I left you at the Maijishan grottoes, in the south of Gansu province at a temple in the mist. From there, I continued my journey, drifting into Shanxxi province towards its capital, Xi’an ( also the old capital of China), and the end of my adventure along the Silk Road. The beauty of the landscape and scenery continued, as did people’s kindness.
Cycling through three days of solid rain, I arrived at my German host Bernd’s apartment in the centre of the city, totally drenched and incredibly relieved to have a roof over my head, a warm shower, good company, a chair to sit down on, a soft bed to sleep in and a kitchen I could use to cook without juggling one gas burner and two small pots. I’m so grateful to all of the people I’ve stayed with and their incredible generosity. Every person you stay with on a journey teaches you so much, they’re all so different with so many stories and so much life experience to share with you.
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China and was the capital during many of the most important dynasties in Chinese history. One of the rare cities where some of the old, culturally valuable, buildings managed to survive Mao’s destruction of anything that could remind anyone of the ‘decadent’ past, In reality, this means much of ‘China’ as you would imagine it is just missing. There aren’t the really old buildings in the old parts of town, nor the temples that you would expect to find. In Xi’an, two magnificent buildings that did escape the Cultural Revolution are the stunning bell and drum towers, along with the high wall that surrounds the whole of the inner part of the city.
The day I arrived in the city, I told Bernd about a slight problem I had: a visa dilemma. I have a multiple-entry, 90 day visa for China, which I’m incredibly grateful for, again another example of how privileged and lucky us Brits are.
Travelling for this long through China wouldn’t have been possible otherwise… yet, 90 days wasn’t quite enough, I had to do a border run to take advantage of the multiple entry part of it, but Xi’an is towards the north of China… and the closest border was unfortunately Hong Kong, 2000km South…
So I asked Bernd if it was ok to leave my bike at his apartment while I took a train down to Shenzhen, a city of 12 million people bordering Hong Kong, where I could cross over, get a stamp in my passport and then come back for the return train. We checked ticket availability the next day, which revealed very few left and none with seats. The only other option was a standing ticket… on a 24 hour train journey. Bernd looked across at me and asked me if I really wanted to do it. “Yes,” I said, “it’ll be interesting”… Two days later, I was on that train and yes, a standing ticket really does mean standing, shattering my hopes of some sort of perch, the train was absolutely packed, full of families with miserable crying infants and children. I unintentionally found a spot next to the toilet and prepared myself for hell. My perception of time warping along with my perception of what discomfort was, I existed in a state of purgatory for what felt like an eternity, but the journey went better than I expected. A very kind Chinese guy told me he didn’t need his seat at about 2am, which meant I ended up with a seat for five hours, making the journey much more bearable. I took the time to sleep for two hours, and to continue reading the Japanese epic of Musashi, in preparation for my arrival to the Land of the Rising Sun.
After what felt like a lifetime, I arrived in Shenzhen, walked over the border to Hong Kong and although feeling a strong attraction to it, I decided to leave it for another time to save money. Within an hour I was back in Shenzhen at midnight. I searched for some hostels and finding none I wondered the city eating a bag of garlic flavoured monkey nuts until 2am when fatigue finally forced sleep upon me on the concrete outside the train station I had just come from, so I slept cuddling my backpack for four hours waking up with the sun, feeling much more spritely than I expected. To McDonald’s I went for the free WiFi, and proudly managed to resist the coffee and the bacon and egg McMuffin. There I booked a return train ticket for the next morning, this one was 30 hours, but… I had a seat. I then hunted for a hostel again, not tough enough for another night on the concrete outside the train station. I soon found one and could finally relax. After 30 sleepless hours, I was back in Xi’an, where I stayed with Bernd for a couple more days and then continued on towards the coast and the end of China! I felt excited to start a new chapter in the journey in South Korea but I had another 1200km of hot humid weather and busy, dusty, smoggy roads to contend with. Although, there was also beautiful scenery and a special mountain, Hua Shān. Sitting just a day’s ride from Xi’an, Hua Shān is a 2200m high sacred misty mountain, consisting of four main peaks. With Hua Shān village starting at 400m, it’s nearly 2km of height gain up a steep, sometimes almost vertical, 12km trail.
On the way, I met a young 20-year-old Chinese cyclist going in the same direction as me, so we cycled together and luckily he had found an incredibly cheap hostel, costing less than £4 a night, right at the foot of the mountain. Both of us were complaining of saddle sores. Once we arrived at the hostel, we went straight out for dinner and found a cheap restaurant down an alleyway run by a man and his wife and their five-year-old son, who seemed to enjoy helping out by moving vegetables around the shop. My Chinese friend helped me decipher the Chinese menu and I ordered an enormous plate of pork fried rice for the equivalent of £1. Halfway through the meal, my friend went to the shop and came back with a box of sanitary towels. I instantly understood why: because of my saddle sores. Making the connection, I burst out laughing, though I already had a much more direct plan of my own involving a sewing needle. Back at the hostel, with said needle sterilised, I lanced the grape-sized blood blister, in search of relief from the pain caused by the intense humidity and knowing that I wouldn’t be cycling for another two days felt confident in my intervention.
The next day I prepared to climb Hua Shān, packing my bag with waterproofs, notebook, camera, tent, sleeping matt and 5l of water, as I knew the water being sold on the mountain would be incredibly expensive. Going back to the restaurant from the night before and filling my cooking pot with some more of the £1 fried rice, I decided I would save it until dinner. At 2pm I began the six-hour climb; everything was drenched with sweat because of the heat and humidity, but soon relief came two hours into the climb in the form of enormous black clouds and an epic thunderstorm. As I hiked up it, thunder and lightning reverberated and reflected through the steep, now shadowy valley. The rain matched the thunder and lightning in intensity, turning the steep almost ladder-like stairs into waterfalls, causing me to chuckle in delight at the novel experience and take even more care of my footing and handholds. There was no point in using my waterproofs.
The coolness of the rain allowed me to hike faster than if it had been hot, and within three hours I was at the northern peak, the southern peak lying another two hours further up the trail. Hua Shān has been heavily touristified, the trail up the mountain is fully lit so people can climb it at night, the stairs are well cut and maintained. There are regular rest stops, two cable cars if you’re not feeling tough enough to tackle the climb up or back down, and there are information boards at every interesting temple, cave or other area of interest along the path, creating a kind of story as you go up which surprisingly I actually enjoyed.
I continued on, stopping at the many interesting restored small temples along the path, the rain now just a light drizzle, the mountain was busy with crowded steep paths. Soon I arrived at a temple, where I was stopped by an official who said I could go no further because it was too dangerous. Having planned to sleep on the top of the mountain, I snuck past him and continued on, looking for the perilously dangerous part, which I never found. Before long, finally starting to feel tired, I was at the top of the 2200m southern peak with the wind howling all around me, the prayer flags straining at their knots to escape off the mountain into the void. The view was awe inspiring, and made me excited about the sunrise the next morning, so just below the peak I pitched my tent and donned my waterproofs to try and keep some heat in, it wasn’t cold enough to be dangerous, but cold enough to be uncomfortable. Everything in my bag was drenched and after dinner and some notes written in my soggy, travel-worn journal, I lay down for a terrible night’s sleep.
I awoke at 5:30 and quickly packed everything up to enjoy the sunrise and the views. It was almost other-worldly up there during this time, thick cloud blanketed the earth below, creating an almost heavenly scene. The mountains appearing like islands rising up out of a white ocean, the crimson red prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze, magnificent vertical rock faces pockmarked and populated by pine trees, the sun reflecting from their deep brown weathered trunks and blue skies as far as the eye could see – the contrast of colours a feast for the eyes and the soul.
Of all the peaks I hiked that morning, the most memorable was the Eastern peak, with a view out onto Chess Platform, a peninsular of rock jutting out from the main body of the peak with vertical sides. You can walk with a rope and harness across the knife edge of the peninsula, to a small stone pagoda with a stone chessboard in the centre, where Wie Shuqing a (blablabla) would play chess with others on the cloud-shrouded peninsula.The way down was harder than the way up, due to tired trembling legs, but it was still much more enjoyable than the cable car.
After Hua Shān I continued my journey to Qingdao with immensely sore legs from climbing the mountain. While cycling through the intensely humid Chinese summer, disgusted with the amount I was sweating during the day and at night, the only slight relief came from the occasional watermelon or the breeze while cycling in the evenings. Or more kindness.
While stopping at a roadside restaurant to wash my vegetables using the outside tap, two Chinese guys stopped to look at me and my bike. First you get that initial split second eye contact to judge what the person is like, then a smile, an attempt at some communication and then they invited me to eat with them, I tried to say no but they repeated the offer and I agreed. They were so friendly, they had many questions about my journey and said they respected me a lot, I guess, like so many people I’ve met, they wished they could do something similar but, being in their mid-thirties, they had families and wouldn’t have the time, which was another reason I’d decided to travel now. So I told them my story using Google translate. Soon a big bowl of soup arrived, like a Chinese version of Russian Borsch, except this contained large slices of tender pork belly. We continued trying to communicate between big mouthfuls of food. Halfway through the meal my companions ordered more pork belly for the soup and used a fresh pair of chopsticks to pile it all into my bowl, which made me laugh as I thanked them. When it was finally time to leave, they bought me two beers which were still cold when I found a place to pitch my tent half an hour later.
Two days later and I was invited to lunch again! I had turned off the road to find a market and buy some food supplies, after buying my onions, sweet potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber and pork, I stopped at a shop to buy a couple of sachets of coffee. The lady behind the counter was really friendly and knew a couple of words of English, she called her daughter in, who knew a little more English, and we chatted for a minute, trying to tell them where I had come from and where I was going, soon they had invited me to eat lunch with them which I agreed to as I knew it would be another great experience. So we sat on tiny stools around a tiny table – imagine the table in a child’s playroom – sitting with my hairy knees up at chest height. I sat talking to my host’s daughter, and then she brought out some food she had just finished cooking, consisting of rice, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, Pak Choi with bean sprouts, chicken, peanuts, liver and potato. As always, it was delicious and the company was great. Again, I told them my story and how I cooked my food, where I slept, I told them about my family. I asked them about China and where they had travelled, the girl was about to start studying Chinese history at university. The language barrier makes it hard to have detailed conversations but there’s almost always laughter, little jokes and a hundred smiles to compliment the food. They asked me to stay at their home but I was already three days behind schedule to arrive at my next stop so sadly I had to decline.
Cycling on through the humid, dusty air 300km from my next stop I had the night from hell that absorbed every ounce of my patience so rapidly that I went rocketing past anger all the way to acceptance of the miserable situation. I feel I should recount it to show the reality of cycle touring, it’s not all roses, but it’s the contrast between the good times and the bad that make the good times great.
I’ll set the scene: it was dark and raining, I was in a random Chinese city. It was one of these pop-up cities that probably wasn’t there five years ago, so kind of a bit devoid of anything interesting; just enormous apartment buildings and big wide roads. Cycling in the rain I was pretty desperate to find a place to camp, hoping to find a spot a couple of kilometres outside the city, and then bang, my tyre explodes… so that’s it, I’m camping in the city, I walked around for 20 minutes with a flat rear tyre and finally found a piece of grass that looked acceptable. So, wheel off, lots of mosquitoes, tyre levers out, mosquitoes, tyre off, mosquitoes, hit the side of tent to kill mosquitoes, tent pole snaps, grit teeth and clench fists in anger, fix tent pole, mosquitoes, patch on inner tube, mosquitoes, eat dinner, tyre back on, pump up the tyre, the lever on my expensive pump snaps clean off. I shout in pure anguish, spare pump out, pump up the tyre, inner tube pokes out of split in the side wall I created by wheeling my bike around on the old perished tyre, inner tube explodes like a gunshot. I give up and go to sleep. I wake up in the morning, try to repair the now huge hole in the inner tube, pull out all of the studs from my winter ice tyre that I kept as a spare, fit the tyre and ‘repaired tube’, fully load up the bike, the repair is holding. Pick up the last piece of luggage to put on the bike and the tyre is flat again. Try one more time. It works, I cycle around looking for a bike shop and two guys lead me to a small scooter mechanic who repairs my split inner tubes. He then gives me a huge box of 48 patches and glue for free. Every cloud has a silver lining. Problems are almost always opportunities for good experiences.
After what felt like the longest couple of weeks of the entire journey, I finally made it to the coast to stay with some more Warmshowers hosts, this time from England. A short cycle from their home to the port city of Qingdao, enormous and actually quite beautiful. I stayed with an American Couchsurfing host who had been to over 100 countries and hosted 100 couch surfers!!! The next day I was on the ferry to Incheon, South Korea… it felt strange to be getting so much closer to my destination, leaving China behind and starting a new chapter in the journey; one of the final chapters but maybe one of the best.
The journey on the ferry was comfortable and smooth from 17:30 to 9am the next day. At midnight I went out on deck, with only the sound of the massive diesel engines and the ocean for company. Looking up at the night sky it was clear, the brightest star in the sky was glowing red, making me wonder if it could be mars so I went to grab my camera on the off-chance I could see anything using the zoom. Staring back at me when I looked through the viewfinder was Mars, like a red marble in the inky blackness, floating, a barren planet calling out to us in the void of space, the ultimate test for our species, beckoning to the most adventurous of us and the spirit of our early ancestors that’s allowed us to spread out across the planet, over freezing mountains, scolding deserts and the abyss of the oceans.
One last abyss remains… I wonder which of us will be the first to take that next great step for humanity. In a decade the first humans may put a footprint into the poisonous perchlorate dust of the red planet. This may sound totally nuts to the uninformed but one company is making solid headway towards this goal having already done what many engineers all around the world said was impossible: landing a rocket back down the same way it took off. Why am I telling you this in my blog that’s about cycling to Tokyo? Because it’s among one of the many things that inspired me, it made what I’m doing pale in comparison to what Elon Musk is trying to achieve, which made it easier for me to take the leap into the unknown of cycling solo halfway around the world. It’s actually much easier than you would expect; you ride a bike every day for a certain amount of time. Like any big thing it’s just a series of small steps cobbled together. You cut and lay a stone each day and eventually you have a cathedral.
Anyway, back to reality, in the next post.