to avoid wincing at the noise my derailleur was making. Our mud guards came in useful as mud scrapers, ensuring our wheels could just about turn, and we made it down the other side of the mountain for noodles, and some more noodles.
Another mountain pass later and the mud, to lighten matters, became a deep russet red usually reserved for rusting metal. Justin Timberlake guided me over this section. When we hit a road again, car washes were abound and I did not hesitate in heading straight for the pressure washer which took a layer of earth off, and then another pressure washer further down the road too!
We settled in a town hotel (still not in Lixian…) and hung up our tent over the courtyard to let it dry while we went for dinner in a super friendly restaurant. We asked if they had pudding and watched them rush to the local patisserie so that they could say yes!
Dark and misty when we woke up, the hope was that the weather might lift for our ride today but it just didn’t, which was a shame. I would love to recount the far reaching views down the valleys but we could not see much. What we could see was very bipolar: beautiful tall mountains covered in colourful trees displaying their autumnal shades guiding the river down the valley towards the East. Cutting through this scenery, four horrendous concrete tracks: two for the trains, two for the motorway, and not one of them avoiding any village, mountain or valley in the pursuit of level straightness.
We weaved over, under, left and right of these all day, trying not to think of how easy it would be to cycle along the motorway’s hard shoulder, and tried to enjoy the more pleasant side of the scenery! Sorry, Ellie, but there were lots of long unlit tunnels again and we did not have the choice but to go through them! We are still loving the local fruit, kumquats, and delighting in them many times a day.
We reached Baoji (宝鸡, it means precious chicken) in the mid afternoon, found another dirt cheap hotel and wandered around town for hours. I got angry in a phone shop as they were useless, and had a haircut (these are not related).
Fortunately, nature’s call did not pull me out of the tent and down the mountainside during the twelve hours we spent inside sheltering from the elements. However, the constant rain from the moment we stepped in, and the cloud within which we woke up, meant that the ground was a damp mess of mud, of the kind that sticks to your shoes in the heaviest manner! We packed up and continued cycling uphill on what had now become a very unpleasant muddy sticky road and made it to the top with our bikes caked in the brown stuff.
The way down was certainly one of the more unpleasant sections of the trip. With the view sadly hidden behind clouds, and the rain biting at our faces, we kept our heads down as low as we could and weaved around or through the multitude of muddy streams flowing along the road. The drivers we passed had either no experience of riding a bike, or were simply psychopaths, as they accelerated through pools of water and round corners regardless of our position. I got so annoyed of their tactics that I just started riding directly towards them, so that they would be forced to stop and therefore unable to splash me!
We reached a big town after fifteen kilometres of this freezing, soaking descent, and jumped straight into a packed noodle restaurant for two bowls of warming delight, crouched by the central stove. Only slightly warmer, we decided to head back out into the constant drizzle and complete our journey across topographical no man’s land to reach the real road. My chain, for some reason, snapped again, but we made it and crowned our arrival with two platters of ten steamed stuffed buns (包子）for a ridiculous 50p each and plenty of dumplings too!
The owners advised us of a £1.50 hotel next door, and with that probably being less than the price our tent would depreciate over a night in the rain and all of our kit being pretty wet, we were quick to take up the offer!
We woke up to more rain and headed out nonetheless into the streets of this unlikely mountain city. With Alex feeling a bit dodgy, we stocked up on some fresh bread to fill the food cravings which might hit us later with only riskier alternatives to hand. We completed the twenty kilometres to go down the Bailong river to rejoin the main road and changed tack to head up the respective valley. En route to Xi’An, the road is not exactly direct, so we are weaving around the map!
The energy drought Alex experienced all morning, the same we often experience as we seem to pass over the diarrhoea hot potato between us, made for a few longer stops by the roadside. Excitingly for me, it meant I spent a bit more time reading and I am finally reaching the climax of my epically long book. We stopped for a long lunch / nap break in a restaurant which I spent with the local hospital staff while they consumed two bottles of 白酒, or “white alcohol”, with little of my help. The state they reached necessitated support from the table, and simultaneously seemed to give them a cold as they incessantly blew out their nostrils onto the floor!
Anyway, at some point in the conversation, I received one of their business cards on the promise they had lots of friends who could host us in Xi’An, we will see how that goes…
We reached the point in the road where we had decided to turn off, heading nearly directly Eastward, and quickly understood the pitfalls of a road atlas. No contours and a very large scale mean that the thirty or so hairpin turns straight up the mountainside were invisible and it took us a good couple of hours to cycle eleven kilometres to a turn with some flat ground to camp on. The size of the lorries overtaking us on this road (which, for once in China, was not asphalt) was astonishing when we expected to be all alone! Instead they blew their horns at every turn and made themselves know for miles around.
Our camping spot is quite unique. The climb has been so steep that the first bit of flat ground we encounter is a miniature field terrace clinging to the edge of the mountain, 700m above the rest of the valley. The edge of the tent (where I sleep) is 50cm away from it, let the dreams begin!
PS: Mum, I am safe and still alive as I post this!
Who knows how it happened, out of nowhere, Tibetan Buddhism has instilled some self-respect into Alex’s life and he has done it; at last, the beard has been shaved. Now with only stubble remaining, the wise man said:
“I’m not gonna lie, the vain part of me is pretty happy!”
Having never seen him without a beard before, I have to say I agree…!
We continued our way downriver today, and though we had a few more ups and bumps, enjoyed a similar experience to yesterday. Realising the map had underestimated the distance by around 50km, we stopped for a reaffirming food break and tried out ‘mixed noodles’. Once we had finished our food, we were joined in the restaurant by a group of happy farmers who stared chatting to us having offered what seems to be the obligatory friendship cigarette. In a startling flash typical of the Chinese we had met so far, they had finished eating their meal before we had begun digesting ours and insisted on paying for ours, in exchange for which they took lots of photos!
Other than experiencing a few deadly tunnels: no lights for over two kilometres and crazy drivers, we made good progress down the valley and landed in kumquat harvesting paradise. Approximately 40 times cheaper than in Cambridge market due to their sudden incredible abundance in every field, we stocked up for a couple of days out of sheer excitement!
The further we descended in the valley, the further out of Zunza, or Tibetan, territory we went, and every village became more and more town-like, less and less pretty and more and more full of ghost apartment blocks. In the end we made it to Zhouqu, scene of disastrous floods killing thousands of inhabitants in 2010. It drizzled while we were there and were shocked to see there were no drains in the streets and the roads were filled with water surprisingly quickly… Lesson learnt?
We went in search of wifi following dinner and were kindly invited to a man’s flat which he inhabited over his favourite Internet café with his wife, young son and mother. The welcome was heartwarming as we were given Chinese wine, boiled chicken and tasty dumplings! The man walked us back to the hotel we had found earlier (once again costing no more than a coffee in Costa), we showered and headed to the night market!
Once at the hidden terminus of said market, a charming young woman, newly married and proudly pregnant with a panda outfit to show it, started chatting to us in English! She and her husband owned a fry up stop in the night market along with a little coffee shop. Already full of dumplings, we were only tempted by some tasty bean curd, milk tea and coffee, but had great fun chatting to her and other locals who most generously gave us a tour of the town’s rollerblade disco!