A day off in Jiayuguan was very welcome for both of us. On our ride the previous day we had endured multiple sets of road works, three punctures caused by tiny pieces of metal from truck tire blowouts, gale force winds and the expressway becoming increasingly busy with huge trucks that thundered by incessantly. We had no desire to get straight back on our bikes the next day.
We instead spent the time doing far too much exercise for a rest day, exploring the Jiayuguan Fort and climbing up a section of the Great Wall known as the Overhanging Great Wall. This was as far West as the Great Wall ever went and marked the end of Imperial China. It was from here that exiles were banished into the desolate barbarian lands beyond. Our legs complained vigorously about the climbing of hundreds of steps as we walked atop the wall as it wound its way up a rocky cliff, but it was incredible to stand there looking out over the desert as millions of soldiers would have done at one time or another; waiting for vast Mongol armies to appear on the horizon.
This section of the Wall (like many other sections) has been heavily reconstructed and although it was great to see, we were actually more amazed when we cycled onwards from here and noticed that we were following the path of the Wall. We cycled along next to unrestored sections for hundreds of kilometres and it was only then that we really felt an appreciation for how truly immense it was and what a huge effort it must have taken to build, man, and maintain (although maintenance is clearly low on the agenda now).
From Jiayuguan we cycled on the G312, a national highway, as we had had enough of the expressway for the time being. We were immediately pleased with our decision as the road took us through endless villages and farmland – there was always something interesting to look at whereas on the expressway there was just the odd service station to break up the monotony of the desert.
We hadn’t gone far when we had our first puncture of the day. This time it was no ordinary puncture; the wire rim of Steven’s front tyre had popped out and pierced the inner tube. The tyre was unfixable. As luck would have it, we had just that morning decided we would get rid of the two old tyres we were carrying as backup. We had been carrying a set of spares since Georgia to enable speedy changes if we couldn’t find the puncture immediately. This had come in handy in the freezing desert in Uzbekistan when we were on a tight time schedule and would have been handy now too! The folding tyre had to come out of the depths of a pannier but thankfully it worked as expected (unlike some of the other equipment we’ve been carrying i.e. our MSR stove).
As all this was going on, three young Chinese cyclists appeared. They stopped to ask if we needed help and then carried on. Once we were up and pedalling again it wasn’t long before we caught up with them. We think they had been waiting for us as they immediately asked if we would mind them cycling with us as far as the next big town Zhangye – where our roads would part. And so we became five for the next two days. All three of them were studying solar engineering and had varying levels of English. It was really nice to spend some time with Chinese people and be able to chat to a certain extent. There was still a fair amount of miscommunication going on however, such as when one of them asked Steven if he liked the band “The Beat”. Steven replied that he’d never heard of them, what songs did they sing? It transpired that “Hey Jude” was one of their most well known songs…
As we are incredibly useless at remembering names, we gave each of them nicknames; Hippy Rockstar (because he had long-ish hair and was in a band), Hayden (because like someone we travelled with in Africa, he went off walking for ages and came back with lots of firewood) and Levi (because he was cycling in his Levi jeans). They were good fun to be around and we spent a memorable night with them at one our best campsites to date with fantastic views of mountains all around, made even better as with our inflated numbers we felt comfortable enough to build a raging campfire with all the firewood and coal that Hayden had collected.
The following evening we parted from them in Zhangye but not before a farewell beer in the park and being serenaded with a couple of Chinese songs. They were headed south for the Tibetan plateau whereas we were determined to avoid the cold at all costs and so were continuing further east where the mountains should hopefully be smaller.
Zhangye is home to a 35m long reclining Buddha – China’s largest of this type. You might think that such a Buddha would be easy to locate but we spent rather an embarrassingly long time getting lost trying to find it. When we eventually stumbled across it we were not disappointed. It is housed in tranquil gardens inside the original carved wooden hall (from the 11th century). When we entered the dark, cool and musty smelling hall from the bright sunshine outside it almost felt like we had discovered a long lost treasure (rather than having paid an entrance fee to see it); a genuine highlight of the journey to date.
We’d been very pleased with our progress so far but we still had over 500km to cycle before we reached our mid point in China – Lanzhou. We also knew there were two passes to be crossed on the way so it wasn’t all going to be plain sailing. The first pass was a long tough slog in the heat of the afternoon sun but we made it up to the top at around 2,600m before a long easy ride downhill for the rest of the day and another 70km into Wuwei the next morning. We stopped off in Wuwei for another afternoon of sightseeing, although it seemed that we were the biggest attraction in town. As we were eating lunch at a window table in a small café it was funny to see the number of people doing double takes as they walked past, walking past multiple times trying unsuccessfully to sneak subtle glances at us or dragging their friends over to come and look at the weird looking people. It was a new level of attention that we hadn’t experienced before – I guess Wuwei doesn’t get many foreign tourists!
We left the city early the next morning, wanting to get a head start on our final climb of the first section. It was slow progress on potholed roads and by early afternoon we hadn’t really started the climb yet. We stopped for lunch in a roadside restaurant in a small town. There was a picture menu (which is always helpful for us) and we ordered a huge dish of something that looked like a stew of meat, potatoes and vegetables to share. It took a long time to arrive but when it did we quickly got stuck into it as it looked and smelt delicious. We were just debating over whether the meat was duck or chicken when I reached in to the dish with my chopsticks to pull out a particularly tender looking piece of meat. Out slid a whole chicken’s head complete with beak, eyes and crest. A bit more digging around and we discovered the two knobbly feet.
After lunch was polished off (save for the head and feet which we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to eat) our climbing started almost immediately and we began to ascend into increasingly bleak landscape. We passed herds of yak, mountain streams still half frozen and dreary looking villages. Most houses had a solitary cow or pony tied up outside the front door, lounging in a bed of straw. Toddlers ran around in trousers with a slit up the backside, their bare bums protruding. No nappies required here!
Then the wind started up. It wasn’t long before we were donning our hoodies and Goretex as a barrier against the icy gale – and we hadn’t even started the downhill. But we kept our heads down and before we knew it we reached the stupas that marked the pass at just below 3,000m. The downhill, as we have found on a number of occasions, was much worse than the uphill. It was so steep that we were braking hard all the way, trying to avoid the small stones that litter the edge of the road, our hands going numb from the constant use of the brakes as well as the cold. Our goal of reaching the top achieved, we set about making it as far down the mountain as possible to a warmer climate.
One of the great things about cycle touring in China is the abundance of cheap accommodation everywhere. Back in Urumqi we asked our friendly receptionist at the hostel to write down a few useful phrases in Mandarin that we could show to people. “Can you show me a hotel please?” was definitely the most heavily utilised. Today was no different and with the weather looking increasingly like snow we stopped in an unlikely looking small village and showed our note to a couple of girls in a restaurant. They immediately pointed us directly across the road. Lo and behold, was what every cycle tourist dreams of; a cheap, clean ground floor room with enough space to wheel the bikes straight in. No fuss with stairs, lifts, pannier removal. As an added bonus, there was a proper sit down toilet – after a long day of hill climbing the last thing your leg muscles are keen for is squatting over a hole in the ground.
It did snow in the night but the roads were clear in the morning. Continuing our downhill we were soon below the snowline and into a river valley. It was fascinating to see the change in vegetation as we descended from a land that still seemed to be in the grip of winter to a place where spring was in full swing. The tiny patches of land were abuzz with people tending to their crops, the road was lined with fruit trees in full blossom and there were fresh green shoots sprouting everywhere we looked. As someone who gets particularly excited about the arrival of spring back at home, I was in my element today. No doubt Steven thought he had escaped my annual over enthusiastic babbling about how quickly everything is growing and how green everything is but no, he just experienced it all in one day.
Any excitement of mine quickly disappeared as we approached Lanzhou, a sprawling city along the banks of the Yellow River. It is reputed to be one of the most polluted cities in China and we were not looking forward to cycling into it. The first 20 odd kilometres were predictably horrible with broken up concrete road surface, endless traffic and road works. But unexpectedly, the last 10km were quite pleasurable as were able to cycle along tree-lined pathways next to the river until we reached the city centre.
That evening we had a celebratory beer to mark the end of the first half of the China Challenge. Now we just had our fingers crossed that our visa extension would be granted so that we could be off, pedalling madly, heading directly South for the first time in our journey. Surely it’s all downhill from here, right?