We Conquer The Road: Chengdu To Xi'an
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, China, Hong Kong @ May 16, 2012 - 2:55 pm

By Thamar

Having left China to renew our visa in Hong Kong and after being away from the Mainland for a week, we noticed just how different the two places were. Hong Kong was clean, smelt like perfume and people were reasonably courteous. The former British-run and now autonomous region of China, was also really expensive. Before we’d left we’d been counting every penny – even R3 was too much to pay for bottled water, whereas the cheapest we could find in Hong Kong was about R6. The ease and appeal of Hong Kong lulled us into a sense of security and soon we found ourselves eating at Subway and shopping up a storm. Sightseeing in HK was also grand but looking back all of this was a serious side-track from our goal and we really did get ‘sucked’ into holiday mode, forgetting what we’d set out to achieve. In my mind I strayed more and more from the plan…

Then we were plummeted back into the midst of chaos on our arrival in Guangzhou – just over the border from Hong Kong - where we would have to take a train to Kunming. This was formerly Canton, a busy port city where a lot of international as well as domestic travellers find themselves. It was a frenzy of people pushing, spitting, smoking and once again we were faced with nobody speaking English.
Instantly I hated it and really started to loathe the fact that we still had at least two weeks of cycling left here. On the train to Kunming I finally lost my patience when trying to brush my teeth I was almost trampled. It’s really difficult to keep your calm when you feel like you have absolutely no personal space and there is no respect for women either, but still I felt ashamed that I’d lost my cool. In fact, this whole trip through China has taught me a patience I’ve never known, and I’m definitely a better person for it, but every day I’m still learning and still the frustrations are countless…

Discovering Blood Lines in Kunming

We arrived in Kunming late at night, so decided to meet up with my dad and his girlfriend Margie the next day after seeing them in Hong Kong for a day. My dad was here for a week as he also really wanted to visit Kunming where my grandfather was stationed as a missionary in 1948. We’d both been reading my grandfather’s autobiography but with so much else to research I didn’t take the time to jot down the places he’s been to, where he stayed and so on… So it was a treat to have my dad do this for us.

In Hong Kong we’d visited the church where my grandparents were married and now back in Kunming, we got to visit the church where my grandfather, Don Houliston, once preached called Trinity. A small little structure back then it is now a colossal building and the only big spire church I’ve seen in China proper so far. I was later to find out that this is an official Communist church now – all the sermons have to be approved by the Party!

In Kunming we also met up with our friend Pete who lives and works here. He introduced us to some of his friends and they gave us some insight into what really goes on behind the scenes – including what problems we might encounter on our next leg going through the Himalayas. It was refreshing to have some real conversations after two months of just the two of us. I talked endlessly with Margie and my dad and I even started to think a lot about my family and the past – another thing that this trip has unearthed. Talk about going ‘beyond the wall’ in more ways than one.

My grandparents and particularly my grandfather instilled a passion for the East in me. When I was little I loved spending even small amounts of time with them when they were back from their missions for a visit and I dreamt of following in their footsteps. My grandfather was my hero – he was a great adventurer who was more self-sacrificial than I could ever be. And it was because of him that I really wanted to cycle through China.

And so we spent another week away from our bicycles in Kunming – a green and temperate city where the people are the most pleasant we’ve encountered. Our affinity for the place grew when we discovered they made Yunnan coffee and Pu-erh tea (Post-fermented tea which is dried. The older the tea is the better). We visited Black Dragon Pool where a Ming scholar is said to have drowned himself and his family to show his patriotism when the Qing armies invaded the city. We also visited Dianchi lake which is 40km long and then hiked up to Dragon Gate where a stone forest winds up to the edge of a cliff from which you can see the entire lake and then descend down through a series of manmade tunnels interrupted by Buddhist shrines along the way. “The devils lair”, as my grandfather would most likely say.

After a week of wonderful quality time with my family and sightseeing (something we had not had time for while cycling), we headed off to Dali which is six hours west from Kunming by train. The ethnic Bai people who live here are a very colourful people quite close in similarity to the Tibetans I would say – their embroidered traditional dress complete with flower-strewn hats that look like wedding cakes. Dali is a trendy tourist spot for both foreigners and Chinese (who really seem to get into the cultural side of things ironically, if only to take a picture of themselves in traditional outfits like it’s a competition) and the main streets are lined with Tibetan, Western, Chinese and even Thai eateries. We particularly enjoyed the fact that the Bai people eat cheese and gorged ourselves on chocolate cheese skewers. We also cycled part way around the massive Er Hai Lake which Dali is famous for. It was surreal cycling by the side of the mirror-like water and winding our way through the remote little villages on route with no luggage and no real agenda.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, not too far north of Dali as the trip across the mountains back to Chengdu would have meant 20 hours in a bus – something we were not keen to do. Lijiang we heard is not as touristy as Dali. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the town was once a centre for trade along the old tea horse road and is where the ethnic minority the Naxi people live. Tiger Leaping Gorge – a contender for the world’s deepest river canyon - offers some prime hiking trails and would be on any mountain goat’s bucket list. Maybe next time…

With all this leisure time, Richard had even grown a belly. Ok it wasn’t really that bad as it’s impossible for him to put on weight but he had one roll. I on the other hand put on all the weight I lost in the first couple weeks of cycling and more! It was time to get back on our bikes! Problem is we love the food here. It’s a bit too oily but other than that it’s delectable. Some of these delicacies include: spicy eggplant, deep-fried tofu, crispy duck, egg-fried rice, Kung Pow Chicken, pork dumplings, steam buns, and fried noodles. And then there are the bakeries and beer! We’d also grown accustomed to snacking while cycling on things like sesame brittle, dried fruit, biscuits, spicy peanuts, yoghurt drinks and even chocolate. All this really didn’t help the waistline, although it did get us through some long days on the road. In any case for once we couldn’t wait to get back on our bikes…

So we flew back to Chengdu and Traffic Inn where we'd left our bikes and extra luggage and prepared for our last leg through the Big C.

The Road Becomes Our Friend: Chengdu to Xi’an

By Richard

Day 1: Chengdu to Deyang. Late start! After good intentions to get up and make an early start, the alarm didn’t go off. We found out later that it was set to go off from Monday to Friday and we didn’t realise it was Saturday morning. Whether it’s Monday or Sunday really doesn’t make a difference to us anymore. Anyway fortunately our first day of our last leg was only 68km, so although we left at 11:30am we made it through well before dark. It was a flat ride with pleasant weather along the G108.

Day 2: The next day was also another fine weather day on our way from Deyang to Mianyang. It was flat with one small climb along the 70km stretch. Tham was now carrying all her luggage again that we’d left in Chengdu and the additional clothes she bought along the way so she was back to lugging around 40kg while I’ve been carrying around 50kg the whole way which includes our tent (which we have not used once yet), all the bike spares, the laptop and the China and India Rough Guides.

The countryside consists of fields littered with yellow Cole flowers. And just when you’re thinking, ‘how nice’, you see another factory towering above the farmlands. This time it was a cement factory. I thought a good title for the picture I took of it would be ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Along the way we passed an old man on his old Indian bicycle. I didn’t see his reaction, but Tham said he looked a little surprised, bent over his bike a little more, flared his elbows and picked up the pace. He passed me and I could see he was putting in some effort, so I stuck on his back wheel for about 1km before he turned off onto another road. Every now and then he would look back to see if I was still there. It was very funny. For lunch we stopped in a small town, Tham scoured a nearby market for food and we ate flat bread and some pork steam buns. Mianyang is the second largest city in the Sichuan province and we managed to fine a room quite quickly and easily when we arrived.

Day 3: Mianyang to Jiangyou. Since things were going well, after some research we decided to divert to a place called Jiangyou the next day as it was the home of a famous poet Li Bai and Doutuan Mountain (Tham had read this with excitement the night before – ever eager to find some long-lost culture here). It added an extra day to our journey but this time around we could spare one. It was a chilled 46km along a flattish road in pristine condition. The plan was to arrive at lunchtime and make our way by bus to Doutuan Shan, which would have been a further 26km - a mountain dwelling which has some monks which apparently perform some crazy moves. Pity we couldn’t locate the correct bus to take us there before 5pm. Instead we wandered the streets and found some grungy markets, people singing and old people playing Majong. We eventually made our way to Li Bai memorial park where we philosophized while drinking a bottle of Chinese red wine (in his memory as he was a notorious alcoholic who drowned trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a lake) and we watched the sun go down as children played in boats by the river…

Day 4: Jiangyou to Zitong (58km). We managed to be ready by 9am (things seem to be going rather smoothly this time around) and rolled out of the hotel parking lot but not before a crowd of people formed around us while we were packing our bikes. The older folk were egging the younger children on to practice their English with us. Then the cameras came out and we posed with some of the very cute toddlers. As we were exiting the town there was a street market which slowed the traffic going through the town down to a walk. It was rather chaotic with lorries and busses hooting at a deafening pitch while we tried to stay on our bikes brushing past what seemed like hundreds of people shopping at these street stalls. And then all of a sudden we were plunged into undulating quiet country roads with rolling hills of pine trees and valleys of never-ending yellow Cole flowers with tons of bees which smacked us in the face on mass every so often – got to love the multipurpose buff at these times. Zitong is a small town and as we came to a fork which marked right into town or left to carry on past, we were greeted by an elderly man who wanted us to sit down and have a meal. After we declined saying we were looking for accommodation he started chatting to us, asking where we came from and giving us directions into town. He seemed well impressed by our means of transport and wished us well as we departed. The main street was dusty and chaotic (the usual which we have become accustomed to). There were still some big name clothing brand stores which did seem a little odd in this small dusty town.

Day 5: Our longest day yet - 127km from Zitong to Jiange. After being a little anxious the day before we set out on a well-tarred, clean, quiet road. The first 9km or so were mainly a climb; it looked like we got to the top of the ridge. Our first stop was at the magnificent Qiqushan temple. We had a brief look around and then set off again. There were also forests of Cypress trees growing around the temple vicinity and they continued for most of the day (some growing in the middle of the tarred road). It seems that these trees are rather revered here. The name for Cypress in Chinese is pronounced ‘Bai’ which sounds the same as one hundred in Chinese and is often paired with other symbols to mean “many” or “everything” and the leaves are used in traditional Chinese wedding ceremonies.

It was around 5pm and we still had about 30km to go. We were pretty knackered as we dropped into another valley on the edge of the Jianmen Pass. We didn’t go over the pass but instead went through a tunnel. When we came out the other side we looked back to see the vertical cliffs of the Guangyuan mountains behind us and a river snaking down through the valley, with the full moon rising up from behind the mountains. For the next 10km or so we peddled through this spectacular valley with steep cliffs on either side of us, before it opened up into the town of Jiange – another brand new town – an out-the-box replica of every other city in China. We were awed to find a hot springs resort on our arrival (Tham thought it was Christmas) and decided we needed to treat ourselves after a long day (11hours) in the saddle. Tianci Jianmenguan Hot Spring Resort was quite a grand looking place and I was doubtful that the room price would be reasonable. It was a touch over our budget but the clincher was that we had free entry into the hot springs. It was wonderful to relax in the springs while the full moon shone overhead. They even had a live variety show on - one of the acts was a popular Chinese skit with a man who changes his mask about a dozen times. It’s called Bian Lian and is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera.

Day 6: Jiange to Guangyuan. Needless to say we slept very well and made a late start (10:30am) the next day after our big effort the day before. As we rolled onto the G108 it was going to be a 46km undulating road to the town of Guangyuan. We made it there in good time, our legs were feeling quite tired from the previous day.

Day 7: Guangyuan to Ninqiang (80km). Today we climbed a fair bit but it didn’t feel too difficult. We were about 9km down the road before we left the city and at this point there was an onramp to the G5. We saw the G108 and made our way onto this horrible dirt road – memories of the dreaded G213 came flooding back. After 500 metres we came across two fellow Chinese cyclists. They were across the railing on a nice smooth tar road – this was apparently (they gestured to us in broken English) another secondary road. We had noticed there were three roads on the map that led to Ninqiang but weren’t sure we’d be allowed to cycle on the other two. So without hesitation we bundled both our bikes over the railing. We cycled with the guys for about 30 minutes before we forged ahead – even though they were carrying less than us they seemed pretty slow but we found out later that this is the Chinese way: Cycle slowly from sun-up to sundown and then camp, which in your own country is a little easier. The road meandered through the valley as it got more and more remote. In parts it was deafeningly quiet – the only sounds from the birds in the trees and the occasional rustling in a bush. Yesterday and the day before the scenery had been beautiful – today as much so but the landscape was completely different. We’d swapped the flat fields of Cole flowers for cliffs and valleys, the smell of cow manure mixed with truck oil thick in the air all the while. Today we’d climbed as much as we descended and also went through five hair-raising tunnels – most of them without lights inside. We almost missed the turnoff to Ninqiang as there was no English signboard. Fortunately there were some people on the side of the road who we asked and they pointed us in the right direction. As we made our way into town a man on a scooter started talking to Tham and ended up directing us to a hotel for the night. He must have been pretty bored. In any case, as he was leaving he asked for a picture with us – this has happened to us quite a lot on our journey.

Day 8: Ninqiang to Mingxian (82km). Then we got cocky… The road seemed to enter a secret path, the mountains almost closing in on us from both sides as we once again wound our way through the valley accompanied by the Heihe River. It was pretty flat as we passed small farms and villages nestled in the narrow valley. After about 20km we started to climb out of the valley and it was pretty steep but we managed fine and then the downhill appeared. Eventually as we road on the mountains faded into the distance and we made our way into Mianxian past the Old City Wall which was the only vaguely pleasant thing about the place. After having a late lunch as we were starving – greasy chicken burgers from another KFC rip-off, we were rather tired. We headed towards the local hotel and when Tham went inside they said they had no rooms and apparently were a little rude. Since there wasn’t much else in the town and it was a rather dire place we decided to head for the bigger city nearby called Hanzhong. We had already done 82km for the day and it was now 4.30pm. Hanzhong was 40kms away but we knew the road would be relatively flat. So with Tham’s motivation and the kick from the putrid coffee at our lunch stop we set out on the busy road. We pushed hard and it was 6.30pm by the time we arrived in Hanzhong. We searched for a hotel but were turned away from about 20 of them – all fully booked for what was the equivalent of China’s spring festival – the Qingming Festival where people spend time outdoors in the greenery of springtime. And since this was the home of thousands of yellow Cole flowers everyone was in town. We ended up cycling in the dark for two hours – fireworks going off all over the place and people everywhere. Finally we found a spot that looked like a quiet hotel but the owner said it wasn’t. After Tham explained that the town was slammed with nowhere to sleep he agreed for us to stay there for the night but was very discreet about it – trying to tell us not to attract attention. After our initial confusion we realized we would be staying in a Mahjong studio complete with comfy couches to sleep on, a TV, Mahjong table and a bathroom. Since there was no shower we had a bucket bath. Even though the place was pretty expensive we were very grateful for a place to sleep and fell into a deep sleep.

Day 9: Hanzhong to Yangxian. Today was a little back and forward and we battled to find our way out of the city and back onto the G108. It was also pretty uneventful and the scenery was much the same the whole way. Although it was only 54km between these two cities we ended up doing 72km because we had to backtrack initially. We came across a young Chinese guy – his bike even more heavy-laden than ours – pushing his bike along the road. We chatted for a while – he was cycling 7000km from his home South of here into Inner Mongolia. We decided to cycle together for a bit but he was really struggling and eventually said: “Ah Richard I didn’t tell you I hurt my leg a few days ago so I cannot go fast.” We took a few pictures with him, exchanged email address and said our goodbyes as he was taking a different route. Yangxian is a small town but pleasant enough and we found an ok hotel pretty easily.

Day 10: Yangxian to Foping (93km). A serious day of climbing! Leaving Yangxian was straightforward – up the main street, past the pagoda in the centre of the square and back onto the G108. It was flat for the first 20kms and it drizzled ever so slightly, before we entered the mouth of the peaks. It was misty and rather tranquil having left the traffic behind. The climbing then commenced… the splendid hills around us being the only inspiration for some very tired legs after 10 days without a break. We passed quite a few cyclists coming in the opposite direction – all of them Chinese. This seems to be a popular route for young cyclists – many of them heading for Lhasa in Tibet. We met two guys at the bottom of an extremely steep climb who said: “You are from South Africa, right?” We had no idea how they knew but quickly realised when we reached the top of the backbreaking set of switchbacks that it was Liang – our friend from the day before who had told them about us. In the end he had decided to cycle this way but had left from further up the road than us and so was now ahead of us. He’d however been struggling with a flat tyre and had just changed it when we arrived. We had about 30kms left to go and decided to cycle with him – a number of nightmarish tunnels awaited us and he simply cycled through without any lights. We were exhausted by the time we finally rolled into Foping – a tiny town between the massive hills. He helped us find a hotel and we all had dinner together. We paid – it was about R65 for three of us – and he thought it was ridiculously expensive. He wasn’t going to spend the night in the R140 hotel like us but instead said he could find a place for R20 or so? He told us, “We need to save our money as we are cyclists”. This was true as we’d seriously overspent and had been living a very comfortable life on the road. We took his words to heart and once again said goodbye as he was leaving to Xi’an the next day and we needed a rest day badly!

Day 11: Foping to Zhouzi (126km). Today was insane! The alarm was set for an early start but we only managed to be ready a little earlier than usual – by 8.20am. Having breakfast, packing our bikes, checking out each day… all takes some time. We had stocked up on camping food incase we needed to pitch our tent. The scenery was more of the same but only got better. We were snaking through the valley once again with peaks rising up on our left and right. We started climbing and the road seemed to follow a pattern of 8 – over and over again. It was a whopping 34km before we reached the climb at the top of the pass after a terrifyingly long tunnel; we stopped for lunch at an eerily lonely spot, the cold wind picking up. We could see a long downhill which seemed to disappear into the distance. Back down the hill in the valley there was extensive flood damage and rock falls. Houses seemed abandoned on this perilous road. I noticed two African Hoopoe Birds and wasn’t sure what they were doing here in the depths of the Qingling Mountains – they almost seemed to follow us as we rode on as I saw them a further four times. We seemed to level out after a good 20km of downhill and the mountains got more treacherous and the vegetation thinned out. It felt rather dangerous - a sense of awe compounded by the knowledge that rocks could dislodge on us at any point. We had entered the jaws of the valley. The rushing river below and perilous jagged rocks above proved fodder for some weary legs and we cycled on distracted by the scenery. A few agonising climbs later we popped out of the maze that was the Qingling Mountain Range and things flattened out like a pancake as we came down into the rather polluted city of Zhouzi – talk about contrasts.

Day 12: Zhouzi to Xi’an – our last cycling day in China! After a disruptive sleep – Tham has a bit of a cold – we set off on an extremely boring flat road. The traffic was manic and we were forced into puddles of mud at the side of the road. In the distance we could see the Qingling Mountains covered in a blanket of snow! Imagine we’d camped there last night – we would have had frozen. After a predictable 75km we entered the historic stone wall limits of Xi’an – probably the most well-preserved city in China where the Terracotta Army resides – we felt a huge sense of relief. Another 1000km down and China was conquered…