CHINA, 17th – 24th March 2018
Well, of course we were up for the challenge! Did you have doubts? Was there any other way? Not really, since wishing us somewhere else by a click of the fingers is not an option in this kind of realistic story.
Getting up and out in the snow was the only way onwards and however wet and inconvenient, there is nothing more magical than being the first person to step out into perfectly white and fresh snow. I guess in a vague way it resembles the feeling great explorers must have had being the first person to put their eyes and feet on new land. Like being the first and only human all alone with the world.
This feeling lasted a few minutes until we had pushed the bikes back to the road. It was still relatively clear of snow and a few cars passed by. We thought it should be possible to get over this first pass, however we would have to go through the tunnel that went under the pass instead of using the small road climbing up over it like we had planned, as it would certainly be inaccessible now.
It was only a few kilometres of climbing until we reached the tunnel, but as we got up higher and the temperatures dropped, the snow lied thick and slippery on the road and we had to cycle with great care to stay on our wheels. Due to the little amount of traffic going through, the tunnel didn’t cause us problems, but the downhill on the other side was cold as… well a little below zero. Not nearly as cold as the winter in Xinjiang had been, but without pogies and warm clothes it actually felt worse. I had to stop every few hundred metres to warm up my frozen fingers before slowly continuing down the mountain pulling hard on the brakes to keep control over the bike, with my studded winter tire strapped ironically to my load on the back. When we finally reached the bottom and found the first roadside cafe we went straight for it, eager to get inside to warm up with a second breakfast of eggs and noodles. Here we also reconsidered our route once again. It seemed questionable if we would be able to make it over the second pass that went up to 2,000 metres on another small road that would be full of snow. And if we were able to do it there was no doubt it was going to be cold and wet. The other option though was to follow the dirty, busy main road full of trucks we could see out the windows heading down south to Luliang. It was not a great alternative and I was kind of disappointed we could not go over the second pass, but with a fair shoulder and several lanes for the traffic it was doable and we could reach the hotels in Luliang by late afternoon.
The snow on the main road was melted here, but as the trucks mainly seemed to be carrying coal, black dust was being mixed with the slush so we constantly got sprayed with this black liquid all day. It was so dirty and wet that it was almost fun, like playing with mud and jumping in puddles when you’re a kid. I don’t know what we looked like in the end, certainly not someone you would be happy to let onto your cream coloured hotel carpets, but fortunately we found a cheaper version of the Chinese hotel in Luliang with tiled floors, a backyard where we could keep and wash the bikes and a simple bathroom where we spent most of the evening washing down our bags.
Clean and with no more rain or snow falling we continued on the coal truck road out of Luliang the next day heading for Pingyao 150 kilometres away. But as we got out of the town the environment got nearly unbearable. The flow of trucks was endless and the coal dust both covered all surroundings and could be felt in the air when breathing. The pollution, the noise, the black dirt and constant buzz of the heavy traffic was horrible, it was so obviously not a place that was healthy or good for living creatures. And yet people lived along this road doing their daily businesses like they had done before the coal industry emerged. Seeing little kids getting of the school bus outside their homes that were black with coal dust made my heart hurt understanding that this horrible place was what these kids called home.
It was certainly not a good place to cycle, so we were further surprised to see a young, Chinese cyclist making his way across the road through the gaps in trucks to approach us. He agreed the road was terrible to cycle on and instead insisted to lead us via smaller roads through the town that we had reached. ”Safety first!” he exclaimed while weaving fast through the traffic lanes and we followed him the safest way we could. But he was kind and keen to help in that overwhelming and almost demanding way that the Chinese have about them. They will go out of their way to do anything for you, they will not accept a polite declining: ”Thank you, but we are fine” and will insist in a irrefuseable way to buy you lunch, drinks and what not. However sometimes not actually helpful, it is really heartwarming, and this guy really gave us a relief from the trucks for some kilometres. As we sat down with him for yet another round of eggs and noodles, we got a chance to find out more about him. He seemed young, so we were surprised to hear he had a wife and a child that he worked hard to care for, while he dreamed impossible dreams of going on longer bike trips like the one he had done cycling 500 kilometres to Xian. Humbled we listened and thanked him for his help and generosity (he would not let us pay for the lunch although that would only be fair), before we followed him the rest of the way through the town where we said goodbye. We had not been able to meet and talk with many Chinese people, so we were grateful when it happened and delighted by their cheerful and helpful way.
Left to ourselves we cycled ten kilometres with the trucks before we got to a small road that with relief we turned onto. Chris had done more thorough research with Google’s satellite pictures and had found some small roads taking us away from the main road through the hills. The pictures had showed a way through, but we couldn’t be sure the roads were still there and in passable conditions, especially not after the snowfall the previous day. So it was with crossed fingers we headed into the hills, but as the noise of trucks faded, the air cleared and the surroundings turned to their natural colours, I didn’t care so much about the risk of having to turn back, as it was just so wonderful to have found the China beyond the trucks. Tarmac disappeared to give way for gravel road, patches of snow covered the road as we got up over the little pass and later on left the road muddy so we sometimes had to push. But the hills were peaceful, natural and still, except for the occasional train that passed by on the tracks that ran through the same valleys as us. We camped right next to the road as no one would come this way, and continued the next morning. In little villages we received curious stares from both people and cows, and as we sat down for break an old woman who was carrying a big branch stopped to find out what and who we were. Due to our poor Chinese speaking skills I’m not sure she did though.
The peace could of course not last forever. Successfully we made our way through the hills and the little roads grew busier as we reached flatter agricultural land that from time to time was interrupted by black dusty coal burning factories frequented by trucks. Via country roads and by following a river we rode all day and reached the outskirts of Pingyao in the dusk. Pingyao is a popular tourist town with the old, walled town being a protected and restored UNESCO site. It used to be one of the most important economical centres in China some hundred years back and the architecture and the old wall is well-preserved. However, it looked like any other Chinese town as we cycled passed concrete apartment blocks under construction and cautiously followed the chaotic traffic into the busy town centre. But then, there seemed to be a big empty space in the town where the bustle and lights and two-and-three storey buildings was forced back by the sloping, smooth stone wall that surrounds the whole of the old town. We circled around the wall in a dark park and went through the southern gate together with a bunch of electrical scooters. To our delight cars were banned from the old town, however it soon appeared that loaded touring bikes weren’t possible to get through the barriers that was blocking the roads for cars and only letting slim bicycle and electrical scooters through. We even saw a sign saying ‘No touring bikes’. We had planned to stay in a guest house inside the city wall, but now we were not sure we could reach it by bicycle. We were tired and hungry and had long been fantasizing about the tourist facilities in Pingyao, western food (read: Pizza!), a washing machine, English speaking Chinese people and other foreigners. A little break from the real China. Now it seemed we might not be able to finally reach all of that. We didn’t give up that easy though and went around the city wall on the outside to one of the eastern gates that was close to our guest house and went through the wall again. Luckily the first streets weren’t blocked by barriers here, even a few cars were driving in, and we began searching for our destination. To our frustration the guest house was nowhere to be found as we went up and down the dark street several times. Finally, we found another guest house with a friendly couple of owners who let us into a quiet and beautiful courtyard decorated with lights and red paper lanterns and checked us into a charming, traditional looking bedroom. Before we moved in however we had one important thing to be done, which was to take a picture of us that marked the date one year after we had set off from Edinburgh in 2017. With the time difference between England and China and our late arrival it was almost exactly one year after that we took this picture. Nothing has changed really.
After we had moved in we went out to celebrate this anniversary with that long longed for pizza as well as a vegetarian lasagne and two beers that we enjoyed while entertained by Chinese karaoke singers. What a day, what a ride, what a year. We fell sound asleep as soon as we came back to the hotel, I didn’t even have a shower.
We spent one day in Pingyao washing our clothes (by hand, the luxury of a washing machine was still something we would have to dream of) and caring for our bikes, walking around the old city admiring the old architecture with its beautiful wooden structures, carved decorations and colourful miniature paintings, sending a postcard to Helmut, whom we had met near mount Arlberg in Austria last year as we had promised him to do, watching Chinese tourists and the immense scene of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels accommodating them and we stared as hard as any Chinese at the few foreign tourists that were the first we had seen in a long time. There were fewer than we had expected and we didn’t get to talk with any, but we had a secret Spot The Tourist game going on which I won by 36-1 as I spotted a huge group of seemingly Belgian tourists. Pingyao was an escape from the real China, but only to another rather strange place where history and tradition was heavily mixed with commercial tourism, and the stress from the Chinese roads slipped into this car-free haven as electrical golfcar-like vans transported the Chinese tourists around within the walls going at a dangerously high speed through the narrow street and blindly turning corners.
It was good for us with a day off the bikes, but we were not sad to leave Pingyao Old Town the next day to resume our ride.
The next stage of China we would be riding through the last mountain range before hitting the flat, densely populated land in eastern China. Again we had researched the maps and found some smaller main roads that we hoped would be less used by the trucks. And when we reached the road 317 one day’s ride after leaving Pingyao it seemed to be a fair road. There was traffic and trucks, it seemed unavoidable, but with a wide shoulder for us it was not a big problem. Of course that wide shoulder only lasted about ten kilometres and we found ourselves once again on a rather narrow road with trucks coming frequently in both directions. We could fortunately take some short breaks from the busy road on smaller roads running parallel to the 317 through the valley and from these we enjoyed the landscape where small mountains rose carved through by a grey-blue river and with more old caves still to be seen in the cliff walls as well as agricultural terraces and little villages camouflaged well into the natural landscape. By evening we found a steep and narrow gorge splitting the fields on a flat plateau that made for a beautiful and peaceful campsite, and with the scattered branches that were lying around I found great joy in preparing and lighting a rare campfire and playing my ukulele while Chris cooked us dinner. It was not often through our ride through China that we had had the time and energy to do such things out of mere pleasure, so a moment like this was precious.
The next day we were bound to stay on the 317, but fortunately the truck traffic eased a bit when the road split into two and as we were going slightly downhill at good speed we didn’t feel so bothered with it. Despite this, Chris created a new simple game that was to count the trucks that passed us, and even though he gave up the count after just a few hours when we reached a town and the count got impossible, he had already by then reached 300 which made us estimate that almost 1,000 trucks would be passing us that one day. This became a problem in the afternoon where the road once again turned very narrow as it went into the heart of the mountains while the amount of traffic obviously stayed the same. We had to be constantly alert and several times get off the road, if it was possible, for the trucks to squeeze pass us, and of course the narrow road didn’t force the Chinese drivers to halt their habit of overtaking where- and whenever they felt held back by someone ahead. At the same time some bad weather was moving in through the valleys, light rain began to fall and it grew dark. We felt distressed by the conditions and decided to pull out one of our rarely used strategies. Stopping early to get up and cycle by the first light of dawn the next day before most of the trucks would be on the roads. We could camp at the banks of a huge river crossing surrounded by grassy fields and high walls of cliffs to all sides and as the rain soon eased off we had a great night there. Overall we were very pleased with the camping we had managed to do in China, but soon we would reach the highly populated areas where places like this were not to be found.
Our plan worked out perfectly as we the next morning hit the road the moment it got light enough and had a peaceful and beautiful ride through the valley in the early morning light and over our last pass where a golden dragon marked the border between Shanxi and Hebei province, which w#as the last Chinese province we would cross. After a thrilling downhill we reached the town Zanhuang by midday, which gave us a half rest-day as we had decided to spend the night in a hotel here to plan the next, and last stage of our China challenge.
In Zanhuang we had our first and only experience with being checked into a hotel and then while unpacking the bikes being told to leave again due to the hotel not being able to register us with the police. It was of course frustrating, but we appreciated our relatively good luck with the hotels in general and mostly just wondered upon these strict and complicated systems that governs life in China. Checked into another of the many, many hotels we found in every Chinese town, we began to prepare for our last stage cycling in China. Our idea was to ride the last 700 kilometres in seven days, and you will come to hear more about what we called ‘Power Week’ in the next blogpost.
Luliang – Pingyao – Zanhuang
508 kilometres cycled