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China (Part 2)

(Part 1 Here)(Part 3 Here)

 

 
Slow Cycle Through China
 

15th November 2005 - Pingyao to Lingshi - 74km

We had a problem leaving promptly from Pingyao as we found out that the Christmas pressies we had bought in Pingyao could not be sent from there. The Post offices locally just could not deal with such an unusual request. We had to try three post offices, cycle 40 km with two big parcels and wait 1 hour and a half before finally being successful. We really thought we would have to carry the parcels to Xi'an, so we didn't complain too much.

We started very pleasantly on the G108 again, but this was not to last. The road follows the main Shanxi valley, where most of the population and the coal mines are to be found. The sides of the road were covered under a blanket of black muck. As the lorries sped past wisps of coal dust were sent spinning across the road. Every time a lorry passed by (beeping loudly!), we received a little rain of coal powder. Factories and buildings were everywhere and the smoggy sky that we had endured since Taiyuan grew even thicker.

For the first time in our trip we had to give up on finding a camping spot. It was maybe as well as we were badly in need of a shower!

 

Presents for xmas - not that easy to send back home!

Not the nicest river bed we have seen on our trip!

 

 
 

Shanxi Province is not renowned for it's freshwater fish

 

16th November 2005 - Lingshi to Linfen 115km

And we thought the day before was the worse we had so far... Today was pure cycling hell. Trains of beeping coal lorries, cold and smoggy weather, bad road surface. And also, the accidents: we saw one cyclist and one biker badly knocked off, pools of blood on the road and an overloaded coal lorry tipped on its side. Everything guaranteed to make cyclists feel ill at ease.

But we haven't mentioned the rivers. When they are flowing, they have marvellous tinges of deep black, satsuma orange, yellow, plum or even apple green with foam on top! The arid climate and irresponsible small scale industry ensure that the rivers are completely dry or comprise of a toxic cocktail of industrial waste, domestic effluent and the results of being the local refuse disposal point.

The valley is so busy that we even struggled to find a picnic spot. The sun, or lack of, is also an interesting feature of "coal hell" valley. By 16.00 it was bright orange, by 16.30 bright pink, just before totally disappearing behind the layer of pollution.

 

 
 

Isa's mask obviously kept some of the coal dust at bay

 

 

Have you washed behind your ears young man? We were actually allowed into a hotel like this.

 

 
 

The usual accoutrements of a Chinese Hotel room, obviously the constant telephone calls from prostitutes cannot be heard on this website

 

 

After a good shower and scrub down with industrial strength solvents we emerged relatively unscathed - although our sense of self-respect and fashion conscience must have been affected by the traffic fumes

 
 

Wedding party and bangers in Pingyao

17th November 2005 - Linfen to Km5 of road 233 - 64 km

We were finally able to turn eastwards towards the mountains and leave "coal hell" valley behind. We had to follow it so far because of an area closed to foreigners further North (see our section on cycling in China).

We went straight up the mountains and by lunch time we were finally able to see some blue sky again as we climbed steadily above the smog, for the first time in a week! The rest of the day was very much up (another record was set: it was our most climbing in a day - 1289 m), but we were happy to be able to breathe normally and to be amongst smiling people again, waving and laughing at us as we passed by.

 

 

The sun barely penetrating the pollution, Alice Cooper was less then impressed with this cycle touring lark.

 

 
 

Troglodyte Houses in Shanxi Province

Loess plateau dropping away dramatically from the terraced fields above

Landslide across the route

 

18th November 2005 - Km5 of road 233 to 20km Before Houko Falls - 88km

We started the day by completing a long mountain climb up to a picturesque col. Whilst waiting for Isa, Terry was informed in no uncertain terms that we could not descend towards the Houko falls by that route - we must turn round and go back via another route. As any cyclotourist will know this is an impossible request when you have spent 3 hours cycling up a mountain pass and the detour involved an extra 5 hours of cycling.

We weighed up our options and decided to go for it. As there were plenty police cars around, we concluded that on the other side of the mountain there may be a closed area to foreigners. Our only (poor) solution was to be as fast and as discreet as possible through the valley and the main town. As the road was downhill, speed was okay, but trying to be unconspicuous as a foreign cyclotourist in China is absolutely impossible. We gave it our best shot though and only stopped after an hour of mad cycling in a small side road leaving the main valley. We had made it!

As we carried on a bit more slowly, we had time to notice that we were now in an entirely different area. The mountains were made of a sandy material (we found out later that it is a sandy deposit formed by the wind called loess - hey, we do learn things with all this cycling around!). The vegetation had totally changed and the habitation consists of caves dug straight into the side of the mountains (a nice changed from the modern white-tiled Chinese buildings). But on this smaller road, Chinese engineers have been a bit bold with the angle of the cut through the mountain and we had to pass a massive landslide. This was why the man on top of the hill told us not to go this way! But anything is impossible with a couple of touring bikes (well nearly anything).

The rest of the day was simply amazing. We reached the top of the loess plateau, which breaks down into impressive cliffs with beautiful views on each side of the road. And as we came down the plateau, we were lucky enough to find a newly built road following a beautiful river valley. As the road is new, the landscape is practically untouched (no fields, no quarries, no manic digging in the river bed, no road number and no traffic) and for the first time in China it was really straightforward to find a quiet place to pitch our tent.

 
 

19th November 2005 - Houko Falls to Km 1334 of G309 - 49km

The new beautiful road met the Yellow River and we had our first view of this almighty giant. We read somewhere that it has "golden flow". To be exact, it is more like brownish flow, as it carries much sand and silt, but the setting was amazing. Apart from a few people pumping out sand, the river banks are set in between cliffs and therefore rather wild. Our route went close to the Houko falls, which are a fantastic sight. They are the best waterfalls Isa has ever seen. But Terry prefers the Brecon Beacons ones near Ystradelle (but only because you can walk behind them)!

We had lunch by the waterfalls. Luckily we met a chap from Singapore who helped us with the menu. Thinking she had recognised the signs for chicken, Isa was about to order dog stir fry! And then the owner, thinking that we may be into alternative food, came out proudly with a big bloody lump of donkey meat! We thought safe to stick to pork and rice.

Our road then took us along a quiet river valley (road G309). The area was absolutely smashing, with a few villages built in the sandy slopes and surrounded by terrace fields with pear and apple trees that have just been harvested. Some small mountains literally looked like big piled up cakes.

 

 

New road and fantastic scenery

 
 

Houko falls, where the Yellow River, the "Mother River of the Chinese Nation", drops over a 20 m step in the sandstone bedrock

 

 

Cake-type mountain,there was a wedding going on with a band playing, clearly audible on our side of the valley

 

 
 

The big 10,000 km

1 metre of apples of course

 

 

20th November 2005 - G309 to 43km North of Huangling - 75km

The day was cold and grey, but we carried on our way following some very pleasant river valleys. After a quick stop in a market, where we actually managed to block the main road because of the crowd gathered around us, we found a quieter spot for a picnic by the river. As soon as we started eating a car stopped and three men walked towards us. No need to say that we were a bit grumpy by the arrival of these nosey people. But as it turned out, they were policemen and demanded that we do not go to the next big city, which is an army base and therefore closed to foreigners (see our section on closed areas). They asked us to go back on our tracks and head for the main road G210 (a 200km detour!). We were happy they stopped to tell us this as they surely saved us from a lot of paperwork and maybe a hefty fine.

After closer inspection of our map, we decided to carry on forwards and take a smaller road north of the Army town. We were a bit nervous carrying on on the same road for the next 20 km. A car stopped and Isa panicked, but its occupants only wanted to have their photo taken with us, pfff! (as long as the photo does not end up in the police files!)

 
 

21st November 2005 - North of Huangling to Huanglong - 92km

We were very lucky to find that the small road we took had been newly surfaced. It was extremely quiet and pleasant and crossed a huge forested area. We had to climb another mountain, but the views on top were magnificent. We followed the summit ridge of the mountains for more than 30 km. Very relaxing - and absolutely no traffic.

But as with all nice things, it was not to last. We soon joined the main G210 that we were to follow for 200km to Xi'an. We crossed an apple producing area called Laochan. A bill board proudly claimed that "it is the best region for growing the best apples in the world". Still, not a drop of cider in view for Terry. To compensate the lack of the precious fluid, we purchased one meter of apples (literally) at one of the hundreds of small apple selling stalls that were bordering the main road.

We then carried on to the town of Huangling where we treated ourselves to a hotel room and a shower. There was something worth seeing in Huangling, but unfortunately nobody could explain to us in English what the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor was. We cleared the mystery out in Xi'an: this is the oldest Emperor tomb in China. It is 5000 years old (the tomb with the terracotta warriors is just a mere 2200 years old).

 

More beautiful views from the main road on top of the loess plateau

Strangers we met on the way, initially Isa thought she was being hassled by the police again - luckily it was just a photo shoot.

 

 
 

Apples everywhere, kilometre after kilometre and not a single drop of cider anywhere - sometimes Terry finds it hard to understand the Chinese mentality

 

 
 

The Bank of China at our service - as well as cash they do a good line in green tea and hotel reservations

 

22nd November 2005 - Huanglong to Tongchuan - 78km

The ride to Tongchuan was much harder than we both expected. The day started up climbing up another loess plateau and then we followed a mountain road mainly uphill until a very late lunch. After a big downhill that chilled us both to the bones, we reached an urban area which we had decided to cross before stopping. After forty five minutes cycling and passing through what looked like four different city centres, we were still not out of the town. We did not know where we were, but it was obviously a major city and Terry even spotted a bank with a cash machine that accepted our cards. A real miracle!

As we replenished our wallet, the bank manager came out and invited us inside for tea. We managed to communicate thanks to the translation software on his computer and he insisted on booking us into an excellent hotel in town, at a price he bargained for us. What a service!

 

 
 

(above) Morning exercise in China, it certainly beats breakfast TV

(left) Monkey face from the Shaanxi museum

 

 
 
 

23rd November 2005 - Tongchuan to Xi'an 107km

We started off early and luckily the road was mainly downhill and even totally flat in the plain surrounding Xi'an. Our road map gives no clue about the relief of the area and we did not know what the day would bring and whether we would be able to reach Xi'an.

The locals misdirected us towards the expressway to Xi'an. We were quite annoyed as we carefully managed to avoid getting on it for the last few days (it follows closely the G210) and we know bicycles are not allowed on it. We were on the slip road to the highway considering our options: go onto the highway and fear the police or go back on our tracks for a good few kilometres. And at that moment came huffing and puffing a grandpa on his rusty old tricycle with a trailer, straight onto the highway. This must have been a sign - so we followed him.

The next 42 km to Xi'an, which could have been dead boring, turned out one more time to be an eye-opener. A bunch of school kids on bikes came down the motorway the wrong way. There were many bikes, slow "put-put" lorries and some road sweepers dusting the fast lane! We really wondered what they have done in their previous life to deserve such an awful job (remember Chinese lorry drivers are rather fierce). They even did not have a proper dustpan and brush - just homemade twig brushes and a piece of cardboard!

 

 

Big goose pagoda, Xi'an

 
 

Cycle parking is provided everywhere in Chinese cities, but there is no room to squeeze in a loaded touring bike

 

 

24-26th November 2005 - Xi'an Visiting and being normal tourists again

We spent 4 nights at a nice hotel run by Mr Jim Beam and joined in all the tourist sights; the terracotta warriors, big goose pagoda, warm springs, temples and bell towers. Xi'an is a surprisingly large city - 7.8 million people. It is a huge place mainly taken over by modern high rise developments and wide boulevard style streets so the ancient feel has been eradicated. Fortunately the pleasant small streets of the muslim quarter remain and they are a real bustling assault on the senses.

After our three days of rest (from cycling) we are now heading off towards Chengdu in Sichuan province - Giant Pandas and chillis await (but not in the same dish).

 

 
 

The gigantic and romantically named "Pit 1"

 

 

Every face is different

 

 
 

Fact of the day - the terracotta warriors have a total of 300 different hairstyles

 

 

It can take up to 1 year to put a warrior back together, 1000 done, just 5000 left to do. Many were smashed only 4 years after being put in place by a new claimant to the position of Emperor 2200 years ago

 
 

27th November 2005 - Xi'an to Zhouzhi - 74 km

We crossed the flat plain leading from Xi'an to the Qinling mountains to the South, once again following again the road G108. The road was busy and we crossed many small towns - all hives of activity. We finally reached the edge of the mountains and we managed to find a camping spot on a small road leading up to a monastery. The road looked quiet, but as Terry checked out the spot, 6 people passed by on bike or by foot. It is difficult to be discreet in China!

The only noticeable event of the day was Terry being smacked on the head by a wooden post from a banner above the road. The 2 metre wooden post hit Terry on the head whilst he was checking the map. Luckily Terry's sizeable head resisted the crash thanks to his ever reliable cycling helmet (you never know when it will come in useful).

 

 

Another set of warriors and horses from another burial site - but these are only 12 inches (300mm) high

 
 

The first climb up the Qinling mountains - it lasted nearly 100km

 

 

Twisting descent around the reservoir that supplies Xi'an's water

 

 
 

View of the reservoir from the lovely quiet G108 over the Qinling mountains - we even found a nice spot for a picnic

 

 

28th November 2005 - Zhouzhi to km 1445 of G108 - 85 km

We soon turned left into the mountains. The valley we climbed was once again awesome, and different from anything we had seen so far. Here, the mountain sides were precipitous, the trees were still green and there are streams trickling down from all sides. On the far top of the mountains, about 200m or so above us, we could see many farms and terrace fields. How on earth do they live up there? The valley was beautiful, but offered no camping spots. In the evening the temperature started to drop down seriously and we gave up. We stopped in a restaurant and ask about lodging. The owner had a bedroom for us and cooked a good warming meal, which we ate around a stove in his bedroom, the only source of warmth to be found.


Motorways are being built all over China


 
 

29th November 2005 - km1445 to Foping - 57 km

After breakfast (in the owner's bedroom again), we started a very slow and cold climb to the top of the mountains. After 3 hours, we had only rode 18 km, but we were at the top of the road, which was a strangely located tunnel surrounded by pictures of monkeys and pandas.

The downhill on the other side was absolutely amazing. We were riding in an entirely different landscape: the forest was mainly made of bamboo, and there were many exotic trees, as well as assorted exotic birds, many we had never seen before.

The flat plain around Hongzhong, boring cycling - a good job the trucks and buses kept on blasting their horns otherwise we may have nodded off.

 

 

Village in Shaanxi province - the river was running and appeared to be river coloured as opposed to yellow, red, purple, brown or black

 

 
 

What a monkey!

 

 

It was only after reaching the town of Foping that we understood what the Qinling mountains and the tunnel are all about. We passed a visitor centre about Foping Nature Reserve. It was late, but the centre was opened especially for us. There we learnt that the Qinling mountains are a natural border between North and South China, between temperate and sub-tropical climate, and between the Yellow river and the Yangtze river catchment areas. On top of this, the nature reserve has the biggest number of pandas in China (about 100), 600 golden monkeys, lots of Takins (cow-antelope) and millions of birds we never saw before (all nicely stuffed in the museum).

The guide told us that the tunnel through which we had ridden had been constructed to allow the pandas to trot peacefully along the mountain tops without having to fear the mad beeping bus drivers of the G108. If we wanted to see pandas, no problem, but we had to climb back up the mountain, so we gave them a miss. But this day and the sudden change in landscape made the cycling between Xi'an and Chengdu very worth while.

 
 

30th November 2005 - Foping to km1590 of road G108 - 92 km

It was a day to get used to our new surroundings. Further down the valley, different types of trees appeared. The only ones we could easily spot were banana trees, cypress and palm trees. The rest of the forest was all new to us. We also spotted our first rice paddies, which made Isa stop complaining about the cold and the so called sub-tropical climate, because with all the ambient humidity the area is clearly a mosquito zone in summer.

The river valleys were full of beautiful white boulders, but the new fashion seems to be to extract them (sometimes with huge cranes) to use them as garden ornaments. The river beds here again end up as messy construction/destruction sites with dozens of people digging, hammering and extracting.

Noodles drying at the side of the road

 

 

The fantastic descent into sub tropical china - it was still bloody cold though!

 
 

On the road from Hongzhong, a long day with our left ear plugs in (to prevent premature deafness from the extra loud bus and truck horns)

 

Flood prevention? A well needed new irrigation scheme? A new otter sanctuary? No it's just a big crane to lift the beautiful rocks from the river bed so they can be sold to wealthy gardeners in Xi'an - it must be one hell of a rockery!

 
 

Which would you choose? The expressway with the sadistic bus drivers or the lovely old road above. The locals were sure that we wanted the expressway and directed us accordingly

 


1st December 2005 - km1590 to Mian - 96km

Before we left our hotel, the manager brought us a few presents. We were given no less than 5 pairs of disposable slippers, 6 toothbrushes, 4 combs, 5 sewing kits, 7 rolls of toilet paper and 2 shower caps. It was kind of him, but we had to leave behind the slippers and shower caps.

Otherwise it was yet another grey and cold day, overall pretty boring as we crossed the flat valley surrounding the city of HongZhong. As usual it was extremely painful on the ears (offensive beeping again) and mentally tiring. Isa even crashed into Terry and collapsed on the road as a bus pulled out before us in a busy town. No great damage apart from wounded pride!

We couldn't resist this big cake, our couple of slices were 35 yuan - Isa thought we'd been ripped off - until we tasted the glorious collection of nuts and seeds - Caketastic! Note also the gathering crowd watching the foreigners buying cake.


 
 

One of the entertainments of the day was to stop in a restaurant where a window fell off a glass cabinet. A one year old kid who wasn't even close to it was blamed and the mother had to pay. The bid started at 100 yuan for replacement. Every single customer gave his opinion on the matter. It was a pity we could not join in too!

Even though the landscape was grey and boring, China is always full of surprises, unlike the deserted straight roads of Russia. Every town brings a bit of distractions: some have thousands of noodles drying on wooden poles, some have chess clubs with dozens of old men in the old blue uniform and hat sitting playing, people are working everywhere in the flat fields, carrying two buckets on pole across their shoulders or filling their huge wicker back-basket to overflowing with all kind of salads, radishes and cabbages.


 

Sub-tropical China - but it was still winter in the rice fields

 

 
 

A glimpse of the sun and the new landscape of Sichuan province. Unfortunately someone didn't pay the bill and the sun didn't come out again for a couple of weeks

 

 

2nd December 2005 - Mian to NingQiang - 85 km

Luckily the flat plain road ended up after 10km and as soon as we started climbing, the mad traffic simply disappeared. The road was beautifully quiet and going up and down most of the way until a final big pass. Behind laid the town of NingQiang, where we stopped in a hotel, giving up again on finding a camping spot. This part of China is very busy. Everywhere there are farm houses and people working in fields. We did not see a single good camping spot all day.

 
 

3rd December 2005 - NingQiang to GuangYuan - 83 km

Unbelievable but true, we were to see the blue sky today again! As we passed on the other side of another mountain range and rode down towards the border between Sichuan and Shanxi, the sky cleared up and strong winds were blowing in our direction.

We had problem finding the G108 as it has been left to degrade since the construction of the expressway on the other side of the valley. Despite our explanations, the locals directed us onto the expressway and it is only after getting over fences and crossing a river (no bridge) that we were back on a small and poorly maintained portion of the G108. What a change from the beautiful tarmac road in the Beijing mountains. But it was totally quiet, save for a few motorbikers looking at us very curiously. For the first time we could appreciate under a beautiful light how different the landscape is since we had crossed the Qinling mountains.

 

Terraced fields and sunshine - great to get some feeling back into our frozen extremities. The G108 at its quiet, picturesque best.

 

 
 

Guangyuan cycling club - reckless and dangerous riders with little attention to other road users - destined to become bus drivers one day

 

 

Towards the end of the day, we met a cycling club going back to GuangYuan, the town where we planned to stop. But as we were going along with them, two of the girls skidded on a patch of gravel and ended up with badly wounded hands. Nurse Isa got the first aid kit out (once she could remember where it was stored - we have not needed it for months) and cleaned up the wounds. After many thanks and a big photo session, we left our cyclist friends to visit an amazing temple which we passed. Thousands of carved buddhas, some more than 1400 years old, were looking at us from the side of a cliff. We decided to have a closer look on the Quian Foya grottoes before stopping at GuangYuan.

 
 

 

One of the thousand Buddhas carved into the rock near Guangyuan

 

 

River and gorge on the approach to Guangyuan, the road was also carved into the rock

 
 

Relaxing in the sunshine - we had to make the most of it

 

Carved Buddhas everywhere, the more you look the more you see

 
 

4th December 2005 - GuangYuan to JianMen - 62 km

We left GuangYuan under a misty sky and still following the road G108. We first crossed a busy valley, which seems to be a corridor for development: new huge houses, new towns and new bricks factories are being built along with the new expressway. But in this valley we also saw our first mandarin trees and even olive trees. We are now as far South as Casablanca in Morocco, even though it feels frankly colder than around the Mediterranean sea.

As it was Sunday, there were kids everywhere and many of them followed us on their bikes at each town (finding a stop to answer the call of nature was extremely difficult that day). A group of kids followed us for 5km before daring to talk to us. Unfortunately the conversation was pretty limited, so they asked us to write down a message that their English teacher would later translate for them in class.

 

Chinese development is running at an incredible rate - our reliable road the G108 disappeared into a building site

 
 

The landscape took on a new feel with cypress and olive trees

 

We finished the day following a mountain stream uphill into another beautiful mountain. As we nearly reached the top, there was a chairlift, a range of huge cliffs and some temples. Terry was waiting alone for poor struggling Isa and it did not take long before he was offered food and lodging for the night. A woman had the good idea to bring out a leaflet about the area in English and we decided to spend the night in her house. There was indeed many things to see in the area and we decided to go and explore the temple and garden on top of the cliffs the day after.

In the evening, she cooked a lovely meal for us with the local JianMen tofu. Even Terry was forced to admit that the tofu was excellent!

 
 

5th December 2005 - JianMen to km1954 on G108 - 35 km

As we ate our breakfast in the small restaurant, we watched the English news on the landlady's TV. The siberian anticyclone has officially reached China and was moving Southwards. There was snow in Beijing, the temperatures were dropping everywhere, but still we were getting ready for a massive uphill (it was nearly 1000m before we realised it!) to the temple in the hill.

As we climbed, snow started to fall and it was pretty hard to go walking around the temple park. We tried to see the amazing views from the top of the cliffs, but we were in the inside of a big snow cloud. In our haste to keep moving and warm, we nearly missed the temple, which was rather small. But a friendly monk welcomed us in and cooked noodles for us. We all gathered with another monk and an old lady around a small bowl in which twigs were being burnt. Outside, through the missing window of the room, snow was still falling. The door was also wide open, and outside the close radius surrounding the fire bowl, it was freezing.

The monk then showed us around the temple and had us praying in each room. He struck a bell and said prayers and we had to kneel with our hands together a few times. We tried to tell him that we were catholics and have no clues about buddhism and all the gods and buddhas he was naming, but our dictionary had none of these words. So we simply said Xiexie (thank you) and left the happy monks. Language barrier is a frustrating thing!

 

 

Jianmen mountains

Sometimes the challenges of navigation on the Chinese roads can be surprisingly exhilarating

 
 

Small restaurant/guest house in Jianmen, we asked for some food and all we were offered was Tofu - not surprising when it is plastered all over the windows in big bold letters "Jianmen Tofu" - reading Chinese is not getting any easier.

 

 

A 1000m climb to a great view point, except it was snowing and we could only see the 500m to the bottom of the cliff

 

 
 

Gatehouse in Jianmen, with squealing pig statues to compliment the real autumn pig slaughtering season in the area

A cold start to the day - but what better than a nice bowl of steaming hot porridge? Perhaps Isa should have filled her boots with it because her feet did not warm up all day.

 

6th December 2005 - km1954 to km2029 on G108 - 71km

The Siberian cold was definitely upon us. The temperature today was between 2 and 5 dC. Despite this, many Chinese were sitting outside their house or shop, around small fires in bowls. Some were even playing cards. They seem to be cold proof and they leave the doors of their shop (usually located in garages) wide open.

The day was also misty, which was really frustrating because we were crossing a beautiful mountainous area and we can only guess that the views must be breathtaking from the little we saw of the surrounding peaks the day before. Our only consolation was the old cypress trees bordering the road. They are huge, imposing and clearly a local pride.

On another note, it seems to be the pig killing season. We crossed a couple of towns were a poor victim was being gutted on the street and a few more were pig screams could be heard. Another delicacy we spotted: skinned dog drying in front of some houses. Even on a misty day, there is plenty to see in China!

 
 

7th December 2005 - km2029 to QiQuShan - 16 km

Isa's toes has developed a strange allergy to the cold and to cycling. They have been aching and swelling for a couple of days and her morale, after cycling for a few days in the damp, cold mist, was beginning to fade. We decided to stop when we reached the touristy QiQuShan area. We opted for a 1/2 day rest and a visit to the temples of Emperor-god Wengchang and surrounding cypress forest park. Beautiful. We had a chance to lay on the "Dream come true" stone bed of one of the temples, but that is only if you pay the 2 yuan fee (indicated only after you had laid on the bed). Anyway, if our dreams of sunny weather come true, it would have been money well spent!

The hotel we found could cater for up to 700 people in peak time, but we were the only customers there. It was so big and spread in the forest that we could not find the way back to our bedroom after having enjoyed a beautiful meal in its deserted restaurant, with a full team of waiters and cooks working just for us!

(right) Midday in the Jade river of the thousand year old cypress tree forest - suitably named cloud corridor - our visibility was down to less than 100m

 

 

 
 

Chillis feature in all the Sichuan cooking. The chillis help to "cure internal dampness". This was well needed on the wet and miserable G108. Km 2001: A Spice Odyssey. All Chinese roads are marked with these concrete monoliths - just like in the film.

 

8th December 2005 - Qiqushan to Chengdu - 11km (170 km by bus)

Both Isa's feet had now blown up to unreasonable, painful proportions. It was now difficult for her to put her shoes or boots on let alone cycle on another cold day.

We made the decision to take a bus to Chengdu and get Isa's feet into some warmth and see if they improved from a couple of days R&R. The manager of the hotel laid on a bus to the nearest town, where we transferred our bikes to the local bus to Chengdu. The bikes needed to be dismantled and were but in the luggage compartments below the passengers.

The bus ride turned out to be an excellent idea, the day was once again sad and grey and our route would have been along a monotonous 4 lane highway for 170 km's - and just to reinforce the fact that it was a good decision it started to rain. We sat staring out of the wet, steamy bus windows, listening to people spitting and the clockwork precision of the bus-driver's horn blasting with no regrets.

 

 
 

11,000 kms already, doesn't time fly when your enjoying yourselves?

 

 

Wengchang temple - buddhist, taoist, confuscionist influenced place - we really couldn't work out what was going on

 
 

Happy campers - Terry trying to repair his overshoes with some "bodge it" tape

 

 

The offending feet, really quite unpleasant. Swollen by the cold to such an extent that Isa's cycling shoes wouldn't fit - still, a spot of nail varnish should do the job

 
 

9th to 12th December 2005 - Chilling in Chengdu

We did take it easy on Isa's feet in Chengdu, which means we enjoyed short walks through the amazing People's Park and sipping endlessly refilled cup of teas. Drinking tea is a real past-time in Chengdu and there are many tea-houses full of card and domino players at any time of the day.

We also went to say hello to the 48 pandas of the Panda Research Centre. But they were to busy chewing on bamboo to reply to us (they spend on average 16 hours a day feeding, 7 hours 50 minutes sleeping and 10 minutes playing!).

We received some spares from SJS cycles so Terry did a little maintenance and a Rohloff oil change.

 

 

 
 

Another small road on the map - but it's a 4 lane highway in reality. There is no way that road atlas's can keep up with the pace of change

 

 

A Chinese hotel room toilet, one the one hand chic, modern and flashy - on the other hand there is no chance of reading a book here! Note that the shower sprays directly into the hole in the floor - most efficient design

 
 

13th December 2005 - Chengdu to Meishan - 95km

The cloudy weather had not lifted at all and overall, it was another cold, grey cycling day along a busy road, apart from a lovely section cutting through villages and fields and along the Jialing river. It was a nice road, but as usual packed full of activity: people are everywhere - sitting outside drinking tea and playing dominos, making baskets, working in fields or cutting bamboo. It took us more than an hour to find a suitable wee spot (for Isa)!

We reached the city of Meishan with no high expectation. It is another newly developed city, with huge four lane roads cutting through the surrounding fields and awaiting for further building and all built around the standard new city grid system.

After mistaking a restaurant for a hotel (easily done), we had to ask for help. A security guard snatched us away from the gathered crowd and led us to a hotel with his motorbike. We were at first very wary as he stopped in a dark street to ask us about how much we wanted to pay and we seemed to have gone a fair way in the direction we have just come from. But he did find us a really good and cheap room. He was also insisting on taking us to a restaurant and we decided to follow him. He sat down with us and insisted on paying for everything. The conversation was rather limited, but we gave it our best shot with our dictionary, mime, drawing and hand gestures (Isa's forte). But suddenly his phone rang and he had to go back to business on an emergency. As we had just finished the meal, we really thought that he would not come back - leaving us to pick up the bill (the oldest trick in the book). But he did come back and absolutely refused that we pay for anything. He said that he was happy to have met his two foreign friends.

It was a great lesson of generosity to us. What made us feel so bad about it, is that we have been thinking all the way that the security guard wanted something from us when he was simply generous. It is sadly something we are not used to in Europe.

 

Terry and the chairman. Good job he wasn't a footballer - that type of hand gesture can get one into all sorts of trouble

A rest for Terry in the electric rickshaw - good job too - the driver had to take us over 5 km

 
 

Another 1000 buddha wall, many of the heads had been carefully chiseled off this particular display

 

 

The Jialing river - the front boat is transporting two pigs to the next town, all trussed up and squeaking

 

 
 

Cheeky big-breasted buddhist carving. It is easy to understand why people convert from the rather conservative, dour christian religions.

 

 

14th December 2005 - Meishan to Leshan - 88km

Still grey, still visibility of less than 1 km, still damp and still boring! After crossing the suburbs of Jianjing we went to visit another 1000 buddhas cliffs. And we thought the one in GuangYuan was unique! The Jianjing buddhas site was smaller in size, but the setting in the sub-tropical forest, was very pleasant. The other characteristic of Jianjing is its five ceramic factories. They are huge and no-doubt responsible for the ugly white-tiled facades appearing all over China. What we still cannot comprehend is why are all these factories in the same city? It makes no sense. And as you might imagine, every single little shop on a stretch of 2 kilometers sells tiles and ceramic lions. Nothing such as competition to enhance the standards and reduce prices?

As we got closer to Leshan, another huge four lane road was being built. We witnessed complete driving madness there: some cyclists were pushing their slow tricycles on the fast lane going on the wrong side of the road. Buses closely followed, and don't think we were safe in the cycling lane on the right: there were also motorbikes coming our way at 50 mph! We were happy to reach Leshan and stop at the first hotel we saw.

 
 

15th December 2005 - Leshan and its Big Buddha

This day of rest involved a lot of walking up and down, trying to see the giant buddha (71 m high, the highest in the world - fact of the day!) from all angles. It was well worth the effort to see this 1400 years old giant carved off the sandstone cliffs. We also saw a collection of other buddhas, more recent, one of them is a 170m long sleeping buddha - cheekily carved out a whole mountain side.

The downside to the pleasure of visiting empty sites during the off-season is fighting off the desperate people who pray on tourists. We got conned twice that day: once by a rickshaw driver who literally took us round the corner to a bus stop and later at night in a hot-pot restaurant. Hot-pot is a popular street food in Sichuan: there is a big pot of boiling water with chilli oil in the middle of the table and you cook in it whatever you fancy. We like it because we can see what we eat. Having said that, we were sold various kinds of intestine and other unidentified bits of meat, thinking they were big flat pastas. As we were far down the line of "we dare you" type of food, we even got (knowingly) some chicken feet. The flaps between the toes are vaguely tasty (of chicken) but god aren't they chewy! Frankly life is too short and if anybody offer you some in an aperitif/Christmas nibbles, don't bother. Oops, I have gone off the point. The bill came out at 133 yuan, which is way over the top. We simply refused to pay and waited until the bill came down to 80 yuan (still a rip off). China is sometimes tiring...

 

Big bellied laughing buddha - it was quite a scramble to try and pat him on the head

Lying down buddha with a band of rather unruly people behind, although we believe one was celebrating a late Michael Owen equalizer.

 
 

Thousand arms Buddha (a monk in Ulan Bataar told us that Buddhism was complicated and had many deities. He really was understating the difficulty for Westerners of trying get to grip with all the images and their interrelationships)

 

 

The Grand Buddha - 76 metres high, great big feet and built in drainage

 

 

 
 

 

 

16th December 2005 - Meishan to Muchuan - 102km - 8 months on the road!

Another boring day cycling along too big and too busy roads. It only turned out to be more interesting towards the end of the day when we followed what looked like a beautiful valley with an aquamarine river and bright red earth everywhere. But that was all we could make of it. You guessed it, we had about 100m visibility again!

When reaching the city of Muchuan, a sign raised a smile on our faces. It was for "Muchuan, the city centre proper". Anybody who has been to a Chinese city will understand how impossible it is to assert when you are in the very centre of this massive urban sprawl. That was one of the most useful sign we came across.

 

 
 

Fishing in the Jialing river with weighted nets which sink over the fish

 

 

The road to Muchuan and our next planned stop of Kunming - funny how things change when you're cyclotouring

 
 

17th December 2005 - Muchuan to km1413 of G213 - 44km

On starting the day, we noticed some signs indicating that there were road works on the G213. We took little notice of it and carried on happily, swerving between many groups of workers resurfacing, concreting, sweeping - all in no apparent logical order. This was fine until the road cover totally disappeared, leaving us to face a massive uphill and a road covered with thick mud.

The day was therefore a very slow one and we only reached the top of the mountain at six o'clock, rather exhausted and totally muddy. The climb was beautiful. It started with bamboos forest at the bottom and on top there were tea shrubs and conifers covered in a thin layer of frosted snow. Beautiful, but a cold night camping was in store for us.

It was however a day of record. Terry is keen on these, so let's mention them: 1327 m climbed in the day and our highest camping spot at 1682 m.

 

Isa was less than impressed with the quality of the road surface

 

 
 

A sticky, sloppy road surface but great views despite the mist and low cloud

 

 

The road climbed all day on a hard packed gravel and mud surface

 

 
 

Isa was beginning to enjoy cycle touring less and less as the day went on

 

(above and below) Those classic Chinese mountains veiled in mist. Our dirt track is visible in the photo above - winding up the mountain side

 

 

 

(above) Mud road and ice and snow on the trees - it was 6pm, getting dark and time to find a campsite. Isa didn't mind but her feet started complaining vociferously

 

 

(Left) Terry decided to watch the landscape and scenery rather than the road - foolish! A big slippery stone sneaked up out of nowhere and had him rolling in the mud straight away

 

 

18th December 2005 - km1413 0f G213 to Zongcheng - 49km

This could have been our best camping spot ever, but we woke up to falling snow so we had no views on the beautiful peaks around. However, we had 1500m descent ahead of us. Yippee! It will seem like a dream to all of you mad mountain bikers but with a full set of loaded panniers, it is a very weary business on muddy roads. We were happy to reach a newly concreted section of the road at the bottom of the valley. Yet this was of short duration as we still had another 15 km of off-road to the town of ZhongCheng. However the scenery had totally changed (this is the brilliant thing about crossing over mountains): we were now following the river Yangtze. The temperature had risen from 2 to 12 dC with our big descent, the vegetation looks always more tropical and it had not been raining here so the roads were dry and dusty.



 
 

ZhongCheng was a bustling city, full of rickshaws, pedestrians and small streets. It was built around and over a hill and overlooks the Yangtze river. It was one of the rare towns we actually like the feel and look of. It was a bit of a struggle to find our way and a hotel, yet this was nothing compared to talking to the hotel manageress. The English teacher had to be called to the rescue! After sorting the situation out, she asked us to come to her school to meet her 17 years-old students. We were a bit surprised because it was Sunday night, but they were indeed having an English class from 19.00 to 21.00, in preparation for the national University entrance tests. We went along to the school at 20.30 and we were welcomed like stars. We were applauded and listened to reverentially. They spoke excellent English and had a great selection of questions in store. These are the best:

- Why did you chose to cycle in China?
- What big difficulties to you foresee and how did you prepare? - aren't they damn clever these kids?
- Speak Chinese to us? - Terry got some applause with his "yi ping pijiao" (one bottle of beer)
- Sing an English song
- Tell us great things about England - Terry could only think about cricket!!!! Isa did mention the Queen Elizbeth II

After we answered each question each of them said "Thank you, I think you are great". Ah! They really made the cycling worth it that night!

It was also interesting to talk with ZhangChangYi, the teacher. She told us that in three years time she will have to move and she was sad about it. As we enquired further, we found out that the whole town is going to be flooded because a dam is being constructed downstream. Everybody will have to move to a new town, which is being built and that is the end of the story! As regards to our interview with the students, she only had one request that we do not discuss politics. It is the first time this word had been mention in front of us by a Chinese person, so we respected her wish and steered clear off the subject.

 

Lovely campsite amongst tea plantations. Shame that the cloud didn't lift and it was snowing in the morning

Terry has the expensive bike with lots of gears - the local chap just plonks his missus on the rear pannier (no cushion of course) and cycles up the same hill on his single speed bike

Bottom of mud mountain - sub tropical vegetation and a scorching 10 degrees C - it was still cloudy though!

 
 

The river Yangtze - labour is cheap in China - here a collection of labourers are filling up the ship with stones by using wicker baskets on their backs

 

 

Another bumpy old road - this time into into Zongcheng

 
 

19th December 2005 - Zongcheng to Town with the New Dam - 66km

Following a discussion with the knowledgeable local policeman, we decided not to continue on the G213, which had another off-road mountain waiting for us to tackle and to take a detour following a flatter tarmac road. The decision also took into account the degrading state of Isa's foot (one toe was starting to turn purple) and morale. The road over the mountain was high, cold, misty and bumpy - not really suitable for rehabilitation of poorly feet!

The road along the river Yangtze was very pleasant despite the few bus and lorry drivers being particularly vicious with their horn. We crossed many small villages set in clusters of green strange trees. All the kids we passed ran along with us, some even gave Terry a push up the hill. And as we are in a tobacco growing area, the farmers all smoke some homemade cigars in a strange classy kind of way.

As we reached our destination (we still don't know the name of the city), we passed the Yangtze River Western Canyon. But what a state it was in! The road had reverted to mud, we were crossing a bulldozed village and then an immense building site guarded by the army! We were in the middle of the newly constructed dam, which comes along with a newly constructed high road, hundreds of workers and smoking trucks, decibels of noise welding, rock blasting and inquisitive workmen. All the nice valley route we followed, all the villages we saw today are doomed, to be submerged under 50 metres of water!

 

Cycling through the construction site of the new dam - the workers and lorry drivers were surprised but very helpful

New Dam town - but this time they were building a new highway to somewhere - directly where we wanted to go - we persevered for 5km before giving up and retracing our steps (even the trucks were struggling to get through)

 
 

As if the bloody bike wasn't heavy enough already! Gloopy, sticky mud - the sort of consistency one dreams of for icing a cake or plastering a wall. It wasn't possible to push the bikes let alone ride them

Typical Chinese road side cafe, all open to the elements, cooking on the pavement and the obligatory crowd huddled around asking questions and pointing at the map

Entrepreneurial Chinese - Mud town had bike washing facilities set up everywhere

 

20th December 2005 - Town with the new Dam to Yibin - 37km

The dusty dam town had been transformed into muddy town overnight. It was drizzling and everything was cold and wet and muddy. We prepared mentally ready to follow the rest of our detour route, but the policeman's information turned out to be duff information. A new motorway was being built alongside our road, and the tarmac was covered in a very thick and sticky layer of mud. After a few kilometers uphill, both our bikes were stuck in the mud - we could not even push them any further. We went back to our starting point and discussed our next move over a steaming bowl of noodles.

Well, we were not going to go back where we came and there was only one option: the next big city of Yibin from where we were hoping to get a train or a bus South, without being too sure where to. The road to Yibin was rather unpleasant, busy, muddy and once again a new road was being constructed.

The first thing we came across in Yibin was the bus station. We were quite tired by then because the road had been rather unpleasant. So we stopped there, catching up with our breath and our thought and looking hopelessly at the Chinese names on the display boards. It must have been less than a minute before a man came along and asked us where we were going. Isa tried to explain that we did not know where to go (no point even trying to explain about our feet and mud problems). She mentioned ChongQing because it is the only name Terry managed to decipher on the Chinese board. The man must have understood that we did not know how to get to ChongQing because the bus driver personally came out to fetch us: we had ten minutes to embark with our bikes before the bus went! And so before we new it we were en route for ChongQing -m wherever and whatever that was!.

The bus was pretty full: our bikes were in the alleyway between the seats, together with three 150mm concrete core drilling machines brought in by a group of workermen. We were sitting close to XieYi and ZhouXiSheng, a lovely couple who insisted so much that we come with them to Jianjing for a party, that we could not refuse. They may not have realised that along with us and the bikes came a lot of bags... At seven o'clock the bus left us on the hard shoulder of the dual carriage-way to Jiangjin and it took ZhouXiSheng one hour and a half to find a van driver who finally accepted driving us, bikes and bags the 30 km South to Jiangjin.

We went partying still wearing our cycling shorts. It was okay for the delicious hot-pot we shared with our friends and friends of friends, but a bit too hot for the karaoke-disco that followed. The set up was typically Chinese, i.e., all was done in a small booths where we had beers served by father Christmas (the Chinese one!), a karaoke TV and disco lights. We started by singing Chinese songs with bits of English so we could all join in. Then the whole little room was turned into a proper flashing electronic music disco. Within the 10 square meter of the small room, there was no escaping and even grumpy old Tel had to shake his body to the electronic vibes!

 

 
 

A bit of greenery and terraced fields. It makes camping very difficult

 

 

Friends we met on the bus to Chongqing (or as it ended up Jiangjin)

 

 
 

21st December 2005 - Jiangjin to ChongQing - 89km

The small road between Jiangjin and ChongQing started up brilliantly. We were blessed with some sun and we even saw our shadows. This has not happened for the last 18 days!

As we approached ChongQing, we entered the urban sprawl of the megapolis (30 million people live here!) and it was an never ending succession of newly built areas, flyovers and super busy roads. After crossing one of the bridges over the Yangtze, it struck us straight away that for the first time, there were only two bicycles around and they were ours! The city is built on a hilly peninsula between the Yangtze and Jialing rivers and is a real challenge on the legs. To make matters worse none of the roads has a cycling lane. We reached the city centre truly exhausted after our night partying and a very long hilly day cycling. We booked a VIP room in a four stars hotel with a swimming pool for the first time of our trip (around £18, big spenders!)

 

 

How to fit two bikes and three concrete core drilling rigs on one small bus

 

 
 

The sun came out for the first time in 18 days on the way to Chongqing (We had been on the bus to Chongqing the previous day and we were just 20 kms away at one point. Our cycling route from Jiangjin to Chongqing turned out to be 87 km)

 

 

Mr Wang and Mr Taiyi who kindly gave us a tour of Chongqing and took us for a meal - but they couldn't find a snooker hall

 
  Chongqing and China Part 3 here      

 

     

 
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