Dear all of you who are patient enough to still be waiting for the next blogpost, your waiting has not been in vain. We are back! Or to say it another way, we have been so very busy with cycling through China and now we have made it to the end. Tired, happy and relieved resting in Qingdao for a couple of days before we head on to South Korea and it is giving us (Dea) time to upload this blogpost to tell you what has been happening. To make up for the long silence this one is long and full of pictures, we hope you will enjoy!
China, 3rd March to 16th March 2018
After our rest day in Wuwei I still liked China a lot. It was a great place to travel by bicycle, I thought, not nearly as bad as I had expected due to the stories from Chris and other travellers experiences here. We had had some great cycling in the northwest of the country, mostly on good roads with moderate trafic and vast and varied desert landscapes that were great to camp in. Stopping in the little towns along the way had been a good way to break up the long distances, visiting local restaurants, interacting ( the best we could in our non-exisitant Chinese) with the curious Chinese people and seeing the colorful lights being lit in the streets at night. That we had arrived in Wuwei right in time for the colorful Lantern Festival (the first full moon after Chinese New Year) where the streets were bustling with people and lit up vividly at night, was a wonderful coincidence that only fuelled my joy with our tour across China.
So I was full of optimism when we were back on the bikes the next day. Ahead lay now the last 2,000 kilometre stage of our China crossing, and we had set our eyes on the town Luliang about midway through as a place to aim for. This last of the three sections of China was the longest and we expected to soon hit the busier and more populated part of the country, but I was not so worried as I, at the time, didn’t yet know what that would come to mean.
We were still in a vast, barren and open landscape, some areas cultivated, others either more mountainous or just sand dunes or bush and due to gentle winds it made for some fairly easy cycling. We could still cycle relatively peacefully on the secondary roads with a good hard shoulder, and just out of Wuwei this shoulder was even seperated from the other lanes by a crash barrier so we had a safe, peaceful cycle lane – at least when it was not being used by cars or when the scooters and tricycles beeped wildly at us to warn us that they were going to overtake. I felt a slight tickle of irritation over the driver’s impatience and lack of respect for general traffic laws, but all in all it was not so bad.
The next day the road climbed gently over a small pass which provided some nice scenery. The road grew busier with trucks. Long, red, thundering trucks, often going in groups of two or three like a gang of big bad guys in the school yard, and with a regular frequency. I started to wonder what all these trucks were transporting, where they suddenly came from and where they were going? I could still cycle in relative peace on the shoulder, but couldn’t help feeling an instinctive discomfort of fear having these monsters blasting past me every other minute.
Down from the mountains we reached some more empty desert plains, actually it was the most desert-looking desert we’d been in on this trip with some real sandy sand dunes as far as I could see. As we were near the Inner Mongolia province I imagined it was the Gobi desert and how these desolate landscapes reached far into that harsh and beautiful country to the north. That was not where we were going this time though, and instead we crossed into the next small province to the east, Ningxia. It is populated primarily by the Chinese Hui people that are Muslims, so here we saw many mosques and I observed how the women seemed to fancy a high, light purple hat that I have seen nowhere else.
It was also in Ningxia that the roads and the traffic turned worse. Until just before the town Zhongwei, we still had a decent shoulder, until we suddenly didn’t anymore. As the road went up a steep hill and curved around a corner the road narrowed between the cliffs to both sides and the shoulder disappeared – exactly at the same time as two, red trucks appeared at the top of the hill, side by side as one was overtaking the other. They roared towards us leaving not one extra metre for a bike on the narrow road which was sided by a metre deep gutter and then the wall of cliffs. Chris was near the hilltop in that moment, I was maybe 50 metres behind and stopped at the last metre of the shoulder. Terrified I watched my little orange man facing the wall of red trucks coming at him, and how he somehow just managed to get off the road. Had the timing been just a little different it could have gone all wrong, I thought. The trucks came towards me now accelerating down the hill, completely indifferent to the situation they were causing us. I was shaken by fear and anger, it was so stupid and so disrespectful towards other people and to life itself. And I had been shaken like that so many times before, ever since we reached the Balkans people had been overtaking against us, pulling out blindly (and sometimes seeing us) driving towards us just beeping their horn to tell us to get off the road. And so many times I had done that, surrendered and accepted. It was a part of the experience of the world I knew, but in that moment I could not accept it anymore. The world could be better than that without such ignorance and stupidity. But I could not chase down the driver and tell him, he was gone in seconds and even if I could follow him I could not speak his language. So I did the only thing I could reach him with in that moment and raised my middle finger up in the air as he passed. It was not something I was proud of, but I didn’t regret it, although it didn’t make the world any prettier.
When we took a break a little later, overlooking a mighty bend of the Yellow River that had appeared and clashed with the desert out of nothing, I cried my shock and anger out, and then we continued on the narrow road, because that was the only way onwards.
Zhongwei was a lively little town centered around a string of pools on the river which brought some space and air into the town, and we felt we had not seen so much water in one place for a long time. We rode through it on a wide path that we shared with the school kids in their uniforms going home in their lunch break. It was the kind of chaos I could still appreciate with a smile. We made the most of a good tailwind and finished the day at 110 kilometres. Despite the truck shock, the final stage of crossing China was still going pretty well.
The next day we had found a direct route east via some small roads from one main road to another, but unfortunately so had the other traffic, so we were looking forward to reach the next main road with the shoulder we expected. But unfortunately that main road didn’t have any shoulder, just even more traffic. Trucks in long lines overtaking slow, old vans, noisy tricycles loaded with all sorts of materials or people, motorbikes and scooters. Buses were driving aggresively, suddenly pulling over to pick up or drop off people and often other vehicles were also parked along the road while people were working in the fields or doing other businesses. Fast, new cars found their way through the chaos overtaking as soon and fast as they possibly could, and nobody was looking ahead before overtaking, just going out blindly beeping their horn expecting others to get out of their way. It was kind of mad and actually incredible that it worked out fairly well. To stay safe here we had to constantly keep one eye on the road ahead and one on our mirror on the traffic behind. We would get off the road every other minute to give space and wait until it was free to continue, and all the time we had to expect the unexpected like cars pulling out fast from side roads without looking, vehicles stopping or pulling out right in front of us, turning without indicating, going the wrong way down our lane or overtaking vehicles coming straight at us. Needless to say it was frustrating, slow and tiring cycling, but at that moment there were no other options but to keep going and get it over with. We made temporary escapes to a restaurant for lunch and camping in a great, dry riverbed in some hills. We only returned reluctantly to the road the next morning.
Fortunately we had planned another route on smaller roads and whereas the road itself was not really quiet, Chris spotted some tracks running parallel with the road that we could use instead. Just a few hundred metres from the road, but it felt like a different world as we manouvered the sand pits and steep little climbs through the remote, sandy bush landscape all by ourselves. We didn’t make much progress, but savoured the peace and nature around us and made camp early in sand dunes that made a great spot not only for camping but also for a game of volleyball and a new version of football golf. Happily we forgot all about trucks.
It was not long after we had resumed cycling on the tracks the next morning that Chris’s bike made a big creak and he was stopped. I didn’t hear anything as I was cycling up ahead, but when I came back he said in a unbeliveably calm way: ”My flange has cracked”. I got nervous when I saw that a piece of the hub had broken off so two spokes no longer were fixed at the centre of the wheel. Chris affixed them to some other spokes with cable ties, merely just holding them in places but not creating any tension in them. However, my nerves grew more tense as I looked at the big load Chris had on the back of his bike and I imagined how easily the wheel would bend under the weight. But Chris was certain it was not a big problem, at least not right now, and we continued. Luckily we found another route on small roads over wind turbine dotted hills and with no trucks in sight. Now knowing the horror of the truck roads we appreciated those moments of peaceful cycling even more than we usually do. In a small village watched by a wondering family, Chris decided to ditch a good part of the winter equipment he still carried to save some weight on his weary wheel. The temperatures had risen gradually and the previous day he, for the first time this year, put his arms in the air repeating last year’s line of spring: ”Look! I’m wearing shorts and t-shirt”. After the cold winter, it had taken us quite some time to find confidence in the spring and to start to really believe that it was well behind us, but finally we did. Surely, no more snow would trouble us from now on.
I was relieved when we reached the next main road, the 307, which we could now follow the next several hundred kilometres to Luliang. Sandy tracks and little villages were adventurous fun, but I knew China was meant to be more than just fun, it was still a very, very long and difficult way and I was itching to get some distance through our wheels and make some good progress on this last stage. With a good shoulder the 307 seemed to be a promise of just that and I settled into the cycling with a Muse podcast in my ears. It went really well for 20 kilometres. Then the shoulder disappeared again, just like that. The amount of traffic (obviously) stayed the same. Trucks, trucks, trucks, vans, cars, tricycles, buses, trucks, trucks. It was a constant flow and again there was no space for a bicycle on the road. In fact, other two-wheeled vehicles had made their own paths in the dirt alongside the road and so we slowly bumped on them to the next town. Here we looked at each other: ”We can’t go on like this”. The road was too dangerous and the paths too slow and unreliable, we needed another option. Chris studied Google Maps for an hour or so while I made friends with the boy of the restaurant owners, who showed me some great Bear Grylls programs, then we set out with Chris leading us on an alternative route on small roads to the next town, Jingbian, 100 kilometres away.
We immidiately felt the real joy about cycle touring again as we went through the countryside and small villages, saw old ramparts of the Great Wall that people now used as part of their property and were stopped again and again by curious people who had most likely never seen a foreign cycle tourer before. This was so much better than the 307 and when Chris, handing me the lousy leftovers of a bag of those tomato crips that is his favorite thing about China saying ”sharing is caring”, and challenged me to come up with a similar wordplay it easily came to me: ”Trucks sucks”. It was accepted due to its truthfullnes although grammatically it is not quite right.
It was quite a navigational task combining the information from two offline maps on my phone (neihter of them very accurate) and the pictures Chris had taken with his phone of Google Maps on his computer screen, and it wasn’t long until we were kind of lost on some nice gravel roads that went through forest, farmland and bush. But it didn’t really matter as it was such a nice place to be and it made for a great night camping.
The next day the adventure got more challenging and sandy, as we several times lost track of our location meanwhile having to push our bikes through heavy, loose sand. There were roads yes, but they were sand roads (as we were still in the desert – would it ever end?) which is not a place to be with a bicycle, and it was here I had another breakdown. I couldn’t stand the trucks, but the alternative, dubious detours in sand pits, didn’t match my desire to blast through this enormous country. I had loved to travel in China for a couple of months, but its strange, challenging ways (the staring, the trash, the traffic and the language barriers) had worn my body and especially my mind, and I had no more to fight with. I was longing for the finish line, but stuck in either deep sand or on roads too dangerous to cycle on I felt I was never going to make it. And even if I could move on there was still such a long way, so much more of this I couldn’t bear thinking about it. Struggling through the sand, the thought of taking a train the rest of the way through China played in my head. I just wanted all the struggling to stop. But even the train, I realised, would be a lot of hassle, not at all the ease and peace I was desperate for. Right there I didn’t want to travel anymore, I wished to flick my fingers and be taken away to somewhere nice and easy, and worst of all was, that I felt terrible for thinking like that.
However, I was only broken inside and I knew that only pedalling on would get me back on track. We found more solid surface under our wheels and after a further detour to get across a river we made it to Jingbian and found a hotel. With the 307 being a no-go we needed another route to Luliang, and Chris spent a long time studying satellite pictures on Google Maps while the VPN (something that makes it possible to use websites like Google, Facebook and other sites that are blocked for using in China) constantly fell out so the connection was lost. I admired his patience, perserverance and good spirits and I sensed he found joy and excitement in this challenge in stark contrast to me. I considered again if I was meant to keep doing this if it made me feel so miserable. Optimism and love for challenge and adventure are the bone marrow of cycle touring, it is what spreads through and connects the strong network of us and suddenly I felt misplaced and failed, because I didn’t have enough of it, or I had lost what I used to have. I was worn, done and just clinging on to the tiny slice of the happy me that was still left. The rest was just a mess. I thought about the train station we had passed on the way into Jingbian once again, imagined going there with my bike, packing it on a train and letting go of it all. Give up, at least on the crazy idea of cycling every bit of the way. Back in Europe at the start of the journey I had said and thought I could always take a train if I didn’t enjoy myself. I’d kept a distance to Chris’s principles of cycling the whole way, they didn’t need to be mine as well. But as the line drawn by my wheels had grown continuously longer and longer, this madness had crept under my skin too, the longer it became, the harder it was to break it. And I knew deep inside, that the train was no longer the way for me. It was not the solution, because I would regret that break in the line straight away. So there was only one thing to do. Keep going.
To do this though, Chris needed a solution for his broken flange, and to our surprise we found a couple of bike shops in Jingbian and in one of them a wheel that could do. It had only 32 spokes (36 are optimal for the weight we are carrying) and it was white and red and looked oddly fancy on Chris’s beaten bike, but it would do. The mechanic was nice and gave us some free repair kits, before requesting we’d take a photo together with the banner of the shop. It was amazing to experince the cycling community being such a universal thing despite all our differences and lack of communication.
I tried to keep my spritis up as we pedalled out of Jingbian on the seperated bike lane, but as soon as we reached the little, narrow road we would be following onwards my glum mood struck again as cars and trucks were more frequent than what was pleasant. I sweared, cried a little and once more put up that shameful middle finger at a headless driver and got through the afternoon. Chris did his best to cheer me up by having my new favourite drink Ice Peak ready for me as we camped and a coffee the next morning together with a sweet message wishing me ‘A great day’ when I was finally ready to go after having patched my fifth puncture in four days. I was so lucky to have someone supporting me like that. I came to accept that maybe I was going to feel down and worn for the rest of the time in China, but I wanted to succeed no matter what. And that acceptance together with Chris’s support and the quieter roads he had found us helped so that it actually became a great day after all. I had not imagined that was possible the previous day. The scenery was nice with the desert now rising into bushy hills and sand dunes, sometimes featuring little villages where some people lived in cave homes half dug into the cliffs, sometimes following nice river sections or going through newly built towns where people were beginning to settle in in a curious match of the village life with pits of goats, chickens running around and vegetable gardens in huge, brand new villas.
Chris’s route was meant to take us to Luliang, but no matter how much he tried to lead us via smaller roads the main roads couldn’t be avoided. The one that went down south toward Luliang followed a river, narrow and winding and with the trucks roaring around the corners everywhere, so not a place for us. Improvising now we went further north taking a newly built highway with eight lanes, a good shoulder and hardly any traffic. There seemed to be not much logic in the road choices of the drivers. It was great, but we were not really going the right way. Reaching the next main road going south to Luliang the next morning I was in despair, it was the worst truck road we had ever seen with them coming in a constant flow in both directions, the faster were overtaking the slower, so three trucks would squeeze past each other on the narrow road and there was hardly any space for the few cars that stubbornly weaved their way through. It felt like we were near the heart of China, if its blood were trucks and these roads the vessels.
Once more we retreated even further north to the town of Yulin. We were both worn and needed another new plan, so first we made sure to get a gigantic 11 a.m. lunch in in a restaurant and then we spent the rest of the day researching another route in a hotel room. We had reached a low mountain range which limited the road options further, but to our luck there was a route going southeast from Yulin over two passes and a lot of hills, but on the satellite pictures it looked fairly quiet. This would be our way onwards, skipping Luliang and instead heading a step further east to the ancient town Pingyao. Here we fantasised of having a day’s rest and escape the real China as Pingyao is a UNESCO heritage site and thus a tourist place with a few backpacker facilities like pizza and a washing machine, we hoped.
The half day of resting in Yulin did us well, and I felt my doubts and frustrations had faded as we set out the next morning. To our delight our road really was relatively quiet and the scenery great with great rock formations, narrow gorges and more cave homes, most of them not in use anymore, but some of them still the home for people. That it also went slightly downhill all day added to it being a great day, and the field terraces carved into the hilltains (the thing between hill and mountain) we battled before sunset were beautiful and fascinating. We were even lucky enough to find such a terrace hill ide with fruit trees in their very early blossom to camp at that night. More climbing met us the next day, but the road we followed had been remade very recently without all the traffic noticing, so we had a great road almost to ourselves. Something that had been impossible to imagine just a few days before when we again and again were forced off the old, busy roads. I was getting back into my good and normal cycling mood, as I now could look up from the road and my mirror and enjoy the sight of the ever changing surroundings our cycling took me through. We were well on our way again east aiming to cover about 90 kilometres per day eating another piece of the long line that was our route through China, and enjoying the ride along the way.
Half way up the first of the two passes, we ended the day down a little path surounded by nature and so far from the road that no sound of traffic reached us. Relieved I again felt that gratefulness for this way of living. Free, simple and in the world. This was what I wanted to be doing. The next day two smaller mountain passes were waiting, and I felt all excited and happy about it, once again wanting to take up the challenges of the road.
I woke up to an odd sound the next morning, a very light prickling sound a bit like opening a fizzy drink, and the light in the tent was strange, lighter than usual, but with some big, dark patches on the flysheet. What was this?
”I think it is snowing” Chris said, and right he was. Outside the world was magically and completely unexpected covered in 10 centimetres thick, wet snow. I thought about our winter clothes ditched in the container, our winter tyres no longer on our wheels, the 2,000 metre pass ahead and about the little flowers on the fruit trees we had seen the last two days. Were I, and we, really up for the challenges?
Wuwei – Zhongwei – Jingbian – Yulin
1005 kilometres cycled