I’m now about halfway through China! We’ve seriously put in the miles early on to get to this point so quickly but it hasn’t been easy! Having survived the misery of a few days of horrendous headwinds, it was a short 80km day (80km is short now. How things have changed!) to Guazhou. I really enjoyed the rest and felt refreshed mentally to go back into the desert. As it transpired, I’d need it…
After savaging the hotel’s buffet breakfast we were on the road at 9am to do 135km to Yumen. I also finally ran out of GrRANA Energy tonic – I was sent off with a 6 month supply prior to leaving and have taken them every cycling day to get started. I’ll do a review of them later when I’ve time, but in short, I found them pretty good! The cycling was the same as before: Desert, trucks, wind turbines, petrol station and pot noodles for lunch. But the wind. Oh the wind. It wasn’t as bad as the 3 days before, but it was pretty bad. A 7.5 hour slog got us to Yumen, but not all hours on the bike are created equal. They were long, tough hours, broken down into chunks of 5km mentally to grind it out with the wind. Early in the day we drafted off each other for 40km but as the road changed direction the wind became a cross/headwind making drafting useless.
When we arrived in Yumen the second hotel we tried allowed us to stay. On the computer she translated we’re not allowed stay there legally and we needed to be discrete otherwise the Public Security Bureau would kick us out. I’ve heard about this before, and foreigners do get moved into “Tourist Hotels” by the PSB in the middle of the night. This was a 2* hotel, and tourist hotels are 3* or above, so more expensive. I guess the Chinese government only want tourists seeing the nicest hotels. Who knows? It’s a pain in the ass getting a hotel here sometimes, and when they won’t let you stay, the Chinese have this really irritating habit of writing instructions in Chinese and look flummoxed when you don’t understand it!
Despite the cycling being a bit shite we went out for some food and probably had the best meal of the trip! We’d read about Chinese “hot pot”, where you go to a restaurant with a hotplate in the middle of the table and a large pot of broth in the middle. The price is set (about €6) and you dump in whatever you like. Chicken, pork, beef, seafood, vegetables, whatever! We lashed in a load of plates of this stuff and it was absolutely delicious! Sadly, we didn’t know how much it cost, or that it was all you could eat so limited ourselves to just a generous dinner, not going too overboard. Rest assured, we won’t make that mistake again!
Also, there have been reports about an outbreak of the plague in Yumen and that the city has been closed off. There wasn’t a sign of anything like this when I was there. It was business as usual. As far as I know, one chap ate a Marmot, which tend to carry the disease. He died and they quarantined everyone he knew. That’s about it!
We left Yumen in the hope that we weren’t going to turn into plague riddled zombies with Jiayuguan just 135km away and a day off there. More of the same: Highway, trucks, pot noodles and listening to podcasts to kill time. By the way, I’ve been listening to Jarlath Regan’s “An Irishman Abroad” and really love them. If you’re into podcasts, have a listen, very well done, and I love hearing Irish accents when on the dull dull highway in the desert! Anyway, Jiayuguan was another typical Chinese city: Nothing for ages on the highway and then this huge bustling city that’s practically brand new and spotlessly clean.
We checked into another hotel for two nights and headed out for some food. As we passed a row of shop fronts we noticed some familiar beer labels: European beer! Belgian, French, German and of course the Black Stuff! In we went and I spotted a rather large assortment of spirits and there it was, a bottle of Jameson! James settled for a Belgian beer (which is really good by the way) and I asked for a single Jameson, only to be poured a triple for about €4. Then the guy working there poured us complementary triple whiskeys (I think it was a Chinese whiskey, it wasn’t bad) and with empty stomachs after a 135km day, well, another round was inevitable! We wobbled out of the place and with our food budget well and truly blown settled for yet another round of instant noodles and processed sausage. Worth it in my mind. Maybe not the next morning though!
With a day off we headed to the ancient fort in Jiayuguan. This marks the start of the former Chinese Empire, and from a cycling perspective, that means civilisation for us. The western gate to the fort was where exiles were kicked out of the empire. I can certainly related to how they might have felt – there is literally nothing west of Jiayuguan, except for the towns popping up every 130km or so. I can only imagine how desolate the desert was in older times. From Jiayuguan onwards towns start to crop up more frequently, although not so frequent until we hit Lanzhou next week, but enough to make life that bit easier.
After the fort it was back to the hotel to veg. It’s funny how despite being able to cycle up to 185km in a single day, I have absolutely no other fitness. Walking around the fort left me absolutely knackered! It was the same in Urumqi and Bishkek. This trip has given me one form of fitness: Cycling long long distances slowly. I can’t even walk up stairs without getting tired!
The next morning outside the hotel the staff from the bank next door were doing a group warm up of stretches and other exercises in the street. Funny stuff. This is China! With fresh legs we set off to do 165km to the next town with hotels, Gaotai. Another dull enough day on the G30, although we did have about an hour of fighter jets doing manoeuvres above us, soaring up into the air vertically, then zipping down and looping around again. Cool to watch! Otherwise the road was as barren as before. Luckily there was a tiny village off the road after 80km for some more, you guessed it, instant noodles and processed sausage! In Gaotai we checked into a quite lovely hotel with lovely staff and a big room. 30 minutes in the room and there was a knock on the door. Four lads were standing there with a piece of paper with “can’t stay” on it. This is what I was talking about above – tourists can’t stay in certain hotels. We packed up, got our money back and set off in search of a hotel that could take us, settling in a supposedly 4* down the street that was nowhere near as nice as the other place, but half the price. I was just relieved to be in a place we were guaranteed not to be kicked out of after the long hot day and already being moved once.
We found a fantastic street full of food vendors and had an assortment of lamb, pork and chicken skewers cooked in front of us with some veg and bread. It came in at about €2.50 each, an absolute bargain for the amount of food. Simply delicious! Lots of locals walking by pointing at us and some lads even asked us to come for breakfast the next day, but we declined as they were just looking to practice their English. I had a great time getting giggles from groups of girls pointing at us and waving at them like a madman shouting “NIHAO!!!” (hello).
I really love the Chinese cities so far. Gaotai was another fine example of smiley people and the odd things one sees here. This time it was groups of old women doing a group dance in the street. Just there, dancing away (albeit slowly). I’ve seen this a couple of times now, always makes me smile. I read a quite famous book called “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang while I was in Bishkek. If you haven’t heard of it, I recommend it. Fabulously written and gives great insight into the past 100 years in China. Having read that, I find myself astounded at how modern and cool these cities are and just 40 years ago Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was destroying the place. I try not to delve too much into the history of places I visit on the blog as I’ll do an awful job of it and if people want to read about it, there’s plenty online. Nevertheless, I can’t ignore just how far this country has come. I really like China, shame the cycling is bloody boring though!
Another day in the saddle had us doing just 85km to Zhangye and another day off. This week we have 2 days off scheduled as we’re now entering civilisation again. We put in the long hours earlier in China as there was literally nothing, and are now reaping the rewards as we head east to more developed areas. Despite it being just 85km, James had an awful awful time, the poor fecker. 3 punctures and heat exhaustion (it was a scorcher, even 1500m up). Every time I looked over my shoulder he’d gone missing to either fix a puncture or collapse from the heat. When we arrived in Zhangye he just passed out in the hotel and I went off to find some food.
Today, with James recovered from his heat exhaustion we set out to see the main attraction in Zhangye: The Big Buddha. A huge Buddha in an ancient temple, lying on its side. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the trip to date. As I said, everything in China is new and modern, so seeing something old and original is quite cool. The fort in Jiayuguan was a bit overly touristy and tacky, despite being ancient also. The Buddha in Zhangye was much better and I really enjoyed it. After that, some street food and the never ending pursuit of inner tubes for James’ bike continued without success.
Tomorrow we hit the road for four days to Lanzhou, where we’ll stay 4 days to extend our visas and visit a Tibetan town in the mountains. We’d hoped to cycle up to it but time isn’t on our side. I booked my flight from Beijing the other day, and it’s official now, I have to be in Beijing before the 24th of August, but I’m aiming for the 20th. I’ll fly out on the 25th. That’s one calendar month from today – madness!
As we make our way east and the desert starts to be replaced by civilisation again I’m optimistic once more. There was a long and very difficult stretch there between Urumqi and Guazhou, but thankfully it’s done. Every day brings me closer to home, and I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, friends and Aoibhinn again and wrapping up this adventure. Still 2200km to go though, so I’ve plenty to do before then!