A couple weeks before Chinese New Year, my friend Ruth and I were talking and both had our reasons for not being able to leave China (passport stuff)… so we talked about maybe doing a bit of a bike tour during the holiday.
Now, I should probably set the scene for you reading. The time frame is the final week of January, Chinese New Year, possibly the single largest human migration at any time in the world. So the cities empty at a post-apocalyptic level, the national sites are overrun like some Resident Evil movie. Imagine hordes of people teeming around towns, villages or parks with even the slightest value to Chinese heritage. If you’ve never visited China, or lived here, I can best sum up the Chinese mentality in these situations; Me > you. Me first. Move faster. Personal space? Never heard of that.
Firstly, we didn’t make the 7am departure time. At 8am we were still feeling rather comfortable. I was dozily imagining the frustrations yet to be endured by departing Chengdu in “normal” hours…
As we departed at about 10am, we were greeted with the standard chorus of horns and bells from everything on the road (or sidewalk) that can make a noise. For those inexperienced with China, bells and horns are not last resort “Move-the-fuck-out-of-the-way-you-idiot” as we know them. They are sharing the “I’m-here-please-oh-please-don’t-just-pull-out-you-fucker” feelings of the vehicle operators.
Early on we had frequent stops to work out the route, Chinese maps are notoriously inaccurate at times and where really built up rather unclear. After about an hour and a half we had passed through the Chengdu south toll-gates and were off!
Fortune was in our favour, we had uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather following us all day. Our first official stop on the trip came after powering down the highway a few dozen kilometres. We stopped for lunch, which was a total DIY noodle + vegetable combo in a little nook next to a road works fence. Complete with a poo just sitting in the corner keeping us company.
Arriving in the first larger town, apparently famous for strawberries, it was necessary to use my alarm call “HEY, MOVE! NI MEI ZHANG YANJING MA?!” or “BEEP!BEEP!HONK!”… The number of people and vehicles aimlessly moving across the roads was a little staggering. Almost immediately I was over it. I really just wanted to get on and out back onto navigable roads.
Hills. Oh the beginning of a strong -session of swearing at hills. (Spoiler, we got mountains later… so by comparison, fine times!) Alongside the road ran very deep ditches, about 2metres deep, v-shaped ditches. Across these sporadically were small bridges crowded with strawberry sellers.
This created the real problem with hills. Regularly cars would suddenly cut us off, to pull up to the sellers to check out the strawberries. Often this meant we’d have to stop and get going again on a steep incline or awkwardly pedal out into traffic that was already rather chaotic. Eventually, I created a bit of a gap between Ruth and myself, so it seemed like a good time to pull up and wait for her while eyeing up some delicious looking strawberries. After a bit of a misunderstanding we had nearly 3kg of strawberries for 70rmb. And worth every single mao, so delicious!
Pushing off and upwards we kept riding, fatigue getting to us after nearly 60km when the furthest we’d probably ever rode was 20km in a day. This time laden with gear and food! We weighed my bike in at 40kg so I was good and ready to find a place to settle for the evening. We scouted out a place nearby this big river crossing and decided to wait for it to become a little darker before wandering off to find a campsite. We crossed back under the bridge we had come over and started pedalling down this underused dirt road that was crossed behind, what appeared to be, an abandoned industrial estate. As we got further along we found our path unexpectedly blocked and overrun with goats. Lots and lots of goats. The friendly farmers cleared us a path and we kept going. Eventually we found a nice little spot that was hidden from sight from 3 out of 4 directions.
With complete confidence we’d not be disturbed, we started setting up camp and got dinner cooking. Ruth whipped up a sort of on-the-road version of a pad thai curry. It hit all the spots!
At the beginning of our trip, I had foreseen just sitting in camp or laying in the tent reading, the actually truth… Ruth and I were far too tired so fell asleep almost immediately!
Suddenly, there were CPR-like compressions on my chest. Ruth was hissing at me about a flashlight shining all over the area and the voice of someone talking loudly. As my adrenaline pumped I started clearing sleep from my eyes and taking in the situation. It was incredibly bright outside the tent and the man was very loud.