I had a hunch we weren’t in too much trouble, but we still opened the tent door as quietly as possible to get a better look. The light had been coming from directly in front of us, which would have meant we could be seen dead easily. However, besides the path, which we were next to, in front of us was a steep hill where a tall brick wall lay to keep people out of the very scary Scooby-Doo-like factory. Relieved that we weren’t going to have to move, or deal with any late night language barriers we got back into our sleeping bags and got back to sleep.
I was aware of Ruth getting up and getting out of the tent, but was soon dozing again, as it was very late still.
“KEITH! KEITH! THERE’S A DOG!” Ruth shouted, at the same time I was being scared that she was about to be savaged outside the tent, her voice clearly scared the dog who replied with a flurry of barks and yips that were growing ever fainter. This was the ideal result as I was mostly undressed, completely dazed and half tripped out of the tent as Ruth returned. I certainly couldn’t have fought a vicious man-eater to the death.
Officially waking up to day 2 was just as hard as day 1. My little fitness tracker started vibrating and I sleepily told it to “fuck off mate”. Slow to start again due to the night-time shenanigans, we did start. Me as the groggy grump and Ruth with the sore legs. Honestly, I was so happy Ruth constantly turned down my offers to help with food, so I used the breakfast time to pack up and organise camp a bit.
Finally packed and ready to go at about 10am we started walking down the bumpy train back to the road leading to Pengshan. Arriving in town we made friends with a woman who led us to a quieter path to Meishan. This road though, blessedly empty of traffic, was also the longest and most boring section of the entire trip! It was about 50 out of the day’s 60km covered.
Meishan was pretty nice and relaxed, but to find a safe camping spot we’d have to keep going and get outside the city limits. We started passing through a smaller town with several lingongyuan (tree parks) and decided to pull up at a bus stop across from what seemed the best location. Many tall mounds of earth, away from the road and lights, it would be perfect for stealth camping.
One problem though: Grandpa. As we sat at the bust stop next to his little workshop, we prepared our meal and waited for it to become darker so we could get stealthy. Grandpa, however, seemed to know something and stood outside watching us. He crossed the road and walked through the trees to a small house in the distance then back… But he was always watching. To score our campsite, we had to outwit gramps.
Together we cleaned and packed away our cooking stuff, still under grandpa’s watchful eye, and prepared to set off. It was now very dark so we used our mighty strategic brains, turned on our bike lights and started riding down the road until we were far enough away, turned off our lights, and crossed the road and returned. Grandpa was fooled! We hurriedly rushed into the park and laid out the tent. Our tent, a Vaude Hogan Area, was super quick to set up and with an olive flysheet we blended in pretty amazingly. Suddenly, we heard shutter doors closing and saw the flashlight of grandpa coming over the road through the park! We dived to the ground like some super lame special forces commandos and let him pass. Great success! We finished up and like the night before- asleep by 10.
“Keith!” Ruth’s anxious voice woke me up, along with her CPR skills, “There’s a motorcycle outside and I don’t know what he’s doing.”
For the third time I was “awake” trying to process what was happening and what was likely TO happen. We decided to wait it out, our valuables were with us and our bikes were locked together very securely. In the end, the bike moved on and there was no further drama.
Day three was another early planned start, the only successful one, however we did not leave until late still. As we set off, we were discussing our plans for that evening. We would be reaching the first city on the trip, Leshan, and had to decide if we would find a place outside the city or stay in a hotel for the evening. I suggested that it was best to get the hotel, so at lunch I booked one that was cheap and when we arrived we were really (I think) pleased with everything. We had our first showers, rinsed our gear and went out for a restaurant meal! After just snacking on some seriously greasy food, we got back and got into our nice comfy beds.
When we first got into the city, crossing over a bridge, Ruth was starting to have a few issues with her bike. We stopped to check the map, realising we had missed our turn suddenly Ruth’s bike was done with us. The chain kept popping off if she went below 4th gear, very challenging when we were surrounded by hills!
After an evening in the city we headed out at our now standard 10am after having, possibly, the worst free breakfast I’ve ever had.
This was by far the most frustrating and tiring days. Up, up, up. All day we just were working up a steady gradient, passing through many similar roadside towns. People were obviously surprised and excited to see foreigners. Some were a little over enthusiastic, so much so, that Ruth left a store because she felt uncomfortable.
As we left one town I saw a little ball of fluff as we pedalled past. I pulled up for a snack break and to check on the little puppy. He was a little scared but decided that Ruth’s bike would be the best shelter and protection. I was looking at him and we gave him a bit of food. As we left I was really sad to be leaving this pup, if I could’ve safely taken him with me on the bike I’d now have a little white fluff monster.
As the day got later it was feeling harder and harder to push on. It was also starting to feel like finding a comfortable/safe place to camp would be impossible. It was really late by the time we found a place it wasn’t ideal but it also was the best we’d find before the sunset and the roads got dangerous. It was directly across from a family home, on a busy road and amongst a patch of bamboo. Besides all these things there were a huge amount of small ditches and hard earth everywhere so it was a challenge to pitch the tent. Handily, the bamboo had shed a lot of husks that we were able to use to level out and soften up sections of the ground!
The evening passed by a little uncomfortably with many people passing in and out of the house across from us. Followed by the late night passing of lorry after lorry, the road vibrated both physically and audibly. Sleep was fleeting and it was morning all too early. Achy bones ached as we sat eating breakfast. We blankly went through the routine of packing up camp and began our climb up the hills. We really were struggling, the kilometres passed slowly… one… two… four…Suddenly, down, down, down! The freezing wind whipped through my clothes as I had layered myself for being hot from climbing! 16km we rushed downhill.
Oh man, it was so worth it! All that climbing the previous day, being able to cruise down winding mountain roads, completely validated the pain. We arrived at the bottom of the mountain and hurriedly I threw on my jacket to keep myself from dying. As I did this Ruth was checking our location to be sure those 16km hadn’t been in vain!
Relieved we weren’t lost, we began to pedal slowly trying to find a nice spot to stop for our lunch. We finally found one, more or less in someone’s drive, and settled into the routine of cooking.
The following road was about 120km to Zigong, our next big city. No turns, not a bit of interest along the route. As we passed through the roadside towns, hearing “Wai guo ren” called our behind us, we could smile because these folks were so puzzled as to why foreigners were coming through. I got pleasure in shouting out to people in Chinese, which also got a lot of laughs either because of my joke or they were so surprised this white fella was speaking their language!
Ruth and I shouted back and forth in the wind over our plan for camping that night. In the end we decided from 4.30 we’d start looking for the perfect spot! AND! Would you guess what? By 5pm we were setting up our camp in a small bamboo forest and finding the joy in stealth camping again. Relaxing on our camp mats, reading books and drinking hot chocolates… it was amazing.