Heading South To Taiyuan: Our First 700km
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, China @ February 28, 2012 - 3:28 pm

by Thamar

After our small but rather daunting trip to The Great Wall on our bikes where we covered about 170km we felt a tad more sure of ourselves as we left Beijing the morning of the 10th of February. We realised many things on our first run including, how to deal with traffic on our heavy-laden bikes, which roads to take or should we say which not to take, and what foods to stock up on for the journey.

After exiting the city swiftly in comparison to the last time, we thought we would reward ourselves with a lunch somewhere we could sit down and warm up.

The first restaurant we went into the waitress said was a ‘yu’ or fish restaurant but it quickly became apparent that it was a ‘fresh fish’ restaurant as she pointed to the fish in the fish tank. The Chinese are very friendly to the extent that they are a bit pushy and before we knew what hit us we were choosing our fish from the fishpond to have for lunch.

In minutes our fish arrived, battered and deep-fried, then dumped in soupy hot water along with some seaweed of sorts. As delicious as it was it was a bit decadent for lunch and a bit pricey in comparison to say what we'd pay for a handful of dumplings or pork steam buns, and so we decided not to make a habit of it. Only problem is that when your feet are almost frost-bitten and your hands are on the verge of going numb a restaurant is the only place one could stop and warm up before hitting the road again. And so we would have to make other plans to thaw out, which is kind of difficult with no tea or coffee shops around. In any case, luckily it wasn't as cold as it had been on our trip up to the wall and so we made good time, arriving at our destination for the night - Fangshan in the afternoon.

Getting Our Minds Right: Fangshan to Zhouzhou

The next day we headed out early - it was an icy morning. We stopped for a roadside snack at a little market where we bought some tasty dried fruit plums and sesame seed sugar biscuits - pity it was painful to eat as taking our gloves off left our fingers like frozen sausages.

We happened to look up at the signboard and suddenly we realised we were on the wrong road and would have to backtrack. Since we were on a very tight schedule and need to arrive at a place by at least four or five in the afternoon before it's too cold and dark, even the slightest detour is a huge setback - not to mention the fact that it was hard work.

I for one was still getting used to pushing my 40-plus kilogram bike along the road at a decent pace and it was a struggle to keep up with Richard, even though he was going slowly.

At this point in the journey my mind also wasn't in the right place. I don't think I had really accepted what we were doing. To me it was going to be an idyllic jaunt through the countryside on our bicycles. But the dire cold, insane traffic, and lung-shattering pollution made it anything but that. And until now we had yet to see anything vaguely beautiful on our cycles.

We'd also been planning this trip for so long that all my energy had gone into one thing - being ready to get on that plane, which had been a six-month slog in itself.

Now here we were on a trip of a lifetime and all I could think was - "I can't wait to stop pedaling..." I guess it's like training for the Comrades. You spend more and more time on the road conditioning your body and preparing your mind for the final long distance. But quite honestly all through Comrades training my mind was shouting "please stop, I can't take it anymore", while my body could still go on. And here I was again - getting my mind back in shape.

After a couple of kilometres we stopped at a little roadside shop where they generally will make you a powdered hot milk tea - about R10 for two cups. As we warmed our hands on what was fast becoming a staple food in our diets, we saw a lone cyclist come past with pannier bags and a helmet - just like us! There are millions of people literally who ride bikes here but not one would wear a helmet and so we knew he must be a traveller like us but we only really caught a glimpse of him. Oh and I guess I should mention that up until this point we had not been wearing our helmets. I know that it's pretty essential, but honestly it feels so good to be free of the safety net and plus - we fitted in better.

When we got to our destination for the night (Zhouzhou) - relatively easily I might add as the road was flat - it was a busy little city in the thralls of rush hour. We battled to spot any accommodation with scooters, electric bikes, cars and pedestrians in all directions forcing us to keep our eyes on the road.

Richard finally spotted one and when I went inside I didn't understand what they were saying but gathered that we needed to go to another hotel as they couldn't read our passports? We cycled round and round looking for a place to stay for the night but most places don't have English signs so it's really hard to find one. Once again we found ourselves shivering as the sun went down and so desperate for warmth we decided to go into a local beer shop to escape the cold. As we were about to enter a guy stopped us and asked us what we were looking for and we signalled to him that we were looking for a place to sleep. He gestured that we should follow him and led us down a narrow deserted alleyway just as it was getting dark. We didn't know what to expect, we just had to trust.

He ended up taking us to his makeshift hostel which was still kind of under construction, we didn't care though, we were so grateful for a warm room to escape the cold that we even overlooked the wooden beds and had a good night's rest in high spirits - after eating a whole duck I might add.

That night I dreamt that the lone cyclist had ended up in the same hostel as us as if it were the obvious place to stay, but truth be told we were definitely on our own adventure here - one that could at times make you feel very alone.

More Flat Grimy Roads: Zhouzhou and Baoding

The road is pretty boring in this part of the country - flat and dusty with a view out towards ice-stricken fields with no colour and greasy little towns dotted along the roadside every so often.

It seems the road we are cycling - the G107 - is an alternative road for heavy trucks, carts, scooters and anything else that like us, isn't allowed on the express motorway. Luckily, bicycles and scooters (and the occasional donkey cart) have their own lane with is actually very wide most of the time and so a pleasure to cycle on. However sometimes the road does narrow and we find ourselves dodging all sorts of things - somehow it always works out. We've also seen some interesting 'salesmen' on the roadside, selling everything from pristine strawberries by the kilo to what looks like a hunting set, complete with crossbow, gun and knife!

Again we made good time from Zhouzhou to Baoding which put us at 160km South of Beijing now. It was pretty disappointing that the first hotel we were turned away again and couldn't find anywhere to stay for ages, cycling round and round the city centre. Afraid that we might lose our toes to frostbite and our minds to delusion, we ducked into a 24-hour McDonalds near the train station. Richard suggested sleeping here in the McDonalds but soon came to his senses and decided to jog down the road to see what he could find. I was so miserable I couldn't move.

He managed to get directions to a business hotel down the road and they received us warmly. Once inside it looked more like an upmarket pleasure dome than a business hotel with 'male' and 'female' only areas. There was also a massage area where some women in very short skirts were heading with what looked like a tool box. Anyway we didn't ask any questions - our room was wonderful and still relatively cheap but anyone's standards.

A Blanket of Pollution: Dingzhou to Shijiazhuang

There's only one downside to people being overeager to help you - it becomes a bit like harassment. Each time we arrive at a hotel or leave we have to unpack or pack our pannier bags, which is a bit of a mission and takes a bit of time. Problem is that the people trying to help usually rush us and try to do it themselves and inevitably something breaks - as happened to Richard's pannier when I pulled it off to quickly - feeling stressed out as a hotel staff member waited for us to unpack.

The morning of the 13th of February we managed to get our bags out of the hotel without too much fuss but then three security guards, dressed in army camo, got very excited about helping us - they were rather jovial and we chatted as best we could in broken Chinese. Then Richard had to fix my spoke - they just wouldn't let him do it alone and pushed, pulled and prodded to the extent that I thought the spoke which snap in two for sure. Anyway the job got done and we finally headed on our way to Dingzhou 72km away.

The sky was a bit hazy when we left but when we got closer to the town the haze turned into a thick soupy fog but it was pollution. We managed to put our pedals down hard and I slipstreamed Rich for the first time on our trip so far - we were averaging just over 20km per hour which sounds slow, but when you're pushing 40kgs it's not that easy. My mindset was slowly changing. I realised that the pedalling had to be done either which way...

Dingzhou was grim - what we could see of it anyway. We found the first hotel we could - a 4-star hotel where we stayed on the 10th floor where we could see nothing as the city below was duveyed in smog.

Struck Down By Commercialism: Dingzhou to Taiyuan

Armed with our buffs over our mouths, we headed out of dingy Dingzhou and on towards a bigger city called Shijiazhuang. With nothing on the road besides rubbish and trucks we put our heads down again and made good time. There was no food store in sight at lunch time (we've started buying stuff like peanuts, rice chips and dried fruit to get us through most of the day). We came across some people making food at the side of the grimy roadside - as they do. It looked like they were making pastry with sesame seeds, cooked or braaied on an open flame. By this stage we were so used to dust, filth and germs, that even I (a bit obsessive compulsive about clean hands) started not to care so much anymore and ate - hands dirty or not.

The idea of something warm in our bellies drove us to stop at the stall, manned by a humble old husband and wife, both covered head to toe in grit. It's funny but the simplest, poorest people in this country are often the most hospitable. No pointing, gesturing towards us or staring - they just served us pleasantly and went along with their business.

When we arrived in Shijiazhuang we found a city struck down by commercialism and on this day - Valentine's Day - it was a frenzy. People were rushing to buy balloons, roses and chocolates. We even saw one woman carrying a teddy bear bigger than herself! Louis Vuitton billboards lined the skyscrapers whilst dirty street vendors sold candied fruit and egg omlettes.

We headed straight for a chain hotel called Super 8 but they were full and then tried the big international hotel in the city centre called the Garden Hotel but it was too expensive, so we kept looking only to be turned away by five hotels! So it was back to the Yanchun Garden Hotel for us. This time we were greeted by the security guards who very excitedly ushered us and our bicycles round the back and into the parking lot filled with bicycles - and we hadn't even checked in yet. The one security guard was so animated by our obvious journey that he made a fuss at reception and I think somehow got us a cheaper rate. It seems the Chinese really have a love-hate relationship with us.

We ventured out to get something to eat and were swamped by hoards of couples setting out for a romantic dinner - hackling street sellers to lower their rose prices. Strange since Valentine's Day is a completely western phenomenon.

The Old Postal Road: Jingxing Mining District

Google maps have been our saving grace on our cycle trip - but only when they works. It seems from region to region the internet on my phone stops working and then I have to go in and get it fixed which this morning took more than an hour. On top of that I've been a bit snotty (literally) since we arrived and have not wanted to leave to early as it's usually the coldest at sunrise - minus nine degrees or so. All of this meant that we only left about 12.

By now however we were used to our bikes, well on a flat surface that is as there had been no hills for the last 500 kilometres or so. Today's route was far off the main expressway. Till now we have been kind of parallel to the big G5 but now it looked like we were going around something - that something turned out to be mountains.

As we made our way slowly uphill the road narrowed out and we found ourselves cringing every time a truck whizzed past our earlobes, hooting uber loudly - enough to send one off the road and into one of the deep drains at the side. I read a sign saying this was the old postal road and thought, "finally some culture - maybe we will see something to marvel at". Alas the pretty stone towns were all rundown ramshackle places with rubbish heaped outside and iced over by the weather. People who looked like they'd been bathed in coal dust wandered the winding alleyways and we thought - how can people live like this? I think Khayalitsha is 100 times better!

This district was a mining area called Jingxing. It looked like it could have been beautiful once but now it seemed an alien called unregulated industrialization had moved in and turned the place into no man's land.

I also felt a little anxious as we didn't know if there was actually a town we could stay at for the night on route and it was getting later and later. We stopped at what was a little roadside kiosk and as I entered the store a little old man covered in blackness rushed over to wash his hands to serve me - a gesture that spoke loudly of his character. He offered for us to sit down and share some of his own tea in his humble house, which consisted of nothing more than a bed. We could not understand each other but we didn't need to. His kindness spurred us on for the rest of the day, which would turn out to be a challenging one.

The hills continued and we tackled them slowly - getting used to pushing uphill on already tired legs from previous days. What pushed me forward was an eerie feeling that we would find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place once darkness fell. There was one major town we passed but neither of us could fathom spending the night in one of those hotels coated in soot watching pollution from the local mine puffing into the night sky. We had to keep going - whatever the consequence.

Driven by fear I pushed harder and harder but still the hills and valleys snaked and turned and there was no sign of anything more than a village. We were forced to cycle through some mud or get taken out by a coal truck and I got mud everywhere including my water bottles which made drinking out of them unthinkable.

It was about 5.30 and in an hour it would be dark. I said a prayer - Lord please let there be accommodation around the corner. It's amazing how God works - always in his own way and not how you would think or want him to. I'm pretty independent and hate relying on others. I knew I would be tested on this trip but I wasn't quite ready to have to stay with strangers. As it would happen around the corner where I had prayed there would be a room for the night - was a quaint village a bit cleaner than the others. Tiny stone structures cascaded up the hill and towards the top was what looked and sounded like some temple ritual underway. The music was strangely inviting and I hoped that somehow we could stay here. There was a shop - the one and only. We went inside and asked for help. We hadn't even opened our mouths when the family inside took one look at us and presented their daughter Alice to us - who spoke English! The fact that in most of the big cities nobody spoke English but here in the middle of nowhere we found the one place with an English speaker was a miracle in itself.

We asked them if we could camp outside but they said it was too cold (thank goodness). Secretly I was hoping there was an inn in the village and we wouldn't have to impose on these people - which Rich was hoping we could. After some negotiation we realised that her dad was a taxi driver and we could hire his taxi to take us to a town 20 minutes away where there was a hotel. We could leave our bikes with them and they would fetch us in the morning and take us back to where we left off. This sounded fabulous, especially since I was starting to shake with cold. The whole family piled into the taxi for a joy ride and we headed out in the dark. This time dodging ginormous trucks from a little minibus taxi. The first place we stopped at had no electricity so we had to go to another place - it was a restaurant downstairs and a very basic hotel upstairs with a shared bathroom. All that mattered to us was that it was warm and we got a hot meal downstairs - all for about R80 for a meal and a bed for two although the taxi ride was a bit more. Alice was so helpful and friendly - she really was a gift from above.

The Way Out: Jingxing to Taiyuan

by Richard

We woke at 6.45am in an attempt to make an early start. After 60km through some hilly sections yesterday we wanted to get onto our next spot. Tham called Alice to pick us up and once the call had been made our lift arrived 15 minutes later. Back to our bikes, then ready to set off - not before a few pics with the family. It really was a great sign of hospitality how they helped us.

The sky is clear today and there is a very cold breeze. We climbed for more than 20km up some really steep sections and thought it would never end. The wind added to the tough conditions, so did the vicious dogs which chased us and which had Tham so scared not even the huge trucks that passed us at breakneck speed could compare to the fear they instilled in her as she flinched every time a dog barked.

We stopped near what seemed to be the summit - at a roadside cafe - for some much-needed snacks and tea. After this it was an 8km downhill stretch which was most welcome even though the wind was freezing and we had to stop a few times to warm our hands up against our warm skin - yes it works! It does look a bit funny though when you're sticking your hands down your pants to warm them.

We slowly made our way into Yangquan (thank goodness for an actual city) after a very tough 56km day. After we had checked into our spot for the night (much easier to organise today) a quick look into the mirror revealed the day’s coal dust and grime.

Yangquan to Taiyuan

In an ambitious attempt to cycle 120km from Yangquan to Taiyuan we left our rather decrepit hotel. It was a clear morning and cold again. We managed to navigate out of the city without a hitch. But soon the icy headwind showed up. The 15km stretch from the hotel to where we decided to make alternative travel arrangements to Taiyuan was a gradual uphill the whole way. With the icy headwind biting at our bones we had only covered the distance in just less than two hours. We debated for a bit what to do because we did not really see any small towns along the way in case we had to stop for the night. So the result was we backtracked down the road to a stationary bus and asked the two ladies cleaning it if they could help us. With the usual hand signals and a handful of words Tham understood. The idea was that we should wait at the toll road up ahead and ask for a lift from a passing bus. We weren't going to be able to get on a train with our bikes. A few minutes later after waiting in the bus she ran outside to flag down a passing bus. In no time we had unpacked our panniers and wheeled our bikes to the back of the bus where there happened to be an open area to prop our bikes... and we were off! Feeling defeated we watched the countryside roll by which was one long uphill most of the way.

Taiyuan is a very large city we stopped at the bus station and off-loaded everything with a dash of speed. We rode around a bit looking for somewhere to spend the night but not before a lunch stop. I flattened three portions of dumplings and a bowl of noodles. It was cheap too - about R25. We returned to this same spot to eat four more times in the next two or three days!

In Taiyuan we were forced to relax, even though this was our only chance for sightseeing before hitting the road again. Unfortunately Tham came down with the flu so we really were forced to relax. One of the days we walked to nearby park in the centre of the city. Even though there were no leaves on the trees and the lake in the middle was frozen, it still looked quite nice. The next afternoon we cycled about 8km up the road to the local zoo, just to get out and do something. It was quite dismal. It might have been because the man-made streams weren't flowing and there were no leaves on the trees. Seemed like there was an extra charge to see all the important animals? Anyway we went to see the single giant panda who looked so lonely and depressed in his corner which made us sad and we were already feeling pretty low. On our way home the sun was going down and the temperature dropped fast. We got so cold during those 8km back to the hotel that we thought we weren't going to make it. Tham broke down in tears, her hands so cold she couldn't feel them. It was after that we had a chat and decided to get away from this cold weather that was making things quite unpleasant for us and as much as this is an adventure, we also need to enjoy ourselves.

So what we have done is booked seats on a train leaving today for Chengdu (26hrs), then onto Kunming (18hrs). We will bring this part of the trip forward because the temperatures seem to be 10-15 degrees warmer. Our plan so far is to cycle from Kunming up to Chengdu before catching our Hong Kong flight, which leaves from Chengdu.

On Saturday (18th) we had a Skype call with my mom, which was really nice. Great to speak to a family member! Tham's dad has been following us closely and has even phoned her a couple of times. He will be joining us in Hong Kong and Kunming (when we there for the second time) so lets see how 26hrs on a train goes!