CHINA, 16th February – 3rd March 2018
Reaching Mori and finally achieving my goal of a continuous circumnavigation by bicycle and boats had not brought with it any great feeling of joy or elation. Instead there was great exhaustion, a little relief perhaps, and a strong sense that if there were a train in Mori it would be mighty nice to get on it. But there was no train in Mori, and the following days were spent physically cycling on through the snow while mentally fretting about how I’d accidentally posed for the end photo in Mori a metre short of where I’d taken the start photo, thus completely ruining everything. For three days I worried about this, basically figuring I’d be devastated by my own stupidity forever more, until I then looked more closely at the photos and realised that we had been standing in the right place after all. It was all nonsense of course, a reaction to being done and maybe not even wanting to be done, maybe even subconsciously wanting a reason to start all over again, because the truth is that the real joy of going around the world was not in the finishing of it, but in the doing of it.
Lucky, then, that we were not really finished. Any sense of anticlimax was quickly removed by the reality that the journey was rolling ever onwards. Five of my seven targets still remained to be ticked off, a guiding framework for a journey that was no longer mine, but ours. The train idea was a fleeting one, brought about not because we no longer wanted to cycle, but merely because of the overbearing police presence that made us want to return to the free world as soon as possible. Yet as we rode on east from Mori the police obstacles disappeared almost completely, as if their only purpose had been to make the final section of my circumnavigation attempt as difficult as possible. And reaching warmer temperatures lifted our spirits further and we both knew we wanted to cycle all the way if we possibly could. Ahead of us lay adventures on five continents, taking in 24,000 kilometres and 39 countries if remaining goals should be met. We were a long way from being finished.
Gansu province brought with it not only an end to the intense police presence but also an end to our time cycling on the G30 expressway. Instead we switched to the G312, a well-paved alternative with a wide shoulder and initially no traffic. On it we were surprised to encounter another traveller, a young Russian named Anton, hitch-hiking home from Southeast Asia. We were surprised to hear that he’d started out only ten days earlier – the speed at which one can travel when not confined to a bicycle saddle we once again found shocking and unsettling. We knew we’d made the right choice by not getting on that train.
After a few days in the desert we reached the town of Guazhou, where we stayed in a hotel and were so impressed that there were no security men on the door, no scanner to pass through, and no police bursting into our hotel room that we stayed two nights. And we liked the town. Bright lights lit up all of the buildings and trees each evening and we dined on delicious hotpots, heating our sticks of tofu, vegetables and potatoes in a pan of boiling soup upon our table. The food in China was excellent. The last time I’d come through here I’d not had the time to stop and eat in restaurants, for I’d been in a desperate rush to get to Lanzhou in order to go on a date with a beautiful blonde Danish girl. Now I could stop and do that every day.
We were extremely fortunate with the weather. Not only were the temperatures beginning to rise above zero, but a tremendous westerly wind carried us along. For the next two days we barely needed to pedal, and 36 hours after leaving Guazhou we were arriving in Jiayuguan, 270 kilometres further across the desert. This city marked the western edge of the Great Wall of China and we saw the wall as we entered the town, the G312 ploughing straight through it as it does. It was a special moment to reach the landmark together, confirmation that we really had cycled to China together.
The next day we took another rest day, so that a dentist could pull out my tooth in the morning, and so that we could make a trip out to the Overhanging Wall in the afternoon. It is here that the Great Wall reaches the edge of the valley and snakes up the mountainside, creating the iconic image most of us have of the Great Wall. I’d been here before, three years ago, but I’d had to rush, practically running up the steps to the ramparts on the hill and back down before continuing my dash east to Lanzhou to meet Dea for our date. How wonderfully poetic it was to be back now, and to have the time to enjoy the same place more leisurely, with Dea right beside me.
From Jiayuguan the wind continued to help us, blowing us through more populated regions of agricultural land, then on up over a pass before dropping us down towards our current location of Wuwei. Along the way we had one extraordinary meeting with another traveller. Riding along I noticed a backpack strapped to a trolley on the opposite shoulder of the road and, thinking it looked like the kind of set-up that a long-distance walker might have I stopped to look. Sure enough, down the verge sitting under a tree taking a break there was indeed a long-distance walker. It was a young Chinese man, a short fellow, with long, floppy hair that he kept flicking out of his eyes. He was very excited to see us and came up to talk. He was holding an iPhone in his hand all the while and was speaking into it as if he were filming the whole thing. Unlike almost everyone else we’d met in China, he could speak English well, and told us that he’d been walking for a year, all of the way from Shanghai, taking a meandering route by the sounds of it. We then told him about our own trip, and he excitedly translated what we said into Chinese for the benefit of his iPhone. We then asked him if he was filming us. “No,” he told us, “It’s live streaming. Now 435 people are watching us.”
The man, whose name I cannot spell, invited us to come and sit and eat with him and this we did, the whole thing being live streamed to a growing audience. Before long a car stopped and a young man got out and came to join us. He was a fan of the walker, who had come to find him to give him food. After a while he left, but it wasn’t long before another car stopped and another fan came to offer us food. Everything was being filmed all of the time, the walker continuing to talk not to us, but into the phone. We asked him if he was live streaming all of the time, even when he was just walking. “When I wake up I turn it on. When I sleep, I turn it off,” was the response.
He was a very, very nice young man, who insisted in an irrefusable manner to give us food and drinks. No doubt he also got something positive out of live streaming his entire life, and many hundreds of people seemed to get something out of watching, but there was something undoubtedly unsettling about it. It was difficult for us to connect with him, even to have a basic conversation, with the camera constantly rolling, messages flowing in from all over China. There was also a deep irony to it, for recently Dea and I had been discussing how challenging and interesting it might be to try and do a trip around the world entirely without uing the internet. To log off completely and to try and survive in a screenless world. We agreed it would be so liberating and fulfilling, to connect so completely with the real world. And here we were meeting a guy who was doing the exact opposite.
Later on Thursday we rolled into Wuwei, a city that represents another milestone for us, as before we left Almaty we had divided our crossing of China into three legs – the first taking us to Mori, the second from Mori to Wuwei, and the third across the rest of China to Qingdao. The second phase has been completed with surprising ease, albeit with a good deal of assistance from the wind. And our rest day in Wuwei saw the temperature rise to an unbelievable +18 degrees. A month ago it was -25 in Urumqi, yet now we were eating ice creams and standing in the shade to avoid the heat!
Yesterday was the Lantern Festival, the first full moon of the Chinese new year and the end of the holiday season. We visited a temple complex, which lots of people were attending, presumably because of the day. Scores of people were lighting incense sticks and praying, creating a beautiful, special atmosphere. In the evening lanterns at the venue were lit and hundreds came out into the streets to stand around a bit. It was a really nice day, and I have to say I’ve been enjoying China much, much more than I did first time around. The people seem friendlier, the food better, the roads a little less manic, though all of this, I believe, is really just a consequence of having someone special to share the experience with.
Now there is no more time for the internet. Leg three, Wuwei to Qingdao, must begin…
GUAZHOU – JIAYUGUAN – ZHANGYE – WUWEI
1070 kilometres cycled