Friday, 8 May 2015

China II: Cheers China!

I couldn’t help but smile as our bicycles were wheeled out from the back of the shop. After weeks of riding on gouged rims, fraying tyres and a collapsing bottom bracket, our bikes were finally restored. Liv twanged the spokes on her new wheels as I wound my pedals, delighted at the fluid motion. Everything was falling into place. We had made it to China, found a track to bypass the mountain road closures, established how and where we could extend our 30 day visas, and now at last our bikes looked ready for it.

It was a good job too. Besides the coming cold and high altitude, we had only twelve weeks to cover the 4,500 kilometres to Beijing. That was something like riding Aberdeen to Athens with four 4000 metre passes and a side-trip to Copenhagen thrown in for good measure. And to make things worse, the lay of the visa offices and our insistence on riding through the mountains meant we’d need to cover half of this distance in the final month alone. Yet as we pedalled test laps outside the shop—our bikes working beautifully, our route finally fixed in our minds and the momentum of a year’s riding surging up behind us—it felt only right that the finale should trap us with a proper challenge. We were ready for it.


By the time we left Jing Hong we’d been in China for more than a week, which left us about three to cover the thousand kilometres to the visa office in Zhongdian on the edge of the mountains. We set out on a bright clear morning, following a road that would take us north and avoid the major highways. In the first few days we rode up onto a low plateau and on into some gentle hills. The landscape was farmed but generally sparsely populated. We rode through little hillside villages purring with chickens, through forests of pine and down between the steep rocks of the Nanting River gorge.

We regularly passed by small cities and planned each day around reaching one before sunset so we could easily secure food and accommodation. None were as pleasant as Jing Hong had been, but they were all interesting in their own right. Many seemed to have freshly popped from the kernel of an old town: these dense clusters of pristine terracotta-coloured apartments standing out like icons on the plains. Sometimes when we rode in we’d find these micro-cities almost deserted, the city built but the population yet to break above its original size. Other cities were grizzled with age and busier, but tucked away on the periphery out here, none of them had swollen into monsters.

Two things united every shack, village and city we encountered: the people and the portions. Our interactions were pleasant without exception. We were never a spectacle and always met on equal terms. And although barely anyone spoke English and we barely any Chinese, everyone was patient and intelligent in interpreting us. For example, when on one occasion we were quite clearly guessing at the menu, circling a finger over the list and picking things at random, the kitchen staff instead prepared a variety of carefully selected dishes for the same price, to make sure we got a good meal. They threw chips in too. It was sweet. 

Ah yes, the food. If a country’s success can be measured by the portions on their plates, then China does indeed have a towering, well greased economy. Order broccoli here and get a mound of broccoli, onion and pork all drenched in grease. There were very few Chinese dishes we knew from home, it was all just piles of vegetables, meat and grease. It played havoc with our insides for the first few weeks, but it tasted a lot better than it sounds and our legs relished the chance to run on full power without worrying about running out of calories. And as we rose further north we were certainly going to need those calories.

Fifty million years ago the Indian subcontinent, doing nothing for its reputation for road safety, crashed headlong into Asia. The impact buckled the two plates, thrusting the Himalayas up into existence and fanning a wave of wrinkles over the Asian landmass. That this “crash” is still ongoing is all too evident from the recent earthquake that struck Nepal. The Indian plate continues to push north-eastwards at a rate of around 2 inches per year, and with it the Himalayas swell up by around 5mm.

The Hengduan Mountains, where we were headed, were a part of the far eastern edge of the Himalayan buckling. As we drew nearer the landscape began to noticeably swell and pitch with increasing intensity. Over five days we hit four thousand metre climbs, each about as high as Mount Snowden, and each rise and lesser fall gradually lifting us two and a half kilometres above sea level. Unawares and without ceremony, we crossed the Tropic of Cancer too, and rolled into the temperate zone. This rising latitude and altitude combined brought a noticeable dip in the temperature. The sun was shining each day, but the air grew sharper and the mornings cold. We dug our gloves out from the bottom of our bags for the first time. One afternoon we realised we couldn’t remember the last time we’d seen the waxy leaves of a jungle; all the forests were now bristling with pines and conifers.


The north side of the hill was in shadow by the time we reached the top. We were two days now from the old town of Dali, which lay about 800 kilometres north of Jing Hong and where we intended to rest for a few days and stock up on winter gear. The sky was blushing into a dim evening bronze, but our map showed no towns nearby. We rolled down the slope of the road and soon came to a congregation of wooden lodges. A guesthouse, perhaps, though there were no obvious signs. Or maybe it was a bunkhouse for the road workers we’d seen further up. We dismounted and started walking up the driveway when a young man with neat hair came out to meet us. We asked if we could rent a room here, and he went away and came back with a key and showed us into one of the cabins. It was as basic as you get, a crumpled mattress and a bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, but it was cheap and we were just pleased to have found it when we did.
It still wasn’t clear whether this actually was a guesthouse or not though. There was a large kitchen area with restaurant seating out the front, but it was empty except for a few women pottering around sweeping up. We had no bathroom, so I waited for our benefactor to return and asked him, largely through charades, where I could wash. He spoke in slow, clear Mandarin and pointed back down towards the kitchen, and I listened carefully and nodded along, although I had no idea what he was saying.

I thanked him and grabbed my little towel and soap stub and wandered into the kitchen. It was deserted now, but there, lying on the flagstones, was a large aluminium bowl full of steaming soapy water. I stripped my t-shirt off and hunched down. It was a bit awkward, but with some splashing and cupping of hands I got to work washing away the day’s sweat and grime. Just then a cry came from behind me. I turned and saw one of the women rushing towards me, vigorously shaking her hands at me to stop. Again, I have no idea what was said, but it became immediately clear that this was not the bathroom. The woman, lamenting the loss of her soapy water, pointed to a stone staircase in the corner that led to a yard where I saw two crooked tin doors that were obviously the shower block. I didn’t know the word for sorry, so I said thank you a lot and scampered away half naked down the steps.

After the mix-up over the ablutions, it was perhaps not surprising that Olivia and I found ourselves alone. The kitchen, the lodges, the yard were all empty. We kicked around outside for a while, watching the light furrows of clouds blush and darken as the night rolled in, then we headed back to our room to see what food we had in our bags. We didn’t think they would leave us hungry, even after I’d stolen their hot water, but everyone had vanished and now it was getting late. We'd been reading on the bed for a few minutes when then there was a tap at our door. It was our benefactor summoning us over to the restaurant. We eagerly followed and as we stepped inside we were suddenly greeted with a cheer from a crowd of fifteen people sat round a large table. It was loaded with food and two empty seats were waiting for us. As we went to sit, we were both handed a shot glass.

“Chiz!” they all shouted, standing and raising their glasses.

“Cheers!” we replied, and we all stood and necked it back together. Judging by the burn it was probably ‘baijiu’, a 40% rice wine.

Our glasses were immediately recharged and we remained standing for another “Chiz!”


That set the tone for the evening.

Our hosts spoke no English, but once we’d exhausted our Mandarin by explaining who we were, where we were from and where we were going, they didn’t press us and just kept passing dishes over and declaring every few minutes that it was time for another shot. We’d be chop-sticking noodles into our mouths when the cry would go out and we’d struggle to our feet, swallow the food, raise the toast and knock it back, remain standing as the bottle glugged round again and, at the signal, threw another one down. Before long we were both laughing and singing with the rest of them, emboldened enough to declare it time for another shot again. And another. Chiz! We were both absolutely hammered by the end of it.

So we figured this must be workers’ lodging after all, with these being the workers arriving late after a long day. Except then they all got up and started saying goodbye to us, shaking our hands and giving us emphatic thumbs up for the journey ahead. They all wandered down the steps and into their cars (I have no idea who the designated drivers were that night) and drove away. We stood there on the steps of a now empty restaurant, waving everybody off like we owned the place. And we certainly seemed to have the run of it. We were the only people left there that night, and there was nobody around the next morning as we packed up and set off down the road. This wasn’t the only time we slept somewhere without ever really knowing whether it was a guesthouse, or really what it was, but it certainly was the most enjoyable. The next morning less so. We rolled down the hill to find a long climb waiting for us at the bottom. Liv groaned. My head felt like a rotten octopus.


Nanting River

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Welcome to China

Well we weren’t expecting life-size concrete elephants, but here they were, dozens of them lining the boulevard, all rearing up in their twinkling jewelled frontlets, trunks poised ready to herald our arrival. And where had we arrived exactly? The pristine sky up ahead was fractured by a hulking vermillion stupa equipped with ornate barbs and a delicate golden finial that caught the sun and flashed high above us. Buddhist statues, golden spires, a parade of concrete elephants... it was hard to comprehend that this was just a housing estate.

Welcome to China. You may have heard, but it’s on the rise. The world’s largest economy by purchasing power and still the fastest growing, churning out 10% average annual growth over the last three decades. Though its not a new player on the scene, of course. The Shang Dynasty had been established for 300 years before Tutankhamun reigned in Egypt. When Socrates was knocking back hemlock in Athens, China’s great philosopher, Kong Fuzi (“Master Kong”, anglified over the years to ‘Confucius’), had been and gone for almost a century. And in 251BC, while Rome was battling for European supremacy in the Punic Wars, Chancellor Lu Buwei was trying to shake off the dangerous affections of the Queen Dowager by hiring a man with an especially large penis to perform a seductive dance while hoisting a large wooden wheel on his willy.*  

We’d only been here a few days but we’d been staggered by the size of it several times (China that is, not the man’s penis). The border crossing looked like it was made to hold off dinosaurs, dominated by this vast metal gateway well over a hundred feet high. The duty free was quite a sight too: a carpark of market stalls selling an unfathomable collection of tumble-dryers, jewellery, fluorescent dildos, cauldrons, mobile phone accessories and tins of bear bile. We didn't buy anything. And then once we got going our road was a cyclist's dream: ruthlessly flat, shot straight through the hillsides and suspended soaring over the cultivated valleys below. For a couple of days, riding on that road with that blue sky above us, it was like we were floating through some old cadillac advert. 

So really by now the concrete elephants, while obviously not expected, were not exactly incongruous. We pedalled past them and over the wired suspension bridge to the regional capital of Jing Hong. We’d been taken aback by our first Chinese “town”—which we did not expect to have the twin-towered, twelve-storey art deco hotel that greeted us when we arrived—and now we were going to be taken aback by our first Chinese city too. No, not a congested hive of pollution. We arrived into clean air and palm-lined streets. The walkways were swept, the traffic was calm, and between the glass-fronted shopping malls and balconied apartments we found botanical gardens and Thai-style temples basking in the afternoon sun.

Our budget hotel was a little less attractive, cast in concrete with clanging metal steps and loose shower fittings. But we were both far too relieved at getting here to care about any of that. Both of our bikes had been on the verge of terminal catastrophe for weeks. Liv’s wheel rims were dangerously eroded and my tyres and bottom bracket were several hundred kilometres past their usable service lives. We wheeled the wounded machines into an upmarket bicycle shop across the road and left them in the care of the mechanics. Now we had a few days to fix our plans.

The situation was this: we had a one-month visa and a three-month plan that would take us through the Hengduan Mountains and on to the final sprint to the finish line in Tiananmen Square. Our success hinged on two factors. The first was our being able to renew our visas. Renewing a visa twice for one month at a time was technically possible in China, but it required a mountain of paperwork, some of which was virtually impossible for us to provide. For example, we’d need to show proof of our hotel bookings over the entire month for which we wanted to extend. The trouble was, of course, that we rarely knew where we’d end up on any given evening, let alone several weeks in advance.

After some digging, we learned that the way to get around this was to find a visa office with a more pragmatic interpretation of the rules. We’d hunted through online forums for months now and whittled it down to two promising candidates: one in Zhongdian, an old Tibetan town on the edge of our entrance into the mountains; the second in Leshan, roughly where the mountains would spit us out again afterwards. Timing was crucial. We could only renew the visas a few days before they expired, and the game was up if we overstayed by even one day. We were also stuffed if either visa office decided to fully enforce the regulations when we got there.

So that was the first issue and it was as resolved as it could be. The second issue was not.

Every cyclist we’d met over the last few months who’d been up in the mountains had warned us that a large section of the Tibetan Highway was undergoing major reconstruction work that rendered it impassable. Without that road there didn’t seem to be any way for us to get out of the mountains once we got there. Ever since we heard the news, we'd spent many long afternoons staring at maps and delving into internet forums trying to piece together an alternative route, but every track we traced either took us too far north, where our visas would expire before we’d have chance to renew them, or else they led to more dead-ends and broken roads.

As the sun baked the pavement outside, we were sat at the back of a Jing Hong coffee house, surrounded by maps, notepads and guidebooks. It was the third day we'd been there. Our bikes would be ready soon and once we got back on the road there just wouldn’t be time for this level of research again. We had less than a month until we got there. But nothing worked. I glanced glumly at the alternative: a highway diversion around the mountains that skirted all the interesting bits.

Liv had by now gotten very tired of plotting and replotting routes that never quite worked, so while I was glaring angrily at my map, she decided to take a quick break and take a look at some photos to motivate her. With the Hengduan Mountains zoomed in on Google Maps she hit the ‘photos’ button… and an interesting thing happened.

“Robin. I think I’ve found it.”

She turned the netbook around and there, running right through a stretch unmarked by any road on any map was a breadcrumb trail of photographs dotted along from the apparent dead end of one trail to link with another a hundred kilometres away. She clicked one of the pictures. It showed a precarious sand track pressed against a sheer drop, and there in the bottom edge of the frame was a black blob. A bicycle pannier. A lone cyclist had found an unmarked trail and geotagged his way down and now we had a track to follow around the closed roads. Our mountain route was on!

* China: A History, John Keay pg 89

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Laos VI: Royal Rest

Friday 5 October 2012, somewhere near Phou Khoun, Luang Prabang District, Laos

Somewhere in the greasy inner workings of the spindle on which my pedal arms turned, a little ball bearing was preparing to mutiny. For months he had laboured diligently alongside his ring of colleagues to guide each rotation smoothly round, but the work had been getting heavier lately. These Laotian hills demanded heavy turns that laid sustained, warping pressure on the chrome-steel crew, and this little ball had reached his limit. As he was tossed around another grinding turn he finally rebelled and broke rank with a defiant clonk.


We were halfway up the hill when the noise came. Liv pulled up beside me as I dismounted to inspect the damage, tugging the pedals to feel the mechanism chatter inside. This was not good. We had neither the tools nor the skill to fix this, and the last time this clonk-and-wobble had occurred the entire bottom bracket had given out within minutes. Miraculously that end had come within metres of the final summit of the Cameron Highlands, giving us a 55 kilometre clear downhill run to the next bike shop. But luck like that doesn't come round twice. Now we were facing a day and a half of heavy riding until the next town. So if this bracket gave out anywhere near as quickly as the last, we’d have no choice but to hitch a lift and break the spell of cycling the whole way across Asia.

The riding up to then had been glorious. From the Plain of Jars our road had cut west over rising waves of shrub-jungle hills. The hillsides were patchy where the jungle had fallen to farming or logging, yet forests remained and in the fields between the land still teemed with saplings and wildflowers trembling in the warm meridian wind.

Our road wound on and the landscape steepened and grew. Great rocky outcrops tore above the trees in the far distance, and at dusk the fog crept over the landscape to pour down into the deep, river-creased valleys below. By the second day the ascents had become afternoon-long affairs, but we were fit enough to enjoy them by now. The shift from easy rolling to stiff, doughy climbs was never pleasant, but we’d learned to ease down a notch and hold a steady pace. Aching legs were just the prelude to a cosy buzz of endorphins—that same warm contentment you earned as a kid chasing through fields on long summer days. We fired those feelings on the way up and in time we’d reach the top and find a whole new realm unfurled before us, just as the momentum caught us and sent us storming down the far side, fingers clenched and the wind roaring in our ears.

So we were getting the hang of the hills, but our judgement of distance still left a lot to be desired. At the end of that second day and with miles to go to the next town, the sky revolved through dusk, the road darkened and we found ourselves riding through a void of black geography and stars. There was no moon, no distant glow from any towns; the night was pitch blackness and as it fell the frogs and crickets shrieked with delight.

For two strange hours it was as though we had passed into another world. All the amphibious, anthropodic, creeping, croaking creatures of the woods seemed to have risen together to proclaim their dominion here. We were in their realm now and only barely tolerated—a sentiment regularly batted home by the wings of the fat moths and katydids that kept thumping into us.

Progress was slow with our bike-lights waning, but finally a glow did appear beyond a rise and we rolled at last into the yellow glare of a little junction town called Phou Khoun. As we climbed the wooden steps to our room that night we saw a dozen moths dancing around the landing lightbulb, and through the window an electron-cloud throbbed around the porchlight.  

The next day the junction set us north for the final run into Luang Prabang. There were two days and two large hills to go, and it was on the first of these that my bottom bracket cracked out of place. We knew there was nothing we could do to fix it, and yet despite the rattle and our past experience, the pedals did still turn. So we vowed to push on for as long as we could, fully expecting the mechanism to collapse within the hour. But it held. It held all the way till dusk that day when we turned in for the night. And then it held again, though crackling and grinding, as we ascended the final 700 metre hill the next day.

We came clattering into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon, gazing relievedly at the white-washed town houses and the street vendors’ smouldering grills, pleasantly surprised to have made it. Despite its city status, Luang Prabang had a country town feel to it. The streets were quiet, the buildings low and pleasant with louvered shutters cast in pastel shades, and the town itself seemed to have somehow slipped in between the forest, leaving broad-leaved trees free to flourish between the houses and drape their canopies over the roads. This ancient royal capital, caressed by the lazy waters of the Mekong, was to be our refuge as we rested and dealt with the bikes.

The next day we awoke to find a city twinkling with stupas and the high golden gables of Buddhist temples, barely risen from its low season and yet still amply supplied with cafes and cushioned seats to collapse in with a book. But we couldn’t find a mechanic. A guy who ran a cycle hire told us there was probably someone in Vientiane, but the idea of a two-day bus ride with a bike was not appealing, not without confirmation and not if we could avoid it.

I took my toolkit and a rag and found through gritted teeth that I could just about tighten the cups of the bracket by hand. This restricted the wobble of the pedals and some of the strain on the inner mechanism, but it made the pedals too stiff to turn and so forced a compromise that fell not far short of the state it had been in three hours earlier before I’d got black-handed meddling with it. Putting the hours in, however, left the impression that I’d somehow improved the situation so it no longer warranted the previous level of concern. We should have looked into the mechanic in Vientiane the next day, but when the time came our research was desultory and inconclusive. All we managed to do was confirm the existence of another mechanic 450 kilometres away north over the border in China.

Considering the care we had taken with so much else on this trip it was uncharacteristically sloppy of us to let our efforts here peter out and lay our faith in good fortune to see us across the border, but that’s exactly what we did. I can only say that we had a lot on our minds. In four weeks it was our plan to ride into the Hengduan Mountains, a curling storm of snow peaks on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The topographic profile of the months ahead showed a forest of jagged inclines that dwarfed the very highest of the Laotian hills. Within weeks we would be climbing up to almost 5000 metres—more than three times higher than anything in Laos and well into the realm where severe altitude sickness could set in. Beyond the risk of fatal pulmonary edema that this posed, and not forgetting those wolves and bears that apparently lurked up there, we realised we would be entering right at the onset of winter with temperatures looking set to dive double figures below zero. 

But, technically speaking, these things we could deal with. We could buy warmer bedding, we knew how to handle altitude sickness (descend, descend, descend!); and okay there probably wasn’t much we could do about a bear or a pack of wolves, but we knew that such an encounter was extremely unlikely. The one thing we could not resolve was how we were actually going to get out of the mountains once we got there. We’d read months ago that our exit road, the Tibetan Highway, had been rendered impassable by major roadworks, but given the speed China put up skyscrapers we assumed these would be finished long before we arrived. Yet the online reports remained the same and the cyclists we met in Laos who’d been up there all confirmed our fears.

“You can’t go that way. The road is totally gone for, like, 70 miles or something.”

Without an alternative route our mountain plan was scuppered, but an alternative route was not forthcoming. An airy fatalism descended on us in Luang Prabang, the success of the coming months now left at the mercy of road workers or the off-chance that we discovered some secret unmarked trail. Unless something changed in the next four weeks we’d just have to turn back at the edge of the mountains, at the edge of what should have been the pinnacle of a year’s riding, and instead take a long diversion down a string of busy intercity highways. Really, what did a loose bracket matter now that our mountain plan was in dangling by a thread? And what hope would we have in the mountains anyway if we couldn’t even handle a mechanical failure without assistance in these clement conditions?

Luang Prabang is not the kind of place to permit any kind of stress to take root for long. By the third day we probably had every intention of taking decisive steps to get the bike fixed, but the riverside cafe we visited for breakfast was just that little bit too comfortable to desert so soon. Pots of tea arrived and were resupplied as the sun sailed over the river, tilting shadows out from under the pillared arcades that lined the town’s streets, and circling dials around the stone dogs that sat guard beneath the sparkling old temples. Hours and days slid by like the pages of our books, and all thoughts of mechanical failures and road closures dissolved into endless pots of tea and hot plumes of steam in the old town sauna. 

It was with a guilty start one afternoon that we realised we’d been in Luang Prabang for two whole weeks. Vague plans to take a wending trail through the north of the country burst as we eyed up the most direct route to the border and realised that even this left us barely enough time to get there before our visas expired. I bitterly regretted our negligence as soon as we set off the next morning. The bracket chewed at itself far worse than I remembered and now we had no choice but to trust to luck that the bracket would hold the 300 kilometres to the border.

The omens were not good. Within a couple of hours a stone knocked a puncture through my thinning front tyre, and as we stopped to fix it a Swiss couple cycling south pulled over to exchange details of our respective roads ahead. We told them about our plan to ride through the mountains and they earnestly warned us to forget about it; the road was unrideable sludge.

Hard hills came on the second day and with them came hard, heavy rain. We arrived at a guesthouse hours after dark, damp and exhausted, but relieved at least to have made it to within a day's ride of the border. Then, early the following afternoon, the bracket made a sharp crunching sound and the pedal orbit jolted another half inch out of place. I chewed my lip and jiggled the pedals hopelessly, before Liv and I took a deep breath and gently pressed on.

Not long after this our quiet road began to thicken with lorries and HGVs and then the red-roofed offices of Laos immigration rolled into view. Our relief at arriving was quickly tempered by the unavoidable conclusion that we were rattling into the final stages of our journey grossly ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the challenges ahead. Yet as we bedded down in a truckers’ lodge that night, phoneticizing and transferring Chinese phrases into our notebooks, our anxieties settled and the dull thuds of adrenaline leant to that final night in Laos a growing sense of excitement. Despite the distance and the mountains and the dire state of our bicycles, Beijing, our final destination, felt suddenly within our reach.