With the first half of our China Challenge completed relatively quickly we had grand plans of relaxing for the best part of a week in Lanzhou, stocking up on some much needed calories and sleep, picking up our visas and heading off south-bound with another 30 days to explore this enormous country. It didn’t quite pan out that way…
We arrived into Lanzhou on a Saturday evening; spent the Sunday moving from one awfully rude (and expensive) hotel to a fantastic one, drinking our fill of coffee and consuming more dumplings than most would consider humanly possible. First thing Monday morning we walked down to the PSB office to discuss the renewal of our visa. This process could not have been simpler, in fact it was so simple and so efficient that the man said the visas would be ready at lunchtime on the Wednesday… but the 30-day extension would start on the Tuesday as that was the day that he had to process them. Great we thought, on the one hand we had our visas which meant that there would be no mad rush to the border via all means of transport (if you know your Chinese geography you’ll be aware that Lanzhou is almost in the middle of China so any border dash would likely be incredibly taxing and highly stressful); but we were essentially being given 28.5 days to cycle the best part of 3,000km over increasingly difficult terrain. What we eventually came up with was this…
1. 9 days cycling from Lanzhou to Chengdu (roughly 1,100km)
2. 1 day off to see the giant pandas (we are of the opinion that there was no point cycling through panda country and not paying them a quick visit)
3. 8 days cycling from Chengdu to Songming (a city just north of Kunming; roughly 900km)
4. 9 days from Songming to the border with Laos (roughly 850km)
When Wednesday rolled around we packed up our bikes, negotiated the lift (not as easy as you would imagine with laden bikes and a crowd of onlookers) and made our way back to the PSB office, picked up our passports and proceeded to get lost leaving the city… not the best start to part two of our China Challenge.
When we finally managed to locate the road heading south, push through the throng of traffic blocking our every move and purchase some much needed bread it was straight into the hills we had been promised. The first couple of hours were virtually straight up a rather steep valley, and in the heat of the midday sun our eyes were stinging from the salty sweat we were producing more than the inevitable burn in our legs. The flip side to this immediate realisation of how hard the second half of China was going to be, was the spectacular scenery (when we could see through the salty tears). We were awed by the steep slopes terraced with crops in seemingly impossible to reach locations, perfectly formed as far as we could see. Given we had spent months in Central Asia and weeks in the Chinese desert it was a welcome sight.
The top of the first climb was thankfully cut short with the aid of a tunnel, which we negotiated with the typical sense of fear that comes with entering a tunnel on a bicycle (but on this day was preferable to the continued cycling we would have had to do to summit over the top of the pass) and were rewarded with a truly stunning valley. Unlike the valley we had been in, the one we entered was comparatively wide and once reaching the valley floor after a great descent we were rewarded with even more wonderful scenery. There were numerous villages dotted all the way along the road (something we had largely missed in the first section of China as we were racing along the Expressway), all surrounded by fruit trees coming into bloom, vegetables sprouting in long perfectly straight lines that looked as though they stretched from one side of the valley to the other, and some even had old classical Chinese architected buildings. It was glorious! The day continued like this until about 10km from our destination where we were hit with unimaginably bad road works, but the fact we were now heading south and had managed to hit our first target meant even these could not dampen our spirits.
The second day south the road works continued, and I don’t mean they continued for a few kilometres, I mean they continued for virtually the 100km we managed to cycle. We had read on another blog that roughly 10% of your days cycling in this truly epic country would be impacted significantly by major road works and this day was our first. At the time of cycling the road works were incredibly frustrating, but in hindsight it was a good day to endure them as we could only really cycle 100km to find accommodation and it was mostly uphill anyway (we climbed to 2951 metres). Road works on uphill sections are preferable for us because we are so painfully slow anyway we don’t lose a lot of speed, whereas on a downhill where the weight of our bikes makes us reasonably fast the loss of speed can be somewhat frustrating and the concentration is incredibly tiring.
Finding accommodation was once again very easy thanks to our priceless piece of paper with unintelligible Chinese phrases on it. We showed it to the first local we saw who laughed and pointed behind us. We thanked the ladies (“thank-you” is one of three words we have mastered; the others being “hello” and “England”; “New Zealand” is too difficult to pronounce), thanked our lucky stars that we had the piece of paper, and pushed our bikes over to where the door to a shop was slightly ajar. It was my turn to go and find out about the rooms, so after locating the lovely owner of the establishment I was taken upstairs to be shown a very fine (very basic) room, which was exactly what we were after. With the price seemingly fixed at a reasonable £6 I set off excitedly to inform Katie about our great result. Katie on the other hand walked straight into the room and pointed out that there was no toilet, which I had clearly overlooked. Given that our Chinese vocabulary is non-existent it was a case of rather embarrassing charades that developed when “discussing” with the owner where the toilet was situated. After establishing that #1’s were in a bucket, she picked up the bucket and motioned for me to follow her, presumably to see where #2’s should take place.
First things first though… after negotiating the steps back to road level she promptly deposited the contents of the bucket (presumably other guests #1’s) all over the road, which took me aback to be honest. To her it was clearly nothing unusual as she went straight into playing another equally embarrassing game of charades indicating that… up the road, past the pile of burning rubbish, and somewhere down the side of a building was where #2’s had to take place. At that very moment I made up my mind that I would absolutely, under no circumstances ever want to go and view the undoubted horrors of what lay up the road, past the pile of burning rubbish, and somewhere down the side of a building! With the ablution situation sorted it was off to enjoy the comforts of our room with a hot cup of tea and a very early night.
The night passed without incident and another early morning resulted in yet another monster climb (thankfully no road works to speak of), another nerve-racking tunnel, and another immensely stunning valley to dive down into. With the sun out and the purchase of ice cream complete we could not have been in a happier place and the next 48 hours provided some of the most scenic cycling of the journey to date and certainly the easiest. For the best part of 240km we followed a river in the downward direction, passing through stunning gorges, interesting riverside villages and relatively new cities, but the undoubted highlight was meeting and then having dinner with the Longnan Cycling Club (for want of using an acronym… the LCC).
Since we left London we have regretted the fact that we cycle with MAGURA brakes; yes, they are excellent brakes, but outside of major cities in the “western” world they are virtually unknown. Even if they are known it is virtually impossible to get hold of any (i.e. whenever we get somewhere where we could use the postal service we check Wiggle or the like and they are sold out… Always!). This has meant that at every bicycle shop we pass we stop, walk in and ask the question. We know it is a waste of time, but sometimes it is just something to do…
In any case, as we were cycling into Longnan we decided to stop at the first bike shop we saw on the off chance that they had a set of these brake pads lying around. Unsurprisingly they didn’t, but what they did have was a group of young cycling enthusiasts sitting around, including a number who made up the aforementioned LCC. Within 5 minutes of entering the shop and excitement levels going through the roof we had accommodation organised for us, the LCC members at the shop had phoned the rest of their crew and dinner had been organised. Now you have to understand that the sight of random foreigners in this part of China is rare and the sight of random foreigners on bikes turning up to a shop that just happened to be full of cycling nuts is even less heard of. In a bit of a killjoy way we suggested that we could not have a BIG night as we had a enormously challenging week of cycling and did not want to be under the weather. This seemed to be no problem, no problem at all. Another round of phone calls followed and dinner (or as they liked to call it “THE party”) had been rescheduled and instead of happening in a couple of hours it was happening right now, that way we could enjoy “THE party” and get to bed in time so that we did not have “sore heads”. There was no escaping it, we had inadvertently walked into a trap and had to live with the consequences…
We were immediately whisked away in a taxi (still in our quite disgusting cycling clothes… no time to change you see, party to be had) and taken to a fantastic restaurant. There was beautiful teak woodwork everywhere we looked, water features, bridges integrating the water features, brilliant red lanterns adding a wonderful ambience with soft hues. The waiters looked smart, the cliental looked smarter (aside from the cycling party that had just arrived), and the smells emanating from the kitchen will stay with me for the rest of my days.
This early evening dinner was absolutely incredible, a real highlight of our entire journey. The company could not have been any better; the food, which we cooked right in front of us in the ever-popular Chinese hot pot was outstanding, and thankfully the alcohol was not as potent as I expected (and was also consumed in thimble sized measures). Katie and I almost certainly broke dinner protocol all of the time, but no one seemed to mind. We were actively applauded when we successfully negotiated tricky manoeuvres with the chopsticks, we had shot glasses raised to us and we responded in kind. At one point we were asked to make a toast, which I gladly indulged in and when it was confirmed we were full one of the men said he would take us home, very respectful of the fact that we needed an early night. Even now as I sit on the banks of the Mekong in northern Thailand reviewing my notes and finishing this blog I am still in awe of the immense generosity and kindness of everyone we had the pleasure of dining with. We have been incredibly lucky in our journey to date with the people we have met, and these guys are no exception. Incredible human beings that emphasise to me everything that is good in the world!
The fact that our hosts had been so accommodating meant that we were in bed by 9pm so it was up early and back on the road just after 6am in an effort to make it from Longnan to Wenxian. When we had quizzed the LCC the night before they had said in no uncertain terms that it was impossible to cycle the distance we were attempting… so like a red rag to a bull we decided to take up the challenge and prove to ourselves, more than anything that we were capable of beating China. The first 70km were a continuation of a downhill that we had been enjoying for sometime; it was then a turn away from the river and a gentle uphill until we finally reached the mountain that we had been waiting for. The first 10 km were incredible. The road reminded us of the Alpe d’Huez with switch back after switch back and as we gained altitude the rugged peaks seemed to go on forever. At the top of the switch backs we summited what turned out to be the false summit patted ourselves on the back and wondered what the locals had been talking about. This jubilation lasted all of about 5 minutes when we realised that we were in a bit of trouble. The road completely deteriorated and we were faced with 20km of uphill slog in a heat that was becoming more intense. Finally, after the best part of 9 hours in the saddle (not including the numerous water stops, food stops, CYA – choose your attitude – stops, look at the paint drying stops) we eventually summited and found that the road before us was almost 30km of perfectly paved downhill switchbacks almost all the way to Wenxian. We made our destination with plenty of daylight to spare, we had passed 13,000km and it was in that moment when we had pushed ourselves beyond our own expectations and beyond those of the locals that we knew we would not be beaten by China and barring any mechanical disaster we were mentally and physically strong enough to cycle the whole way. It was a great day!
The next few days we followed a number of rivers that twisted and turned through more epic scenery, but unlike the 240km easy ride downstream we had had on the other side of the mountains, here the road undulated quite dramatically; at some points we were no more than 10m from the surface of the water and other times we were well over 200m above the water. The climbing felt never ending and as we pushed further south the temperature began to soar almost exponentially, which meant increasingly early starts to try and beat the heat. With the kilometres that we were punishing ourselves with it did not take long until we entered Sichuan, our third province in China and home of their national treasure… the giant panda.
Our entry into Sichuan resulted in an immediate change in almost everything. The sides of the roads were mainly devoid of rubbish, the houses looked as though they belonged to slightly more affluent people, the roads were in better condition, and the number of tourists went from zero to unimaginable numbers. Sichuan is stunning so it is easy to see why the tourists (almost exclusively Chinese) are there in their hordes and aside from about a 10km stretch of road that was overly busy and incredibly intimidating the cycling was very pleasant.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan had been our aim for the previous week or so – we managed to get there on time and stay on target with our China Challenge. We both loved Chengdu and with the confidence that our day to Wenxian and subsequent days in the heat had given us we ended up having 2 days rest knowing we could make days up later on.
The pandas were not just a highlight of this journey but also a genuine lifetime highlight. I cannot put into words how incredible these creatures are and how fantastic the park in Chengdu is. We arrived very early in the morning and there would have been more pandas than people at the park when we first entered, so we were fortunate to experience uninterrupted, peaceful views before the tourist busses turned up (literally thousands of people). I am not too sure I would want to be there when they turned up, and I am not too sure if the pandas like that many people either. The only word of advice (aside from arrive early) is that if you get a chance to see them in Chengdu (or China), just do it, life is far too short. Amazing stuff!