The Gates of Hell: Yibin To Chengdu
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, China @ April 15, 2012 - 8:52 am

By Thamar

We arrived in Yibin just as it was getting dark. The bus ride had been somewhat hair-raising and we’d descended so low into the valley that our ears were blocked. However we’d covered some essential distance of about 200 kilometres to a town on the Yangtze River called Yibin. After seeing the road we would have had to cycle this could have cost us more than a week by bicycle and at worst could have been fatal. In the famous book, Wild Swans (which I am reading and which my dad used to have on audio tape and played to me), the author describes how her mother travelled down the Yangtze River to reach Yibin during the Communist uprising. Here the Yangtze Gorges form what’s known as ‘The Gates of Hell’, massive cliffs towering above the river. My grandparents also travelled on a boat down this river and my grandmother was a missionary stationed in a city near here called Chongqing in the early 1950s. In any case, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the gates of hell from the scenery we had just encountered.

Richard was so ill that he just wanted to find the closest hotel but the eternal adventurer I had to get to the centre of the city first. I dragged him along in the dark, the traffic not making matters any easier. Then we came to a gigantic bridge all lit up and I suddenly felt as if I’d arrived in wonderland and was actually excited about the prospect of what Yibin had to offer – something only Beijing and perhaps Chengdu had inspired in me so far.

Unfortunately Yibin would not inspire Richard’s affections as he ended up hugging the pillow in bed for just about the entire time (I ended up getting the same bug and it was pretty rough). While in Yibin I spent much of the time catching up on writing and updating blogs as I’d been too smashed to even think of doing it for the last couple of days. I also went for a long run on my own up to a park overlooking the city – a very lush, almost mossy place being damp and misty for much of the year I’d imagine. The rivers which flow through the city are home to industrial dredge-like boats which float up and down the muddy waters. There were also a lot of tea houses along the river’s edge like in Chengdu. During the Cultural Revolution these tea houses which are the hangouts for mostly retirees were closed down for 10 years for being too ‘bourgeois’. Good to see they are back in business.

I really enjoyed going for a long run on my own, stopping to take pictures when I felt like it – taking my time exploring. Then again I had nobody to share it with which made it my memory and mine alone, and I realised how grateful I was to have Richard to share everything else with.

That evening the dreaded bug hit me too and we both woke up at 11am the next morning, unable to move, let alone cycle. At 2pm we finally went out for a walk to Jiang Bei Park, which was home to a famous Song Dynasty poet, Huang Ting Jian. We were both so tired and riddled with disease that we didn’t have the energy to walk around but instead sat down on a bench feeling depressed, saying nothing. Then a crowd slowly started to gather and an old man and women started asking us questions gingerly. Our obsession with our illness and the pain soon disappeared as more and more people joined to try talk to us. One group were some typical giggly teenagers taking the opportunity to practice their English. We must have been there for at least an hour and felt rather uplifted after that experience.

And then the Rain: Zigong and Rongxian

By Richard

Feeling better but still a bit fragile we hit the road again with a vengeance the next day as we were still rushed for time with the extra days we caught up used on recovering from illness in Yibin. The 107-kilometre road from Yibin to Zigong was easy compared to what we had experienced before, even though it was one of our longest distances so far.

The undulating countryside was beautiful with lots of rice paddies and farmers submerged in mud tending their fields. We stopped twice for a snack. At the first place we bought some chips and a drink and soon an inquisitive crowd gathered around us. It’s always frustrating not being able to communicate properly but nice to have some interest nonetheless. It seems like people down south are a lot friendlier. Later we stopped for some egg-fried rice and again another crowd gathered. The owners seemed visibly chuffed that we had chosen their shops and they were very jovial.

It was a long day and although the road wasn’t too tough it was still a stretch, especially since Tham was now not feeling well from the notorious bug. We arrived in Zigong at 5.30 in the afternoon after Tham had a little breakdown since I was going too fast for her as she wasn't 100 percent healthy.

Zigong, otherwise known as ‘Salt City’ is renowned for salt extraction. In ancient China, salt was regarded as an energy food and valued higher even than gold. Hence, Zigong had always been one of the richest cities in China – visible immediately as we entered the city centre, with neon lights and glittering statues. Even the hotels seemed really pricey and rather upmarket. The city is also quite hazy. Apparently the fog is attributed to the fact that Zigong sits on what was once a vast inland sea.

By the time we were ready for dinner it was pretty late and both of us were tired. Tham couldn’t think of stomaching Chinese food – mostly because it’s oily and spicy. Instead we headed to Dicos, which is a rip-off of KFC with the exact same menu as KFC! The Chinese really are such copycats.

Little Big Buddha: Rongxian

We cycled to Rongxian today, which was only 43km away. It was fairly straightforward and an easy day after yesterday’s ‘Argus'. Rongixan is a small town which is quite touristy but lives in the shadow of Leshan and Emeishan which are big tourist hotspots. In any case Rongxian is famous for the second biggest stone-carved Buddha in the world (the biggest one residing at Leshan, our next stop).

We had the afternoon to ourselves and so went to see the Buddha. We had to pay R60 each which is steep. It seems that the Chinese authorities only keep sites maintained so they can milk tourists. The 37-metre tall Buddha was built in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and is said to have been the project of a very devout monk who wanted the Buddha built to protect the ships coming in on the river. When funding for his project seemed in jeopardy he gouged his eyes out to show his sincerity and the building went ahead.

It was quite odd but the park where the Buddha was housed was surrounded by karaoke bars and our ears were sabotaged by the loud ear-piercing shrieks of patrons while we headed to this ‘sacred place’. As we browsed the temple and grounds of the little big Buddha, the weather was somewhat dismal and dark clouds started to form overhead – it was to be our first experience of rain in China...

Tears and Mud: More Obstacles in Our Way

By Thamar

The light rain had turned the dust on the road to sticky mud. We were looking forward to arriving in Leshan today and thought nothing of the drizzle overhead. But as soon as we started cycle the wheels on our bikes flicked up copious amounts of wet stinking earth from the side of the narrow road.

Richard seemed unperturbed by the traffic and cycled in the road anyway, but I wasn’t keen to get run over and so stuck to the edges of the road - bad idea. In no time I was covered in mud from head to toe while he was still relatively clean. We were wearing our Hi-Tec and K-Way rainproof gear for the first time and besides getting dirty it worked like a charm – the only problem was our feet. We were wearing our running shoes and they were soaked in no time and we started to get cold. I also wasn’t feeling better yet and couldn’t bear being cold and drenched on top of being queasy. Another problem was that my already minimal gears were now caked and I while I was trying to grind through the sludge my gears were slipping all the while.

We cycled uphill for eight kilometres which meant we were wet with sweat beneath our warm layers – and then we hit the downhill. The problem with having wet clothes inside the dry ones is that you get cold really quickly – especially on a long downhill in the rain. Looking back the pain wasn’t unbearable but my body had had enough and when I reached the bottom of the hill about 40km in (we still had 48km to cycle that day to Leshan) I burst into tears. I’d reached my limit. This was the second time in the last two or three days I’d lost it – and I’m someone who hardly ever cries. What this is taught me is that when the pain is too much my mind just can’t fight it anymore and the only release is tears.

We stopped and I thought perhaps I could put dry socks on and cover my feet in plastic bags and tried to do this – with many onlookers staring in unbelief at how utterly forlorn I looked. It didn’t work I was still cold and now shaking. We were in the middle of nowhere – a one-street town.

The last thing we expected was for it to have a hotel but it did and the onlookers coaxed us in the right direction. The craziest thing was that it was meant to be as the guy who owned the hotel also had a hi-pressure hose! He washed our bikes down for us while we had a warm shower in our pretty comfortable room which cost R60 for the night! His hospitality went even further. Not only did he help us clean our pannier bags which we couldn’t take into the room full of mud, once we had showered and wanted to go out to get dinner he refused to let us walk down the road as it was just a bed of mush. He gave us a lift to a nearby restaurant and even waited for us to have dinner. Such selflessness is hard to come by.

Making a Ride for It: Leshan

I felt pretty defeated once again not having made the distance the day before, but we’d had our first lesson in ‘when cycling in the rain in China’ and I knew what I was in for now and how to prepare better for it. I covered my feet in socks and then plastic bags and then donned my mud-ridden takkies. I also made sure there was no space between my waterproof pants and my tights beneath so the water couldn’t creep in – and then we made a dash for it. The longer we were out there, the colder we would get, no matter how warmly we dressed and we knew once we stopped for too long that would be the day over. Luckily the roads were a little less muddy as the consistent drizzle had washed the dirt away. We cycled the fairly easy 60 kilometres as quickly as we could. My legs seemed to have recovered bit more from the 107km day as well.

As we entered Leshan in the rain it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for as Leshan had always been one of our main spots to visit and being close to our destination, Chengdu, it was meant to be an achievement. But it didn’t feel like it as we’d had to miss out the section to Yibin because of time constraints and the rain just made everything a bit depressing. Nonetheless it looked like a rather beautiful place – the trees stretched over the road welcoming us and everything was green all around.

That afternoon we found a cute little bakery called Thumb Cake and had some miniature gourmet cakes and coffee milk tea which was heaven after cycling in the rain...

To Cycle Or Not To: To Chengdu

By Richard

We'd been looking forward to Leshan and Emeishan for so long and now once again we had no time to see the Big Buddha and Mountain Emeishan. So the dilemma was - what should we do? Cycle the last 130km to Chengdu or stay another day in Leshan and visit Emeishan and then take a bus? The latter option won as we'd never again be here again and how could we miss the sites we'd cycled so far to see?

It was raining as we climbed part of Emeishan - one of Buddhism's holy mountains. We saw some impressive rock carvings and temples along the way. At one temple on the way up we saw some Buddhists praying to statues of different gods and it struck me how weird it looked that they were channeling their thoughts into a wood stone structure, hoping it would see their diligence and bless them. Pity they can't see that their gods are not living gods - they cannot move mountains, change lives or offer any real protection. We're thankful to our God who has come through for us in every situtation we've been in.

And so by faith we continued onto Chengdu...