A cycling tour of China from Chongqing to Xian, May 2014
Chapter 1 The Chinese cycling
It is time for another cycling trip. This time the reason (excuse) is to attend a conference in Xian, China, some 1000 km SW of Beijing. My plan was to fly to Chongqing, which is about 1000km south of the conference city and cycle from there and back. This is a mountainous part of China, so it should be an interesting and scenic ride, although not easy. I went via Singapore where I spent 5 hours in transit. Here I decided to buy some Chinese Yuan cash, but was concerned as I first had to buy Singapore $ and then buy Chinese yuan. I expected a poor exchange rate. That evening I arrived in Chongqing where I bought more cash. Surprisingly the exchange rate here was worse than the double-exchange in Singapore! As I assembled my bike in the airport I attracted quite a crowd. No one spoke English, but one man managed to ask the inevitable vital question - "how old are you?" I had to answer with my fingers and 66 surprised them all as they held a big discussion amongst themselves. Now I had to find the hotel I had booked about 3km from the airport. This was confused by current roadworks and darkness. I guessed how far to travel, but could not see any hotel signs in English. As I stopped at a brightly lit building with big signs in Chinese I saw a small sign saying hotel in english. The staff tried hard and did understand a little English, but I was already clearly in non-tourist china despite this being a large city.
Next day I commenced traveling northwards and soon found quiet back roads through the hills and villages. I even saw 4 Chinese cycle tourists traveling the other way, but we did not stop to speak. Although I was following a designated national route, the numbering and road signs soon stopped and I found myself trying to memorise Chinese characters to read the roadsigns. Most people paid no attention to me as i passed by. It was the opposite of my tour in Turkey where most people were curious, even excited as i passed by. But when I stopped to buy drinks in the small villages i soon attracted a crowd of onlookers. Often there were many children, with girls predominant. But we could never converse as noone spoke english anywhere i stopped. The road surface had been good all morning, but there were many sections in disrepair as I continued, slowing my progress. And I was now unsure of my location as I reached a very large town and became confused in the jungle of city streets. As it was 3pm I decided to stay here as I doubted I would get to the next large town before dark. But I could not find a hotel, so I asked a policeman, who understood just enough English to point at a nearby sign. I was within 300m of the hotel, but the enormous sign was only in Chinese and meaningless to me. The hotel staff spoke no English at all, so we communicated by sign language alone. Day one was an interesting start with good cycling, but finding the correct roads and communicating were clearly a major issue.
I used my GPS to discover what town I was in and next morning I eventually found the road northwards after riding in a big circle around the city centre. Asking for help was a problem as I could not pronounce the city names in a way that was meaningful to the locals. And nor could they read my map with roman alphabet city names. But the cycling was pleasant through the hills where terraced rice paddies occupied all available space. By midday I reached an even larger city, in which I even saw a bicycle shop. But the road signs were discontinuous and i could not find the way north, so i eventually relied on my compass to find a route. This was a pleasant, quiet, paved road which I hoped would take me to Dazhou. As I descended a hill, there was a greasy spot on the road and I slid and crashed on a corner. This was bad. I had abrasions on my right arm and knee, but at least I was not broken. I cleaned the wounds, dug out my modest first aid kit and treated myself on the roadside. The bike was undamaged and I continued onwards, although rather sore. I still had some way to go (about 100km more it later transpired) before I could find a hotel and clean the wounds properly. The cycling was pleasant, but I became concerned about my location and my GPS revealed that I was on a road some 30km west of where I wanted to be. But in this rugged country there were very few east-west connecting roads as the mountain ranges trended northwards. I continued on for ages, finding only tiny unnamed villages and poorly maintained roads in a region which had many coal mines supplying a mid-sized power station. I stopped at a petrol station to find my location and the attendant was just as confused as me as he could not understand my map or GPS, neither of which had these small back roads mapped. Despite his lack of English I worked out that I had to travel north to reach an east-west cross road that I needed. But it seemed I was about 50km from Dazhou and it was already 4pm, the route was mountainous and I was wounded. This was going to be a long, hard day. After 30km of undulating but mostly uphill roads I reached a tunnel to cross the mountain ridge. I don't like cycling in tunnels in traffic and after stopping to fix my lights I rode quickly through the 2km long tunnel. A long winding descent followed, which was fun and I finally made some rapid progress as night approached. In the city area I stopped to guess where to find a hotel. A motorist noticed my confusion and asked if I needed help. He was a project worker for Petrochina and spoke good English and also rode a bicycle for sport. He led me to the nearby hotel that was the base of the gas exploration project and helped me settle in. It had been a long day, some 11 hours of cycling and 170km, rather more than I had anticipated.
When walking around the city that evening I discovered a vital rule about pedestrian crossings, of which there are many. It seems that pedestrian safety on crossings is just an illusion. Motorists merely need to blow their horn before they hit a pedestrian on a crossing. Pedestrians still need to jump real fast to avoid the traffic! In fact car horns are certain to wear out from overuse long before car engines do here in China!
That evening I used my computer in the hotel restaurant, as it did not work in my room. (They had configured their wireless network wrongly, but its impossible to explain that to them!) Here I made friends with the hotel manager and we drank tea and tried to converse in fragmented English. He was amazed at my crazy cycling plans, but was able to provide me some advance hotel information for my next destination, Wanyuan and gave me a business card for the hotel, saying he had also booked my arrival.
Next morning I found a motorbike repair shop (they are everywhere) to squirt some oil into my sticky gear lever which fixed a small problem, and navigated through the severely congested traffic in the very busy downtown area. It was a slow exit to cross the city centre, but soon I was out on quiet roads through the hills. Everywhere is intensively cultivated with rice paddies and corn and some strange beans. And there are frequent small villages. But my progress was slow as this was actually very hilly. About 1pm, after 50 km, I found a rare road sign with a distance, and I was still over 100 km from my destination of Wanyuan. At this rate I would never make it. But it was here that the road started to follow a river and the remainder of the road was along a rugged and picturesque gorge. 2 train tracks also followed this route, alternately carried on high bridges or passing through long tunnels. Building this railway must have been a serious engineering feat. And there were very frequent trains. It was a great ride for the last 100km through this scenic gorge, a place that would never be discovered on a regular tourist trip by car.
As I neared Wanyuan, a motorist passed me and then stopped in front. Annoying, but common here. I passed him and continued, but noticed that he was now traveling behind me slowly and blocking traffic, which actually helped me. As I stopped at a road intersection at the edge of town he pulled alongside to offer help. He could not speak English, but I gave him the business card of my destination hotel and he understood I was asking for directions. Using gestures he indicated that I should follow him, and he led me across town to the hotel, hidden in a secluded area where I would never otherwise have found it.
The hotel staff spoke no English whatsoever and kept writing things assuming I could read. But they wrote in Chinese and had no understanding that foreign people may not be able to read Chinese writing any more than they could read roman script! Eventually I filled in a registration form, but we had not discussed price. They wrote 238 on some paper, but my previous hotels had been only about 138, which i wrote down. I could not argue so I collected my stuff to leave and showed my displeasure. Then the staff girl called someone by phone and they accepted my offer of 138. I was surprised as I had not expected to be able to barter a price when we could not speak a common language. This was a better class of hotel and even has a computer in each room, so I am not surprised at their higher rate. But I have not used the hotel computer as it is surely in Chinese and I am using my tablet instead. At least i can understand it!!!!
It rained all night and is wet this morning so I am staying here today. I had allowed for some rain interruption to my journey and still have time to reach the conference. Wanyuan is not the sort of place you would normally visit, let alone stay longer. But cycling in the rain is not fun and I choose not to submit myself to that torture. At least this gave me a chance to explore the town where I did find a coffee house at last, the first one I have found. But their menu was in Chinese only! And noone could speak english or read roman alphabet writing. Everyone there was so excited at my arrival that they all wanted pictures of us together, including the precocious 5 year old daughter of one of the staff. Eventually I managed to get a black coffee by watching them to make sure they did not add milk. But coffee is so rare here that it is twice the Australian price. Survival here will require me to drink tea instead. I sure hope they have coffee at the conference!
The mountain valleys are filled with complex infrastructure
Chapter 2 China takes revenge
After the stop for rain in Wanyuan, the next day was sunny with
clean air and great for cycling as I set off over several mountain
passes. The climbs were slow but very scenic, followed by
exhilarating descents and the roads were mostly very good. About
midday I stopped in a mid-sized town nestled in a mountain valley
and sat in the sun in a small park to eat and drink. A group of
women were curious and watched me intently from the nearby shade,
where the youngest one photographed me. As they chatted about me
amongst themselves, I took out my camera and photographed them
photographing me, which caused great mirth. Soon the young
photographer encouraged a clearly shy middle-aged lady, probably
her mother, to sit beside me for a photo. They asked my age of
course, and because I had learned to count in mandarin the
previous day, I answered "liou-sher-liou", which they immediately
understood. Hey, this was my first real use of mandarin, and it
worked! After a very pleasant stop I left to attack another
mountain pass, but I felt like I had made new friends here. After
a great day in the mountains I reached a wide valley and an
extended city area, where I had trouble finding a hotel. I
eventually found one by looking for a likely type of building,
with a big sign, although it was entirely in chinese. A young girl
there spoke just enough English to understand me. It was a really
great cycling day and I declare this day to be one of the world's
20 best cycling routes.(Wanyuan to Xixiang, 160km)
Next morning I roamed the crowded market area to find breakfast and then set off eastwards towards Ankang across several more mountains. After crossing the city I was about 30km into the hills when a car full of excited people stopped me. There were 7 nondescript people, one of whom spoke reasonable English. They were in unmarked old cars with no uniform or formal identification. They stated I could not cycle here, claiming it was a military area. I explained I was just touring to Xian on a main public road, but they insisted I could not do that. They claimed to have called for security, but after 20 minutes of frustration I rode off, expecting this to cause a chase. I escaped for some 5 minutes before another unmarked car tried to stop me, and I merely ignored it. But then it passed me again and the occupants got out and stood on the road where I could see they were in police uniform, waving their badge at me. Time for me to stop and pay attention! They insisted that I could not cycle on this road, could not visit the town I had spent the previous night in, and could not even visit this entire province of Sichuan, or the next province west. This amounted to all the famous tourist areas in west China and everywhere I had been for the last week in China, almost 10% of China. I tried to negotiate an alternative and acceptable cycle route, but none were permitted and they put me and the bike in the car and took me back to the town I had started from where they spent 2 hours filling in forms about my supposedly nefarious activities. What paranoia about a mere cyclist. Then they took me to the bus station and made me buy a ticket to Xian and watched as the bus departed to make sure I did not escape. So that ended my cycling in the mountains. I later found out that there are missile bases in this region and the Chinese are paranoid about foreigners here.
Arriving at the bus station in Xian, I had to locate myself. There was a big map of Xian city on the wall, but it lacked a "you are here" marker. I asked someone to point out the station location on the map, but it took 5 people and 5 minutes before anyone could do that. Map reading skills are sparse. Fortunately I was on the southern side of the city so I could easily head towards my pre-booked hotel, some 8 km into town. But I did have to travel in a few circles before I found the hotel, and although several people tried hard to help me, some of the directions they gave were completely wrong. Here, you must ask several people for directions, then ignore them all and decide for yourself!
I was 3 days early at my hotel, and needed to see if I could add
3 more nights to my booking. Easy you say? No, not in China. It
took 45 minutes and all the staff and outside help as well to make
them realize that I knew I was early and I merely wanted to extend
my stay, starting now if room was available. Then they had to
decide what rate to charge. Finally I gave them the credit card to
pay, but it did not work. Fortunately the duty manager had a test
card, and that also failed, so they realized there was a bank
problem. After another 45 minutes and rebooting every computer and
POS terminal and 2 phonecalls to the bank, my card was accepted.
How did such a simple task get so complicated? I was relieved to
finally end my stressful day when China "threw the book at me" for
potentially being a spy on a bicycle in the forbidden mountains. I
celebrated my survival with a coffee at the very american "pacific
coffee" chain shop near the hotel. Good coffee at last! I now had
3 days to occupy in the city before the conference started, which
was not exciting to me. The next day was damp so I walked around
the large and busy city and even found several decent bike shops.
A cloudy cool day followed so I rode south to the mountains. But
it was a 35 km commute across the city to reach the mountains, and
despite the presence of bicycle paths, the traffic is
unpredictable at best and just staying alive takes 110%
concentration. Oh, and cars and motorbikes drive (in either
direction) and park on the bicycle path, so don't ever think you
are safe on them. But the climb into the mountains up a narrow
winding gorge was really nice, at least until it became cold and
damp, so I turned back after 20 km and dealt with the traffic
again. Although some people seemed to be friendly towards me, i
was now cautious about responding to people after my recent
encounter with vigilante groups. And I repeated a similar route
next day to a forest park in the same mountains. Here there were
many tourists walking up the road as I cycled by and they waved
and smiled at me, so I relaxed and waved back. Perhaps I should
not be suspicious of everyone.
Is your network as thoroughly connected as China's?
That evening at the conference reception I had plenty to talk about and many people were astonished at my 600 km ride through the mountains and the unpleasant behaviour of the de-facto security forces and police. During the next 3 days at the conference many people asked me about my cycling adventures. Often they were amazed that I had survived the seemingly chaotic traffic. Yes, you do have to learn some new survival habits here. The main road rule seems to be that you simply bluff other drivers and the person who blinks first gives way. But if neither person blinks, then the smaller vehicle driver dies. And you should always beware of buses as they are bigger and size matters a lot in traffic conflicts. But this flexibility has some benefits also as no one cares if you want to drive on the wrong side of the road, or turn across oncoming traffic, or drive on the footpath, etc. To some extent, you can make your own rules, and everyone does, while the police merely stand and watch!
The conference organisers had originally offered a bike tour of the ancient city wall, but had canceled this event. As I was chairman of the last conference session, I invited anyone interested in cycling the city wall to talk to me and I would try to organise an impromptu tour that afternoon. 5 people wanted to do this so I became the organiser of a bike tour, despite knowing nothing about how to do this. Two hours later 6 of us set off on a 14 km circuit on the ancient city wall. We had to use rented bikes and they would not let me ride my own bike. After 2 hours riding a very modest rental bike I was very glad to get back onto my own bike, which felt like a Mercedes Benz in comparison. We had one hour to reach the dinner event some 10 km away and the Sunday evening traffic at 5 pm was very intense. The other participants took the subway as taxi transport was too congested. I rode back through the traffic and it was a daredevil ride through rows of nearly stationary buses and taxis and frenetic scooters fighting for position to weave through tiny gaps in the traffic. The bicycle was definitely the fastest form of transport in this congestion, but it required fearless nerve and perhaps a dash of craziness to do this.
I stopped at my hotel on the way to change out of my cycling clothes, but the door lock of my hotel room had failed. None of the hotel keys or master keys worked so I rode off and attended the conference closing dinner in my brightly coloured cyclewear, somewhat incongruous with the semi-formal dinner environment.
It is now time to start my return journey southwards. I plan to
use a different route, but there is still a risk that I will not
be allowed to cycle through the Qinling mountains. Which would be
a great pity as they are rugged and impressive, almost as much as
the amazing Taroko gorge in Taiwan.
Stay invisible to the authoritarian intelligence organisations!
Chapter 3 Back to the forbidden mountains
It was now time to return south and cross the Qinling mountains, this time by bicycle I hoped, instead of police-enforced bus. I decided to use a route far to the west to avoid the area where I had had problems previously. So I needed to travel west to Baoji along the river plains before heading south into the mountains. It was an ordinary ride across flat country, with 80km of dusty, busy road to escape from Xian. My lunch stop at a small fruit stall was near a school and the students had just finished for the day. They all came to the adjacent stall for ice creams and I found myself the object of a zoo visit as they stared and chatted about me. Only 2 of them knew a few english phrases, and when they used them and realised I understood their English, there was great hilarity and discussion. I normally don't worry too much about attracting attention, but this time I felt pressured and was glad to finish my dumpling lunch and leave. The messy roads and untidy villages gave way to a pleasant rural area planted with kiwi fruit. There were many many km of such fruit plantings. Here I saw 4 touring cyclists stopped for a rest, so I tried to talk to them. They could not understand any English, but we shared our common bicycle language of photographing each other together on every camera in the group and they were all surprised at the small wheels on my bike. By mid afternoon I reached a large town and thought this must be Baoji, but my GPS revealed it was not and I still had another 60km to travel, which surprised me. After some 160 km I reached an area with many new roads and buildings, but few people. This was being developed as the automobile centre of China. Astonishing and extensive infrastructure development, they are clearly targeting the entire world automobile market. It was still another 30 km before I reached the centre of Baoji after a 190km day. A pleasant enough ride, but quite long enough.
Next morning I set off early on the secondary road up into the mountains to Fengxian. There were many other sport cyclists also climbing this mountain road. One was traveling at my speed and he tailed me for 15 km up to a shrine where many other cyclists had congregated. I stopped and congratulated him and we all shared some bicycle happiness before I continued onwards and upwards. We were all allies in the battle against gravity on the mountain road.
The steep sided mountain valley was draped in dense low shrubs
as I climbed slowly, enjoying the ride. Here I saw 3 parked
trucks, each carrying a gigantic wind turbine blade twice as long
as the truck itself. The blades hung some 15 metres over the front
of the truck and were mounted to a turntable on the rear of the
semi-trailer. Shortly after I passed them, they commenced and
passed me. Now I realised how this all worked. There were many
switchbacks ahead and to get around them the turntable had its own
driver to raise/lower and turn the blade separately from the
truck. This made it possible to get under the numerous power
lines, around the sharp bends and avoid all the roadside trees.
But it was a tight squeeze and they were very slow, slower than
me. This is the only time I can say I have been held up by traffic
while traveling uphill! I was amazed how they all worked together
to get this gigantic blade around impossible corners, and took
several photographs. I signaled the driver with a friendly "thumbs
up", and he returned the gesture to me for my cycling uphill,
faster than him! All this time the road was open to 2 way traffic,
which weaved around the truck as it tried to make each turn. Quite
chaotic but it worked just fine!
How to get a long turbine blade up a very winding road in
Soon I reached the summit, and overtook the other 2 trucks easily on the winding descent into another long forested valley through the high mountains. After a long and pleasant riverside ride through numerous agricultural villages I reached Fengxian by mid afternoon, a much less stressful arrival than yesterday's long ride. I had to stay here tonight to break my mountain crossing of 250 km into 2 days.
Fengxian was a surprisingly tidy town (many villages are rather unkempt in china), at the junction of 2 rivers and was making this junction into a lake with illuminated fountains and tourist boats etc. Not actually finished at present, but surely a great tourist attraction eventually. But I got the impression that foreign tourists were quite rare here as I wandered the busy street market attracting many stares. It felt nice to be here in the mountains after a great day of cycling. Now mountains may not seem to be a good destination for cyclists, but I enjoy the great scenery, whistling descents and even the tortuous climbs. It is what makes cycle touring so compelling.
To complete the crossing of the Qinling mountains I had to ride 160 km next day, including several mountain passes. Tough, but worth the effort. Once again there were many switchbacks and great views back down the valley through the forested mountain slopes. At one stage i was stopped by a group of military personnel in uniform and i was immediately concerned they would prevent me from continuing my ride. They could not speak english, but when i mentioned my destination of Hanzhong, i was allowed to proceed. There must be another sensitive military area near here. All the villages were small and tidy and agricultural, with dry land wheat crops filling all the river terraces. I wonder if this is an area of China's "minorities" (non-han ethnic groups), as it is quite different to the villages on the open plains. For about 100 km I had good roads with little traffic and was enjoying a river valley road. But then the road merged with another highway and there was very heavy truck traffic. The trucks did give me clearance, but the ride had become stressful, despite the scenic gorge all around me. I was traveling quite fast with the gentle downhill gradient, and often kept pace with the heavily laden trucks. But there was a lot of road dust all afternoon and that night I found my face had become grey with the dust adhering to my sunscreen. No wonder I received strange looks as I checked into a very Chinese hotel in Hanzhong where they spoke no English. Never mind, sign language and gestures can accomplish a lot. But trying to order food in a restaurant with a menu printed only in Chinese was a serious challenge and everyone had a good laugh as we attempted to understand each other. It is definitely easier to have picture menus and point at the picture!
Next day was overcast and damp, so I roamed the downtown area
where I, surprisingly, found a coffee shop in a large and
remarkably upmarket mall of western brand shops, although Hanzhong
is a quite mediocre town. In contrast, nearby there was a rabbit
warren of interesting small shops in an extensive covered market
area more like an Arab bazaar. At least I had a chance to check
the bike and I discovered many loose bolts, probably as a result
of the vibration from the grooves and expansion strips of many km
of concrete highways. That night, to make ordering food easier I
looked up "stir fried vegetables with rice" on the internet and
found a translation into Chinese. Although quickly recognized, it
caused an extensive discussion. Perhaps this was not a dish they
actually had on the menu, but they soon came up with something
More mountains ahead, delightful!
Chapter 4 Kingsley goes South
It was great to get cycling again on a cool and sunny day as I
crossed more mountains. At the base of a climb a truck loaded with
sand shaped like a pyramid clearly was overloaded as it passed me.
But just halfway up the climb it was stuck on a sharp bend where
it had died. Overloaded trucks only save on transport if the
trucks actually survive. My bicycle reached the top well ahead of
that silly truck.
How much sand can you load onto your truck?
I reached Nimgqiang, an ordinary town, by mid afternoon and decided to stop and roam the very busy market area. While searching for a meal in the early evening I saw a group of 5 cyclists. One of them spoke some English, and they were cycling from Xi'an to Lhasa (Tibet), some 3000km. Riding to Tibet is a common adventure for serious Chinese cyclists. They found a hotel and we agreed that I would see them on the road next day, as they were traveling slower than me and I planned to start my cycling an hour later than them. But my meeting in the street had attracted the attention of local police and late that night they visited me in the hotel to check my passport. China still has a rule about foreigners being registered wherever they go, but it is frequently ignored, except by particularly officious policemen or if you attract attention.
By 10 am next morning I had caught up with the other cyclists
and we rode together for the day. It was a change for me to ride
with them despite the slower speed. They were surprised that I
easily kept up with them. Joining the group made accommodation
easier for me as they worked it all out, and by sharing a room it
even reduced all our travel costs per head. The big advantage was
in meals, as they read the menu and I simply shared what they
ordered from the multiple dishes. This was the way Chinese food is
meant to work. The next day as we rode together over some serious
climbs, they were all surprised that I was always near the front.
When we stopped for drinks and I tried to pay, they intervened
with the shopkeeper and kept paying for my drinks. That day we
failed to reach our target destination because of the hills, but
found a hotel in a nondescript small village for the night.
The 5 Chinese cyclists en-route to Lhasa from Xi'an
(3000Km). I rode with them for 3 days.
Next day we reached the large town of Mianyang, where I found a
"Pacific Coffee" shop and insisted on buying them all a coffee in
appreciation of their care and companionship. I had decided to
part company with them next day and go to the mountainside town of
Dujiangyan while they were heading for Chengdu. Next day we rode
together for 60 km to Deyang before we parted company. Along the
way Long, the fellow who spoke some English, was riding ahead of
the group, and I was about 100 metres behind him when suddenly I
saw that he had crashed. As I arrived he was helping a wobbly old
man back onto his feet, and i assisted with picking up the bikes
and clearing the roadway. The wobbly old man on an even more
wobbly old bike had caused the crash by veering into Long as he
passed by. I watched as Long helped, eventually giving him 150
yuan in cash, which suddenly relieved his pain. In China, it does
not matter who caused the crash, just who seems to be most
affected. A nearby unrelated motorcycle rider also became
involved, arguing with Long until he too was given a payoff of
another 50 yuan. This was a substantial sum as we were all living
on only 100 yuan (about A$18) a day for hotel accommodation and 3
good meals. I learned an important lesson to give wide clearance
to anything on the road as accident resolution is about wealth and
bribery, not stupid behaviour or causation, but I felt sorry for
Long. I was sad to part from the group as they had become good
friends, despite only Long speaking any English. Now I had to
navigate myself westwards on minor roads where I had only poor map
information. Almost immediately I had problems and missed a vital
turn as it was only labeled in Chinese. I tried to compensate by
turning onto small village roads and discovered villages untouched
since communist times, but then ran into a construction site and
river where I had to carry the bike across a rocky riverbed. I
knew I was traveling in a big circle, but eventually I found the
bridge and proceeded through vast plains of rice fields to the
very tidy town of Shifang, where I became lost in the city
streets. I was now stressed as I had lost too much time and might
not reach my destination town by nightfall. At a tiny store, a
young guy knew a little English and used his computer to show me
the city road map so I could find my way onwards. I rode fast
across the flat rice covered plains with frequent villages, but by
6 pm I still had not found a place to stay for the night, and was
becoming concerned. I ended up missing another turn and traveling
up a river valley on a beautiful new road with cycle lanes, which
I guessed led to a tourist area where I might find a hotel. But
after 20 km more I still could not find a hotel. I spoke to a guy
beside the road to ask for a hotel, in my best mandarin, but he
did not seem to understand. Eventually he understood my sign
language and pointed at the adjacent building, which was a
restaurant and hotel run by his family. It had been 180km and a
long day with too many navigational errors, but at last I had
found a bed, into which I pretty much collapsed for the night.
Next morning i awoke to an amazing variety of bird calls, a very
pleasant change to the cacophony of car horns in the city. As I
sat in the courtyard gluing up one of my shoes which had become
damaged, the family mother became concerned and dug through all
the spare shoes in the house and insisted I choose and take some.
Everyone was so kind and helpful. It was another 60 km to the town
I had tried to reach yesterday, and I arrived by lunchtime to find
a very tourist oriented, neat and busy town of Dujiangyang which
was a base for visits to the Panda sanctuary in the nearby
mountains. I tried to find a hotel and pay by visa to avoid using
all my cash, but the 2 hotels I tried had trouble accepting visa.
Credit cards in china are less acceptable than you might expect.
But then I saw a coffee shop and stopped for a break. There was a
donut shop next door and I admired a very nice Cannondale bicycle
there. The guys came out to look at my bike and despite no
English, quickly tried to help me find a hotel. This hotel could
not accept visa either, so the cyclist took me to 2 banks, neither
of which could accept MasterCard in their ATMs. Eventually, after
getting some cash we returned to the hotel, and met another
cyclist on the way, and he too helped me. As I relaxed later, they
each provided me drinks and donuts from their shops, but refused
to let me pay. And I was invited to an evening meeting at the
Cannondale shop. Here they had arranged an interpreter and 15 of
us chatted for 2 hours and again they were amazed at my age and
extensive crazy lone journey through china. I tried to ask their
advice about a day trip next day to the mountains and this caused
extended discussion. Apparently the road I asked about was both
closed and had very busy traffic simultaneously(!), but the
location of any closure was indeterminate, etc. It was the normal
response in China to get a complex self-contradictory answer to a
simple question, so I simply ignored the answer. I was grateful
for their kindness and extensive help. Before leaving, they asked
me to sign their poster display as if I was one of the
professional European cyclists.
Next day I set off into the mountains and met another cyclist who
spoke English and rode with him for 50 km to the village that was
the epicentre of the serious and deadly earthquake of 2008.
Replacing the earthquake damaged bridge in the mountains
north of Dujiangyuan.
Here they had left some of the badly damaged and collapsed
buildings in place as a memorial. The road was open, but in bad
condition and traffic was heavy, but the mountain scenery was
nice. There were many cyclists riding this road as it went up to a
well known Panda sanctuary. I returned alone, dealing with 3 unlit
tunnels without a headlight on the bike, which was neither smart
nor pleasant, but I did survive. People looked at me strangely on
my return, and when I found a mirror I saw that my face was almost
black from the road dust which had stuck to my sunscreen.
Road grit stuck to my sunscreen after a 100 Km ride. I dare
not think what my lungs looked like!
The scenic ride was somewhat spoiled by the poor road and
traffic, but you can't have perfection every day. I found a
different mountain to ride next day, and this was a long and
beautiful climb to a pass at 1450m altitude. There was a viewpoint
at the top where I relaxed with some food and drinks and this pass
was a local tourist attraction. Several cars of people were there
and all took more interest in me and the bike than the hazy view
down the valley. Everyone wanted photos of me with them and for
about 30 minutes they kept me occupied as more cars arrived. Even
the local food selling girls took off their aprons to have a photo
with me. I was a temporary superstar! I returned down the other
side of the pass and along a steep sided river valley which was a
local tourist destination including river rafting. It was a
pleasant ride with a good road and less traffic, at least until I
reached the riverside tourist area. I am astonished by the
extensive tourist development here in Dujiangyan, which has many
km. of trinket and junk food shops as well as upmarket western
fashion shops in neat buildings in quaint old Chinese style. But
nothing here is in English and this is entirely fueled by domestic
All the many cyclists I met along the way smoked, some quite
heavily. This surprised me as it seriously impairs your breathing
while cycling, and is quite unusual in Australia.
Now it is time for the last leg of my journey back to Chongqing to return home.
But the mountains are not finished yet, I have already planned more.
Chapter 5 Ending the China circuit
Now it was time to head east from Dujiangyuan to Chongqing for my flight back home. I wanted to avoid the well known but very big nearby city of Chengdu, I did not come to China to see cities, they are ordinary. However, there is a wide flat plain in this area and the river pattern is unusual as the rivers not only join, but also split and diverge. You only see this river pattern in large deltas, like the Ganges, but this area is far from any coastline. It is like an inland delta, probably related to the many large faults and complex tectonics of this region. Because of this river pattern, there are very few roads heading east and I had to travel south-east almost to Chengdu and then turn north just to find bridges. The traffic became very heavy as I neared Chengdu and I became tangled in the sprawling industrial suburban outskirts. The entire region was subject to extensive development of vast industrial parks and complexes with numerous new 6 lane highways everywhere, none of which were on my maps. Then there were extensive new subdivisions full of 20 story high apartment buildings. The open countryside had vanished! I eventually reached Jintang, where many km. of sprawling residential complexes surrounded an old city centre that was rather run down, but full of western fashion shops. I found a hotel because i had learned to read the Chinese symbols for hotel, and I was perhaps the first ever western guest they had had. They shuffled me off to my room, but kept my passport, something I am always cautious of. An hour later a smartly dressed guy with exceedingly smelly breath appeared at my room with my passport in hand. Mr. Stinky did not speak any English and kept asking me things in Chinese. I think he wanted to know where I was going, etc. But I suspected he was another of those official enforcers which officially don't exist. So I kept indicating I did not understand and refused to give any answers. That makes them say the same thing but louder, as if that solves language issues, illogical! This went on for over 5 minutes during which i took hold of my passport and eventually just stared at him ignoring all his smelly words until he released his grip on my passport and I took it. Mr. Stinky gave up, but I wondered if I would now be a marked target and followed by these Chinese mafiosi. Next day I headed east to Santai, expecting only small villages along the way. But at Zhongjiang I found another astonishingly large city with much new infrastructure. At a small village in the pleasant hills en-route, I sat outside a store drinking an iced-tea and several young women in the hairdressing shop opposite watched me and beckoned me to come over. When I did, they all wanted a group photo with me. Camera phones are a major social interaction mechanism! And that evening at Santai I found an unexpectedly large city instead of just the large town that I had expected.
My next destination was Nanbu, 170 km away, which would be a
long ride across some nice hilly terrain. As I started out, a
local cycling enthusiast rode with me for about 10 km, which was
nice company although we could not communicate other than by our
shared enjoyment of cycling.
Intensely cultivated fields in the hills en-route to Nanbu.
It was a pleasant day's ride to reach Nanbu, a town nestled in the hills and quite scenic. I arrived at 4:30pm and tried to find a hotel. The first hotel looked at my passport and said they could not let me stay. Weird! I found another hotel and here the guy tried to help, but was obsessed with his computer check in screen and made many phonecalls for help. After half an hour he said I had to do a foreign person registration at the police station. More bureaucratic nonsense. At the police station it was clear they had never done this before and took 15 minutes discussing which was my surname and which my christian name, despite my making that quite clear. Every simple concept in China has a ridiculously complex set of answers. I resorted to polite requests and gesticulations indicating that I was very tired to get them to stop going in circles and move on to question 2. It took 45 minutes for these officials to complete a simple 5 question registration. I watched carefully to try and see if their registration system brought up details of my other stops, particularly the police intervention near Ankang 3 weeks earlier, but it did not appear to do so. Then back at the hotel, the check-in guy again became obsessed with his computer and started asking me about my visa duration etc. What nonsense, that is up to immigration, not hotel clerks. Why do these people make trivial jobs into nuclear disasters. I told him I had registered, that was enough, stop the nonsense circles and give me a room. (Using gesticulations more than words) He got the message at last, but hotel check in took well over 2 hours! I began to realize that this was both a Chinese bureaucracy problem and a hotel check-in system problem with clerks being obsessed with completing computer forms. I think many hotels just ignore most of the rules as they know they are useless.
It rained overnight, which worried me but the internet weather report was for clouds only. It seemed to be clearing up, so I rode south towards Nanchong. Unfortunately the clouds started to weep gently, making the roads slippery and me quite wet. I could not appreciate the pleasant hills and scenery as I was so focused on the road. I was wet and covered in an astonishingly large quantity of road grit and grime when I arrived at the large city of Nanchong. The first 2 hotels I tried either rejected me or ignored me, but then I found a comfortable hotel in the centre of downtown. It was only after check-in that I realised just how filthy my clothes, shoes and bike were!
Next morning it was overcast with cloudy skies, but dry when I
rode south out of town. Once again there was a major new road and
residential subdivision development which had usurped the
southbound route and I had to discover the correct old main road
by noticing where all the buses turned, as they had not yet
installed road signs. It was a scenic hilly ride and very pleasant
for a few hours until the clouds began to weep again, making me
and the road wet. I took refuge for a while at a small roadside
store which, unusually, had a sheltered area and a small seat I
could rest on. But the drizzle was clearly not going to stop and I
continued for 120 km to arrive at Hechuan, another large city just
80 km from my final destination of Chongqing. The hotel lobby was
on the 6th floor of the building, so I took my bike in the
elevator. Check in again took a while and required yet another
police station foreign person registration, but this time I let
the hotel staff do that and I tried to clean the truckload of road
grit from myself and my baggage. Despite the bike being filthy, I
took it to my room. Then I went to Dicos, a Chinese chicken
hamburger chain I had visited regularly on my travels as they had
picture menus I could point at to order food. As I looked for a
table to sit at, a group of teenagers said "sit here", next to
their table. They were all learning english, but only one was
confident enough to converse with me. They were about to sit their
college entrance exam, a very important educational event, in 2
days time. Again we had to have lots of photos taken.
A typical cityscape, this one of Hechuan from my hotel room on the 6th floor.
The extreme road grit and wet conditions were taking their toll on me and I was not sure I wanted another day of such discomfort. The weather report was ambiguous, predicting only clouds, but with a worrying chance of rain, so despite the dry morning next day I went to the bus station to take the soft option for the very last day of my long adventure. The Chinese weather had worn me down and there would be no triumphant cycling end to my journey as I returned to Chongqing. I could only ask for "Chongqing" at the ticket office, although apparently there were various options which I could not understand or choose from. Eventually I got a ticket which I could not read, but showed to various people who each pointed me in a direction and eventually to the correct one of the many buses. Chongqing is a very large city and I only needed to reach its far northern outskirts near the airport, but the bus took me to the very busy downtown central bus terminus, some 35 km from the airport. I made good use of my hand-held GPS to find a route out of the downtown maze, across the very busy bridges while trying to avoid the many express roads and interchanges. But I still ended up riding on the expressway for some distance as it is almost impossible to avoid getting sucked into the entrance ramps. I was initially surprised at the complete lack of bicycle lanes here, in contrast to other cities. But Chongqing is a very hilly city which is not suited to cycling and I was working very hard to crawl up some of the gradients. Not just me, some of the motorcycle delivery tricycles were slower than me! By early afternoon I had found a hotel near the airport in an interesting suburban setting where I could waste the last evening of my tour.
My concern now was to clean the bicycle prior to my return to Darwin. I roamed the busy neighbourhood, where foreigners were clearly rarely seen. I was surprised when an old chinese guy, Gou, approached me and asked if I spoke English. He was a retired mathematics teacher and had taught himself English and claimed to know the secret of universal language translation. That I did not believe, but a least he was able to understand me and take me to a nearby car wash where they pressure blasted what seemed like enough grit to make a small island off the bike. I spent the evening with Gou, and found out that he had graduated from Peking university in 1953 and was sent to teach mathematics in Inner Mongolia, although Chongqing was his home town. I asked him about life under chairman Mao in communist china, and he did mention that life for academics was a problem, but declined to elaborate about it. He was now surviving on a small pension and was one of those left behind by China's growth and its burgeoning wealthy middle class. And next morning Gou found a Starbucks coffee shop for me to relax in.
I departed to the airport earlier than necessary next day, I had had enough of China. But here in the airport waiting areas the noise from too many people yelling at each other and their phones was continuous and overwhelming. In Singapore airport that night and next morning the atmosphere of calm was so different and you could easily hear the soft background music in the busy terminal areas. What an amazing and welcome difference!
After just over 2800 km of cycling, an interesting conference and many enjoyable days of cycling in scenic mountains and countryside it was a memorable adventure. China is developing quickly, but the pockets of modernity and congestion are mixed in with poverty and ancient habits. Although English is being taught at schools, it is not easy to survive alone here without speaking Mandarin. And my inability to read chinese was a serious impediment. I was surprised that very few Chinese realised I could not read their complicated symbology and frequently wrote things in chinese for me to read, but I was not surprised that they equally could not understand pinyun writing (using the roman alphabet for mandarin). My encounters with the military in the "secret" mountains, the police bureaucracy and the regime "enforcers" reminded me that China is still hostage to its communist past and one-party present. They want western tourism dollars, but on their own rigidly structured terms. Many roads are well made and great for cycling, but there are also many segments under construction or in bad repair or subject to heavy truck traffic. And there is a lot of road dust and grit. The mountain scenery is often spectacular, but the sky is almost always hazy and I am unsure if this is natural, but widespread air pollution certainly exacerbates the problem. Coal is still an important fuel in china and many street food vendors and small restaurants use lumps of coal to cook the food they sell daily, even within very big cities like Xi'an. And what you read about a chinese firewall on the internet seems to be correct. I was unable to access part of an american geological website, which was immediately accessible once i logged in from Singapore airport instead of from within China.
Although I am returning to China soon for another conference, it
is not a destination I would deliberately return to solely for a
cycling tour. It is an adventure to experience once and there are
spectacular mountains to see, but other destinations are more
desirable and less stressful for westerners for return visits than
If you plan to go cycling in China:
Most chinese cyclists wear some sort of face covering, often just
a bandana. Given the dust on the roads, this would seem wise. I
did often look to buy some sort of pollution mask, but never found
one. If you are going to cycle in China, think about filtering the
air you breathe while riding. You dont want all that road-grit and
dust in your lungs!
Most hotels in China have LAN wiring to the room in preference to
Wi-Fi. Take a cat5 LAN cable (and appropriate adapter if required
for your computer) with you!
Navigation: I used the android version of RMAPS with
offline stored (google) maps on my android tablet PC for most of
my route planning. A paper map, in English of the entire of China
at 1:4,000,000 scale (GeoCenter) was helpful while on the road,
but lacked detail at the scale i needed most. I also had an
inexpensive Garmin Etrex 20 GPS which could display maps, onto
which I had loaded the Open Street Maps for China. This was
remarkably useful, despite lacking many of the smaller roads. It
had all the G series main roads, but not all the S series
provincial roads I sometimes used. I mostly used this GPS for spot
checks and only rarely left it on to plot my route as i traveled
through areas of complex roads.
I tracked my route with a Columbus (Visiontac) logger, which
saves CSV tracks to a micro-flash memory card. I optimise and
convert these tracks to GPX using my perl script here and
then use gpsvisualizer.com to convert them to KMZ and then use
mappingsupport.com to display these as an interactive route map.
This tracker runs for about 24 hours (2+ days) riding on a charge.