CNY Part 3: Revenge of the Bike Seat

After the most deep and full night sleep we’d had on the trip, we decided due to the unknown problem with Ruth’s derailleur we’d take the train from Zigong back to Chengdu. The problem was resulting in our inability to climb steeper hills because her chain jumped off the cogs and lodged themselves in between the spokes and hub. The distance between Zigong and Chengdu is about 200km, but there are some rather large hills (mountains) spread through the area and no direct route by train, so it would be 6hrs

Zigong was pretty close to us still; we’d definitely make it on day 6. We’d checked the timetable and could get the overnight train back to Chengdu. So we’d take our time enjoying the route but still had to get to the train station for about 6. As we rode along we crossed through many small roadside towns and we decided to grab ourselves a last helping of water before Zigong. We stopped at this store full of people, a family, eating outside and very friendly. They also had an amazing looking little special needs puppy! It was so inbred and ridiculous! It was enthusiastically falling over itself and winning me over with it’s antics.

We had quite a number of small arguments throughout and when our turn of bad luck returned. We arrived at the train station and it looked very, very closed. I started asking around, enquiring whether the station was open or not. Fending off all the usual chit-chat questions and conversation; “Where are you from?” “Your Chinese is really good.” “What do you think of Sichuan food? Spicy?” “Where are you going?” … I was fielding many questions from various people while asking all my own. Ruth got impatient and wandered off to go into the station and check. The security guards didn’t raise a question to her, which is why we hadn’t attempted originally!

After establishing with the folks outside that we would have to return early the next morning to get our bikes onboard. I went into the station to tell Ruth the good news. I found her sitting after having spoken with the ticket man who just told her no no no no. With the information I knew from locals and the fact there was a baggage/freight office at the station we’d be able to take our bikes.

I had a turn at the window, speaking to the man and then another woman, we established that what was meant that it would be impossible to get the bikes on the late night train because the other office had closed. So I returned to the line and dealt with Chinese people and their frustrating cultural difference of “me first” so cutting in line. Thankfully, my Chinese has improved enough I can have small arguments and make it very clear I know what’s up. Successfully purchasing our tickets for the 9am train I went back to Ruth.

We had another falling out, because she wanted to find a place to camp, but my argument was we couldn’t camp in the city very easily at all and leaving city limits to try and find a camp would also be so difficult. So if we didn’t get a cheap nearby hotel we could all night it at the station. We did have camp mats and all the things to have food and stay comfortable. Very reluctantly, we booked a hotel nearby for the night.

The next morning we were up early and at the station before they opened. Checking our bikes into the train put my Chinese past its limit! After some round and round discussion, we paid 60rmb total and were told we weren’t going to be able to get the bikes right away at the other side and ride home. They would HAVE to be delivered to my home.

Another small bit of trouble occurred when we decided to keep hold of our gas canisters hoping to get away with it. NOPE. Berated in Chinese and then my passport photographed we were away!

The rest of the trip was a little boring and lonely, since my partner in crime became very quiet. This wasn’t so fun as the trip was still long way from done.

After about 2 hours I hear “外国人 -Waiguoren…” and I replied “不对,我是中国人 – Budui, wo shi zhongguoren” … The little girl looked shocked and ran away, she kept coming back and forth before deciding to show me her English homework and we ended up speaking for over an hour. She didn’t have an English name and I gave her one, Joanne. Her name was Jiu Yuan, so it worked! But bless her she was telling me she didn’t have many friends and her classmates called her ugly!

When we arrived in Chengdu, I rushed up to the freight area and spoke with the guys about how to get the bikes at the station rather than wait. They told me where to go, Ruth and I were soon back on the road sleepily and quietly riding back to our places. Mostly silent, we got back and said our goodbyes. I immediately ordered a take away and sat down and began considering washing my stuff and unpacking.


Chinese New Year… Pt2

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.


There and Back Again… A Cyclist’s Tale Pt.1

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.