I’m currently in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The past week has been unexpected to say the least. I’ll cover the short bit of cycling and then explain the visa situation. I’ve gone from my saddle being a pain in the backside to China’s bureaucracy!
We left Zhangye last Saturday morning with a beefy 170km to do until the next town with a hotel. We usually do a bit of research about the terrain before a section to, you know, check if we’ve to go over any mountains and what not. Well, we kinda forgot! So after about 90km of battling at 12kph into a headwind we looked behind us and noticed we were going uphill. Hmmmmm……let’s check the elevation profile. Oh right, we’ve to go up to 2500m! A minor oversight. We set off at about 1400m, so 1100m of climbing into a headwind is not what one wants in the middle of a 170km day! What’s more, since we didn’t know about this little inconvenience, we didn’t eat enough at lunch! D’oh! After 200 days on the road, I’m still learning. We got over the top and had a reasonable descent into the wind and to literally the first hotel off the highway. Dirt cheap but perfect for our needs. We’d set off at 8:30am and finished at 8:45pm, so it was a long long day.
Oh, and I almost forgot – we were cycling alongside the Great Wall of China for most of the day. As you do.
The big day lead to a short hop to Wuwei of just 75km. Poor James continued to have medical woes and we headed to the hospital to get him seen to. Here’s a tip for anyone needing to be seen in a hospital in China: Walk into any room in the hospital with staff in it, point to your groin and then proceed to undo your trousers. You’ll be seen to in 3 minutes and be on your way with a prescription for free! I watched to great amusement! He’d picked up a rather sore looking boil on his thigh and that’s not something you want to mess with in this heat and cycling all day. It was a funny experience all the same. On my part, I’m surprisingly injury free at the moment, dare I say it! I’ve healed up from my crash, and even my agonising saddle sores have relented lately. I’ve still got numb fingers, but otherwise I can safely say I’m doing okay, for once!
To extend the visa we found the Public Security Bureau office (the lads that kick you out of hotels sort visa extensions also) and spoke with a lovely lady. Some back and forth to different offices, officers and a photo shop around the corner and we were eventually told to come back in two days. Sweet!
With another day to kill we decided to go on the beer. We’d been busting our chops getting across this huge country since the minute we arrived and really haven’t had much downtime. We headed to an outdoor food market where they serve massive chilled beer jugs and started lashing back the pints. When I say “lashing back the pints”, I mean about 4 each. My tolerance for alcohol has hit a record low thanks to the cycling. Anyway, it was great to have the visas sorted and finally enjoy a night without the burden of a big day in the saddle to follow. Some local lads asked to join us and they were hammered! Their enthusiasm was infectious and before we knew it were equally hammered as we all played their drinking game: Lowest card downs a large measure of beer. Poor James drew lowest about 6 times in a row and was looking the worse for it!
I then got the idea to go to a nightclub. Why not (it was Monday night by the way)?! I asked the lads and sure enough we were in a taxi moments later. We were very drunk, having an absolute ball, and had no idea where we were going or where our hotel was, but simply didn’t care! The nightclub didn’t materialise but a karaoke bar did! One of the lads was minted. He kept taking out a wad of 100 Yuan notes an inch thick. 100 Yuan is about €12, so we’re talking thousands of Euro. He was a young guy, maybe 20 years old. I’ve no idea where the money came from, but I was happy enough to drink it! He got us into a private booth and the singing began. I say singing, well, those who know me will know what that sounds like! Their wasn’t much variety and I settled for a beautiful rendition of Take That, Back for Good. The locals stopped boozing at this point and started ordering…wait for it… ice creams, at 1am! Then they started butchering Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne. After a few too many assaults on my ear drums I’d had enough and we got a taxi back to the hotel. Hammered and giggling like little girls about the night, I’m sure we woke up half the hotel.
The next day was as expected: Painful! The hangover was brutal. We were in bed feeling sorry for ourselves when the phone rang: It was the PSB. Our extensions can’t be done. Something about the “new system”, but it was unclear. With the hangover this was just awful news. We lost two full days to this, and would now have to take a bus to Lanzhou the next place we can extend to get there before our visas expire.
Bright and early the next morning (Wednesday) we headed off to the bus station. Quite straightforward to get a ticket, but then we were asked for money to put the bikes on. Trying to rip off two of the grumpiest f*ckers in China at that moment wasn’t a good call. We literally shouted “NO!” at them and barged past with the bikes. The lads followed us to the bus and persisted. Our haggling skills have improved immensely in China and it goes like this: Guy suggests price, we say “NO”. Repeat until we’re happy. I actually find a bit of fun in these situations at this point. Bus ride was a sweaty 4.5 hours, raising my respect for backpackers in this part of the world. I much prefer the bike!
Lanzhou is a big aul city and a significant shift from what we were used to. The traffic was far more intense and I resolved to start wearing my helmet again as we darted through the mayhem trying in vain to find a cheap hotel. The hotel search took up nearly two hours so we were quite late getting to the PSB. Unfortunately you can’t apply for an extension until you’re in a registered hotel. Bureaucracy again. Fun!
In the PSB the guy was cold to us at first. After all we only had less than 36 hours on our visas. We explained the situation in Wuwei and when he went to start the process we saw the expression we were dreading – yes, the system is down and he was unsure when we’d be sorted. Come back in two days, on Friday at 4pm. He warmed to us significantly by then and seemed genuinely sorry for the problems we’re having.
A bit pissed off with the past few days we headed out for some Western indulgence in the form of Pizza Hut and something I’ve craved for a while – a glass of wine! We had a romantic dinner and discussed our options. When we left, the manager came after us giving us back our tip saying “your money, your money”. Another Chinese oddity.
Come Friday the PSB had “bad news”, no visas, come back Monday. Balls. Another two days in limbo. My timeline is now ruined. The plan was to race across the first 60% of the distance in less than half the time, extend the visa and be more relaxed on the way to Beijing and still have enough time to savour the end. James and I were to press on another 650km together to Xi’an and split there.
Now, assuming we get the visas on Monday we will take the bus back to Wuwei, the last place we cycled to, and split there. James is going to head into the mountains, use up the second visa and do a visa run to Hong Kong, return and actually enjoy his time in China. For me, I’m going to cut out Xi’an, and sadly the Terracotta Army, cutting across the north on a direct route to Beijing in order to have 4 or 5 days there and then fly home.
Sadly, between delays from the wind and the short visa I’ve missed pretty much all I wanted to see in China: Dunhuang, Xiahe, the Terracotta Army and going over a 4000m pass in the mountains. I’m gutted, but my head is high. By backtracking to Wuwei I will cycle all of China. It’s important to me to cycle every inch possible. I’ve made up for the trains in Uzbekistan, which I could not avoid. By backtracking I at least get to say I cycled across the entire country.
For you guys, you’ll get to enjoy reading more saddle sore related misery! In order to make it to Beijing I now have to do about 15 days straight, most of them 130km. There’s one city I want to see on the way, and I’m hopeful I can take a half day there, or even push it enough to take the day off.
Up next, the final section. The road to Beijing. The end of this incredibly interesting 8 months of my life. I’m positive, I’m upbeat. My legs are strong, the bike is in good nick. I’ll do my best to update the blog on the road, but it may be Beijing when you hear from me again.
Cross your fingers and spare a thought for my sore ass. Maybe chuck a few quid to CMRF in my name! On that note, and I’ll finish here: I keep asking for donations, and feel I’ve probably exhausted my network of friends, family, former colleagues and many readers. If you’ve donated, please accept my gratitude for your kindness. If you can’t donate that’s cool. It would be really great if you could share my blog or Facebook page with your friends, family and colleagues. Widening the net for fundraising could really boost the donations, and at the end of the day that’s why I’m so determined to cycle every inch possible.
See you in Beijing!