Where do I start? It’s been over two months and well over 2000km since my last update. I’m in Qingdao on the east coast of China as I write this account of the last 4000+ kilometres.
China was hard work, I’ve been in this enormous country for nearly four months and 6000km, yet it’s gone by in a flash. It feels more like a month, the deserts, mountains, farmland, rainforest and highways all blending into one vast conflicted memory, but as with most memories, it’s as if they do the opposite of rusting. With time the tarnished surface, the memories of the discomfort and difficulties dissolve away, becoming polished and embellished within the room of your mind to reveal a glimmering surface that you look upon with great enjoyment, laughing proudly at the difficulties you overcame, cherishing the beauty and awe inspiring scenery you’ve been lucky enough to experience and remembering fondly the people you’ve met. That is the beauty of travel, like a good cheese, a fine wine or Korean Kimchi, it ages well.
China is everything you’ve heard about and so much more. After travelling 6000km across it I don’t find the population of 1.4billion human beings to be that surprising anymore, it seems almost obvious that such a large landmass with such fertile areas of land and vast resources would have an enormous population. Dare I say it, I’m almost surprised it’s not larger. What has surprised me is the efficiency of how the land is used, you might see an orchard that appears to have grass between the trees like an orchard in Europe but it’s actually another crop that’s growing. The amount of irrigation is mind blowing, lines of poplar trees can often be seen protecting fields from high wind, these are all irrigated by large pipes that protrude from the ground and are turned on at a set time each day by a man with a key. Many of the fruit trees are covered in what look like little brown paper bags to help each individual fruit ripen.
Much more land is made use of than you see in Europe, hence the terraced fields blanketing steep hillsides, turning them into a patchwork of production as far as the eye can see. The amount of development in the form of buildings, roads, bridges, railways and wind farms is terrifying and awe inspiring, the rate of growth is unbelievable and sad when you travel through what you know used to be a beautiful village nestled in the mountains, but now it has a large noisy road scything right through the middle of it. If something needs to be built to aid the rate of growth then it appears that it will be built, no matter what or who is in the way.
The people are generally very friendly. It’s a very safe country, they work hard, they’re inventive and busy with their lives but almost always happy to see you. Some of the norms here take a bit of getting used to, the spitting is one of them, I’m still not sure I’m used to it, you have to be careful when overtaking someone on a motorbike or walking past them on a pavement. Even restaurants aren’t off limits to the less inhibited.
Kindness again has been a common thread. I’ve often been handed bottles of water and food out of car windows, even while still cycling like a Tour de France rider and even the occasional ice cream. I’ve been invited into people’s homes for lunch and had a meal bought for me in a restaurant. It’s also an incredibly safe country in terms of crime, it’s highly unlikely anything bad will happen to you anywhere here. I think you’re probably in much greater danger back home in your local town or London.
So I left Turpan – all the way back in western China’s very un-Chinese Xinjian province – feeling as weak as an eighty-year-old man (uncle Laurie, you’re exempt from this category), because I’d eaten some dodgy homemade yoghurt which made me ill for five days.
The day I left, I met a Chinese couple called Chenhao and Sunwenjing both about the same age as me. I ended up cycling with them for ten days, which was a totally new experience for me, having previously cycled alone. To have company on the road was nourishing, even with the language barrier. Being with two Chinese people meant the police checks went much quicker, as did my first experience of a Chinese hospital… That first night we slept in an abandoned bazaar in a village in the hills, close to the Tuyoq Thousand Buddha caves. For the first couple of days, they were worried about me as I was so slow after being ill, and my bike was substantially heavier than theirs because it was still carrying my winter gear. After a couple of days, I was back to full strength and laughing as I overtook them. Soon their loud bickering in Chinese started to grate on me and I would cycle far enough ahead that I couldn’t hear them. As with many Chinese people I’ve come across it’s hard to tell sometimes if they’re really arguing or just aggressively debating, they sound rather angry while they do it, verging on the point of physical violence, but less than a minute later they’ll be laughing with each-other.
They were both cycling to Xining in Qinghai province in the same direction I was going, so we continued east together across the hot, incredibly windy barren plains of the Gobi Desert, which turned out to be a bit underwhelming at the southern extent of the desert, just wind turbines and motorway. I felt we weren’t quite in the Gobi Desert proper but having said that it was still brutally hot, often a sizzling 45°C. Copious amounts of watermelon were consumed in this time as they’re so cheap in China and delicious and excellent for rehydration. It was easier to find water here than in the Taklamakan, but the wind was the big problem, and with there being only motorway for certain sections of the journey it wasn’t always an enjoyable or safe experience, and sometimes not physically possible. On one of the nights that we slept under the motorway, the wind really picked up, howling through the small 4ft high ‘tunnel’ leaving us huddling in our sleeping bags to try and hide from the wind. We were then woken in the night by yelping and howling, Sunwenjing asked in a terrified voice if it was a wolf, but alas, it was just a dog that probably wanted to shelter in the same tunnel as us but was too scared to come near.
Towards the end of our time together I managed to injure myself and experience what a Chinese hospital is like. While trying to lift my bike up a small verge and now wearing sandals I slipped backwards and caught the top of my foot on the chainwheel going right through the skin to the tendons, luckily they all stayed intact. You suddenly feel very helpless when you’re in a foreign country on your own and you can’t fix something yourself. So, leaving the bikes with Sunwenjing Chen and I hitchhiked 5km to the hospital. We arrived and Chen explained everything, an although they were busy, within half an hour I was seen, ten minutes later I was on a bed having the wound cleaned and a stitch put in. Then to the injection room to have a tetanus shot, one large dose split into four shots, two in each arse cheek, each one fifteen minutes apart, all of this was done with no privacy, crying children, old, young and middle aged, coming in for all sorts of jabs. So I had the first shot sitting on a stall, shorts pulled part way down, a family across the room watching me. With the jab done, I had to sit back down for 15 minutes and wait for the next one. This continued for the next hour, which meant I could continue reading my book about the intelligence of octopi. All done, I paid my £20 and we hitchhiked back to the bikes. Efficient and incredibly cheap, I was impressed.
A couple of days later, out of Xinjiang province and free of police checks in Gansu province, we split up as ten days together had been enough. Them being a couple, I think they wanted some privacy, and I wanted the road to myself again, where you can cycle for as long as you want, or stop for as long as you want. You don’t have to wait for anyone and they don’t have to wait for you. We decided to meet a few hundred kilometres away in the ancient Silk Road town of Jiayuguan, the westernmost point of the great wall. Battling brutal character-building headwinds and slowing my pace to 10kmh, I made my way to that town relieved to be in my own company again. The night before I arrived I slept in possibly one of my favourite, most thought provoking campsites of the entire journey. Late in the day, cycling along, I was enjoying the cooler temperatures and orange hues cast out onto the landscape. The road was quiet, the scenery beautiful, I looked across the evening vista and saw a large earthen structure, like an old fort maybe 400m away from the road. Deciding it could make a good place to stop, I started cycling/dragging my bike towards it. Made up of a ditch, followed by a shorter eroded outer wall, then a much taller 3-4m high inner wall, it appeared to be an ancient Silk Road settlement. I went inside to check it out and it was perfect, three large walls and then a cliff which probably made this a superb defensive position, when there was water here… at the bottom of the cliff was a large dried up river bed. The floor of the settlement was covered in broken bits of patterned pottery, piles of stones against the walls showed that maybe structures with roofs had existed at some point. A few holes had been excavated, presumably by archaeologists or thieves with metal detectors and there was a metre-wide, maybe 10m deep well, which would have been incredibly easy to fall into had I not been looking at the ground. Cue the 127 Hours experience…
So I set up my tent and enjoyed the sunset, thinking about the lives that must have been lived out behind these walls, hundreds possibly thousands of years before, the only thing separating them from me being time. I could see them in my mind’s eye, living out their lives here walking where I was laying, making food, sitting together around fires, having children, mourning the dead, the trials and tragedies of life lived in those times long ago, much shorter and more brutal than today but maybe with a stronger sense of community than many places back home, maybe even more laughter and joy. Yet I thought about how lucky I am to have been born in this time and not in theirs, and to have been born in England, not western China. I could go on further, but the lottery of life has been incredibly good to me I think, just the fact that I am able to indulge myself in adventure is not lost on me and that’s why I find it so sad that many people are too afraid to travel or don’t believe that they could do something similar. Maybe they don’t realise that every one of their direct ancestors has survived long enough to produce progeny, making them the product of some incredibly tough and resilient individuals. We’re built to overcome struggle and discomfort, to strive. I doubt we are built to have a comfortable life, walking a little and sitting on a sofa for multiple hours a day. As I was thinking this the stars had come out, I was transported again to that different mental plain one can reside within when taking the time to look up at the Milky Way, that state of awe, when everything else slips away, there’s nothing left for it to cling to as you’re knocked onto your arse again, totally humbled, again seeing our amoeba-like position in the vast connected universe.
The next day I was in Jiayaguan where I rested for three days and saw the Great Wall for the first time. Although heavily restored, it still excites the imagination, it feels a little surreal, having heard about the Great Wall of China for most of your life, and there you are, standing on it. Jiayuguan marks the western end of the Great Wall built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. The Jiayuguan fortress marks the end of the old empire where enemies of the emperor would be exiled to wander into the harsh wilderness of the Gobi.
From Jiayuguan I made my way to Zhangye where I organised a place to stay with a warm showers host in Xian, 1300km away. From Zhangye I left Gansu province for a little sliver of Qinghai province, the majority of which is upon the Tibetan plateau. This was the longer route, but it had mountains and mountains are always good, the scenery and people changed rapidly, yaks started to appear and people’s faces changed. I even bumped into a group of orange-robed monks at the top of a 3700m high pass, wondering why I was so tired and out of breath. I then saw the sign that displayed the altitude! Maybe it’s just my perception drawn from the stereotype of monks, but they seemed so relaxed, they gave off an aura of serenity and warmth which was infectious and almost palpable in the chilly mountain air. They took photos with me using their smartphones, gave me some food and water and then drove away, leaving me smiling at the experience.
Downhill I travelled where trees started to reappear and stunning rolling forest lined roads, rickety rope bridges, mountains and a river slowly gave way to villages and terraced fields, the reactions of villagers to my western face and odd house on wheels were sometimes amusing and often made me feel guilty for scaring them so much with my alien presence. Sometimes they would physically recoil in shock at the sight of me. Old ladies sitting on chairs against the front of their homes would squash themselves back against the wall in an attempt to get further away from my sweaty form, others would smile and coo in delight at the sight of me, the largest smile you’ve ever seen coupled with the kind of sound a grandmother would make when she sees a new born baby, the memory of which still makes me laugh out loud and grin ear to ear even now.
I had to remind myself how far removed these people were to the life I have experienced, just like everybody else but to an even greater extent these people had an utterly different version of reality within their heads than mine. I thought about the older people, all of whom had survived Mao’s brutal Great Leap Forward. Without regurgitating too much from Wikipedia, it started in 1957 and aimed to transform China’s economy from mostly agrarian to industrial but led to the deadliest famine in history, causing the deaths of more than 45 million people between the years of 1958-1962. Many of these older people I saw bore the physical trauma of growing up without enough food, their bow legs paying testament to the suffering they had endured.
Things have now changed and although some people in certain villages I’ve passed through obviously don’t have enough, the majority of people I’ve seen seem to have plenty of food, which can be excellent and a novel experience if you’re the only westerner in the whole restaurant. I remember one particular occasion in Gansu province, which is famous for its spicy beef noodles. I was in a small town, I had skipped breakfast that morning and was ravenous. Very rarely eating in restaurants, my willpower broke. In the middle of a small town, almost a village, I went into a restaurant to find some sustenance. It was busy, as it was lunch, full of people who worked at the market or at the farms. All eyes turned to me as I walked in, something I’m now used to, but still an odd feeling. Having 20 sets of eyes in a crowded room all piercing into your back as you look a menu you can’t read, all you can do is smile and say hello. People want to take photos with you and you kindly oblige. So I ordered a small plate of sliced pork belly and some spicy beef noodles, and sat down with a group of Chinese guys who looked like they either worked in the fields or as mechanics, all slurping their noodles and eating chunks of raw garlic along with it. With each mouthful of noodles, one of them would take bites out of an enormous spring onion. I felt comfortable but also like a fly on the wall in real Chinese life, not the life of the big city but the village, where everyone knows everybody, a normal experience that I’ll never forget.
From here I made my way towards the Maijishan grottos near the town of Tianshui in the south of Gansu province. A protrusion of rock with cliffs on all sides and a plateau on top surrounded by lush, almost rainforest-like vegetation. The cliffs are pockmarked with caves, 194 in total, and a large statue of the Bodhisattva on one side, created by Buddhist monks in the years of 384-417.
I spent a whole evening there and then in the last of the daylight went to look for a place to clean the days of sweat and road filth from my body, pushing my bike up a dirt path for 40 minutes following a stream until I could find a place to wash. Finally, I found a tiny waterfall after leaving my bike and pushing my way through thorn bushes and vegetation, desperate to get clean. The water felt ice cold compared to the humid air of the forest and with only the sound of insects and th water for company, I stood under the water until the cold forced me leave. That night I cooked a delicious dinner of rice with fried pork belly, aubergine, garlic, onion, soy sauce and honey… I woke up early the next morning with mist shrouding the wooded peaks that surrounded me. I decided to ride up into the cool cleansing fog through the pine forests echoing with birdsong to try and find a temple I had seen on the map at the top of one of the peaks. The road was utterly silent except for the sound of dew dripping from the trees and the beginnings of the morning chorus. When I arrived at the top there was a whole village up there, living what must be an incredibly peaceful existence. I’m sure you’re imagining a rustic Chinese village where everyone still uses horses and donkeys to get around, but no, there were cars in the driveways and probably a tv in every house. After walking up an incredibly slippery steep path through the woods, the temple revealed itself through the trees at the top of this peak, looking out over the forest.
This is where I shall leave you until my next post, which should be coming very soon.