8150miles (A little over half way home)
China is a vast country both by size and population. It encompasses a range of ethnic groups feeding this rich mix of religion, language and cuisine- By the time we have grown accustomed to a daily diet of rice, hot pot stews and fried veg, before we know it we’ll find ourselves stumbling into a predominantly muslim ‘Hui’ town, throwing us this cuisine curve ball of flatbreads, skewered meats and noodles…all with a healthy helping of chilli paste (joy!). Buddhist monks in serene hillside temples, Muslim market sellers amidst the bustling streets of China's sprawling cities, Chinese women styling sky high stilettos for a days work of road side sweeping; China is this patchwork quilt of cultural diversity.
China is equally as diverse from an environmental perspective; the country is steeped in thick mountain ranges spanning their way up the central and western regions of the country, punctuated by a limited number of low lying fertile basins- Then to the north lies these expansive, arid, windswept landscapes, home to the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts.
Our route (#OurRoute) up the centre of China away from the Vietnam border has allowed us to scale Yunnan's rugged mountainsides to the south of the province, along deep gorges enclosed by towering 5000m high mountains to the north of the province before eventually descending into the low lying lands of the Sichuan Basin, home to Chengdu, but more importably a sizeable panda population. Away from Chengdu, we pedalled high once again, reaching altitudes of 4500m as we journeyed our way across the brutally cold eastern rim of the Tibetan plateau. Here we entered into ‘ranch’ country. High up, we found the likes of Tibetan and Mongol groups herding up their cattle on horseback against a backdrop of snow capped peaks and ice ridden roads. And finally we navigated our way across the mighty mountain ranges of southern Gansu province which brought us to the banks of the Yellow river and into the provincial capital of Lanzhou (though don't be fooled into thinking Lanzhou is this quaint, idyllic river side town- no, it was once ranked the most polluted city in the world. And perhaps even more alarming is China's once discussed approach to combating the problem-Cleaner fuels? A strict reduction in emissions? No, to bulldoze a mountain and ‘let some fresh air’ in. A novel approach….)
So over the last 3 weeks we have battled snow, ice, sub zero temperatures and altitudes up to 5000m but perhaps our greatest challenge was adjusting to the social norms of Chinese life; Spitting, burping, slurping, snorting, queue jumping, barging- this place just raised the bar when it comes to jaw dropping levels of social etiquette (well, to the likes of a westerner anyway). But without doubt, this new, profound approach to living has most certainly added a dose of amusement to our days here in China; there's nothing quite like the sound of a seemingly ‘well-to-do’ lady letting out an almighty belching burp mid sentence before continuing on in an otherwise polite manner…… Conversation positively redundant by this point as I stand there trying to fathom whether this dainty lady was really capable of releasing such ground shuddering activity?!
Development in China is on a scale that I have never encountered before, particularly when one compares it to that of its somewhat laid back south east Asian neighbours. First entering into the country, I was positively astounded by the number of trucks on the roads and the sheer size of the construction projects taking place; Notably, that of road infrastructure. In China, it seems no amount of vertical landscapes or intricate natural land forms stand in the way of an efficient, fast highway. In fact, during the planning phase, I wonder whether an eye is even glanced over the terrain in which they intend to erect these enormous expressways. Its as if a line is drawn and with that a road is born. And they manage this through an endless network of bridges and tunnels carving their way right through the hillsides. I have never been one to get their ‘kicks’ out of ‘bridge-physics’ (my description there probably reflects the extent of my understanding on the subject), but here I can admit that I have often stood for several minutes marvelling at these incredible feats of engineering.
But these expressways often deal us a slight dilemma; Do we ‘hit up’ the expressway favouring a somewhat ‘cruisier’ ride through these mountain ranges or do we opt for the country roads snaking their way up muddy, stony tracks- far longer days spent in the saddle but with the benefit of feeling more connected with China, finding our way into hidden mud hut villages away from the streams of commuter traffic.
It has to be said though, throughout our time in China's lower Yunnan province, the expressway often took precedence over the local roads which were so often in dire condition; After several hours of cycling up almost impassable inclines through thick mud, its amazing how quickly one loses interest in ‘being at one with their immediate surroundings’; “Sod the ‘cultural connectivity’, show me the tarmac…” I say.
And with that we would embark on our daily challenge of negotiating our way onto the expressway- the issue being that bicycles are not strictly allowed on the expressways….Thus, we’re regularly forced to find a spot further up route away from the motorway tolls swarmed with traffic police in a bid to throw our bikes onto the roadside. Whether it be under barbed wire fences, over 5ft walls or across deep ditches, now experienced in highway criminal activity, these days it seems no obstacle is too greater a challenge for us to take on #BringOnTheBitumen.
On one occasion we were struggling to find a suitable spot to throw our two wheeled steeds onto the roadside, the only option being a pretty serious section of thick, heighty stone wall (turns out China have a real knack for constructing Great Walls). Though, not intimidated by this severe looking structure, we quickly assumed our positions;
I climbed on top of the wall, whilst George lifted the bike up to me. We were off to a good start, handle bars in my hand, rear wheel and panniers with George, then typically, as if from nowhere, three police cars show up, sirens blaring, bright lights blazing, they come screeching to a halt just short of us and our operation…”Oh…sh..ugar”. I like to think that I can be pretty crafty at slithering my way out of a difficult situation but this one was going to be a toughie. I gave it my best shot- “Wooow, the views from up here on top of the wall are incredible, here George, pass me the bike, i’d like to share the view up here with my bicycle………Sir, what makes you think I was trying to illegally navigate my way onto the expressway?, Never”. Thankfully, the almost impenetrable language barriers often works in our favour as George and I style out our confused, lost ‘silly Brits- what are we like ey!, looks like we made a wrong turn up and over a wall. Again.’ expressions.
At the risk of bringing down the tone of this blog a peg or two, I simply couldn't flush away the issue of China and its toilets. For a country which has shown such advanced levels of development in almost every aspect of its society, comparable to that of most first world nations, there is arguably one department that has failed to come up ‘trumps’ (if you’ll pardon the puns) on keeping up with the pace. Now, I don't know who is in charge of this department, where they are or what they're doing with their lives but one thing I do know is that they're not sitting on the toilet….. because here in China a toilet (though I'm reluctant to accredit it with such a term- Def. ‘Toilet- an apparatus for defecation and urination, usually consisting of a bowl fitted with a hinged seat and connected to a waste pipe and flushing apparatus’) consists of a hole in the ground, a communal trench or an outdoor paddock.
Only recently did I come across the ‘paddock WC’. On the eve of Chinese New Year, George and I were so very kindly invited to stay in the comfortable warm home of a Tibetan family. Together we took refuge from the arctic elements outside, huddling around their toasty hot stove, feasting on freshly made meat parcels, Yaks milk and flat breads whilst amusingly sharing stories (obviously, neither party could really understand a word of one another but regardless we were all having a laugh at something….). Anyway, as we dined into the late hours, George and I’s weary heads were beginning to take a hold and upon realising this, our attentive hosts happily showed us to our bed for the night, but not before offering a bathroom stop en route. Ideal I thought; quick teeth brushing session, quick wee stop and i’ll be heading head first into the dandy nocturnal land of muesli dreams….or so i thought. The bathroom? Clearly not part of the home as the family, George and I opened the back door into the frosty moonlit air- one could only assume a detached outdoor bathroom lay at the bottom of the field? No no, off all 5 of us trundled into the depths of the snowy paddock to locate a suitable spot to spend that breezy penny. #KeepingItCommunal #KeepingItCasual
If my trip has been lacking anything, its a mascot. But not anymore. Upon reaching the city of Chengdu, George and I took a well earned day off to acquaint ourselves with Chinas number one two toned attraction; The Giant Panda. But George and I had plans beyond just cuddling one of these furry fellas, no, we were hoping to acquire one. Not only are they incredibly cute; they’re warm, they're easy going, they’re most likely fluent in Chinese and they make an ideal pillow. Essentially, they’re everything we’re looking for in an expedition team mate. Thus, off we went to the panda breeding centre, adoption papers prepared, sizeable trailer in mind. Anyway, it turns out adopting one of these tubby teddy bears isn't quite as straight forward as we had hoped- apparently a globe trotting, nomadic life on wheels is no life for a Panda….the ‘redtape’ never ends…
China is a pretty cold place to be in February and when you combine that with pedalling at high altitudes, this makes for some rather ‘fresh’ conditions, particularly on the descents. In fact, these days, the uphill is the new downhill. The sight of a long downhill fills me with dread; prolonged periods of icy cold nose numbing wind, whereas uphill almost certainly guarantees a toasty warm bod by the top. Ideal.
Often, upon sighting a sign displaying a downhill signal, George and I look to one another and sort comfort in the fact that “Well, you gotta go down to go up I guess”!
You’d think that we might have adjusted to the cooler conditions by now, or at least accepted them but it seems that most of our day is still spent reminding one another of the cold weather. I think we can establish from the off that its cold; I'm wearing every item of clothing I own, there's a layer of fresh snow on the ground, our drinks bottles are hardening up into highly unappealing blocks of ice and god only knows what the end of my toes feel like, but even so, throughout the day, the overriding conversation goes something a little like this;
"Core blimey its cold"
“Tis fresh, you’re not wrong"
“Positively arctic out here today”
“Pretty brisk ey?”
“Sharp i’d say”
“Christ, its nippy”
“I’ll tell you what its not….its not bloody warm”
Then the conversation later escalates to something like this
“I’d give my right arm (with a view to sacrificing both #negotiable) for just five minutes next to a radiator”
And later, onto something like this
“If it were the 5th November, I’d happily volunteer myself for the role of Guy Fawkes roasting on the top of a raging bonfire…..” - at this stage, we agree its in our best interest to avoid open fires until we’re feeling more rational about life again….
China's approach to the honking horn use is quite incredible. From what I understand, its used as a tool to raise awareness of their coming but quite frankly they use it in line with every movement, blink, itch, breath. …our days spent pedalling on busier roads are dominated by the deafening drone of beeping horns. It ‘drives’ (*pedals) you mad. Its almost as if they choose not to use sight as a viable tool to avoid hazards but instead assume right of way, hold down the horn in a bid to remind other road users of this and steam on through, presuming all others will move aside in accordance.
This relentless, persistent, never-ending use of the horn is something new to me because back in the dandy land of Britain, we take a slightly more reserved approach to such honking activity- instead its used on an ‘absolute worst situation’ basis- and even then we use it with an overwhelming feeling of regret - “Oh Katherine, that was completely unnecessary! Look you've only gone and drawn attention to yourself, and now every vehicle within a half mile radius is judging you as an aggressive road user. Yes, well done, you have successfully elevated yourself into the realms of ‘aggressive road users’, you have road rage, you should seek medical attention.” - or worse, in that frantic moment of anger, combined with your inexperience on honking, in your rapid, haphazard reach for the horn, you go and hit the wind screen washer instead…..somehow I just don’t sense the Chinese acknowledge these troubles.
So, next up we’ll be heading west into the Gobi Desert tracing the footsteps of the ancient silk traders. With the bulk of the mountains behind us, we’ll be tackling some new challenges, notably more cold conditions, but also remote desert, strong desert winds and lonely life in the tent. We have 25 days left on the visa to make it to Kazakhstan; an achievable but challenging goal. I’v prepared in the only way I know how; i’v saturated the entire ‘pod with the hit album ‘Now thats What I call Power Ballads’. Together, Cher, Celine Dion, George and I shall take on the dusty desolate plain of Chinas north.