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China (China Part 2 is Here and Part 3 is Here)

 

 

We entered China in late October 2005 by the train from Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We spent 10 days in Beijing, visiting and waiting for our Ibook to be repaired, before getting back on the bikes.

From Beijing we headed south west towards Xi'an before turning South through Sichuan province to Yunnan province where we had a problem with moutains and Isa's cold feet. So we headed back to Sichuan and Chongqing before heading towards Hong Kong:

- The mountains South West of Beijing and into Shanxi Province
- Shanxi (avoid the coal valley section between Pingyao and Linfen - it is cycling hell!)
- Shaanxi: its beautiful loess plateau and the Yellow river
- The road from Xi'an to Chengdu on the amazing road G108 through the Qinling mountains
- Chengdu to Chonqing in Subtropical forests, mountains and mist
- Boat, train, Catamaran and a tiny bit of cycling to Hong Kong

 
 
 
 
(above) One of the corner towers of the forbidden Palace, Beijing
 

 

     

 
Map

 

 

 
Entry & Visas
 

We applied for our visas at the Chinese embassy in Ulan-Bataar. It could not have been any more simple or efficient. The fees are clearly explained in English. For a 3 month visa (the norm), you must pay $30. To have the visa delivered the same day, you must pay an additional $60, two working days later is $20. The embassy is only open Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, and beware of Chinese and Mongolian national holidays.

 

 
 

Language

We are in for a lot of fun in China. Chinese as you surely would guess is a pictographic language. Each pictograph corresponds to one syllable. The association of a few pictographs makes up a word. Easy so far. But the secret is in the tonal pronunciation of these syllables. One syllable can be pronounced in five different ways. It will be the same sound, but with a rising tone, a falling tone, a rising-falling tone, etc... Instead of saying "horse", you could be saying "mother" (or maybe worse) if you get the tone wrong. It is really tricky. After three weeks in China, we still reducing people to fits of laughter when we say "Ni Hao" (hello).

To help the poor foreigners, there is a romanised pronunciation system called Pinyin, but mastering it requires also patience and skill as it is far from being straightforward. The Chinese also build their phrases in a modular and clear way, our immersion in Chinese for 2 months could prove quite destructive to our English (especially Isa!).

 

Trying to make any sense of the road signs can be a difficult job

 
 

To demonstrate here is the word order of some basic Chinese phrases:

    • You call what name - What is your name?
    • You are what country people - What's your nationality?
    • Again come one bottle beer! - One more beer please!
 

 

It just goes to show how difficult it is to translate Chinese

 


 

 

 
Camping
 

We had been warned by many people that camping in China would be difficult. There are villages and people everywhere - they have to fit 1.3 billion people somewhere. In Shanxi, we were lucky to be travelling after the harvest time therefore a great number of fields and terraces were available for camping.

Despite our careful selection of campsites we have normally been awoken before dawn by the trudging footsteps of a local farmer collecting his crop in time to get it to the local market.

 

 

Typical Chinese camping site, set in the terraces of the corn harvest

 

 

 

A more visible campsite - but very little choice on the way up to Wutai Shan

Camping in oakwoods in Shaanxi Province

 

Typically we would camp at dusk (5.30pm) and breakfast, pack and leave by 8.30am. This meant everything was done in the dark - and usually an early night in bed. The early start was a problem with the cold - even at 8am it was still only -2 degrees C on some mornings.

Water has been virtually non-existent from natural sources in the North of China. Virtually all the riverbeds have been dry and there are no obvious springs. The few flowing rivers are abused so badly by farmers, industry and locals that we have only dared use the water once. It has not been a problem from the South of Shaanxi onwards: there are many clear mountain streams and many houses have a tap in their garden and people more than happy to help you.

Around the houko falls in Shaanxi province the population density on our route reduced quite dramatically and we managed to find a number of good campsites. But in some other parts, there really are people and houses everywhere and we have been forced more than once to give up on camping. With the winter temperatures reducing we have found ourselves leaning towards the good value Chinese hotels (typically 100-150 yuan per night). Cheaper accomodation can be found by asking around. When asking at a restaurant by the side of the road, a simple room has cost us between 5 and 40 yuan.

 

 
Cycling Difficulties
 

There are two main challenges facing the cyclotourer in China.

First: it is sometimes hard to keep your cool in the midst of the beeping lorries and buses. The driving style is rather offensive: beep and take over whatever is in the way. This seems to be explained by the fact that whoever pulls onto the road (lorries or even bicycles) never checks who is coming along. Beeping is fine, but sadistic drivers tend to beep loudly when they are right next to you. This makes cycling on busy roads a painful experience for the ears (we cycle with an earplug in the left ear now) and mentally quite tiring. To complement our attire, we also use a dust-mask in some polluted cities or when cycling along with coal lorries.

Secondly, there are many closed Areas in China, where foreigners are not allowed and risk a hefty fine if caught by the police.

On our trip, we have been aware of the following close areas:

- Shanxi: South West of Pingyao road 231 crosses a military area
- Shaanxi: 300 km North of Xi'an, Huanglong is a military base on road 201
- Yunnan: Huidong is a closed city (thanks to Edward Gennochio for this info)

We got most our information from Mark and Ju's website. They have scanned their marked-up maps. Otherwise, the official China website gives a list of area opened to foreigners, but it is nearly impossible to make good use of it.

 
         

 

Cycle Shops

We have yet to come across a sophisticated Western style cycleshop - but bicycles are everywhere in China and so is the local bicycle repair man. Any reasonable size town has somewhere to get bicycle spares and to get repairs carried out. It is quite normal to see bikes upside down being welded in the street, or men with bowls of water repairing punctures.

The local coke delivery man always out of the saddle and struggling to propel the ridiculously heavy bike.

 

A typical overloaded bike on a city street. This sort of thing keeps the bike repairers business running smoothly

 

 
Food & Drink
 

Beijing food report: fantawobelastic!!! It is a feast for the eyes, the nostrils and the mouth. We try to take as much advantage of the street stalls, always making sure all is cooked in front of us (we learnt our lesson in Ulan-Bataar). The food is simply excellent and varied, and oh joy!, there's plenty of fruit available. We have missed them so much during our crossing of Mongolia. A simple meal on the streets costs around 20 yuan for two ($2) and in a restaurant between 50 to 100 yuan for two ($6 to $10). What a joy for hungry cyclists, even if not cycling!

As for the rest of China, the food is also delicious and extremely cheap in the restaurants, apart in the touristic areas. We were surprised to find sometimes that we get the chicken as it comes, i.e., bones, skin, foot are all cooked together. Ordering the food has been a bit of a gamble, invariably we are not sure what we ordered or how many - we are constantly being surprised! The rice usually come after the main meal and everybody use their chopsticks to help themselves to the food from a common plate.

 
 

Street vendor selling delicious crepes, covered with egg, chilli, spring onions and coriander - all for 2 yuan (14 pence)

 

 

Our only disappointment is Chinese breakfast. It is really another Chinese meal, but usually a cold buffet, which invariably start with a compulsory very bland porridge made of rice and rice water. Whether you want it or not, Chinese people will insist that you eat your rice porridge!

When on the road, we are desperately missing bread. If you find bread in China, it will be sweet bread- not the ideal for a quick lunchtime snack. We were told that buying food in China could be a daunting business, but there is usually a picture on the tins and sometimes rather strange descriptions in English.

Drink report: Terry is still baffled by the price of beer. 2 yuan for a 500 ml bottle (14 p). It may be cheap but once again it is the non-descript fizzy lager type beverage that is available. The major difference here is that the carbohydrate source is usually rice, this gives the beer a light refreshing taste - but it really does miss a bit of character (eg a good pint of scrumpy brewed with an old rat thrown in tends to provide a refreshing tipple full of character).

 

 
 

Our tinned fish for lunch turned out to be a bit of a surprise, fried fish in black bean sauce.

 

 

Terry tucking into a spread of chinese dishes, all very tasty but we have no idea how to order them again!

 

 
 

We have been most amused by sections of the "Guide Regulations to Bar Visitors" in the Beijing tourist guide. Here are some lovely examples:

  • "You can express your action by your body shape after drinking" - we are still pondering this one...
  • "When you order a cocktail, you can request a mixing show to the mixologist" - and ask to see his qualifications too
  • "Don't drink if you're the patient of digestive system disease"
  • "Don't liquor up beer if you sweat profusely"

 

 

 

A big joint bowl of noodles, just 4 noodles per serving, each one an inch wide and 6 feet long (with spicey dipping sauce)

 
 

Biscuits have been a bit of a hit and miss affair.This particular monster had chocolate and plain biscuits filled with the standard creamy filling but with the added bonus of sweet pink stuff as a middle layer.

 

 

For water, we have been using our filter in some of the clearer streams and rivers we could find very occasionally. This is not easy matter: most of the rivers are in a very poor state of health, suffering from untreated domestic and industrial discharges and over extraction (water engineer talk, sorry!). Most of the shops sell bottled water, but it always come in 500ml bottles, which is exasperating as we typically buy about 4 litres. This creates a huge amount of waste of which there is virtually no means of disposal.

Most villagers discharge of their waste over the nearest wall or slope, whether there is a river there or not. The other disposal route is burning - and as one passes through villages there are various fires burning on the pavement to reduce the rubbish volume. Sometimes we carry a big bin bag for days on end on our bikes because we cannot bear to burn it or throw it over a wall.

Tea seems rather expensive compared to the cost of food, but it is a real treat. It comes in loose leaves and you can buy it in most shops.

 
 

potatoes and river prawns on sticks

 

 

Noodles drying in the street

 
 
 

(left) Street food is one of the pleasures of eating in China. Delicious corn on the cob - at last we found out one way in which they use the huge amounts of corn that are grown

(above) This restaurant in Hong Kong offered massive fish, surely this would feed two football teams?

 

 

Cheese report: absolutely nothing to declare. We only saw a few plasticky square slices of gouda look-a-like. Luckily, there are many other things to sink our teeth into.

The chinese keep large flocks of goats, sheep and in smaller numbers cows. But these animals must be kept just for their meat because dairy products are virtually impossible to find outside of Beijing.

Milk is available in larger towns but only in powdered variety and always pre-sweetened - still it makes do for the morning porridge. Porridge oats have been available in the larger stores in the big cities.

Seafood and huge haikado crabs just waiting to be picked

 

(left) These small tubes filled with a brownish creamy substance were called Collon - surprisingly they are a quite acceptable biscuit

 

 
Weather
 

We entered China in late October and were very pleasantly surprised with the temperature. Mongolia had been typically 12 degrees C during the day and sub zero at night. Our first day in Beijing was 24 degrees C in the day, and everybody was sat outside eating in the street in T shirts.

As we moved away from Beijing the weather remained very stable, typically with bright sunshine, 20+ degrees during the day and hovering around 0 degrees at night. The exception in Northern China was our crossing of Wutai Shan Mountain, where it was blowing a gale at 6 degrees. In the evening, the temperature dipped well below zero.

One point to note is the air quality. Near towns and villages there is terrible air pollution. When a still, high pressure weather system sets in then the visibility, and the cyclists ability to breathe, drops dramatically. The larger cities can appear to be under a permanent veil of yellow grey smog. (Despite the generally warm day time temperatures (20 degrees C) large areas of China have had visibility less than 100m - this is politely called "Fog" by the weathermen.)

Much of the pollution is due to the ever present coal fired heating, power stations and cooking, as well as the Chinese villagers means of rubbish disposal - burn it in the street.

Weather update: it is now December and we reached Sichuan and the sub-tropical climate zone. Unfortunately the Siberian anticyclone has reached it at the same time. The day time temperatures peak at 5 to 6dC North of Chengdu, but most annoying is the constant sea of clouds which blocks all views from the mountain roads. It has made cycling harder than necessary so far.

 

 

     

 
Medical

 

Chinese medicine doctors tried to get us in their practice in Beijing. They could tell us how long we are going to live, you see. Needless to say we walked away and luckily we have not needed to consult any Chinese doctors. Our travel insurance is World Nomad (check out our links).

There are a few things that we do not find in China and are worth bringing along. They are ear plugs, tampons and deodorant.

China post

China Post is very expensive and we have resorted to sending things back home by sea. It takes about 2 months and all our parcels have so far arrived. All you need is a bit of organisation to send Christmas presents or other things on time. Airmail is extremely fast (less than one week for a small parcel to arrive).

 

 
Flora & Fauna
 

Fauna wise in the North of China, we have been very disappointed. The landscape has been utilised in everyway possible by the huge numbers of humans scraping a living from the land. Coal mining, farming, slate cutting, lime kilns, gravel extraction and cement production seems to be everywhere. It is virtually impossible to find a patch of untouched land in Northern China. This has obviously had its affect on the animal life. Even the birdlife has been scarce - not a single large bird of prey. A few tits here and there, the ever present magpie and an unknown bird (grey and blue, like a magpie but with a longer tail).

However, once passed the Qinling mountains in South Shaanxi, which mark the border between temperate and subtropical climate, we were suddenly surrounded by many unknown kinds of birds. The Natural area around Foping, South of Xi'an, is well worth crossing because the change in landscape, fauna and flora is so well marked. There are also many protected species in this area, amongst them are pandas, golden monkeys and some Takins (cow-antelope), but all too elusive for us.

 

 
 

The view across the mountains - the smoke is from the burning of unwanted corn leaves and stalks

 

 

The river bed dug up diverted and scores of little vans sorting and grading the sand and aggregates by hand.

 

 
 

In North China, the flora has been a little scare on the ground due to the reasons mentioned above. Northern China seems to grow one crop - corn/maize. Every spare patch of ground is turned over to its production. Every house has huge piles of corn drying in the sun, the cows are eating the old leaves, fires burn everywhere to get rid of the unwanted stalks and each and every village has its own hand powered flour grindstone. Most of the mountains have been deforested and are desperately dry.

We started travelling South from Beijing in late October so many of the trees had already lost their leaves. This has left one particular tree looking quite spectacular - the quince tree. Without a single leaf but hundreds of bright orange fruits waiting to be picked and boxed by the local farmers.

In South China, passed the Qinling mountains, the vegetation is entirely different. Our flora reports have been quite thin so far, now they are going to be abysmal as we can only name a few of the trees and plants that are growing there. To name a few, we have spotted banana trees, mandarin trees, olive trees, cypress trees, pine trees. In the terrace fields, rice is now grown and an immense variety of green salads. Water is now running down the sides of the mountains.

(left) A quince tree full of fruit waiting to be picked. Note the river valley behind is completely filled in and levelled with coal.

   

 

     

China Statistics
 

The summary of China Statistics to date are as follows:

Distance Cycled: 2957 km
No of Cycling Days: 42
Average km/day: 70.4 km
Furthest in A Day: 115km (To Linfen in Shanxi Coal Valley Hell)
Average Climbing per day: 624 m/day
Most climbing on a day: 1327m (The border between Sichuan and Yunnan)

 
         
 

Trains - Arriving in Beijing

This section follows on from our Ulan-Bataar to Beijing section on the Mongolia page. In Part 1 we saw how Terry and Isa managed to get their bikes on the train. Now, their next challenge was to retrieve them at Beijing main train station. (Our train trip from Yichang to GuandZhou was also a little adventure, see China part 3)

Ronnie, our German friend, and Terry went to check on the bikes as soon as we arrived in Beijing. The bikes were being taken away on a trolley, but they were told to get a stamp from the custom office before the bikes could be handed over. Easier said than done. Isa and Ronnie went off on the quest for the holy stamps with only one chinese word in their armoury: Ni hao (hello). It took us some time to realise that some Chinese, when faced with an incomprehensible question in English, wave their hands in a vague direction, maybe simply to get rid of us or maybe because they cannot tell us they don't understand. So we started off in the completely wrong direction on several occasions. Coming back towards the train station, we found that people were this time pointing in the same direction when shown our paperwork. After a rather long walk trough the side streets around the train station, we ended up... where we started!

This time we noticed a luggage sign and we followed it down into a very deep and huge baggage hall. The atmosphere was rather daunting when you are not a Chinese speaker. There were many queues, many people patiently sitting in a waiting room and a terrible woman's voice shouting things in a loudspeaker. A kind Chinese man helped us and took our paperwork to one of the cashiers. He was told that our bikes were not ready, but that we also needed a stamp to retrieve them (the holy stamp again!). He did not know where to get this stamp.

 

 
 

Waiting in the main customs office in Beijing, just before the man ran off for an early lunch

 

 

The office was closed so lunch it was - ravioli and the first chance to test our chopstick wielding skills

 

 
 

Fresh and full of hope, Terry, Ronnie and Isa went back to the luggage hall the following day. The cashier lady checked in the computer: the bikes were ready for collection, but where are the custom stamps? So we started the same process as the day before, but this time with a phrase book. After going round in circle around the train station (nobody seemed to know where the customs office was), a man pointed us in the direction of the customs house and even marked it on our map. The building was 10 minute walk from the train station, but we walked there, full of hope. At the entrance, the caretaker called an English-speaking lady who told us nobody could help us in this custom house - it was administration only, we had to go to the operations custom house, 3 kms away. She gave us a contact number and a name. We were finally getting closer. We took a taxi there and were welcomed by a rather stern looking caretaker. He tried unsuccessfully to call the number we were given. So he simply closed his office and went off for an early lunch. We were left to ponder our next move.

We returned to the train station, without a spring in our steps, and dejectedly looked around the same small streets Isa and Ronnie had taken the day before. Terry spotted a tiny sign which corresponded to "custom". 23 seconds later, we were in front of a tiny custom office on platform 1. We could not believe it, it was closed for lunch!

 

 
 

Despondent outside the correct customs office, huge confusion between latin, cyrillic and chinese letters

 

 

Joy of joys, the invaluable stamp has been given, it was possible that we would see our bikes again.

 

 
 

After a spot of lunch in a nearby hutong we returned to the reopened office - it was still not the end of our troubles: the customs lady had a problem matching Isa's latin name with her cyrillic name, as written on the Mongol luggage form - and nothing on any form was in Chinese. She simply could not work out that it was the same name. She took all our forms and went off for what seemed a very long time, but came back with a big smile. She sorted everything out, found our bikes and most importantly, got a big fat stamp and red ink out of her drawer. We were saved! The bikes collection back down into the luggage room went smoothly. We were all taken back to ground level on electric trolleys. And then, off on our bikes around Beijing...

 

 
   
 

Three happy cyclists, on an electric golf cart being driven back up to ground level and daylight

 

 

The bikes visible ahead of our golf cart - it was too tempting not to shout "follow that golf cart".

 

 

 

So, to simply summarise this long winded bike-collection story. You may need to come back a day later to collect your bike, especially if you arrive late or on a Sunday. There are much luggage on each train and everything is entered on a computer system, which takes some time. For the stamp, go directly to the luggage end of platform 1. There is a small custom office (with roll-up shutters if closed). To collect your bikes, go to the downstairs luggage room, which is on platform 5 or 6 (my memory is failing). Queue to one of three queues on the right, you will have to pay 6 yuan fee and you are given a reference number. The loud woman voice in the loudspeaker will call for this number, unfortunately in Chinese. But she also said "Ulan-Bataar" and some people waiting told us it was our turn. Easy, isn't it?

 

 
The Slow Bicycle Through China
 

16th October 2005 - Still on the train to Beijing

Late in the night, we got our first Chinese shock. We reached the train station of Edernet, on the border. White, spanking new buildings, gardens, flat pavements with no holes, not a piece of rubbish in sight and a straight line of army men and custom officers waiting to step into our train. It seemed unreal after the relaxed attitude of the Mongolians and the shabbiness of their train stations.

The passport and custom control went on quickly and efficiently and in perfect English. We were simply not used to this clinically efficient style after months spent in Russia (cumbersome) and Mongolia (rater laid-back). The passport control was followed by the train carriages being parked in a shed, whereupon the whole carriage was jacked up in the air and every single bogie (wheelset) on the train was changed. Something to do with different gauges of track - a quite fascinating process.

 

The bogies being removed from under the train carriage to match the Chinese rail gauge - with all the passengers still onboard!

 
 

.

Recommended reading for the cycletourist "Zen and the Art of Bi(motor)cycle Maintenance", I'm not sure that we both understood it all.

 

 

A super view of the Great Wall at Badaling - from the train - and without a souvenir seller in sight.

 

 
 

In the morning, we travelled through the busy corn fields before entering a mountainous areas and catching beautiful sights of the Great Wall at Badaling in the balmy sunshine. Needless to say it was at this point that we were regretting not being on our bikes!

We arrived at Beijing spot on time (14.30) and with the whole afternoon in front of us. This is where it all went slightly wrong, as we struggled to retrieve our bikes (see the train section above). We were left with all our luggage on the platform, not quite knowing where to go and how to get there. Jojo (this is his English chosen name), a map seller, saw a great business opportunity in us and tried to get us into his hotel. We were not really interested until the price became apparent. We settled for 100 yuan ($12.50) a night and he drove us to the Qian Men young Guang Hotel, a quiet place North-West of the Temple of Heaven garden. The twin bedroom did not look much like the pictures of double bed deluxe room Jojo showed us, but we were too tired to argue the case...

 

The great wall from the train, obviously the invention and popular adoption of train travel and tunnels has made the defensive purpose of the wall somewhat redundant.

 

 
 

17th - 29th October 2005 - Beijing waiting for the laptop to be repaired

After a few days calling Apple back in England and sending emails, Terry finally found a mac service centre in Beijing. They took care of our Ibook, which left us plenty of time to explore Beijing before getting back on our bikes. So off we went around Beijing with our list of "must-see" sights.

 

 
 

The temple of Heaven park

 

 

One of the temples in Beihai Park

 

 
 

Amongst the Tai chi, sword dancing, chinese chess and beautiful singing groups, the slow erosion of traditional culture by western influence is unavoidable - in this case demonstrated by line dancing to the "Birdy Song" ("La Danse des Canards").

 

 

We have visited the Forbidden palace and Tiananmen square, the temple of Heaven and the beautiful Beihai park. All these are crowded with tourists, most of them groups of Chinese easily spotted thanks to their matching caps, jackets and badges. The incessant nagging of the hawkers, kite sellers and beggars can become quite tiring.

We also took a bus trip to allow us to have a walk on the Great Wall at Badaling. We took a scheduled bus service from near Tiananmen square for 80 rmb each (including entrance fee). This was ok except it only gives 2 and a half hours at the wall. Really one needs 3 and a half hours to walk and take in this stretch of fantastic scenery. Still we managed to rush the last section and get back to the coach - last as usual with everyone waiting for us - but we weren't late!

 
 

A Chinese calligrapher in action, fantastic to watch, he makes it look so easy, even the Chinese were amazed

 

 

And whilst we were on the Great Wall the miracles of modern technology brought us tidings of great joy - for it was on this day that the Apple repair centre confirmed that our Ibook was mended - and more importantly we could once again climb aboard our bicycles and cycle the huge, forbidding country that is China.

After nearly 2 weeks in Beijing we were more than ready for cycling again - although we knew little of the challenges that awaited us!

 

 
 

Chairman Mao, suspended in front of the "Gate of Heavenly Peace". We were not sure how apt this is after the brutality of the Cultural Revolution (now officially recognised as a bit of a mistake)

 

 

The city museum, frequently closed to allow history to be corrected, reinterpreted and updated. Has anybody read 1984? Chairman Mao - doubleplusgood!

 

 
 

We have been hassled frequently around these sights with polite crys of: buy my kite, buy my map, buy my guide books, money for a leper, etc, etc... so we prefer spending time walking around the hutongs (old narrow, winding back lanes of the city). The hutongs are quiet and peaceful, people of all ages tranquilly getting on with their lives, chatting away, sitting down, watching, playing chess and eating. The ambiance is punctuated at regular intervals by the loud spitting sound, a Chinese speciality, that we are trying to tape for your own enjoyment back home. The throat-rasping, sputum-producing technique is something that must take years to perfect, it takes a huge amount of effort and is known to exercise virtually all muscle groups in the spitters' upper body.

 

 
 

The old Hutongs of Beijing. This is where the vibrant life of Beijing really happens. Many are turned into night markets and open restaurants after dark. Amongst the rambling old shops one can find just about anything to buy, eat or drink.

 

Longhegong Lamasery, all the shops around sold incense sticks by the hundreds. These were thrown onto the open fires in their entirety

 

 
 

We also enjoyed admiring the variety of chinese bikes, of which there are of course many with names such as "battle", "bicycle" and "flying pigeon". People have amazingly overloaded tricycles, with fruits, heavy coals, children and grannies, bags of garbage, double beds, wardrobes and 2 fridges. Everything goes and some tricycles are higher than the surrounding delivery vans!

 

 
 

The red flag still flies proud in Tiananmen Square - just be on your guard for the vociferous kite and souvenir sellers

 

 

Terry checking out the quality of the mortar and pointing of the great wall. Terry was impressed until Isa revealed that this section has been rebuilt in the last 10 years.

 

 
 

Something else we found amazing is the peoples kindness. We met a few Chinese keen to practice their English with us, and oh so keen to help us. One of them helped us to translate the legend of our road atlas before we had even purchased it! We are not sure he realised how helpful this was going to be (map reading in Chinese is not a piece of cake to say the least)! Another great thing to see, is people exercising in the parks and on the street corners. We saw many tai-chi practitioners, calligraphy artists and an impressive performance by a girl with two long swords. We did not get too close...

There are not many dogs around, only small Pekinese dogs, which amused us greatly when we realised we were indeed in Peking...The local residents also love to keep wild birds in cages, normally hanging from the windows of their apartments.

 

 
 

Ronnie, Hanke and Bella leaving Beijing for work in Japan

 

 

A spot of Chinese social realism, opposite the Chairman Mao Mausoleum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isa always fancied getting a Chinese hat. The Temple of Heaven in Beijing

 

Plenty of work for a roofer here - the endless, tiled roofs of the Forbidden Palace

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Forbidden Palace woodwork, like the tiling, they do seem to make a lot of work for themselves

 

 

The last 1.5km of the old city wall, surrounded by tower blocks but recently turned into a park

 

 
 

 

We took a day off from Beijing to see the Great Wall at Badaling. Despite the number of tourists and souvenir sellers, who run keenly after you and your yuans, the sights are absolutely fantastic.

(above and right) The great wall snaking off into the distance. Despite the crowds, the pushy salesman, the hype and the expectation to see it in the real life is a remarkable experience.

 

 
 

 

     
 

29th October 2005 - Beijing to after Lujiatan - 58 km

The ride out off Beijing was one of the most pleasant city rides we have had. Like Amsterdam there are dedicated cycle lanes and routes and everyone is used to seeing and dealing with cyclists. Our route South Westwards followed G108 national road, which once we found it (our map did not show all the newly built roads around Beijing), was very pleasant to ride, perfect tarmac and winding mountain roads.

One thing that turned out to be rather annoying is the tendency of Chinese drivers to beep at anyone, anything and nothing - oncoming cars, pedestrians, cyclists, bends, hills - preferably when they are within 1 metre of overtaking them. Lorries are the worst offenders and we are afraid to loose the hearing in our left ears (so much so that on busier stretches of road we have taken to wearing one earplug in the left ear).

(left) Isa just realised that there would be no more yogurt for breakfast for 3 months

 

 

 
 

Tunnel on a col of the G108 with Chinese road signs at work - they probably said "absolutely no cyclists through the tunnel - Ever", We shall never know.

 

 

30th October 2005 - Lujiatan to 68 km further - well, er, 68 km

You will have to excuse our not naming the villages we crossed: we cannot read our local Chinese map, and trying to convert symbols to pinyin in the 4 step procedure is fraught with difficulties!

All night we had heard lorries passing on the road next to our tent. This was a warning for what was too come the following day. The mountain scenery we were crossing was absolutely fabulous, but what a busy valley! Everything that can be exploited is exploited: there are coal mines, slates factories, terraced corn fields, sellers of quinces everywhere. The worse of all for us is the incessant coming and going of lorries full of coal. In addition to their loud beeping and dodgy overtaking, we were covered with black dust by lunchtime.

After a turn off to a major coal mine, the road went quiet and we were finally able to enjoy the scenery. But the valley was still fairly busy and we struggled to find a campsite before the night (it is pitch dark by 18.00).

Coal lorries, one after the other, descending towards Beijing. We were covered by a thick layer of coal dust by lunchtime. Poorer locals were sweeping the coal off the road to take home.

 

 
 

31st October 2005 - km103 to km175 on the G108 - that would be 72 km then!

One of our best cycling day. We spent the morning climbing up on top of a huge mountain pass and once on top, the views were amazing. We cycled through three valleys, all as beautiful as one another. The road is well surfaced and quiet. As for the day before, there are people everywhere in the mountains, collecting twigs, carrying massive bundles of corn stems on their backs, sweeping the side of the roads, cutting tiles and laughing when we say "hello".

 

 

Terraced fields and mountain scenery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Isa cycling well at the top of another col. Terry waited at the top for 15 minutes - not due to Isa's speed but due to Isa being hassled by the local police in their big truck. A language barrier prevented Isa incriminating herself.

 

 

1st November (Terry is 38!!!) - km175 on the G108 to Laiyuan - 89 km

Five years ago on Terry's birthday, our house got flooded. This year, we had another totally mad day.

It started nicely with a nice river valley followed by another steep, but quiet, mountain pass. Quiet apart from the policemen who spotted Isa struggling up the hill. They stopped their truck and asked many questions, but evidently all in Chinese, so they were not getting very far. They seemed quite upset by Isa's helplessness and the fact that they did not see Terry. They tried to ring twice somebody, looking in the direction where we were going. After 10 minutes, they finally let Isa go, wondering what the intention of the police was.

Beautiful flat roads and a fantastic sweeping descent

 

 
 

On the other side of the pass, the downhill was fabulous. We stopped in a village to refill our food supply and while Isa was in the shop, a policeman came to speak to Terry. "Follow me", we understood this, and it was not up for discussion. We were led to the police station and made to sit down while a cup of tea was being prepared for us. We thought this is a bad sign: it means we are going to be here for sometime. The chief officer asked to see our passport and our names were logged into a big book. Then he asked us where we were going - I should say at this point that this all was a lengthy process as phrases and words were picked from our dictionary, our "learn Chinese" book and the Lonely Planet guide book. Terry showed on a map the road G108 and the officer said "No!". And then he told us to go, that all is okay. One policeman managed to find the phrase "it all goes smoothly". We were quite confused, and our only conclusion was that the officer has got "yes" and "no" mixed up.

The hardest was left to do. We quickly finished our cup of tea (excellent by the way) and stood up to go, but our cups were refilled. The same happened three times and we finally worked out that we needed to leave our cups full if we wanted to get away.

 

Sometimes the roads seem like they are going up forever. Beautiful scenery, more great roads and the ever present smog at the bottom of the valley.

A villager carrying home his pile of corn stems - it is very difficult to get a "hello" out of these chaps.

 

 
 

Limestone mountains with big holes drilled in their sides to extract the coal. Our faces were so dirty that even in a coal town people offered us water our faces.

 

 

A few kilometres later, a car stopped and the driver came over to speak to us in perfect English. His name was Chang, he was a business man on his way to the next big town, Laiyuan. This was a too good occasion not to seized: we asked us if he knew any good place to stay in Laiyuan and he promised to help us to find somewhere. We exchanged mobile numbers and we quickly pedalled through the 35 km left to Laiyuan. We arrived at 18.00, it was dark, and on calling Chang, we could not make sense of where he was, leaving us to wonder whether he or us were in the wrong town!

 
 

So we looked for a place to stay and found a hotel by the main road. The reception we had was fantastic. All the hotel staff came out to help us to carry all our bikes and bags into our room on the third floor. The owner of the hotel, very mafioso looking, came to ensure us trough his translator, that the best care will be taken of us and the bikes! They really knew how to make us feel special.

Chang rang us back and this time we managed to tell him where we were in Laiyuan. We met for a meal and when he drove us back to our hotel, we found two police cars parked in front of the door. This was just a false alarm as the policemen walked out as soon as we came through the door. But the owner said that he needs to ring the police to let them know he had foreigners staying at his place. While he did so, we were chatting with Chang until Chang suddenly stopped and say "this is not good, you have to go!". The owner tried to rind some other police department, but got another negative answer. He said that the local police officer was on his way to take us to a "foreigner hotel" and that we should make it clear that we wanted to stay at his place.

 

 

In every village there is a grindstone for producing the corn flour, it is used by walking round and round in circles and always by the women (it is also difficult to get a "hello" from them).

 

 
 

After two police situations and being removed from our hotel there was still 57 minutes to celebrate Terry's birthday, this time with a cheeky little red called "Great Wall Red"

 

 

But there was not room for discussion. The police officer came and we had to repack all our bags and get on our bikes. By the time we left the hotel, there were about 35 people crammed in the reception room: hotel staff, customers, the boss and his beery friends, the police.

We drove two kilometers through town to another hotel, more luxurious. As promised the police officer tried to get a cheaper price for us and made sure we could take our bikes in the room. He even gave us a hand in lifting all our luggage to the third floor again. This was the nicest eviction we had and our shortest hotel stay. By the time we close the bedroom door, only one hour was left of Terry's birthday!

 
 

2nd November 2005 - Laiyuan to km311 on the G108 - 51 km

In the morning we went shopping in Laiyuan market street, looking for food and a well needed blanket for Isa (the nights are rather chilly now). Every time we stopped, a crowd gathered to look at our bikes. We could only say where we are from and where we are going, but as we left the market, Terry heard people saying Xi'an and saw them pointing at us. The word on the street was going faster than our cycling!

 

 

9000 kms in the bag - note Isa's fluency in Chinese hand signals for "9"

 

 
 

The ride away from Laiyuan was another dusty one. Coal mining and bricks factories lined the road. We finally turned off on a quieter road, but were again struggling to find a spot to stop. After crossing a dodgy looking town, a young man was following us on his three-wheeled truck for ages. He wanted to take us somewhere to sleep, but neither of us felt tempted by the invitation (maybe it was a genuine one, we will never know). He finally let go and we found yet another nice terraced field to pitch our tent on.

 

 
 

If there is a traffic jam there is no point waiting - just drive alongside the road

 

 

A typical diesel "put-put" carrying grain and 10 people on top - normal.

 

 
 

A coal lorry precariously piled high. Local villagers sweep the roads to get coal to take home

 

 
We noticed something rather amusing that day. In Russia, one of the first question we got was "are you married?". In China, after "Where are you from?", people invariably point at our short sleeves and Terry's cycling shorts. They seem not to understand why we are not covering our arms and legs. Hopefully we have not offended anyone too much...
 
 

3rd November 2005 - km 311 to km344 on the G108 - 33 km

The morning was a bit hotter than usual and we crossed another busy river valley. Many men with the standard blue three-wheeled truck, were digging the river bed for sand. There are sand pits and men with spades everywhere.

After a few kilometers, we were literally ambushed by Mister Li and his friends. We were invited to a wedding party in the village! We happily joined the party and Mister Li was delighted to speak English with us (which he has learnt 22 years ago at school!).

We were sited in the house while the village folks gathered in the courtyard for the wedding meal. Terry counted that an impressive 17 dishes were pilled on our small table. Following the meal, the bride and groom went around all the guests with a small glass of rice liquors presented by the bride. Both of us cheered the bride and noticed she was not to cheerful when downing the liquor. We then realised that we were supposed to drink from the glass, not her! Oooops!

 

 

 

(above) Ambushed for the wedding by Mr Li and friends (below) The wedding meal and toasts

 

 
 

The delightful Chinese bride - in Red and in trousers. She wasn't impressed about having to down the fruit liquor.

 

After the meal and some gift gathering (mainly money) for the newly weds, the wedding came to a rather abrupt end. Mister Li left us and one of his friend who promised to give us lodging for the night took us to the local guesthouse. We kind of knew that we were invited back to the wedding house for more food in the evening and we made our way back there not quite sure what to expect.

But we were as welcomed as ever. People were genuinely interested in our trip and many pictures of us were taken. Terry was invited to play cards (he still has not worked out what was going on in the game) while Isa was trying to speak English with a group of teenagers.

We then made our way back to the guesthouse, absolutely exhausted, and we hardly had any energy left to speak to our room neighbours who all came in our room to give a thorough inspection to the bikes.

 
         
 

4th November 2005 - km342 on the G108 to Chafang

We left the bed sit early and went up a valley with some remnant of a fortification wall and defence towers. it was a piece of small Great Wall, standing in a beautiful and quiet area. On the other side of the valley, we unfortunately reached another coal mining area with many loaded lorries. The road was black, the towns were black, we were black and exhausted by the constant beeping and overtaking. The Shanxi area produces a third of the coal in China, so we fear that black roads are going to be a regular occurrence.

The people in this valley make a living of setting up areas where loaded lorries can cool their brakes with water. Everywhere there are plastic pipes coming out of river and mountain streams and drivers cooling their brakes. All the black water goes back to the river.

 

 

More coal and a collection of impatient cars and lorries trying to overtake - it doesn't leave much room for cyclists!

 
 

The petrol stations are huge and normally brightly decorated, normally with Buddhist colours - perhaps they are trying to be the 21st Century's new temples, after all we are all slaves to Oil in it's various guises in modern life.

 

 

5th November 2005 - Chafang to Taihuai - 42 km

All morning we struggled on a huge mountain pass. We were in the Wutai Shan, one of China sacred buddhist mountain ranges. The weather was cold and the wind terribly blustery. But we made it to the top, and Terry is proud to announce that we have both cycled up to 2683 m! We did not hang around long though as we were closed to freezing on our bikes. We took a long downhill straight to the rather touristy town of Taihuai.

The top of Wutai Shan mountain pass at 2683 m, very cold, very windy and very quick on the descent.

 
 

6th November 2005 - getting templed-out in Taihuai

A day of rest in Taihuai had to involve climbing to the highest spot in town (this is Terry's favourite hobby). So we climbed 1111 steps exactly to the highest monastery, visited another two monasteries before feeling that we could not take anymore. The temples are all beautiful, but the sheer number of them is dazzling - they are everywhere!

 

 

Buddhist temples everywhere in Taihuai

 

 
 

7th November 2005 - Taihuai to Km 30 214 - 99km

After stocking up with provisions and wrapping up warm we were off on the bikes heading South. It was a fiercely cold start to the day - but it promised to be pretty much downhill. A good job too - we had a blustery headwind to contend with. We started the day at 1800m and finished at 700m, overall a total of 99 km giving us our highest average speed of the trip so far - even with the headwind (22.2 km/hr).

The mountain scenery was once again beautiful but would now have to change. Our local currency was running low and the Bank of China in Taihuai said "no", "no", "no" and "no" to any thoughts of Visa, mastercard, Dollars or Travellers Cheques. Quite a surprise in such Touristy spot. Their advise was to head to the industrial, smog-shrouded city of Taiyuan 180 kms away- a place we had planned to avoid.

 

A local villager struggling uphill - no chance of a hello here.

 

 
 

Huge Limestone cliffs on the 140 km downhill from Wutai Chan

 

 

8th November 2005 - Km 30 214 to Yuxian 93km

We followed the valley mainly downhill to start with. The landscape was once again awesome but we suddenly started to doubt that we were on the right road. Our map simply dismissed two railway crossings and a big turn North. After more than one hour wondering in which direction the road was really heading, we found that we were indeed on the right one. The explanation seems to be that in China the roads improvements are made much faster than the maps updates. The roads are all impeccably surfaced and the presence of mobile masts in the most remote places makes you feel that the country is developing at a much faster pace than the quiet farming villages can cope with or afford.

 
 

Coal trucks and dusty roads lead to some particularly grubby, unpleasant cyclists

 

 

Taiyuan city - skyscrapers everywhere

 
 

The mountains gradually disappeared until we reached the town of Yuxian, which was much faster than expected. There were many banks in town and we tried to get cash out of a few of them, without success. A man proposed to lead us on his motorbike to the town main bank. Off we went following him, mostly on the wrong side of the road facing the cars! We passed three set of traffic policemen, but they did not seem to be much bothered by us cycling the wrong way - we were following a local on a motor bike after all! This surely explained the car mayhem in town!

But there was no way of taking cash out for us in the main bank either: it was confirmed - we had to go to Taiyuan city. By that time, it was already dark and we were stuck in Yuxian. Our motorbiker friend helped us to find a good hotel, helped us to lift our bikes and luggage to our room, made sure we were sitting down in front of a cup of tea and left us with a cheery bye bye!

 

 

Preventive measures were called for - Isa adopted the scarf and ER approach to avoid coal dust, Terry tried to hold his breath

 

 
 

 

The Route to Taiyuan

 

 

The bright lights of Taiyuan, no locals carrying bundles of corn here - just people trying to make hard cash in the big city

 
 

Cycling in Taiyuan, cycle routes and bicycles everywhere. Just be wary of the silent, deadly, stealth bicycle: the electric bicycle is everywhere in China, impossible to hear approaching and difficult to overtake on a loaded touring bike.

 

9th November 2005 - Yuxian to Taiyuan 84km

Today was particularly trying. We went slightly uphill all day with an adverse headwind. Isa was struggling with a nasty cough and progress was made even slower. At the start of one more uphill, at around 16.30, a lorry driver took mercy on us and offered us a lift to Taiyuan. Isa was more than happy to accept the offer. And even happier when the last uphill turned out to be the hardest of the day. The last kilometers that separated us from Taiyuan were a massive 400m climb. Behind the mountain range lay Taiyuan and its well needed Bank of China.

So we climbed the 400m, 6 km hill but comfortably sat in the lorry. The comfort was short lived as our lorry driver was related to Michael Schumacher. He drove at breakneck speed around the mountain roads, overtaking on blind corners and blasting his horn for people to move out of the way. We reached for the seatbelt - but they didn't exist. The scenery made up for the shaking: the views were absolutely fantastic. This is until we went down into the smog of the Taiyuan valley.

 

 
 

Once in Taiyuan, we rushed toward the banks, of which there were plenty on the main avenue. But to find that they were all already closed (it was 17.30). A quick glance at the Lonely Planet seems to indicate that our 160 yuan would not be enough for one night in this big city. We tried a few hotels and ask if we could pay with our credit card. No luck: no hotel accepts foreign credit cards, and in China, you must always pay upfront for your accommodation. There was no talking around it and the only recommendation we got was to go to the city 5 stars hotel, which was the only one to accept foreign credit cards. We were dragging our feet and bikes in the indicated direction when our eyes caught a 99 yuan room special offer. We simply could not believe it and tried without too much hope, but yes, here it was, on the very main street of the city, we had a cheap room and with breakfast included!

We were also told that there were an evening buffet for 10 y per person, so very much in our budget. We tried it and had the strangest evening meal. It seems like we were the only one at the buffet and we had a plate full of bacon and fried eggs "a la Chinoise". All was fried with soy sauce and came with a lot of rice. And obviously it all had to be eaten with chopsticks. Eggs are a tricky business.

 

The hard shoulder on the main highway out from Taiyuan - in this case used for drying the recentcorn harvest

 
 

The completely walled city of Pingyao - nearly a living museum

 

 

10th November 2005 - Taiyuan We need Money

Money Money Money - it was funny, banks everywhere but no money for foreigners. We had to go the the main Bank of China to find a cash machine that was finally happy to say yes to our visa cards.

The hotel room was pretty nice and Isa's cough was pretty bad, so we decided to spend a day really chilling out in Taiyuan. It is a big city full of skyscrapers and there is nothing touristy to detract you from simply relaxing. So we did for one day.

 
 

11th November 2005 - Taiyuan to Pingyao 95km

A quite dreary days cycling amongst the smog, pollution, trucks and "Put-Put" three wheelers to the excellent town of Pingyao. The pollution is amazing. We were hoping that the smog would lift up after Taiyuan, but the whole valley, which is the main valley of the Shanxi area, is drowned in greyness and pollution.

We mainly rode along the main road, and it could be rather boring. But not in China! There were many cyclists around us, people drying corn on the hard shoulders, improvised vegetable markets. The vegetation is starting to change as there is some good irrigation system here (though we noticed that many river beds are totally dry again). It is much greener and something looking like grass (rice?) has taken over from the old corn crop.

The highlight of the day has to be our lunch. We are never quite sure what is going to turn up. Usually we are lucky. But today, we asked for noodles and chicken. And we got... noodles and chicken. But this is a whole roast chicken, diced, with legs, head, crest and feet!

 

 

(above) Pingyao coutyard house, (below) a decorative "big thing" shop in Pingyao

 

 
 

"Put-Put" 3 wheelers all touting their load of chinese cabbage

 

 
 

12-14th November 2005 - Pingyao

We found some smashing accommodation in Pingyao and we treated ourselves to a few days of rest in this lovely Han city. Don't ask us how old the Han civilisation is exactly, it is old, and the town they left behind is beautiful and comes with a totally intact defence wall. We did hit the tourist trail again, but coming out of season meant that we get little hassle from the souvenirs sellers and strolling in town is pleasant.

 
 

A scary old dragon in one of the myriad of courtyards in Pingyao. The stone carved animal above is also worthy of mention

 

 

A bit more practice required before Terry becomes a past master at the old martial art of pointy club

 

 
 

The other town characteristics are an amazing array of temples. banking museums, martial arts old schools and courtyard residences. But there are so many of them that three days are enough to totally dazzled us poor European tourist! A 120 yuan ticket gets access to 90% of the town attractions and is valid for 3 days, unfortunately the huge selection of temples, courtyards and buildings can become confusing, disorientating in their resemblance.

 

 
 

Fire crackers and high speed mopeds in the pedestrian area

 

 

Isa looks like a natural, it must be all that yoga!

 

 
 

The Taoist temple nice guys, all studious, calm and kind looking

 

The bad Taoist Guys, this is what it feels like after 10 days straight in the saddle

 
 

Great big burning things outside of a Taoist temple, some are over 2 metres high

 

A feature of Chinese tour destinations, the megaphone weilding tourguide - always within 1 metre of their bleeding ear victims.

 
         
 
For the continuation of our travels through China please follow this link to China Part 2
 

 
For more information or questions please contact us at isaetterry@mac.com